Where I grew up, there was a brook, which is something a bit bigger than a stream but smaller than a river. The brook was probably the most interesting thing about Cheadle.
Its path spanned the town. It meandered through the fields between my concrete council estate and the next estate over (a decidedly upmarket, sprawling one whose houses looked like Swiss chalets on some streets). The brook then went under the road and disappeared for a little while. It emerged on the other side of the upmarket estate at Churchill Road Rec. If you’re not familiar with the term, a “rec” is short for “recreation grounds” and Cheadle had two recs. There was the big rec at Tean Road and the smaller one at Churchill Road.
The brook then disappeared again, as far as we knew, and reappeared somewhere behind the leisure centre which was on the opposite side of the town. I knew the brook was there because my grandma lived up there and I’d seen the brook but didn’t know how it had got there when it didn’t seem to go through the town.
My two mates and I decided we wanted to know the full path of the brook. We were absolutely positive it was all one brook because it was the brook. All the adults called it “the brook” not “a brook” so it had to be one long body of water.
Back then, I had no idea that explorers had spent ages searching for the start of the River Nile otherwise maybe we would have pretended to be explorers or something. This was also before Harry Potter and Top Gear showed us that three people who could barely stand each other made a good team for exploring.
Usually, we pretended we were in the army. I was a nurse because I was the girl (and I always had a plaster or two). Matt always knew everything about World War Two and knew words like gazebo because his parents left him with his grandad for childcare, and his grandad was obsessed with war films, as well as having actually been in the war. Andy was more into modern action movies so he was more Die Hard than Escape from Colditz. And if I rounded our ages up and down the average was about ten, at this point.
Our first attempt at finding out where the brook went didn’t end well. We got some torches and went down to where the brook seemed to appear from nowhere at the corner of Ness Grove and Froghall Road.
There were steep concrete sides and I’d been warned a few times not to go near this part of the brook because my mum knew someone who had gone down here and broken both his legs.
We went anyway, and I’m pleased to report none of us broke any legs (not even other people’s). After climbing down carefully, we were faced with a massive, dark tunnel. We turned our torches on but the darkness ate the feeble light and we were none the wiser. Wading, we entered the tunnel. My eyes never got time to adjust before something moved. I turned and fled, kicking up a furore of water until I reached the side then climbed up it. The boys were right behind me.
“It were a rat,” Andy said bluntly.
“I’m not going back down if there’s rats.”
That was the end of our first attempt to chart the brook but we weren’t done. All week during after school games of footie and dog walks, we talked about building a boat and sailing it from one end of the brook to the other.
Matt had a good idea about how to make one from watching Bridge on the River Kwai or something like it. I had some knowledge from reading Enid Blyton’s lesser known adventure book The Secret Island which I still think is better than Animal Farm. And Andy didn’t know anything about it and thought it was a stupid idea, so of course we bugged him until he came out across the fields on Saturday.
The main thing Matt and I had gleaned from our research was that we needed lots of wood. My stepdad had recently put up some shelves in our living room and I knew he had some wood left over so I asked if we could have it (it was unusual for me to ask but I reckoned even my self-absorbed parents would notice a boat-sized quantity of wood going missing). Oddly, my mum said yes.
Matt, Andy and I carried the huge sheet of wood across the field, up the bank, over a stile and through the spinney at the bottom of Tay Close, our chosen site to moor the boat after we built it.
Because we didn’t really agree on anything, we had an argument over whether this was going to be a raft or a boat. To settle the argument, we put the wood in the water. In spite of our expectations, it sank immediately.
All of us were perplexed. All our lives we’d seen films and cartoons where wood floated, and I was fairly sure I’d done about it in science. Everyone knew wood floated. So what was wrong with ours? We hadn’t even got on the boat yet and it was a shipwreck.
“Can wood go out of date?” I guessed.
Andy gave me a look. “Course not. Don’t be stupid.”
I got a bit annoyed. “Why in’t it floating, then?”
I rolled my eyes. “Well, then.”
I’m not sure how to describe the sheer complexity and versatility of the phrase ‘well, then’ to anyone who never lived in or near Cheadle. Here, I meant, ‘Well don’t call me stupid, then’, but you can use ‘Well, then’ to mean pretty much anything where you think the answer is bloody obvious.
Andy and Matt went into the water and raised the wood.
“It needs sides,” Matt said.
We decided this was fair, so we went back and looked for more wood to make sides.
“What are you up to?” my stepdad asked, on finding me in the kitchen with a hammer and nails.
“We’re making a boat out of that old black wood.”
“Yeah.” I started to worry that this might have been one of those times where my mum said I could do something that I actually wasn’t allowed to do, at which point she’d tell my step-dad what I’d done and I’d be in trouble.
“You can’t use that to make a boat.”
Now I was very worried. How much trouble was I in?
“It’s already in the brook. But it won’t float.”
“That’s because it’s MDF.”
MDF, I later learned, is nothing like wood, but when you glue a wood pattern to the outside, you can pass it off as furniture.
I wasn’t in trouble. When we went back to retrieve the MDF it had disappeared. Presumably the local skinheads had decided they could burn it, sniff it, or burn it then sniff it.
That was the end of our second attempt to chart the brook.
The third attempt was without Andy or Matt. This time involved wellies and I waded up the brook, thinking it couldn’t disappear if I was standing in it. I got quite a way up the playing field at the back of the rec before I had to stop because the water was past my knees and the current was pulling at me. It was a cold day so I gave up and went home.
A week later Andy found an abandoned house and we forgot all about charting the brook. I’ll talk about that house in another misadventure post.
Around us, the wheels of progress were turning but for now, three slightly unruly, completely unsupervised, utterly penniless kids off a council estate could roam without getting an ASBO.