(first pubished in Platform for Prose, 21/01/2018)
When I was a small child in the 1950s, the passion you conceived for another child was utterly secret: you contemplated the loved one from afar; you never spoke of love even to yourself; silent blushes were your only communication. My junior school, a grim Victorian warehouse for children, had separate brick-walled playgrounds for boys and girls, so I would only see Jenny White (the loved one) in the classroom. I might have contrived to see her at the end of the school day, walking home, but it was a point of honour for the boys to go home via the canal towpath (with its accompanying hazards), while the girls dutifully walked down the road. There was no pain in this segregation, no yearning for completion – had we been brought together (and, strange chance, had my affection been reciprocated), we would have found no words to bridge our separate worlds. In old age, this childish passion becomes a cherished memory, a bright star in our evening sky – shining because it was and is The Secret, shining only for ourselves.
Childhood friendships acquire a similar warm patina. So when Alan got in touch through the wonders of the internet, after an absence of nearly sixty years, I was delighted. We corresponded via email for some months and eventually decided to meet up. Both being exiles from our home town, it was natural for us to arrange to meet up there and explore together our childhood haunts.
I wondered out loud when the building had ceased to be a school.
Alan shook his head, ‘Difficult to say, Martin, but I reckon it’s not been empty all that long – not much vandalism.’
We stared across the playground, heads pressed against the (unchanged) iron gates, to the dilapidated seventies-vintage replacement for the original brick toilet block. We laughed about how cold and smelly the old brick toilets had been. Still staring through the locked gates, I was telling Alan that my mum (who’d gone to the same school in the 1920s) had once told me that she and her sister had thought that those school toilets were a big improvement on the toilets her family had shared with other households when she was a child.
Alan: ‘No kidding. Hard to envisage those school toilets being a big improvement on anything at all. Remember that monster turd that lingered in one of the toilets for weeks? Wouldn’t flush away, stickin’ out of the pan. Somebody christened it Dreadnought…’ We both sniggered, ten year-olds once more.
Then I noticed something was missing: ‘Look at that: they’ve knocked down the wall between the boys’ playground and the girls’ playground.’
‘So they have! Odd, that segregation. Though I don’t recollect that it seemed odd at the time, do you?’
‘No, not at the time. Girls were not to be mixed with – they were to be worshipped from afar.’
There was a pause and Alan mused, ‘Mmm. I certainly used to worship Jenny White from afar.’
I turned away so quickly that I accidentally banged my nose quite hard on the iron gate.