Our parents drove off leaving a thick cloud of dust swirling in the hot air. We watched as the dust began to settle and then, like a magic trick, our parents were gone. The invisible cord between us had not broken or been severed but given a lot more slack. We looked at one another and then, without words, my brother Bugsy and I surveyed the camp-site for the best pitch.
The ground was sunbaked hard: what little grass remained was soon claimed by the ponies that roamed freely around the campsite. Some would argue that the ponies’ presence was a symbiotic one, not just with the forest as a whole but also with the people who used it. They kept the grass short and fertilised in equal measure; they also cleaned up after, and often during, mealtimes. I always felt that even though we shared a common space they were not remotely aware of us. There seemed to be a complete blindness on their part, so much so that I wondered whether we existed at all? Perhaps we only thought we were there? This insecurity would only ever be relieved if, and it seemed unlikely, someone could bridge the void between us.
After some serious head scratching, and a little stomping on hard ground we decided on a spot to pitch our tent: flat but not entirely level, close to a large thorny bush for shade and near a picnic table which we intended to colonise for the week.
Before pitching our tent we sat on the picnic table and rolled ourselves a freedom cigarette, one we could smoke without the usual fear of detection or of the consequences that detection would bring. As we inhaled the unique and slightly acrid taste of our emancipation, the campsite warden and his son walked by. The warden, whom we recognised as the man who, once a day (normally early in the morning) came to check we were not overstaying our welcome, walked with shoulders hunched and hands buried deep in his pockets. He looked as if the business of warding was a heavy burden to carry. His son Nigel shuffled along as if to the beat of a drum no one else could hear. Nigel, we thought, was probably the same age as we were, fourteen or fifteen but, well, he was different – to us he seemed ‘absent’ somehow. Nowadays, our assessment may seem to be a little harsh or thoughtless but back then, the best way available to us to describe Nigel was, ‘Not all there’.
Nigel saw us and called out, ‘Hiya!’ giving us one of his legendary salutes. We responded by waving back and returning his, ‘Hiya!’ We watched as father and son moved on, one determinedly miserable, the other obviously happy. As they disappeared around the corner, we heard Nigel call out again to some unseen camper, ‘Hiya!’ and his father shouting, ‘Keep up Nigel!’
‘It must be great to be Nigel,’ said Bugsy.
‘Well he doesn’t know he’s ‘different’. When other people chat to him all he sees is niceness. He’s really happy isn’t he? Isn’t that what everyone wants?’
‘Well I suppose so. But I wouldn’t want to swap my life for his. I want it all – the rough and the smooth.’
‘But,’ said Bugsy getting up off the table and grabbing the tent pegs, ‘he doesn’t know what he’s missing: ignorance is bliss, like the religiously devout.’
The phrase ‘religiously devout’ was new to us and so therefore applied overtly and frequently whenever possible. The execution of which was coupled with a derision normally reserved for maths teachers.
As teenagers, we often presumed to know more abut the world than we actually did but this didn’t stop us speculating, often erroneously, about those around us.
Nigel and his father were, as it would turn out, a strong case in point.
Throughout the afternoon and early evening we met other young people staying on the campsite, all but two were with their parents. So, quite naturally, our little patch, complete with picnic table soon became the social hub. We had tried, in vain, to keep the decks well stacked in our favour, allowing more girls than boys into our realm but, naturally, where there are girls, boys will follow. Two boys in particular were received with grudging hospitality. They were the aforementioned two without their parents. We begrudged them because they were male and also bestowed with the awe and mystery that freedom brings. But soon the begrudging turned to resentment and irritation.
These two street savvy boys from Winchester had burst through the night into our cosy gathering like a couple of explorers stumbling on a primitive society. Bugsy was holding court, throwing all his charm into the ring and gaining considerable ground when his reign was brought to a premature end. The Winchesters were a curious blend of secretive mystique and romanticism, giving away the outcome of their alleged activities but never the execution. They were a novel distraction for some, full of their own mythology and audacious exploits. They began to dazzle everyone, but not us, with their stories of bravado. They had apparently stalked a deer in the forest and killed it, ‘with these bare hands.’ Walked into Brockenhurst and drank cider with a tramp. And, most outrageously, watched through the window of a hockey team’s changing room as the girls got undressed. Our gathering, once a rapt audience complete with the temptation of a budding sexual encounter had, in a moment, abandoned us for the lure of newer, shinier things.
