According to the Buddha, it’s desire for the things of the world that leads us away from enlightenment, and ever deeper into the false dream of material reality. And I’d add to that: sometimes it’s things themselves, not just our desires for them, which lead us astray.
The binoculars were wartime issue – my great-grandfather had served on HMS Orion and he’d spirited them into his sea chest after his demob, along with a brass German U-Boat clock, which kept perfect German time, and a German officer’s dagger (more decorative than deadly, but perfect for disembowelling the teddy bears my brothers and I had grown out of). Somehow on their journey through time, long after my great-grandfather’s death, the binoculars had come to rest, battered but still formidably solid – all scuffed black leather and gunmetal-grey steel – in the bottom drawer of a dresser in my parents’ bedroom. God knows what I’d been furtively looking for when I found them – I dread to think – but whatever it was, it vanished from my eleven-year-old mind at once. They were so heavy I had to lift them free of the clutter inside the drawer with both hands; these were no toys; they felt weighty and purposeful as adulthood itself. I should have known they’d be trouble.
My older brother and I shared a bedroom in the attic of our small terraced house. There was no insulation between the plasterboard walls and the old slate tiles of the roof, so in the winter we froze, waking to frost patterns on the skylight and low ceiling where our breath had smoked up through the night, and in the summer, on sunny days, we could hardly bear to climb the ladder and poke our heads into the burning room. It was the summer holidays when I found the binoculars.
A small skylight looked out from the attic over our scruffy back garden. Not just our patch of grass, but the equally ratty strips of our close-packed neighbours. The skylight was near the apex of the sloping roof and to look out of it comfortably, particularly with several pounds of Royal Navy steel and glass in my sweating hands, I needed the extra elevation of my rickety bedside table. Perched and swaying like a drunken sailor in a crow’s nest, I had six gardens at my mercy: nothing could happen in them without my knowledge; nothing – no one – could escape my notice.
What is it that divides us into watchers and watched? I’ve always had a morbid horror of being observed, or photographed, or made the centre of attention, and could never understand how some of my friends relished those things. I don’t know, but in my own case I’m sure it’s partly bad conscience – some splinter of buried guilt or shame I can’t remember the source of or explain – and maybe too just something that goes along with being a writer; an instinct to stay peripheral, and take note of things, rather than to take part.
I don’t know if Helen Haywood, the girl next door, was more comfortable as watcher or watched, but that summer she was watched, watched, and watched again whether she cared to be or not.
In all truth it wasn’t a sexual thing. I admired Helen Haywood from afar, but mainly because of her offbeat, laconic way of seeing the world and expressing things. Once, on the school bus, I’d overheard her complaining wistfully to another sixth former about the boredom of taking a bath: ‘nothing to do except lie there and see how far you can fit your big toe up the tap’; and once, again on the bus, she’d been accused by some heckling little boys of breaking wind and without a pause had dreamily corrected them with: ‘ladies don’t fart – the fairies take them away for us’.
Of course it mattered that she was a girl, and several years older than me – older girls were a deep, inscrutable mystery, and I watched her playing catch with her small brother on their lawn, or gossiping on the garden bench with her schoolmates, or sunbathing in a rather baggy one-piece swimsuit, with all the intense absorption of an astronomer – but there was nothing erotic about it in any simple sense. The excitement was to do with a new and strange kind of power; the power to be in her company in an almost godlike way: intimately close, as if I’d left my body, escaped my embarrassed, awkward otherness as a curious young boy, and could hover like a trusted friend just inches from her all-but-grown-up presence; soundless, invisible, inescapable (at least until she got bored and sauntered back indoors).
I don’t know how many days or even weeks I spent like this, balanced at the top of the house on a trembling pedestal, in an oven-like heat, but when it finally ended my power was broken suddenly, like a spell, and like spells in fairy tales it was broken by reversal.
As she often did, Helen was sitting and reading, and occasionally picking her nose, on a concrete step in front of the ugly breeze-block garage that filled the back of the Haywoods’ garden. I hadn’t once seen her father all the time I’d been spying on her – he was a miner and would have been down the pit during the day, of course – but this afternoon he was at home for some reason, and must have been working in the garage without my knowing it. To this day I wonder how it was that the first thing he looked at as he stepped through the garage door was me, or rather the sinister sight of two black barrels poking ominously through a propped-up skylight. Maybe the glass of the lenses had flashed in the sun and alerted him. I’d focused on him as he strode from the garage door and stood over his daughter, and when he pointed straight at me, and moved his lips in some kind of warning or exclamation, the abrupt, magnified gesture was like the long finger of God poking me in the eye. I fell backwards as if shot, the bedside table clattering through the attic hatch and breaking its legs on the landing below; my spine thumped onto the bed frame so heavily I still get twinges from where it bruised half a lifetime on.
And along with my fall, but falling the opposite way, like one half of an apple cut in two, the watchable world I thought I could observe and gain knowledge of, fell also. It toppled back into the dream that the binoculars had seemed to make as solid as themselves, as real and close by, but that was always out of reach, in fact, and always would be.