There was a summer when I was no more than 7 or 8 that me and my sister, Karen, were allowed to play out in the street with some of the other kids that lived nearby. We were only allowed to play within a clearly defined area though – Waller Street, Wathen Road and Campion Road but no further than Brownlow Street. This boxed us in nicely to our own locale; a residential area where we were never more than 400 yards from home. The streets were straight, quiet and formed a little square meaning it would be impossible for us to get lost.
This summer sticks in my mind because it was the only time we were ever allowed to play out in the street. It is only years later and recalling what occurred that I can understand why this freedom was never granted us again.
I can’t remember the faces or names of the other kids we played with. One of them may have been our neighbour’s daughter, Sarah, who at 9 was deemed grown-up enough to watch over us. The other kids may have been friends of hers, I’m not sure.
Our games consisted of lots of chasing, a visit to the sweet shop for those of us lucky enough to have 10p to spend – more than enough money in those days to buy a decent bag of sweets – and the inevitable hide and seek.
Even at the time I felt uneasy about being separated from my sister. It felt wrong. I was sure my mum would not approve of it. I was the eldest, I should be looking after her and to do that we needed to stick together. To be wandering alone, hiding from each other felt very wrong.
I may have let myself be caught or perhaps just bottled it 5 minutes into the game and gave myself up. I just knew I had to find Karen.
I found the others first. I know this because I remember there was a little huddle of us gathered by the back gate of the old man’s house where one of my friends had found my sister.
I have no idea who he was. His face is lost to me now but I remember he was tall and thin and had a wheedling voice. He was stood outside his backdoor with my sister close by urging her to come inside his house and hide.
Karen seemed undecided, she wasn’t moving either to leave or to go inside. I suppose now she may just have been confused or scared. Either way she was not fit to make the decision.
The old man didn’t have horns or sharp teeth. He didn’t smell or swear or look particularly rough. He was just old and strangely urging.
But I remember vividly the bad feeling I had when I saw him standing over my sister. Karen was in his backyard, a mere couple of metres away, but it felt like miles. Like she was in a different country altogether. A country I had to get her out of.
Even with us other kids present the old man persisted with his pleading for her to hide inside his house; she’d be safe there, he said, he’d look after her. It was a good hiding place.
Looking back on it now this just confirms to me that my instincts were right. His eagerness to separate her from the rest of us... there is not a reason on this earth that could possibly be good or wholesome or innocent for that to be OK.
I was speaking before I knew it. We had to get home, I said. Mum was waiting. We had to go. Now.
Karen walked back to us and it felt like something huge had brushed past us, impossibly close but not quite touching.
I remember the man calling after us... we could all come inside if we wanted. We could all play. But his voice was faint. We were already walking away, heading back to the comparative safety of Waller Street.
I don’t remember telling my mum what had happened but I think the story must have got back to her somehow. We never played in the street again and after a while we stopped asking to.
That summer was special. Mostly because of what didn’t happen.
Some kids don’t have summers like that.