Going home to Romney Marsh always prompts keen memories. None are more vivid than those I experience when I visit my mum at her home in New Romney – I was born and then lived for the first twenty odd years of my life in the house next door to where she currently lives.
When I was a boy the fields and dykes across the road from home were the playground of the children that lived thereabouts. Back then nearly every house had at least one young child living in it. Back then parents thought nothing of letting their offspring roam over the local countryside in packs to face the dangers of a country life: making unstable rafts out of bits of rotten wood lashed to empty drums with that orange twine once so popular with farmers – drums with various symbols indicating toxic contents stamped on them – to navigate the weed and reed congested waterways; to swing from hastily improvised rope-swings out over the dyke; to build tree houses and camps from anything we could lay our hands on and to clamber and climb over the old stone ruins of the church out at Hope. All unsupervised by responsible adults. Our parents wouldn’t see us for hours on end. Truly halcyon days.
On the other hand, what totally irresponsible parenting. (I wonder if I could sue my mum for everything she’s got in a European court – Post Traumatic Childhood Experiences, perhaps? [Note to self – hurry up with that one while we’re still in Europe.)] No way would I allow any of my children to wander off exploring on their own at the age I was encouraged to. Utter madness (our parents, not me). They were asking for trouble. And yet I don’t ever remember anything bad happening to any of us. And we had a lot of outdoor fun. I don’t think there’s a single kid in the road now.
I visited mum today with my five year old son. He’s been nagging me ever since he arrived here to take him back to the ‘broken church’. We went there last year. The ‘broken church’ is David’s term of reference for the ruins of the church that used to stand at the lost settlement of Hope – part of my childhood playground.
The only sign today that there was ever a settlement there is the ruins. As you can see, they are essentially just a few crumbling stacks of rock stuck in the middle of a field now. Every time I go back there there seems to be a little less standing.
To get to Hope from ‘home’, as well as traipsing across a couple of huge fields there’s also a small bridge to cross that spans one of the dykes.
This bridge was a central hangout of ours back in the day. As David and I were going over it today I stopped to enjoy some memories. I remembered that one year some workers had done some maintenance on the bridge. Part of their ‘making good’ involved a bit of rendering of the brickwork. Like most young children throughout history, I and a couple of my mates were attracted by the idea of scratching our initials into the wet cement as soon as the men had knocked off for the day. Unbelievably our efforts are still quite clear today. What a thrill it gave me to find this.
For legal reasosns I’d better not name my confederates. I remember them both. I wonder what happened to them, where they are now. But look at the date – 1976, if you can’t make it out. Exactly forty years ago. I was thirteen. (I just Googled ‘key events of 1976’ – the past, as they say, is a foreign country.)
David and I carried on to Hope. It was a wonderful walk. Lovely for me to be able to do it with my son.
While we were there I was reminded of a short story I wrote based on the ruins and my childhood. From the date on the document, 2010, it’s one of the earliest things I wrote. It certainly predates any of my novels. Why wouldn’t I include it here for my own amusement and posterity? (I do find it a bit spooky that even though I wrote it six years ago there is mention of a forty year time frame that, in ‘real time’, coincides with this year’s date and my vandalism. [I know what I mean.]) I doubt I’d have believed anyone who’d told me when I finished it that in six years time I’d have thirteen self-published novels and a collection of short stories to my name. Oh, and that I’d have given up the day job to write full-time.
Don’t Be A Girl
Forty years ago my best friend and I went walking out across Romney Marsh looking for excitement and adventure the way boys used to.
We were going to visit the old church out at Hope – a once prosperous community that centuries ago had faded away to nothing in just a few decades. A change in the geography and trade in the area had brought Hope’s economy to its knees. Locals said it had been cursed. Still was.
The church, however, being solidly built, was still largely intact. The only remaining physical evidence of the ancient settlement. The lead and Kent-peg tiled roof had been removed many years before, illegally no doubt, leaving nature the custodian. Despite this, the exposed rafters, walls and much of the internal structure had always seemed sound enough.
The steeple, towering over the surrounding flat land, was still accessible with care and bravery and the views from the top were worth the danger and the kudos – apparently. I didn’t know because I’d never been big enough or brave enough to try.
Since the previous summer, however, I’d had a growth spurt, put on at least four inches in height and my reach had grown accordingly. I felt that I would now have the physical ability to make what had been an impossible climbing manoeuvre for me the previous year in my attempt to scale the tower. My courage was still an uncertain factor.
My heart thumped with anticipation as we finally approached the ancient building. It stood strangely isolated in the middle of a large field. A natural trickle of water surrounded it. It appeared that the recent harsh winter had taken its toll on the old building. I had a fairly good memory, still have, and looking up at the tower something didn’t seem right. I couldn’t understand what it was, nor could Colin. Not until it was too late.
