From A Distance

Entry by: macdonald

29th July 2016
From a Distance

I stopped outside my old primary school, puzzlingly smaller than the school I’d held in my memory for forty years.

What remained of the Victorian sandstone buildings were now offices I didn’t recognise, but from the pavement I could see how the corner of the main building, sitting so close to the road, split the car park into two parts. In our playground, this same ten foot gap between the corner and the railings was used as a football goal and I remembered how girls gathered behind the keeper, peeping round the corner to check a ball wasn’t flying their way before hopping around the side of the building.

The walk from my house to school and back had been a huge distance then. I stopped at the spot where once, a big cardboard box tipped over my head, and arm sticking out through the hole I’d cut in the front and shouting ‘Exterminate!’ in imitation of Dr Who’s new and deadly foe, I’d chased a schoolmate into the road and both of us had nearly been exterminated by a bus. I wouldn’t have stood a chance in the traffic on the dual carriageway now.

All the tenements had disappeared, replaced by an ‘express’ supermarket, a petrol station and patches of waste ground. There were no people. My old childhood stomping ground was a place to drive through rather than live in.

The wrought iron park gates were familiar though and a stone memorial we’d used for games of ‘tag’, although much smaller and uglier now and smeared with graffiti and pigeon droppings. The goalposts and running track were gone, the swings and roundabout too. What was left was just an overgrown green space full of litter and dog turds.

I hesitated, disorientated, at the end my street. The corner shop/ newsagent had disappeared and Mr Keillor’s house; a cheery first world war veteran who I ran messages for, but who never answered my nosy questions about what happened to him in the war. Bill Rigg’s had gone too. He’d had the most fantastic chemistry set ever. Where exactly had we all gathered around the bonfire each 5th November? Where had the wall been that I’d climbed as a short cut to school?

My memory was shrinking faster than a list of defunct emails does when I press the delete button.

The neat little stone house in which I’d lived for ten years was still standing though and instantly recognisable despite the many changes, none for the better. A back garden cemented over, various scruffy vans and cars parked, one with a deflated tyre. A new dormer window had replaced my upstairs bedroom window, which had shattered in the great storm of January nineteen sixty-eight, covering me in glass fragments.

There was nowhere to sit, and feeling too awkward to loiter, I walked on, glancing into the front room as I passed. I had been upstairs in bed when my parents had their final flaming row in that room.

One of the last things I remember Dad and me talking about was the Apollo programme and when I heard Neil Armstrong say “it’s one small step....” I wondered if Dad was watching too and wished that we could have watched it together, but he’d gone by then.

He'd once tried to interest me in a photo the Apollo astronauts had taken of Earth, the one called ‘Earthrise’ which became famous, but I wasn’t interested at the time. I haven’t checked dates, but it must have been early sixty-nine and I was probably more interested in what would happen to Manchester United after Matt Busby retired or whether the Beatles were really going to split.

'It’s Earth, Dad. Everybody knows what Earth looks like.’

‘But no-one ‘s taken a snap like this before. From such a distance, like.’

‘It looks the same in my school atlas,’ I said, fidgeting and eager to go out to play with my mates.

‘All that planning and training,’ he said. ‘All the cash they spent, the excitement, the expectation about seeing the dark side of the moon for the first time; exploring the universe and all that. But it was seeing Earth when they turned back what took their breath away. Seeing our little planet from a distance.’

‘It’s a nice photograph,’ I said. I was probably hoping he would let me stay up to watch ‘The Man from Uncle’ on TV.

‘One of them moon men lifted up a hand and stuck out his thumb, so that it blocked out the Earth,’ he said. ‘Everything that had ever happened in all history, the place where everyone has ever lived, behind his thumb.’

I was twelve years old and didn’t understand what he was talking about. Now I do understand that earth is a fragile, beautiful, vulnerable place and we are just temporary residents; custodians who should care for it as best we can. At least I think that’s what he was getting at. He wasn’t religious and didn’t mention the Astronauts had read from Genesis that day.

When the Voyager spacecraft took a picture from a much greater distance many years later, Earth was a tiny pale blue dot; only a few insignificant pixels in a gigantic, dark, uncaring universe and I thought of Dad again.

Was he still alive? My mother never talked about him and there was no contact after he abandoned us. Years later an uncle told me he'd sent my brother and I a letter but if he did we were never allowed to read it. The same uncle said he’d gone to Canada and remarried like my mother did. To me now, he isn’t alive but he isn’t dead either. Maybe I’ll see him again, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll hear what happened and why, maybe I won’t.

When I passed our old house for a third time, I didn’t see anything more I recognised. Fifty yards on I turned and lifted my hand. Everything that had happened to me, my parents, my little brother, during those years, hidden by my thumb.

I retraced my steps back to the car, knowing I would never go back.
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