When We Were Six: An Ode to My Youth
I was six, and we were the sun and the moon, radiant and bright. Riv had inky black hair, eyes like wet mud smeared across gold and an olive complexion, stars sprinkled across her flesh in the form of freckles. I stood next to her, hair closer to white than blonde, porcelain skin and eyes the colour of the sky. Mischief and wildness flowed red through us.
As young country kids running riot, we found some dogs running loose in the village Riv’s family lived in. Aspiring vets that we were, we rounded the pups up, knew exactly where they belonged and delivered them back to their distraught owners. For our trouble we received a chocolate bar each. I remember excitedly discussing our adventure as we toddled home.
It was only after the third time the dogs went missing and we brought them back that the owner cottoned on to the fact that we were orchestrating their escapes and capitalising on their return. The chocolate bars dried up and consequently, so did our dognapping passion.
That same year, we went missing for the first time. We’d followed nature singing its siren song to us as we scrambled into the unknown. We watched the sunset from upon a stranger’s horse, perched precariously as fire kissed the horizon. Twilight twinkled around us as we wandered home, kicking stones and absentmindedly wondering if we’d be allowed to have a sleepover.
Dust billowed behind the Kombi van, rust flaking from it as it barrelled towards us. The frantic shouts of Riv’s neighbour, the concealed fury in their voice as they ordered us to return home, is still clear in my mind’s eye. Riv’s sister’s screams, a banshee raging at us as we tumbled through the doorway, wide-eyed and confused, still ring in my ears. There were no adults in the house: only her and her fear. Her hands were shaking as she dialled our parents’ number.
The lock on the bathroom snicked closed as the red and blue of the police lights illuminated the rammed earth interior of the home. Our hands clasped tightly together as the officers knocked on the wood, the sound like gunshots, and asked for us to come out.
I stood at the door of my bedroom and watched my mum cry into my dad’s arms. We’d been missing for seven hours. Two children had been abducted three weeks prior. We’re still not sure if they were ever found.
We were grounded, but it didn’t stop us. Weeks later, the horses we’d been riding that night were the same equines we released onto a highway after a misguided watching of the film Spirit. Riv flew ahead of me, her hair tangling in the wind, and I tumbled to the earth. Red dribbled down my knee, carving through the marble of my flesh, as laughter huffed between us. My arm slung over Riv’s shoulder as we hobbled home. I excitedly asked my mum as she dabbed at my knee, “Do you think it will scar?”
The world works in funny ways, or perhaps small towns breed ironies – I purchased that same horse five years later.
We were seven when we broke into a construction site. Our sandaled feet padded through the concrete dust, our whispers ricocheting off the smooth walls as we found cans of discarded spray paint. Children are unwilling to hesitate, barely able to question their motives. The yellow smiley faces scattered throughout the house were almost as sincere and gleeful as our own, and just as innocent. I guess we’ll never know what the tradesmen thought of our artwork the next day, but I still reminisce on that evening each time I cruise past that particular house, guilt gnawing at my insides.
At ten we were trespassing across properties, slinking between trees, crouching amongst shrubs, experts as we darted between sticks, avoiding the satisfying crunch of bark beneath our weight for the soft moss that melded to our movements. We could hear the dogs from afar, the jagged movements as they paced along their confines, but thought nothing of it. The light that spilt on to the forest floor from the slithered gap of the sliding aluminium door, the acrid scent that wafted towards us from the towering plants, sporting six-fingered leaves and laced with purple, captured our attention. Our voices whispered through the air, “They’re funny looking tomatoes.”
As we crept closer, hair blowing in the wind, the dogs picked up our scent – silent predators glaring from within their steel prisons. Salvia dripped from their maws as they snapped and snarled, crashing against their confines, hackles raised and instincts as savage as their ancestors. All our sleuthing was shot to shit, and we darted off into the cover of the towering gums, their limbs reaching around us offering shelter, leaves whipping against our rosy red cheeks as three warning gunshots screamed into the air around us.
Out onto unforgiving asphalt we spilled, legs leaden with lactic acid, breaths torn from our developing lungs. Laughter bubbled up from between rose petals lips, the hairs on our arms stood on end, our eyes were flaming, burning, fearless.
