At the skate park three teenage lads were doing stunts on their BMX bikes. As I fumbled around in my bag for one of the children they stopped and watched me from a distance. I set him down on the top of a high wall overlooking the track and beckoned them over. They asked and I explained what I was doing, hoping to evoke wonder, but they shrugged. Then I suggested that I could take photographs of them jumping the ramps whilst the figure looked on and they agreed. He watched, from the shade of the urban shrubbery, as the cyclists jumped and twirled. When I thanked them and left they watched me go with a sullen air and I feared for the little one’s safety.
But I judged too soon and when I passed a few days later the child still gazed across the tracks watching the everyday dramas of the subculture as the young crowds gathered each evening to smoke and talk, drink and play.
On the fortieth day he was no longer on the wall, but had fallen amongst the bushes. Whilst the skaters and bikers rode and rumbled across the tracks I pushed my way through the undergrowth to find him. The trunks and branches tangled and I stretched myself out to reach him until I was full length on the ground with my fingertips straining for his fallen body. Branches scratched my face and I could feel the damp soaking through my jeans where my knees pressed into the soil.
It puzzled me why, on a dry day there was so much mud and then the stench and the realisation struck me that I was lying on the ground in dirt and piss. I shuffled and stretched to grasp the fallen child before struggling to me feet, smeared with the filthy earth and hoping that none of the skater boys had seen my scramble through their makeshift WC.
But the child was safe, if just a little battered like my pride. 40 days watching a community then falling, forgotten, into their piss/mud to provoke the wilderness question of how the hell did I end up here?
I left him in the disused doorway amongst the rubble, the crumpled cans and all the other abandoned. The arms and legs of a dismembered toy doll were mingled with the detritus. He was safe amongst the lost as no one would notice him there by the side of the ring road. Commuters passed everyday, unaware that from the shadows of the old building they were being watched with a calm and kindly gaze.
Over those days many of the other children disappeared from the city, taken or swept up by street cleaners, but he remained; a benign presence. Sheltered in the doorway, with a darkening grey from the car fumes, he was one with the grime. And I would smile as I passed, he was so well hidden that I knew he would last the wilderness days.
The fortieth day came and I took the short walk from my studio to find him, just round the corner where I had seen him waiting patiently the day before, ‘not long now’ I’d said.
His shattered body was strewn across the pavement, limbs and torso scattered from the impact. In the gutter, by the double yellow lines of a dead end street, his head had rolled and was crushed to a powder. I stood in silence whilst the commuters filed past on the ring road, unaware that they were no longer watched.
I had always thought that it would take a special type of person to spot this child. They would have to observe the world, to see deeply, to be open to the possibility of wonder in the midst of the discarded. But I never expected that, having made the effort to find beauty in such an unexpected place, they would also find the urge and the ability to destroy it.
I was interviewed by Sarah Major on Radio Sheffield over the weekend. Here’s the link if anyone is interested in hearing it. My bit comes in around the 1hr 40 min mark:
When I left him high up on the rocks looking out over the Peak District I didn’t think he would last long. He gazed across the valley into the mist of February winter looking so peaceful and as I walked away I felt guilty that I had consigned him to oblivion. Of all the children he was, by far, the most exposed.
The most exposed but also the one with the most spectacular vista to spend his 40 days, there was defiance in him, he wasn’t hiding in a rock cleft or tucked away in the detritus of the city – he was there for the whole universe to see.
When I lay in bed with the sleet and rain tapping on the window he was the one of the 40 I thought of. Alone in the dark with nothing to protect him from the wind that could take him or the snow that could smother him or the rain that could drench him and return him to the earth.
So, 40 days later, I chased up the hillside out of breath and scrambling over rocks. I expected to find the large boulder empty, as if I’d offered him up on an altar and the gods had taken him. But they hadn’t, and for 40 days he had remained. But now changed, transformed by his exposure to become one with the rock. With delight I tentatively touched the rough clay. He had held that gaze for 40 days and nights as the damp and the rain moulded and shaped him to become part of the landscape.
His waiting has softened him and so his defiant stance is gone. But now, grey as the stone, all that remains of him seems infused with the wisdom of ages.