177. A Roundabout Kind of Way


We lounge in soft clothes, my son and I, as my wife and daughter blunder around the house getting ready for work, getting ready for school.
My daughter says, “I wish my school was a polling station.”
My son looks smug but he doesn’t reply. He has headphones on, staring at a screen where he builds vast cities from square blocks at devastating speed. I watch over his shoulder for a moment.
Sweeping vistas full of Mayan-esque temples, pixelated jungles, cuboid humanoids, immense empty plains to fly over at a thousand miles an hour. Then I look at my son’s face. Expressionless, focussed, immersed. He is ten.
I wonder if this is healthy, then I remember that I have a slight hangover and I’d spent the previous evening watching three hours of Dexter killing people with razor blades, knives and power tools.
I mutter, “Fucking hypocrite,” to myself and continue to write a story about a one night stand.
My wife and daughter depart. I kiss them, tell them I love them, then I get back to writing.
My son silently fights off a creeper, acquires diamond armour and digs a hole a mile deep.
I write about cumming in a girl’s face.
Later I realise that the sun is shining. I mean, really shining. It isn’t just that British sunshine between shifting clouds, instead it is that high diffuse light that burns away any cloud, a dry light, dustlight.
I say, “It’s time to shut down.”
He says, “Aww,” a slight expression of grief on his face.
I snap my laptop shut. He sighs, closes the lid slowly on his endless digital realm.
He says, “What we gonna do?”
I say, “First, sling some clothes on, then we go vote.”
“Do I get to vote?”
“No,” I say. “You’re too young and you might vote for someone inappropriate.”
He says, “Are you going to vote for someone appropriate, dad?”
I say, “No. None of them are appropriate. They are politicians. Let’s get dressed.”
We go to our rooms and emerge again wearing similar clothes. I wonder, when did men start dressing like children? Are we a generation of men who just never stopped dressing like children? Did we just keep buying the same clothes in larger and larger sizes? Will there be eighty year old men shuffling around the streets of Camden wearing garish polo shirts, tight high cut shorts in primary colours and a pair of espadrilles?
They are probably already there, sipping coffee and buying vinyl.
Outside it is Nineteen Eight Five again. Or it is to me.
I lived in this area when I was a kid and we’ve recently moved back, purely by chance. Rental properties in this area are like hen’s teeth so when this house came up we took it after a three minute viewing. It’s not perfect, but it’s fine.
The house is one street away from my childhood home. Other people live there now and they look worried when I regularly stare at their house from the pavement with a peculiar intensity, but I can’t help it. The front room where we had nine Christmases, the window that broke, the wall my dad built, small handprints in old cement.
It isn’t just the house though – it’s the whole area. When I walk around I’m following the ghost of a painfully skinny lad, walking on his own, squatting down to look at a beetle or allow a caterpillar to crawl onto his finger. Staring at clouds, slackjawed with wonder. Hiding silently as local thugs slouch past. Skinning a knee on shattered glass and gravel.
“What are we waiting for?”
I snap out of it. My son is looking up at me. He’s a well built lad, a bit too well built, if I’m honest. Building digital temples doesn’t involve much heavy lifting.
My son has a big, soft round face and cornflower blue eyes. His hair is like dark hay, it even smells of hay.
I say, “I’m waiting for you.”
He says, “I’m ready.”
I say, “Ok. Let’s go vote.”
We walk up the street that is my street that backs onto my old street. Tarmac, lime trees, world war two brick, council quality. Gardens and garages, bomb shelters consoled by sweet pea and climbing clematis, flowers exploding all around.
I say, “You don’t see much white dog poo around anymore.”
My son has a think. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a white one. There’s a brown one, dad.”
“So there is. Dirty sods.”
“Why was the dog poo white, dad?”
I say, “I don’t know, but I reckon Margaret Thatcher had something to do with it.”
He frowns. “Who’s she?”
“Remember Wizard of Oz?”
“Scary.”
I nod. “Yes, it is. Remember the witch? Well, imagine that witch, only more evil. She used to run this country.”
Eyes wide. “An evil witch ran England?”
“Yes. She sold everything that wasn’t hers to sell, sacked the miners and was friends with that Jimmy Savile I told you about. She even nicked kids milk.”
My son shakes his head. “I hope she’s dead now.”
“Don’t worry. She’s properly dead. Next time we’re in London we’ll go find her grave and dance on it.”
He looks worried. “I don’t want to.”
I say, “We won’t then.”
We walk down a ginnel, the ginnel.
A ginnel is an alleyway or a snicket. Round here it is a ginnel though, and this ginnel was our ginnel. We lurked here, rode our bikes up and down it. It was always littered with dog shit and glass, broken tarmac and ring pulls. Christ knows why we spent any time here. Maybe kids had so little that they claimed what they could, even if it was just a thin strip of no-mans-land, scattered with tetanus.
Onto the next street, my old street. Two doors up from the ginnel, my house, my old house, still my house. Brick semi, my bedroom top left.
I still dream about it. A lot of my dreams are set in this house, I don’t know why. They aren’t happy dreams either. It’s odd, but all my dreams involving this house are strange, unsettling. There is a ‘waiting’ in them, a static pause, as if something monstrous is coming, a devastation just around the bend.
I stop and stare again.
I say, “This is my old house.”
He says, “I know, dad. You say that every time.”
I say, “My bedroom was…”
“…top left. I know.”
I say, “Did I tell you that I could see from under the cupboard?”
“What?”
