story about childhood

‘Why do we have to sit on the hill?’ Zach said. ‘Why can’t we go in like everyone else?’ He’d asked this question every year for three years running, and he always got the same response.

‘Because we can’t afford it,’ his father said. Zach had heard these five words more times than he’d heard anything else in his life, and he was getting tired of hearing them.

In the front seat of the car, Zach’s mother and father were arguing with each other. They were always arguing about something. Today, it was about the wallpaper in the living room.

‘We should’ve got someone in to do it,’ Zach’s mother said.

‘I’m not paying someone to do something that I can do myself,’ Zach’s father said. ‘I’m not made of money.’

‘But you couldn’t do it yourself. It doesn’t look right. It doesn’t look how I wanted it to look.’

‘It’ll do for now, won’t it? I mean, you’ll probably change your mind in five minutes anyway and want something else. Besides, you know we couldn’t afford it.’

‘We could’ve got someone in,’ Zach’s mother said. She said this very quietly. ‘We could afford it. You know we could.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Zach’s father said.

‘It means what I said,’ Zach’s mother said.

Zach had had just about enough of listening to the two of them. He tried to drown them out by listening to a CD on his Walkman. It was going to be a long day.

A few minutes later, Zach’s Dad parked the car in the free car park, and Zach put his Walkman under the front seat for safekeeping. Although, he didn’t think that anyone was going to steal it. He wished that he had an MP3 player like everyone else, but he was stuck with this old crappy Walkman, which sometimes made his CDs skip so that he couldn’t hear the songs properly.

Zach got out of the car and helped his mother and father unload some things from the boot: a cool box, a blanket and some fold-down deck chairs that they’d had since before Zach was born. Once everything was out of the boot, the three of them hiked up the hill. They always sat in the same spot whenever they came here. But as far as Zach was concerned, it didn’t matter where you sat; you couldn’t see anything from way up on the hill – not without binoculars. And they didn’t have any of those because Zach’s father said they were a waste of money.

None of this made any sense to Zach. He’d heard people say it; he’d heard people call this place Glorious Goodwood. But it wasn’t glorious. Not up on the hill, anyway. It was just trees and grass, and you couldn’t even see any of the action. It was just a big hill filled with a bunch of cheapskates. And that wasn’t what Zach would call glorious. Not by a long shot.

The only thing Zach thought was even remotely good about it was the fact that there were all sorts of places to get food: burger vans, candy floss machines, ice cream vans – that sort of thing. But even so, Zach’s mother and father always said the same thing – that they weren’t paying for food when they had food at home. So instead of getting to eat a nice greasy burger with plenty of ketchup and some salty chips, Zach would have to eat a squashed jam sandwich and a Peperami.

Zach hated the summer holidays. He’d rather be at school. At least his friends were there – at least there was something to do. He didn’t like some of the kids who came here.

There were these identical twins called Jake and Liam who came every year without fail. They were complete dicks. Zach tried his best to stay away from them if he could, but his mother got on with Jake and Liam’s mum, and they sometimes made the three of them play together. Zach hoped that this wasn’t going to happen today because he wanted to spend time with someone else. And that someone was a girl named Harlie.

Harlie was a year older than Zach. She had long brown hair, and her eyes were two different colours: one was brown, the other was blue. Zach didn’t know which one he liked best. Harlie would sometimes come to Goodwood with her father. If she was with her father, then she came up on the hill. But if she was with her mother and step-father, then she got to go in because her step-father Spencer was rich. Harlie wasn’t here last year – she wasn’t up on the hill. But she was the year before that. Zach hoped that he would get to see her again. Other than all the places to get food, she was the best thing about this place.

As soon as they had put their blanket down on the grass and set up the deck chairs, Zach’s father said he was going to place a few bets over at the van.

‘Can I come?’ Zach said to his father.

‘Fine,’ Zach’s father said to him. ‘As long as you behave yourself.’

But before Zach could go anywhere, his mother put some sun cream on his face and made him wear a hat. ‘I don’t want you getting sunstroke,’ she said. Zach didn’t even think sunstroke existed. To him, it sounded like something that mums made up so they could make you look like an idiot in a hat that was way too big for you. When Zach’s mother had finally finished making him look like a fool, he went with his father. Zach’s mother stayed with all of their stuff, reading her book. She was happy there.

Zach and his father walked to the betting van. His father had a racing newspaper in his hand. He was studying all of the horses, circling the ones he wanted to bet on with a small red biro. Their house was full of these small red pens.

‘How many horses are you going to bet on?’ Zach asked his father.

‘I don’t know,’ his father said.

‘Three?’ Zach asked. ‘Four?’

‘Maybe,’ his father said.

‘And what if you lose?’ Zach said. ‘What happens then?’

‘Just shut up for a second, will you?’ Zach’s father said to him. ‘I’m trying to concentrate.’

No, you shut up, Zach wanted to say. How about that? But he didn’t say it – he couldn’t say it.

The pair of them made it to the van. It looked like one of the food vans, only there was a big screen on the side of it showing all the horses that were running in each of the various races. ‘Can I choose a horse?’ Zach said to his father. He wasn’t expecting him to say yes, but he knew he had to try at the very least.

