I was twelve years old when I first realised that I was different to other people. I grew up in the historical town of Lewes on the South Downs. We had moved there after my father died when I was just four years old and I spent most of my formative years there. As my father had died before I was old enough to know him, my memories of him come from old photographs and from my mother’s own recollections. My mother worked as a mid-level clerk at a local bank, we were close, but with her working so much I naturally spent most of time, especially during the summer holidays, on my own.
That’s not to say I didn’t have friends, I did, but for the most part I preferred my own company. If the weather was bad then I would spend my time reading, mostly young adventure books, but also some serious stuff about astronomy and other things that interested me. The night sky as always fascinated me, even now I think there is nothing more beautiful than a crisp, clear night sky. In fact, at that age, my dream was to become an astronomer and devote my life to studying its mysteries. Alas, that pleasant little fiction was not to be.
When the weather was nice I would go out exploring and where we lived was great for that. In the centre of town was the old castle, one of the first built after their invasion in 1066. I used to love climbing to the top of the keep and just look out across the countryside. You could see why the Normans built a castle there, from the battlements you could see for miles.
Surrounding the town was the Downs themselves, rolling green hills with lush grass upon chalky soil. Either on foot or on bike I would head out into the hills to see what new things I could find and as long as I was home by early evening and didn’t get into any trouble, my mother didn’t mind too much how I spent my time. Well except for the summer I spent digging my own cave in the chalk pits nearby, she wasn’t amused by me coming home covered in chalk dust every evening.
There were some famous landmarks around the area that were firm favourites, the long man was a giant line sketch of man, cut into the side of a hill that could be seen from many miles away. The rumour was that the police had to seal this area off every Halloween as people who wandered in would just disappear. As well as the Norman Motte and Bailey castle there was the ancient Iron Age hill fort, both were fabulous places where I battled ancient armies, the lone champion slaying hundreds of foes with my firmly gripped stick for a sword.
As well as the famous places, there were more secret places, these were my favourites as in these places I was less likely to encounter other people. Just a short trek through the woods, along a mirror bright stream was the chalk pits. It was here, the year before I had dug my cave and it was here that I would kill my first living being, but we’ll get to that later.
On top of the chalk pits was a series of depressions and little gullies. Kids of various ages would take their bikes up here and race around. The local council eventually fenced this area off when Gavin Stoakes, an eight year old lad from the same school as me missed one of the jumps and fell into the chalk pits below. Lucky for him he only broke his arm and both legs, but there was a big campaign from some of the parents, so we were all banned from going there anymore.
On the other side of town was the river Ouse, a big river that had pillboxes dotted along its length from the Second World War. These were fascinating places, inside they smelt musty and you could imagine the soldiers in these cramped fortresses, watching the river for any German invaders, The local farmers would let their cattle graze along the river and they watch as we played. One popular game had one group attacking a pillbox while another group defended it, generally the weapon of choice was catapults and elastic bands with paperclips. I developed a new weapon, that of the shit grenade. Using a stick you pick up a cow pat and then try to through it through the weapon slits.
Most of the Downs was covered in farmland and small copses, each year as I grew I would try and explore further than I had before. Sometimes chancing my luck by going too far, before having to race against the sun and return home before my tea was put on the table. It was these runs where I first started to discover that I was faster and stronger than I realised. Soon after starting secondary school I was invited to join the cross country team and often beat people in the years above me in the gruelling long distance races in all weathers. I have to confess, it did feel good to be able to beat the bigger boys in these races.
The downs was full of contradictions, near the old hill fort was a tall, dark prison. A source of much speculation when I was younger, as a child I had no real experience of crime or criminals, so I wondered who it was they put in this foreboding place. Just a few miles from here was a large open area that was used to train horses and dotted everywhere where the small copses where one could hide from everyone. From the chalk itself you could find clear springs with ice cold water no matter how hot the sun shone. Inside one of the copses I once found a tiny graveyard, with just a few falling gravestones, the carvings unreadable with age.
It was a place of wonder for a growing boy who loved to explore and even now, I sometimes find myself wishing I could go back to that time. But of all the marvels I found, my favourite place was the chalk pits. My mother didn’t like me going there and not just because of covering myself in chalk dust, but because to get to it, you had to cross a busy road. And about that she worried, like all mothers do. But I found a secret way, a way under the road through an old dried out culvert that meant I could cross without having to worry about the speeding traffic.
To get there from where I lived I would wander to the end of my street and follow the road to the old tip, the tip itself was a place of fascination and here one could find all sorts of abandoned treasures. It was of course somewhere else that my mother didn’t like me to go to, neither did the old man that ran the place. But he wasn’t always there, so it was sometimes possible to sneak in and have a rummage through what had been thrown away. The tip also provided a good shortcut to the woods behind.
Through the middle of the woods ran a stream, clear enough to drink from. Looking past the stream you could see the railway tracks and beyond that the river itself. Following the path through the woods, about a mile in you turned left from the path and had to climb a steep bank, using the trees to help you up the slope. From here you had to edge along until you found the culvert and through this under the road to the entrance of the chalk pits.
Just inside the chalk pits there was an old pub, long closed and boarded up, the sign now faded. I had once broken in to have a look round, but there was nothing of interest in this old building anymore. The floor of the chalk pits was now overgrown with bushes and small trees. At the back was the small cave I had patiently dug the year before. It was as I approached this achievement of mine that I heard a strange noise.
It was a sad noise, a whimper or a moan. Quietly I tracked the sound until I found its source under a small bush. Here I found a young fox, not a cub, but not a full adult either. I could see that the back end of this animal had been crushed, most likely from being hit by a car on the road only a few hundred yards away. As I approached the animal bared its teeth at me and tried to move away, but it had used all its strength just to get here and could moved no further.
I felt a sadness looking at this poor creature and also a strange feeling. It was as if I could feel the pain the fox was feeling inside my own head. This thought startled me, but once thought I could not shake this pain from inside me.
I retreated, trying to escape this feeling, but moving away did not dull it any. I approached the animal once again, it didn’t even raise its head this time. Beside it was a small rock, twice as big as its head. I knew that with this rock I could end its suffering and with it, my own.
I lifted the rock, the fox following its motion with just his eyes. I lifted the rock high and with a swift movement smashed it into the fox’s head. With that first blow it whimpered once and with the second it grew silent. And I smiled.