A bird flying overhead, should it take the time to consider the lay of the land below, would see a grid made up of streets and back alleys. Between each street and its respective alleyway are red brick houses lined up in perfect rows. The higher the bird flies the more the pattern is replicated until, that is, the houses meet the railway line in the north for which they had been built and the allotments to the south.
In the centre of that grid, in one of the back alleys, a gathering of young boys would be seen, each astride his bicycle.
The bird, had it given the scene a second thought, may have wondered what they were up to. He may have, given the time of day, been curious as to why these notoriously late risers were up so early. Had the bird been lacking in any other gainful pursuit he may have flown down to make a closer inspection. I can’t tell you whether or not there was such a bird, though we can’t rule it out, but I can tell you what he would have witnessed.
The summer of ’76 was long and hot. None of the boys, with the exception of Darren, had slept well at all. Darren, were he allowed to, would sleep all the time; he slept in class, he slept on the playing fields while the other kids ran enthusiastically after a ball.
For Darren, to even be there at that time on a holiday was a miracle. The fact that he had entered himself into the race as a competitor was nothing short of a cosmic shift in the space-time continuum. Darren was the kid the others had to wait for – to either turn up or to catch up: a lethargic, sloth-like dawdler of the first order. Despite his tardiness and his lack of enthusiasm when it came to anything physical, including actually being awake, he was, at least, knowledgeable on many matters. How and when he gained this knowledge was a topic of constant debate among the others. After all, as Clifford was wont to point out, Darren slept though most classes and when he wasn’t in class he rested. Some speculated that his knowledge was gained though osmosis and he didn’t actually need to be ‘there’ for the process to work. Others, like me, thought that Darren only played the part of harmless, sleepy, devil-may-care genius, and in fact (although I hadn’t thought it through completely), he was a spy of some sort.
My younger brother and I were training to be spies ourselves when we weren’t living the life of heroic, misunderstood, transient kung-foo experts. So we knew a thing or two about espionage, cloak and dagger politics: the dark arts. The first thing you need to know about the spy game is, quiet simply, ‘Tell no one you are a spy’. Once you can tether the burning desire to inform everyone of your new career, you must furnish yourself with the basic equipment. This includes such staples as a set of binoculars, a magnifying glass, notebook with invisible ink, a selection of disguises and a briefcase in which to keep it all safely. Most importantly, to be a spy one needed to have defence strategies in case of detection from other spies or the spied upon. Our arsenal, to date, included ball bearings, itching powder, lemon juice (it had more than one use), a catapult and our aforementioned kung-foo skills. Once fully equipped it only remained to find somebody or somebodies on which to practice our craft but despite several abortive attempts on neighbours, we had not, as yet, found a really worthy candidate.
The heat of the night and the anticipation of the following day’s big race had combined to make sleep elusive. The boys amused themselves during their sleepless hours by playing tricks, mostly on younger siblings. Mike had admitted to telling his younger sister, Julia, ghost stories in a brutal attempt to make Julia pee herself but only succeeded in sending her to sleep, and scaring the b’Jesus out of himself. We, I think, had all been in his situation but would never admit to it and his honesty only brought him unsympathetic mocking.
There had been one camping trip organised by Peter’s parents earlier that summer where we boys and some of the girls had gathered with torches in the woods at night with the sole intention of scaring each other half to death. The operation came close to achieving its objective. Once safely entombed in our sleeping bags thoughts of vampires, werewolves and murderous, soul eating zombies scattered the night air, so much so that every sniff and snivel of one frightened child gave fuel to the fears of others.
As we boys, Peter, Clifford, Darren, Mike, his younger brother Stevie, my brother Bugsy and I chewed over our morning topics the girls came out of their various hiding places and surrounded us, intrigued.
The girls were made up of sisters and neighbours, ranging in age from five to twelve.
‘What’s you doing?’ asked Lisa, Clifford’s older sister and ringleader of this motley crew.
‘Bike race,’ we said in unison with disdain and wariness in equal measure.
The bike race had been discussed and planned for weeks, the girls had been present during these discussions but only by the strength of their combined will rather than by invitation. We had wrongly assumed that they would show an interest in competing and had, rather cleverly, devised a counter plan. They would insist on taking part, we would agree and then on the day of the big event, to foil their involvement, we’d switch location. But we’d misjudged them: from the beginning they’d demonstrated a singular lack of interest in participating whilst irritatingly managing to constantly interfere in our planning. Now the day had arrived and here they were, acting as though they had no idea what was afoot!
