“If you went too near the edge of the chalk pit the ground would give way. Barney had been told this often enough. Everybody had told him. Barney had a feeling, somewhere in his middle, that it was probably true about the ground giving way. And today was one of those grey days when there was nothing to do, nothing to play, nowhere to go. Except to the chalk pit. The dump.”
Where I grew up there was no ‘dump’. There was ‘down the banks’, and the banks were out of bounds to me. They lay underneath the railway bridge, an area of abandoned line that ran a recess through our Midlands village, mostly hidden from view but remembered in places by dogs and footpaths, and by kids.
Child of the 80s, I was of a generation whose parents quit the city and spread themselves among commuter villages where their kids could grow up outdoors. We did. We learned what cows looked like and what brambles felt like, how to dam a stream and that you can’t catch sheep no matter how fast you run. But beyond the fields, in the big wide world, we were also growing into an atmosphere of increasing wariness and suspicion. First child, new place, maybe my parents were nervous. Maybe I was. Anyway, the outdoors I knew had limits. There were places my brothers and I could explore, and others we couldn’t. We knew all about Strangers, and saying ‘no’, and at school we watched videos about what happened to children who strayed past ‘DANGER’ and ‘NO ENTRY’ signs and ended up in chalk pits. There weren’t any Stig-like cavemen in those videos, imaginary or otherwise. There were kids who got trapped and never came home, and a man giving a voiceover like an ‘I told you so’. Burglar alarms proliferated along our street. My parents got a Stranger in to fit one to our house.
Once or twice on my way to school I might have stopped at the railway bridge and peered down into the banks. I have a memory of heavy undergrowth, a slope spattered with footprints, plastic bags slowly disintegrating into muddy puddles at the bottom. The stones on the bridge were cold and hard under my hands; they tasted like metal on my tongue. It might have been me, leaning over the bridge, but I’m not sure it was. The picture may be something I pieced together from things I heard at school, from my friends, who did go down the banks – whether or not they were allowed. I didn’t know what happened down the banks, but they quickly became associated in my mind with other out of the way places – behind the bike sheds, under the covers, down the banks – places whispered and hissed between palms, places I shied away from, that I wasn’t aware of wanting, since they were out of bounds.
But maybe all children have a need for transgression, for reaching towards the edges of things. Maybe all adults do. Maybe ‘edges’ is the wrong word. I stayed within the bounds of my familiar world, but I also began to make holes, like rabbit burrows, inside it. Determined to find out the secrets grown-ups keep, I hid under tables and inside cupboards, thinking myself invisible. I didn’t uncover any secrets, but I did find out what it felt like to be in a space that was separate and slightly removed, a place of hiding, of looking and listening to things. I remember the sound of the grandfather clock and the smell of old suitcases. I discovered I could squeeze into spaces half my size, and thought maybe I’d discovered my magic power. I thought about showing my mum, and decided not to.
Outside, with my brothers and our friends, we made dens. We crawled through hedges and found spaces that we crafted and dug out until we could fit ourselves inside them. They were places of intrigue and imagination where we traced the edges of the acceptable. I remember an early game involving experiments with various methods of slug death – the favoured being suffocation by grass cuttings, followed by a stabbing with sticks. We never uncovered the slugs from their grassy coffins to inspect their mauled bodies; we were too interested in seeking out our next victim. In our dens we could test out who we were and what we felt about the world around us; we got to know it and also what it felt like. We pulled ivy from trees to weave around our den entrance; it was tough and rasping on our skin and sometimes it cut us. We kicked at rotting wood and it collapsed into breadcrumbs. We slid over in the dirt and the dirt made shapes like the insides of trees in our palms.
As I grew up I learned of other transgressions happening in the neighbourhood. There was the local scout camp, where nice families sent nice boys to learn how to build fires, and the nice boys smoked hash and sucked aerosol cans through football socks.
