Let’s leave the adult world of money and mind games for a while. This is an exercise in time; or rather, this is an exercise in moving times around us. You are a child here in this world. It’s not a perfect place, that much should be said from the start, but it is a place of energy, of magic of a real persuasion (not the fabricated illusions of the screen), of circumstances and arrangements you don’t, as yet, have names for.
It’s a warm day today: there’s a breeze which you can only describe as soft. How else can you draw that feel? You stop in the street to think about the naming and drawing of things. The breeze has fingers at your neck and it tickles at your hair. It’s soft and you think of all the words that mean this and of all the words that are soft. The breeze has a smell, though you can’t name it. There are people in the street and they pass you by, move round you, muttering. You’re smiling because they don’t know what soft is.
By and by, some time on, you see roses. You wonder what they feel like, though you know that touching them will make them fall apart. You’re the master of the natural world: one touch or one breath from you and everything shifts. You tell the roses not to worry. Up close they have bugs in their petals. They’re curious to you, and they’re curious about you. One bug has a name though it’s a secret. You don’t touch the bugs because they have more legs than you care to care about.
Here is a wall. It isn’t very high and on the other side of it are empty things and broken things. Someone’s left them here and they may be back for them. People think it’s just rubbish, but you know that even rubbish belongs to someone. You look around and practice holding your breath. You climb the wall and balance there, still holding the urge to breathe out, breathe out. You hop and see if you can balance. From here you can see right into someone’s kitchen. They have dirty plates and so you look through the binoculars of your fingers to see what else they have.
When the dog barks suddenly, you don’t think: you jump. It’s one of those small vicious dogs, you know: you’ve heard that sound before. It’ll come skidding out, all teeth and yap and it won’t know you’re only looking. So you jump and run and you keep running until you can’t hear the dog any more. Even so, you’re wary. You know that dogs can come out of nowhere. So you squeeze through the fence of someone else’s garden, near where its trees back onto the woods beyond. You take the shortcut because the shortcut’s there. No-one sees.
In the woods you’re suddenly struck quiet by the colour up above. The sun is dripping through the leaves in glassy, shining lime arrangements. It’s like being under the sea (except the sea doesn’t have such colours, you know — you’ve seen the sea from above and you know it’s blue and dark green and white, and though it shines like tin foil it doesn’t drip). It’s more like being in a cave. There are bats nearby. There are rats and other creatures you have no names for. You take up a stick. It’s a solid stick, you find: you smack it against a tree trunk and it makes a thwacking sound but doesn’t break. It’ll be good enough for beating down creatures that have no names.
Every tree gets a good hard thwack. It’s a sound that pleases and it makes you smile. You swish it in the long grass and weeds. You need sticks in the world: they make good everythings — they measure the depth of the stream (and the stream turns the stick dark brown); they help you to walk; they let you poke at disgusting creamy off-white mounds of somethings that look like they used to be mushrooms. No creatures come after you.
There’s no-one here in the woods. It’s just you, and you need to pee. So you use the stream. You listen to the sprinkling on the water and you feel the breeze on your naked skin. The water is barely an inch or so deep here and there are stones that poke above the surface. There’s a silty mud like dirty sand and though the water is clear enough at the edges you don’t know how deep it goes farther out. There are bigger rocks and old branches nearby. So you gather things, thinking some vague plans of building a bridge. You try not to get your feet wet but that isn’t how it ends up. So you wade in because you’re wet anyway. The water slops around your ankles and makes your socks wet and heavy. The bridge turns into a way to try to stop the water coming through.
You work at it all afternoon, though there are always cracks and the water is too strong anyway. It doesn’t matter because it needs to be done. You move a tangle of bank scrub away to see what’s behind, and there’s something dead there. It takes you by surprise and you step away quickly. You’re wrinkling up your face and expressing all manner of loud revulsions. It’s putrefying and disgusting, so you get your stick and poke it. You daren’t go closer in case it does something. It doesn’t move but it stinks. You kick it and it squelches, so you cover it up quickly with a carrier bag you’ve found. You stare at the plastic grave you’ve made. It needs something else. You look around. It needs a stick. You find another one, not your good one which you can’t waste on this. You find this other stick, and you rip the end so it has a bit of a point, and you push it through the bag and the dead thing underneath. There’s not much resistance and you find you can push the stick right down to the mud. There. It’s pinned there now. It’s done. You turn your back and climb back up the bank.
At the top there’s a boy standing there looking at you. He’s about your age, though you know he’s not as smart. You can tell that by the way he’s just standing there looking at you with that ‘not as smart’ look on his face. ‘What?’ you say, but he doesn’t answer. Freak. Weirdo. You’re a little put out by him: it’s too odd that someone would just stand there and stare and not say anything. You feel a little scared but you don’t let him see it. You murmur ‘Fucko’ under your breath and hope that he does and that he doesn’t hear it. When he speaks he doesn’t speak very loud:
‘What did you call me?’
You feel the cold freeze in your veins. You don’t want to say it again. ‘Nothing. I didn’t say anything.’ There’s something about the way he doesn’t move that really troubles you. He just says quietly: ‘I’ve got a knife, you know.’ You don’t know. You just can’t tell. He could have a knife, or he could be lying. He has freak-weirdo’s hair and his eyes are too blue. He could be an alien, or a creature.
‘Yeh?’ you find yourself saying and it scares you that you’re saying it without your own permission. ‘Show me.’ So he shows you, just like that. It’s got a flick-blade and a red handle. He picks up a short stick and cuts it lengthways just like that, quickly and like the stick’s made of plasticine or something. ‘I kill squirrels with this,’ he tells you, and he isn’t lying now. You can tell. You want him to show you, and you don’t. ‘I have to go home,’ you say, and he laughs and mimics you. The boy sits down on the bank with his back to you. You watch him for a while, not going home because you can’t. He’s doing something but you can’t see.
‘What you doing?’
He doesn’t answer, so you ask again. ‘Nothing.’ He’s doing something though. You move closer and look over his shoulder and you see he’s sitting picking the wings off flying ants. You sit next to him. ‘You know that’s cruel?’
You don’t have an answer to this. You sit and watch the way the light falls in great chunks through the canopy of trees. The two of you spend a while there and end up throwing stones at trees on the other side of the stream. They land with satisfying clunks, and you progress to aiming at birds and other moving things in the undergrowth. ‘That was a cat,’ he tells you, though you can’t be sure because you don’t see it.
You both make sploshes of small rocks into the water for a while and then you have a sudden urgent need to leave. ‘I have to go now,’ you say.
You shrug. The boy gets to his feet and helps you up. ‘I’ll come,’ he says. He doesn’t know which way is your way, probably, but you don’t see a problem with it. You don’t say anything as you make your way: you hit every other tree with your stick because it’s still good; you trail your hand in the long stems of plants you don’t know the names of, and you smell your fingers; you think about nothing much. The boy finds his own stick, though it’s not as good as yours: he’s still a freak, though now you’re not as scared of him as you were . . .
This has been an exercise in time; or rather, this has been an exercise in moving times around us. Maybe it’s my own childhood swilling up to the surface, and it’s not a perfect place by any means (this is not intended as an exercise in rose-tintedness), but there is a kind of energy in ‘play that isn’t corroded by adults’. There is magic of a real persuasion; there are circumstances and arrangements we don’t, and maybe never will, have names for (if only we could name these: we could cut away all the adult rhetoric about play as learning tools, play to reduce obesity, encouraging co-operative play to combat anti-social behaviour, etc.)
Let’s think of time and magic.