My brother and I were used to sharing a bedroom; there was the established territory, the personal and shared spaces and the rules of cohabitation which were drawn up and modified almost daily.
Sharing a bed, on the other hand, presented a whole new conundrum. For instance, who sleeps on which side? Is no touching, farting or fighting an unspoken given? Or do we need to write up a whole new directive?
The bed in question was in the back room of our great aunt’s house in North Cornwall. We liked the house: an old cottage with plenty of outside space to roam around which included grazing fields for sheep and an orchard with a brook ambling though it.
We had arrived at lunchtime and immediately descended upon the heaps of homemade food weighing down the old farmhouse table in ‘the parlour’. Auntie, it was established early on, knew how to put on a spread! Pasties, quiches, apple pie, something called a ‘blancmange’ and lashings of clotted cream. Once appetites were sated we boys were encouraged to go out and explore the farm. Little encouragement was needed and we were practically out of the door before the suggestion had time to settle in the room.
We found a big crumbling barn filled with retired farm machinery in various states of decay. Old tractor carcasses with their guts hanging out, like the remains of a kill, skulked miserably in shafts of filtered sunlight. There was even evidence of pre-mechanisation: ploughs designed to be pulled by horses along with all the bridles and brasses (covered in dust and pigeon shit) hanging like forlorn, forgotten exhibits in a museum. Amongst the bales of hay and pitchforks a black cat with one eye watched us with barely-suppressed disdain. ‘This,’ the cat seemed to say, ‘is my barn’ and we were evidently not welcome there. Despite the cat’s obvious displeasure we poked around in the barn amusing ourselves for some time until we heard the bleating of sheep. The barn and its many treasures could wait.
The cat thought to himself that the old one-eyed stare had worked its magic and watched with smug satisfaction as we left and headed for the field behind the house.
So, a happy hour was spent trying to herd sheep into two distinct armies. Bugsy and I commanded one army each. Choosing our generals carefully, we tried pitifully to wage war on one-another. Of all the animals on earth, sheep are, it seems, the worst of warriors and we were soon forced to concede defeat in the face of such effective, passive resistance. After berating the flock with much heartfelt criticism, levelled at both armies, we, with great reverence, banished them from either kingdom. Cursed to roam the land without allegiance to a lord and therefore without protection they were, I’m afraid, at the mercy of bandits and cutthroats. We left the battlefield without so much as a cursory glance in their direction.
The rest of our afternoon was spent in the orchards, a place of tranquil serenity which lent itself to meditative thoughts about life, the universe and the existence of aliens. Finally, we lay by the brook looking for crayfish, without finding any, until hunger overtook us. Back at Auntie’s we had more food and chatter followed by a few rounds of hangman before being bundled off to bed.
And there it was: the bed. The only bed in the room. And there we stood: pyjamas on, slippers off, regarding this new enforced concept.
Bugsy’s main concern was his fear of needing to go to the toilet at night. We had been provided with a chamber pot in case of emergencies but neither of us relished the idea of pissing into it. So, it was agreed after much deliberation, that I would take the inside position next to the wall leaving my brother to the outside position which offered easier passage to the toilet down the hall. Then, to create some semblance of personal space, we put the big, long, goose feather bolster pillow straight down the middle of the bed, lest our bottoms should touch!
We awoke not to the smell of urine, but to the pungent aroma of apples, which was a relief, if something of a mystery. Bugsy, following his nose, leaned out over the bed and put his head underneath, ‘Crates and crates of apples under here,’ he said with his head still under the bed and sounding rather nasal. ‘They’re all covered in newspaper, and look kind of old and wrinkly like Great Granny Hilda.’
“A crate full of Granny’s eh?’ I said.
‘Yep, all just shoved under our bed for some reason, I feel sorry for ’em. We should free ’em.’
‘Chuck ’em at the sheep: sheep make great targets, you know?’
‘That they do,’ I agreed laconically.
‘Rubbish soldiers though,’ he added.
I wasn’t sure I was completely happy with chucking grannies at sheep and wondered if the ammunition couldn’t be something more deserving of the full penalty of complete annihilation?
‘What if they were teachers?’ I hastened.
‘Yeah ok, lets say that they are old teachers, old teachers that hated kids and probably hit them …a lot.’
