D E A D K I D S O N G S . S N E A K . P R E V I E W
When we looked upwards we saw beneath us a sky of rosebushes, gravel paths, equipment and thick, healthy, but slightly too-dry grass. (Not that it would ever go razor-edged and cut you. It was too purely English for that. Tensed between thumbs, it would give a farty vibrato like that of a badly beaten-up cello.) The ground above us, on the other hand, was blue, blue as the deep end of a very wide swimming pool. A swimming pool seen not from the diving board, but suspended motionless above it. Suspended so that no shadow is projected down, and there is no idea of edge at all. A swimming pool splash-virgin, quite unruffled. At the horizon, a rough line of oak trees was interrupted halfway along by the leap of pylons and wires.
This was how we saw the world. The four of us. Gang. Not The Gang. Just Gang. Andrew, Matthew, Paul and Peter. Hanging upside down from the highest branches of the tallest spruce in Andrews fathers garden.
Can you see them yet? asked Peter, who dangled on the lowest branch.
No, said Matthew. Shut up.
Matthew had the binocs. They were matte black steel, with an extra-grip texture where your hands held. A strap of old flaky brown leather hung from them. They were his grandfathers binoculars and they had seen action with him (and he had seen action with them) on the beaches of Normandy.
Still no sign? said Andrew.
Nothing of consequence to report, Matthew replied.
We were too old to admit to taking great pleasure in our upside-downness, yet not too old to have lost a boyish love for all bodily disorientation: shakings, fallings, submersions, blindnesses, stretchings, giddyings....
The hair on our heads floated up (down) as if we were conducting an experiment with static electricity.
The highest up the tree was Andrew, because we were all agreed that he had the best father. Then came Paul, whose father was a teacher. Then Matthew, whose father, as well as whose mother, was dead. Last and lowest of all was Peter, whose father came home late every day except Friday.
We had a command structure, because Gang had to have a command structure. But there was no other and no better reason for it than that. Andrew was Sergeant. Matthew, Sub-Lieutenant. Paul and Peter Corporals. Yet between us there were no innate inferiorities. (Or none at this time apparent.) Each had his skills, each his points of refusal. For example, Andrew always balked at water. Matthew was genius at all firecraft. Paul knew Morse, German and a smidgin of Russian. Peter had to wear spectacles when he sat at the back of class.
We dressed efficiently, in a way that prepared us for every eventuality. Especially, war. Also, we wished to identify ourselves as Gang. We therefore favoured Army Surplus. Our uniform was based upon a grown-up version of that of the Scouts. We wore khaki shirts and shorts. We carried our equipment around with us in knapsacks. This equipment included: Swan Vesta matches (their tips dipped in wax so they would still light even after being immersed in water), twine, Bowie knives, water canteens of aluminium sheathed in leather, white wax candles, kindling in an oilcloth bundle, Kendal Mint Cake, soft lead pencils and paper, a First Aid kit (carried by Matthew), torches, a billy can for boiling water in, tea bags (in a freezer bag with a twist), chocolate bars, hard tack biscuits, a thick tarpaulin, aluminium plates and cutlery, metal cups enamelled in white and blue, catapults, a compass, maps. We also had a good sturdy canvas tent. This was for camping out in whilst off on expeditions, but never under a tree where it would get wet after a rainstorm.
We all of us had blond hair. Hair blonde as winnowed, crushed, sun-blasted straw. We sometimes doubt whether we would have formed Gang if all four of us had not been so blonde. Matthews hair was slightly darker and redder than ours. However, it lightened up during the early Summer months. It was no basis for exclusion. We were a shock-headed sight to see go by, and there was no doubting that. If we were out on a route march, cars would slow down to marvel at us. Four. All in a line. (Quadruplet boys?) Perhaps the singing also caused some surprise. We sang any number of songs, Keep The Home Fires Burning, Therell Be Bluebirds Over The White Cliffs of Dover, The Ovaltinies Song (that is, until our voices started to break), Hang Out Your Washing On The Siegfried Line, Its A Long Way To Tipperary, Keep Smiling Through, The Internationale (Pauls father had taught him all the words by the time he was ten), Gin Gan Goolie, and others.
Just mentioning these things makes us feel an incredible nostalgia for Midfordshire, for our shared boyhood, for a time when life was that rarest of all things: truly good.