Colin was a year older than me. That’s a lot at that age. He certainly wasn’t listening to the concerns of someone younger than himself. When I told him that something didn’t look right, something had changed in the tower, he just laughed and, skipping like a mountain goat over the scattered stones and clumps of nettles, he disappeared inside – swallowed up by history. Perhaps he just thought I was scared.
I was scared, scared of heights – even more scared of falling from one. I hung back, looking up. I could hear Colin calling out to me to follow him in, mocking me for my cowardice and laughing at his own remarks. His voice echoed around the old stone walls frightening a pair of pigeons into flight, their oversized wings slapping loudly together in a frenzied display of physics. A warm breeze brought to life the plants that had taken root and thrived on the top of the exposed walls. They bent their necks and dipped their heads towards the tower, as though in warning.
And then I saw it. I saw what was different, what was wrong. And I was suddenly terrified for my friend.
I called out to Colin to wait, to slow down, to stop, to come back. Something wasn’t right, I shouted. Even now I realise that I wouldn’t have made much sense. I didn’t even know if he could hear my high-pitched hysteria. To Colin I probably sounded like a dumb kid whose nerve had gone, which I was. But I had good reason to feel that way – I knew something he didn’t.
I ran into the ruined building through the same gaping hole into which Colin had vanished. I had the idea that maybe I could catch up with him, make him understand the danger. Immediately, however, I realised the foolishness of this. He was already out of sight, probably in the tower making his ascent. I remember calling to him again and getting no reply.
And then I heard him calling to me. He was in the tower. I couldn’t see him from where I was. I needed to see him. If he could see me, maybe I could communicate my fears, my discovery to him. I turned to retrace my steps out of the derelict building so that I could get his attention. In my haste I missed my footing. My leg slipped down between two huge stones and the momentum of my turn twisted my ankle making me yelp in agony. I truly thought that I had broken something.
But I couldn’t just lie there. Even though the pain was excrutiating I managed to withdraw my leg. It took me too long, stumbling across the fallen rocks, to get back outside the church walls. To my shame I was crying. Crying with frustratıon as much as the agony in every movement.
I could hear Colin shouting for me. Where was I?
I slumped down on the grass, short of breath. When I tried to shout up at the fıgure that I could now see was three-quarters of the way up the exposed tower my croaky voice barely carried to the nearest fallen headstone. There was no chance that he could hear me. I waved my arms at him but to my frustration he seemed only encouraged and waved back. He shouted down to me but the breeze, stronger up there, carried his words away.
A lull in the wind, an eerie quiet, presented my last chance. Rousing my remaining strength and passion I screamed up at him, ‘Colin. Stop. It’s not safe. Come down.’ For a moment he stopped his ascent and looked down at me. Then he looked up at what remained of the climb, but from his position he couldn’t possibly have seen what I could see, what I will always see because it is etched in my mind forever. He cupped his hands to his mouth and I caught his shouted words, ‘Don’t be such a girl. Come on. It’s easy.’
These were the last words that Colin ever spoke.
I screamed at him once more. I don’t rememeber what. It was hopeless. I watched horrified as he scrambled ever higher, oblivious to the danger ahead. He knew no fear. He was such a courageous boy. I wonder what kind of man he would have made, what kind of father.
I remember hoping that maybe I was wrong and he would be all right. I was, after all, just a child. What did I know? I watched on, mesmerised and hoping that he might yet see the danger and reconsider. My heart hadn’t stopped thumping from the moment I’d arrived at the site.
I couldn’t say how high he’d climbed when the stone gantry he was on collapsed. As a small boy everything was exaggerated compared with my perspective today, but even a conservative guess would have put Colin at nearly fifty feet up.
I watched in stunned horror as the stonework that I had realised was missing its supporting column, began to sway away from the main structure as a result of Colin’s weight and movement. I clearly remember, even from that distance, his face, contorted by the shocked realisation of what was happening beneath his feet, his clumsy unbalanced scrabbling to regain something solid, his arms desperately flailing, clutching at anything and nothing.
The top third of the tower leaned over, a great majestic stone bow signalling the end of resistance to nature and time, before it crumpled completely to fall inwards into what was once the nave. The noise was defeaning. It sent up a cloud of dust that hung fleetingly in the air above the ruin as though the soul of the place had risen up and was finally departing. And then that too sucumbed to the breeze that had returned and disappeared.
The noise brought men from a nearby factory hurrying across the field. There was nothing that they could do for Colin. He was entombed below several tonnes of Kentish stone.
As two of them carried me back to their works I heard them saying that the place had been a danger for generations of children, that it had been an accident waiting to happen and that finally perhaps someone would do something about making it safe. Such tragedies are nearly always required before someone decides that it is time to do something about preventing them.
I’ve visited the site since, even as a man with my own son. All that remains today, some forty years on, is little more than a hill of stone where the tower once was and a scattering of large boulders in the grass. No danger to anyone. No excitement or challenge either. Sheep graze there now. I believe much of the stone was removed for renovation work elsewhere.
(Given today’s events, that last paragraph is just too strange.)