Creative Nonfiction

During the summer of the late 1950s my family and I lived in Chessington a town based in the South East of England - a short journey from Central London. My story centres around when I was about 7 years old. I was the youngest of three girls and next door lived two young boys of similar ages and we were all great friends. Childhood memories are never totally accurate, but I’m guessing it must have been the school summer holidays, as we seemed to play together endlessly; every day consisting of long, warm, sunny days, full of endless happy laughter.  

The gardens attached to our house were quite stunning and were a riot of colour, the air sweetly perfumed by the heady smell of lavender and great quantities of vintage rose bushes, all bordered with flowerbeds meticulously attended by my mother.  In the lower half of the garden was a wild, uncultivated area, home to numerous trees and shrubs and overgrown brambles and here we would spend hours playing hide and seek or setting up ‘secret’ clubs with impenetrable rules and regulations that we would all attempt, and fail, to abide by. At the very bottom of the garden, was a 5-bar gate that looked over a field that was dotted with wild flowers and smelled strongly of cow parsley and here a small herd of cattle would graze peacefully. In the far distance was The Clay Mountain and we kids would often look longingly at it as if the glorious garden was not enough for us. 

In those far off days it was quite normal for us kids to go for long walks in the surrounding countryside, which meant leaving the safety of the garden and the watchful eyes of our mindful mothers as lurking danger just never seemed to be an issue to either parent or child. I’m sure we must have been given a time to return but presumably our stomachs ruled the timetable. There was no money to buy sweets and bottled water simply didn’t exist so hunger and thirst would have ensured we returned home at an acceptable time. So regularly, we children set off for a few hours walking through the adjoining fields for a ‘picnic’ which probably consisted of a small apple that each of us had picked from the garden. Considering we were only a matter of miles from Central London, all around us were fields and countryside and country lanes. There would have been very few cars and the traffic, such as it was, would have been a few country buses or bicycles so all roads were comparatively accident free and being in a ‘gang’ with at least one older sister and the boys, quite honestly safety never entered my head - life was a ball.

On this particular day we headed for the Clay Mountain which frequently seemed to lure us towards it. We would simply cut across the fields from the bottom of the garden, walk past the gently mooing cows, and eventually arrive at our destination. It was a reasonably long walk for 7 and 9 year olds and as far as I remember the last warnings we had from mum was to walk on the edges of the fields and not ruin the farmers’ plantings and this we duly did. If there was one thing drummed into us it was the ‘Country Code’. 

The Clay Mountain was in fact a yellowy coloured steep hillock in the middle of a heavily wooded area. At the bottom of the hillock was a small shallow stream where we loved to play for hours.  We all adored being in that woodland area and would run around the paths screaming with laughter over absolutely nothing at all.  We loved to slide down the Clay Mountain on our backsides and land in the stream - and then - well, basically imagination just took over. In this particular memory I was apparently fishing; I had found a stick from a tree and some old, almost rotting rope and made myself a wonderful fishing rod and I was completely absorbed in my own game of Big Fish Catcher. Close by, also playing in the stream, was my middle sister Mo and the two boys.

The top of the Clay Mountain was fringed with shrubs and bushes, and behind that the relatively dense woodland started. This area was not isolated. There were frequent dog walkers and presumably young lovers, and people just out for a stroll so to see the man appearing at the top of the hillock and stop to look at where we were playing was quite normal.  I do remember him staring quite intently at me but I reasoned it was because he couldn’t understand the game I was playing. Later when I eventually glanced back up at the crest of the hillock he was no longer there.

During the course of the afternoon’s play we had left the stream and climbed the Clay Mountain and spent our usual amount of time sliding and slithering down the side of the Mountain screaming our heads off with laughter. We ran around in the woodland either being very loud and noisy or playing hide and seek, which clearly meant that at times whoever was ‘It’ was entirely alone, eyes closed, pressed up against a tree furiously counting prior to screaming ‘Coming, ready or not’ and then running around, alone, trying to find the hidden playmates.

Eventually, sadly, it was time to go home and so off we set, filthy dirty, presumably thirsty and ready for our evening tea. The two boys were ahead and Mo and I trailed behind. We’d begun walking across the first field on our way home, when I suddenly remembered my fabulous fishing rod which I had left at the top of the Clay Mountain. At the age of 7 I was insistent that I wanted that fishing rod; I was convinced that the handmade rod was the toy of my dreams. The boys clearly tired, hungry and failing to realise the sheer value of a rotting piece of string, absolutely refused to walk back but my sister Mo knowing I would never shut up about the fishing rod said she would return with me to the Clay Mountain. The boys were left standing in the long grassy field promising to wait for us.  

My sister and I soon arrived at the base of the Clay Mountain and Mo remaining on the other side of the stream; told me to be quick so I splashed through the water and began to climb the hillock on all fours.  Suddenly the man I’d seen earlier, appeared directly above me at the top the Clay Mountain. I carried on climbing ever upwards and when I looked up again he was directly above me and was now lowered into a squat position. From the summit of the hillock, peering over the top, he said in a conspiratorially low voice: ‘Where are the boys?’.  

‘They wouldn’t come back - they’re waiting in another field for us’.  

He moved his body nearer and began leaning further towards me whilst extending one hand out for me to grab saying:  

‘Would you like to see my Daphne?’  

