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Written on June 7, 2005, and categorized as Secret and Invisible.
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There was only one way to die, and that was in a game of Cowboys and Indians, or if not that, then War, which was much the same, except that it had Germans in it. Dying involved being caught in some sort of ambush, often by several other boys. Generally speaking, if you got killed, there would be a blizzard of shouted bangs, jabbing pointed fingers with the thumb up to make a gun shape, innocent aping of adult violence we watched daily.

Boys with money owned cap guns. Mostly the hammers click-click-clicked on empty barrels, but sometimes a stream of paper emerged with each tiny explosive charge, and the acrid smell of gunpowder would excite our nostrils and assist the fantasy. You might dispute a boy’s aim if he shot you with his finger, but shot with a cap gun, well, you were DEFINITELY dead. Jumping around you in feverish glee with crazed eyes, the others would demand and expect your prompt and histrionic exit.

I didn’t want to die, of course, but when my time came, I made the most of it. I worked out early on that a good death was a golden opportunity to convert the victim into a hero. Clutching my chest, I would let out a ghastly cry, stagger left and right, rolling my eyes, gasping in a creaking voice decades older than mine, “You… you… you… ” I would attempt to walk, to raise my own gun, then having already circumspectly spied out my ideal final resting place, sink to my knees, looking incredulously down at my gaping wound, watching imaginary blood flow steadily out between my fingers. One last croak, a sudden twist of agony and I would collapse motionless, sometimes as a PIÈCE DE RÉSISTANCE adopting the vacant-eyed stare. This was difficult to maintain though, and for good effect required a mate who was in on the act, to solemnly close your eyes with two dirty fingers, confirming to the horrified onlookers with morbid satisfaction, “Yup, he’s dead.”

I cannot pretend I was delighted by these games or played them as endlessly as the other kids. At the age of 6 I already knew the Indians were far cooler. They had knife skills which I envied, lived close to the land, could track silently over many miles. They wore feathers and made wonderful ululating cries as they circled any white wagons badly parked on their street. So I started to choose to be Indian, although in everyone else’s eyes this meant being automatically on the losing side, and I would annoy bloodthirsty cowboys by being an effective ambusher with a bow and poison-tipped arrows. This usually ended up with my being expelled from the game, because they couldn’t conceive that a man wearing feathers armed with arrows could kill a man wearing a stetson carrying a Colt 45. On the nightly TV news, grainy black and white pictures from Vietnam showed the US military making that same mistake.

From then on my games were different. In War, I was no longer Tommy – I was a member of the resistance, behind enemy lines, sabotage my intent, revenge in my heart. I made snares and booby traps, I snuck down dank overgrown alleys, climbed up rusty fire escapes, silently entered the backs of buildings. In fact, this was far more dangerous, unsupervised, solitary play, my own fantasies taking me to places that might have put me in hospital or worse.

One night around this time, I was in bed, it was still light outside, and I started to think about thinking. “This is a thought” I thought. “That was a thought – this is a thought.” I quickly worked out that as soon as I verbalised the thought, “This is a thought” that I was already thinking another thought, which was the thought about the thought. I tried to speed up the process so that I could think the thoughts about thinking without getting behind myself, and I realised it was impossible. My mind racing, I felt dread. I was stuck! I couldn’t not think the thought about the thought. I forced myself to think about something else – anything else. I sat up in bed, breathing hard. I remember feeling as though I had jumped off a roundabout that has started to spin too fast. I got out of bed and went downstairs.

Mum was sitting in the living room, with some laundry on her lap, and she looked up and read my perturbed face.
“What is it?” she asked. I didn’t know how to explain what had just happened.
“I can’t stop thinking.”
“What are you thinking about?”
“Thinking.”

She was tired, but she smiled at this. I went over to her for a hug, feeling tearful. She put one arm around me, carried on working with the other.
“I don’t know. I was thinking that this thought is a thought and I can’t think about thoughts without thinking.”
“Oh dear,” she said.

Then out of the blue, I asked her, “Mum, does everything stop?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well… will I die one day?”
She paused and said carefully, “Yes, one day, but not now.”
I weighed up this information. “And will you die one day as well?”
“Yes, everyone dies eventually.”

She waited while I digested this momentous news. Mum was going to die! I was shocked, I felt blue. The fact that I would die was insignificant compared to Mum dying. Mum was the centre of the universe, but even she was doomed.

I remember being allowed to remain for 20 minutes or so in the living room while Mum and I made small talk, and she attempted to ensure that I would be able to sleep without nightmares. She came up with me to bed, which was unusual at that age, with a younger sister and brother taking most of her attention.

“Night night.”
“Do you want me to leave the hall light on?” she asked.
“No, I’m fine,” I said, but I felt foolish, disturbed.

I lay there, not daring to go back to thinking about thought, letting the knowledge of my own and my mother’s mortality sink in. I recalled one by one my family, my friends, pets, animals, birds, trees that were all alive now, but which would one day be dead. I considered their greatness in my young life, alongside this awful truth that I had stumbled upon, negating their permanence, until death’s inevitability slowly became part of every fibre of my being, and I finally fell asleep, never to wake the same.

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This thing has 2 Comments

  1. transience
    Posted 7 June, 2005 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    a lot of youngsters are miseducated when it comes to the concept of death. i, for one, always believed i would never die. but that is a pretty lonely fate, if you ask me.

  2. Blog ho
    Posted 7 June, 2005 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    very sad. very fucking sad, if you don’t mind me saying.

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