Rolling Down The Hill
Published on 07 October 2015
Sitting around the kitchen table at 5am, just me, my dad and a spicy chicken and pineapple pizza, we somehow got to talking about feeling sad. He and I did the talking. The pizza just lay there. We did most of our talking either while driving or sitting at the kitchen table in the middle of the night, my dad and I. Dad was a taxi driver. Night shift. He started at dinner time and worked til breakfast time depending on how much money he had or hadn't made. Depends how you look at it. I worked in a nightclub. Dad would come collect me and drive me home after my shift. On the way, we'd pick up a spicy chicken and pineapple pizza from the shithole takeaway place round the corner but sometimes dad had already picked up the spicy chicken and pineapple pizza and so I'd sit with it on my lap all the way home. I never let on that the warmth of the car seat under my bum where the pizza box had been made me squirm. I'd sit quietly, praying cheese grease wasn't soaking into my trousers. My trousers were soaked in stale beer anyway. They were stinking. I don't know why I was bothered about a bit of cheese grease on the arse.
Dad said that sometimes, when you feel sad, there's nothing else for it but to just go back to bed – fuck it. I agreed. 'See. If ye need to go back to bed – then that's alright. But it's no' alright if you're going back to bed and thinking about bad things. What use is that? So. Hen, if you need to go back to bed, go back to bed, but only think about nice things.' I thought this was a good rule and a pretty sound piece of advice. I didn't think to ask my dad what nice things he might think about - but then I didn't get much of a chance to wonder about the nice things I might think about either before he rounded off the conversation. 'So. Whenever you feel sad, go back to bed – and just think about nice things. Like rolling down the hill at the caravan with Julie'.
I think Julie was my first proper friend. I don't remember that much about her and that annoys me but I know I definitely loved her and I know that's true because the day our mothers told us that Julie wouldn't be coming to the caravan any more, I thought my life had ended.
I do remember these things: I remember how wispy and wild the curly ends of her hair were and I remember that her hairline was awkward and weird in a way that made it nigh on impossible for her to do anything interesting or fun with bobbles or clasps. She didn't seem to mind. She never really mentioned it. I remember that our mothers must have shopped in the same shops because Julie and I always had close-to-identical play outfits. We each had a wardrobe full of grey marl tracksuits all with slightly different colour accents (I wore a lot of jade green, Julie wore a lot of burgandy) and we had the same sand shoes and the same wellies. I like that. I liked us dressing the same. My favourite sand shoes were our grey suede-ette lace ups with the white stripe on the sides. Julie didn't have a Sunday dress because Julie's family didn't make her go to church so I'd take mine off and change in to my tracksuit when she came to play. I didn't mind.
I don't cope well in a group. I've never been much of a group person. I guess that's why I don't throw parties. Or go to parties. As it happened, back then, Julie didn't much care for a group either so that worked out well. She was shy and timid. Adults would probably have described her as 'a quiet wee thing'. Adults described me as 'a wee chatterbox'. I can't remember what Julie's voice sounded like but I'm almost sure I never heard her shout or scream. Squeak and squeal a bit – yes. Shouting, screaming – no.
We spent our days together, at the caravan, playing on the swings, hanging upside down on the climbing frame, practising handstands and rolling down the hill. That was fun enough for us. And when it was raining, we'd amuse ourselves by making up rude songs and colouring in. Of the two rainy day activities I much preferred the colouring in but Julie had an older brother who knew a lot of songs about poop and so, couped up in a caravan together, it was inevitable that some of his gross boy humour rubbed off – much to Julie's mother's disgust. One time, when she caught Julie singing me a song about diarrhoea, I worried Julie's mum might have a seizure.
The caravan park didn't offer much in the way of organised entertainment in those days – maybe the odd Friday night dance if it was someone's 40th or 50th birthday, or an occasional bingo night if the person who owned the bingo set was around and remembered to bring it with them. There was a sports day every year but, obviously, I hated that. There was an outdoor swimming pool in the centre of the site, but given that it was rarely summer even in summer and that the water was always cold, it didn't really count as a thing. The snooker hall hadn't become a snooker hall yet – and even if it had, I doubt Julie and I would have bothered much with it. We preferred playing outdoors. Besides, the snooker hall sounds like the kind of place other people might like to congregate.
