Young Summer, Movements I-VII
THE FIRST DAY OF THE SUMMER HOLIDAYS
On the first day of Summer, on the very evening that school finished for six weeks, Colin Bragg was run over and killed. The headteacher told the students about it when they arrived for the end-of-year dance, having carefully debated whether it was the right thing to do; eventually all the kids, having processed the news as best they could, in whatever way they did, went about enjoying themselves, dancing, drinking fizzy drinks and playing kisschase in the school hall that still smelled heavy from lunch and warm air. He came off his bicycle on the high street and an automobile, doing twice the speed limit, threw him forty-feet. Colin was an expert cyclist, all the boys agreed, so what had caused him to fall into the road? ‘Sometimes your laces get wrapped around the pedal,’ one boy said, and again the others agreed. ‘The pavement is wide enough outside the rec centre,’ said another boy. ‘My mum always says cars go too fast down the high street.’ Outside of the rec centre were a row of picturesque cottages and then the Baptist church which seemed to stand so tall in red brick and arches and blue eaves. It may have been forty-feet between the cottages and the Baptist Church. The young children relayed the death of Colin Bragg to their parents in the car home, gasps pulled out the open window, and the next morning a group of boys got together on their bicycles and pedalled to the spot, marked grimly between an overgrown verge and the dry, weed-spat kerb, with a large yellow sign asking for witnesses. They leaned there on crossbars, not really contemplating mortality or a friend’s death, but stunned at the length of the tyremarks that wobbled steadily in four morbid lines right past them until they ended abruptly. Closely, so close that the draught caught their t-shirt sleeves, they watched the cars going by. It was not long before one of the boys turned on his back wheel, and the rest followed.
Around the edge of Abby’s back garden, at the wirefenced rim out to fields, was a strip of thorny blackberry bushes. Her mother would answer the door in a thick dressing gown, cigarette in hand—‘Good morning, handsome… Abby!’ she shouted upstairs. Abby’s mother invited me in, as she glided into the kitchen. Abby’s cat was at its bowl, looking up, recognised me from the neighbourhood, its litter still in the tray. Their kitchen always smelled of apple juice. Abby cantered down the stairs, saying hello, her big, frizzy blonde hair tied back and her tan bloomed. ‘Is your BMX outside?’ she asked, before she motioned towards the garage where her own was stored. I told her it was not, for I had a puncture. ‘There’s blackberries in the garden, why don’t you pick those?’ her mother said, squeezing out a teabag on the side of her mug. ‘We can make wine,’ I said. ‘We can pretend to be wine makers,’ she said. We went out into the garden, which was not much more than some dead grass, pale paving slabs and the lurching blackberry bushes over a wire fence. Her mother had given us some bowls for our pickings. We leaned over with whitehaired arms and plucked the ripest blackberries, those most pouting, tiny hairs and the dust of fields upon their black bulbs. Those white, green and pink were kept away from; give them a bit longer; they were like us, no more than children. After we grew tired underneath the sun, our bowls full, we took the end of a rolling pin to our berries as Abby’s mother sunbathed. The dark violet mush sparkled in the afternoon. Abby’s mother told us to get the sugar bowl, and some cold water from the fridge. We poured what we had into glasses and drank it greedily in the shade of Abby’s patio doors as the fieldbirds sang and a light breeze passed us by.
