In January 2011 my wife, our son, and I moved out of a flat in Toxteth into a house of our own, just a mile or so from that of my parents. My mum and dad still live in the same 1930s semi they moved to shortly after I was born. My sister and her family live a mile or so further on, just a fraction over the border of Liverpool. A circle drawn on a map with my parent’s house at the centre, my home marking one edge of the diameter and my sister’s marking the other, would cordon off an area in which I attended Nursery school, Infant school, Junior school, Secondary school and Sixth Form College. Within that circle I learned to ride a bike; I had my first kiss; I got served in a pub for the first time.
Inside that circle my grandparents met while air-raid sirens droned panic and fire rained down from above. Within its bounds they courted, and were married in the very same church whose Italianate bell-tower casts an afternoon shadow across my back garden. Inside that circle, six doors down from where my parents live today, my grandparents set up home and raised their children. There they stayed long enough for the children to leave and the grandchildren, and then great-grandchildren to arrive. Inside that circle their bodies were cremated – gran’s last year, granddad’s this – their ashes scattered partly in their own back garden, partly on the grave of gran’s parents who are themselves buried inside that same imaginary circle.
And as easily as these words connect those events so too do physical paths link their settings. The hypothetical circle is divided up not just by modern streets and roads but also by more ancient thoroughfares. Narrow brier choked, ivy curtained corridors that might be faerie paths, or corpse roads, link the abundant cemeteries, parks, playing fields and hidden green-spaces that wait impatiently for the moment when they can reclaim the circle. Centuries old roots ripple through tarmac, absorb railings and bow walls. Stop-motion brambles wind cunningly around fallen sandstone slabs, spider-walk through skull-socket knotholes, cascade over weatherworn fence panel and post in a prickled, black-fruit foamed spray. Looking out from the crest of a suburban hill where an Iron Age fort once stood, the thin veneer of civilisation can be seen, almost heard, crumbling one driveway-fracturing dandelion at a time.
Pre-adolescent weekends and school holidays were spent exploring the circle with friends: clambering over ornate iron railings into the overgrown grounds of a Victorian Convalescent home to eat square crisps in its long abandoned chapel while dust motes danced in its ruined-roof sunbeams. In a deserted factory two streets behind my parent’s home: the words NO DOG FIGHTS spray-painted in two foot high dripping red letters on an inner wall; a flight of concrete steps leading directly down into the inky waters of a flooded cellar. Racing mountain bikes through a two-hundred-and-thirty-three acre cemetery, slaking our thirst at the taps meant for filling memorial vases while headless angels knelt beside us in prayer. In the cricket pavilion of a closed down secondary school – a row of showers turning themselves on. One. By. One. A black collie sleeping peacefully on its side next to a railway track turning out to be only the matting of indigestible fur covering a skeleton picked clean by creatures from the dark, damp earth below. All of it terrifying, all of it wonderful, seen now not so much through rose-tinted spectacles as Instagram or Photoshop filters. Add Dust & Speckles. Add Grunge. Fuzzy focussed, faded edged, and un-really vintage.
Nightmarish is the right word for such pre-adult horrors – like nightmares, though ominous and threatening, they could never have harmed despite all appearances to the contrary. Bikes lead to cuts and bruises, and early onset anxiety about theft. Kisses begin a cycle of want, and need, and heartache. Beer turns to hangovers, to lost time and borrowed money. All those supposed pleasures summoned so eagerly from within the circle so many summers ago had their costs, but consequences are an adult’s neurosis.
Back there, at the very cusp of adolescence, as the days of let’s pretend drew to an end and genuine fear and risk became reality, the meshing of the child and proto-adult psyche created something incredibly powerful and truly beautiful. Knowing just enough, understanding just enough to take things seriously but still not knowing exactly what it is you’re supposed to be taking seriously – allegorical fears flickered temporarily into un-deconstructed, un-questioned existence.
Here tonight inside the invisible circle an ancient oak creaks gloomily in the wind just beyond the floodlights of a pub car park; a tattered black tracksuit top caught in a cemetery brier hedge flaps frantically; a car’s headlights flash momentarily in the eyes of a fox, or cat, skulking in the roadside shadows. Everything crackles with potential unreality like a two day old acid trip on the tip of the brain.
This is the place where my son is already growing up day by day – family, as always, at the circle’s centre. Here his mum and I will teach him to ride a bike; here his first kiss sleeps soundly somewhere close by; here half a dozen struggling pub landlords are already counting on him buying his first pint from them. And here inside this circle where his great-grandparents lived and died, for an all too brief time, my son will have the most wonderful nightmares that will stay with him the rest of his life.
John Reppion is the co-author, with his wife Leah Moore, of many wonderful graphic novels, and the forthcoming online motion-comic THE THRILL ELECTRIC. John also writes non-fiction, such as 800 YEARS OF HAUNTED LIVERPOOL, and short fiction like the marvellous ON THE BANKS OF THE RIVER JORDAN.