Have you ever looked at an object or place and wondered if it would change when you stopped looking at it, or if it even failed to exist at all, should nobody be fixing it as a part of reality by means of a gaze or stare: thus trapping it in its form by the ‘truth’ of evidence-by-observation?
An object or place. Or both, an object as place, a place as object. A place with a river running through it. Or a mound in the ground? That day, I was observing a mound in the ground: an unmarked grave in the wood with the sound of the river, off-stage as it were, in my ears. I assumed it was an unmarked grave because it looked like something I imagined an unmarked grave to look like. Indeed, I assumed it was a river that I could hear, as I now couldn’t see it.
I had just had an argument with my mother and she had shoved me off to pick blackcurrants. In those days, children could be trusted alone in the wild. When I get older, I sense that I will not be able to be trusted out of sight. We shall see.
Have you heard of Noah’s Ark? Of course, you have. Well, despite my age, I often had strange enquiring thoughts, which later in my life I knew to be called philosophy. And that day of the unmarked grave, I suddenly speculated about a Noah’s Ark for the dead, rather than for the living. A last chance saloon. Not a limbo or purgatory as such but a genuine……..
I was halted in my so-called philosophical thoughts, by suddenly spotting that the mound was altering its shape, because I had previously stopped looking at it. It was now frozen into more of an articulate configuration than a shapeless shape. No longer altering now, of course, as I was renewing my focus of concentration into a full-blooded stare. I called what I saw by the name of Old Boots, as if it had become or was still becoming a beloved pet that I had once buried in this spot just within the comforting sound of a nearby river. An event I had evidently forgotten.
When I got home, Mum lightly scolded me about my grubby knees, but nothing beat the time when I had fallen bodily into a bog, so anything less than that was a sort of plus point. I was soon at the dinner table tucking into a midday meal of lamb chop, boiled potatoes, greens and gravy. Well, I assumed it was lamb chop, as we always had lamb chop on a Thursday. Fish on Friday.
“Tough as old boots, ” said Dad from the other side of the table, home for his lunch hour from the printing office where he worked, using gestetners and old-fashioned xeroxes. He smelled like chemicals. Remembering such events, for me, today, creates all sorts of philosophications, like ‘lost time can it ever be found?’ and ‘what is the difference between mutton and lamb?’ and ‘what were the ages of the animals that went into the ark two by two?’ – surely they must have been of child-bearing capability – and I looked at my Mum who was pregnant with her second child at the age of 42. Must have been an accident. And I looked quizzically at my Dad who was tooth-picking the gum-aching gobbets of meat from between his teeth.
Men could father at any old age, I thought, as I addressed my own line of attack upon the chop that, notwithstanding my efforts, spun off the plate to the carpet. And that, it seemed, was worse than if I had fallen bodily into the bog again…
I ran back to my secret glade in the wood, my thighs red and smarting. I became glad that short trousers gradually went out of fashion after the 1950s for boys of my age. Richmal Crompton’s William Brown grew no older since I first saw him in illustrations from the 1940s, it seemed, but I imagined he changed into long trousers by the time of the 1980s…
The mound reappeared as soon as I saw it again. Although I could no longer make out the creature I had christened Old Boots, I was still intrigued by the coincidence of Dad referring to old boots in another sense over lunch. Unaccountably, I started crying, REAL crying, not a delayed reaction to my red and smarting thighs, but something I couldn’t really explain.
I turned my back on the mound and walked in the direction of where I thought the river to be. Then, suddenly, as abruptly as possible, I turned to catch the mound in its interim state of transmogrification or, as I suspected, its otherwise essential state of non-existence.
Crawling from it, with limbs like solidifying flesh-coloured bog-treacle, was a young girl shape about a year or two younger than I was then, or am now. She looked like me, as if she had been copied from the same template. I couldn’t see what was on her feet as they were still underground or hardly yet formed at all. Still clods of earth.
“Stop staring at me, or I’ll scream, and scream, and scream, till I am sick.”