I wrote this morning about how I became interested in transitions following my move from London to the English Midlands when I was almost nine years of age. (Don’t worry, I didn’t go on my own; I went with my family.)
This story captures the sense of transition I felt at the time.
LONG WALK ACROSS THE AIR
The fields were piled with snow. The narrow trees stood stark against the sky; hideous witches whispering dreadful spells. David hated living in the country and longed to be back in the familiarLondonstreets. Yet he was drawn to tramp out here to watch the boundless landscape and shudder.
He pulled his coat closer. The light was failing and the trees looked more threatening by the minute. He decided it was time to go home.
He turned. Three boys were silently watching him. One was large and thick-set. The second was tall and wore a woollen hat. The third was much smaller than the others. Even under his coat he looked thin and cold. They stood unmoving for almost a minute and then the largest boy slouched towards him. ‘What you looking at?’ he asked.
‘Nothing,’ David answered.
The boy eyed him narrowly. ‘You’re the new kid aren’t you? The one fromLondon?’
‘I expect you want to be in my gang,’ the boy said.
David thought for a moment, wondering how best to answer. ‘Okay,’ he said.
‘Not so fast,’ said the boy. ‘You have to pass a test first. Come on.’
He led the way towards a line of trees and plunged beneath an overhanging bough. They came out onto a rough green above a noisy, splashing stream. The banks leading down to the water were steep and high; more than twice the height of David.
‘That’s our den,’ said the boy, gesturing to the far bank. ‘And this is our bridge.’
A large tree had toppled over and completely straddled the stream. Its huge roots reared up in front of him like the heads of a hundred serpents. Its boughs rested on the far bank, a tongue of land gouged out by the stream, its narrowest point guarded by a hedge of impassable bramble. It was very nearly an island, the perfect den. David grinned at the sight of it.
‘The bridge is the only way to get to our den,’ said the boy. ‘You can join our gang if you dare walk across it.’
David looked at the tree and then down at the stream rushing below. He dreaded heights. He wasn’t certain that he even wanted to join the gang. But when he looked at the den he made up his mind. He put his foot on the tree trunk. It was wet and slippery. He had never even climbed a tree before; still less done anything like this.
He had taken only four or five steps when his foot slid. His heart lurched. If he had been further out he might have plunged down the bank. Cautiously he clambered down from the tree.
‘He’s chicken,’ said the boy with the hat.
David felt the blood drain from his face.
The large boy looked at him with contempt and then nimbly led the others swaggering across the bridge. They never looked back. David watched them in bitter silence before turning and racing blindly away.
The snow thawed at last but then a savage wind began to blow. Day and night it never ceased. Occasionally it would drop to a growl but most of the time it bellowed like a wounded beast. Every day David went to stare at the bridge and wonder what it would be like to explore the den on the other side. If he saw the gang he would quickly find a place to hide.
One morning David trudged across the fields in his usual journey to the bridge. The gang were dangled in the roots of the tree and were watching him.
‘I tell you what,’ called the boy with the woollen hat. ‘Why don’t you have another go at trying to cross our bridge?’
David licked his lips. He heard a thudding in his ears; he was not sure if it was the wind or his own blood. He nodded mutely and climbed up onto the trunk.
He was relieved to find that the trunk was no longer slippery. He stuck his foot out tentatively, like a climber searching for a tiny toehold. Cautiously he placed his weight down and stepped out. He could see clearly every detail of the tree-trunk. Its wrinkled surface was like the hide of a crocodile. The beating in his ears began to roar louder than the wind.
His next step brought him out over the bank. There was no longer earth below him now, merely air. If he slipped this time he would plummet down to the tumbling stream below. His heart began to falter. He took one more step and then froze.
He was stuck. He dare not go forward and could not go back.
He heard the boys laughing. The large boy called out, ‘You Londoners are cowards. Don’t bother trying to join our gang again. We don’t want you.’
He heard them leave. Terror gripped him. He would be left here for ever.
Then a voice called out. ‘You’re only just over the stream. Step back and you can jump down.’
David glanced down. The boy was right. He stepped back and slipped to the ground. He bent down, dizzy and shaking. He had never felt such shame.
