Green again: Shadowman

From an image by James Taylor at eltpics
The Art of Being Different: Putting Shadowman away

Three and a half years ago, I wrote that I was putting off writing the next instalment of my Green Days (that last instalment is here). I am now officially an expert procrastinator! But here it is. And as I sit on the edge of the page, right here, up at the top, I have no idea how it’s going to weave itself on the way down. Look out below. Literally, look out. And I’ll write the following instalment shortly after.

The girl walking along, nonchalantly proud of her new-found long, long legs and arms, which were brown (or at least a sort of orange) for the first time in their twelve-and-a-half years, was wearing a mint green dress. A rebel unaware of the existence of causes, her bottle green jersey was tied around her waist, her sandals happily scuffed, her battered old, half empty brown briefcase – how come it always reminded her of a floppy-jowled dog? - bumping the side of her leg as she walked. She’d have a bruise. She didn’t care. It had been a long, fun summer but that morning, she’d traded her annoying little sister in for her band of buddies, and gone back to school.

Summers were glorious back then. They were made of rope ladders and swings and bright polyester halter-necks and swimming-pools and orchards and wormy greengages and comparing bikini tops to see if anyone’s wasn’t flat, and mums that made iced tea because Robert Carrier told them how to. It was buffet lunches in British Home Stores and coffee in the Wimpy grill with friends and no parents and lying on your friend’s living-room floor listening to their older siblings’ records. It was Arthur Rackham posters and Liberty’s and tank tops and high waisters. It was Angel Delight and sliced banana with some friends, and avocado pear and vinaigrette with others. Queen sang to their best friend, Elton to Kiki, and Tavares was a band, not a beach. Young Hearts (ran) free and You should (have been) dancing. It was hiding under weeping willows and playing spies because boys were boring, and it was Jackie comics and green eyeshadow and wearing clothes chosen by your mum. The world was as big as it ever had been, bigger for sure, as the child world and the teen world merged and overlapped. It was yellow and orange and unsubtly sunlit, and it was as fragile as an egg shell on a speedway track.

The girl had grown rather spectacularly during the holiday, height providing a ridicule-shield, she hoped, and she had tales of Spain and of strawberries-and-cream sundaes, stamps with that Franco chap, and a tan to show off. There was no homework that day because teachers were glowing in the aftermath whilst battling back-to-work blues. Life was as bright as a Snowball with a cherry, and she might even have been humming as she walked home that day.

Thirty minutes separated the train station from home, on foot. First along some post-war streets of houses, then under the railway arch and past the first water meadows with their scruffy ponies. Into the filthy-rich Fisheries, where huge houses were ungated in the pre-paranoia seventies, and then along behind the cricket pitch to the village. Along the road without a pavement, and turn into the estate. Second house to the right, her arms were thin so she could push her hand through the letter box and open the door from the inside. Mum would be there, maybe at the sewing machine, maybe with juice and biscuits, sister would be… let’s not think about that for now. Don’t spoil the moment. Yes, she was definitely humming.

Partway along the last but one street of post-war pebbledash, a car pulled up alongside. A silver Capri with a black roof and an unusual number-plate. ‘Channel Islands or import’, she thought absent-mindedly. She liked cars, loved their shape, their sound, and a year of train travel with spotters from Presentation College had sharpened her nerd skills to ‘expert’. The driver had fair hair, that over-dry straw-fair that comes with bleached eyelashes. He had an unfamiliar accent too, South Africa? New Zealand? Somewhere that they played rugby and cricket, that much she knew, from Grandstand and Parkinson and being curious about these things. But there was no-one else on the street to give him directions. Annoying. Depending on mum’s mood, juice and biscuits didn’t always wait.

No, she didn’t know the way to Newlands School. Of course she knew it, all her friends from primary went there, but she’d never been. No, she couldn’t give him directions to her school; it was way too far away, thirty or forty minutes by car. The name? She told him the name. Yes, it was a nice uniform, if you liked that sort of thing. Nice tan indeed, she’d been on holiday with her parents. (The murmur of ‘don’t talk to strangers’ was growing louder.) Yes, her skirt was very short – she’d grown a lot that summer. Her mum had turned the hem down as far as it could go. Could he see the underside of the hem to see her mum’s work? Huh? Well, I suppose….  Could she squat down for him? So he could see….? Could she…… what? His voice like oil. His smile like melting brie, unfaltering, unpleasant. Squat? Eternity passed. No, she did not want a lift. No. No. No. Quaking. Throat drying. Holding back the tears but always be polite to strangers clashing now with the need to go. Fast. Get away. Someone coming. ‘Help this man, please, he’s lost’. And she ran. She ran faster than ever before or since. She disappeared down the lane at the back of the houses, the lanes that ran below the railway embankment, to the railway arch, the lane that was dangerous but was the safest place on earth just then. She ran. She was gone. Was he? Didn’t know and would never know.

The rest of the story disappeared in time, the details bleached and smudged. Police, yes, smiling policeman, policewoman too, long interview at the dining-room table, talk of other girls and her mother on the phone. Sitting under the stairs for hours and hours, perhaps days, sleeping on the gold coloured carpet. Father bringing a snack and sitting with her for a while. In his suit. Those details still hover. The rest, all lost. But you see, nothing happened. Not to her. Not that day. It happened to the man. And it happened to other girls who, unlike her, had got in the car. The car with the number-plate she’d noticed.

I’d noticed. And that event, and the association in my mind with my uniform, the sudden turning of my legs from a source of pride to a source of shame changed everything.

But dramas only become dramas if you let them. And this is just a story like so many others’ stories. Something the passing of time has pruned, blurred. And that I grew out of. It took until about ten years ago, but I outgrew it. And nothing happened that day. I remember the feeling, the emotions, fear, confusion but most of all the fight or flight survival energy surge. I remember all that acutely but the rest…. It wasn’t melodramatic, it was largely about my imagining what could be happening and what could go on to happen, and it was wise fear not crippling fear. If it had happened any other day, month, year, perhaps things would have been different. But it happened that day. And it was key on my route to becoming a teacher. Perhaps even more so a teacher trainer. That September afternoon I didn’t realise it, but my personal little train reached a set of points and the sandy-haired shadowman pulled the lever.