Recollections of early childhood
It’s funny how life sometimes takes us in a full circle. When I was eight I had a harrowing experience involving a handbag, a river, a railway bridge and a forbidden gate which recently revisited me in my adult life.
All those years ago, it started off as an ordinary enough day. Ignorant of the distress that awaited me I woke with the sunlight streaming through my window, twirling lazy dust motes over my bed. I yawned, stretched and stumbled from my lair, fumbling for my spider man dressing gown and yelping as I stepped on Optimus Prime, who only the night before had been involved in a terrifying battle to the death against a coalition of the care bears led by Bobba Fett.
My immediate destination was the spare room to see if my cousins (who were gloriously staying with us) were awake. Sure enough, when I got there my eldest cousin Michael was also awake, blinking in the morning light with the slightly stunned expression of someone who has just woken in an unfamiliar bed and is taking a few seconds to readjust. Incidentally, this is a sensation I have become very familiar with in my adult life, usually quickly followed by embarrassed apologies and hasty retreats.
Michael was nine years old at the time and I worshipped the ground he walked upon. If Michael had told me to go back to bed (which considering it was only five thirty in the morning, would not have been wholly unreasonable) I would have dutifully done so. Michael did no such thing however. He magnanimously arose from his bed and suggested we go downstairs and make ourselves breakfast. I could not have been happier to oblige.
Downstairs we therefore trotted, our simple mission to fill our stomachs with sugared corn flakes and contemplate new and ingenious ways to spend the never ending summer holidays. We were mindful not to wake both sets of our parents, not through any altruistic desire to allow them some well deserved rest, but rather to avoid the inevitable scolding and irrebuttable order of “GO BACK TO BED!”
The forbidden gate:
After sating our hunger we decided to take ourselves outside and play in the morning sun. As a child I was lucky enough to grow up in a large house in a quiet neighbourhood. The garden of our house was perfect for games of all description being similarly capacious in size, enclosed by large hedges and boasting an extensive lawn that finally dipped away to a forested slope we simply called “the bank”. It was down this slope we took ourselves, threading our way through the tress and pretending to be explorers navigating a distant jungle, searching for lost cities of gold or some such childhood fantasy.
Like fingers to the waste disposal unit, we were unconsciously compelled to the one place we were not supposed to go. At the bottom of the wooded slope was a rickety old wooden fence and right in the corner of this wooded boundary was an old gate. This gate was rarely used and led to an old towpath which ran alongside a lazily meandering river patrolling the end of our family’s territory. Curiosity, youth and high spirits is a fateful concoction and it was not long before we were daring each other through the gate and out into the big wide world beyond.
A floating treasure:
The towpath was a magical place, which as a child I loved. The river in particular held a fascination for me and despite multiple parental warnings to stay away, I frequently found myself daring the forbidden gate to spend hours playing by the embargoed water. On this particular morning, the sun was creating a myriad of sparkling lights which played across the surface of the water and for two inquisitive young children, invited much closer inspection.
Still in our dressing gowns and slippers, we made our way to the water’s edge where we spotted an intriguing object floating down the river. Somehow a red handbag had made it into the river and was bobbing down the centre of the waterway right in front of our youthful eyes. Immediately and defying any form of logic, we decided the handbag should rightfully contain a wealth of lost money and utilising the age old rule of “finders keepers” we reasoned that if only we could reach this floating cornucopia, all that wealth would be ours.
Unfortunately for us, the current of the river was swiftly taking our prize away from us. We were reluctant to ignore our parent’s most vociferous instructions concerning swimming in the river, especially given that our state of dress did not particularly favour aquatic pursuits, so we decided our best course of action would be to follow the handbag and see if the river’s current would bring the object of our sudden affections closer to the river bank. Armed with long sticks which we hoped would double as fishing hooks, as well as give onlookers the impression of stern wizards or proud Jedi knights, we began a solemn trek along the towpath, all the while keeping a careful eye on the floating treasure-trove as it coasted along the surface of the water before us.
We walked for a considerable way, doggedly following the handbag which frustratingly remained lodged to the centre of the waterway. After a while the river and the path we trod began to diverge and we were forced to brave the brambles and thickets to keep up with our bounty. The going became tough, even for Jedi mages, but we persevered with the single minded determination that only pure greed can inspire.
The towpath leads ever on and on
Forest of doom:
Over an hour passed and by now our ramblings had taken us deep into the woods. It had become increasingly difficult to stay by the river bank and we found ourselves frequently losing sight of both the water and the handbag as we attempted to navigate our way through the obstructive woodland. With the sun nestled behind a thick canopy of tree foliage and the way forward not particularly clear, nerves began to set in. It was not long before the inevitable talk of turning back started, but neither of us wanted to give up the chance of getting our hands on an attaché packed full of the green folding stuff.
We therefore pressed on and it was with some relief a while later that we emerged from the woods into lush meadowland. We appeared to be in the gardens of an old manor house, which was perched high on a hillside above us. The river also sprung from the woods near to where we were standing and fuelled with fresh enthusiasm we raced our way down to the water’s edge. We were just in time to see the handbag plunge over the edge of a weir in a flamboyant flash of red and then disappear for good in the churning waters beneath.
