228 – The Summer Holiday

The best friend a boy could ever have.

Look at the weather! It’s mid-August but the season’s already fading. For all the rain we’re having right now, summer might as well be over.

For my family, who always went on holiday too early in the season or too late, August was the traditionally the month of kicking back. “The beaches are so crowded this time of year,” my mum would say, sniffiing at the thought of holiday crowds as if she could smell their sweat and sun lotion, and so we rarely travelled at the season’s peak and instead we remained at home.

Summers feel different now. I don’t know if it’s climate change at fault or simply the process of getting older. Maybe my skin’s become attuned to the environment in a different way; maybe as it stretched my pores gaped and nerve-endings realigned, and now I feel prickly and uncomfortable in even the mildest heat. When the sun shines it shines oppressively, and I’ve come to crave shade.

It wasn’t as if I was always an outdoor person but I could at least tolerate hot weather when it rolled around rather than gripe endlessly about it. In the Augusts of my youth my dad would fetch the paddling pool from wherever it dwelled the rest of the year and I’d paddle in it timidly, hating the leaves and dead grass that floated in it. Worse were the ants: the old grey crazy paving we had – a concrete slab dropped  from a great height – was riddled with holes from which they poured. As soon as I noticed ants in the pool I’d dash back inside, flip-flips flapping, to kneel on the freezer top and watch them suspiciously through the dining room window. Regularly each summer my dad emptied boiling water down the ant holes, and regularly – far more often than it seems to happen today – they swarmed out, taking to the skies on over-sized cellophane wings. Flying ant days filled the sky with static snow and seagulls, who swooped and gobbled them by the score.

We had a swing in the back garden. For a long time I was too scared to use it (and yes, I was – and still am – a timid soul) because the lilac bushes near to it attracted butterflies in great number. When my dad hacked them down and the butterflies were no more I used to kick backward on the swing, and as it swung forward and the seat reached its apex I’d let go and jump. For the briefest moment I flew, and though I can’t remember if I landed on my feet or in a sprawling pile of limbs on the lawn I remember my stomach lurching and how it felt to be unrestrained by gravity, if only for a second.

My mum created summer projects to keep us busy; her proudest moment was the scrapbook we kept every day throughout summer. Each day there was new collage to make or picture to draw, and all of them were pasted into an increasingly tatty and haphazard book of child-made delights. We smashed hard-boiled eggshells and glued the fragments together to make walls, teased cotton wool to make sheep and dress-making ends to make boat-sails. I practised my handwriting every day in a failed attempt to make it legible and when we went on day trips to Goodrington or The Shire Horse Centre we brought back souvenirs we could glue into our scrapbooks: tourist pamphlets and ticket stubs,

As I grew older I devised my own projects to carry out beneath the ever-blue sky. A mobile library visited the estate fortnightly and early on a Thursday evening, in the hour or so it settled in the road above mine, I’d troop up and seach the shelves for something to keep me busy.

Actually that isn’t true at all;: I always knew exactly which book I wanted to take: The Usborne Spy’s Guidebook.

This is the book by which all children’s activity books should be judged. Never has a book given so much pleasure to so many children. Within its pages were cyphers, recipes for invisible ink, the hows and wherefores of secret drops, secret signals – secrets on every page. As every child who read the book did, I started writing with matchsticks dipped in lemon juice, wrapping twigs in leaves and hiding coded messages in brick-mortar cracks and behind fire hydrants. I created a network of secret places that nobody else knew about – no one except me –  drew a map of all the drops I’d made and coded that as well. Children have their own society hidden beneath ours – their own social order, their own rules –  but this this was a world of my own device that I wanted to share but dared not.

You can probably guess what happened next. A secret shared is a secret halved; I showed a friend my secret espionage world and he told somebody else, and one day all my drops had been vandalised, my carefully coded messages replaced with insults.

It was cruelty, not counter-espionage. Even before the rain had come, summer was over.for me.

Other kids in the street had their own projects. The scary older kids from up the road built a club house at the centre of three fir trees so densely fluffy even passers-by on the pavement next to them wouldn’t see the children hiding in their midst. They started building a go-kart, but after assembling only a wooden frame with a single, wheel-less axle, gave up on it. The owner of the house behind the trees spent more and more time ostensibly hosing his garden, standing guard at the club house entrance stopping random kids from squatting on his property.

Like him, I’ve turned into a grumpy old who hates kids having fun. I understand now why he wouldn’t want children in his garden but back then I remember hovering around, somewhat confused as to why he wouldn’t let us into the club house. This was doubly troubling as my sister – and if you were a ever a small boy with a smaller sister in tow you’ll understand how wonderful this place was – was terribly allergic to tree sap, and so couldn’t enter the club house without her face puffing up. This was the perfect place to spend a few secluded hours – and anyway, the man’s son said we could use it! He was a scary older kid and not averse to beating up young ‘fraidy-cats like myself; if he said it was okay to use the club house, who was his dad to say otherwise?

I understand the man’s point, now. Today I’d gladly yell at the kids in my street, who cause raucous mayhem with nary an adult to keep them in line. Throwing grit from the grit bin, tearing down tree-branches – we never did stuff like that! For a long time I resented another old man on my estate, who’d yell at us from a window when we walked past his car and make us cross the street so we couldn’t commit whatever mayhem he’d imagined. We never so much as laid a finger on his stupid, rubbish car; now I wonder if he didn’t have the right idea all along.

The summer holiday – which once seemed like a dessert with no end – draws to a close. Six weeks shrinks to six days and it’s into town we go to try on new school clothes and have our feet measured by the cancer-giving Clarke’s shoe sizer. A new month, a new uniform, a new teacher, a new term; if I could have clung to the summer holiday my fingernails would have gouged welts in it as I was dragged back to school.

Rain falls. Trees turn. The season fades and winter approaches.

And though it’s only been a week since term started and my shoes still bite when I walk all those summer memories turn sepia, bleached by a slowly setting sun.

It doesn’t matter that the summer holidays are over. It doesn’t matter when we sing Autumn Days in assembly, or gather conkers from piles of golden leaves.

All the heartache and sunburn of the summer holiday is behind us, but Christmas holidays are still to come.

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