November 08, 2005

Identity crisis

When I was a boy, living in a newish estate on what was, then, the edge of Stevenage, we used to go and play cricket with a tennis ball in a piece of waste ground in between a couple of the cul-de-sacs and the dual carriageway. It must, I imagine, have been filled in long since, for all the land on the other side of the dual carriageway is housing now, right up to the motorway and probably beyond.

But, at the time, it produced a nice little square for football and cricket, and therefore produced a fair number of balls lofted over fences, kicked or hit or rebounding into the imagined crowd. If we were lucky, they would bounce into the road, where we could retrieve them with a minimum of adult interference if not a minimum of danger. If we were not, they would loop over back fences, into back gardens and into history unless we were prepared to overcome the dangers involved in getting them back.

Most of these were merely verbal: specifically, the likelihood of a telling-off, either directly from the householder, or indirectly via a report to one of our parents, the magnitude of the telling-off naturally increasing with the transference of responsibility. (I often recall this principle when watching a football match in which a player's transgression is reported by the linesman to the referee. Much, much better, if one is to express dissent, to swear at the referee directly, rather than his underling: better by far to annoy the parent than the parent's neighbours.) But there were small attendant physical dangers, mostly involving falling off fences in the act of climbing them, though the danger to the fence was normally greater than the danger to the child - provided you could get to the top from the outside, an easy enough task with a bunk-up, the inside of the fence afforded a couple of ledges which would get you down, and, the ball retrieved and thrown over the fence, get you out and over again before you could be seen. Or, if you had been seen, before you could be identified.

I was never that fond of climbing fences, though, being neither athletic nor brave, and it was therefore a happy day if the ball, though over a hostile fence, were nevertheless to rebound in such a way as to make its retrieval possible without feats of daring or the danger of exposure. There was a particular fence - the closest on the legside boundary, batting right-handed at the dual carriageway end - and it could be done by sticking the bat under the fence, which was ill-fitted and left a gap at the bottom, until the tennis ball, if it had bounced back within reach, could be manouevered into a position where it could be reached with a hand and put back into play.

But even this had some element of risk as the householder, presumably not with the primary purpose of frightening off the nation's future Test match cricketers, was the owner of an Alsatian dog. In fact, as I recall, there was more than one Alsatian dog, though I suppose it may have only been the one. I suppose there may not have been an Alsatian at all - I am not sure I ever saw it and it may just have seemed like an Alsatian at the time, or become one through the exaggeration of successive childrens' anecdotes, a Boo Radley of a dog and possibly an imaginary one. The dog itself may have come into existence only when I recalled the memory more than a quarter of the century down a very rocky track.

But that is the memory, nonetheless: and one memory in particular, that, as I reached for the tennis ball, I heard the dog, or dogs, hurrying towards me and my unprotected hand. That just as I got the ball and pulled my arm back through the gap, I felt the breath of the Alsatian on my flesh. An instant from its breath. An instant from its bite.

I had forgotten that memory - or repressed it, or stored it up, whichever way you choose to say exactly the same thing, for a long time. There is shock in the memory and shock floods and numbs your mind, so that you may subdue your fear. I subdued that fear for years, the fear of being mauled and mangled by a dog, but I recalled it, just today, this lunchtime, after having unexpectedly to do some retrieval work, work that retrieved the long-lost memory as well.

We are all obliged, at work, to carry our ID cards with us, in the service of security. Most of us wear them hung around our necks, as children do, or used to do, with latchkeys, or as conference delegates have recently begun to do. It's fine until the cards begin to crack, or the plastic holders begin to fray, after which the cards start falling out at unexpected times, making one retrace one's steps after noticing, occasionally and then frequently, that the card is missing and the holder empty.

Usually the card will fall without drawing attention to itself. Today, however, it practically whisked itself out of its container and threw itself into the air. It was lunchtime, I was on my way to Sainsbury for sandwiches to sustain me through the hour - a journey that takes me through the hospital to which the library is attached. I go in through the back and come out at the front entrance, where just across the road on which the taxis stop, there are a couple of goldfish ponds. These provide a little bit of relaxation to the patient who wants to take a walk, and quite likely a fag, outside the confines of the hospital.

I went through the revolving doors, crossed the little road, and at that very moment the wind got up, caught my card and wrenched it out of its holder, briefly up into the air and then, slow enough for me to watch, but more than swift enough to stop me doing anything about it, it floated through the air until it landed in the pond. Whereupon it ceased to float.

I thought, for a brief moment, that it would be light enough and flat enough not to sink. But sink it did. It sank, however, slowly, slowly enough for me to watch it sink, slowly enough even for me to have time to plunge my arm in to the water in an effort to retrieve it. I grasped at the refraction, but missed the card itself, and with a soaking arm, inside a soaking shirt, inside a soaking sweater, I saw it settle on the bottom. Where it lay, in view, but not in reach.

I looked at it and cursed it. I stood at the edge of the pond like a cat pawing at a goldfish bowl, fascinated by the contents but unable to get at what I wanted. I would, I was sure, be able to see it every time I walked past the ponds, from now for evermore. Everybody would see it. Somebody would take a closer look, pick out my name and I would be known as the bloke who dropped his card in the goldfish pond. A hospital is a small community which can be compared to a village: and I would be the village idiot.

The village idiot. That was it! That was the solution. If the moonrakers could try and rake the moon out of a pond, I could at least try and rake my ID card out of one. There are some bushes in between the ponds and the Fulham Palace Road, and rummaging around for a while I found myself a stick, long enough to reach the bottom of the pond. I poked it in and dragged the card across the bottom of the pond until I had brought it to the side, plunged in my arm again (forgetting, as it happens, to roll up my sleeves first, not that it really mattered any more) and fished my card out of the water, gave my regards to the fish and went, dripping, off to the supermarket.

A bit later, with my sweater on the radiator and my arm underneath the hot air dryer in the Gents, I remembered (if I remembered) poking about underneath the fence for the tennis ball. At least there had been no Alsatian this time, racing across to try and take a chunk out of my hand before I could make off with my prize. It's a bit cold, outside on a London November day, for any predators a pond is likely to house: no piranha for the entertainment of the public. Perhaps I shall imagine some, in order to embellish the memory, when I fish it out another two or three decades down the track. But at least I didn't get a telling-off. And if I was in any physical danger, it was only from pneumonia.


At November 10, 2005 6:42 pm, Anonymous ATP said...

Fishing for an ID card with a twig...

Is that where "dipstick" comes from?


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