Paradise on Blue Bell Hill
Jeremy and I were brothers, born just short of twelve months apart. From our earliest recollections we had always been together, two against the world. Kids then were free range, and this Easter vacation was more free range than ever.
Our often dysfunctional family had taken up camping. The year before we had spent a week in an old army tent in a British summer – wet, but wonderful. This spring it was Blue Bell Hill, twenty minutes from home. I could hardly appreciate it, but it was a world away from the drab everyday of our home on the outskirts of London, where the only sight of nature was the manicured lawns and flowerbeds of the local parks, or the weeds of the bomb sites still left over from the war.
The grown-ups negotiated for an isolated pitch at the end of the grounds, down a steep and curving hill hidden from view. A paradise. We had a tent just large enough to fit both parents and three kids (younger sister as well), and a full complement of cooking gear. Pitching the tent was the strict province of our stepfather, fiddling with unfamiliar aluminum poles, frustrated with this newfangled contraption.
Soon enough, the time for supper arrived. The wonders of night life in the wild; strange noises full of the promise of adventure. Storytelling and singing, then fun with torches and blankets. Rain drummed on the canvas, but the new tent did not leak at all, unlike the army surplus tent of the year before. And surprisingly soon, to sleep.
Morning starts early for young boys in the wilds. Up with the crack of dawn, raring to go. Impatiently waiting for grown-ups to give permission to start the day’s fun. I was always the careful older brother, testing the waters before commanding his brother with confidence on our next exploit. Robert, the wild one, always had a glint in his eye ready for mayhem.
Bursting with impatience, we waited dutifully as our mother prepared breakfast. A perfect picture of domesticity, stepfather about to take the family car in to work.
And taking the car in to work proved to be an adventure in itself. Rain had turned the tyre tracks into bottomless mires of mud. The entire family engaged in the task of pushing until the car had enough of a start to climb the hill. A routine to become familiar, but a novel experience and victory for the boys, diminutive he-men now.
Then time to explore. This was Blue Bell Hill in April, and the name was apt. Blue bells abounded in the lush mulch of damp leaves. Masses in bloom beneath silver birch, our light canopy letting the occasional rays of sunlight through to illuminate a sea of purple blue blooms. Beautiful enough to give even a city hardened seven-year-old a permanent impression of wonder.
But onward from the beauty of nature, there was mischief to work: running around, slipping in mud, playing soldiers. The world of boys.
I got an idea into my head to improve the steep and slippery trail that our mother complained was a problem for our stepfather coming from work. Robert and I could use the plentiful sticks to make a rough and ready track, laying them across in each tyre track worn by previous cars. A major feat of engineering for six and seven year old boys, but satisfying in its execution. Digging through the mulch for sticks just long enough to span a tyre’s width, mushing them into the ground with our feet, jumping and breaking any that did not lay flat.
After a long day’s work, we were done just in time for a tea-time snack. Our forgotten mother was all of a sudden of the greatest importance, and camping gear and food supplies were put to good use. Fresh air and hard work had led to healthy appetites, and we could show our mother and sister what wonders we had wrought.
Mum was appreciative, and sister duly impressed. A successful day.
We watched excitedly as our stepfather returned and came down the hill, creeping the car down through the mud. Clearly we had averted catastrophe, We stood proudly attentive for him in front of the tent, waiting confidently for his approval to join our mother’s.
But our confidence was punctured as he emerged from the car, furious. Who had been there while he was gone? He could tell that someone had been there because the sticks we had so carefully laid and stepped on were broken, proving in his eyes that another car had preceded him. Accusing our mother of some crime beyond our young comprehension, unmollified by our protestations that we were indeed the ones who had broken the sticks so they laid better in the tracks.
In later years I understood the crime of which she was accused. Or rather, knew of it. I could never empathise, never having been guilty of it myself. Our step-father was a chronic cheat, and our mother, emotionally dependent on him, tolerated it and the money that he spent like water. For which he was dependent on her, and her rich father.
Paradise lost, but soon regained by the boys. This was not the first or the last time for unforeseen rage between the grown-ups. At these times we clung together all the more strongly, silently supporting our real mother against the interloper.