We hear a lot reported these days about children who just can't tear themselves away from their Playstations to go outside and get on with stuff, and a lot of shocking statistics about the rising numbers of childhood diabetes and obesity. Many parents seem reluctant and too fearful to allow their offspring to roam about these days in the way that both I and 'William's' generation did, the perception being that it just isn't safe. However, our police maintain that statistically there's no more 'stranger danger' for our current children than there ever was, and a lot of the anxiety about this has been hiked-up by the media. I honestly couldn't say.
My life as a child seemed to revolve around home and family, friends and school. Home was where you ate and slept, fought with and sometimes 'clecked' on your brother, and where your mum was when you needed her. If you were a younger brother, as both I and my friend Keith were, your clothes were invariably hand-me-downs - to be honest I never actually thought about it, we would have looked blankly back at you if you'd ever raised the concept of 'lifestyle
choices'. Huh? As for school, it was that dreadful place where you were forced to go every weekday for a large part of the year. There were certain teachers who, when instructing you on a particular subject (maths for example), could
make time pass at about the same rate a stalactite grows. It seemed to us boys that school was something that only that whole different species, known collectively and dismissively by us as 'girls', related to and really enjoyed. School was interminable agony, a place that engendered such boredom in us that at times it must have brought us dangerously close to a state of coma; just the thought of returning to school as our summer holidays drew to a close was enough to fill a boy's soul with ennui. Real life was whatever you experienced after school, at the weekends or during the school holidays.
This story happened to me and my friend Keith, during one long hot summer in the early sixties. It would have been about the same time as the Beatles first appeared, when our Dads, to a man, all said that nobody would be able to remember who they were in a year's time.
Keith and I had always been fascinated by the empty house. As far as we knew it had always been that way. We certainly couldn't recall anyone ever living in it. This fact alone was of course indisputable proof that the place was, beyond any shadow of doubt, haunted.
"My uncle told me that the man who lived there gassed hisself," said Keith, who had always possessed a fertile imagination.
"When was that?" asked I, open-mouthed in horrified awe.
"Years ago, before you came here to live."
"Why did he gas hisself?"
"Dunno. My uncle didn't say. Prob'ly the police was after him for somethin'."
"Why was the police after him, did he murder someone?"
"Prob'ly. Yes, I think my uncle did say there was a murder too ... an' then he gassed hisself."
The empty house drew us in irrevocably like a magnet.
At the rear of the house there was a 'lean to' shed that was open on one side. Here, the property's back door was located and had been boarded up. For us, seeing inside that creepy place became not just an obsession but a matter of honour; it was a thorn in our joint sides. At first we approached the 'lean to' with great trepidation, but gradually we grew in confidence, and it turned out to be to be a terrific den. Some days passed, then, after some closer inspection, we arrived at the conclusion that if we borrowed (unofficially) a few select tools from my grandad's shed, we would be able to remove the wooden boards concealing the door. We put our plan into action immediately!
I recall it was hard work, some of the nails were many inches long and demanded great effort from our eight or possibly nine year old muscles. We attacked that door with the kind of zeal and enthusiasm only known to children. If our mothers had requested that we put anything like the same kind of effort into tidying up our bedrooms, it would have been met with despair. Our great task however, to break into the haunted house, running a very possible risk of meeting the ghost of the gassed man, fired us with enthusiasm and drove us on. When the pangs of hunger tolled, and figuring it must be lunch time, we arranged to meet immediately afterwards.
In fact, our morning efforts had been so thorough that there was only one board now left in our way before we got to the door. Applying what can only be described as superhuman effort we prised it off. Finally, the door was won!
It was locked, we discovered, and our attempts to shoulder-barge it like the square-jawed heroes we'd seen successfully do countless times in the movies, didn't seem to work. We stood before the door perplexed!
Then we thought we heard something. Noises coming from the other side of the door. To our mesmerised amazement it sounded like bolts being drawn back and a key being turned!
The door opened, and before us stood a middle-aged man in a striped towelling dressing-gown and ankle socks, yelling at the top of his voice, "What the bloody hell do you think you're doing?"
I think I'd have no difficulty believing it if a witness had described Keith and myself at that moment as possessing eyes on stalks and hair standing up on end.
It was after a good quarter of a mile of really fast sprinting that we dared look back to see if we'd been pursued.
We avoided that house in future. In fact, Keith and I didn't care very much to discuss the matter. We used to take alternative, often rather circuitous routes to avoid passing it. Whenever I did, it used to make my hair feel funny. As far
as I can remember nobody ever moved into the house.
Fortunately my grandad had lots of tools and didn't seem to miss the ones we'd abandoned at the haunted house. Well, if he did, he never mentioned them to me.