Across The Border
he stops to shelter a flame
puffs out smoke once, twice, again
leans back, breath heard for miles
around in the vast night.
in time it will pass through dawn’s essence
and collide pitifully with the black mountains
silhouetted in the star bright sky
sighing plains, memories of waves
trodden, burned dry, grassless.
who would walk here?
scrabbling disgruntled, grunting over rocks
downwards, the smell of smoke,
of men and animals borrowing the sea bed
its barren nothingness.
approach the well
silently let drop the pail
to the memory below
drink wine of rocks
refill flask, survive.
beast slumber disturbed
dog barks alarm cock crows
pushing juice from rocks
suddenly, he is surprised even now.
scuffles on wood, light behind window
door opens and
with cautious smile
a tin plate is placed steaming
on the box outside.
for you stranger, no need to hide.
rising rising hat tilting, approaching
he sighs again and the world leans away
fingers greasy scoop beans in bread
washed down with gritty coffee
tries not to wretch.
another dawn another day on the way
another angel to mark on his map
he wipes his bristly mouth
with back of hand, and is satisfied.
maybe he’ll make it today
across the border
Even her name sparkles, it sounds like a laugh followed by a sigh of pleasure. His own name in his scottish accent sounds like a stick hitting flesh. ‘Some place with a square, grey harbour the roughness of a turtle’s mouth.’ What does he know of turtles? His mind is full of the harshness of the stones, the sea, the shouting, the boats that didn’t return, what was found under their hulls after drunken nights out, territories, chance encounters with old enemies. So many borders nobody else could see.
She says: ‘Aberdeen?’
He snorts at her southern ignorance: ‘Some such, it stank of fish.’ He meant to be gentler, to reinvent himself as a man who wouldn’t mock or jibe at people’s disinterest. He’d get nowhere if he let the chip on his shoulder loom over him. He knew it put people off but it had been his approach for so long it was hard to control.
‘So where?’ She comes again like prey at a lure, not knowing he could impale her silver self. Then she laughs as if suddenly aware of the danger of pushing him, looks over her shoulder to see where her friends are in the bar. The air between them thins, feels charged, the barrier has disappeared.
Careful, Ben, careful. ‘It’s too boring although I’m flattered by your interest. I’d much rather hear about you.’
She takes him at his word, goes on a bit too long. Surrey, posh schools, ponies, not one single thing he knows anything about. He stares at her, feeling the connection between them stretching to a snap with every sentence. Her London accent sucking his walnut-pieces heart out. The colour of her mouth. How he made himself forget how Mum’s missing colours smelt. How uniformly brown and grey his life has been since. In the dark even blood looked brown.
This girl reeks of scarlet, her resurrecting lips so close to his he can smell them. She’s like a dinghy, bobbing on the surface of his uninhabitable past. He wants to submerge her, push her under the surface where all the things lurk that float up through his dreams. All the things that mean he knows the reality of life far better than Miss Surrey Rosette, Miss Top of the Prize Pile from day one.
‘I do rabbit, make it all sound so wonderful,’ Lisa smiles at Ben and it ignites her eyes as well as the glossed lips. It sets something off in him, a childish yearning to reach out for colour, for pretty things, for a different life. ‘The truth is I was the loneliest kid ever, I didn’t fit in at all, not even in my own family. That’s why I keep asking people about their childhoods, I want to know what I’ve missed.’ She looks up at him and bites her lip to stop herself revealing more.
There is no one else in the bar, no one else in the country, just him and her on a beach somewhere. The sea is flat, no walls and the waves peter out at their bare feet. Ben shakes his head and they’re back in the crowded bar, a constant braying for attention all around them. He reaches out across the border of their uncertainty, the same emotion but created by such different sources. His hand settles on her shoulder, anchoring and calming them both. ‘Can I get you another drink to prepare us both for my childhood?’
It’s funny how much trouble a dare can get you into. I gripped the underside of the bridge while the river below looked a lot faster than I could swim. The man’s voice came closer, for the third time, as he stomped up and down the road marking the border.
‘Where are you ya little sod? I know you’re here’
I pushed my face against the metal and wrapped my arms tighter around the wooden supports. I read the graffiti. Apparently, Sarah loved Dave, ‘4ever’. I waited, waiting for him to walk past again, all the while making a huge effort not to fall into what looked like certain death below.
My Nana used to say there’s always one kid who can’t help but get into trouble. That summer, the hottest I’d ever known, Billy Shaw arrived at our farm and I guess looking back, he was the kind of kid my Nana meant. I mean, he was just a scrawny 4-foot boy with straw hair and trainers full of holes, but he had eyes like a starved dog. Sad didn’t cut it. He must have known how those eyes looked to other people, because he kept them looking sideways or down a lot of the time, anywhere but at you. Anyway, Billy was the same school year as me, but a lot thinner, and seemed miles older, because of all the stuff he knew. Things I’d never really thought about. Like how to siphon petrol or skin a rabbit and he told me quite matter of fact the first day we met he knew how to start a car without keys, which seemed like magic to me.
