WE SHALL BECOME AS GODS
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
Vicarage Avenue and Stone Hill Road were arboreal streets, lined with sturdy lime trees, and where the two intersected spread the pristinely neat front lawn of Mrs Hugerwhorf, an ancient widow who peered from a crack in her veiled curtains whenever healthily unruly children played on the street outside. Looking back, I cannot decide whether her ghoulish vigilance was borne out of envy, suspicion, fear, boredom, or something more tortuous as to which I cannot guess. All the emotions and deadly sins which I mention (the deadliest of which may be envy, but the least forgivable of which is boredom) are known to both adults and children, though I remain convinced, thirty years later, that there are some sensations which can only be arrived at by having walked worn and faded paths, or from having lived in a particular place and time; indeed I am utterly convinced that some sensations have become extinct, and can never be known to me or any of my contemporaries. In any event, Mrs Hugerwhorf, as her name suggested, came from an age of dragons and was conceivably born in a desert cave, or else in the pristine house in which she lived, which is much the same thing. She did not, however, breathe fire, but watched and waited, waited and watched, until such time as her ancestral dragons which slept beneath the hills awoke from their forgotten sleep and spat fire through the spouting crags. Occasionally, when she infected the weather with her own chilling temperatures, we would see a curling passage of black smoke from her chimneypot, and our suspicions were confirmed. Again, I am convinced that there are some things apparent to children that are unknown or else forgotten by grownups in their conspiratorial complicities.
Next to Mrs Hugerwhorf’s house was a house of a shabbier character, beyond whose towering and uninviting walls stretched a raggle-taggle land which was altogether inviting, and even as children we had learned quickly that behind tall walls and fences there was usually something both forbidding and inviting. Lessons, we are assured, are to be learnt, and the best way to learn lessons, so I used to tell myself, is through acts of liberating and joyous disobedience. This shabbier house, with its high walls and horned and crooked branches, was Mr White’s house.
The green and quiet space beyond Mr White’s wall was a busy nest of shambles: an allotment. I had gazed through fences and over high walls at the strange world of allotments before, and I knew of a younger boy’s father who worked on one daily, loping homewards in the evenings with a bobbing walk, each hand weighted with plastic bags and a plastic look of inscrutable discontent on his face, which probably meant that his wife kept an egg in another man’s nest.
When we thought Mrs Hugerwhorf wasn’t watching my friend Kez and I would climb – agile monkeys that we were – up the gnarled and nobbled lumps of the lime trees that grew somehow out of the tarmac and concrete, in whose big-leaved branches we would spy on those who in turn spied on us. When Mr White had gone to bed, or at least stopped watering his lawn (something he seemed to do every sunny day, traipsing about with his watering can sprinkling and tending his rosebeds, above which, unseen, we would snigger and hoot like owls) we would descend the monkey-footed lumps and infiltrate, with the silent and lengthening shadows of long summer evenings, the secret pathways of his property, dim as candlelight, and trespass into the shadowy recesses of his household, sneaky as cats hunting among the parked cars and rubber-hatted dustbins.
The allotment, seen from the high outer wall, was a gentle prospect of bulbous vegetables and tendrils twining round canes and stalks, of sunken pitchforks and spades, rickety makeshift sheds, dilapidated greenhouses and toppling meshed trellises. The air smelt of soil and fermentation from a nearby brewery. The whistling birch trees that lined the opposite side of the road were slender and feminine and seemed to defy gravity; they glittered and fluttered in the noon sunlight, their multitudinous leaves, glowing like flames, concealing a shifting myriad of starling-throated tongues.
One thing we had noticed from the high fetch of the lime trees, at this particular time of year, were Mr White’s apple trees beyond the perimeter wall, and although we knew that stealing apples was wrong, the chance of freely feeding our famished bellies was altogether enticing, as we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and our adventures had dwindled our energy supplies.
