Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Even On The Quietest Street

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.


vegemitevix said...

This post leaves me breathless Steve. Thank God you and your sister were ok. When we look back on our experiences as children we often find the truth that childhood was as fraught with dangers as adulthood has been, it's just we didn't know it then. Innocence may well be bliss, but it can also be dangerous. Whilst in Italy we took the Night Train down to Rome from Venice, in an experience that reminded me of similar stunts I pulled when I was a 20 yr old backpacker in Thailand. The train was full of the very dregs of society, and yet in the middle of it all were two young slim pretty French girls. I bet their parents had no idea about how much danger they were in, just as my parents didn't know all those years ago when I was in Thailand.

Between Me and You said...

Slimy,greaseball,scum-of-the-earth predators are everywhere and your big brother sensible instinct kicked-in when you sensed something was not-quite-right. Good for you and lucky Karen to have such a caring Big Bro. I bet your Mum knew all about it alright - Mums generally find those kind of things out one way or another and she'd have been keeping her own silent vigil unbeknowns to you litte 'uns.
Another great post, Steve and definitely food for thought.

Very Bored in Catalunya said...

Wow, reading this really sent chills down my spine. Thank God you found your sister when you did.

London City (mum) said...

Steve - fabulous post, the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up. It is both unsettling and unnerving to recall events such as this one, and you can only comment, "There but for the grace of God, go I..."


Keith said...

That is a very unsettling story.

And well told.

Have you considered this as the basis for a short film script ?

Steve said...

Vix: when we're young we just don't see the dangers that are around us. Sometimes that saves us from them; sometimes not.

Nana Go-Go: I'll have to speak to my mum about it and see what she recalls. I'm very aware that memory is a very personal thing and I could be interpreting many things about what I remember inaccurately. My feelings about it all were true though.

Very Bored in Catalunya: even as young as I was I felt we'd had a lucky escape at the time.

LCM: absolutely. Thank you.

Keith: thank you - I am considering it as a short story actually.

Nota Bene said...

How lucky she lucky you all were...I could picture it all so clearly in my head...

Steve said...

Nota Bene: what is weird for me looking back on it is that, overall, I would say we (my sisters and I) had a very safe childhood... and then out of the blue something like this comes back to me.

Wanderlust said...

That bad feeling you had as a kid? That instinct? That is what saved your sister. We all have that barometer within us, but we dull it with overlays of internal voices telling us to be polite or give someone a chance. But it's always right. It always has our best interests in mind. But those of us who listen to that voice (and by us I mean you, as I spent a great deal of my life ignoring it) will always be well served. Our lives will be measured, perhaps silently, by the things that never happened.

Steve said...

Wanderlust: you are so right. We all of us ignore that small quiet voice inside us to our own peril... we do it most as adults, not so much as kids. I wonder why, as we get older, we teach ourselves to ignore what is there for our benefit?

John Going Gently said...

children today are not allowed to go with their feelings and intuition anymore.. such is the paranoia of modern parents who do not trust kids to the dangers that have always been there in our world but which unfortunately are nowadays reported upon with what seems like joyous abandon by the press.

kids can be wise little souls...especially when they are allowed to be

the fly in the web said...

I had no bad experiences as a child...nor did anyone that I knew....but my father told me that if i felt something was wrong, get away as fast as possible.

Never mind polite, obedient, manners....just get out of it.

He was a dour man, not fanciful, but said his instincts had preserved him many times in his life and they were not to be ignored...they were the bit of the brain civilisation put to sleep to enable societies to work....but they were for the protection of the individual.

I've no idea of the scientific validity of his view...but it makes sense to me.

Fran Hill said...

Well told. This is why I think the demonisation of one or two as 'monsters' in the news doesn't help anyone - most abuse happens either in the home or close to it - neighbours/uncles/friends etc.

Steve said...

John: it's all about teaching kids to listen to their internal voice rather than doing what grown-up say just because a grown-up says so.

The fly in the web: your father was a wise teacher and I'd listen to his advice with or without empirical proof.

Fran: yep, abduction from the street is quite rare... in most cases their is some sort of established relationship of trust.

Katriina said...

This post chilled me to the core, Steve. Beautiful writing. I felt as though I was right there.

Steve said...

Katriina: thank you.

Catching the Magic said...

Chilling. Thank God for gut instincts and having the awareness to trust and listen to the inner voice. A difficult story to write, especially being so personal to you, but an important one to be told.

Steve said...

Sarah: it's only looking back on it now with a grown-up's perspective that I realize how precarious the situation was.

Being Me said...

That thing you felt, the urgency of getting your sister to come back to your world... I've felt that. I ignored that as a kid. I've spent the past 10 years retraining myself to stop ignoring it and now it is back to being a natural instinct.

Kids should never be separated from what you had there. And I'll put money on it still being there in you - as an adult we are probably more consciously aware of when we *don't* follow that instinct. But as children, the very best gift we can be given is to be reassured to damn well follow it and let it serve us well. I really love how Fly In The Web put it.

And yes, so brilliantly written Steve. I don't think I breathed reading it. Short story/short film script material for sure. Well done you.... on all counts xx

The Sagittarian said...

Gotta love gut instincts eh! Reminded me of The Lovely Bones where you can clearly tell that the poor kid doesn't want ot be where she is but her instincts kicked in too you know whatever happened to the creepy old man??

Steve said...

Being Me: have to say, every time I've ignored a gut instinct things have not gone well. It should be so simple but sometimes are insticts tell us things that seem so counter-intuitive (if you like) at the time. We really do need to learn how to trust ourselves.

Amanda: I have no idea. We never saw him again. Things like that were brushed well under the carpet back then. I daresay he is long dead.