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The first house I remember living in had a neat, small garden that backed on to a railway line.
The frequent blast and whoosh of passing trains was just part of my daily life. Sometimes, I’d wave at the passengers sitting in the London-bound trains, and they’d wave back. I thought E. Nesbit’s ‘The Railway Children’ had been written especially for me.
The trains never kept me awake at night, although the distant, never-ending rumble of a freight train might sometimes seep into my dreams.
We were often warned about the dangers of the railway and how we were NEVER to climb the fence – not that this had ever appealed to me. Sticking our hands through the diamond links to grab a particularly pretty flower or a butterfly was as daring as we would get.
I remember the hair-raising, crawling horror I felt when I’d heard about a silly teenager who fell off a local railway bridge that he’d been clambering on as a dare, and landed on the tracks with a broken back, only inches from the electrified line. I had also been suitably impressed by an oft-told family story about a distant cousin in Japan who had been walking close to a railway line on a rainy day, and had been sucked under its deadly wheels by his umbrella. (I'm sure it's true.)
To summarise, living by the railway was like living with a lion in a cage – I knew it was deadly, but as long as I was on the right side of the fence, I could coexist with this threat quite happily.
As an employee in the hotel and travel industry, my father used to travel frequently – often to Europe, and sometimes to more far-flung places like China, Japan and Egypt. The downside of this, was his, often lengthy, absences from home (the longest one I recall was about 3 months). It could not have been easy for my mother, coping with two young children and an absent husband, and in those days, there was no such thing as email, skype or facetime.
The upside was the presents. Every trip, no matter how short, would culminate in his return; he’d breeze in, smelling of airports, cigarette smoke and city fumes, and there would always be a present. It might be Lindt chocolates from Switzerland; chewy, spicy pfeffernusse cookies from Munich; the kooky Mad Libs books from America; sometimes no more than a keyring engraved with the logo of a hotel, or a car sticker extolling the delights of Vienna. However, the best present generator, without a doubt, was Japan.
Although his trips to Japan tended to be longer, they’d be compensated by the bags and bags of exotic sweets, toys and top-of-the-range stationery that would spill from his suitcase on his return. I was the envy of my class mates for my unusual ‘kawaii’ socks, my coloured pencils fragranced with grape, orange and melon, the colourful animal-shaped erasers (that no one was allowed to actually use). I had a Smiggle-style pencil case with umpteen compartments and buttons when I was SEVEN. DECADES before they were cool.
One time, after such a trip, he brought home a small green rubber football for us each. It was just a ball, but it was NOT just a ball. I loved the size, the colour, the weight of it in my hands. It made me smile with delight, just to look at it.
Later that afternoon, after he’d changed out of his suit into jeans and a t shirt, my father asked me if I wanted to play with the ball outside.
Joyfully I rushed out and we ran down to ‘the garages’. Our garage was in a block of garages a hundred metres away from our house, in front of which was a fabulous large space – the size of a car park – much beloved by children on roller skates and bikes.
On this particular day, my dad and I were the only ones there. We set up a rough rounders course - I was bowling; Dad was batting.
On the very first bowl, Dad hit the ball so hard with the bat that the ball went flying over the row of garages, sailed over the railway fence and, much to my horror, landed in a clump of dry grass between the rails. Filled with dismay, I ran to the fence and stared at my brand new ball - only a few feet away, but practically in the jaws of hell, as far as I was concerned.
Is there an event more ‘Dad’ than buying your child a new ball, then getting all competitive and whacking holy hell out of it FOR REAL, and then losing the ball forever right in front of your child’s distraught eyes before she’s even had a chance to play with it??
Well, yes. I learned that things can always get worse.
He laughed sheepishly and ruffled my hair as we stood by the fence and tears ran down my face. But I had already started the process of grieving for the ball and leaving it behind mentally. I just felt bad for the ball. Have I mentioned that I anthropomorphise everything? I was worried that the ball would feel abandoned and unloved, but I also knew there was nothing we could do about it.
At this point, Dad kicked off his clogs and started climbing up the fence.
My jaw dropped. Suddenly my seven year old brain, which was already burdened with quite a lot of unchildlike thoughts, zoomed up several gears to a level of adulthood that I did not want and wasn’t prepared for.
I was speechless with fear that my dad would be hurt. I was horrified that he could break the rules we abided by religiously. I was also furious that he would take such a RIDICULOUS risk for a rubber football without giving a thought to the consequences – without appreciating how MY life would be ruined if I had to watch him getting smashed into hamburger by an unexpected train.
I literally couldn’t speak. Tears gushed from my eyes as I struggled to say something, but the roaring confusion and conflicting emotions in my head effectively strangled me.
Dad was on the wrong side of the fence. With the train. The lion.
He wasn’t even hurrying. He looked at me, smiled reassuringly, and told me not to cry.
I wanted to scream into his face, “I’m not crying because of the BALL! Do you really think I care about the BALL?? I care that you might DIE, you stupid, stupid, irresponsible, hopeless man!!”
He grubbed about in the grass, taking FAR too long – every terrifying second was hell for me – before picking up the ball, holding it up and actually grinning at me (FFS), looking very proud of himself, and then hoisting himself easily back over the fence.
I think a little piece of my heart broke that day. Because I couldn’t see my father in the same way ever again. I knew he was loving and earnest and kind, but my heart was heavy with the responsibility of knowing that he was also reckless, thoughtless and unreliable.
And although the rescued green ball rolled around in the toy box for years, and seemed to pop up now and then under the bed, I couldn’t bring myself to play with it again. Not once.