The following morning we awoke to the sound of Nigel’s father outside our tent demanding to see our camping card. He took it and crossed off the first of seven pre-paid stamps before sternly telling us to tidy up our pitch.
After a quick consultation Bugsy and I agreed that if those two Winchester boys could walk to Brockenhurst then so could we. We would strike out in search of adventure and, what’s more, we would bring back the spoils of our crusade and share them with the girls that evening.
Carrying a bottle of water and, for no particular reason, a sheath knife, we set off on our journey. As we passed the Warden’s office we saw Nigel sitting outside on the steps. He was engrossed in something so we went over to say, ‘Hiya!’ to find that he was arranging equally sized sticks in a line, spaced exactly the same distance apart, on the step below. He didn’t respond: he seemed not to hear us at all. We watched him absently for a moment wondering whether to try another ill-fated ‘Hiya,’ or not when his father came out of the office and onto the steps.
‘You boys stop taunting my son!’ he shouted angrily.
‘We’re not,’ I said aggrieved.
‘I saw you!’ he shouted again pointing at us.
Nigel clapped his hands over his ears and began rocking back and forth on the step, moaning monotonously, ‘Noooooo … noooooo….’
‘Now look what you’ve done!’ shouted the warden. ‘Get out of my sight before you do any more damage.’
‘But…’ I hastened.
Nigel became more frantic.
‘Go!’ he screamed.
So we left, leaving the warden to calm his son.
‘I hate that,’ said Bugsy striding for the open road.
‘Hate what?’ I inquired.
‘Being accused of something we didn’t do. What did we do? We were just being nice.’
‘That Warden is an idiot,’ I replied sagely, ‘It’s probably because everyone else is on holiday apart from him.’
‘Yeah I guess, but even so, why take it out on us?’
‘I don’t know. One thing is clear though – Nigel is not happy all the time,’ I said.
‘No I guess not. He doesn’t like it when people shout. He likes everything quiet and calm.’
‘Did you see how he was arranging those sticks?’
‘Yeah, very tidy. He likes everything ‘just so’, like Goldilocks – not too hot and not too cold.’
It wasn’t long before the day’s warmth swathed us and enticed us with possibilities. We stopped for a moment to take in our freedom. It smelt of damp bark, pine and asphalt. It sounded like the unseen movement of harrow-hawks hunting overhead, the rummaging of wild pigs in the thick forest undergrowth and the thoughtful meditation of the elusive red dear. The sun was rising, already warm on our faces and thoughts of injustice evaporated with the morning dew. Either side of the road the forest loomed, the majesty of nature, full of mystery and folklore reigned. We decided to leave the road to tourists and take our chances in the forest. We knew roughly which direction to go so, with the spirit of the boy scouts we were, Bugsy and I stepped off the road and onto the track. Not once during that long eventful day did our thoughts turn to Nigel or his misguided father. Not once did they loiter on the obvious disparity between our youthful exhilaration and Nigel’s limited experience of life. Nor did we compare our freedom to choose, to imagine, to create or play with that of Nigel or, indeed, his father. Their lives were full of unthinkable difficulties which affected them both. Nigel ‘wasn’t all there’, we got that, but in reality we had no idea what that was like. Furthermore we had not even begun to consider what that might mean for a parent. For us, life was a film set – we were the lead players, the world around us was nothing more than a backdrop full of props to pick and choose at will. We never lingered long on someone else’s story because our story was the one that mattered. Others were welcome to join the ensemble as long as they helped with the overall narrative.
The day seemed to be written for us. We stepped blindly into it without trepidation – just a sense of claiming what was rightfully ours. We stayed firmly in the ‘now’ never veering towards the past or the future; we lived that day completely and in the moment. And our moments were bountiful. The rapture of startling a herd of fallow deer into flight, their initial confusion and regrouping was like watching a flock of alarmed sparrows; they sped past us, eyes bulging with fright, antlers cutting through the gorse, hearts pounding in our ears. Then there was the boyish joy of finding a rope strung up over the river attached to the bough of an oak tree. We stripped off and took turns for a while, launching ourselves off the bank and onto the rope, swinging out over the water before letting go and plunging into the deep cold pool below. A group of girl guides came hiking through the woods into the clearing only to be treated to the full view of Bugsy’s pale but perfectly formed bottom; suspended in mid air and glistening in the midday sun. They stopped as one, pointing and giggling before moving on.