I was surprised I hadn’t noticed his daughter with him.  

Mo had by now moved to the middle of the stream and shouted: ‘What did the gentleman say?’. I noticed her voice sounded ….. well …different.  

I stopped climbing and swirled to look at Mo - was I in trouble? Had I not been polite to the man?  As I had turned my whole body round to look at Mo I was unable to continue my climb and grab the hand that he was extending.  

’He wanted to know if I would like to see his Daphne but I was going to tell him I don’t think we have time.’  

I remember deliberately copying the way he had asked me about Daphne as I knew it would be impolite to correct his English grammar and say ‘his daughter Daphne’. It seemed I was already in trouble with my older sister and I didn’t want to further antagonise her.  Why did her voice have an ‘edge’ to it? Should I have rushed up the hillock and gone to see Daphne? Frankly the man seemed quite insistent that this is what I should do. For a 9 year old, Mo’s voice honestly began to sound just like my mother’s when I was in trouble, the sort of voice you didn’t argue with, and she sternly shouted to me: 

‘Come down now! Now!‘.  

Still clinging to the side of the hillock, half-way between Mo in the stream below and the man at the top I was torn, what should I do?  

’I haven’t got my fishing rod’, I wailed.  

The man by now had swung his leg towards me so that he could stretch even further still extending one hand out for me to grasp and now began to sound annoyed ‘Take my hand, come on.’

I don’t know why, but suddenly something wasn’t right. For the first time I glanced up looking into the face of my potential abductor.  The urgency from the stream had increased and Mo was screaming really loudly ‘Now! Now’! There was something really wrong. Fear seemed to flood every vein in my body and I could feel my heart thumping - the pain was excruciating. At the same time, I was totally confused, the man clearly wanted to show me his daughter. Why was I so afraid? But from mid-stream I could hear Mo’s voice and it was a voice full of fear. I suddenly began to wet myself. Mo had now moved to the base of the hillock and had begun to climb.

 ‘Hurry! Hurry’! her voice reaching a high-pitched scream. 

Whether I lost my footing or fell I don’t know but all I could remember was sliding, bumping and falling backside-first into the stream.  As my body thumped to a stand-still in the middle of the stream, Mo grabbed my hand hauling me to my feet, and began screaming almost incoherently: ‘Run, run, run’.  For some reason I joined in the screaming, it just seemed to control the fear. When Mo and I briefly turned round to see how close to us the man was, we saw to our relief that his descent from the Clay Mountain had seemed to freeze. We continued to scream louder and louder as our little legs began pounding up the other side of the stream and into the opposite field where we knew the boys would be waiting.

I had never been so glad to see the boys running towards us, alerted by our shouts and screams, and despite both being not much older than myself and Mo, here we perceived was our safe haven. Mo and I threw ourselves at them, and were totally unable to control the peculiar loud sobbing noises coming from us; our filthy faces covered in rivulets of tears as we threw ourselves on our young saviours.  

‘Strange man, strange man’.  

The boys looked confused but stuck close to us as we ran through the fields anxious to get home as soon as we could. I think initially they felt we were making a big fuss over nothing but we could not be calmed until we were finally climbing over the fence into the back garden - Home!. 

Obviously the Police were called. It took me ages to process everything because once we were home and safe - well nothing had really happened. It was only the look of horror on my mother’s face that really upset me. Frankly, once home I just didn’t want to think about it anymore. What was the big fuss? I didn’t really understand what the man might do to me, and who the hell was Daphne? and why had the Police been called? I remember being mortified as the kindly policemen explained as best as they could what ‘Daphne’ was but at 7 I couldn’t really understand why any man would want to show me his penis. I may not have understood everything that was going on but deep, deep down, the memory of that man reaching for me from the top of the hill could re-ignite real fear, made so much worse because I really couldn’t work out just what might have happened to me.  

Our house was full of all the local parents that evening and it seemed to clearly upset all the parents far more than it did me. Our little group were asked repeatedly to go over the events of the day, and it turned out that Mo had been watching the man for quite a long time whilst he was staring at me. She also told us that he kept on disappearing and re-appearing at the top of the hillock all the time we were in the stream. She had thought it strange, but being only 9, when a new game was suggested she completely forgot about the man. However, when Mo and I returned to the Clay Mountain for the fishing rod and yet again the man appeared at the top of the hillock as I started my ascent, this time Mo was ‘on to him’ and went nuts when he started to speak to me. As we yet again went over and over our description of the afternoon and told the parents that we had been playing hide-and-seek and were made to describe, again and again, that for periods of time I had been totally alone while Mo and the boys went off to hide in the woodland (god knows where the man was) our sitting room would reverberate with loud wailing sounds from some of the mothers as they grabbed their respective offspring closer to them. 

Unfortunately we (the boys next door and all of the other children in the near area) were all banned from ever going to the Clay Mountain again. The man was never found and whether he had abducted any other children I never heard. The event, however, brought the joys of being a 7 year old to a skidding halt. As far as I remember we kids never really discussed ‘the incident’ again but we did occasionally discuss the joys of playing in the woodland, the stream and climbing the Clay Mountain and but for ‘bloody Daphne’ we’d still be up there!

July 16, 2021 15:13

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