For the next three weeks he kept away from the bridge, dreading to meet the boys or see his place of failure. Yet every day he felt drawn towards it. He was lonely, he longed to see the den and he yearned to find the courage to dare the long walk across the air.
One Sunday afternoon he put on his coat and headed for the country. He looked around with a puzzled glance. There was something different in the air. Then he realised. The wind had stopped. He took his coat off and draped it over his shoulder. The sun was warm on his back. He could hear birds calling in the air.
He took a deep breath and started to run towards the bridge.
The gang were strolling some way from it but when they saw him they raced back to try to cut him off. He crashed through the branches and clambered onto the tree just ahead of them.
‘What you doing on our bridge?’ cried the large boy.
‘I want to try again,’ said David.
‘You can’t. I’ve told you. You’re a coward.’
‘Let him,’ said the thin boy.
The large boy looked at his friend in astonishment. The thin boy stood with fists clenched and seemed to be bristling with anger.
‘You can’t stop him from trying,’ he continued. ‘You don’t make up all the rules.’
David watched for a moment then turned away and started across the bridge. He realised he still had his coat upon his shoulder; impatiently he flung it to the ground. He reached the brink between earth and air and stopped. He glanced down at the stream then dragged his eyes away.
Some way in front of him a large meadow climbed to a line of trees upon the skyline. Half way up this meadow was a mass of daffodils. It looked like a piece of the sun had dripped onto the earth. He focused his eyes upon this and began to pace carefully along the bridge.
He never took his eyes from the daffodils. He felt the slight bounce in the tree and heard the gush of the stream below. He kept his eyes on the daffodils. He sensed that he was getting close to the far bank and risked a quick look down. The sudden movement disorientated him. With a jerk he snapped his head upright. He felt his head swim. His arms seemed to grow to an extraordinary length and flapped around like ungainly wings. He teetered, he felt his balance go, he scrabbled to maintain a foothold.
The fall was both slow and swift. Time seemed to pause as the bank flew towards him. Then time shattered and he landed with a thud. The breath smashed out of his body and a pain like a spike rammed through his leg. He blacked out.
A voice sounded dimly in his head. It was the large boy. ‘You’re a bloody failure. You’ve had your chance. Just get lost.’
He forced his eyes open. He could barely see. The spike in his leg seemed to be exploding in size. Hot tears filled his eyes.
The thin boy called. ‘Are you alright? Do you want a hand?’
A terrible shame gripped David and whipped him into fury. ‘No,’ he cried. ‘Not from you lot. Get lost yourselves.’
The boys threw a few stones at him, jeered and left.
David sobbed and glanced down. He was almost at the bottom of the bank, just above the stream. He stared at his leg. It was bent at an impossible angle. Then he saw a point of greyish white peering through his flesh. It was a jagged edge of bone.
He gasped in horror. He was truly stuck now and nobody knew where he was.
He lay like that for a long while, numb and with no idea what to do. The sun slipped down towards the horizon and he began to shiver. In an hour or two it would be dark. He began to cry. He would be out here all night. Perhaps he would die.
Then he had an idea. He glanced up at the bank above him. If he could only climb up to the den he could crawl into the brambles and get some shelter for the night. He wiped his nose and began to haul himself up. He retched with pain. He reached up again and hauled. Again the dizzying pain sliced through him. He bit his lip and reached up once again. This will take hours, he thought dully. But he knew now that he could do it.
The light began to fail. He was getting desperate even though he had almost reached the top. He took a deep breath and prepared himself for another haul.
A noise sounded from above. He forced his head up. Standing on the tree in the gloom was the thin boy, his eyes darting round in search.
‘Bloody hell,’ he cried, then pounded along the tree and scrambled down to David. ‘What you done?’ he asked.
‘I’ve broken my leg.’
The thin boy glanced down and gasped. ‘Have you crawled all the way up?’ he asked.
‘I’ll get help,’ said the boy. He climbed onto the bridge but then came back. He leaned over and looked at David. His eyes were shining.
‘My name’s Mick,’ he said. ‘You can join our gang, right enough.’
‘But he said I couldn’t. I haven’t passed the test.’
‘Oh yes you have,’ Mick said. ‘Even Jim will say so now. You’ve definitely passed. You can join our gang.’
David’s head swam. ‘But I might not want to now,’ he said.