I had eaten the poisonous berries off a holly bush before, so I knew to my cost the hidden properties of forbidden fruits, but Mr White’s apples were plump and juicy and ready for the taking hand. The wasps knew this too, for we watched them drunkenly flying in and out of apples with gnawed and burrowed holes, exits and entrances into sweetly fermenting pulp and gourd, irresistible tan-hued tunnels, glistening and sugary, where the sting-tailed, tiger-skinned insects directed their mazy flight. Some, drunk on the alcohol of time-bruised apple flesh, dropped into the forest of grasses below, intoxicated and incapable of coherent movement. (I was too young to interpret this as a valuable lesson, a lesson which might have served me well in later life.) On seeing a fat orb spider repairing the symmetry of its web across a garage door, we delicately plucked one of the cavernous apples that had a wasp inside, waited for it to emerge, then blew it into the heart of the web. Straight away, with ruthless speed and economy, the knitting spider circuited its web to where the angry wasp struggled in the sticky filaments and bound it in a coddle of shining silks, before sucking the essence from the mummified victim. Believing that wasps might be a strong opponent to this surgical predator, and as much out of morbid fascination as anything, we rehearsed this exercise again and again, but each time the spider was victor. Sated on the blood of the first wasp, it now preserved the other wasps in silver parcels of silk to satisfy its later appetite, its web a banquet, a larder full of dinners and suppers. Spiders were the object of my one phobia, house spiders especially. I had once caught an orb spider and sliced into the abdomen’s multiple glands of silk to inspect the inner workings of this minute monster. It only served to enamour and horrify all the more; it was as if the spider, though dead, paralysed me as its victim and scurried through my nightmares.
When we had done with studying the activities of the spider our hunger reminded us what we were there to accomplish. I gave Kez a bunk-up onto the wall, then I, taller and stronger than him, took a run up and hoisted myself up on my own sapling arms and legs.
“Can you see anybody?” asked Kez, regaining his breath and wistfully searching the motley patches of distance for signs of movement.
“The coast looks clear,” I reckoned.
The sun shone out from behind a cloud and we drew breath in the languor of its heat. Sitting atop the wall was in that moment like sitting on top of the world. We swung our bare legs, golden with summer dust, in that motion which the retrospective eye sees as carefree. Starlings chirruped and skirled and wisped, and somewhere a blackbird gilded the moment with its flute. Everything there and then is here and now, and the dial of time passed on the face of the globed world slowly beneath our notice.
“Look at the apples!” exclaimed Kez. Mr White’s apples were outlined against the sunlight, green and ruddy and end-of-summer plump, tempting and enchanting to childish eyes, hanging on pale thin branches not far past our outstretched arms.
“I can’t quite reach them,” I said.
“Well, if you can’t I can’t. Leap across. Go on, Jim, I dare you. We could fill baskets with them. Think how pleased our mums would be, they wouldn’t have to shop all week.”
“I don’t know about that. And we haven’t got a basket, so what are you talking about?”
“The basket doesn’t matter. We could still carry them. We could fill our arms and pockets. You could get across to that branch. Go on, Jim.”
“No chance. You do it. No don’t, you’d fall flat on your face.”
“Get down then and shimmy up the trunk.”
“Shimmy up the trunk!” I scoffed. But I could never resist a dare.
I gave Kez a wink and said: “Where’s there’s danger, there’s fun.”
“Hurrah!” cheered Kez. My formula that fun was to be had wherever danger was pending had become a quotable saying of mine, and it was repeated whenever we hurled water bombs through open bedroom windows or urinated on the “cow’s nest”, our neighbour’s crate of milk bottles.
I got down from the wall and into Mr White’s allotment. Thick thorny stems, horned as the undulating spines of serpents, rose above the waves of massy tangled vegetation. Reaching my foot into the crook of an apple tree I hoisted myself up and set about shaking branches so that the apples on looser buds shook free to the carpet of grass below. I tore ones that were reachable from the lower branches and tossed them to Kez.
For a glorious few moments we forgot ourselves, squatting like infant kings in our apple tree domain, chomping on fat fruits amid the lazy buzz of flies, communing as equals, a blissful union of joking chums of an endless summer’s day. Until Kez noticed something.
“Look!” he yelled in a whisper. “Or no, don’t look now, don’t turn around.”
(I had already turned)
“Hugerwhorf’s watching through her curtain,” he hissed.
I saw a triangle of darkness close in her window.
“It looked,” said Kez, “like she was on the phone.”
“Really?” I tasted acidic citrus and spat pulp. “Quick, bag the apples, Kez.”
We heard a slam like thunder, and a disembodied voice yelled “Oy! What do yer think yer doin’? Get down outta there!”
It was Mr White on his patio, coming towards us. Kez dropped down from the wall onto the street. I tossed random apples to him over the boundary, but Kez, already in a panic, let them roll into the road to bump and tumble against the kerb.
