This is it. Deadline day.
You’re up early. Far earlier than you will be tomorrow. You rise without protest, without so much as a yawn.
Your breakfast vanishes in seconds flat. You spill apple juice down your T-shirt in your hurry to drink it, and your mum chides you for it, makes you go back upstairs to change. Brush your teeth but don’t care what your breath’s like, really. You’ve never kissed anyone, romantically, and probably won’t do for ages.
You’re seven years-old.
You’ll be eight in a month and three-quarters, a few days – frustratingly – shy of half-term.
You descend the stairs three at a time – a right heavy-footed camel, as your father would say – and burst out through the side door before your mum can chide you again for making all of that racket. Duck back in for your trainers.
Velcro them up.
Then unfasten them.
Then fasten again.
Enjoying the sound. Adoring it.
Feels to your ears like birdsong. Your school shoes are lace-ups, and it just won’t be the same.
Looking up, you see that your older brother has beaten you out here. Already has the ball between his feet and is inflating it quickly with the bicycle pump.
You call for it, but he does a few kick-ups first – showing off – before knocking it across the flags to you. Your touch isn’t the finest, just yet, but you’re learning. And it doesn’t really matter, because you’ve not worked out, at this time, how to worry about the trivial things.
You trade wonky passes – one-two, one-two – and then both run down the driveway and into the street. It is a cul-de-sac, and, as such, a kind of safe haven. There are cars all around on the pavement, half-mounting the kerb, but you and your friends pretend that they’re linesmen or advertising hoardings.
Some days, you might have to go and call for them, or them for you, but not today. Today came with its own unavoidable alarm – no, tomorrow’s will be unavoidable (if your mum remembers to set it), today’s is unmissable. Crucial difference. – It is the second-most-important hourglass of the year – behind Christmas Eve – and nobody you know ever wants to let too much sand fall before they’re up and about it.
One of them calls for the football, and you pass it long, in the air, narrowly evading a wing mirror. You fairly sprint across the tarmac after it, until you’re on the strait of street outside their house. So wild for this are you that you volunteer to be the keeper, take your place between the fencepost and the wall that demarcate the bottom of their property.
You get up and dust yourself off.
You carry on playing, wearing a few little grazes and a ridiculous grin.
When it’s someone else’s turn to be goalie, you gambol about after the ball, kicking at ankles, not really challenging the older kids for control. Still, somehow you score one – a beauty! – and run around with your shirt lifted up like a wrestling mask across your face, the way you’ve seen some people do it on TV.
You smack into your brother, land back down on your arse. Your friends laugh, and you’re a little disgruntled. But then you see the funny side and laugh along.
This day’s short enough without wasting seconds of it crying.
Minutes and hours seem to race past like Concorde. One of your friends flew on that once, but you’re too young and hopeful to know, or guess, that you never will.
The lunchtime calls of mums – which, to your ears, harmonise – draw you all back to your respective doorways for a while. Your hand reaches inside, receives a small plastic plate – you may have broken a better one, last time you ate outside – and you wolf, no, you tiger down those four small cheese sandwiches, not a care at all about heartburn or anything similar.
You hand the plate back in, withdraw your hand with fingers round a plastic cup – same story – and swallow its contents in one, two, three gulps. Your mum points out you’ve spilt down your T-shirt yet again, but it’s only water, so you don’t have to change.
Besides, you tell her, you’re off to the field now. It’ll get more mucky anyway.
You re-convene, the whole entire bunch of you, at the end of the street, and briefly recap and refresh minds on the rules. It’s to be a giant game of hide and seek, carried out in teams. One team hunts, but has to do so carefully, because the hiding team can change location, if they see you from a way away.
You’re picked next-to-last, but on the hiding team. This is the way to be, you think, as you all begin your running.
Down the hill that leads past other adjoining cul-de-sacs, and along a winding, over-nettled pathway, trying not to get your bare shins stung as you head towards your goal.
The field. Belongs to a farmer, you think, though you’ve never seen him. Stretches for what feels to you like miles, but might only be a handful of acres. You scurry down across a muddy, what-you’ve-learnt-to-know-as-babbling brook, and then begin to clamber up the patchy grass and scrub of the first hill. You take up a scout position behind a holly bush, and peer out around it, checking if the other team are in pursuit just yet.
You can’t see them.
You stick close to the garden wall at the high end of this part of the field – again belonging to that invisible, but somehow omnipresent, farmer – and make your way in single-file towards the barbed wire that splits this area of grassland from the next. The older kids drop and roll beneath it, army-man-style, and so you follow suit.
That T-shirt of yours catches on one of the spikes, but that spike doesn’t rip it and doesn’t draw blood. You stand up, all of you, united in unspoken cool.
Poster boys for all the lithe invincibility of youth.
You don’t pause for long, though. Set off once more running. Small feet dodging the various cowpats as though they’re bear traps, but white trainers streaking brown with the mud nonetheless.
You make your way, as quickly as you can, for another wall. This one marking the top of the local woods. Scramble over it, drop down behind. Move along, at a crouch, until you find a place at which a small hole has been knocked or simply fallen through.
Watch there for the hunting team, but they never show up.
One of your friends claims he can tell the time by studying sinking of sun in the sky. Informs the whole team that two and a half hours have passed. There is a brief discussion, fuelled by the awareness that there’s only so much – nobody is quite sure of the specific amount – daylight left in which to play. A decision is made.
Two and a half hours surely equals victory.
You take a quicker route back home – up this part of the field, over one fence, and then over another, into your garden. Only to find the other team playing football again, amongst themselves.
You ridicule them, and they suggest that your team were cheating, saying they looked everywhere that they could think of, so you must have been out of bounds.
You each challenge the other to another game of football, hiders vs. seekers, up and down the street.
Goals are scored so quickly that no-one, really, can keep up with the count. Further accusations of cheating. But more fun and more laughter, too. More grazes and ankle-kicking, but more moments of glory as well.
Though the score can’t be agreed upon, the game is called a draw after angry car-owner stops play.
You unanimously decide that it’s time to retreat inside for tea.
You sit down at the table, tiring out, and eat, but do so slowly. Don’t rush your drink of orange juice, and so don’t spill it down your slightly scuffed-up top.
Even though it’s colder, and the sun is lowering at quite a pace, it doesn’t take any coercion to get you back outside. A group of your friends join you and your brother, sitting on your flagstoned drive, talking about things you won’t remember even minutes down the line.
The evening ends with slightly sombre goodbye moments, as though you won’t be at school together in the morning, and instead will be without each other’s company for pretty much another year.
You don’t stay up too late, once you’ve gone back indoors. There’s nothing on TV at this time that really interests you, as of yet.
You ascend the stairs lethargic-like, take nearly five minutes slow-brushing your teeth. Wash your face, and watch the top part of it in the mirror, because that’s the only part you can see. It’s more than a little sleepy-looking. Sand’s running out from the hourglass, and trickling, weightily, into your eyes.
You yawn again as you pull the covers up about yourself.
Warmer now, you lie there, treading back with dumb bliss through all the day’s moments. Picking the highlights. Trying to hold on to them all for as long as you can.
Trying to deny that the nighttime has found you.
That the colour it wears is school uniform grey.