The burn stretched out in front of him like a ribbon, both the obstacle and the goal. It ran along the edge of the playing field and separated the school grounds from the streets of the town beyond. The boy usually crossed it, twice a day, using the little wooden bridge along with the other children. Some days though, he was drawn down the muddy bank to the water’s edge. Jumping the burn, and making it, offered a thrill. It was a challenge and for his friends to see him make it, especially when they did not, was a big deal. He knew what awaited him if he didn’t make it: the shock of the fail. First there was the water, always surprisingly cold, then the sucking, greenish mud that pulled his foot downward even as he lurched forward, scrabbling for the bank that had proven too far away.
The man had taken to putting the baby girl in her car seat and going for a drive at night, to see if he could persuade the restless bundle of pink that it was OK to fall asleep. He’d found himself, repeatedly, in the town where he’d grown up, a few miles and many years away, and would steer slowly through its streets, stirring up memories. He saw the peeling paint on lock-up doors and sleeping council houses, windows stuffed with blackness, and wondered if it had always looked this way. Later, after he’d left the town, someone would tell him that nostalgia sits halfway between pleasure and pain – like an itch you can’t quite scratch. He thought about that as the car slowly rolled to a stop between the posh houses and the grassy area that led to the bridge – metal now, not wood – children still used to get to school.
He knew what would happen to him when he got home and that was why the boy took his time, inching slowly in his soaking shoes, going so slowly that it could hardly be called walking anymore, the way only kids can. His mother would have to drag out the twin tub from its place under the bunker in the kitchen. Old even then, it had a big square section filled with churning, grey water and his stinking school trousers would have to be plunged and scrubbed by hand; plunge and scrub, plunge and scrub. His mother worked nights and - she would tell him - didn’t have time to be washing his school uniform again. Sunday was washing day, when his mother would wrestle with wet clothes and exhaustion. After a noisy whirl in the drum that took up the other half of the twin tub, their clothes would be hung on the wooden pulley, which could be raised and lowered from the kitchen ceiling, or hung in front of the coal fire to dry. What a ridiculous treat, it had seemed, to go downstairs in the morning and find that the fire had not died during the night (damping it with potato peelings last thing at night was the key, his mother said) and his uniform was warm as he put it on.
He pulled the hoodie from the sink in the utility room, picked up the stain removal bar and looked for the marks. His son had taken to playing at “the den” near a burn with his friends and his clothes were taking a beating. He’d have to talk to him about this, again, the man thought, as he attacked the offending muddy blotches. His son was not proving to be a great listener. He couldn’t come home on time, couldn’t stay clean, wouldn’t take a telling. “Typical”, the man muttered, attacking the stains again.
The boy inched carefully down the bank, toeing his way through lank grass and weeds, and looked for the perfect spot. The sides of the burn seemed to change, landing spots would appear and recede between visits, and success was never guaranteed. Sometimes, though, he felt lucky, felt strong and knew he could make it. There were rats in the burn, which was a boundary and out of bounds. He knew these things. But still. Rocking backwards and forwards, eyeing the far side, he bent his legs at the knees … and jumped.