Returning home, we didn’t even deign to enter the house. The rhythmic pounding of the basketball on pavement drowned out any sense in confiding in our parents. They found out 10 years later.
Recklessness, fearlessness, call it what you will – we were unabashedly wild and happy. Anxiety didn’t corrode our veins or cloud our vision back then. Feeling alive was our main prerogative.
I’m 21 and I’m traversing through Bali in the midst of a writer’s retreat. Riv is back home, having finished her adventures for the moment, maths equations shimmering in the air before her, brilliant mind whirling.
The world has dragged us apart. Age has dragged us apart.
It’s day one. I’m alone and trembling in my accommodation, the laughter from below filtering up through the sticky molasses air, ripe with humidity, doing nothing to mute the anxiety that coils and chokes me.
I’m staring teary-eyed at the mirror. Six-year-old me stares back.
Three deep breaths.
You just have to walk down the stairs.
Three deep breaths.
Fifteen complete strangers.
You’re fine. It’s fine. You’re fine. They don’t know each other either.
Three deep breaths.
The sliding door rattles on its frame, and I can hear the gunshots once more as I step out into the open. Six-year-old me is tugging at the bit; 21-year old me is dead inside.
Funnily enough, a surprise to no one, it is fine.
I meet someone else, and she’s the Tweedledum to my Tweedledee. She turns to me as I agree once more to an activity that makes my mouth dry, my throat tight – a ride on a four-motor speed boat, soaring across notoriously dangerous waters.
“You’re such a yes man.”
There’s a bark of laughter let loose inside me, bitter and venomous.
I’m really fucking not.
The six-year-old me puffs out her little chest, a proud smile plastered across her porcelain features.
I’m 21 and I’m sitting in class. I can hear our mentor fuelling the other’s with advice, the rhythmic patter of typing encouraging the barrelling of my heart. There is a restlessness beneath my skin, a thrumming in my lungs that is almost enough to drown out the anxiety that bubbles in my oesophagus.
I have three tabs open before me. Flights, ferries and fast boats. An island I’ve read about in books, another adventure lined up, neatly packaged in my current gallivanting.
The typing drones on.
Fear slithers up my spine, the unknown looming as a beast through my blue-lit computer screen.
But what if you die?
I close the tabs.
Six-year-old me shrinks with disappointment.
I’m 21 and I climb an active volcano. It’s pitch black and it’s almost as if I can see Riv’s silhouette ahead of me, stealthily slinking through the woods like we did when we were ten.
I’m exhausted, I can’t breathe, but there isn’t a shred of anxiety singing through my veins. As dawn approaches, in the sing-song of the birds as they flitter between the towering wooden beasts that loom on the mountain side, Bali brings me a sense of peace I haven’t felt in years.
I’m 21 and I’m thrown from my scooter. My mortality is on display; I glance down at the weeping crater of my knee and realise it’s going to scar. The tiles beneath me are slick with blood as Tweedledum presses fire in the form of liquor into my wretched flesh, and I can’t tell if I have gravel in my mouth or if I’ve shattered my teeth.
And then once more I’m staring teary-eyed at the mirror. Six-year-old me stares back, and she’s grinning because that’s another ropey blemish to add to the collection, another adventure notched onto her belt.
She doesn’t care. She’s fearless.
But it hurts and I’m scared, because battling anxiety is to battle yourself. There is war in the way my teeth gnash together before I scoop my scooter keys off the betadine-stained sheets of my bed, pain in the half-crescent moons that yield beneath my nails as my fists clench in terror. The rumble of trucks as they trundle over the track, spitting rocks behind them amongst the cacophony of horns and the squealing of brakes, makes bile rise like acid up my throat.
Six-year-old me has a soft smile on her features, and how can children be so understanding?
I don’t know when I lost her fearlessness. Maybe it was when I reached the age where I was able to comprehend the horrors that grace our world; maybe it was when I realised that I’ve got more people to worry about than just myself. Either way, I’m striving to get it back.
So, I swing my aching body back onto that fucking scooter.
Cover by Annie Spratt