Like many children growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, our childhood was all about the outdoors
I often talk to my children about the street where I grew up. It was a 1960’s-built cul-de-sac, not untypical of that era, lined on each side with matching semi-detached houses.
There were a lot of children on my street and we were never short of friends to play with. Our parents didn’t take us to after school clubs or play dates; they didn’t need to. Childcare was basically on tap back then.
The fond memories of those years are not falsely mixed up in a mind that only chooses to remember the good times. I do genuinely believe I had a great childhood and we were lucky to grow up in those times.
One of the many street parties we had when I was growing up
Attracted to this whole idea of freedom, fun, and friendships that have lasted to this day, my eldest daughter asked if I would take her to see this street, now so infamous in many of my recollective stories. My mum still lives just a short walk away, so it wasn’t an unreasonable request, but with the road being a no-throughway, even with the excuse of a dog walk, it didn’t feel quite right to be going down there. There was also something else I felt; a sense of walking in to the past, or even a sense of intrusion into something I’m no longer a part of.
Perhaps the reality of those memories would be spoiled somehow by re-visiting this place, much changed in the twenty or so years since I lived there
My eldest daughter, not being easily dissuaded, managed to talk me into it eventually and so off we went, myself, tentatively creeping down the road, watching the windows to see if anyone would notice we weren’t residents and wonder what the heck we were doing there. I didn’t see a twitching curtain or a curious stare though and that was the first noticeable change about the street: perhaps the days where everyone knew each other are long gone.
The houses were much the same, some even improved upon and modernised, but there was one particular house I really wanted to visit. It’s a house that featured heavily in my active imagination as a child, so much so that I based my soon-to-be-published children’s story on it, in fact, the street itself influenced my story setting and some of the characters in it.
As I mentioned, the houses on this street are uniform, bog-standard semis, built on what was originally farmland. All except one house in the bottom corner. Unlike the others, it was set much further back off the road at the end of a gravelly drive. Instead of a square or rectangular piece of garden at the front, it had a bigger space, surrounded by overgrown trees and shrubs to the extent where you couldn’t really see the house. Whereas everyone else had open front gardens, separated only by low shrubs, this house was fully surrounded by walls and a wrought iron fence and gate.
I was truly scared of this house and the people who lived in it
Unlike the other residents of the street, the family didn’t mix and bear in mind this was the late seventies/early eighties, it was unheard of not to socialise with your neighbours. This was the era of the street party don’t forget!
I distinctly remember one time running for my life back home, throwing myself into the kitchen and shouting at my mum to shut the door and lock it. Why? Because the girls who lived in the strange house at the end of the street had told me, and some of the other kids, there was a werewolf in their garden and I (plus everyone else) had believed them. That’s not just because we were gullible, they were just that strange and you never quite knew what you were dealing with.
In my mind, this house was so much older, run down and not at all like the rest
It might sound ridiculous now, but I wouldn’t go near that house and to this day, the memory of it has stayed with me. Yet as I stood there with my daughter, I was astounded by how normal it was. Most of all, how like the others it was and when I questioned my mum about it, she told me it was built at the same time as the rest of the street.
I had always assumed it was part of the original farm, around which the rest of the street had been built. How strange that all this time, I had imagined this apparently normal house as something completely different.
As a writer, you try to use your words to paint a picture and you hope you succeed
When I asked illustrator and writer, Maddy Bennett if she would provide the illustrations for my children’s story, ‘The Mystery of the Disappearing Underpants’, one of the images she came up with was of this house. It has a central role in the story and Maddy pulled this image out of my head and on to paper in a way I never could have. The talent of an illustrator is to take the words of the author and the imagery they conjure, bringing them to life in a much more visual way. Maddy does this brilliantly.
Illustration by Maddy Bennett for ‘The Mystery of the Disappearing Underpants’
Although ‘Underpants’, as it is affectionately called, is a chapter book, Maddy’s illustrations help to reinforce the imagery the book hopefully already presents
The strange house of my childhood street might not, after all, be anything other than a poorly kept house with un-conventional tenants, but it will forever remain the ‘haunted house’ in my mind. In a way, I wish I’d never found out the truth and it had remained in my imagination as I’d remembered. But that’s the reality of growing up we all have to face isn’t it?
The Mystery of the Disappearing Underpants will be available from 28th April 2017. Meet the characters in the story before then by downloading this FREE e-book called ‘A Special Day’.