Walking along, early starting, well equipped, beneath the thick boughs of an English wood. Out on manoeuvres. Doing a reccie. Locating a suitable base camp. Sunlight bright above the leaf canopy, hot when it hits your face, surprising the eyes so they close, but mostly cool in the mossy quiet. Our only communication, the prearranged hand-signals.
Between us, we felt as if we could cope with just about anything that might come along. This confidence didnt make us complacent, however. Gang-life was a constant preparation for the unexpected. The greatest fear we had was that the coming war would be nuclear right from the start, and that we would none of us get the opportunity to perform the glorious actions we had so often imagined.
Imagined like this:
Midday. August. The countryside is quiet. We are waiting, silently. The War has been on for eight days or so. The Russians have begun their invasion. Already they will have taken London and the Southern Counties, and now they are heading remorselessly Northwards. Soon they will be with us. Matthew is acting as look-out, up a tree on top of Amplewick Hill. He hears the tank (a Soviet T-64) before he sees it. He flashes a quick Morse message towards the rest of us. (We will all have have learnt Morse by this time) Then he climbs down the tree and sprints to join us. We have requisitioned several rooftops for sniping activity. All those years of preparation are finally paying off. We have reccied this village from top to bottom. It is quite clear to us the way it should be defended. From somewhere (this aspect of the scenario was never clearly defined, but no doubt Andrews father would be involved) we have managed to assemble an impressive arsenal of weapons - Polish submachine guns, ammo, hand grenades, mines. Just at the crest of Crutch Road, we have set an explosive trip wire. It should take out the first tank. If that doesnt work, the TNT can be set off manually. Three of us are hiding upon the three most strategically important rooftops. After the mines have gone off, we take out as many of the Ruskies as we can with a synchronised volley of hand-grenades. Next, we pick off the retreating soldiers one by one (we assumed that, by now - having met little resistance since before Newton - the mighty Soviet Army would retreat.) Then we meet back at base (the Nissen Hut in Andrews garden) to plan how to cope with the Ruskies inevitably more savage second assault.
All this was clear in our minds. Clearer by far than the jobs and careers our schools were supposedly preparing us for. War was coming, and we must ready ourselves for its arrival. Little did we know that our War, when did come, was to be fought not on the roads and streets of Amplewick, but within our very homes, our kitchens, our bedrooms. It would be glorious, all right. But there were to be no marvellous explosions. No medals, parades, cheering, freedom. There was to be glory, indeed. More than enough glory for all, had all been inclined to take it. And before the War was over, two of us would be dead
Perhaps we have given the impression that our life during this period was one of constant anxious preparation. But it would be wrong to imagine we spent so much time preparing to save our country that we left ourselves none in which to appreciate its many brittle beauties. Sometimes we did nothing more (yet what more important activity is there?) than sit and watch the gentle progress of things about us. The uphill struggles of overburdened ants. The blossom-flight of butterflies. The darting skiff of river-boatmen. From clouds to cedar trees to cows to creepy-crawlies, we had a profound respect for Nature in all Her various manifestations. Whether consciously or not, we learned from Her all the most important lessons in life. About perseverance, about grace, about camouflage, about adaptation. It is no use fighting against Natures adopted order. The power that properly belongs to Her, the awesome force, can only be directed, never opposed. Mother Nature was our Schoolmistress. Hers was a classroom that we ever approached without dawdling, a classroom contained within a couple of scrubby acres called Wychwood. Here, our real education took place, and here we conned the textbooks which are not textbooks: fires, stings, punches and weather. The sky was our blackboard. A patch of soft grass our desk. Our pens were sticks and Bowie knives.
It was our closeness to everything around us that we most remember. For example, our intimacy with the very ground itself. The almost-concrete hardness of a well-beaten path (such as the one running up the green vortex of Holy Walk). The soft loaminess of a woodland floor. The too-deeply-gravelled path in front of Pauls house. The lifelessly gray sand-paths of the Furze, around which we were forced to run - always stepping in someone or others just-made footprint; twice as wearying as grass - by the Games Master, Mr Spate. The wide wet green grass of Amplewick Park, mined with divots hidden to trip the non-high-stepping runner-across. The combed-back baldness of the grass on Crackback Hill, months after the snow had melted and sledges had been replaced by sniffing dogs and screaming children.
We knew these different grounds intimately. We spent our lives so close to them - always lying down on, squatting behind, digging into, picking up to examine.
This was our natural habitat.