Given the amount of time we spent in each other's company, I imagine Julie and I must have talked about a whole load of stuff together. I'm sure she knew all my secrets and I'm sure I knew hers but I can't remember any details beyond the conversations we'd have regularly about how much we loved lemonade flavour Sparkle ice lollies or about how the glossy tissue paper Auntie Bessie wrapped up our 10p mixtures up in looked suspiciously like the same glossy tissue paper she stocked the ladies toilets with.
I can't remember what I did. I can't remember what I said. But Julie was upset and she was angry. She might even have cried. Even if the crying didn't actually happen and I made that bit up, she was still upset and angry enough to tell me she didn't want to play with me anymore and that she was going back to her caravan to tell her mother that we were officially no longer friends. I know I felt guilty and I know I felt sorry. And I know that I deserved to feel those things. I also felt a bit scared that Julie would tell her mum that she didn't want to play with me anymore and that I might have to answer some difficult questions about that later. Anyway, of course, I had to win Julie's friendship back. This was really important. Somehow, I had to demonstrate what a good pal I was. I had to show her I was fun and remind her why she liked me. I was desperate for her to forgive me for whatever horrible thing I did and I wanted her to be my friend again – so I did all I could.
I started talking to a bush.
Christ. It was barely even a bush. It was more of a..., a collection of stumpy stick bits poking out of the ground. Even with barely any leaves on the branches and a big ugly clump of mud stuff at the bottom, there were a few signs of something – blossom or berries, having sprouted on there at some time. But not now. My 'please be my friend again' skit went something like this:
I pretended the bush was me. The real me poked fun at bush me and real me told bush me that I was stupid and bad to have been horrible to Julie and that Julie was my best friend in the world and that if Julie didn't talk to me, I'd just be a baldy stick mess and that I would do well to remember that the next time I thought of taking Julie's friendship for granted. I then launched into a complicated and surprisingly energetic physical comedy piece that involved me rolling over in to the sandpit and kicking my legs around like a mad dog.
After a while, Julie seemed satisfied that I was, indeed, sorry - and when I saw a tiny little escapee smile curl out from the corner of her mouth, I knew she appreciated that I'd thrashed around in the sandpit to prove it. I knew everything was going to be ok when she joined in. Julie told bush me that I was an idiot before snapping a bit of branch off. Then said we could probably be best friends again. Soon, everything was just about back to normal. There was one important thing left for me to say. I clambered out from the sandpit. 'Julie... Do you want to go roll down the hill?' Julie nodded. Just like I've never been very good in groups, I've never been very good at apologies either.
Of all the things I loved about playing at the caravan, rolling down the hill was my ultimate favourite. I could have spent entire days rolling down the hill. I did spend entire days rolling down the hill. Building dens, climbing trees, singing on the swings – all those things were brilliant. But none of them came close to the thrill of standing at the top of the hill, hands by my side, mentally preparing to launch my body down the verge and anticipating that tickly feeling you get when you think your brains might fall out your ears because you're tumbling so fast. Sometimes the grass was damp. Didn't matter. Sometimes the grass was warm and spiky. Didn't matter. Spiky was part of the fun. Who knows what might jag into you where on the way down? Aaagrh!
But sometimes... sometimes the grass had been freshly cut. And sometimes Alistair would take a while to come back with the rake and collect all the loose cuttings. Sometimes he'd leave them to dry and crisp up in the sun until they turned into scratchy little balls of pale yellow wool. Pale yellow balls of allergy and itchy torment. Roll down the hill when that stuff was lying around and you were definitely in for hives. I don't know how the grass cuttings made it in to my jogging bottoms, but they always, always did.
People are forever commenting on how much they love the smell of cut grass, aren't they? Well, I mean, I love the smell of freshly cut grass too. But almost as soon as I've thought the thought, 'Mmmm. Cut grass. I love the smell of freshly cut grass...' My brains immediately make the connection. Cut grass. Dried cut grass. Dried cut grass up yer bum. Hives. Calamine lotion.
That said though, there is nothing I wouldn't do to roll down that damn hill right this minute.
Dads aren't always great at noticing things or paying attention to the stuff you think they should be paying attention to. But knowing that my dad had, at some point – looked out of the caravan window to see me hurtling down the hill, squealing and laughing and rolling about and paid enough attention to notice that I was at my absolute happiest right then, well, that hits me hard in the heart. That he thought to remind me of the fact twenty-something years later is something else to say thanks for. That and the recurrent hankering for spicy chicken and pineapple pizza I get in the middle of the night some times.