Russell Badrick is a new writer who is originally from Suffolk. He attended the University of Durham and practises now as a lawyer in London. Here Russell reflects on a very particular childhood geography.
We had created two divided and exclusive groups known as The Cabbages and The Slags. It was 1998, a six week school break in which young hearts were dashed and made in a day; a time of wild ideas and plots.
The Cabbages and The Slags were notionally at logger-heads in a summer’s bout of competition and one-upmanship set in the gentle arena of the Stour Valley, Suffolk. As members of The Cabbages, we were duty-bound to have a Savoy cabbage on our person at all times. In contrast, The Slags, a mixed-sex group, carried neatly laminated professional business cards. It didn’t help that The Slags, in spite of their name, were a comely bunch abundant with pretty girls. As co-creator of the groups, I regretted my role as membership officer and vowed to be a better schemer in the future.
Andy’s Dad, a wiry man, helped assemble our lair at the Pit, a topsy-turvy stretch of dug earth, hedged to the East by the old Stour Valley Railway and defined to the West by meadow and arable land that weeks earlier had spewed yellow rapeseed across big skies.
A semi-circle piece of corrugated iron formed the head of our Anderson-style den. “That’s for you, lads”, Andy’s Dad would say, rolling trash-grade carpet and junk pieces from his van, the final set-pieces for our homestead in the wasteland. We gratefully reclined and strategized, on dry earth surrounded by buddleia, cowslip and nettles, wondering if The Slags had it so good.
Of course, none of it really mattered. Every day, members of any allegiance met at the Kingfisher meadows to play together. A favourite was As-The-Crow-Flies, an intrepid game in which we would storm through fields and hedgerows on an unerring compass bearing until exhausted or stopped by an un-scaleable hurdle.
We would launch into the weedy Stour from abandoned military pillboxes, miniature concrete forts built along the river course during the Second World War as the last lines of defence in the event of a land invasion. Beyond dusk these pillboxes are dark and unwelcome; manifesting a sense of foreboding in all but the stoniest visitors. After our swims we would dare one another to run through all six sides of the boxes’ interiors at night – one way in, one way out – and few were brave enough to do so. There is an odd defiance to these defences, 75 years strong; quiet and grey against darkened skies and invading children.
To this day I recall the sore of hard meadow on my hips after a day’s wallowing, and the feel of ten or so white willow braches in my hands, the perfect number necessary to support my weight to swing from trunk to fissured trunk. I remember stolen kisses with my first real girlfriend, and then my second. I can sense the acrid smell of burning deodorant cans, committed to the flames without further thought, and the imploding boom of a burning oil drum closed up like a tubed torpedo, filled with angry fire and a butane canister. I remember field paths lined with sweet Cow Parsley and eating apples from the orchards at the bottom of Finch Hill.
With pilfered booze and time to burn we explored the landscape and set our favourite places in memory with names to match: Snake’s Pit, The Travelator, Devil’s Jump, Sausage Window, Round Woods, Lavender Woods, the Croft, Polar Forest, The Tesco Trails, Doggersville, The Railway Bridge, Finch Hill, the Ford, the Nard.
There was Clay Hill: a dazzlingly steep clay slope, pocked with a lattice of lime and beech roots and almost – almost – impossible to climb; The Old Course: an abandoned golf course, said to be home to a coven of witches on account of the demonic material often found underneath an almighty oak; and Bums’ Hut: a sordid couch-cum-home adjacent to the river bridge occupied since time immemorial by local tramps. It was sadly burned to nothingness by the Year 12 boys in 2002, abruptly ending the legend of the unseen hermit whose existence may have been the sum total of fearful parents’ dark whispers, a hundred children’s imaginations set alight.
With these memories fresh in my mind, I happened to see an old friend in London, completely by chance (the second girlfriend, and bona fide member of The Slags). I asked if she remembered our summer activities, or the places we would visit. She could barely recall a thing. Perhaps, I thought, she had busied herself so much, as we all do, so as to forget: with London life, a new career, and new friends. I suppose fifteen years is ample time even for precious memories to haze. But at the time she was there and played a part in our young adventures. It wasn’t so much that her memory was never made, as a memory broken and a place taken away.
It struck me that the places we explored and named as children, and the places we explore to this day, are fleeting – and the new memories which close these places off are as boundless as the experiences which open them up. The bitter-sweetness of places like Clay Hill and the Ford is that if they did ever exist, they cannot exist any longer: not in new times without old friends. They are transient places formed in fleeting moments, defined and found in an arc of memory, for reasons that pass out of view as quietly as they first appeared.