A Place

We all need a Place.

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1. A Place

 

 

A PLACE

A Short Story by Jack Schouten

 

 

 

 

 

There is a place past the rolling field of dancing grass, which plays host to just one solemn tree, past the lonely little street lined with houses with intercoms and long driveways and Mercedes and its equally lonely occupants, through the thick ferns and deep cut chasms of rock and weeds and one quietly singing stream that you could follow, if you weren’t being so creative, back home – but you miss out on the fun, that way. A place isn’t your place unless you make it yours with the journey by which you arrived; a poem isn’t yours if it was written for you.

  My Uncle James always said we need a Place. Each and every one of us.

  Oh, it sounds so sentimental and romantic now, the idea that there’s a place for all of us. But in a sense, his sentiment is strikingly true.

  For some people, their place is their living room. I remember my mother being perfectly happy in the living room with a strong gin and tonic, a pack of Lambert and Butlers and every soap going playing through the crackly TV. She kept it tidy, she kept it clean. Should a stray flake of ash drop from her cigarette and float carelessly to the floor, she would place the cigarette in the glass ashtray on the coffee table at her side, take a quick sip of her drink, and bend down to scoop the piece of grey matter into her long, pink fingernail before pinching it into the ashtray and taking a proud look around the cream-walled, green-carpeted room, then she’d smile, take another drink and pick up right where she left off.

  You notice these things if you spend too long in someone else’s Place. You notice their rituals, and their pride, and their attention to detail, and their mood when little things change. (I sometimes used to move things around to see if she’d notice; she didn’t, mostly, but she drank more gin than usual, and less tonic.)

 

  My Uncle James used to take things from me. He doesn’t anymore. Sometimes when he came round to catch up with his sister, whom he adored, I would notice things going missing. It started with just small things, like oranges, or soap, even cutlery. But as I grew older and began to talk at them about the colourful shapes I saw when I closed my eyes, or how my fingertips looked like raisin skin when I got out of the bath, things closer to me started going missing, too.

  Like my Batman toy I got in a box of Cheerios, my favourite pair of socks, the lucky rock I’d been bought at the Natural History Museum.

  My Uncle James was a funny man, with habits whose gravity I could not comprehend until I grew up and looked back – the big, long cigarette that smelled weird and the Funny Five Minutes he’d take in the garden after.

  Once, after he and my mum had both tried some of the weird cigarette, he went into to the garden and started throwing his fists up at the sky, as if either celebrating a great victory or berating some thing in the sky that had wronged him in some way. When I asked my mum why Uncle James was climbing a tree and shouting things, she simply said, ‘He’s playing, darling. Just like you when you’re in your place.’ And I’d said, ‘I don’t have a place,’ and she replied, ‘Talk to your Uncle James – he knows everyone has a place. And every place is waiting for someone.’

  I didn’t ask her why James’ Place had to be our garden. I thought that if anything, that was my Place. I obviously hadn’t made it clear, and made a note that next time I found a possible Place I would make a sign and not tell James where it was.

  Whoever’s Place our garden was, is, remains moot.

  But I did ask him whether everyone had a Place. And he said, ‘Yes. Even your mum had a Place, and then you were born, and now you’re her Place,’ and I said, ‘No, the living room is her Place, I can tell by how happy she is when she’s there.’

  ‘But you don’t see her when you aren’t there, do you?’

  I thought about that for a long time, when I lay awake and closed my eyes and pressed them with my fists, lost in the swathes of purple and black and green. And eventually I begun to realise I’d taken her Place. And worse, I was invading it, moving little things around to see if she’d notice, asking for one more bag of crisps, asking to turn the soaps over so I could watch kid’s BBC. I’d taken her place, I’d stolen it, occupied it, and now she didn’t have a Place, and it made me very sad indeed.

