BY JAPHY RYDER
Copyright is held by the author.
THEN OVER the groaning of the metal I hear a sharp “crack”. Or maybe a grinding “crunch”. It’s so hard to know. As well, do I now imagine a flimsy of thin skin, or did I imagine it then? And what about bone? I hear it now. That sound I know. Snapping back a chicken’s knuckle. Come to think of it, it’s actually the knee. A chicken’s knee cracked backwards to get at that last bit of meat. The knee not much bigger than a child’s finger joint. A knuckle. I know that now. But I’ll never really know if I knew it then.
First thing I think of is Mummy. Where’s my Mummy? A scream inside me, a vast, terrifying scream. Not sure if I’m more scared of what just happened, or the scream itself. I can’t let it out if she’s not here. But I can’t keep it in either because this time, I’ve never known this before, this time the fear has no bottom.
Although, of course, she’s not there. We’re not supposed to come to the park at break. She’s at home; we walk home together, hand-in-hand past the tall flowers outside the church hall on Lavender Hill. At least that’s what I always thought it was called, a blossoming street from an idyllic childhood. Checked a map the other day, it’s actually called Lancaster Road. Only goes to show. In my memory, hollyhocks tall and straight like the railings — but prettier. Delicate crepe-paper flowers dancing in the summer sky. Red and pink and every colour. They’re always there, but I don’t know how that can have been. Always summer, always blooming. Maybe the permanence was added after. Only now am I starting to figure out when it all ended.
It’s not sunny anymore. The sky is dark, windy. Colours leached, dark green and grey. Landscape with a playground ride, a roundabout with teeth. The steel lattice of the Witch’s Hat rust-brown like the earth, almost blue where the metal catches the light. Still spinning around, like a maypole but with bars instead of ribbons. Splashes of blood on the gravel must be red, but perhaps that too came later. Perhaps it was originally black, or at least looked that way. Perhaps I added the scarlet afterwards, like Spielberg added it to Schindler’s List. Perhaps all the colour, all the flowers, all the sunshine were added afterwards. Wishful thinking.
Dominic is screaming. I think I am too, but actually I’m in a nightmare. I fell into it the second I heard that sound. Like the time I came downstairs in the night and Mummy and Daddy were watching television and the man got shot and fell down and his blood spilled on the ground. They didn’t notice me until it was too late, until I’d already seen it, then Daddy flicked the television off. I’ve sometimes wondered if that was the moment it ended, but it wasn’t. Perhaps it was the beginning, though. More likely the actual moment was when I heard the crack and then Dominic fell to the ground. Or the crunch. When I clicked into some altered reality, what I think must have happened is my brain couldn’t accept it was happening. Flipped into a different mode, one of dark saturated colours with black blood splashing onto the ground. Too terrified to even have a reaction.
But of course the film on the television couldn’t have been in colour. That didn’t come till later. The dark, saturated colours of a neo-noir, I must have layered them on afterwards — the mahogany pool of blood on gravel from some thriller that I must have transposed.
Dominic fell. As soon as I heard the crack, or maybe the crunch, I looked up. I saw him let go of the bar with his other hand and his body fell like a puppet cut from its strings. It wasn’t really happening. His body bouncing on the bars below him then spinning around as if the Witch’s Hat was playing with him. Flipped him up in the air and threw him down on the gravel. “Don’t fuck with me,” it said, although again that might have come after.
Flashing lights, sirens like from the TV. A sound I must have heard before in my innocence, but this afternoon it’s like the first time. The first time in anger. Ambulance square, solid beside the empty round trellis of the Witch’s Hat. I don’t know how it got there — didn’t at the time and still don’t know. It must have come from somewhere, bouncing across the grass, but I didn’t see it. They kept the sirens on while they bundled Dominic onto a gurney and stuffed him into the back. I didn’t know it was called a gurney at that time, probably would have called it a bed on wheels. But I can tell you this much, since that day I’ve never set eyes on one without thinking of Dominic’s hand.
