My previous post described my first two years at a school in Sheffield called Brook. This new nine-page edited excerpt from my memoir, Spiral to Edinburgh, relates my last summer living in England. I was thirteen.
The first section here is about an episode where I made, or thought I’d made, friends near my home, which was on the other side of the city from school. For the rest, I’ll remind readers that Mr. Hoskins was my second-year science teacher at Brook, Nigel was the class comedian who shared my two-person desk, and Christie was the classmate with whom I was in sometimes contentious competition. Mrs. Baraniecki’s name was pronounced “Baranesky.”
The eighteen-inch wheels of my Raleigh were legally too small to ride in city roads, forcing me to cycle on sidewalks, but I didn’t mind. With caution deeply ingrained against violent jolts or knocks to my head, I’d have been afraid of cycling in traffic. I’d range down to the woods at the foot of Button Hill, where I rarely encountered anyone, and bump gently over mud paths. I’d glance up through the leaves for glimpses of sky. Or I’d head off for Ringinglow Road, a twenty-minute bike ride away that continued on to where the city petered out. The sidewalk disappeared, but I felt safe on the usually empty road. The gravel crackling under my wheels was a companionable sound against the silence.
I met a boy named Ron as I cycled through Millhouses Park at the bottom of Springfield Road. Ron, the milkman’s son, lived on Millhouses Lane in an old farmhouse, though there were no cows on what remained of the property. It must be that someone dropped off the milk to them for delivery around the neighborhood.
Ron and I were sitting around his attic bedroom when he lit a cigarette. “Want to try?” He handed it to me. I inhaled, but it was as horrible as Mr. Hoskins’ ammonia. I coughed violently and handed it back. Ron offered a second puff, but I shook my head.
Ron and I would cycle around Millhouses Park, sometimes with a stocky friend of his. One evening they said they were going to cycle to the City Center and invited me to join them. I’d always gone downtown by bus or car, a half-hour trip. The idea of getting there by bike excited me.
The ride out went well. Whenever I stopped to lift my bike over a curb, they waited. Reaching the Moor, the main shopping street, I resisted the call of the big toy shop as we went on to circle Cole Brothers, Sheffield’s main department store. Beyond was an area I hadn’t known existed, a business district whose narrow streets were deserted with the workday over. Modern office blocks threw shadows across each other that accentuated the gleaming surfaces and windows where summer evening light reached in.
Coming out of my reverie, I caught sight of Ron and his friend going around the next corner. I pedaled hard to catch up, but when I turned the corner, they were even farther ahead and speeding on.
I’d take it all in later, but now I had to concentrate on cycling home alone. I set off along Ecclesall Road South, the route that the 86 bus followed on its twenty-five-minute journey to the stop nearest our house. It was curious seeing each landmark emerge, so familiar and yet somehow so different when watched from the bus. Here were those colorful gardens on the right and farther along the shopping center and the roundabout at Hunters Bar. I remembered to stay on the right to reduce the number of streets I’d need to cross. The next landmark was the cinema at Banner Cross, followed by a line of small shops, and then at last the left turn onto Knowles Lane, leading to the bottom of Button Hill Road. Exhausted, I walked my bike up to our house on the crest.
Some days afterwards I stopped in at Ron’s home, where his mother told me both boys were in the attic. I climbed the ladder and poked my head above the floor. I looked at them and they at me, but they continued talking to each other without acknowledging me. As I eased back down the ladder, I heard the stocky boy say, “We didn’t need him anyway.”
I decided I was better off cycling alone because I didn’t need to worry about keeping up or holding others back. A taxi driver back in London had said after a speeding car had flown past us, “The faster they go, the longer they take to get there.” He’d been right. Going at my own pace, I got where I wanted.
* * *
After summoning us to the living room, Mum and Dad told my brother and me that earlier in the spring, Union Carbide had offered Dad a position in New York.
“We waited till the end of term to tell you,” Mum said from the dining table. “We didn’t want to distract you from schoolwork.”
“What happens if you refuse?” I said to Dad, who sat across from her at the table. I was sitting in my armchair by the television.
“Well, I couldn’t expect to get another promotion,” Dad said.
He elaborated, but the idea he’d be stuck if we didn’t go clinched it for me.
He ended by saying, “If we don’t like it over there, we can return after two years.”
“So what do you think?” Mum asked us.
From the couch, my brother said, “Sounds great.”
“I’m up for it,” I said.
It was a lot to take in. I was about to be uprooted again. And to a whole new country.
I’d spent a good part of my childhood criticizing that country. I disliked how American movies dominated British cinema and television. Anachronistically, I also resented certain wartime decisions, like waiting until December, 1941 to declare war on Nazi Germany. But when Dad had returned from his three-week business trip to West Virginia and Niagara Falls the previous October, I’d been transfixed by the slides he projected onto the screen unrolled before the curtained dining room windows. In the shots he’d taken from the plane, West Virginia was all warm brown fields. In the pictures he’d taken at ground level, the white wooden houses shimmered in an evening light different from the light in English photographs. Shadows seemed surrounded by a luminosity suggesting a vibrant light just outside the aperture.
That same trip, knowing my love of maps, Dad had brought back a Rand McNally road atlas for me, and hour after hour I tried to extract meaning from the names of cities, shapes of states and the garish military badge symbols framing interstate highway numbers. I loved names like Grand Rapids and Chicago and the map of California, the only state given two pages.
In my Oxford world atlas, America was a rectangular swath of green. Last summer, during our holiday in Cornwall, I’d looked out from Lands End at a line of rocks fading into the southwest. My imagination had followed them all the way south and west to that green America, radiant under a nearer sun.
