I don’t know what age I was when this happened. I hope I was young enough for my disgusting behaviour and my naivety to be excusable.
I was in a gang called the PVK. The V and the K make it sound like an Uzbek paramilitary organisation but we were unarmed, and dangerous only unto ourselves. We were the Pine View Kids, named for the street we all lived on. And these were innocent times, before infants were recruited as drug dealer lookouts and learned how to carry menace. For us, gang was just a collective noun for a group of middle class, prepubescent street urchins. The PVK were no angels but we were mostly benign.
We were hanging out in the local park. The park was, and still is (see Google Street View image below), a reasonably large area of grass in the middle of a reasonably large housing estate. There were swings from which we launched ourselves into the mud before wrapping their chains round the crossbar. There was a slide that we would mostly run up rather than slide down. There was a climbing frame with bars from which we would hang upside down until we grew tall enough to bang our heads on the ground. And there was a roundabout that we would encircle and trap younger children on by spinning it so fast that it was too dangerous to jump off. We were “mostly” benign.
Other mostly benign gangs from different parts of the estate would come and go on assorted Raleigh icons – Chippers, Choppers, Grifters – to act out the rituals of communal ennui. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Despite the advance of digital technology I see those same rituals playing out today on the streets around my house. Only the bikes and the quality of footwear have changed.
It was inevitable that our paths crossed with another group of prepubescent street urchins from a different part of the estate. They were older than us, cocky and untouchable. The oldest of our elders, a boy whose face I recognised but whose name I didn’t know, singled me out for unwanted attention.
You were picking your nose and eating it in your bedroom last night. I saw you.
There are a hundred and one appropriate responses to being taunted like that in front of your friends. I could find none of them. Stunned silence and paralytic embarrassment don’t cut it in these situations. I had no witty retort. I had no cool brush-off. It was a catastrophic loss of face.
The problem was that he had me bang to rights. It was true, I had been excavating my nostrils the previous evening and, yes, I had eaten the grim pickings. Worse than that, I had been caught in flagrante delicto. Mea culpa. Guilty as charged.
But I was culpable of a worse crime than mucophagy (look it up).
I was guilty of innocence.
At the time, in the park, I was cursing the sequence of rotten luck and cruel coincidences that had brought about my shame. What were the odds of this boy passing our house and looking in the window at the exact moment of rhinotillexis (look it up)? And what were the odds of that same boy arriving in the same park at the same time as me?
It only dawned on me that evening that the odds were zero.
Being observed from the street is not in the same league as being burgled, but it still felt like a violation. An English boy’s bedroom is his castle and mine felt like it was under siege. I was determined to figure out the safe zones where I could not be seen from outside. My bedroom faced onto the back garden, a long narrow strip of grass with flowerbeds down each side. At the bottom were a rockery framed by tall conifers at the back, and a shrubbery of mature bushes of the dense variety. Behind these was a fence and a grass verge that sloped steeply down a few metres to the public footpath. The path was not visible from my room. People walking on the path were not visible from my room.
People on the path were not visible from my room.
So how had the boy seen me? He was a reliable witness because he knew exactly what I had done. But the evidence of my own eyes was telling me that it wasn’t possible.
I stumbled and fumbled in conceptual blackness until a dark idea percolated up through my artless mind.
Imagine you are a lowly grunt worker at CERN. You are a laboratory technician paid average wages to precisely execute strict instructions. Original thought does not feature in your job description. You run experiments designed by higher scientific beings to test their theories. Your job is to find empirical proof of the existence of sub-atomic particles that are figment of someone else’s superior imagination. The baby steps of your routine provide the empirical back fill for their giant intuitive leaps. Your discoveries are not your discoveries at all, and they are all expected.
Then one day a minor miracle happens on your watch. Your experiment exposes a hitherto unimagined particle, a revelation that sparks a revolution in particle physics. Our understanding of the universe is changed by a discovery that will carry your name ever after.
That’s how I felt when I realised that the boy in the park had told a deliberate untruth, with the sole purpose of making him look superior at my expense. Rather he had told what be thought to be an untruth. The fact that he had chosen a jibe that happened to be true was an unlikely coincidence, a fluke.
Everything changes in that moment. Life gets worse. It is tainted by guile, cunning, suspicion and wariness. But life also gets better. Trust is no longer a given and therefore becomes sacred.