Spark London: Home

My first ever Spark London. I was terrified and relieved that I was allowed to read my true story so I didn’t have to look at the room of strangers. It’s the real version of a piece that I had also written as fiction, and is based on something that happened on the estate I grew up on as a child in the 1970s. A council estate; I’m not from aristocracy.

I emailed it to Joanna Yates who then called me to discuss it. She asked me what happened, how I felt, what became of the boy, how I had responded to the incident as a child, how I felt about it now. She then instructed me to rewrite it more from my point of view and with more of a focus on how it affected my sense of home, which was the theme of the night. This is what Joanna does. She’s ace.

The first one below is what I submitted; underneath that is what I read after Jo had interviewed me. There are enormous similarities –  a lot of it is the same; but what Jo did was instill a sense of me in the story, rather than the boy. She was interested in how I had responded and how it had affected me, and this manifested itself in the final paragraph of the second version.

Version 1: Home

In the blazing hot summer of 1976 some teenagers set fire to a kid on my estate. It happened at the end of my block, about a hundred yards from my house, in a little wooded area by the primary school I attended. Despite the proximity of several dozen homes no one heard him cry for help: maybe there wasn’t enough air to carry his screams across the estate. Word got around really quickly; I am tempted to say like wildfire. The kid survived; that lack of air probably saved him; stopped the fire from taking hold of him fully. We knew who he was; we knew where his house was. It was near mine.

Until that fire I had known nothing like the shock and fear and revulsion that overtook me after it happened. Council estates now are all chicken wire round the roofs of tower blocks, and barred front doors; they are all about keeping you in or trouble out. But where I lived, in 1976, it was about the front door staying open all day; weaving in and out of my friends’ houses; eating wherever I happened to land when it was teatime, and knowing someone would phone my mum and tell her. And in the six-weeks’ holiday in the summer of 1976, my friends and I splashed in the communal paddling pools on the pavement between our houses, ignorant of any hosepipe ban. We played ball games on the grass at the end of our block, or climbed the frames on the communal play area at the top of the estate near the well-used community centre; or we took off on our bikes first thing in the morning with ham sandwiches in the saddle bags, and went fishing for sticklebacks in the nearby lakes. It was like something out of Huckleberry Finn (if we’d ever heard of him, and at that time I hadn’t). This had been a summer of heat; a summer of shorts and t-shirts; of ice-cream smiles and brown skin. Once the kids set fire to the boy it got colder, certainly for me.
For days after, I would go to the site with a couple of friends and look at burnt flesh. Well, that’s what the older kids told us it was. Just as his screams had died on his lips because of this lack of air, there hadn’t been enough of it to carry the remains of his skin away either. It seems unlikely that this was true, but at the time I left my home, walked a hundred or so yards with my friends and stood there and gawped at what this kid had left behind, in the little wooded area by the primary school.

The community centre was close to my home, and in the past it had housed under-12s discos where I danced to songs that had been in the charts a few years before, drank fizzy pop and ate flying saucers filled with sherbert; there were cabaret nights for the grown-ups, prize bingo. Then, after the fire, the estate committee held a benefit for the boy there: a raffle, a talent show. The idea was to raise money, because when he recovered and got out of hospital, he was going to need special equipment and probably a good holiday, although not somewhere hot. I didn’t go, but I heard that when they sent the bucket round for donations, someone put a box of matches in. At the time I didn’t get it; but now it says a lot to me about the place I called my home and the way it seemed to me to distort after the fire. The estate, and life on it, became something else for a while.

When I was twelve, I moved away but I never forgot this boy: I remembered his name, I remembered the fire, I remembered the heat. Senior school, college, university, work: all the time I wondered what became of him. Then the Internet was invented and I found out. A photo accompanying a newspaper article showed he had bulked up – perhaps because of the steroids that were used to treat him, perhaps as a way of never allowing this to happen to him again. And with that bulk and the memory of the fire, came a blazing anger. Near his own house, not far from where we had lived as children, a neighbour made a racist comment about his girlfriend. When I read this, I was strangely relieved to discover he had formed a relationship. I felt that this proved that his life hadn’t been all trauma and misery. But the headline had already given it away and I remember my stomach twisting as I read the details, feeling sad and sick at the story of his life; seeing no mention of what had happened to him in the past and wondering if his lawyer had brought it up in mitigation; thinking I had seen enough crime shows on TV to know that they should have done, that it had to have been at the heart of what he went on to do. Because in the street where he lived as an adult, with his girlfriend and their children, where the neighbour made the racist comment, the kid in him flared up, forced his way into the neighbour’s house, and beat him to death. The boy who was set on fire is doing life for murder now, and the prison cell is his home.