He just turned up one day, bold as brass and knocked on asking if we had any jobs on the farm. We didn’t. We’d already laid the casuals off and my days were mostly 12 hours of looking for things to do. He seemed unfazed at the rejection, looked around the yard and shrugged, then asked if I wanted to play out for a bit. Truth is, I was glad of the company. I’d been filling my time collecting aluminium cans to raise money for children I’d seen on TV, but it was lonely work. When I told Billy what I was doing, he quickly dismissed the idea.
'What you want to help kids you don’t know for?’ he asked, squinting his eyes in deep thought. ‘I mean, what they gonna do with a load of empty cans?’
When put on the spot like this, I had to admit I didn’t understand why children would need old drink cans either. As it turned out, Billy had bigger plans for us.
‘What we need to do…,’ he said one day, hunched down, flicking stones at the corrugated shed wall, so they bounced off with a satisfying thud ‘…is cross the river into Stockton. There’s a shop on the corner, got the biggest gobstoppers ever, you cant get them anywhere else…and the best bit is…the owner takes ages to come to the counter.’ He smiled. I didn’t understand the importance of this, but Billy clearly did.
There was a big problem with Billy’s plan. Stockton was completely out of bounds, it may as well have been on another planet. My mum told me daily not to cross the river and my Dad and Nana too. Everyone else I knew all seemed to accept as a fact of life you didn't venture over the border into Stockton. I didn’t really know why, but I imagined beatings, and death and things much, much worse if I ever did.
‘Uh huh…’ I said. ‘ but..’ and then didn’t really know what else to say.
‘It’s safe’ he said, nodding his head at me with the assurance of a man three times his age. ‘I got cousins over that side. You’re ok if you’re with me.’ Then Billy added the one thing which got me into this mess. The one thing you couldn’t back down from. ‘Unless you’re chicken of course? Go on, dare you..’
And that’s how I ended up clinging to the underside of a bridge on the border of Stockton, with an angry shopkeeper stomping up and down, kicking the railings above.
The day started so well. Mum and dad were busy working on the farm and apparently, I’d only get in their way. Nana gave me 50p out of the pot on the side. She was a big woman, surrounded by piles of knitting wool and she wheezed in the heat, even early on in the day, her needles clacking like clogs. As I left, she looked up and peered over her glasses. ‘Stay out of trouble,’ she said, picking carefully at a dropped stitch ‘ …and do not cross the...’
Billy met me at the top of the drive with a casual nod, and we headed off. It didn’t take long to get to the border. We walked along the old army barracks and took the back road, which meant crossing a sort of no man land before the bridge with two big patches of empty ground on either side. We hurried across. I imagined I was in a war film, crossing into enemy territory while Billy strode fast, face locked in concentration. I was happy to follow his lead up and over the bridge. There was large pothole at the top, and the crossing didn’t look safe to me. There were sections where the fence was broken and the river looked a long way down. Once over, we dropped down into Stockton, which was a place new and alien to me. Although the roads and houses all looked the same, every person I saw jolted me, I looked around at the unfamiliar faces, my heart beating hard. I followed Billy in dead silence, until we got to the shop.
Pausing at the door, with his hand on the handle, he looked at me.
‘You go to the counter and wait,’ he said. ‘Then when he comes out, ask for the gobstoppers.’
Inside, the shop smelled of newspapers and ripe fruit. I walked, dream-like, up to the counter, Billy ducked off somewhere round the back of one of the shelves out of sight while I tapped the bell on the counter and waited. A youngish man appeared straight away. He wasn’t old. He looked pretty young actually, younger than my dad, with quick eyes, and a mean looking nose. He inspected me, like a headmaster does with a kid brought in after class.
‘I er.. ‘He looked at me, much closer this time and tilted his head to one side. I smelt liquorice on his breath.
‘Have you got any gobstoppers...?’ I asked, finally finding my voice.
He seemed puzzled at first then his mean looking face turned into something a lot scarier, as he heard a noise at the back of the shop.
‘Oi.. you! Get here…’
I saw Billy bolting for the door. With a chaotic crash, he burst through and took off down the street. The shopkeeper moved towards the counter hatch so I didn’t hang around, I legged it, and followed Billy’s path to the bright air outside.
Running down the lane, I guess the shop man must have stopped to lock up, I don’t know. I didn’t know where Billy was either. All I know was, I ran as fast as I could straight for the border, then, when I got there I had a decision to make. I didn’t want to run across the open ground, because he’d see where I came from, so instead I headed for a gap in the bridge railings, dropped and grabbed the ledge. I swung down, and grabbed at a wooden support beam underneath the road, ducking out of sight. I counted in my head, my heart banging my body like a hammer. About a minute later, I heard him, clattering up the road, blowing for breath.
He stomped. He shouted. He went back and forth over the bridge. I clung onto the underside for dear life. After what seemed an eternity, he sighed, but he wasn’t leaving without a message. He coughed loudly.
‘Billy Shaw, I saw what you took you little thieving sod. You owe me another loaf of bread and a bottle of milk and when I see you next I’ll bloody well make you pay.’
With that, he was gone and, after somehow avoiding near certain death, I was home for tea.
Mum made a huge plate of sausages, mash and peas, which I picked at and pushed around before eating about half. She seemed worried, said I must be sickening for something, but truth was, I just wasn’t that hungry anymore. The next day, I was back to collecting cans for children I didn’t know and after that one day trip to Stockton, I never saw Billy again.