A new short story from 12NOW writer Claire Savage recalls the thrill of childhood adventure and exploration, the joys – and dangers – of nature and the supernatural, as well as lamenting over the impermanence of our childhood playgrounds.
There was a time when the fields were an adventure waiting to be lived. We hunkered down among the cool green blades, smoothing out a space for ourselves as if we were a fox or some other wild creature.
Down there, the world took on a different perspective. Everything stilled and fell to a slower pace, the birdsong muffled and sounded further away than it ever had before; the sun lost in the dewy succulence of this little oasis. The soil revealed now the myriad life forms that scuttled and crept and slithered around in it. Up close, nose to ground, there was an abundance of joy to be found that others trampled upon without thought.
The breeze made the grass sway as if it was enjoying a slow waltz and perhaps it was, for it had all the time in the world to dance and we were not brazen enough to suppose that we knew its secrets.
Sometimes, buttercups grew in amongst the grass, hidden near the roots, their silky golden petals like treasure unearthed. We used their magic to see if we liked butter or not, jutting out our chins to find the answer to what we already knew.
To lie back upon the grass in those secret spots, blades long enough to tower over us and offer sufficient camouflage, was to look upon endless skies of blue and characterful clouds—this one resembling a running dog, that one a dragon, or a giant face, or a pig. If you looked long enough at them, eventually they contorted and dispersed, vital elements of their features breaking up into new likenesses. It required a skillset of patience and perseverance however, to identify these new creations, so it all depended on what sort of things were happening in the day and whether you were willing to wait it out.
Behind this particular field—at the very top—lay a glade of bluebells, which brought a special kind of magic to that pocket of green when they bloomed every spring. As if to taunt us however, the area was sealed off by a wire fence strewn with barbs and surrounded on each side by thick hedges festooned with all manner of thorny appendages.
All the same, a small hand could be poked through the wire just far enough to grab a few stems, though we seldom did it in truth, for it had the air of a fairy place and we feared the wrath of the wee folk if we dared to steal their flowers. Sure, didn’t they use those frilly blue petals to make dresses sewn together with spider silk, and drink the dew that collected upon them every morning? Didn’t those dainty bells ring out under the glow of the full moon, calling the fairies to their revelries? It would have been a foolish child indeed who sought to deprive them of their dancing, so the bluebells were appreciated as much as they could be, without snapping their stalks.
Halfway down that field grew a tree with a long and low-hanging branch that was the perfect height for three or four children to scramble onto and sit quite comfortably upon. It creaked to and fro in the wind and was thick and gnarled, yet it always held fast, nestling its charges in the crook of its arm. Nearby, a stone watering trough gurgled, the source of a cool drink for any cattle which happened to be occupying the field at the time. The water was still and clear, until we stirred it up with sticks and twigs, unsettling the mud that had collected at the bottom and sending small invertebrates scuttling for cover.
Sodden leaves were often fished out of the trough when we were feeling generous, for we marvelled at how any cow could find that murky liquid appealing to drink, even on a warm summer’s day. It was shaded by a line of trees, which afforded us ample opportunity to slip through the hedgerow at this communal watering hole, emerging relatively unscathed into the adjoining field. This one was occasionally let out to horses and, bordering the road at the other side like it did, was less attractive to us adventurers, who preferred the wildness of our own field, with its surrounds of country lane, fairy glade and shady trees.
So, if we crossed over, it was only to loiter at the other side of the trough, conversing, to the distant observer, like a group of old maids and men. Those words we spoke are lost now, like the field which coloured so many of our days, absorbed perhaps into the soil and hidden deep underground. What stories we shared is anyone’s guess, but with our mixings and stirrings we liked to suppose we were concocting spells and enchantments, though what we hoped those might have been is knowledge long spirited away by the wind.
