School mates, 1980. That’s Sean bottom left, my brother 3rd from right at the back. I’m not there as I was rubbish at football.
No school reunion information ever came. No invite ever came. No word of any kind ever came from anyone. Not to me anyway. It was as if no-one from 1981 wanted to make contact with anyone from 2011. None of the names etched on my memory ever turned up on Facebook. Friends Reunited revealed no clues. Even a Google search produced no results. It was as if they didn’t exist, or rather they only ever existed in the past. And the past only exists in my mind.
Childhood and schooldays seem so very long when it’s all you have. Those formative years loom so large in making us who we are and yet it’s only 12 years. Most of us have a working memory of only around seven of those years, just seven magical Christmases (if we were lucky). Many of us spend the rest of out lives trying to re-enter the Eden of those seven years – or sometimes sadly to try to escape from or forget it.
At this point there’s something you must know. I own the past. I am a custodian of time. I keep it filed away neatly in the catacombs of my mind. Bigger on the inside, I can store whole volumes of reality, all tidily stacked and all in order on wooden bookshelves. The coloured spines haven’t faded in the sun. In that sense I’m a collector.
I didn’t set out with that in mind, rather I became a custodian by default. Each one of us was given a subscription to time. I kept the payments up and kept every single copy. All placed in binders and catalogued contextually. The others didn’t. They cancelled their subscription somewhere along the way. They failed to pick up their copies from the newsagent. The ones they did get were never read and thrown out with the Hubba Bubba wrappers and the Tip Top drinks cartons. Any that did remain that they must have kept by accident, behind the sofa, under the stairs, in the attic, have all yellowed in age and either rotted away into dank indescribable matter or crisped up like brittle dry leaves to crumble upon inspection.
I know that I have the only surviving copy of that time.
So I went back. To find the truth. To find out if the past was real and that it had actually existed. In the centre of Durham, apart from the art deco cinema where I saw all three Star Wars films being boarded up, along with Woolworths, little seemed to have changed since the 1970s. Little seemed to have changed since the 1870s. Sherburn Village lies three miles out of the city. Nothing had changed but everything was different.
Because I didn’t know anyone, there was no-one to call on to talk about old times. I couldn’t really knock on a door and say, “Hello, you may remember me. I used to come round and play with Sean when we were seven. Is he in?” Of course he’s not in. He’s not coming out to play. Not now. I realised that I’d never said goodbye to any of my old playmates. I’d never said goodbye to any of my teachers. Life had simply moved on to the next episode. It feels as though they are all still part of my life and that the past thirty years has just been an extended summer holiday. Any moment now a new term will begin and we’ll all be back again, lining up in the playground with excitement and anticipation about the new year and the fun we’ll have. And then Saturday will come around again and we’ll be free to play out for the whole day up on Sherburn Hill, until tea time and Doctor Who.
I drove past Sean’s house. Perhaps he was in? Perhaps he was waiting for me to call? I’d borrow his sister’s plastic skateboard and he’d have his wooden green one and we’d set off on an adventure to save the world. Perhaps we’d be able to pick up from before things went wrong and be best friends again?
It was hard to turn the car round in the estate as the pavements were straddled on both sides by cheap Japanese and French cars in a cluttered contrast to the wide open streets I owned in the pictures in my mind.
I drove up the main street, up to the school. Being the largest building in the village by far, dwarfing the rows of coal miners cottages that surrounded and paid homage to it, it became the centre of village life. It was one long single-storey building but due to it’s enormously high ceilings, it looked from the outside that it would have at least three floors. A highly polished wooden corridor ran down the centre of the building like a major artery with classrooms off to the right and the main hall down the left. The infants were at the near end with the juniors down the opposite end with the headmaster’s office located at the far end on the left.
