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I still think about this a lot.
It’s an event that happened to me which taught me to feel ashamed.
It is the memory I come back to whenever I feel I have done something wrong, that I have acted in an immoral way.
Shame is what you feel when you know you are in the wrong.
It is not what you feel when you are given a punishment, not because someone else looking at you thinks ill of you, but because when you look at yourself, you don’t like what you see.
Bretton is really well planned out, in a lot of ways.
It was award winning town planning when it was new.
And I was lucky to grow up there.
Just about every house has a wee field outside it, all the pavements are well away from the roads, there are big gardens, trees and bushes, and there are loads of woods.
Did you know that Bretton Woods, those woods that line the roads, and separate some of the housing estates were around when Henry the Eighth was king.
He made a book of all taxable areas in England, and there they are “Bretton Woods,” they’re that old.
It was a fine place to grow up.
When you’re a kid, your world gets steadily bigger every year.
At first all you see is your house and your garden.
Then you are allowed out on your own, maybe to a neighbours or just where they can see you, but not across the road.
Then maybe, with a certain friend you are allowed across the road, but make sure you are back in time for dinner.
Then “ok, you can go in those woods, but not the Westhawe woods.”
Then, “can I got to the centre with Jacob;” then town on the bus; then London for a gig with your brother; then Amsterdam for new year; then Barcelona on your own; then wherever you can afford.
So I couldn’t see, within my world when I was nine, in my world of Barnstock, Eyrescroft, Essendyke, Benland, why anyone would want to stick a “NO BALL GAMES” sign up on the field in front of Kevin’s house.
“What do they think this field is for?”
Well a lot of people seemed to think it was for parking their cars, girls seemed to think it was for daisy chains, but me and my mates, obviously, thought it was for football, and that wall, backing right on to the field, “that’s for playing spot against ain’t it.”
“That’s Mrs Grumpy’s wall,” Kevin said.
“Mrs Grumpy, why’s she called that?”
“Because she’s grumpy, of course, she’s got three of my balls that went over her fence.
“She’s just a mean old bat, she hates children, she’s the one that had the sign put up out here.”
Sure enough next time we were playing, over the ball goes.
Kevin, was all for climbing over, saying that she’d never give us it back, it was pointless to knock.
“You can’t just climb over, that’s not allowed, I’ll knock if you’re too scared to.”
I knocked on the front door and Kevin stayed away down the path, but where he could watch.
There was a huge amount of shouting from within, I couldn’t believe how much.
And then I could see her, through the kitchen window, she was shouting, hurling abuse at someone, throwing her arms around, she really was a grumpy.
I was starting to wish that I hadn’t knocked now.
After a minute or two, the shouting calming down a little, a man, grey, tall and thin, but friendly enough looking, opened the door.
I tried, in a stuttering and quiet voice, to explain that we’d accidently kicked our ball over.
He asked what colour it was, and then the lady burst past him.
She shouted at me:
“You can’t have your ball back, you shouldn’t play ball games on there, can’t you....”
Then she saw Kevin, “and you, you... I’ll bet you can’t read!
“But I’ve told you, you better just stay away, you little brat, you.”
She hurried back inside waving her arms around, her white fluffy dressing gown flailing behind her as she went.
Her husband, looking forlorn, slowly closed the door, nodding his head slightly as he did so.
Kevin and I burst into laughter, although we both knew this woman had frightened us more than a little; it was nervous laughter, fake laughter.
“Next time you can climb over, Kevin.”
We could hear more shouting through the brick walls of the house.
“I think that’s why she hates me so much.”
About twenty minutes later, the man, who we called Mr Grumpy of course, appeared in his back garden, raked the ball out of his bushes and lobbed it over, giving a very small, almost imperceptible wave as he did so.
“Old cow,” said Kevin.
I asked Jacob’s mum why she was like that.
“Does she hate kids?”
Jacob’s father talked occasionally with the old man, who we occasionally saw riding his bike from the back gate.
“No she’s just very old.
“She’s got Alzheimer’s disease, it means she’s very confused.
“It’s something that old people sometimes get, and for her it means she get’s very upset by loud noises.
