When I was six I did a terrible thing. My family had moved from a relatively large house a few doors down from the middle of nowhere to a much smaller house surrounded by other much smaller houses not far from the edge of somewhere. But the new house had the advantage of being only a couple of minutes walk from the beautiful grey North Sea and the crumbling cliffs that looked south over Whitburn Bay towards the harbour at Sunderland. Unbelievable as it may seem now, I was trusted to play, on my own or with friends of a similar age, on those untrustworthy cliffs and the shifting foreshore where an unwary rockpooler of any age could easily find himself marooned by the incoming tide and adrift on a rapidly diminishing island. My parents would not have been oblivious to the potential for disaster here and, although an amateur lexicologist of the future could be forgiven for concluding that the word “paedophile” was coined in 1990 or so, they wouldn’t have been oblivious to the potential that existed for other kinds of disaster. But they trusted me to know which bits of cliff would be safe to stand on and which adults would be OK to approach for sweeties. I’m very grateful that they did, no matter that from the perspective of a panicky urban parent of the third millennium it’s difficult to understand how, or why.
I’m not sure if the terrible thing I did was a betrayal or a vindication of that trust. I had a friend who rejoiced in the name Cheeseborough and who, at three, was half my age and therefore very young indeed. I think my mum had acquired him for herself with me as bait, because his father used to push him up and down the street in wellingtons and a wheelbarrow, which she found intolerably cute. Anyway, one Saturday Cheeseborough and I had gone out to play on the cliffs, one thing led to another, and we found ourselves walking the three miles along the bay to Sunderland. I wanted to show him the docks, you see. Not the big, scary, passport-controlled dry docks and goods quays on the far side of the river, nor the one remaining functional shipyard on the near side. Just a small, square, concrete island at the bottom of a steep little hill sprouting from the corner where the southbound coast road meets the river Wear and is forced to turn right. Now the site of flats for racy young city-dwelling professionals, but in 1972 a tranquil spot where a rusty little coaster, neither racy nor young nor quite 5,000 tons, could be found moored up for a breather.
When the time came for me to pupate into a teenage nightmare and, during the same period, my dad died, I felt as if he and I had never had anything much in common. I had to feel like that, because I was a teenage nightmare. But this man had grown up in a Belfast dominated by the shipyard of Harland and Wolf, and he with his love of maritime engineering and my mum with her love of the sea itself had stamped me indelibly by the time we’d been in Whitburn a couple of years. My dad would take me to events such as the launch of an oil tanker at South Shields by way of entertainment, and I was entertained. Poor Cheeseborough. He can’t have had much idea what was happening. He was out of his depth, although thankfully not in the sense that two sets of parents would have been trying not to contemplate round about this time.
We’ll have peered at whatever inconsequential shiplet was present, Cheeseborough and I, for a while, then set off on the weary three mile hike home. I too must have begun to flag by then, because by the time we reached Seaburn, less than half way, the one 2p coin in my pocket had found its way into the cheapskate’s slot of a telephone box. Given that we’d been absent for at least four hours by now, two sets of parents must have been quite glad to hear from us, and within minutes my dad’s car arrived to purr us back to safety. Not long afterwards, Cheeseborough’s father was offered a new job. In Bolton. Hundreds of miles away. He took it.