Looking now at weather-beaten trees through a window in late October, I remember that the playground of the primary school I attended stands empty at night in autumn. I imagine the poplar trees swaying and the familiar cold shimmer of leaves shaken towards the end of their lives by a breeze they amplify and which will tear them from their branches. I imagine the tarmac playground wet, black and oily, lit by the phosphorus glow of one or two lampposts that refuse to cut out.
The school grounds are empty at night because they are not a public space. Once the doors are locked each night the grounds are apparently patrolled by the security company whose logo is prominently displayed on the board fixed to the grill of the gates. As a result, I have not returned to the school since my early teens. A curious result of this is that by passing by the school on occasional visits to my parents I am unsettled by seeing from the outside, with the eyes of an adult, a place I still understand vaguely from the inside as an eleven-year old boy. I sense that were I to climb over the fence I would revert to a form I thought I had outgrown and navigate the grounds with ease, without thought, though in covering my tracks lose them forever.
On some summer afternoons after school I would sit on my own under an oak tree that stood between the school gates and the car park, where I waited for my mother to collect me. After one September I was for good reason no longer allowed to wait on that side of the gate and had, instead, to occupy myself in the deserted playground, only a metre or so from where I had hung around before. I would walk through the designated ‘quiet area’, now the equal of the rest of the school, down to the dip in the playground. In an area cleared of tarmac and fenced by low green pickets, unforgettably tall poplar trees grew either side of a wooden bridge that spanned the clearing from one side of tarmac to the other. One day, bored of these explorations, I brought a tube of superglue into school and glued a twenty-pence piece to a bench. I would return at lunchtime for days after to see boys try, and fail, to remove the coin from the wood with stones or pieces of wood. Eventually my friend Tom brought a screwdriver to school and rent the coin from the by then battered wood.
Towards the close of the summer term the school would hold an end of year celebration named Friday Frolics which saw, for an evening, the grounds changed entirely. The main playground was fitted out with tables and chairs and parents would come to watch a band play. They drank beer and wine served to them by teachers. They ate burgers and hotdogs cooked on a vast grill built in to one corner of the playground, though it stood unused for the rest of the year. The children were given loose change and left to explore the school in its transformed state. The classrooms had been made into grottos housing games that offered sweets as prizes and cost only ten pence to play. The books in the library were cordoned, either for protection or to cover any trace of learning, by vast sheets of corrugated cardboard such that to walk through the room was to penetrate the length of a solemn, grey, silent tunnel. The music room hosted a karaoke machine. When I think now of that room I cannot recall the faces of the adults who filled it, their reason for singing as obscure to me now as ever, as my lack of interest then guaranteed. The lower playground before the poplars was dedicated to the tombola, smack the rat, quoits and similar activities. Elsewhere one could buy candyfloss and toffee apples, cheap Panda cola and lemonade. The school hall became a disco. My favourite attraction, though, was the field train. The field train was a car made up to look like a train which drew behind it several carriages. The train circled the school field, with which every child was intensely familiar, and cost fifty pence a ride. I would try to ride the field train as often as I could, spending a large portion of the night on this objectively dull tour, though it held me captivated.
A few years after I left the school the Frolics were shut down. The children who had once enjoyed everything that that night could offer had since left for secondary school and become teenagers. With an unexamined compulsion pulling them back to their old playground they would somehow acquire tickets, normally reserved for the families of current students only, and attempt to buy alcohol from the stalls that had once served their parents. Disheartened at their lack of success in procuring what they were after from the people who had, not four years before, been their teachers, they began to bring their own beer. They would take their drinks and sit in the dip of the school field under the shadow of the trees around which they used to play and silently, heavily fail to understand what had happened to them. Inevitably, the teenagers would eventually come in from the cold, inebriated, and disrupt whatever was going on in the school, scaring the children and angering the parents. In order to deal with this nuisance a security company was hired, though not to much success; the number of returning teenagers seemed to grow year on year and the school became stubbornly unaccommodating. One year it was decided that the school building was to be locked up and that only the outside stalls would remain. The next year the alcohol was no longer served. The year after that the parents stayed home.
The year I returned to school for the Frolics was a year in which the decline had already set in. I brought a friend who had attended another school. She was mocked for her clothes by two other girls, both our age. The teachers whom I remember as having been glad to serve me as a child now observed my movements on edge, at distance, evidently tired of having to guard against the hysteresis of those children they thought had left, they thought, for good.
It is to thoughts like these that I am drawn when the sheer, transparent present seems, for all that, of no depth at all, when my foresight seems myopic and the future correspondingly flat. Though I can touch the chestnut and the birch outside the window and though the light smell of their rotting leaves is right there for me, at times they leave me colder, more dislocated and cut off, than the thought of my school’s poplars swaying for no one to see, shut up.