After breakfast we loaded our pockets with old, villainous teachers and spent a gratifying hour throwing them at sheep, all the while being watched by the one eyed cat. The sheep didn’t seem to mind and happily ate the teachers that lay in pieces about the field.
During the lunchtime conversation, Auntie happened to mention to my parents that, under the boys’ bed she had stored several crates of Grannies ready for the press. We looked at one another in horror. Bloody hell, they were Grannies after all and, what’s more, they were destined for a fate far worse than the one we had inflicted on a select few!
After lunch our parents had errands to run and we were given directions to the beach. We could walk there on our own if we promised to remain vigilant on the road and not talk to strangers. If we got into any trouble mid-point, we should call into the village post office store and ask for help. Or, if we were on the beach, go to the cafe.
This was an unexpected gift of freedom and we took it immediately. It was a warm early summer’s afternoon, the sun hung high in the clear blue sky and just the slightest breeze coming in off the Atlantic. We quickly changed into swimmers under shorts fastened with our ever-present snake belts, grabbed a diluted bottle of orange juice and hit the road. The lanes were narrow and banked with hedges on either side. Occasionally the hedges would break for a farm gate and we would be offered a vista of green fields stitched together with hedgerows studded with the occasional farmhouse or copse. Whenever a view of the surrounding countryside presented itself, we’d stop for a while and gaze out at all that lovely open space. This was not the kind of view we were used to at home and even at that young age one felt a degree of reverence for it, ‘Wow, just look at that!’ one of us would say to the other.
And so we went, walking along, avoiding oncoming traffic brimming with holidaymakers. Kids our age passed by, bundled into the back of cars, hot and bothered, probably wondering why these two boys were free to roam unsupervised whilst they were not. Bugsy and I agreed that we should give off an air of belonging, ‘We are local kids,’ the air around us should say, ‘We live here permanently,’ it should suggest.
Halfway to the beach, we found the village post office looking less like the familiar corner shop at home and more like someone’s front room. Outside some real local kids loitered, smoking and spitting and eyeing us with obvious contempt. We cautiously quickened our pace, trying to give the impression that we were in a hurry to get to the beach, rather than because we felt intimidated. We thought it was essential to appear nonchalant so that anyone watching would realise we hadn’t given this bunch of country ruffians a second thought. It worked.
Once past the shop, the road began its descent towards the sea, still hidden from view behind high hedgerows. What was in view, and becoming more of a concern than the villainy we’d only just left behind was a church and its graveyard.
Churches were the houses of God and God, I had been led to believe, had the ability to live in all of his houses at the same time. What’s more, he knew everything one thought even before one thought it, and knew everything you were going to do before you even did it.
Now, on a normal working day God would probably not bother with the thoughts and actions of a ten year-old boy. But, should that boy walk right past His front door as bold as brass, well God might just have to interrupt his other important business and pay that boy some attention.
And if God was distracted from his heavy workload for a second, he might decide to have a poke around and turn over a stone he’d never have normally considered turning over. Bearing all of this in mind, we boys thought it safest to avoid scrutiny and/or discovery and so we ran as fast as we could until we reached a safe distance beyond the church… and the graveyard.
For graveyards posed yet another problem: they were a familiar presence in our lives; there was one attached to most churches, but they remained, nevertheless, a place of spookery, of trapped and tortured souls of ghosts and ghouls. Therefore, as usual, we held our breath while running past which we imagined would prevent the dead from detecting the living…all perfectly rational to young boys with overactive imaginations.
Bent over double, panting and gulping for breath a hundred yards from the church we glanced at one another with concern.
‘You think anything bad when we ran past the church?’ asked Bugsy. To be totally safe, we knew it was extremely important that we not only held in our breath but our thoughts too. One bad thought could, during that crucial time, incur God’s wrath and bestow upon us His great vengeance. We did, of course, have a contingency plan in the making to hoodwink our Maker, should such an occurrence ever happen, but we’d rather not activate it just yet. For the moment, there were too many wrinkles to be ironed out; in fact our plan had more wrinkles than a crate load of Grannies. The plan hinged on being able to 1) catch God on a good day and 2) once caught, to convince him that our thoughts were not our own but that we were being controlled by aliens. As far as plans to deceive a divine being go, it had, we thought, some merit.