Mummy fetches me from school. Miss Smith gives me the afternoon off. We drive home a different way and don’t see the hollyhocks. Somewhere along the way I slip out of the horror movie and back into my life. But nothing is the same. Outside our house I look at the storm drain set back into the curb. I remember Uncle Charlie lifting up the cover, telling us to reach down — me and my little brother — telling us there’s real money flowing through the drain pipes. And we’re pulling out shillings, big round pennies, little silver sixpences. I think I even got a half a crown. That may have come later, that may have been added afterwards. But now, after the horror show in the park, it’s a world away. I’m on the other side of something, realizing there couldn’t possibly have been a river of money, suddenly understanding my uncle must have been dropping coins surreptitiously into the storm drain while me and my brother were on our hands and knees, combing through the sand and the gravel.
Of course I wouldn’t have used a word like “surreptitiously”, but I do believe I had the general concept in mind. As far as I remember, I wasn’t a particularly stupid child. But however it came to me, I knew that something had changed, as if the horror movie had subsided but its stain had remained.
I’ve always wondered, does what we see and hear in films count as memories? What we feel while we’re watching them? Although in my mind this works the other way around too. Maybe it’s memories that resemble movies, hovering between fact and fiction, changing meaning each time we run them again. But when to date them — when they’re made or when we watch them?
Back home I sit on the sofa. Mummy’s in the kitchen speaking on the telephone. I think I must be in trouble. Now the horror show has stopped I can think again. I think about Dominic, but the only thought comes is that it wasn’t me. I’m not sure that’s ever really changed.
Opposite me on the wall is a big picture Daddy hung over the fireplace. We got it from the sale at the church hall. Although I didn’t know it then, it’s called “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”. Colours heavy and saturated, dark green and grey, with a splash of red. Only the ploughman’s shirt is red. But I’m not interested in the labourers in the foreground. It’s the little figure splashing into the ocean at the bottom right that catches my attention. It’s always that way, probably is for all of us. I think about getting up, walking across the living room and standing on tip-toe to see if I can reach him, or maybe even try to clamber up on the coal scuttle to see if I can touch him with my own fingers. Risky, I know. Something tells me this might not be the day.
We knew we weren’t supposed to go to the playground at break. But we also knew the big kids did, and all we wanted was to be like them. I think that’s true. That’s probably still true. What we only partly knew was it wasn’t just teachers that hand out punishment — that the swings and roundabouts could get you too. Most of all the Witch’s Hat. I heard they banned them years ago. Playing on something like that without a grown-up around would be stupid.
I’m sitting at the at the bottom of the spinning frame, afraid to climb up. I’m remembering it now and I’m pretty sure I was then too, sitting on the sofa while my Mummy called Daddy at his work. I’m sitting on the wooden bench that runs all around the rim of the hat, all the way around underneath the metal bars. A cone shape, Miss Smith taught us that, a cone shape perched on a tall pole. Like a huge pointed hat spinning round. Where I’m sitting, I can kick the ground every time we spin around. Lop-sided, the whole thing lurching around on top of some great big metal bearing at the top. That for sure I’ve made up. That came afterwards. That’s the bit I didn’t understand at the time, the mechanics of it, the nuts and bolts if you like, and for sure Dominic didn’t know either.
He’s climbing up the metal bars, up towards the top. While I’m sitting down on the wooden rim kicking us faster and faster, he’s clambering up. That’s the real fun. The faster we go, the harder it is to stay hanging on. Giddy, we called it then. I don’t know if people use that word anymore; they might say dizzy, but I know we said giddy. It was a way to get high, like nothing mattered, like nothing was real. Round and round. Higher and higher.
I don’t think Dominic was any different from the rest of us. Just wanted to get to the top. This I know I’ve not invented, because I can still see him in my mind’s eye climbing up towards that grey sky, hanging heroically onto the bars, giddy with the motion, the centrifugal force pulling his head back. Another word we didn’t know then.
I don’t see it. The first I know of it is the sound. He’s reaching for the top, then I look down to kick the ground faster. The rest came to me later. Him reaching up, fighting the centrifugal force, fighting the giddy. Or maybe riding on it — riding on both those intoxicants. His hand reaching for the top, I see it swerve. That’s what I see, like it pulled him in. His little hand, tender, thin-skinned, soft-boned. That’s why I still doubt what I heard. Old bones, old chicken bones, make a crack. But this would have been more like a crunch. Cold metal on warm bone. Maybe even a grinding sound. Then screaming.
I guess we could insert it anywhere — the date our innocence passes away. The date bright hollyhocks become winter stalks. The date a river of gold becomes a sleight of hand. The date you learn that reaching for the stars has its flip side.
For me it’s that sound. That’s the pivot point.