The delights of the earths various smells: acrid, cow-patty, decay-sweet, decay-sour, alcoholic, honeyed, old-flower-vase-water-like, powdery, sulphurous, dank, petalled. And above all, the heavenly odour of grass new-cut. A Purcell smell, so delicate it is, so laced, so graced with the immanence of nostalgia. Every child should be told to breathe deep of the effluvium of grass and hay, and all cut-stalks. This, they will remember always. And by preparing for their decrepit futures, by deliberate memory-making, they will know they did justice to their childhood, whilst living and loving it.
Well? asked Andrew.
I cant see anything, said Matthew. No, wait a minute - its a blue pram, isnt it?
Yes, said Paul. With silver wheels.
By now we could all see, but Matthew shouted out anyway. Hes in the lead! Hes in the lead! Look, look, hes in the lead!
We cheered loudly. The luck of hanging upside-down had worked.
It wasnt just Andrews father, though. It was also his friend from the Albion pub, Roger. They had taken turns pushing the pram all the way from Flathill. And now, at the steep top of Amplewick Hill, they had come into sight, emerging from the small forest of oaks. All they had to do, in order to win, was canter down the smooth tarmac road, past the turning into Gas House Lane, then push themselves (and the pram) up the more gradual incline in front of Andrews house. Crutch Street, in other words. (See Map.) Once over the crest of this, they would be only a few hundred yards from the Market Square, the finish line, the glory and congratulations.
We watched in silence, breath held, to see how big the gap was until the next pram, the challengers.
We counted like parachutists tumbling away from a Douglas C-47 Dakota. One one-hundred. Two one-hundred. Three one-hundred.
Another pram came over the hill, four falling seconds later.
It took a moment for us all to recognise Pauls father. We were very surprised. We hadnt expected to see him this far up the field. He had never entered the Pram Race before. Running alongside him was Mr Grassmere, husband of the Headmistress of our school. We all gave another cheer, though a quieter more formal one.
These were the only two of our fathers to be taking part in the Annual Amplewick and Flathill Pram Race.
A couple more teams crested the brow of Amplewick Hill, neck and neck. We didnt recognise the men, which meant they were probably from Flathill.
The breeze picked up slightly. The treetop queeved back and forth.
Lets climb down and cheer them home! shouted Andrew.
Now that we knew victory for one or other of our fathers was almost assured, we wanted to be certain we were there to celebrate with them.
We started to clamber down: from branch to branch, choosing carefully our hand- and footholds.
We had descended halfway, and were no longer able to look over the roof of Andrews house, when something happened: Andrew, by mistake, stepped on Pauls fingers. Paul, with a cry of pain, let go - and seemed about to fall. He didnt. He dropped a foot or so, before managing to catch hold of an outstretched branch. But, after doing this, he swung a little back and forth - and one of his feet kicked Matthew in the teeth. It wasnt so much the strength as the surprise of the blow which caused Matthew to lose his grip. He began to fall, and as he did he grabbed out for something to hold on to. The only thing within reach was Peter - Peters arm - the arm with which he had been holding on to the tree trunk, just starting to look up towards the commotion above him. With the combined weight of Matthew and himself now upon it, Peters grip was broken. The two of them - from a height of about ten feet - fell away from the tree and down onto the ground below. Luckily, it wasnt on the cobbles of the drive, a few feet further to the left, that they landed. Instead, immediately at the bottom of the tree was a small bed of Antique English roses: Vanguard, Sir Walter Raleigh, The Countryman, and The Knight.
Andrews father was a devoted gardener, and so the earth beneath the rose bushes was soft with fragrant manure - bought by the quarter ton from the Farm. (Many was the time that wed plucked the thorns off the larger, hoarier bushes and lick-stuck them upon the bridges of our noses - turned ourselves on the instant into fearful mutations of the human form: dinosaur-boys.) And so Matthew and Peters landings were about as soft as they could possibly have been. Neither fell directly onto a rosebush. Some of the older bushes were hard-stemmed enough to have near stabbed a body through. But, even so, they had tumbled a fair distance, and hit the ground pretty damned hard. Peter had been lucky enough to be falling feet first, and was therefore able to absorb most of the impact with his legs. We watched as he crumpled and rolled over, in perfect imitation of the parachutist wed seen at last years Air Display. Matthew, however, had been yanked away from the trunk by Peters pull, and so he landed, almost inevitably, smack on the flat of his back.
By the time Andrew and Paul reached the ground, Peter was already up on his feet and starting to brush himself down. But Matthew, his eyes open but glassy, his skin turning pale, just lay there without moving.