Paradise on Blue Bell Hill
Jon and Robert were brothers, born just short of twelve months apart. From their earliest recollections they had always been together, two against the world. Kids then were free range, and this Easter vacation was more free range than ever.
Their often dysfunctional family had taken up camping. The year before they had spent a week in an old army tent in a British summer – wet, but wonderful. This spring it was Blue Bell Hill, twenty minutes from home. Jon could hardly appreciate it, but it was a world away from the drab everyday of their home on the outskirts of London, where the only sight of nature was the manicured lawns and flowerbeds of the local parks, or the weeds of the bomb sites still left over from the war.
The grown-ups negotiated for an isolated pitch at the end of the grounds, down a steep and curving hill hidden from view. A paradise. They had a tent just large enough to fit both parents and three kids (younger sister as well), and a full complement of cooking gear. Pitching the tent was the strict province of their stepfather, fiddling with unfamiliar aluminum poles, frustrated with this newfangled contraption.
Soon enough, the time for supper arrived. The wonders of night life in the wild; strange noises full of the promise of adventure. Storytelling and singing, then fun with torches and blankets. Rain drummed on the canvas, but the new tent did not leak at all, unlike the army surplus tent of the year before. And surprisingly soon, to sleep.
Morning starts early for young boys in the wilds. Up with the crack of dawn, raring to go. Impatiently waiting for grown-ups to give permission to start the day’s fun. Jon, the older, was always the careful one, testing the waters before commanding his brother with confidence on their next exploit. Robert, the wild one, always had a glint in his eye ready for mayhem.
Bursting with impatience, they waited dutifully as their mother prepared breakfast. A perfect picture of domesticity, stepfather about to take the family car in to work.
And taking the car in to work proved to be an adventure in itself. Rain had turned the tyre tracks into bottomless mires of mud. The entire family engaged in the task of pushing until the car had enough of a start to climb the hill. A routine to become familiar, but a novel experience and victory for the boys, diminutive he-men now.
Then time to explore. This was Blue Bell Hill in April, and the name was apt. Blue bells abounded in the lush mulch of damp leaves. Masses in bloom beneath silver birch, their light canopy letting the occasional rays of sunlight through to illuminate a sea of purple blue blooms. Beautiful enough to give even a city hardened seven-year-old a permanent impression of wonder.
But onward from the beauty of nature, there was mischief to work: running around, slipping in mud, playing soldiers. The world of boys.
Jon got an idea into his head to improve the steep and slippery trail that their mother complained was a problem for their stepfather coming from work. Robert and he could use the plentiful sticks to make a rough and ready track, laying them across in each tyre track worn by previous cars. A major feat of engineering for six and seven year old boys, but satisfying in its execution. Digging through the mulch for sticks just long enough to span a tyre’s width, mushing them into the ground with their feet, jumping and breaking any that did not lay flat.
After a long day’s work, they were done just in time for a tea-time snack. Their forgotten mother was all of a sudden of the greatest importance, and camping gear and food supplies were put to good use. Fresh air and hard work had led to healthy appetites, and they could show their mother and sister what wonders the boys had wrought.
Mum was appreciative, and sister duly impressed. A successful day.
They watched excitedly as their stepfather returned and came down the hill, creeping the car down through the mud. Clearly the boys had averted catastrophe, they stood proudly attentive for him in front of the tent, waiting confidently for his approval to join their mother’s.
But their confidence was punctured as he emerged from the car, furious. Who had been there while he was gone? He could tell that someone had been there because the sticks they had so carefully laid and stepped on were broken, proving in his eyes that another car had preceded him. Accusing their mother of some crime beyond their young comprehension, unmollified by their protestations that they were indeed the ones who had broken the sticks so they laid better in the tracks.
In later years Jon understood the crime of which she was accused. Or rather, knew of it. He could never empathise, never having been guilty of it himself. His father was a chronic cheat, and his mother, emotionally dependent on him, tolerated it and the money that he spent like water. For which he was dependent on her, and her rich father.
Paradise lost, but soon regained by the boys. This was not the first or the last time for unforeseen rage between the grown-ups. At these times they clung together all the more strongly, silently supporting their real mother against the interloper.