“Run for it!”
“Wait!” I called, falling from the tree in a shower of fruit and cracking branches, but Kez was scarpering, and cowards are quick when they’re afraid. I hauled myself up from dusty mud and weeds and leapt at the boundary wall, which this side was guarded by thistles and thorns. The first time I failed and slid back down, feeling my knees scrape against rough brick. Mr White was fast approaching behind me. I launched myself at the wall a second time, and this time there was enough spring in my legs to gain purchase and heave myself up. Without daring to look round I went over the other side and dropped to my feet so hard the ground seemed to tremble, sending a brief numb shock through the soles of my feet. I fell again onto my hands which sorely grazed, but I was like an animal evolving from four legs to two in a heartbeat, for such was the rage in Mr White’s voice that I forgot everything except how to run. Kez was now nowhere to be seen – he was either crouching between parked cars or had turned into a cat and leapt over a wall, or else had made it safely home.
“Get over here!” I heard Mr White call raspingly. He had by now exited his garden gate and was planting his quick footsteps where mine had been only a moment earlier. “You won’t get away with this!” he called again, gaining in pursuit. Though much older than I was, boy the man could run! It felt again like the ground was shaking, though this time with his heavy thunderous footfall.
Dogs burst into barking life as I sped past garden gates. I thought I saw Susie, the prettiest girl from my class at school, look out from her bedroom window. Perhaps now she wouldn’t be so disbelieving of my daily adventures. I had turned the corner of my street and could now see my house. Perhaps if I could make it through the front door Mr White would still see where I lived, for he was by now merely twenty feet behind me. Thinking quickly, I ran in through my back garden gate and made it into the house without slamming the back door. Surely he wouldn’t follow me in through the back garden? For all he knew, I was garden-jumping and hedge-hopping, trespassing through properties as only children and burglars and cats could. The house, indeed the whole neighbourhood, seemed quiet. I was sure nobody was home. I was just thinking that I might have made it back with such swift and nimble discretion that my pursuer had not noticed my disappearance and had given up the chase, like a puzzled bloodhound when the hare, almost within the snatch of its jaws, bounds and springs into invisibility, when bang bang bang! – there was a fist at the front door. I moved invisibly through the living room, and passing through the front hallway onto the stairs I dared to half turn my head just long enough to make out the silhouette of Mr White through the coloured glass. BANG BANG BANG went the front door again, and as I made my way upstairs I heard a creaking movement from the front room.
“Hang on there,” I heard my father’s voice.
What on earth was he doing home? By the time he opened the front door I was hiding under my brother’s bed. Apples that I had stuffed into my deep jumper pockets rolled out like planets across the cosmos of the carpet. One, which I had bitten into only moments earlier while sitting in the branches, bore a ring-moat of tooth-marks and a yellowing stain of inner flesh, which earlier had been glistening wet and bright. I made a loop of my arms and garnered them within the orbit of my thumping heart.
With my belly to the ground and sweat on my face I felt the blood strum through my body. I heard commotion ensue from downstairs, which then quickly subsided. Holding my heartbeat in my mouth and biting down hard on my own arm to bung the sound of my panicky palpitations, I listened as best as I could. From what I could pick out from the voices I was amazed to hear a surprise of recognition and respect come from Mr White’s tone of voice. It seemed he knew my father, perhaps worked with him, and the reason for Mr White being at our front door changed from one of admonishing anger and retribution to one of appeased explanation and familiarity.
I do not, all these years later, recall any strict telling off from my father. I don’t recall whether he spoke careful words to me of cautionary advice. It’s not implausible that he even secretly condoned my behaviour as typically boyish; that I had cultivated an irrepressible zest for adventure that would be with me all my life.
I only recall that as he sat beside me by the window overlooking the garden I noticed thorn cuts on my calloused hands. It was evening now; a dusky western glow threaded through heavy rippling curtains of mounting cloud. There, lying in the garden grass below, which I had thrown from the window to conceal my guilt, was a spill of tainted apples, their corrupted skins oozing with the sugars of decay in an air possessed of amber hues and the earthy foretaste of autumn.
At the age of thirty-seven, experience has granted me the flawed wisdom to amend my foolhardy boyhood motto of where there’s danger, there’s fun. I think it far truer now to say that where there is fun, there is danger. Very few of life’s serious pleasures are exempt from this rule, and scrumping, I promise you, isn’t one of them.