From Chapter 2 of “Here Am I Sitting in my Tin Can”
I’m sure it was Diantha who said the birds are dead. I’m sure and not so sure of other things too as I rattle along up the A591 to Windermere. I’m sure her father was right that I should leave her behind, but I’m not sure I was right to obey him because I still love her. This is what I’m thinking as I travel along, paying no attention to the signs that tell me where I am – Burneside, Bowston, Staveley, Ings – and not even remembering where it was I stopped by for wine.
When I arrive at Windermere it’s late in the afternoon and the sun beats down heavily, casting shadows like ghosts through the trees in the bay I’ve chosen for my bed. The water is calm and massive, stretching far ahead as if the lake is an uncoiled snake of river.
I need to eat and so I do, choosing one of Tiddle’s pies to warm up and go with my plonk; it’s comfort eating of the worst and best kind, shit to do me good before I have a joint and watch the sandpipers needlework their way along the shore just below me.
Nostalgia, according to someone I read, is not what it used to be in the good old days, but it’s good for me in this moment, thinking back to days when we held hands, when we pretended to be punks, kissed till our lips were sore, and enjoyed the first fumbling breaking of virginities.
When I embarked on this journey I made sure I had certain things with me, a box of memories of times past, photographs, trinkets, letters and stories written by others and someone else namely me…
“I was eight years old a latch-key kid in half-mast trousers the day the birds died and I went to hell. I’d been to school and got in trouble, hauled out of assembly for adapting the Lord’s prayer – Our Father who farts in heaven – and Mr McDonald half-dragged half-carried me back to the classroom where I was made to face the wall the rest of the day and miss dinner, and even when I asked to use the toilet I was refused so shat my pants. In that undignified protest I stole my chance during afternoon break and walked with small steps out of the classroom and out of school completely. My mum was at work and dad ran out on us the year before so it was ok, I’d join Tiddle and the older kids who truanted.
So I wheeled my bike from the shed and rode it, pants full of drying cack, to Peacock Farm. On the way I saw Diantha coming back and she stopped, using her shoes as brakes. “The birds are dead,” she said.
At Peacock Farm there was a barn we made a den of, and Gilbert and the others, some eight years older than Tiddle and me, caught two baby sparrows, put them in a wooden box and overnight underneath lit a candle to keep them warm. But they perished and it was up to Diantha to eulogise.
When I got there, Tiddle and the rest of the boys had gone, only Gilbert remained, and we scooped the baby birds one each and performed a burial then lit cigarettes he’d stolen from the village shop.
“What’s that stink?” he said as we sat to smoke, “Have you shit yourself?”
“No,” I lied.
“You have, you dirty little fucker,” he said, grabbing my throat and adding that people who shit themselves are destined for hell and no wonder my dad ran out on us. Reminded horribly of what Mr McDonald had said about those who take the Lord’s name in vain, I was now convinced it was true – I was going to hell. That night if I slept I’d wake up dead like the birds. I couldn’t go home. So when it was dusk and even Gilbert had pedalled off I stayed in the barn, eyes wide open, refusing to go to sleep, listening to the peacocks that were living there cry.
At home, my mother had returned from work to find it empty; the latch-key kid nowhere to be seen. At first she reflected this was normal, the boy would often go roaming and come back when his belly needed filling, but as time ticked on she got worried then desperate then definite that terrible things were happening to her boy, the distant peacocks’ cries were his. Then there was a visit from Mr McDonald who told her the boy had been in trouble for profanity and had walked out of school uninvited, and that was the nail in his coffin as far as she could see. With profuse apologies on her son’s behalf, she deftly employed the neighbours to go in search, heading automatically and hopefully for the cries. Under interrogation, Tiddle had spilled the beans about the den in the barn, the barn we would a later day burn down.
Which was where the boy sat, smelling himself, shifting uncomfortably as the stool in his pants hardened and went sharp, trying to stay awake, for hours seeming like days and nights, until he heard voices and spied through a crack in the wood some shards of light from torches. And that was how he was found.
Safely delivered to his mother, he cried into her breast, saying he was sorry he killed the birds and took the Lord’s name in vain and made his dad go missing, but he cacked his pants because Mr McDonald wouldn’t excuse him so couldn’t come home.
When all was said and done, the woman was glad to have her latch-key kid back in her arms and cleaned him up and let him sleep with her that night, to reassure him it wasn’t his fault there was a space in her bed, as far as she was concerned his dad was dead. If anyone was going to hell it was that bugger, or Mr McDonald, and tomorrow the latch-key kid would go to school accompanied by a note saying stiffly that in future if her boy wanted to use the toilet he should be granted permission and that’s the end of it.
And thus I finally slept, safe in the knowledge that while there’d be no tomorrow for the sparrows or my dad the bugger, there would be a tomorrow for me.”
While it makes me giggle to smoke and read this, it also makes me think again about the things I do and do not know. Sure there’s truth in the story and I now know it was Diantha who said the birds are dead. And I like the idea of knowing there’ll be a tomorrow. But as for what tomorrow brings I do not know. This whole fucking journey is doing weird things to me. It’s as if I’m a giggling boy in a man’s body, living the past and trying to make sense of it all, weighing up the knowing and the not. It’s like the whole thing’s a journey towards finding answers about who I am and why I became who I am. Is this what nostalgia is?
In my box of memories I have a school photograph, and there is Diantha standing out and standing in the back row, smiling tooth- and beautifully in a yesterday. But I wonder how many tomorrows will she have, and what will she become when there are no more? A primrose pressed in a book, a story told. And me? I am not in the picture, because that day I was the boy who went missing, like perhaps I am the boy who’s gone missing today.