  So sad that for a long time I locked myself in my room, with nothing to keep me company but my toys, except for my Batman toy, which I’d lost somewhere. (I found it on one of our trips round Uncle James’ – outside the room I wasn’t allowed in, dropped, forgotten in the corner like it had just fallen out of his pocket. I didn’t take it back – I was terrified he’d notice that I’d taken something from his Place and he’d come round and yell stuff from atop the eucalyptus tree.) I began to think that maybe my room was my Place, but the fact that I was so unhappy, so contrite and guilty that I’d ruined my mother’s peace, her Place, suggested that maybe my Place was somewhere else. Not in my room, not in the house, not even in my garden, which was probably James’ Place by now anyway.

  I thought that was unfair – his house was his Place, not my garden!

  Nevertheless, I stopped playing in the garden, and searched elsewhere for somewhere to play and call my Place.

  I found it when I was out playing with Wallace, my friend.

  We’d run across the rolling field, playing Catch and 40-40 (the lonely tree was Base), and when we grew tired of that we explored a little more through the thick corridors of trees and discovered a street that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. We’d pressed the buttons on the intercoms and ran off when the house’s occupants answered, hiding behind a bush and peering down the long driveways to get a glimpse of what the other big, monstrous houses looked like.

  They never sounded happy when they answered the intercom. I guess those houses just weren’t their Places.

  And after the fun of pranking the old, rich, lonely people in their big, lonely houses on Lonely Street, we explored even more, and came across a severe, dry valley with a stream running down the middle. It was like a mini-fjord, and the rocks on each steep side of it were sprouting green weeds and sparse dandelions, littered with drinks cans and the odd used disposable barbeque. We reached the bottom and began following the stream, even further away from home, and eventually reached a very thick forest of towering ferns and pinecones that crunched deliciously under your feet.

  And then I felt something really strange, and warned Wallace that we shouldn’t go further.

  But in truth, I was desperate to. I think I scared Wallace, because at that moment he said he’d seen a man at the top of the valley looking down on us, watching us, but I didn’t believe him; I was longing to walk through the pines and explore the clearing I could just make out beyond the wall of trunks.

  We followed the stream home, and found it led to the bridge on the main road near my street. I preferred the scenic route.  

 

   I’d said I was going round Wallace’s for tea. I was thankful for the excuse because Uncle James was coming round that afternoon and he’d made me feel dreadful for taking mum’s Place from her. I’d decided he could have my garden as his Place; I didn’t care: I’d found my Place, and it lay beyond a chalky valley along a stream in a clearing amongst the pines and ferns.

  That afternoon, nervous, excited, rebellious, I packed a little picnic hamper with some toys and some snacks I’d snuck up to my room in my trousers after lunch, and left the house.

  The day was very warm, and I was wearing a T-shirt and light cargo trousers. A cool breeze ebbed in and out, and people I passed on the street on the way to field seemed happy, talking about the weather, the news, gossiping about others.

  I was very happy indeed.

  I strolled through the field with my hamper. I’d rolled my cargo trousers up to feel the sticky blades of grass tickle my knees, and made my way past the lonely street where the rich and lonely people lived, negotiated the tricky slope of the narrow valley and when I reached the bottom I took off my shoes and paddled through the stream, and eventually arrived.

  I put my shoes back on and rolled down my trouser legs, eyeing hungrily the wall of pine trunks and the suggestion of a clearing I could see through them, and walked slowly towards it.

  It was beautiful. As I waded through the last bit of bracken, the trees opened out onto a clearing of rich, emerald grass. It was almost a perfect circle, a little ring carved out of the forest just for me. Strips of beaming sunlight cut through the trees like a knife, and some fell on a boulder that sat proud and unmoving near the centre of the clearing. Tiny, flying insects were illuminated by the sunlight, and wafted around, lazy, uncaring in the humid air. The orchestra of grasshoppers and birds rang out like an organic symphony of nature, and I knew as I looked around, sweat beading on my nose and upper lip, a little smile forming on my face, that I’d found my Place.

  It was all mine. It was safe, it was secret, it was beautiful, inspiring, and nobody could take it away from me, and although I was all alone and nobody knew where I was, I felt totally and utterly safe, protected by the Place that had been waiting for me.

  I sat on the boulder and ate my crisps, and my Taxi bar, and slurped my strawberry milkshake, and after I brought out my toys and enjoyed a thrilling car chase, stopped by a superhero in the nick of time, along the grooves and dips and imperfections of the boulder, and played until the sunbeams faded and it was time to go home.