“That’s why she doesn’t want people kicking the ball against their wall, and why she makes such a fuss when anyone knocks.
“It must be really distressing and upsetting for her husband, all she can do is to sit in that chair.”
I always tried to take a look in their window when I rode past after that.
Sure enough, she was always sitting in her arm chair, the big sliding doors to her garden behind her, looking out the window at you.
I thought, probably best I just try and leave them alone.
This is the memory that I think causes me to feel guilt; it is a senseless, aimless, indefinable guilt that I feel.
At least I think it is this memory.
It is a guilt that only comes on me when I am alone, or if it’s been quiet for a long time.
And it comes in with my breath, all I can hear is my breath, and it gets louder until it is the only sound I could possibly hear.
I know when I get this feeling that I can snap out of it at any moment, I know if someone calls me, or if the phone buzzes, or anything, that I will lose the feeling straight away, and I’ll manage whatever I am called to do, but I don’t want to snap out of it.
Each time it comes I want to indulge in it; I want to explore it, to find out more about it.
I want to pinpoint it, is it this memory that causes this guilt, or is it another thing I have done, maybe that I have repressed?
Maybe I have forgotten something worse than this, something which is too bad to remember, too horrific to recall.
When you are young you do really stupid things, and you really try to impress the most stupid, insignificant people.
We were hanging round with some slightly older boys, and they told us about knock-down-ginger, or knock and run, didn’t sound like much fun to me.
Mostly, I’ve found that the people who seem the most confident often are the least; the people who seem the most together when you first meet them often have the most messy lives; and that anyone who tries to make you feel bad, or feel small, probably has someone who treats them in that same way.
But still, because there was a little pack of us, and because they seemed to us so grown up to us, seemed like the games that older boys played, we played it too.
I don’t suppose it really bothered most adults, and anyway, we had always run away, so we never saw their reactions.
But I guess there must’ve been some excitement in it, running around, pretending to be scared, in being naughty.
It came to my turn, and I don’t know who suggested it, but it was obviously going to happen; Mrs Grumpy’s house.
I didn’t know whether I should do it, I didn’t know that I would.
Until I was there, standing in front of that textured glass and aluminium door, and gave it three sharp knocks.
We ran, and this time maybe I was scared.
I already knew that this was bad, I expected her to kick off, to shout and shout, to come out of the door and wave her fists around.
We couldn’t resist having a look after a minute or so.
We peaked around the corner.
Nothing, no dressing gown, no shouting, nothing.
As quiet as it had been before I had knocked.
The next couple of days I found out that Mrs Grumpy had died.
She’d died of a heart attack, during one of her panics.
I knew immediately why, and I knew that I had caused it.
I felt something worse than any shame I had been made to feel, I felt guilt, I felt irreparable guilt.
And nothing I could say to myself would rid me of that feeling.
She was old, yes, she didn’t have much of a life anyway, yes, she was a grumpy old cow, yes.
But I killed her.
I felt my breath rise and fall at night and I felt mortality weighing heavily on my chest.
I felt for the first time that one thing leads to another and that actions cannot be undone.
I rationalised it as an accident, but I knew ultimately I was responsible for it.
Kevin, Jacob and I talked about it a little afterwards.
We didn’t blame each other, and we all concluded that although it was probably that which caused her panic and then death it could have been something else, and that it would’ve happened sooner or later anyway.
I concluded, after those discussions, that it wasn’t murder, but it was manslaughter.
I knew I didn’t have to tell my parents about it, I didn’t have to have all my friends and teachers at school find out, but I knew that none of this mattered, that I knew, and that was bad enough.
I felt so stupid; I’d gone along with something, just so that other people thought I wasn’t scared, just to look good to some kids I didn’t really like.
No one else knew how I felt about it.
The next few months we started to see more and more of Mr Grumpy.
He spent afternoons in his garden now.
And he smiled at us as he rode his bike past.
As he grew up Jacob even got to know him, found out his real name.
And we rationalised that he must’ve been in some way relieved that his wife had died, that an ordeal was over, and he could have a new lease of life.
But let’s face it, that’s just nonsense I told myself so that I could forget about it.