Version 2: Home

In the blazing hot summer of 1976 some kids set fire to a boy on my estate. It happened at the end of my block, about a hundred yards from my house, in a little wooded area by the primary school I attended. Despite the proximity of several dozen homes no one heard the boy cry for help: maybe there wasn’t enough air to carry his screams across the estate. The boy survived; that lack of air probably saved him; stopped the fire from taking hold of him fully. Word got around really quickly; I am tempted to say like wildfire. So we soon knew who he was; we knew where his house was. It was near mine.

Until that fire I had known nothing like the shock, fear and revulsion that overtook me after it happened. Council estates now are all chicken wire round the roofs of tower blocks, and barred front doors; they are all about keeping you in or trouble out. But where I lived, in 1976, it was about the front door staying open all day; weaving in and out of my friends’ houses; eating wherever I happened to land when it was teatime, and knowing someone would phone my mum and tell her. And in the six-weeks’ holiday that summer, my friends and I splashed in the paddling pool on the pavement between our houses, ignorant of any hosepipe ban. We played ball games on the grass at the end of our block and climbed the frames on the communal play area at the top of the estate near the well-used community centre; or we took off on our bikes first thing in the morning with ham sandwiches in the saddle bags, and went fishing for sticklebacks in the nearby lakes. It was like something out of Huckleberry Finn (if we’d ever heard of him, and at that time I hadn’t). This had been a summer of heat; a summer of shorts and t-shirts; of ice-cream smiles and brown skin. Once the kids set fire to the boy it got colder, certainly for me.

For days after, I would go to the site with a couple of friends and look at burnt flesh. Well, that’s what the older kids told us it was. Just as his screams had died on his lips because of this lack of air, there hadn’t been enough of it to carry the remains of his skin away either. It seems unlikely that this was true, but at the time I left my home, walked a hundred or so yards with my friends and stood there and gawped at what this boy had left behind, in the little wooded area by the primary school.

The community centre was close to my home, and in the past it had housed under-12s discos where I danced to songs that had been in the charts a few years before, drank fizzy pop and ate flying saucers and black jacks; there were cabaret nights and prize bingo for the grown-ups. Then, after the fire, the estate committee held a benefit for the boy there: a raffle, a talent show. The idea was to raise money, because when he got out of hospital he was going to need special equipment and probably a good holiday, although not somewhere hot. I didn’t go, but I heard that when they sent the bucket round for donations, someone put a box of matches in. At the time I didn’t get it; but now it says a lot to me about the place I called my home and the way it seemed to me to distort after the fire. The estate, and life on it, became something else for a while.

When I was twelve, I moved away but I never forgot this boy: I remembered his name, I remembered the fire, I remembered the heat. Senior school, college, university, work: all the time I wondered what became of him. Then the Internet was invented and I found out. A photo accompanying a newspaper article showed he had bulked up – perhaps because they used steroids to treat his burns, perhaps as a way of never allowing this to happen to him again. And with that bulk and the memory of the fire, came a blazing anger. Near his own house, not far from where we had lived as children, a neighbour made a racist comment about the boy’s girlfriend. When I read this, I was strangely relieved to discover he had formed a relationship. I felt that this proved that his life hadn’t been all trauma and misery, defined only by the fire. But the headline had already given it away and I remember my stomach twisting as I read the details, feeling sad and sick at the story of his life; there was no mention of what had happened to him in the past and I wondered if his lawyer had brought it up in mitigation; I had seen enough crime shows on TV to know that they should have, that it had to have been at the heart of what he went on to do. Because in the street where he lived as an adult, with his girlfriend and their children, where the neighbour made the racist comment, the kid in him flared up, forced his way into the neighbour’s house, and beat him to death. The boy who was set on fire is doing life for murder now, and the prison cell is his home.

When I left that council estate it was for another a few miles away. This one had no community centre and no real community and I found it didn’t really bother me; I’d already lost so much of what I thought my home was. I had left all the friends I knew behind on that last estate and so the days of being in and out of each other’s houses were left behind too. After a brief sense of community at university I find that wherever I have lived since, friends and family are scattered too far apart for casual dropping in, and maybe that’s how I like it. I live now in an area where neighbours may recognise faces but we don’t always know each other’s names and we keep ourselves to ourselves. Part of me feels a little sad about that, but a bigger part knows from experience that homes and communities are not always safe and warm, even when they’re blazing hot; especially when they’re blazing hot. Maybe I am still a little cold because of what happened at the end of my block, about a hundred yards from my house.

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