It happened in the autumn of 1950. I remember as though it were yesterday…
We had come to the woods for a Sunday-school treat, a boisterous party of children bouncing on the bus’s seats with each rut in the road. Mrs Eddington, the vicar’s wife, warned us to stay in pairs.
I had never seen so many trees. I didn’t know the world contained so many trees. I took my older sister’s hand, and we set off into the welcoming cathedral of nature.
We stopped to collect conkers, possessing their plump opulence in our cupped palms, and stuffing our pockets with their glossy fullness. Above us, the leaves whispered of fading summer and the chill to come. The dew-logged grass reached caressing fingers to the bare rectangles of skin between our ankle socks and skirts.
Jamila, with the easy wisdom of ten years, showed me how to peel away the green spiky coat to reveal the mahogany nut in its case. I rubbed the conker on my cheek, its burnished coat smooth against my skin. I turned my thumb inside its newly-vacated shell, the motion rewarding me with the soothing sensation of velvet.
I was four years old, and for me, the world was still warm and golden.
We found blackberries and crammed our mouths, staining our blouses with the tart purple juice. Later, with the sun slanting through the trees as through a stained glass window, we kicked up the fallen leaves in dizzying clouds of ochre.
It was then that we first became aware of voices; harsh, jagged voices which tore into the tranquil afternoon. Jamila tensed, pulling me out of sight behind a conifer, whose needles clawed at me like witches’ fingers. I struggled with her, irritated by the sudden change in climate. She put her fingers to her lips and motioned to me to stay still. Resentful, I half obeyed.
The skirts of the tree swept almost to the ground, but there was a narrow gap beneath. Lying flat on my stomach, my skirt pockets knobbly under me, I wriggled forwards under the lowest branches to see what had disturbed my sister.
There in the clearing, a small group of girls was setting out rugs and picnic baskets. Neat plaits and prim bows announced that they were not from our part of the city. They were all, without exception, white. Dazzling, unblotted-copy-book white. Fair hair and freckles.
To my four-year old eyes, a group of new playmates had arrived. I saw no reason to slink out of sight like a timid animal. I elbowed my way forward and emerged from under the tree, ready to share in whatever game they might choose.
‘What’s this?’ A tall girl stood up, a daisy chain suspended from one disdainful finger. ‘A blackie!’
‘Come away, Jennifer,’ another shouted. ‘You might catch something nasty.’
‘Go away, blackie!’ Several of them made shooing gestures with their hands. I stood, absurdly fixed, unable to grasp their meaning.
‘Wait!’ The girl called Jennifer stopped me before I had taken a step. ‘Are you hungry?’ She opened a picnic basket and pulled out an apple. ‘Would you like one?’
I nodded and moved towards her. Whatever the earlier words had meant, this was the world once again as I knew it to be. Where people were kind and there was no need for fear. I held out my hand, tasting already the sweet crunch of apple on my tongue.
‘Hold on.’ She walked rapidly to the edge of the clearing, selecting a spot where the shade of the trees allowed the ground to remain damp. Dropping the apple in the mud, she rolled it around with her foot, finally standing on it with sharp-toed venom. I heard its crisp flesh collapse under her spite.
‘Well?’ Her stony eyes tried to draw a challenge from mine. ‘I expect you’re used to dirt where you come from.’
I looked down at the apple, fragmented on the ground. In my hand, the unforgiving spikes of a conker shell jabbed into my skin. The taunts of the girls rose and coiled around me like fey curses riding on a November storm. I turned and fled into the darkest part of the wood.
Jamila found me an hour later. I was curled in a dip in the ground, overhanging branches hiding my shame.
‘Don’t tell,’ she warned. ‘Don’t say a word to Mrs Eddington.’
I brought home more than conkers, that day.
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