* * *
Later that summer, my parents drove me to Nigel’s for a Sunday afternoon visit. It was the only time I’d been in that section of Sheffield except when going to and from school, and I was surprised at the tiny, boxlike houses.
The only time anyone from school saw the inside of my home had been a morning I failed to notice the taxi arrive. This was the taxi that drove half a dozen of us partially sighted students from around the city to Brook. Tony, three years older than me, and Wendy, who was my age, were picked up before me. That morning Tony had to walk up to ring the doorbell. When I joined him in the taxi, he said to Wendy, “He lives in a boarding house.”
“Boarding house?” I asked.
Wendy and he exchanged looks of shared knowledge.
In time I realized Tony meant we had a big house only rich people could afford. I supposed our hallway looked large, with three rooms leading off from one side and the stairs winding around on the other. But it was a semi-detached, half a house. Neighbors we hardly knew owned the left half. I didn’t like rich people, whoever they were, any more than Tony did, and we weren’t rich, not the way I understood “rich” from television.
Having a small, boxlike house would be a small price to pay for having all your friends living nearby. My one visit to Nigel’s, I discovered he had that advantage.
I was surprised to find that Nigel acted shy around his parents. I suggested we leave the adults drinking tea in the living room and go for a walk. But once we set off, I was hard-pressed to think of anything to get us talking.
I asked, “Seen any dead bodies lately?”
This time he didn’t even shake his head.
I, too, felt that dead bodies and loony worms had lost their allure. I managed to draw him out about the people in his neighborhood, but something had changed.
* * *
We weren’t leaving England until November, and so in September I began the third year at Brook. Though Nigel and I continued to share a desk in most classes, the magic had gone. Perhaps one reason was that I was determined to work harder and not begrudge homework.
The first day of science class, I found Christie sitting at my side, just as she had in first year science. The teacher announced we’d be working in pairs and told us to choose partners. Christie said to me, “Let’s work together.”
Despite all her baiting, I liked her, and I was flattered. I nodded.
Christie wasn’t halfhearted about our partnership. If I didn’t get a concept, she explained. If I couldn’t see something clearly, she described it. She even listened when I explained something to her, although the frown that had poisoned our earlier years would soon reassert itself. My science exercise book became neat and the experiment summaries intelligible.
During art class, someone asked where I’d be living in America.
“Dad’s office will be in New York, so he says we’ll buy a house in a New Jersey or Connecticut suburb.”
The art teacher, who drifted around the room but offered no advice, overheard me say “Connecticut” without pronouncing the second “c.” He told the class, “He’s already speaking like an American.”
On the taxi ride home that night, I wished I’d thought to parry with the English Leicester or Thames, their spellings even more disconnected from their sounds. I bet he didn’t make fun of Mrs. Baraniecki’s name. But the bad moment contained a nugget of good. He wouldn’t have ridiculed me if he’d thought of me as handicapped, as special. How dismaying to think I’d once liked that notion of “special.”
In the playground, I looked around as if for the first time at the rain-sodden grass, white-gray concrete and sepia tree trunks. Mum and Dad had given me a 35-millimeter color camera for my thirteenth birthday, and I spent a lot of time studying the photographs I took. They were training me to observe details not just in my prints, but also in the world around me. Clarity was no doubt heightened by my awareness that these weeks would be my last in England. The gravity of the move was sinking in; that at the very moment of leaving, I finally had a sense of belonging.
Acceptance begat ribbing and ribbing begat pushing and shoving. My entire life I’d been warned to avoid knocks to the head, but I’d come to associate my habit of caution when crossing streets, walking through buses, even getting in and out of chairs, with running away and my fusses in the hospital. All caution had done was make me fearful.
Now, during the hour-long lunch breaks, I’d join in brawls with my new friends on the lawn beyond the playground. I couldn’t run fast, but I was strong. Once I pushed a boy, or one pushed me, I’d grapple him. No matter how the fight went, I held on to prevent him from escaping and hurling taunts from a distance. It was hard work, but the hardest part was knowing when to stop. An exhausted grunt often sufficed. Otherwise, a few words of capitulation were required: “All right, I’ve had enough” or “Okay, stop.” No one ever said “Please,” and it would have been terrible to take a fight that far.
In the midst of a brawl I was clouted on the right temple by something hard. My opponent freed his grip and asked, “Are you all right?” I looked around. The boys playing cricket nearby stared. One was running toward me, and I spied a hard red cricket ball lying nearby in the grass.
“Yes,” I said, kneeling with my hand on my head to absorb the shock. The running boy reached down to retrieve the ball and circled around back to the pitch. Their game resumed.
Reading in bed that night, I noticed a curving edge of shadow in the bottom right corner of my eye. I closed the book and turned off the light. In the dark, what had been shadow glowed yellow. I figured it would go away by morning.
But it stayed with me, in the corner of my vision, all next day. I went on as usual, except I avoided the area where brawling was tolerated. It was Friday. The shadow had a whole weekend to get rid of itself.
After dinner that night, I got on my Raleigh and rode off along Ringinglow Road to the countryside. The sky had the look of a leisurely northern summer evening, but the days were getting shorter. Tomorrow would be the first day of autumn.
Cycling on and on wasn’t driving away the curving shadow. I turned back, impatient now to be home.
When I closed my book and switched off the light that night, the crescent in the corner of my vision again glowed yellow. It wasn’t going the way of other ailments.
At breakfast, insisting it was nothing, I told Mum and Dad.
Note: The next four months are related here on this website in an unabridged excerpt from my memoir.