  I’d followed the stream back, as I knew that was a safe and definite way to get home fast, but I felt unsafe when I left my Place, like I was being watched, and that the crunches and cracks of twigs I kept hearing weren’t made by deer or rabbits or badgers, but were made by somebody else.

  I ran most of the way.

 

  Over the next couple of weeks, I began customizing my Place. I even painted a little sign that said ‘MY PLACE – KEEP OUT’, and made a small den out of twigs and bracken. I was desperate to tell Wallace about this place, this fortress of joy and imagination and happiness, but I kept quiet, and even managed to resist the temptation to tell my mother, despite one time when we’d gone for a walk and she nearly stumbled upon it – but I ran away and yelled at her to come this way, just in case she decided to take my Place away from me like I’d taken hers.

 

  My mother and I began walking quite a bit, I remember. It was nice. It got her out of the house, and even better, she wouldn’t bring the Lambert and Butlers with her, and in a way I’d taken it upon myself to make her a bit healthier. I decided that spending too much time in your Place could be a negative thing. After all, if you spend the whole time just sitting there, playing Cars on a big rock or smoking lots of ciggies and watching Eastenders, you’d forget about all the other important things, like friends and family, and learning and all that other stuff.

  Having my own Place had taught me to be a bit more grown-up, and seeing how James seemed to go a bit crazy whenever he was in his Place, our garden, or even in his Other Place at his house, I put it down to spending too much time being in a Place, smoking long cigarettes that smell weird and drinking stuff that looks like water but tastes like fire (I’d tried a bit of whatever James and my mum drank – I felt funny afterwards so I slept all day), and realised that it was possible to get a bit too out-of-this-world.

  I vowed not to abuse my Place. I would visit once a week, and spend a couple of hours just playing and enjoying what little, precious time I had there.

 

  I had made some great fortifications. I’d begun spending a little bit more time at my Place because me and my mum had been arguing a lot – about silly things, mostly, but whenever I got really mad and starting shouting, she would shout back and say things like ‘I have no life!’ or ‘I spend all my time looking after you, have a bit more respect!’ and I felt even worse when I stormed out and slammed the door that she really didn’t have her own Place. I had really taken it from her. Uncle James was right.

  I made a fence out of twigs that I snapped off the lowest parts of some of the trees, and weaved bracken around it so that it was obvious somebody was using this Place, and it was not to be disturbed. I repainted the sign and hung it with some creeper vines from one of thicker branches from a tree. I made a couple more and hung them up too, before reinforcing my little base against the boulder by adding another room made of sticks and thickening the bracken roof.

 

  One day, I made my usual journey across the fields and Lonely Street and down the Chalk Valley near my Place, and thought something was wrong before I even reached the stream.

  The sun wasn’t hitting it in the right way. For some reason, in my Place, the trees are very tall, but the branches seem to stay very thick no matter how high the trees go. I’d climbed nearly to the top of one of them before, and stood up looking over the yellow and green blanket that draped the countryside, and could even see the roofs of my street from there. The branch supported my weight easily.

  My fence had been smashed. I dropped my hamper and frowned wondering whether it was an animal. But it had been torn, thrown into pieces and the sticks snapped in half, strewn over the lush grass of the clearing.

  And my sign. My sign was snapped. Broken clean in half. The cardboard lay half-dissolved from the rain the night before, the paint running off it like thick indigo tears.

  I ran into the clearing, into my Place, and fell to my knees as I saw my den and my boulder.

  It had collapsed. It was flat against the boulder. And on the boulder, somebody had spray-painted an electric-blue line around it, soiling it. Ruining it.

  I cried for a while, looking down at the ground, not wanting to do anything but stay here and weep and I vowed I would find whoever had spoiled my Place. It was mine! Not anyone else’s. How dare they? How dare someone intrude on my Place and ruin it, spoil it, destroy it for me?

 

  I cried for a long time. At some point, I sat up, and the sun glinted off something that lay under the ruins of my den. I pushed the bracken and snapped twigs aside.

  The fear started in my belly then crept up my spine, cold.