When we moved, it was to a farmhouse overlooking an expanse of green, fields stretching down to the main road so far below. In truth, there were but two large fields between us and the road, but to us, it was miles away from where we sat watching over our land like sultans. It was our kingdom, fresh for exploring, with open space before us, behind us and beside us. There were mysterious country lanes to trek and gates to climb; hedges with holes for shimmying through and fresh creases to be made among this lush new grass.
When the time came to cut and bale the fruit of the fields, we waited until the workers had gone, then sought out the bales in their smooth black finery, jumping from one to the other in the corner of the yard, or better still, in the seclusion of the silo halfway down the lane—a straight sprint across the field behind our house.
It lay at the bottom of a sweeping slope of concrete that was perfect for freewheeling down on a bike. Past a clutch of disused outhouses and an abandoned cottage that screamed witch’s hideout, we would find the batch of bales and skip up onto them with unbridled glee, never doubting our acrobatic talents or fearing a fall. Slippages were few and far between and never serious, for we were masters of our craft and nimble as field mice.
On the way down to this private playground, the field to our left was borderless, the concrete lane opening onto the land without wire or gate—a feature which reminded us of those big American plains we’d see on TV, especially when the corn was planted and swayed in the breeze, its golden ears chattering secrets to the wind. It was both beautiful and somehow terrifying.
Only a clot of trees guarded this borderless plain three quarters of the way down, four weathered beasts with knotted roots and nooks and crannies fit for fairies. We built a ring of stone at the base of two of these giants, our smokeless fires cooking up feasts of twigs and furry moss, along with leaves and any other detritus we could lay our hands on. We sat among the roots and rested our backs against the trunks, dangling our legs over the side, for the trees grew on their very own verge, a small drop away from that lolling concrete tongue.
Those spots were perfectly moulded, as if made especially for us, so well did they shape themselves for children to climb and snuggle into, giving us views ahead and behind of the fields which grew around us like guards, sheltering us from the atrocities of the urban world, where a park with a square of shorn grass was often all the green its residents had to play upon. We were ignorant of the loss they sustained, yet fully appreciative of our own lush haven.
Time rippled onwards and soon, the clatter of rails beneath me had become part of the soundtrack to my life. Up and down to the city I went, fields flying past my window as I pursued my fledgling career. The buzz of the capital had for the moment, won me over, and I spent most of my time now hopping on and off trains and buses, dashing through the streets and dodging shoppers, students and businessmen.
It was a routine that was to become the norm for the next few years—moving from building to building; from one overheated enclosed space with ugly architecture to the next. The train afforded one of the few opportunities to reacquaint myself, if only from a distance, with what had once been like oxygen to my soul.
Years later and I wonder at my deflection—short-lived as it was—to a place ruled by concrete and disillusionment. I scuttled through the streets like some creature whose rock had been overturned, blinded by the false light and desperate for another shelter, while somehow still enticed to run deeper away from the very thing I craved. Though I hardly knew it at the time, such was the allure of the hitherto unknown, and the mistaken belief that one had followed the ‘right path’ at that fork in the road.
Often, the best experiences in life come from stepping off that path.
When I returned, an obscenity of red brick had squashed my childhood.
It squatted like a toad on land where once, I’d sprinted and leapt my way across grass that tickled my thighs, the whistle of the wind in my ears, the warmth of the sun on my back. It was a time and a place now that existed only in my memory and I wondered if our meddling, however slight, with the fairy flowers had resulted in the wipe-out, thought I knew in my rational adult mind that of course, it had not.
The wee folk would never have destroyed their own secret place because of childish antics.
It was, however, no longer. It had become a plot and the plot was without story, or rather, it told a story I no longer knew. This unhomely giant made our wild adventure playground seem suddenly smaller than the one which lived in my thoughts. It had displaced our world and erected an alien one upon it.
I never lingered and once seen, failed to study it further. I had no desire to imagine where all had been—to sketch an invisible blueprint upon the landscaped scene before me. There was no need. The story I sought was imprinted upon my mind. All I had to do to find it was follow the flattened grass to that shady spot beneath the trees.