Stepping out of the forest back onto the road, we found an entourage of classic cars speeding past, engines roaring, horns honking and chrome glittering in the sun. I saw goggles and leather gloves, picnic hampers, headscarves and unruly hair. The drivers bore down on their accelerators as their passengers waved or called out to us. One woman lifted her top and flashed her ample bosom, laughing at our startled expressions. Another passenger threw an empty bottle of champagne at a passing tree; it ricocheted and smashed onto the tarmac.
We had gone from the timeless, peaceful surety of the forest to the noise and chaos of the road in an instant.
Finally, we entered the village of Brockenhurst with its four thousand year history and its utter Englishness. In the ford that cuts the road in two, ponies and horses met to exchange banter, while cows regarded them with poorly veiled contempt from the wrong side of the cattle-grid. Into this Constablesque scene we walked, still wet from the river dousing, half dressed and covered in the foliage the forest had graciously bestowed upon us. We, as my mother would say, made the place look untidy. Perhaps it was our very bedraggled appearance that helped us to navigate the treacherous waters of our illicit acquisitions. It was as though Brockenhurst were fighting an infection and was prepared to do anything to rid itself of the virus. We bought alcohol and tobacco without difficulty and, mission accomplished, we left and I imagined an audible sigh of relief from everyone.
On the walk home we reflected that within that myriad of humanity we hadn’t noticed a single tramp. In fact, we suspected, the closest thing to vagrants that Brockenhurst had seen in a while was us! Despite our appearance we were offered a lift to the campsite by an elderly couple in a camper-van. Curiously, before allowing us to board, they made us swear allegiance to The Queen. Our oaths were rewarded with cold drinks, homemade sausage rolls and a half hour monologue on the merits of the royal family. We stepped out of the camper van feeling like Knights of the Round Table.
Our quest had not only succeeded but we were also armed with a bounty of anecdotes with which to regale our new friends. We had successfully procured nourishment for both the belly and the soul without having to spill one ounce of blood!
By seven o’clock our table had a full compliment of eager, impressionable teenagers chomping at the bit for our, only slightly, embroidered stories. Placed firmly in the centre of our own legend we engendered envy and admiration in equal measure from our audience. Our beguiling account of the day’s adventures overshadowed their own which, we were certain, were bound to be lack-lustre by comparison. While we were free to pursue our own destiny they, in turn, were tied to their respective families and all the relentless compromises that came with it.
To our delight, the girls seemed to be particularly impressed with our exploits so we took our time over the telling and retelling of our story all the while feeding off the subtle signals of attraction fluttering like winged hearts across the table. And so, as the night drew darker and the cider burned in our bellies we revelled in our own glory and bathed in apparent admiration: our hubris was complete.
Toward the end of the evening the Winchester Boys turned up. I steeled myself for one more account of our day, the most important one, the one to dampen the interlopers’ fire. But, it seemed, the Winchester Boys had plenty of fire; they’d moved on from overblown trumpeting, from fanfaronade to fanfare. Each produced, from behind his back, a firework. Everyone soon clustered around the Winchesters as they explained that they couldn’t possibly say where they got them, but it should be known that it wasn’t easy and that it took courage and planning. Plus they had more stashed away somewhere, ‘location top secret obviously.’
The fireworks were rockets the size of which I’d never seen.
‘Tossers,’ Bugsy whispered.
‘Oh well, we had a good run.’
‘It’s like they are just waiting in the wings; as soon as I think I’m going to get a chance with Sara out they bloody pop!’
‘Tomorrow’s another day,’ I said philosophically.
The Winchester Boys, having caught everyone’s attention, including mine albeit reluctantly, planted their rockets in the hard ground, told everyone to stand well back and lit the fuses. Two rockets sped skywards into the dark night giving two different displays. One was an exploding chrysanthemum, its petals blown outwards in an infinite radius from the core. The other resembled a weeping willow raining streams of golden tears. Once the gasps of delight subsided, the Winchester Boys disappeared back into the night. Our guests soon followed suit returning to their caravans and exhausted we crawled into our sleeping bags.