Later – as hormones flooded my insides with things that were fresh and strange – the boundaries of my outside world were suddenly relaxed. I was allowed out, at night, with my friends, who smoked. I could go into town, get back late, explore the unfamiliar, if I wanted. I was free to make decisions, trust my instincts. It was a sudden opening of gates and thresholds, and I wasn’t sure what to make of any of it.
It was around this time that an elderly man down our street asked me to walk his dog for him on my way back from school. He was getting short of breath, and she needed to get out. He would pay me. She was a border collie, full of the smell of musty living rooms and an unbridled excitement at having discovered someone willing to walk her as far as she needed to go. We met just at the point that I imagine I could have gone in; when teenagers close the door, turn on a screen, shut off from things. Instead, I was forced out. We followed familiar footpaths and found new ones, and new fields to explore. We were walking, but I think I was also discovering another kind of border crossing, another kind of edge.
There was a golf course at the top of my road, and usually we began there, the dog streaming on ahead as I dodged golf balls over tightly shaved grass and slopes that seemed too smooth to be real. At the far end of the golf course was a small stile, and I remember clearly the change I felt each day as I climbed over it. Like letting a breath go. The field on the other side was uncultivated and marshy and, in my memory, I always arrived just as the light was fading, so that it was pink, and there were birds scooting over sand-coloured grasses inside it. The field was a dip in the Leicestershire flats, and being in it was a bit like being in a belly turned in on itself. Everything was concave, inverted. Sometimes there were mists. The field was a space between the exposures of school and the increasing claustrophobia of home; it felt the stamp of my teenage years, and absorbed things, or loosened them. A strange kind of holding-place – where the wind might throw all it had at me or else withdraw itself completely, leaving me untouched. Risky, maybe.
Working now as a Creative Writing tutor in Sussex, I realise that it is precisely this time – the end of the school day, before arriving home – that I am taking from my tutees. I work with young people who have disengaged from school (or whose parents have over-engaged with it) to help build some links between them and the page in front of them. The boundaries are clear; we often have set targets, and we work in line with their curriculum – but sometimes I like thinking of it also as a space of potential transgressions. Since I am keeping them inside, the writing becomes the place where we push out. We follow stories, play with language, step out of the familiar into our imaginations.
Sometimes that sounds like a nice idea, but in practice nothing happens except my own attempts at creating openings coming up against their absolute refusal. Or just that I am trying the wrong doors.
Sometimes a pencil feels unfamiliar and strange and there is no throughway between a child’s ideas and the page. Other times we make small inroads, and often when this happens it seems to come from things around us in the room. There was a nine-year-old girl who had never finished a story – she got halfway, but gave up each time – until she collected six objects from around my house, which we put in front of us, and she made a wild fairytale from them. There was also a 15-year-old who was so angry at being made to sit through tutoring that she refused to do anything, until we gave up on compound sentences and started writing about anger. Suddenly she was so absorbed that she pulled the pad off the desk and onto her knee, where I couldn’t see, as I did cartwheels inside my head.
Maybe we all need transgressions, and also a space for them. Maybe the need to transgress or escape or puncture holes in the familiar is resilient, and it seeks out these spaces, wherever we are.
I never did go down the banks, but in the course of writing this I’ve found out that both my brothers did. Not only that, but my mum knew about it, and was surprised when I told her I’d never been. It seems some bounds are made to be broken – and maybe this is the secret grown-ups keep.
So I know a bit about what happened down the banks now, from my brother, who went. Among other things, there was a rusty old condom machine thrown out by a nearby pub, which my brother’s friend once tried riding like a sledge down the slope. It didn’t work. He landed face down in the mud, as the condom machine flew up and crashed down on top of him. Apparently there was a lot of blood, which no-one really knew what to do about, since they didn’t want to tell the grown-ups where they’d been. Apparently not telling was more important than stopping the bleeding, because they all hurried home, dripping gore and nervousness and crossing their fingers that the boy with a hole in his head wouldn’t die overnight. Apparently the next day he arrived at school with a large scab, and was proud of it.