By Sam Thompson
Once I tried to run away. I hid supplies in what we called the summerhouse, a rotten shed filled with junk at the bottom of the garden, then woke early one morning and crept out. It was the first thing I learned about myself.
My plan was to go and hide in the dangerous house. No one would find me there. After collecting my supplies, I climbed through the broken panel in the garden fence. I knew the way. I didn’t have friends but I was good at ranging around by myself. I knew holes through fences and railings and short cuts across patches of woodland, and little-used footpaths, and the abandoned railway line that you could walk along, a dirt track between tall brick walls under trees. My dad and I called it the abandoned line.
My dad ranged with me when I let him. He liked putting off what he was meant to be doing and squatting at my level instead. He’d get more enthused than I was myself about my projects: exploring the garden or making armour of cardboard. I associated him with a particular flavour of embarrassment. For my mother, another flavour. She was an exile from the life she should have had: somewhere in history she had been betrayed and now she was stranded here. She once had a migraine that lasted two full weeks, during which dad and I hovered outside the darkened room, dimly aware that her suffering was beyond what we could understand. There was no one else to speak of. A girl called Jean once adopted me as a kind of laughable pet, but one day I took off my shoe and used it to hit her in the face. Her nose bled and she shrieked less from pain than from the pure affront. That’s how childhood is. Your own actions are things that happen to you.
The dangerous house had a sign on the front. Dangerous House: Do Not Enter. It was a wreck. I wanted to live in it, behind the broken panes, in the shadows of rooms, with big holes in the roof to show sky through the top floor windows. I wanted to be a thing that could live there.
When I reached the house that morning, I saw it wouldn’t work. The upper windows showed the sky but I couldn’t see a way to enter. The dangerous house was not a house. I went home and was back in bed before they’d noticed I was gone. I’d always thought of the town as being made up of the houses where people lived, but also of the empty houses where they had lived once, and those where they had tried to live without succeeding, and then, last, the places where they might have wanted to live but never really could have: the green steel sarcophagi in the electrical substation, or clusters of crumbling yellow chimney pots, or the safe dark spaces under the iron grilles of pavement drains.
That’s a kind of wanting my parents would not have admitted. It’s not clear what they did want. Possibly to see me become a person. I may have disappointed them, but I can’t be sure because I can’t see myself from the outside. I don’t know what I’m like, though I’ve learned the odd detail over the years. I’m humourless but I fail to take life seriously. People seem silly to me after a certain point, and then they get offended. I’ve got a degree because I belong to this generation and social class, but the job I’m doing my mother thinks I’m doing on purpose to disappoint her. I have no ambition. I don’t know what ambition would mean. I seem to be waiting for something.
My thought is that I’m waiting for the day when I can go and live in the dangerous house. I don’t yet know what that would mean. But when I think of it, I think of an event that happened in the town when I was small. It had nothing to do with me and I only learned it as an item of gossip overheard, but it settled in my memory. Somewhere in the town, the story went, a young boy had been lured into a derelict house by a pair of older children, twins, a male and a female. The house had once been part of the National Children’s Home: I hadn’t been near it because I knew of no way through the high steel fences. The story did not reveal what the twins had done to the boy inside the house, except that in the end they had taken him into an attic and left him there, bolting the trapdoor behind them. This happened on a hot afternoon in the middle of August. When he was found, the boy was unconscious and dehydrated. Questioned, the twins freely admitted what they had done, but could not be made to see anything wrong with it. That’s all there is to the story. The boy was okay in the end, if that’s what you mean by okay.
But I think of him when I think of the dangerous house. Think of the boy in the attic, stifling with the stored heat. He is alone now in the unfamiliar space, its dark crossed by needles of dust and light, trying to breathe, not calling out, only waiting and not knowing, as he waits, whether for him there is meaning left in the word wait, for all that the air moves through gaps, and that through the gaps he can still hear the noises of a summer afternoon: insects and traffic and a strimmer cutting down grass not so very far away.