We didn't want to be seen or heard
Nothing else, later in my childhood, ever lived up to the thrill of those escapades. A steep road climbed past our garden. For some afternoon walks, my older brother and I would be taken farther up this hill to a rough road that skirted the very edge of the moors - exciting territory, ripe for derring-do. The Yorkshire moors felt to us like remote, exposed reaches of wilderness (as they also had to the author of "Wuthering Heights").Skip to next paragraph
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The grown-ups would stroll, as properly regulated adults should, straight along the track. Their prescribed path was not for us. Our aim was a thrilling invisibility. Prancing through the heather above, we tracked them, we hoped, unseen.
At the outset, we would inexplicably vanish. The adults were expecting this and didn't fret. Tracking was a game that they knew. But we were instantly in a fantasy land. We happily convinced ourselves that they had no idea we were there anymore.
It was a simple strategy, but complicated and heroic to carry out. It involved clandestine subtleties known only to the imaginations of small boys - not to mention enigmatic hand signals, whistles, smothered coughs, and melodramatic whisperings of the most intense sort.
At least that is how I picture it now. The idea was for us to leap out from nowhere and ambush the enemy at the far end of the track. This would terrify them out of their wits because they had no idea (so we thought) that anyone had been invisibly following their every move from above. But we had been, stumbling through bracken, darting behind rocks, peeking to ascertain the progress below, desperate not to blow our cover. We were on the side of Right, of course, and they were a posse possessed of a sinister purpose, doubtful in origin, and certainly criminal. They must be caught!
Heaven knows what stories had fed all this. My brother seemed very sure of our role, anyway. He'd probably read "Kidnapped" or seen cowboy films, and we certainly knew about Robin Hood. I was easily persuaded to act as his gofer.
I was also fascinated by the story of the Invisible Man. And now that I think about it, invisibility was an integral feature of many of the adventurous games I liked best as a child - from hide-and-seek to Kick the Can and Sardines. Children, the adult saying went, "should be seen and not heard." But what if we wanted not to be seen?
On the train yesterday from one of London's most outlying airports into the city center, I was tickled to watch a 3-year-old with the same sort of preference. Standing in the aisle, she chatted nonstop with her mother. She drew greeting cards and mailed them to herself. She told stories. She played by covering her eyes and then suddenly peeking - did she think that if she couldn't see her mum, her mum couldn't see her?
And then she started playing the "don't look at me" game.
"Don't look at me! Don't look at me!" she said.
As I was attempting to catch up on some lost sleep, I didn't realize right away that I was the object of this game. I had my eyes shut, so theoretically I was, indeed, not looking at her.
"Don't look at me!" She said a bit more demandingly.
Her mother said with affectionate irony, "Who wants to look at you? No one's looking at you."
I opened my eyes.
The child poked her head around the side of her mother.
"DON'T LOOK AT ME!" There was triumph in her voice now.
"I think she means the opposite of what she says," I said.
"Oh yes," her mother smiled. "Attention-seeking."
"Don't talk to him!" commanded her daughter.
"I'll talk to him if I want to!" Adults are not always compliant.
Visibility was almost always part of the compulsory games we played at boarding school. I felt that, mostly, they missed the point. Not that I cared when people cheered us on as we tried to hit, kick, or run with balls of various sizes to no apparent end. But there was one activity in which hiding continued to be fascinatingly essential.
On Sunday afternoons we had "free time" - one of the rare intervals when we were not being directly supervised or watched. The school grounds contained splendid bushes, sweet chestnut trees, rhododendrons, that sort of thing. It was under the rhododendrons that we scooped out subterranean hiding places in the fibrous leaf mold and constructed screens and roofs of branches, leaves, and great chunks of peat. Ownership was important. We knew which place belonged to which boy or group of boys.
Hours and hours were spent improving the camouflage and secrecy of these hiding places. The never-quite-achieved ideal was to make an undiscoverable place. If we had actually achieved this, we might have lost interest.
Nothing sinister was involved. We just sat around, chatted, ate sweets, and waited for other boys to walk past. The slightest hint of an approach called for a deep-frozen hush. You hardly dared to breathe. And then, once danger had passed, there'd be a sigh of relief.
"Wow! D'you think they knew? Phew! I thought Hopkins looked straight at us. But I don't think he spotted us. Wow!"
Best of all was the occasional coming of the Master on Duty doing his rounds. He would make a point, I think now, of pausing for as long as possible near all the hiding places to make things more exciting for us. But as a matter of principle, he never discovered us. It was his sensitive role to pretend he had no idea that there might be a clutch of kids, like fledglings in a nest, buried deep in the earthy shadows a few feet from him.
Of course all the teachers knew what they knew. But I still cling happily to the conviction that they didn't, in fact, know quite as much as they imagined. Some of us were not seen nor heard. And that conviction is almost as good as being very young again.