By Jake Kale
My eyes snap open as the double-decker bus jerks to the right, off Loughborough Road and into Monks Park Bus Station. It is an ugly building, squat and formed from dark rust-coloured brick, with twinned enclosed lanes on either side of a passenger waiting area that has been slowly decaying since the seventies. It has been threatened with demolition at least twice, yet this bleak monolith still stands impervious. As the bus pulls into the right lane I glimpse the car park on the second level—I remember when Elly and I had run rampant up there, spitting on or throwing things at the pedestrians using the narrow pathways on the sides of the building. I’ll always remember that one elderly man who’d stopped to give directions to a young mother struggling with an oversized pushchair. Elly had dropped an empty plastic Coke bottle on him—he’d been aiming for his balding skull, but he hit his outstretched hand instead.
The shape of the station evokes other memories too, memories unrelated to the building itself.
The bus stops and I disembark, not bothering to thank the surly driver. The man in front of me, a lumbering tattooed oaf, struggles momentarily to wrench the sliding door along on its aged, uneven metal track, and then we both enter, the other passengers following after us. The interior is much as I remember it but even filthier, and smells strongly of cigarette smoke and diesel fumes. Rows of uncomfortable wooden pews stretch out ahead of me, the escalators Elly and I used to evade the security guards visible beyond them. The escalators lead down to the underground walkways, walkways reputedly roamed by the ghost of the long-dead monk this former park was named for, and into the adjacent shopping centre, but they have apparently broken down and are now fenced off.
That doesn’t concern me—I have no intention of using them, or of staying in this smelly, depressing place for long. My first port of call is the information office further along the waiting area. I start walking, passing the pews and the escalators, passing the single lift that I remember also had a habit of stopping between floors (myself, Elly and two of our friends were once trapped inside, and I recall the cries of disgust from waiting shoppers when the doors finally opened to reveal the floor we’d used as an impromptu toilet), and I glance from left to right at the bays either side of me on the off-chance that I should spot the bus that now travels the route to my childhood home. My stomach mumbles in apprehension, and though I don’t stop walking I want to turn and go back the way I came, to leave Cranford for good and never return. But I know I can’t—I have to confront my nightmare, my shame if I am to ever have peace. That’s why I’ve come here. That’s why for the first time in sixteen years I’ve decided to return to Kingsland, and to the place where reality warped and my youth died.
* * *
I’d met Henry Eallis, otherwise known as “Elly”, on my first day at primary school. He was a skinny, scruffy-looking little urchin with unkempt brown hair cut in a classic bowl-style. When the teacher sat me next to him he’d been painting a picture, and he promptly covered his palms in red paint and proceeded to make handprints on the unsuspecting woman’s rear end when she turned to leave. I’d laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe, and Elly had revelled in my amusement. We’d been best friends from that day forward.
Later our double-act became a threesome and then a foursome as we entered Kenlis Lower School in Kingsland and met Ricky Northcott and his friend Ian Farmer, who transferred from another school. Ricky was a short, nervous boy with mousy-coloured curly hair, while Ian was a lanky, pale-skinned black boy with thick, black curly hair and thicker glasses that magnified his eyes so that they seemed all pupils. The four of us clicked instantly, united by our lack of motivation and contempt for authority, i.e. our parents and teachers. By the time we’d reached the ripe age of nine we already fit the classic definition of a slacker—consistently underscoring at schoolwork, never taking an interest in outside activities and avoiding exercise as much as we could. The other kids either looked down on us or ignored us but we didn’t care, and while myself, Ian and particularly Ricky became frequent targets for bullies, with the fearless Elly by our side we didn’t worry. He was a scrawny sod and he lost every single fight he started, but his irreverent humour and refusal to back down always left his aggressors frustrated, no matter how vicious a beating they gave him.
Lower school was a golden period in our lives, and we delighted in our peer’s bemusement, our teacher’s disappointment, and our parent’s embarrassment. Everything began to change when we moved up from Kenlis Lower School to Kenlis Middle School. Suddenly we had to contend with uniforms and homework, and we did not adapt to this change well. Years of sluggishness and a fondness for sweets took their toll on me as my waistline expanded, Ian started to become sullen and withdrawn, Ricky increasingly came to resent his overbearing parents, and Elly became very conscious of his ragged appearance—his uniform was slightly too big and was never ironed or particularly clean, much to the chagrin of his teachers. The fact that we were separated into different classes didn’t help. Alone, we each attempted to cope in our own way. Ian developed a studious streak and threw himself into his schoolwork, while I ambled through my lessons with the barest minimum of effort. Poor old Ricky settled unwillingly into the role of class punching bag, while Elly became more and more rebellious, constantly bunking off school and never bothering to complete his homework.
Gradually we began to grow apart, and while we each found friends outside of our group it wasn’t the same—the camaraderie, the cohesiveness just wasn’t there. The summer holiday allowed a brief reprieve and the four of us reunited, but were not especially rejuvenated. We realized that summer that as bad as school had become our home lives were worse—Elly’s parents didn’t seem to care about him, Ricky’s cared too much, Ian’s home had become a virtual war zone since his parents got back together, while I . . . well, let’s just say that my home life fell somewhat short of the ideal I aspired too. We realized that as much as we’d rebelled against lower school it had at least provided some respite, and we’d lost that now. And as we began our second year at Kenlis Middle School our depression reached a peak. The teachers always had it in for us and other friendships never lasted. We longed for a return to the old days when we had fewer obligations, fewer restrictions, and dreams of escape from the tyranny of education became common. More so, we dreamed of escaping our families. We openly discussed leaving and even planned ways we might go about it, sometimes jokingly, sometimes not. But when it came to acting on our plans we lacked the tenacity. All we ever wanted was our freedom. To be left alone, to be invisible.
For three of us, that dream came true.
The Treehouse by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.