I say, “I could see from under the cupboard. The cupboard was only small with a narrow space underneath, but I could regularly see from underneath it, like I was under there, looking out, even though I could never fit under it. And the room seemed enormous, like one of your computer worlds. The bedroom looked as big as a world as I looked out. It was dizzying and massive and I felt very, very small.”
He is quiet for a moment, then he said, “I sometimes feel small.”
I say, “So do I.”
We walk on.
We cross the road. On the other side of the road the houses are different. It’s always the case. The road here is flagged, seventies concrete flagstones. Some are cracked, some aren’t. They reflect the heat back up at us. The air is very dry, very warm. There is a lazy buzzing in the air that is made by nothing, made by everything. A waiting.
I say, “Days like these feel weird. The streets all empty, no-one about. Do they feel weird to you?”
My son nods. “Yes. It feels like we’re being watched or something.”
I wonder if a skinny kid, all alone, has noticed us. Am I watching me?
We walk on.
There is dust on the ground, gently gathered against the walls, in the cracks in the flagstones. It hasn’t rained for a while and I know this dust is special. If a rainstorm were to arrive, right now, the fat drops would hit the dust and together they would make That Smell, the smell of rain on street dust, my favourite smell in the world. I remember to watch for rain in the coming days, to walk up this way if it rains.
We pass another ginnel.
I stop.
He stops.
I say, “I’ve not been up here in… thirty years.”
My son pauses, then he goes back and starts to walk up the ginnel.
He says, “It’s about time you went back then.”
I say, “You’re right.”
We walk through the ginnel and I start to laugh.
I say, “Did I tell you about the roundabout?”
My son says, “No. What about the roundabout?”
I say, “Through this ginnel there used to be a playground. Not a playground like you have today, all safe and padded and bright, but a proper old playground. Rusting chains and split rubber, shiny slides that were dangerously high, polished by the arses of a thousand kids. monkey bars that only great apes could reach, see saws that could shatter the spines of the unwary. And there was this roundabout…”
My son blinks. “Was the roundabout dangerous too, dad?”
“It was the most dangerous of all. It was huge, a great drum of wood and iron. It was immensely heavy, but it was well oiled, silent. I could never understand how the rest of the playground was falling apart but someone always found time to oil the roundabout. I thought it was a bloke’s job – roundabout oiler. He’d tour the country, oiling roundabouts.”
“I wouldn’t mind that job.”
“Me neither. Anyway, we came down here one day, me and my occasional mate Dan. We came down the playground and there were about ten lasses our age messing about on the roundabout. We didn’t know them because we were Catholics and went to a different school. That’s how it was, then. So they saw us, and they asked for a push. Me and Dan, reckoning that we were big strong twelve year olds, gave them a push. It went round and round but it was heavy, what with there being ten lasses on board. The lasses started laughing at us, calling us weaklings. We tried harder, pushed with all our strength, but it just went round at a leisurely pace, not much of a thrill for the girls at all. Well, we got sick of them taking the mickey so we reckoned they couldn’t do any better. They saids they could. The girls got off, we got on, and the girls started to push.”
My son says, “did it go fast?”
I nod. “Aye. It went fast. It was light now, you see? Only two kids on it and I was dead skinny, and with ten girls pushing we didn’t have a chance. It got faster and faster, our hands got sweaty from holding on. It got even faster and even faster and we were clinging on for our lives, screaming for the girls to stop, but they didn’t stop. It got faster, faster. The girls were all around, a blur of laughing faces, each one heaving with all their strength on the spinning roundabout of doom. Everything was a blur, a sickening, horrible blur. I thought I was going to pass out, or get flung from the roundabout and die. Just as the world began to go dark and I couldn’t hold on anymore, the roundabout started to slow. When it finally stopped, me and Dan fell to the floor, but that was just as bad. We had stopped spinning, but now the world was spinning instead. We were so dizzy we just lay there, throwing up, puking up our lunches while the girls laughed and laughed, then they skipped away and left us lying there, unable to move for about half an hour.”
My son looks shocked.
We reach the playground but the playground isn’t there anymore, just a few parked cars, the cracked and crumbling tarmac and an ugly iron stump where the roundabout used to be.
My son says, “Why did the girls do that, dad? Why did they spin you till you were sick?”
I think about it for a while, then I say, “Because that’s how girls are. You can push them around, but you’d better be careful. Sooner or later a girl will spin you around, son, and when she does it can be fun, but it can also hurt. I’ve been spun around by girls who’ve ran away laughing and left my chest aching like I was going to die. You don’t go spinning girls around unless you’re prepared to get spun around yourself, and sometimes that means woofing up your sausage rolls while she stands there laughing.”
My son frowns. “I don’t think I want to get spun around, dad.”
I say, “Don’t be daft. Being spun around can be the best feeling in the world. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a spin. Don’t get me started on the swings though. That’s a whole different ball game. Anyway, I shouldn’t worry just yet. There’s plenty of time to get on the roundabout. Now, why don’t we go vote, then get an ice cream?”
“Best thing you’ve said all day, dad.”
“You’re not wrong, son. Lets go.”

roundabout

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