Exhausted and dejected we began to bicker about what the most direct way back home was. My cousin sensibly suggested we retrace our steps, following the river back into the woods and trek the long way home, traversing exactly the same route we had arrived on. I was tired and unwilling to struggle through the dense woodland again. In the distance near the manor house I could see an old railway arch, which looked identical to one that I knew was situated near my house. Using eight year old logic I convinced myself that our perambulations had take us in a full circle and if we could only reach that archway we would be nearly back home. I therefore did not see the merit of struggling back through the entangled trees to circumnavigate our circuitous route when we could potentially complete the journey in a fraction of the time by simply pressing onwards. Like ferociously rabid kittens we began to argue. Things were said which should not have been uttered and eventually we agreed to differ in the most negative of ways. Michael turned on his heel and walked back into the woods while I forged on alone across the fields.
It took me much longer than I expected to reach the railway arch. My journey took me across water logged meadows, through multiple barbed wire fences and up a steep and difficult to climb hill. Finally, I stood before the railway arch and realised with horror that it was not the bridge I had envisaged and actually I had no idea where I was. I stumbled cold, exhausted and afraid under the bridge’s archway. Having seemingly run out of all options I slumped to the ground, pulled my knees up to my chin and began to cry bitterly. To this day it remains the loneliest and most fearful moment of my life with despair seemingly permeating every bone of my body and paralysing me with fear. I could not have found my way home again if my life had depended on it and at that moment, in my eight year mind, I thought it did.
Fortunately for me, I was heard crying by a girl who was out for an early morning walk. To me, she looked like an adult, but with hindsight she could not have been much more than nineteen. She asked me if I was lost, which given my torn and mud encrusted Spiderman dressing gown did not require a great amount of mental agility on her part to conclude. Nonetheless, through my sobs I managed to confirm the fact that I was indeed locationally challenged. She kindly took my hand and muttering tear absorbing platitudes the whole way, led me back to her house which lay nearby. After some effort and calming hot chocolate she managed to extract my phone number which luckily had been drilled into me from an early age. The girl then made what must have been a difficult phone call to my mother. I can only imagine the range of emotions my mother went through as she was woken from her sleep by the phone ringing. Apparently she took some convincing that I was not in bed as she had naturally assumed and was in fact several miles away, wiping a chocolate moustache from my mouth and contemplating why pink marshmallows were not as tasty as white marshmallows when applied to a steaming cup of cocoa. The fact that she was thusly oblivious to my whereabouts must have caused unbearable embarrassment as well as extreme consternation to my poor mother; although in fairness these were sensations she was becoming very familiar with, having me as a son.
The archway of sorrow
Another lost boy:
To say my mother was furious when she finally picked me up would be an understatement, but that fury had to give way to practicality because Michael had not yet returned home. My aunt and uncle were naturally frantic with worry and family search parties were officially launched to look for my wayward cousin. It transpired that Michael had got scared walking through the woods on his own and had turned back to find me. With no idea which direction I had gone, Michael had unfortunately chosen the wrong way to travel. He was eventually found by my uncle walking along a dual carriageway, still in his slippers and dressing gown, on a course which would have eventually taken him to London.
My cousin and I were grounded for a very long time, but to be honest I was past caring about any punishments and I think our parents were lenient due to our obvious fright. Thanks to the kindness of a complete stranger, I was home where I belonged and I was an exceptionally relieved boy who had learnt a particularly difficult lesson about minding my parent’s rules.
A full circle:
If you remember the beginning of this tale you might be wondering about the circular nature of life which I mentioned. The reason I wrote this hub, apart from sharing a salutary lesson in both the nature of young boys and the difficulty of parenting them, is that I recently stumbled upon the house where my benevolent guardian teen-angel had lived. I had not been back to that house since the day I was led from its charitable eaves by my apoplectic mother and it was pure chance that life took me back there many years later, long after I had moved away from the area. In truth, I had no idea I was anywhere near where I had experienced such a fearful moment in my life, so it was with some shock I recognised not just the house but also the railway arch nearby. After staring for a while at the house, I walked slowly to the archway, my mind swimming with long forgotten memories and emotions. To the obvious confusion of some passing ramblers, I carefully sat down and drew my knees up to my chin. It was a moment of quiet contemplation in which I could almost hear the sound of a small boy crying. In many ways it was quite cathartic. It reminded me that no matter how lost or afraid you might feel in your life, things are probably not as bad as you perceive them to be. It’s comforting to realise that despite all the negative media and hype in the world, the majority of us are good honest people, who invariably are prepared to help others even if there is no obvious benefit or reward in doing so. Maybe I’m putting too much faith in humanity being fundamentally altruistic, but I’d like to think I’m not. Either way, I know I learnt a valuable lesson all those years ago and I believe I’m a better person for it. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, my Spiderman dressing gown was completely ruined. A few days later though, neatly folded on my bed, I discovered a present from my mother. A brand new glorious set of blue and red Superman pyjamas, complete with cape. All was forgiven.