Retracing my steps

Part two: Cuiken Terrace to The Square

Returning to the town I grew up in is like trying on an old pair of shoes: I smile at their worn familiarity, but they don’t really fit any more.

The first school I attended was Cuiken Primary. As I walk up the terrace to the top of the hill on which it stood, today’s children surround me. Some are playing with new toys in the Christmas aftermath, others — too old to play? — hanging out. (Ah a pastime, activity and lifestyle all tucked up in that phrase.) One word I hear floating over from their group catches me: “nuh”. This Scottish “no” feels abrasive, it brings with it a whole baggage of childhood memories, friendly and nasty. There was elation and there was anxiety and pain. Whoever says that it is a carefree world that children live in has forgotten.

I pass the old sweet shop and step inside. The pleasure of penny sweets comes over me stickily. 20 in a 20p bag, but one must hope the knot isn’t tied too tightly, to avoid a struggle. The shop doesn’t look like it’s in great shape. Empty spaces on the shelves crowd out the loaves and tins.

Coming over the verge of the hill Cuiken school appears but it is and it isn’t. The building I knew, a sturdy red brick affair, was knocked down two years ago, in its place stands the replacement. I don’t take too much notice of this new structure; instead I rebuild my primary school. The gym hall stood large beside the classrooms, a row of windows lined its ceiling, they seemed impossibly high. It was an honour to be assigned the difficult task of raising the giant pole with the hook on one end in order to open one of those faraway panes. One of its outer walls was an integral part of bungy (pronounced bung-ee), a fun, simple game about kicking a football against a wall.

I skirt around the building and I feel relief as the Bellman’s comes into view. The path that leads down from the back of the school into town hasn’t changed one bit. Before I take it I look back into this foreign playground on my soil. It is much smaller than mine was, and full of obstacles: mini climbing walls, roundabouts and other stranger contraptions. We had none of these. You need nothing but a good base – a drainpipe will do fine – for hidey tig. Are the greatest games not the simplest?

As I descend the Bellman’s path I feel awkwardly big; the landscape is too small and I don’t fit it. The road at the end of the path arrives too quickly. The little path grows into a main street in much the same way as the little school gives way to the big one – Penicuik High School, now standing on my right. I did not attend it though; I never sat within its classrooms. For me it was a place for bikes and hanging out outside. The ex-Penicuik library is deserted. I thought I might find kids here, but there are none.

Across the road the park begins. Although it ought to be familiar, its mutations disguise all but the corners of it from me. A sharp-tipped metal fence surrounds the football pitch, emphasizing that you are either in or you are out. Something I felt often in the old days, especially when it came to football: I was rarely in. On the other side of the path is Penicuik’s skatepark. Now this is an addition that we sometimes longed for, to skate or blade or bike in, but without it we managed to seek out suitable natural urban terrain. Two young guys – aged 11? – are riding on microscooters. They do so rather impressively I note, given their size, their wheels, and the wet concrete bowls. I smile to myself before I walk off.

On Jackson Street, familiarity floods back in. Specific buildings or events or people do not come back to me; it is just a sensation. It feels like settling down with an old favourite book – I know what’s coming on the next page. It is OK even if somebody has ripped pages out or written over them (some buildings have crumbled into rubble and weeds). I know the original story well enough to read it how it used to be.

I reach the top of Lamb’s pend and drizzle has descended along with the dark. I walk down the narrow alley and burst out onto Penicuik’s downtown scene. It isn’t much. These oldest of institutions stand as they should: the Peni Deli, Bestsellers, the Arts centre and finally, Ben’s.

Ben’s — though I didn’t know it until I arrived — is my destination. This small newsagent sits between the homes of my two oldest friends, an epicentre. Home of penny sweets, cream soda, Football or Spice Girls collector’s cards, pogs. I gaze at the glass door from across the road. I do not go in. I need to keep alive the old Ben’s, the museum of my childhood. Within it everything is still possible, the worlds in which I am a biker, a musician, a pilot, a poet.

Now is the time for returning. I turn my back on the shop and carefully pick up my feet. Through two decades in ten minutes they carry me, from there to here.

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