‘No, you?’ I said regaining my composure.
‘Well, maybe a little one’ said Bugsy sitting at the side of the road and unscrewing our bottle of orange juice.
He took a big swig and passed the bottle to me.
‘I thought about that time we stole cigarettes from Uncle Wilf and smoked them behind his pigeon shed, and the shed caught fire and we just ran off. He was really upset about that. We never said nothing about how it was our fault, even when we sat there with him the next day. Mum said that losing his pigeons like that put him in an early grave. So basically, we killed him.’
‘You thought all that?’
‘Yep. It just slipped out.’
‘Jesus Christ!’ I said standing up and scanning the view. ‘Hey, Bugsy, I can see the sea!’
‘Really?’ said Bugsy, immediately forgetting our woes and jumping to his feet.
‘Lets go!’ I said, and off we went.
The road snaked down to a pebbly bay, contained by a shallow wall. The beach was festooned with colour. Little children pottered about in rock pools with their nets and buckets, while older kids ran in and out of the sea in a rainbow array of swimwear, clutching infinite varieties of inflatables and screaming with delight at the water’s edge. Others clutched surfboards, dinghies or one another. Parents, less athletic, slouched in deckchairs behind windbreaks supping tea and munching sandwiches. Sunbathers looked like hamburgers as they flopped and turned while grilling themselves in the heat.
Some beach-goers were getting ready to leave and we watched as they clumsily wriggled out of soggy swimwear and into dry clothes behind ill-secured towels. Parents struggled to collapse wilful beach tents while shouting instructions to reluctant kids to gather their things. The beach was a circus of noise and colour with its clowns and ringmasters, its bawdy giants and rowdy midgets running amok.
Behind, and slightly further along the cove piles of boulders lay in the shingle. After briefly considering the dangerous possibility that these could have fallen from the cliff above, we nevertheless decided that this was the place to explore. Punctuated only by a couple of quick dips in the sea to cool off and a half hour mulling around the various rock pools, we spent the rest of the afternoon clambering among the boulders, seeking out the nooks and crannies. The boulders captivated us so much so that we didn’t noticed the passage of time. We hadn’t seen that the beach was emptying and that most people had packed up and gone home. So engrossed were we in our games that neither of us had looked up to see the leaden sky, heavy with thunderclouds or the sea, steadily rising as the tide came in.
By the time we felt the first drops of rain we were, it seemed, stranded.
We looked around us. The sea was hungrily licking at the rocks below, eyeing us with malicious intent. Above, the sky looked as if it was about to unleash a downpour of biblical magnitude. The beach had disappeared under the rushing sea. Climbing down was pointless. Climbing up would be treacherous – the sheer slate cliff face would be impossible to climb without falling. Our only option was to go sideways creeping over the boulders for as far as they would take us and then call for help.
‘Bugsy we need to move: we can’t stay here, we have to climb around and see if we can get help,’ I said trying to sound calm.
‘Oh Jesus forgive me!’ cried Bugsy, tears brimming in his eyes.
‘This is my fault. I thought those things about uncle Wilf and his pigeons when we ran past the church! He heard me! God heard me and now he’s going to kill us both. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!’
‘No, it’s not that, Bugsy. Don’t be silly! Children are innocent…I think.’ I said as I struggled to find appeasement – I also had my suspicions that my brother’s loose thoughts had been picked up by God’s big flappy ears.
‘All we gotta do is promise God that we will be good from now on, that we will not steal anything ever again and that we will go to church every Sunday,’ said I, matter-of-factly.
‘Do you think that will work?’ asked Bugsy beginning to quiver.
‘Well, we gotta mean it! He knows when you are lying. Obviously.’
‘Ok, let’s do it right now!’ begged Bugsy desperately. But, ever the pragmatist I hesitated,
‘No, no. Not yet, in case we don’t NEED to. If we don’t need to make promises like that we won’t. Let’s just see how we get on … If we really, really get into trouble then that’s when we call on God… Ok?’
‘OK,’ agreed Bugsy reluctantly, ‘but we better not leave it to long.’