We were startled awake by an angry voice outside the tent.
‘You two bastards, come out here now!’ I grabbed a torch and unzipped the tent. Standing like a Colossus in the moonlight was the camp warden.
‘Who is it?’ whispered Bugsy next to me loading his air pistol.
‘The site warden; he wants us to go outside. Put the gun away, I don’t think its going to help.’
‘What does he want?’
“I don’t know, he seems really angry.’
‘I can’t go out.’
‘I’ve got an erection.’
‘Good for you,’ I said.
‘If you two little shits don’t come out now, I’m coming in after you,’ shouted the Warden.
‘We don’t want him in here Bugsy,’ I said in alarm. ‘Just hop out in your sleeping bag.’
We emerged from the tent with our modesty under wraps. The Warden stared at us, unblinking, with wild, bloodshot eyes. He seemed lost for words, as if he hadn’t actually thought about whatever it was he wanted to say beforehand. Time froze. Within that timeless moment, I saw in his eyes not just contempt for us but for life itself. But I also recognised that behind the contempt lay fear, a fear of every second to come, of an eternity of being. I saw sadness and I saw a man resolved to carry his burden alone.
It was as if all these feelings had suddenly awakened at the same time, they’d bubbled up from some pit inside him and were now bottlenecked. He didn’t know which emotion to let out first, they were all stuck in his throat… but eventually he went predominantly with rage.
The Warden blasted us with a tirade of abuse and castigation; it was like watching the birth of a supernova. He belched out spit and bad language peppered only occasionally with coherent speech. We were totally non-plussed by his outburst at first but after a while, we began to understand the gist.
The warden was so very angry because he thought we had set off the fireworks. Nigel had had one of his meltdowns; it had taken the warden all night to settle him down and it was, according to him, all our fault. We were already known to him as taunters of mentally handicapped children.
We tried to interject, to proclaim our innocence but he wasn’t listening. The Warden wanted us out of his campsite immediately and, to prove his sincerity, he began pulling at our tent. We looked at one another in mute horror! We were fourteen and fifteen years old, had no way of contacting our parents, (they were camping on another site), and would have to walk miles in the middle of the night in a vain attempt to locate them. Even if we did find them, what the hell were we supposed to say?
Suddenly, our panic was overtaken by immense relief; never was I so happy in the knowledge that the Winchester Boys were out there causing havoc. Two rockets shot up into the night sky and exploded over our heads. The warden looked from the fireworks to us, and back again in disbelief. We, as one, gave him a knowing shrug and with that he ran off to confront the perpetrators.
When morning came, it came in grey and overcast. We got up early, fetched a bowl of water to make tea and lit the gas burner. We huddled, dressed in sweaters, around our little stove, not saying much, just staring at the blue flame, watching the pan, lost in our own thoughts. Once the water had boiled we made tea in tin cups and rolled, with practiced dexterity, a cigarette each. I picked up a packet of tent pegs, thinking I might replace the ones the Warden had shaken loose the night before.
We moved over to the picnic table and watched the campsite wake up. Men striding towards their ablutions with a towel draped around their necks, wash kit in one hand and toilet paper in the other. Fathers coming back from the newspaper van with their rag of choice, stopping to greet fellow campers, exchanging pleasantries, a chuckle here, a handshake there. That morning walk, from caravan to newspaper van and back is where, within that tiny ritual, I learned that Elvis had died.
Mothers, still in their nighties, a cigarette loitering on the edge of a benevolent smile, arranged children around breakfast tables and poured cereals into bowls and coffee into cups.
The ponies carried on regardless increasing my paranoia by refusing to recognise our existence. It was while watching a group of ponies gathering by the road that I noticed Nigel shuffling along.
‘Hiya!’ he called out as he approached us and saluted.
‘Hiya!’ we called back in unison.
‘What’s he got in his hand?’ asked Bugsy.
I hadn’t noticed until he’d pointed it out.
‘Oh… God, no! Looks like a firework,’ I said dismounting the table.
‘One of the exploded ones from last night?’
‘Erm, not sure. We need to try and get a closer look.’
