“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
They say that you can’t go back but today is my futile attempt. I was born four miles from one of the most ancient pagan sites of worship in Scotland, Cairnpapple Hill. I liked to think this is why I was a little different as a child; intuitive and mystical with an aptitude for spinning a good yarn. However the truth is that the hospital I was born in was also the area’s mental institution so the jury is out on that one. Growing up in the back hills of Bathgate was fun; scrambling up the ruins of Cairnpapple and playing in the small seventies housing scheme with a bunch of friends.
School was a different matter though. For a child with a very colourful imagination, attending a strict Catholic primary school in the early eighties was always going to be a challenge. I was also intelligent with a slight speech impediment and a faulty kidney. These were the conditions for a strange primary school experience at best. I could read and write before I went to school, so I guess I must have been what they would call “gifted” nowadays but in the eighties council-run education system, I was labelled a troublemaker. I would tell the other children elaborate stories to pass the time, as I was often bored senseless. As a result, I would get the belt for distracting the class. The hardest corporal punishments though were reserved for religious offences. I can’t remember the number of times I was belted hard across the hands for questioning questionable religious beliefs. Picking holes in the Catholic religion in a strict Catholic school was the ultimate act of rebellion. I look back at that seven year old girl, trooping up to the front of the class to take yet another belting just for asking an intelligent question and I am so proud of her.
That was a long time ago though I think as I travel back to Bathgate today. I sit on the train and I remember a true story amongst all of the farcical tales that I used to make up. I am surprised that I would remember this, of all my many memories. It spurs me to get off the train and walk down the high street, taking a sharp left at the bottom that leads to a wide path. At the end of this gravel path, is a large overgrown piece of ground that faces an old rusted fence. I can’t believe it is still here. As I look through the wire barricade to my small concrete primary school beyond, I remember. And I remember you. You used to stand here, staring through the same wire fence, staring at the other children, looking so lost and sad. But you are not here today because I can’t go back.
I distinctly remember the catalyst for this one particular story; there had been a fight in the playground, over the concrete turtle and blood had been spilt. We were all just working class kids, only seven years old, but at times, we fought. However, in this school, they took playground scraps as a slight against the Catholic religion. Therefore, on the day in question, my usual charm offensive of being the entertaining storyteller was wearing thin. Parents had been involved and for some of us, that had resulted in a kind of playground ostracisation. To be honest, I liked my own company anyway; I could easily imagine a magical world without an audience.
However, this time, it was different. Some kids had started calling me names and I had been struggling to find any friends to play with for well over a week now. For the first time, in the playground, I felt an aching loneliness. It was on this day, whilst wandering the whole boundary of the playground that I noticed the high wire fence. What was over there in the wild open space beyond the fence? I wondered if it was like the Cairnpapple Hill that my Dad often took me to; maybe there were ancient ruins over there too?
As I reached the furthest point of the boundary, near the corner, I heard crying. Now, I might have been a bit mischievous but I could not abide sadness, even at that young age. I guessed it was one of the other kids, feeling a bit lonely too, so I called out, “Hello? Are you ok?”
The crying stopped immediately, followed by a few muffled sniffs. It was a dark morning, one of those cold winter days, which feels like early evening. The wind was up too, leaves swirling round and round faster as I walked towards the fence. I screwed up my eyes, trying to see, trying to make out the small figure in the corner. As I got closer, I suddenly saw a girl, not much older than me, sitting on the ground, arms wrapped tightly around her knees, dirty face watching me carefully.
I slowly approached her, “Hi. Are you, er…are you ok?” I knew how embarrassing it was to be found crying and didn’t want her to feel bad. She just stared at me in amazement. She looked absolutely terrified.
I walked over tentatively and discovered that she was on the other side of the fence, “What are you doing over there? I didn’t think any of the kids were allowed in that place?”
She stood up then and laughed, twirling around, her dirty dress sending a flutter of leaves up in the air, “This is my home, silly!”
I was intrigued; here was a kid, actually living in the forbidden space beyond the fence! Wow! I nodded back to the kids playing behind me, “Have they stopped playing with you too?”
She looked sad then and put her head down, “Oh, they never play with me. It’s like they don’t even see me,” at this, she looked up shyly, “You are the first one to speak to me.”
Now this horrified me. I knew some of them could be cruel but I always knew that, deep down, it never lasted. The idea that the other kids had never spoken to her was devastating. I was only seven; I didn’t have all the answers but I understood that sometimes adults did strange things. Maybe this wee girl was being kept in beyond this fence for some reason? I will admit that my imagination ran away with me. However, I vowed that day, to always speak to her. I told her that we would always be friends.
From that day on, the wee girl beyond the fence and I became great pals. We would meet every playtime and laugh and joke, mindless of the barricade between us. It was there but in our childish minds, it never mattered. She was such a good friend; the loneliness I had felt before had gone. I often wondered if she might be one of the gypsy kids that sometime frequented our class but I never pressed the issue. I was now in full-blown speech therapy that embarrassingly would be carried out during class time. None of this really mattered though, because my friend at the fence was always there.
This continued until one day my mum was called into the school. What had I done now, I thought miserably, as I walked alongside her to the Headmaster’s office? My mum was angry, particularly as I was unable to tell her why. She thought that I was holding out but I was in the dark as much as she was. As we walked in to the office, I was surprised to see several teachers there, sitting next to the stern Headmaster. He looked like a fire was eating him up, with red fat cheeks and angry lines all over his face. I started to feel scared now; I just couldn’t understand what I had done wrong? I sat and tried to listen but I was so confused. I could easily make out adult conversation but did not always understand some of the things they were discussing. Then, it dawned on me that they were talking about my friend beyond the fence and seemed to be annoyed that I was spending so much time over there in the corner of the playground. I had to speak up!
I was beside myself, “No, no, please don’t stop me speaking to her! No one else speaks to her. You can’t do that to her. I am the only one she has. Please, can’t you just help her to get through the fence?” My voice was wobbling. I knew enough of adults then to know that they could do anything they wanted and I did not want to lose my only friend.
There was silence in the room. All eyes were on me then.
The Headmaster coughed loudly, “Who exactly are you talking about, Anna Louise?” his black eyes squinted at me.
I was scared now, “I…I don’t know her exact name. She…she lives in the space beyond the fence. That is why I go to the corner! I go there to speak to her!”Again, there was dark silence and as I saw my mum put her head down in quiet resignation, I couldn’t understand what I had said that was so wrong. But, I knew in that moment that they had the power to stop me seeing my friend and I broke down; inconsolable with tears and grief.
They boarded up the fence with cheap plywood after that and I was warned that if I ever went near that part of the playground again, I would be expelled. I hated the school after that. I hated the authorities. And I never saw my friend again.
As I stand here today, I wonder at the cruelty of childhood. I look out, across the fence, from the place where she used to stand and I feel so sad. I am so sad that I can’t go back. I am here today at the Bathgate Cemetery for the funeral of my Uncle and this has brought me back to this fence, which sits as a border between the school and the cemetery. However this time, I am on the opposite side, looking back, now as a grown woman with children of my own. I still took time out to come to this patch of ground where we played, just to see if you might still be here.
However, there is more space now between us than a mere fence. I realise that there was only one little lost girl back then and it was me. Were you a figment of my imagination or just a little ghost offering love and friendship to a sad wee girl who was so very lonely. I can’t go back, as an adult, to the space in which we played, a space between this world and the next. I wonder if you are still here, watching me? I can’t go back, wee one. I can’t see you anymore but I am still your friend. I can lay down this flower for you, in this patch of grass beyond the fence, and I can thank you for your friendship all those years ago, in the space between.