It is just a place, me and the other grubby children with dirty faces playing down the park or on the green. Stopping for cars, our little junction serving as our centre court had few interruptions and rain only stopped play when our mothers said so. We ran, rode our bikes, never new but often shiny, played football badly and dreamed of stadiums somewhere with posh sounding names. We talked with walkie talkies till they got out of range, we ran to the shops round the corner our pocket money jangling along. The treasured haul that didn’t last the hour.
We paid no attention to those faceless streets, the endless same of council dreary that has not changed in twenty years. Back then it was a blank canvas on which we painted our dreams for so short a while. We laughed and chattered; busy little bees, no idea that the place, was not our toy or precious painting, but something rather insidious instead. As time passed, we played less and less, the walkie talkie batteries never replaced. My best friend moved away after he was not allowed to play with me. I never found why and he never gave his walkie talkie back either. Someone said it was because he was Catholic, but I really never knew what that meant or why I didn’t get my walkie talkie because of it.
As I grew older my mother kept me in, set rigid curfews and precise boundaries. I went to places I shouldn’t but I always came back on time. I thought it rather draconian and I learned to stay inside, going out became a fight. I am glad of the days no mobile phone or I would had to check in regularly as well. It wasn’t just the leaving, the endless questions surrounding the when, where, who and intention of my departure. Hanging out was not even close to a good reason, that got you home by 8pm latest did that one. 9pm was always it, or as it came to be, just when something interesting might happen.
House arrest got easy, a computer and games. TV, like going out, was fraught with danger, watch the wrong thing and no TV, no TV meant no games. My mother thought a week was a short time too. I got the message loud and clear, I flicked on and was trying to work out what the program was, when my mother looked in, instantly recognised a banned program, and it was gone. Today I wonder how she knew, and why she thought I would watch it with my door open right in front of the stairs so you could see when you came up? She never said, and I knew not to ask or argue, that only made things worse. My father, bless his heart, got it down to just a week from the month it had been. He never told me, I never knew he had my back like that.
Locked away, watching the sea of back gardens from my window, reduced to set places and set times, known routines and familiar places. The estate where I once played took on a menacing air. Across the road became darker and fraught with danger, the park, my football ground, with makeshift hosepipe swing over a little brook, became off limits and out of bounds. I looked in and wondered some days, even when the fence was nothing more than posts in the ground, I never stepped in not once. I missed a lot perched on my little island. The place never changed, nothing changed. The dull dreary sullen bricks indifferent to it all, a life or death equally insignificant to those cold and damp council walls. The houses frowned, and I joined in, head hanging down hoping no one would see me. Those kids who once made up another team, or the Indians to our Cowboys never spoke a word, I learned silence.
I came to be the place I grew up, there but not part of anything, sullen and detached from what was real and was makebelieve. The world of suits, careers and briefcases in another world from mine. Like clean windows and brand new cars, work was rare and never lasted long. Whatever a career was, it could be, if you were lucky, a ticket to somewhere better. Not sure where better was, how to get there or what it looked like. It had to be good because they never came back. I had no idea what drugs were, but they sounded fun, I was told of prison, but it didn’t sound that bad, they seemed to get meals they chose and allowed outside. I heard stories that people got jobs when they got out too, I wondered why school was considered such a great option quite a lot as well. Rules and constraints.
I stood outside my house, where the skip that took my childhood away once stood. Thankfully the new owners were out, like when I left the gate wasn’t fitted, and the grass could have done with a cut and tidy. The Hedge seemed neater and the little walkway to the front door had shrunk from the wide expanse of those childhood days. The windows had changed, and the front door too, but they still frowned and looked familiar to those that I drudged home to so many times. You never ran, late was late from one minute to an hour. And hour was better, you had a better time and you could say you misread the time, rushing in 1min past meant you had tried it on. It got easier to stay inside, no internet, no people, no pressure.
Going outside was not only navigating the barrage of questions when you wanted to go out, it was the interrogation when you returned. Where had you been, what had you done, what had you said, and I learned that a simple account was not enough you had to know why. Staying home was easy, reading a book was easy, sleeping was easy. I was like my house, just enduring, staying the course not out of any conscious will but because I was made that way and so had no choice in the matter.
I am standing on my old drive, I am 12. I can stand where my Dad hit me, I can stand where my mother dressed me down. I can stand where I wasn’t good enough and where I had let everybody down. I can stare at where all hope was lost and my dreams were dashed. I can stand where laughter became tears, and friendships disappeared, I can stand where triumph turned to dread, I am standing where the skip that took my childhood away stood.
Like the place, I am standing where I grew dreary, weary of life just after it had started, and it was quiet. As a child sirens had never wailed, when you heard one it was always barely a whisper, and it was the same that day, nothing, no birds singing no dogs barking, everyone knows to be quiet here. The police never came to where I grew up, and the buses stopped when it got dark as long as I remember. I drove down the road I had walked on all those school days, completely different with the park gone and the houses now generic and the same, but I knew where I was, it felt the same. Driving to that house my heart grew cold and I braced a little out of instinct.
Worse happened in other houses, the walls they didn’t care. The roads sauntered on past, indifferent to us all like those they carried.
I stood in the place, the place I grew up, it was never home. People called it home not out of belonging or pride, more from a sense of the alternative, homeless. I stood there with my wife, and she stood knowing much more than I realised about the little boy of 12 still standing there not knowing why. The place speaks, like it speaks to everyone, no one here is home. This place was just that, a place. A station platform, only the homeless stayed, everyone else moved on, either back or forward, but no one chose to stay.
At 16 I moved away and by 17 in my own flat a long way from the little street of my childhood. I broke away and so I went to school, but never hold a job for long. Moved around, had jobs and money, lost jobs and money. Owned a house and had a mortgage once but the Council estate brought me home. This time most of the country from the place where I grew up, a dreary house on a faceless road, different but same. So familiar, the distant sirens, the roads that didn’t care and walls that could speak of horrors but like the people didn’t dare. There was a broken telly, and grass that needed cutting, something felt familiar. I stayed there for 5 years, the longest I stayed anywhere.
One day, in that foreign land, I stood, inside, and looked out across the river, to houses just like mine, just as dreary and equally as weary in a place I called home.