Walking Home

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The bell finally rings and as one we rise, chairs scrabble across worn tiles as the dull intonation from the teacher behind her desk – take your time and remember to do your homework – bounces and echoes round the room with no ear willing to catch it. We all want out. The first of us stream down the corridor and quickly overwhelm the metal door, with all its dull edges and cross hatched safety glass, that marks the boundary of our freedom. We spill forth; the thundering of feet on the ground where we play, a tumult of immature noises rising and merging as the classrooms empty.

At the main entrance to the playground the parents await. Some are peering keenly, trying to desperately spot their child amongst the bustle, to pick their beloved face from the mass the rushes towards them so they can wave and call. Other parents stand back and chat with a practiced weary distraction, these are the parents of the older children, the Primary 5s and up, they’ve been waiting there for years, know the ritual well and are fed up of being told just HOW EMBARASSING it is that they even exist at this point in time, this crossover from school attendee to escaped convict.

BY the time I’m old enough, as I live close to the school, I’m trusted to make my own way home. My independence comes with the realisation of control. I can choose my route home, who I walk with, the pace I walk at, when I stop, when I start.

There are three exits from the playground we are allowed to use (the front of the school is out of bounds), one to the left, two to the right. The main exit is on the right, but I can leave by either if I choose. Beyond the school walls further choices can be made; stick to Bonhill Road or Townend Road (right and left exits respectively). After that decision more choices are revealed; veer off Bonhill Road and through the old folks home, head for Round Riding Road (which opens an additional two routes and so on). But most days I stick to one route. The lane.

The school is an old red sandstone building, the playground surrounded by a 1000 foot high wall made of thick stones that will stand there until time ends. At the main exit, there is a sloping gap in the wall, wide enough for a car, through which most of the children pour. But further along the wall there is a smaller space, big enough for a door though it has never had one that I’ve seen. That is where I head, away from the many to the path of the few.

Some days I run, desperate to be first, to be away, to be alone on my walk, to avoid the pushes and trips, the jostles and shouts, as long as I am first to edge of the playground I know the majority will turn right and walk down the street to another place as few of us turn left as I do. To be first doesn’t guarantee sanctuary, but does bring a thin veil of protection.

If I’m not first, I try to be last. I deliberately fumble at the zipper of my jacket, I slowly pull my satchel over my arms and onto my back, I saunter the corridor and as I finally leave my hand touches the warmed metal handle of the door, the recent ghosts of classmates still lingering there. Ahead of me, shouts ring out, an inflatable football slaps against stone, a goal scored in a never ending game. Once through the door I pause at the top of the steps and watch the herd as it retreats, slowly splitting in two, left and right. Walking slowly through the playground I follow the rest that are heading my way, wondering if I can sneak past them all, knowing I can’t so lingering as long as I can, aware that the janitor will soon sweep me up and chase me out.

The lane was there from an early age, as soon as I was trusted to make my own way home safely I knew it would be mine. In latter years the bullying dictated I follow the same strategy but with military precision, to be first or last was key and that decision soon came to be habit. To this day I am first, early for things, pushing ahead and not looking back.

The few that walk that lane know each other, our houses and homes on a similar route, and we know the lane that leads away from the school and eventually back to the main road. We know where the puddles form when it rains, where the nettle patches will reach out to scrape bare legs in the summer. The lane traces the backs of gardens and passes by a large patch of (still to this day) vacant ground. Long grasses, wild bushes and trees claimed it long ago and in the warm months, if you walk very carefully, or stay a while and listen, crickets will start to play their symphonies whilst birds swoop low and gorge on the rising wall of insects.

Beyond the cacophony of those insects, aside from the swooping birds and occasional bats, I sometimes saw a lone cat. A large ginger beast that would fade in and out of the long grass. A tiger hunting prey. It would stop sometimes and look at you, a challenge? An acknowledgement? I did not know cats back then, but I knew the word aloof. The aloof tiger, deigning to pause and glance in my direction. It always continued on, undeterred, knowing the scruffy boy in the grey shorts and brown leather sandals posed no threat.

Across the piece of wild abandon is another road that plunges away towards the town centre. That boundary is marked by an old iron fence, with a locked large gate to one side. Some of the bars are buckled just wide enough for a child to squeeze through. Between the lane and that gate, winding its way through the grass is a faint path. Often enough walked to be visible, seldom enough walked that brambles and other jaggies have been able to take up residence and stretch out their arms, silently waiting to snag your socks or rip their tendrils across your shins.

Beyond the usual weeds, the vivid greens and yellows of the grasses, wild flowers tried their best to throw some colour against the dull canvas. They were joined by the detritus left behind by man, spikes of red from rusting cans of Coke, sparkles of silver from foil wrappers, the occasional discarded pornographic magazine in all its tawdry vitality. These were the colours of the place, they remain painted in my memory.

On through the lane now, one foot then another, turn right at the t-junction towards Scott’s house, then left when you re-emerge on to the main road. Then plod onwards past the dancing school (held in someone’s front room), past Patricks house then Isobels then the entrance to the Old Folks Home – a place of smooth winding pathways and home to many cycle races in the summer – then on to the corner of the sweeping crescent I called home.

First house on the right; chips in a fake newspaper cone on a summer evening and home to my best friend. Then the policemans house on the left; ignore the loud barking dog, you’ll realise later he’s as gentle as a puppy. Childless houses on the right that held all manner of guessed secrets and mysteries. Dr. Wales house on the left; War of the Worlds and always the promise of a sandwich. Then our neighbours house; Number 11, and the boisterous Captain, keep an eye out if he’s washing his car, he’ll try and soak you too! Then, finally, home. One foot on the low wall, leap the flower bed and a hop step and a jump to the front steps.

Through the door, hang your jacket on the coatrack and head to the kitchen to recount how your day was.

It was always ok.

Of course it was. I was home.