  It was my Batman toy.

 

  I started in a run, through thick ferns and pines, along the bubbling stream, all the while looking behind me in case Uncle James was watching me, running after me. I remembered the feeling of being watched, being pursued, and the man Wallace had seen at the top of the chalk valley, and it all made sense to me. I was crying, desperate, running for my life, and eventually made it to the bridge, scrambled up the bank of the stream and along the main road and bursting in through the back door, I ran upstairs and hid in my room under the duvet. I felt safe there. I was in my real Place.

  Later that afternoon the doorbell rung, and I looked out my window to see Uncle James stood there, looking old, pale, disheveled. I didn’t go downstairs to say hello. I couldn’t; I was terrified.

  They had an argument, James and my mum. I heard my name mentioned, and when I did I clamped my hands over my ears and talked to myself, and I tried to imagine myself in my Place, in my clearing, past the stream and the valley, past Lonely Street and the rolling field, but the thought scared me even more, because I realised no place was infallible, secure, even there in my bed, curled up under the duvet and crying myself into a fitful sleep where Batman hid behind a tree waiting to get me in the dead of night.

 

  A couple of days after, Uncle James went missing. Nobody could find him. My mum and I visited his house. It was empty and smelled of weird cigarettes and Man-smell.

  I finally went into the room I wasn’t allowed in, and we found a pair of socks, some old toys and bits of cutlery wrapped in cellophane. There were pictures of me in the room, but not proper pictures where you’re smiling and looking at the camera. They were pictures of me and Wallace, and me and my mum playing in the woods.

  One picture was taken from a height. Two figures at the bottom of a rocky, weedy valley were splashing around in a stream near a big wall of ferns.

 

  A few weeks after, I took a long walk. The police were still searching for James, and had asked me questions whose relevance I didn’t understand. I didn’t tell them about my Place. Weirdly, with hindsight, I felt older. I walked along the main road, in a bit of a daze, and found myself jumping down the bank at the bridge and along the stream that led into the woods. After a while I came to the chalk valley, expecting the ache of fear to well up in my belly, but it didn’t.

  I walked cautiously along the stream, the rocky, chalky slopes rising high and severe either side of me, and after a while I arrived at a Place. It didn’t feel like my Place anymore. In fact, it pained me to admit it, but I thought the whole idea was suddenly pretty childish. I realised quite quickly I hated it, this place. It wasn’t the fairytale land I’d dreamed up when I’d sat on my boulder and played cars and then hid away in my den to eat crisps, secure and safe. It seemed a hundred years ago.

  I walked through the pines. The den was still smashed. The boulder still bore the electric blue paint around its middle, but there was also something else there.

  It was a little sign made out of cardboard. It said ‘JAMES’ PLACE – KEEP OUT’. I picked it up and looked at the other side. He’d taken my sign and snapped it in half, making his smaller, feebler sign on the other side.

  On top of the boulder, balanced perfectly, was my Batman toy. 

 

  I don’t know what made me look up.

  He was hanging there. By a bright blue rope, Uncle James swung by his neck, his face purple, the faintest hint of a smile on his puffy, dead face.

  I stood and watched for a little while; the lazy swing was almost hypnotic. I left, and when I got home, I told my mum, and she called the police.

  That night, she smoked a long cigarette that smelled weird, and kept toasting her gin-hold-the-tonic to her brother James.

  He’d hated me. He thought I stole her from him, ruined her life, taken his place. I didn’t feel in the least bit guilty anymore. In fact, I felt vindicated, mollified. I knew what it was all about – it was about jealousy. It wasn’t about finding a place at all, because every place has been discovered, and whether you know it or not, you’ve stolen that place from someone, and interestingly, they might not know it either. But you’re both sharing a place, and for a place to be truly yours, for it to really belong to you, and you it, you can’t share it with anybody.

  To have a Place is futile, and only in its futility can you really appreciate a Place for what it is: just a place.

 

  It was lucky it hadn’t been my place anymore, because he’d stolen it from me once and for all. I took solace in that, like a quiet revenge. James had found his place; I was still enjoying the journey there.        

 

    

 

   

    

  

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