EVERYDAY FOOTBALL, FOOTBALL EVERYDAY
After Power Rangers had finished, my brother and I would take off into the day at my mother’s descent from upstairs. The flowers about the front door were mixed into the smell of morning. At that time of day, the front door was in shade. Our bicycles were leaned next to where my father parked his car and sometimes we would get a knock on the head if our handlebars scratched the paint. We hurried to our friends up the road, drop our bikes in the pavement and another mother would answer the door. The inside of her house smelled different and our house had no smell at all to us. She would holler out for them as they finished getting dressed. ‘See you later, mum,’ as we went to round up the rest of the boys in the neighbourhood before gathering on a triangular patch of grass we labelled ‘The Green’. It was where we played football all day, every day. We passed in circles until everyone arrived, then we began a match. We switched ends and we switched teams. The strongest players – one of them my brother – were captains and picked the rest. No one held back from a tackle, although the hard ground might take skin off the leg. It was part of the thrill! Grass was worn away so that the remaining tufts could be tripped upon. Taking a break, we might sit down on the ivory earth, the ball trapped below someone’s knees; they knocked it from side to side with small hairless fists as its stitching wore away. ‘Sorry, Iris, our ball’s gone over. Can you throw it back, please?’ Sometimes Iris would not throw the ball over until we had polished all her tables or played fetch with her dog. Iris’ late husband, Roy, was dead, but the black cab he drove was still parked in their drive, moss hiding beneath its frame, slowly getting dustier, getting rustier. Then Iris threw the ball over, and the games could resume. After dinner, we played until we could no longer see the ball or each other. Then we would sit there on the grass, catching our breath, perspiration no bother at all, sucking the sweat and grass stains off our knees because, strangely, it tasted delicious. Time fell away in that leisure, the days nothing at all.
THE THREE BELLS
We were called to by our mother at evening’s front door; somehow, by volume, timbre or familiarity, her cry would reach us far & wide, a frequency we were tuned into that none of our friends could receive. Disciplined, we ran immediately, but it was too early for dinner. My father’s car was parked; a space vacant during the day, now filled. ‘We’re going down the pub. Get ready.’ Before we had eaten, the five of us would drive out – as we waved to our friends left behind a window – to a pub in a village three miles away. My father had been looking forward to going down the pub with us all day and he let us know how happy he was. The pub was quiet. Each door and window were thrust open. There was no music. There was no atmosphere at all. The punters did not look up. Yet, still I loved it in there; nothing happened and people just drank. The taps on the bar leaned like cranes on a quay. My father would order a shandy, my mother a glass of white wine, and us three boys had a Britvic 50/50 out of a cloudy bottle and plastic straw. ‘You see that, boys,’ said my father, pointing to a small white smudge at the top of his glass—‘That’s her Majesty’s seal. It means it’s exactly a pint. It’s been tested. It’s exactly one pint. And it hasto be there, by law. Otherwise it’s not a pint!’ There was a giant fibreglass tree with a face on stood in the middle of some woodbark; a slide emerged from the top of its head, and swings hung from each of its two thick branches. Inside the tree it smelled unlike anything else ever, and there were steps that went up to the slide. The innards of the tree were steps and the smell of nothing else ever. My brothers and I played in the fibreglass tree, swung on its swings, chased each other, fought and laughed. My mother and father sat on the wooden bench, talking, and the sun slowly set over the valley.
VINCENT & SUZIE
The house at the end of the row took in foster children, but none of the other neighbourhood kids knew they were foster children; they were just relatives of the people who lived in the house at the end of the row. If the foster children were old enough, they came out to play with the other neighbourhood kids. Quite bravely, they strode up to whatever game or conversation was being had and joined in. Occasionally the foster children were known to the neighbourhood kids through school, but more often than not they were complete strangers. Depending how life went for the foster children, they might return after a long period of being away, and then they would join in the games again as though nothing had happened. There were two foster children of note: Vincent and Suzie. Vincent was a polite boy, a year or two younger than the neighbourhood kids, who had no other clothes but for his school uniform. In winter, the foster parents repaired his school trousers at the knees with a little patch of fabric that came free with the trousers. In summer, he wore school shorts and his knees were scabby, as scabby as all the other children’s knees. His skin was always tanned to the neighbourhood kids, and he had blue eyes. He was a sweet boy. ‘My mum says you have a cow’s lick.’ ‘What’s a cow slick?’ asked Vincent. ‘It’s when your hair sticks up like a cow has licked it.’ All the kids and Vincent laughed. ‘No cow’s licked me!’ Vincent was a sweet boy who would not say boo to a goose. Then there was Suzie. Suzie was different because she was a year older than the oldest of the neighbourhood kids. All of the boys liked her but would not admit it. She had hair the colour of the grass in summer’s fields and she was tall. She teased and wrestled the boys often. She was stronger than them. None of the neighbourhood boys knew such strength in a girl. Around the back of the houses, behind garages where nobody parked their cars, Suzie would push the neighbourhood boys against the metal garage doors. The neighbourhood boys stared at her, nervous at what she would do. There was something different about her from other girls, but they did not know what. Suzie leaned in and kissed the boys, one by one, then teased them about it. She knew what grownups did; she told the boys all about it, but they did not believe her.
