My mother had spent ages hanging the washing out in the harsh 1960s Barnsley breeze. It looked a bit like neutral bunting, to be honest: all my dad’s white vests and white pants flapping as though they wanted to surrender to the superior forces of the weather. I was throwing an aeroplane around the garden, pretending I was leading a squadron in the Battle of Britain; when I say “aeroplane”, I mean a toy I’d made myself. When I say “made myself”, I mean I’d written the word “aeroplane” on a stick. I admit it: I was throwing a stick around the garden. Well, we didn’t have the internet in those days.
‘“Don’t let that plane mucky this washing!” my mother said, her mouth full of pegs but I got the gist. And the drift. And the unspoken (even through wooden pegs) message that if I dirtied the vests and pants I’d get a clip round the ear. The trouble was, the washing took up most of the garden and there wasn’t much room left for test flights, and I couldn’t go up to the Top Field because there were big lads there with air rifles, and I couldn’t go to Auntie’s because her and Uncle Charlie had gone to see their son Little Charlie in Uncle Charlie’s Ford Anglia.
So I was left in the garden, trying to fly my plane as low as I could. For a while it was fun: I pretended I was skimming the fields because I was trying to avoid enemy radar rather than parental pants. It got boring, though. I wanted my stick to soar and fly free. In the distance, air rifles cracked. I looked at the washing and thought: “How hard can it be? How difficult can it really be to make the stick plane fly in a shifting arc that would avoid the laundry?”
I pulled my arm back, preparing to celebrate the miracle of flight; my eyes scanned the vestscape ahead of me. This would take every ounce of my skill and knowledge as a pilot. Except, of course, I wasn’t a pilot: I was a schoolboy who enjoyed reading Biggles books.
Ah, reader, you can guess what happened. You could even have a go at recreating it in the comfort of your own home. The stick balanced in the chubby fingers. The washing appearing to taunt the plane-chucker. The sound of the mother singing along to the theme tune of Housewife’s Choice. The awful sense, like in a film when the music goes into a minor key, that something terrible is about to happen.
The stick-plane released. The stuttering, curving flight. The chilling and terrifying sight of the mother coming out with more washing. The sudden realisation that the stick-plane is going to hit a freshly-washed vest, soiling it. The cry of “Noooo”!
The chubby schoolboy throwing himself across the lawn. The mother being caught head-on by the chubby schoolboy. The stick-plane bouncing off the vest, leaving a plane-shaped tattoo. The mother dropping the washing basket to the ground. The washing rolling onto the lawn and into the soil at its edge. The soil systematically transferring itself to the washing, as though by magic.
The weeping boy. The stupid, stupid stick.