Outside the headmasters office was ‘the copier’. It was a magical futuristic machine that copied things. I longed to be able to learn its secrets. Perhaps I could put my Palitoy Talking Dalek in there, press the button and it would copy it and I’d have two. My Talking Dalek was my most treasured possession. It was the silver one with blue spots. When you pressed the button on the top it said a variety of phrases that were etched on a tiny record inside. Simon McKitterick’s dad got him one from Doggarts’ sale and it didn’t have an eye, gun or sucker arm. I made him some from bits of plastic. His older brother swapped the record with that of some girl’s doll. So the Dalek said ‘Mama’ and someone’s pink dolly said ‘Exterminate’ and ‘You will obey’.
There was a playground to the front of the school for the juniors and to the rear for the infants. Behind the rear playground was the dining hall, a stand alone refectory where we all had our dinners in either a first or second sitting. Behind that were allotments. Sean and I crept round there and collected as many snails as we could find and lined them all up on the dining hall’s open windows. By lunchtime the parade of thirty plus snails had slithered into the building like a mysterious Biblical plague that flumuxed the catering staff.
I often thought of us all being there in the late 1970s having followed in the same footprints of children from six previous decades. Some of the children in my class were following in their parents and grandparents footsteps by attending the school in that very same building. I thought about 1913 when it had been built and how it must have been to live in a time when the coal mines gave a steady and honourable way of life that looked like it would last forever. Even here, in a small, irrelevant, working class north eastern village there would have been that feeling of Edwardian tranquility. I thought how that would have been shattered by just the following year. How many children would have lost fathers or brothers in the Great War? How many children who attended the school in its early years would have themselves had to leave village life to go off to the horror of the Second World War two decades later. It made the late 1970s seem like an even more peaceful and perfect golden age. I never thought of the World Wars as being distant events. They were always close. Grandad Pedley had been a mechanic in the Second World War, serving in Egypt. My other Grandad, my Dad’s dad, was in the Durham Light Infantry. He fought at the Somme in 1914 as a Lewis gunner. He had told my Dad a few stories and these were retold to me. One evening he had been given orders to take a message to another trench, a few miles away. He had to cross an area of no-mans-land to get there. He slowly crossed, slithering on his belly through the deep mire of mud in the dark. He returned the following day, in daylight. As he saw the fields he had crawled across the previous night he could now see that it hadn’t been mud at all but the bodies of hundreds and hundreds or horses and men. He was later injured, his helmet took a shot and jammed onto his head, knocking him unconscious. When he awoke he was hundreds of miles away. He survived and eventually came back, fortunately for me. Millions didn’t.
I drove up from the crossroads. It was one hundred metres from the VG grocery shop on the corner. I knew that because I’d measured it with a measuring wheel from school when we were learning about measurements, units and maths. Then I could see the school railings. They comprised of a wall bricked up to about a foot high upon which were yard high gloss black railings each ending in a point.
But beyond the railings there was no school.
I drove past, confused, not able to stop to look properly. I turned the car around and drove past again. No school. No building from 1913. No playgrounds. There was just a higgldy piggldy set of late 1980s flats, all squashed up within the familiar railings upon which my school adventures had begun. It was as if the school building had never been there. It was such an obvious cover-up job. The school had been erased from history, denied, hidden. Surely the foundations would still be there? Perhaps we’d see evidence from aerial photography? There must be records? Photographs? The ugly flats stood firm, blatantly lying that they’d always been there, challenging me to prove otherwise. A mist of amnesia had descended on the village. The people and the architecture had drunk a draft from the well of forgetfulness. New had denied the old.
But I can prove it wrong. I still have the original copy, my records, in my mind. I can think of them and can bring them to life once more and as children we’ll all live and laugh again.
I own the only surviving copy of that time.
When you’ve a moment, search your mind archives and see what unique time recordings you have stored away.
If you liked this theme of childhood and school memories you may like:
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Everyone remembers a good teacher
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The Creative Troublemaker
Don’t Talk to Strangers
The End of a Friendship
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