Next to the school was Chalk Meadows, a dense forest squeezed between the year-four classroom and farmer’s fields. One walked down a long, worn path, over a stile and then was swallowed whole by the leaning trees that crowded you like teeth. At the stile, our dog was released from his lead and he ran off bounding, turned to encourage a chase, then went on, panting with wide eyes. There were hills and small clearings. There were ropeswings left by others. There were extinguished fires. There was a shopping basket of pornographic magazines and a knife. There were lizards and frogs and, once, a snake. On special occasions, my mother would take us down there with our friends, and we would ride our bicycles up and down the hills, or play hide-and-seek. The sunlight came dappled through the leaves, would vibrate over a dribbling stream, and cover everything brightly where the trees ended and a waterlogged field of lush green grass rolled out beneath scattered clouds of gnats. When we were younger, we would go there as a family at weekends, and my father would tell us to all run off and hide as he held our first dog by the collar. Once we had gone, he said—‘Ready? Ready?! Go get ‘em!’ and the dog found us in no time, all excited, his tail wagging against the low-hanging branches as we emerged from behind a bush or trunk. Years later, at secondary school, I signed up for orienteering as I found ordnance survey maps most beautiful; the details and colours, symbols, textures, the fonts, the order of chaos; even the very paper the maps were printed on seemed special. By chance, one excursion took me and my fellow classmates to Chalk Meadows. As I set off on my own against a timer, compass in hand, I came to be in that childhood forest differently, regarding my terrain and its particulars in a new light. It was a certain point where, ignorant of any stopwatch, I paused and took it all in, looking around at everything in silence and no one else in sight. My childhood home was approximately one-and-a-half miles northeast, but we had moved away, all of us. I held up the compass and stared at that direction. I was sad before I remembered the timer.
A PINT OF MAGGOTS
First of all, after we had gathered on ‘The Green’, my friends and I went on our bicycles to the bait shop and bought between us a pint of maggots. They were different shades of orange, amber, yellow, and they moved in the tub like white noise. They interested us greatly because they made our skin crawl. The four of us took the maggots home, picked up our rod and tacklebox, then went by foot down the road until it paled into a narrow path, then the woods and out to the bottom of the valley where a river ran alongside the old railway tracks (abandoned 1988, at the closing of the iron foundry on which the village was built). The iron bridge was rusted but stood strong, shaking only slightly under our weight as we marched across. The old railways tracks used to run on an elevated and winding strip of earth from the foundry to a nearby town. The rails had gone, only remnants of rotted wooden ties lingered, covered by dirt. We followed the tracks for a half-mile then peeled off to a spot on the river held back by a dam, where we could fish for small perch. We were not good fisherman by any measure, but it was a welcome break from playing football all the time. When the sun was most intense, too hot to kick, we went fishing. Against the banks of the river, we cushioned ourselves into a mattress of dense grass. Our rods flicked through the sharp blue sky and leant the tiniest of scratches along the water’s surface. We spoke, although there was little to say among friends who had spent so much time together; what more could be said except nonsense? Too much racket would scare away the perch. If a maggot was snatched, stolen or wriggled free, another was pierced into its place. Floats tickled, bobbed, sunk. Perch were lifted onto the grass where, carefully for spines, hooks were retrieved. Every boy came around to see the catch as it puffed between the blades, before it was lowered back into the water. Between all of this, there was much lying around with eyes closed, listening to for the faintest sound. All was still and peaceful. At the end of the day, when we knew it would be time for dinner and were growing bored, we threw the maggots at one another, then released the rest onto the ground. It was something to do, and over the six weeks of summer we needed something to do.