The rain came down suddenly, it went from occasional drops – mere scouts – to the whole infantry in a moment. The rain was intensified by an equally sudden wind and it lashed our naked torsos like pellets from a shotgun. The boulders which had offered a good grip until now became slimy underfoot and more treacherous with every step we made. Slowly through the howling of the wind, the near blinding rain, we edged ourselves along the boulders towards the part of the cove we had arrived at. It proved to be a challenging feet made only more nerve-racking when the first thunderclap exploded overhead.
‘Now!’ screamed my brother from behind me. ‘Do it now!’
‘No!’ I yelled back. ‘It’s just thunder. Keep going … And don’t make any deals with God without me…OK?’
‘Well what about Jesus?’ Bugsy was desperate.
‘No, not Jesus either!’ I shouted back over my shoulder.
Lightning flashed overhead and we both gave out a yelp of surprise and quickly crouched down for shelter behind a rock.
‘Mary? Joseph? Noah? Mosses?’ suggested Bugsy.
‘No, they don’t have the authority. Otherwise I’d risk it,’ I earnestly replied.
‘Muhammad, Buda, Shiva?’
‘We’re not under their jurisdiction Bugsy. I mean you can try but my bet is that those lot won’t want to step into a domestic dispute.’ I stood up, leaning into the lashing rain and peered towards the footpath.
‘What can you see ahead?’ called Bugsy.
‘Lights! Maybe car lights. Could be a rescue team!’
‘That means we must be near the car park by the cafe,’ said Bugsy as he stood up beside me.
‘Nearly home then!’ I said optimistically as much for my sake as for Bugsy’s.
Bugsy suddenly gave out a sudden cry and slipped out of sight. I doubled back frantically shouting out his name and glancing down at the frothing hungry sea. Had the sea eaten my brother? Frantically, I yelled his name to the wind and tide.
Floating up through the raging storm, he answered, seemingly from directly beneath me.
‘Bugsy! Where are you? Bugsy!’ I shouted, scanning the boulders for a sign of him.
‘Down here, in a cave!’ he answered.
‘Where? You hurt’?
‘No, but I’m up to my waist in sea water already.’
I dropped to my knees, looking for an opening in the boulders.
‘Keep talking Bugsy, so I can find you.’
‘Can I sing?’
‘What about a prayer? I think this is a good time to make that promise.’
‘No! Don’t do that!’ I shouted, ‘Wait until it’s really bad.’ So Bugsy began singing,
“There were fleas, fleas, fleas with hairy knees in the store, in the store…”
I followed the sound of Bugsy’s campfire song until, at last I found him. There he was, wedged below me in a space between two boulders.
‘Bugsy up here!’ I shouted.
‘“There were rats, rats, rats the size of cats… Yeah! I can see you too!’ he shouted, relieved. ‘Can you reach in and grab hold of my hand?’
I tried but he was just out of my reach.
‘Christ!’ I said in frustration.
‘You want to talk to him now?’ asked Bugsy optimistically.
‘No, not yet, save it for when things are really, really bad; when we have no other options left. If we rush into making a whole bunch of promises prematurely we will regret it for the rest of our lives,’ I said, searching for an idea.
‘Well the rest of our lives might not be that long.’
‘Take off your belt and throw it up,’ I said.
‘Good idea, Tonto.’
I took off my snake belt and hooked it to Sean’s then lowered it back down the crevice. He grabbed hold of his end and I pulled with all my might until, flopping like a landed fish, Bugsy slumped onto the rock before me.
‘OK?” I asked.
‘OK,’ he confirmed breathlessly.
We both stood up shakily, ready to face the last stretch of the treacherous climb over the boulders, edging closer to the lights and the car park.
‘Hey there! Is that you boys?’ My father’s familiar voice reached us above the noise of the storm.
‘YES!’ we hollered in unison.
In the back of the car going back up the hill we passed the churchyard.
We looked at each other and held our breath – and our thoughts.
‘That was a close one,’ said Bugsy quietly as we drove on.
‘Yeah, too close,’ I whispered. ‘We nearly ended up having to go to church every Sunday for the rest of our lives.’
‘Yeah. I think God was feeling lenient today,’ said Bugsy staring out at the lashing rain, ‘This is where he spends his holidays after all.’