Last week some of the children found a dead pigeon on the playground. Well, to be honest, it was somewhat generous to give what was left the name of ‘pigeon’ because of the general carnage. A fox or a cat must have got it, I reckoned. I hadn’t seen it earlier, as I’d walked around the empty playground. When I’d got over to a couple of excitable children stood near the equally dead vestiges of the previous night’s bonfire, one of them was saying, ‘Look, there’s a leg, and over there’s the other leg, and a wing.’ That was about all that was left of the meat of it. There were feathers scattered at the burnt-out edge of the charcoal. Bits of bloodied sinew flopped from the dismembered legs.
I asked the children what they were going to do with it. They didn’t have a plan as yet. Some of their friends walked by outside the fence shortly before coming in, and the boys shouted out the find to them. They said they’d wait to show the others. I expected some sort of grave might be dug. Perhaps they might scoop out the middle of the charcoal of the previous night’s bonfire, deposit the bits of bird in there, and cover it over. I didn’t expect a solemn affair, though you never know. The playground has seen a few such graves or funerals over the years. Stories occasionally surface about such places or times. There was the bird that got a grave up on the slope behind the fire pit. There was the filmed funeral for some sort of creepy crawly behind the hammock swing, years ago (now, was it a butterfly or a caterpillar, a spider, or something else?). Stories of stories not experienced first hand can have a tendency to transform, if the teller isn’t careful. There was the grave dug for the ‘accidentally dropped’ phone, and there was the funeral procession for the cardboard box. There have been more.
Last week’s bird I expected to get a grave, but as far as I’m aware this didn’t happen. I sat back, at a distance I hoped was well enough out of the way. I was trying to observe, whilst another child asked me what it was I was doing: so I told her I thought that what they were doing was interesting. Why? she asked. I didn’t feel it proper to go into any level of analysis with her. As my focus returned fully to the episode of the bird at the burnt-out bonfire, I saw a boy come back to the scene waving a litter picker in the air. He was pulling and releasing the trigger over and over. I didn’t feel he’d be tidying up though. Sure enough, the dismembered wing was picked up in the litter picker and waved about. Then it was used to try to tease either the children on the nearby cantilever swing or my colleague who was pushing it. A saw came out but I couldn’t work out what the idea might be, and this was discarded again soon enough. After a short while, with no-one really being too disturbed by having a dismembered wing shoved close to their face on the end of a litter picker, the children tumbled off elsewhere, downing tools in the grass. The bird didn’t get its grave, I don’t think.
There is a certain fascination with dead things from certain children, just as there is a certain fascination with live things by those same or other children. The bird didn’t look too much like a bird by the time the children had found it, and I wonder if they had had any notion of the colossal scrap that must have happened for it to end up that way. Would that have made any difference to the way they’d played? I’m unsure what ‘dead’ means to children. It can be a difficult enough concept for many adults.
In the often abstract — though still somewhat symbolic — world of children’s play, ‘the dead’ is a motif that tends to come up time after time in various guises. It can be direct and it can be less so. After the bird-pickers had left the scene last week, and as I went up the slope to retrieve the discarded saw, a couple of girls who hadn’t been involved gravitated round me. We talked about how I wasn’t feeling well as of late and how I was finding it difficult to breathe and talk and do things. The conversation turned, morbidly enough, to something along the lines of ‘perhaps you’ll die’. It was matter-of-fact. What can you say to that? Short of getting all morose with them about the fate of all of us (sorry!), I just said, ‘Well, um, thanks mate, but don’t worry. I’m not going to die.’
‘Good,’ she told me. ‘I like you as a worker.’
‘What about as a person?’
‘Yes, that as well.’
I digress. ‘The dead’ was a direct conversation, though even so, it may be difficult to imagine what that actually means. Maybe this is why children play with such concepts in other ways. Maybe this is why they bury birds, or insects, or accidentally dropped phones, or bits of dismembered electrical equipment. Maybe this is why funerals for cardboard boxes happen.
The motif of ‘the dead’ emerges in other ways as well. These ways, however, somewhat side-step the whole point of what ‘dead’ is. Currently, children on the playground are playing variations of the classic chase-tap game (versions where playworkers are necessary as the chasers), but these variations include being hunted by werewolves, or vampires, or zombies, or combinations thereof. It’s the vestiges of Halloween’s shadow hanging around. Sometimes there are ghosts. These fantastical arrangements are all either of ‘the dead’ or ‘the undead’ or both. What ‘dead’ means though, let alone what ‘undead’ might mean, is side-stepped.
Children also cheat when they play these games: it’s part of the way to play, and it’s expected that they’ll do it anyway. When they get caught and ‘bitten’ by the vampire, they find a way to talk themselves out of it. Werewolves and zombies seem to fair no better. If there are guns or swords involved, children always seem invincible. The idea of ‘the dead’ is in and around these forms of play, but there’s always a way to cheat it. Invincibility (and perhaps the gift of the gab too) is a power, a mastery, taking control of things that would, otherwise, win.
I’ve seen plenty of play involving the motif of ‘the dead’: the teddy bear speared by a pole and soaked in red; the ‘dead’ electrical equipment spattered in red paint, having fallen from the bench; the chalk line outlines of people, arms out, one leg up at an angle, on the paving slabs; the effigy of ‘the silver man’ burnt on the bonfire (killing someone the children had, that day, been warned by school about); the ‘Charlie’ game involving contacting ‘Charlie’ with ‘pencils that move by themselves’ (Charlie’s name written in red on the fire escape door); the songs and stories of Bloody Mary told in quiet corners. There’s plenty wrapped up in all of this.
Graves for dismembered pigeons (or not, as the case may be), and other poor unfortunates, aren’t the be all and end all of play with the motif of ‘the dead’.