I consider myself to be quite fortunate in that I had a pretty trauma-free childhood. Some people I know had all kinds of problems as children and when I look at their experiences I am pleased to reflect that my own formative years were humdrum but happy.
We lived at the bottom of a terraced street where very little traffic passed. One thing I had drummed into me from a very early age was to keep away from the main road at the top of our street, as it was a dangerous place – and so it proved. I have two unpleasant memories of incidents that happened when I ventured up there, yet neither involved traffic on the main road itself.
The first happened was when I was only six. I was half way up the street on my way to school and I spotted a huge yellow contraption coming up the main road. I believe it was one of those heavy machines that scrape the ground level at the start of a building project. Whatever it was I wanted a closer look at it and so I ran towards the main road for a butchers. There was a corner shop at the top of our street (the one where I attempted my failed pie purchase) and as I passed that I ran out onto the road of the side street and was hit by a baker’s van that was pulling in. The impact knocked me head first into the road, which was not tarmac but earth and pebbles. I was stunned but picked myself up and ran home screaming.
Obviously my mother was very shaken to see me in such distress and bleeding from my eyebrow, but when I calmed down and she cleaned me up it became clear that things weren’t so bad. The two men from the baker’s van came to see that I was all right and they brought me chocolates. They were very apologetic but there was nothing they could have done as I ran out from a blind corner. I made the most of my situation, watching with mother with a blanket on the sette and enjoying my chocolates. I was disappointed that I didn’t make the local paper though. A few months earlier my best friend, David, had been hit by a bus on the main road. He was taken to hospital, although not seriously hurt, but he got his name in print.
About a year later I was playing tag with a few friends, again at the top of our street. An old man passed by and he stopped to watch us for a while. Finally he gave us a shout and gestured for us to go over to him. I can still see him to this day in his flat cap and a sleeveless jumper on top of a white shirt. We approached the stranger cautiously but his smile put us at ease and he said he had something for us. He fumbled about in his pocket and produced a small bottle. “Hold out your hands,” he said and we obeyed. As we lined up with our outstretched palms, like schoolboys awaiting a stroke of the cane, he removed the cap from the bottle and poured into each of our hands a large blob of mercury.
We were delighted with this amazing stuff and we made off, careful not to let the precious cargo spill from our hands. As we ran excitedly down the street one of our number, Stew, tripped and dropped his blob, which disintegrated into a million tiny silver beads. Those of us who made it back with our treasure intact gleefully poured it from one hand to the other. We showed off our wonder metal to other kids but word soon spread to adult ears and an alarmed grandmother came out to see if the story was true. She was horrified to see that it was and she promptly made us drop our mercury down the drain, before marching us off to a back yard tap to wash our hands thoroughly.
That was the end of the matter and it was all but forgotten. To our innocent eyes he was just a friendly old man giving us kids something to play with. But as I got older I began to wonder what his motives were in giving such a dangerous substance to children. The more I think about it the more sinister the whole episode becomes.
I will return to that very spot on 21st March for yet more unpleasantness. For only feet away from the site of my accident and the spot where the guy gave us mercury is the building that was then, and still is now, my dentist’s