‘You gonna use the alley?’ asked Lisa.
‘Yes, we are; it was planned weeks ago. You were there, weren’t you?’
‘No, first we heard of it,’ said Lisa belligerently looking at her crew.
This was a typical scenario, one we had all lived through many times before and yet, each time, we responded like novices.
‘You can’t play in the alley today, less you want to get run over,’ said Clifford, his hackles on the rise.
‘Yes we can! And you will have to take your silly race some place else, won’t you?’ retorted Lisa taking a step closer to her brother.
Clifford flinched. I suspected he wasn’t yet confident enough to win a fight with his older sister. Luckily, Peter took up the debate. Peter was the peacemaker in the group, the son of a Methodist preacher, and from an early age his father had groomed him in diplomacy. Peter was also the one boy from whom Lisa would take council, probably due to his good looks and killer smile.
‘Lisa, here’s our route,’ said Peter producing the map he had painstakingly drawn. ‘We intend to leave here in…’ he looked at his watch. ‘…about ten minutes time. We’ll snake in and out of these alleyways and side roads until we reach the allotments, then we turn around and make our way back here via the rec. With all best intentions even the fastest amongst us won’t be back here for, let’s say forty minutes. Once here, we refuel, drink water to rehydrate and take off again. So, basically, use the alley by all means but just make sure that when you see one of us returning you keep the younger ones out of the way. We were also thinking that, if you want, you can give the prize to the winner?’
‘What prize?’ asked Lisa melting under the influence of Peter’s dazzling smile.
‘Well that’s the problem, you see. We neglected to make one; couldn’t decide on anything.’
Lisa hesitated, ‘Well I could make you something,’ she volunteered.
‘What a great idea! Yes please,’ enthused Peter. ‘I think you would make something any of us would love to win.’
The Minister’s son had done it again. He’d only been with us for a year but had proved himself to be a great asset. He possessed wisdom beyond his years and a sly cunning that mesmerised us all: almost as if he were the Devil himself!
At that age, in those times, religion was an unquestioned truth. Nobody doubted the existence of God, the surety of Heaven, the existence of hell. All the muddled mythology, its characters, its monsters, its threats and promises swam alongside ghosts and vampires in one confusing, terrifying soup. Whether to go to church or not on a Sunday was not the question. Rather the question was, which church did you go to? Most of us, with the exception of Darren, went to the Methodist church where Peter’s father preached. Darren, apparently, was a ‘Catholic’ whatever that was; to us it made Darren ‘different’, unfathomable, an exotic amongst the mainstream faithful.
On Sundays, we Methodist kids would be gathered together in a little flock at the back of the church to listen to the obligatory twenty minute sermon; time enough to feel the full weight of boredom settle upon our young shoulders. After Peter’s father (whose title was simply ‘Mr.’ in and out of church), had droned on about the ‘good book’ and ‘’Ethiopia’ we were herded out in single file by the Sunday school teachers and led to a room put aside for our continued indoctrination.
Sunday school was marginally less boring than church. Even so, it took me years to realise that the incredible sense of elation I felt on getting out of the building was not the result of having God’s love descend upon me, so much as the utter relief of knowing that it was all over for another week.
Outside, we would make our way to the newsagent (the only shop allowed to open on a Sunday morning because of archaic Christian trading laws), and, without so much as a second thought for the poor starving kids in Ethiopia, spent our collection money on half penny sweets.
Once Peter had ironed out the Lisa shaped crease in our day, we boys went about inspecting our bikes. This was all for show of course. With the possible exception of Darren the narcoleptic spy boy, most of us had been tinkering well into the night; oiling, pumping, cleaning and tightening various nuts and bolts. Darren’s bike was a sight to behold: he out of all of us (and beyond) was the only kid to have a new bike.
The rest of us had secondhand or hand-me-down bikes that had been cannibalised, adapted and modified out of recognition. Darren’s bike was new in the sense that it had never been used, rather than recently bought: it looked like a king amongst peasants. Its gleaming paintwork, its alloy wheels sparkling in the early morning sun, the padded (no doubt comfortable) seat, gave it the air of a superior being from another planet…. or, I speculated, payment from the spy agency for some dastardly deed he’d committed.
The farce of inspection finally over, we took our places at the starting point, a line drawn in the dust, and waited for the signal to go. The plan was simple: the winner was the first one to complete three laps of the circuit.
