Take the long way home…

Last week I went to a party, there was a band and a bar and lots of music and I had a good time.

There were also a large number of familiar looking old men drinking beer. I stepped forward and stood there in line with my old school friends who have all suddenly reached the age of 50, which is odd as I remember us all as young things in our prime with everything still ahead of us – not just our stomachs. In fact, I still do think of myself as a young thing. If only there were no such thing as reflections (or photos) I could carry on happily deluding myself forever.

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It is hard to look at a row of respectable middle-aged men that you knew as a child and not remember what they used to be like:

Carl getting his ear pierced and his mum not noticing for several months as his hair was so long. (Now, no earring – or hair.)

Mike dressed in the sharpest threads, all straight lines and creases. (Now, mostly curves.)

Mark crashing his first motorbike, and then rebuilding it. (Actually still riding motorbikes – but not crashing as much!)

And Gary.

Gary and I were inseparable at school, always out together, doing things and having a good time. I have so many stories to tell about Gary that I was expressly forbidden from being his best man in case the speech went on too long or got out of hand.

But the story that always comes to mind when we meet up is this one;

We had been playing snooker. This was not an uncommon way for us spend time when we were in our teens the call of the snooker hall was ever present.  Clearly we struck a balance between this and school as we did not want to neglect our studies. So we were making our way back to take part in the part of the school day we felt we were most likely to be missed from, cues in hand, taking a short cut through the park.

In the distance we spied a group of younger students and their teacher on a field trip. It was still not too late to turn around and head back through the gates and around the long way without being seen: Which is exactly what I did.

But not Gary. He decided the best course of action would be to hide up a tree and wait for the group to pass, thus saving the extra time and distance involved in walking around the park.

Gary’s description of what happened went along these lines; “He (the teacher) got all the year 7’s stood around the tree and started to tell them what sort of tree it was and that sort of stuff.” Gary was not much of a botanist. “I still thought he hadn’t seen me, but then pointed up without even looking and told them that if they looked they would see Gary ****, and if they wanted to see me again they could come and look through the windows of the detention room. Bastard!”

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Baby sitters and small boys and hospitals and David Bowie

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As an adult one of the things I found hard about leaving the children with sitters was the fact that the sitters did not know what the normal boundaries, expectations and limits for acceptable behaviour are in our house. What we are allowed to watch on the TV, when we go to bed, how many snacks we can eat , how long we should brush our teeth – all became negotiable once we were out of the house.

Luckily, I am such an ineffectual parent that most of those things are negotiable the rest of the time too so no harm done. I always thought David Bowie was being a cool dad when he wrote in Kooks;

And if you ever have to go to school

Remember how they messed up this old fool

Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads

‘Cause I’m not much cop at punching other people’s Dads

And if the homework brings you down

Then we’ll throw it on the fire

And take the car downtown

I now realise that he was as inept as in the parenting department as I have been. It usually needs someone sensible to sort things out, like my wife.

When we were small me and my older brother were once left with a sitter who was wonderfully amenable to whatever it was we said we were allowed to do.

A happy afternoon of trashing the house ensued, sugar sandwiches, mud fights in the garden, ransacking cupboards that were usually off-limits. We had fun.

Things reached a wonderful zenith when we found an empty cardboard box to play with. Well, I say empty, it was after we had emptied it. Everyone knows what fun you can have with an empty box right?

Taking advantage of the fact that the normal rules didn’t seem to apply we decided to hold our very own sledging competition. This is very simple, you sit in the box at the top of the stairs and gently rock yourself forward until you tip over the edge and slide down the stairs at great speed and spill out at the bottom, shrieking with laughter and running back up for the next go.

Naturally our attention spans wouldn’t allow for just keeping it at this. We decided what we wanted was more speed. The obvious way to achieve this was with a gentle push over the top step. Or a not gentle one if you wanted to see what would happen if a lot of extra speed was applied to the launch.

I should explain that the house we lived in at the time was one of those 60’s built ones with stairs leading straight down to the front door, the front door made of two glass panels in a wooden frame.

I am assuming that anybody who has ever seen a YouTube video or watched You’ve Been Framed will know where this story ends. If you didn’t guess; it ended with the first occasion of me putting my big brother in hospital, and ME in trouble for breaking the window. (I still don’t know why it was me, technically he was the one who broke it). So that is why I have found it hard to leave the children with sitters.

A good place to play.

When I was younger, way back when we could go out and play until it started to get dark, and if you missed your tea it got cold – or eaten, I lived near an old, disused, railway viaduct. It was a huge feature of the local landscape. Now long gone, it used to tower over all the houses in the neighbourhood, welcoming people to the town as it stood over the streets and houses below.

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Like many viaducts, the spaces beneath the arches had become a selection of lock-ups, garages and workshops. Greasy, dirty earthy places that practically shouted out to small boys to go there and play when we were not daring one another to walk the length of the old railway track in defiance of the Keep Out signs on the rickety fencing.

One of the best bits of this shadowy world was the scrapyard, gaining entrance to that was the Shangri La of good times. Old cars, bits of metal, wheels, tyres, you name it, it was there. The real joy of it was that everything was already broken, so it didn’t matter what you did – you couldn’t make it worse.

The absolute best bit of all was that I had access to the scrapyard. My friend Carl lived in one of the houses that backed directly on to it. A hop and a jump and you were in. A similarly small hop and jump back meant that you wouldn’t get caught if the owner came by unexpectedly.

So many summer evenings were spent making dens, smashing things up, getting dirty and generally having fun. The hours would fly by, interspersed only by trips to Carl’s mum’s kitchen to top up our fluid and sugar levels.

By now I am sure that you are thinking; small boys – Playing around all that jagged metal, broken glass and heavy machinery – wasn’t that dangerous? Yes. Yes it was, but we didn’t care, we were having fun. We were oblivious to the impending danger every time we went in, oblivious to the huge risks we were taking, we were young boys and mortality was not a part of our mindset at all.

Until the day that Carl cut his arm. The sharp edge of a piece of metal caught him as he passed it. It cut a short but deep gouge into his arm that bled profusely as we clambered back through the fence and into his house. We showed it to his mum, fully confident that once we had presented the injury to an adult it could all be sorted out.

What happened next still surprises me now when I think back on it. Carl’s mum got out some cotton and a needle and, before anybody could object, popped in a couple of stitches – job done! I mentioned we were young didn’t I? I didn’t really understand at the time that Carl’s mum was a nurse and that this had saved a great deal of time and trouble visiting the hospital on her precious day off. She knew what she was doing and did it.

My lack of understanding meant that for some time afterwards, every time I cut myself I was half terrified that my own mum was going to whisk out her sewing kit when I showed her and set about my wounds like Dr Frankenstein. The other half of me was always bitterly disappointed when all I got was a measly sticking plaster.