We approached Nigel cautiously as if he were a wild animal. We tried not to make eye contact and walked, in what we hoped, was a non-threatening manner.
‘What you found there Nigel?’ I asked pointing to the firework.
Nigel stopped and lowered his head, then raised the firework for us to see.
It still had a fuse. Either the Winchester boys had dropped it or forgotten to light it but the fact remained that Nigel had found it and it didn’t look as if he wanted to give it up in a hurry.
‘I’ll go get the Warden,’ said Bugsy quietly.
‘You sure you want to? He doesn’t really like us.’ I murmured back.
‘Yeah I know, but I think if he had to choose he’d like me more than you.’
‘You keep Nigel here. I’ll be back soon.’
Bugsy turned and walked, seemingly casually at first, towards the office. Now I was left with a boy and a live firework, both of which could go off at any moment. I thought briefly to myself, ‘Well-played little brother.’
‘Hiya Nigel!’ I said again and then holding out the packet of tent pegs said, ‘You want to help arrange these pegs?’
Nigel didn’t respond, but he didn’t leave either. I sat down on the damp ground, legs crossed like Master Po and begun to lay out the tent pegs as I’d seen Nigel do with the sticks. Tentatively, he sat down next to me, took a peg from the bag and laid it down in the line. We continued like this until all the pegs were out, but Nigel held on fast his firework. I looked towards the campsite office hoping to see Nigel’s father on his way over but there was only a small boy lost in some imaginary game walking with his sister who carefully carried a bowl of water.
‘Lets see if your rocket can float?’ I said with the confidence of a military commander.
I got up slowly, not wishing to cause Nigel any alarm, and fetched a bowl of water. I placed it down in front of him and Nigel, now smiling, dropped his rocket into the water. It floated and Nigel watched with the avid fascination of a cat waiting to pounce on a mouse. We stayed like that for some time, neither one of us moving until eventually I recognised the steady, downtrodden footsteps of the warden approaching. Bugsy trailed sleepily behind.
‘Where’s the firework?’ asked the warden abruptly.
‘We put it in the water to see if it would float,’ I said calmly.
There was an uncomfortable silence, the four of us staring at the floating incendiary as it bobbed about in the water.
The warden walked over to our picnic table and sat down. Bugsy and I followed, taking it as some sort of invitation.
‘Look boys…’ began the Warden, ‘Sorry I got the wrong end of the stick. It’s hard you know, having a kid like Nigel. It’s like you packed to go to the Seychelles but ended up in Patagonia. I never really got used to the climate; it’s not what I thought it would be like.’ The Warden looked from Bugsy to me and back again to Bugsy.
‘I see you boys, young, healthy, a little mischievous maybe but full of potential. The world for you is beginning to open up, you can do anything, be anything, but for Nigel… and for me… well, we are not going anywhere. I’ve got to look after him, protect him, that’s my job but…well…there isn’t a mother anymore. It’s just him and me. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in life… dwelling on what might have been is just one of them. Misjudging people is another. Nigel’s not one of my mistakes, I love him, it’s just that I’ve had to adjust my expectations. I needed to let go.’
The three of us looked over towards the Warden’s son who was still fixated on his floating rocket.
A pony wandered over and started to drink the water from the bowl. Nigel recoiled rapidly but then, with obvious uncertainty reached out and touched the pony’s head. The pony, to my amazement began to nuzzle Nigel, effectively asking for more affection.
A connection happened; it was almost visible, like a bright blue aura around them. An awareness passed between them, a coded, private communication. Nigel had singlehandedly bridged that gap, he had been recognised. In doing so he had alleviated my anxiety.
‘I’ve never seen him do that before,’ said the Warden with pride.
That evening, there was no sign of the Winchester Boys and speculation was rife as to the possible cause of their sudden departure. We offered many theories, each one more colourful than its predecessor but we kept the real reason under wraps. Soon the legend of the Winchester Boys faded as young love was left to blossom.
Nigel passed by at about eight o’clock with the pony trailing him like an obedient puppy.
‘Rocket!’ he called out giving his usual salute.
‘Rocket!’ we replied with a wave.
‘Who’s that?’ asked Sara.
‘That’s Nigel,’ I said.
‘He’s not all there is he?’ she said sympathetically.
‘He might not be all here but he’s definitely all there’ I said.