It was in the days following decimalisation when our pockets bulged with useless pennies. We’d take our coins down to the railway yard and place them on the tracks where great Type Two locomotives would squash them flat for us. I used to thrill at the passage of these hulking leviathans and marvel at the way the earth buckled under their weight. We were chased away from the yards many times and once or twice we were picked up by the railway police who admonished us and warned us of the dangers of playing there. Of course the stockyards were dangerous – that was part of the allure. There was century’s worth of crap in there – rotten wood, rusty iron and warped steel; heavy junk just made for boys to play with.
My ninth summer was the hottest on record; the Tarmac melted and children baked under the merciless rays of the relentless sun. We had spent the day in the yards chasing newts in the stagnant ponds and staging robberies in abandoned railway carriages. Now the setting sun was painting the world gold and it was time Jesse James and his gang hurried home to their mums. We were about to leave the yard when we noticed that Gordon was missing.
“Wiz he no wi you?”
“Naw – wiz eh no wi you?”
“Maybe he went hame”
“He wid huv said”
“Let’s split up – you go back tae the ponds an we’ll check the rails”
As the oldest boy I took charge of the search party which scoured the railway sidings. We climbed through derelict railway carriages and abandoned trucks calling Gordy’s name, but there was no reply. We were about to give up and call it a day when we found him. He was a crumpled heap left dumped on the ground beside the rails. It seemed to me that his frail little body had been folded in an unnatural manner by some unspeakable and callous hand. Thick brown blood oozed from his head and pooled on the ground around him. I had never seen blood that colour; I was sure no living thing bled that colour. Gordy gazed blankly into the evening sky; flies danced in the air around him and settled on his eyes in grim mockery of the living.
Wee Stu and Barry Evans were crying, but I did not cry – I think I was in shock. A dread fear had seized my heart – a fear which had no name but was recognized of old; my first taste of death was familiar and primal and I never forgot it. We gathered the boys from the ponds and ran to Gordy’s house to raise the alarm, but it was too late for alarms. It was too late for anything but tears.
In the coming days a strange silence had descended on my heart. I stayed close to home and played little, but thought much. One day I asked my mother what happens when you die, she did her best – God bless her – to comfort me.
“When you die you go to live in a big house where everyone you have ever known lives and everybody is happy forever and ever.”
My father had a different perspective entirely;
“When yer deed yer deed – there’s nothing – nae God, nae heaven, jist nothing. End of story. So stay away from that fuckin railway or I’ll fuckin kill ye myself.”
That first taste of death lingers a lifetime; years later when I over did they said I died three times on the way to hospital. I don’t remember much about it, but I know there was no big house, no friends and family awaiting me. What I do remember is the resurfacing of a long buried memory. I lay in that hospital bed with the image of Gordy’s face and that pool of thick brown blood swimming before my eyes and I wept like a child. I don’t know if I wept for me or for poor wee Gordy – perhaps I cried for us both – for the fragility of life and its impermanent nature.