‘Good luck!’ said Lisa, more to Peter than anyone else as she raised a red tea towel borrowed from her mother’s kitchen and dropped it with all the coquetry available to her at that time.
I gave one quick glance over my shoulder to see the girls disappearing behind a cloud of dust and emerging from within that dust cloud, like a knight on his shimmering steed, came Sir Darren the Sleepy. He had, in fact been dozing during the lengthy preamble and only woke as we took off from the starting line.
Now, should that observant bird hovering overhead get weary of children’s games and decide to fly off somewhere else, he might not miss a great deal… unless, that is, he had a wager on one of the riders to win, in which case he’d be a fool not to follow their progress. But, let’s assume that the bird took off (had he been there at all), and settled on the sill of Mr. Bodmin’s bedroom window and glared in.
If you can imagine the antithesis of childhood, the direct opposite of what it is to be a child with all it’s magic, it’s wonder, it’s delight in being alive, then you can picture Mr. Bodmin. Mr. Bodmin had had all his wonder and delight drained from him by life itself.
Through the bedroom window, beyond the gap in the tattered old curtain, the keen eyes of the bird would see the old man sitting on the edge of his bed, dressed as if going to church (although he never did), with his head buried in his hands.
Mr. Bodmin was a man that prized his vegetable plot over everything, including people, and especially the troublesome neighbourhood boys. Our only interaction with Mr. Bodmin up until then had been the not so rare occasions when a ball went over his garden fence. If he was in his vegetable plot, which was often the case, his head would appear over the fence, a brutal snarl spread across his face as he raised his pitch fork with the lost ball sagging limp and lifeless over one of its teeth.
‘Lost something?’ he’d sneer.
Now, on this, his last day, he had nothing left to live for. His garden had wilted and collapsed in the heat. ‘A drought’ they called it on the TV. There had been water bans followed by standpipes from which the council eked out water sparingly into our buckets. We had enough to drink and take a bath once a week but not to waste on lawns and prize marrows.
For Mr. Bodmin, the very purpose of his life had been eroded as the drought slowly took hold. From ambitious beginnings in the spring, through the promise of early summer he’d been optimistic of a bumper harvest. But by July his optimism had been drained as surely as the hosepipe until now, not a drop of hope remained. He, like his garden, had nothing left to give. From the sill the bird peers in and watches Mr. Bodmin carefully and painstakingly making a noose from the rope he’d bought to tie back his tomato plants; plants that had all preceded him to the grave.
Oblivious to Mr. Bodmin and his plight, the cycle race wore on. One by one, boys’ resolve faded and ambition waned. Predictably, the younger competitors dropped out first, fell off or simply found something better to do.
Mr. Bodmin made his preparations.
By the time of the final lap only Peter and I remained in the race and it was turning out to be a battle of wills.
Sheer determination drove me on now. Close to victory, I could only hope that Peter flagged. We were neck and neck, my throat was dry, sweat poured off my brow blurring my vision and my calves protested with every downward push on the pedals. Suddenly, as we grew ever closer to the finish line I felt a rush of joy surging through my youthful veins and I wanted to laugh, I wanted to cry out – to shout like a warrior going into battle. Never had I pushed so hard, never had I been so hell-bent on winning, so focused on the goal and yet so in the moment. This, I decided, was where true happiness lay – here, in the right now!
As Peter and I turned into the alleyway for the last time, heading side by side for the finishing line, Mr. Bodmin reached up for the noose. Perhaps he felt, as I did, that right now was all that mattered and right now was all he had? His moment, like mine, would bring an end to suffering, and perhaps like me, he was elated by that prospect?
I beat Peter by a nose, much to Lisa’s obvious disappointment. As Lisa graciously hung her homemade medal over my neck, Mr. Bodmin kicked away the stool.
When I look back on that day, I see it differently now. Although I had no idea at that time, the concluding moments of our race coincided with the concluding moments of Mr. Bodmin’s life. As I gave one last push down on the pedal to cross the finish line, Mr. Bodmin twitched and kicked in his death throes.
What I see now is my sweaty young self, full of life, elated with the taste of victory in my mouth and, by contrast, at the other end of the spectrum, I picture a defeated Mr. Bodmin, his life wrung out, his body limply swaying from a homemade noose, his trousers darkening as his bladder empties onto the threadbare carpet below. The release of his soul coincided with the release of my spirit.