‘All right,’ Zach’s father said. ‘You can pick one.’ He didn’t look at Zach when he said this.

After some careful consideration, Zach chose a horse called Oscar Time. He chose this particular horse because he liked the colours that the jockey was wearing. Plus, his best friend at school was called Oscar. ‘I want that one,’ Zach said to his father. He pointed to the horse in his father’s special newspaper.

Zach’s father studied the horse that his son had chosen. ‘That might have actually a chance,’ he said.

Zach’s father placed some bets on a few horses. Zach didn’t know how much money his father was spending, but it looked like a lot. He didn’t understand. His father could spend all this money betting on horses, but he wouldn’t buy Zach an MP3 player or let him get a burger from one of the burger vans. As far as he was concerned, it wasn’t fair.

The pair of them watched the race together on the big screen on the side of the van. Zach thought that they might as well have stayed at home and watched it on the TV. It was exactly the same as this. He thought the whole point of watching a race was to be as close to the action as possible. You couldn’t even make out the horses from way up on the hill. There were a lot of things that Zach didn’t understand.

Zach’s father shouted and cheered as the horses ran. He had rolled up his newspaper, and he was hitting the side of his leg as if he were a jockey on one of the horses. Zach’s horse looked as if it might win, but then it dropped off and finished in third place. He hoped his father wasn’t going to get angry at him for picking the wrong horse. ‘Sorry,’ Zach said to his father. He prepared himself for what was about to come his way.

‘For what?’ Zach’s father said to him. ‘You just won me some money.’

‘But it came third,’ Zach said. ‘Don’t you have to win the race to win some money?’

‘No,’ Zach’s father said to him. ‘Not exactly.’ His father explained that he did something called an each-way bet, but Zach didn’t understand what he was talking about.

He was just happy that his horse had won them some money.

‘Do I get to keep the money?’ Zach said to his father. He thought he should get to keep it, seeing as his horse was the one that came in third place. His father’s chosen horses didn’t win anything. A couple of them didn’t even finish the race.

Zach’s father laughed. ‘No,’ he said. ‘But you can have some of it. Here,’ he said. Zach’s father gave him a pound coin. Even though his horse had won a lot more money than that, Zach thought it was better than nothing.

‘Thanks, Dad,’ Zach said. And then he left his father to it because he had just spotted Harlie.

After seeing Harlie for the first time in two years, Zach came up with an idea. He thought he could go and ask his mother for some money for an ice cream. If she gave it to him, he could go and buy two ice creams: one for himself; one for Harlie. Then Harlie might want to spend some time with him. That would certainly make up for everything else. Maybe this would be the thing that changed everything for Zach; maybe Harlie would agree to be his girlfriend. If that happened, then maybe she’d invite him next year when she came with her mother and step-father, and he’d finally get to go in and see the races up close. That would be something.

Zach went back to where his mother was sitting. She was still reading her book, squinting her eyes and holding the book close to her face. She was in a world of her own.

‘Mum,’ Zach said to her. But she didn’t hear him. At that moment, he felt as if he could say anything in the world to his mother – anything at all – and she wouldn’t hear what he was saying. He thought he could come clean and tell her about how he had broken a few of her wine glasses while he was kicking a football around in the house; he thought he could tell her all about how he had picked up the broken pieces of glass, put them in a carrier bag, and disposed of all the evidence in one of the dog bins at the park. But for one reason or another, he didn’t.

‘Mum,’ Zach said again. But she still couldn’t hear him. ‘Mum!’ he shouted. And then he clapped his hands right next to his mother’s face.

‘What?!’ Zach’s mother said. He hoped that trying to get her attention hadn’t backfired.

‘Can I have some money for an ice cream?’ Zach said.

‘No,’ his mother said. He really thought she’d say yes.

‘Please,’ Zach said.

‘You can have an ice cream after you’ve eaten your sandwiches.’ his mother said.

‘Fine,’ Zach said to her. He opened the cool box and grabbed his jam sandwiches. He tore off the clingfilm and wolfed them down. He didn’t like this jam. It had seeds in it. He didn’t like seeds. His father had done the shopping this week because his mother couldn’t get herself out of bed. His father never got the right stuff – he just got whatever was cheapest.

‘Okay,’ Zach said to his mother. ‘I’ve eaten them.’ He’d only eaten one of them; the other one was in his pocket. He thought he could ditch it in the bushes somewhere as soon as his mother had given him what he wanted.

Zach’s mother opened her purse and gave him a pound coin just like his father had a few minutes earlier. ‘Just don’t tell your father about this,’ Zach’s mother said.

‘I won’t,’ Zach said. ‘Thanks, Mum.’ And then he went off to find Harlie.

Harlie was sitting on a blanket by herself, reading a magazine. She’d changed a bit since Zach had last seen her, and he was nervous about talking to her. But he knew this was his best chance.

Zach took off his hat and tossed it on the floor. He ran his fingers through his hair, trying to get it into some kind of style. And then he walked over to her. ‘Hi, Harlie,’ he said.

‘Oh, hi, Zach,’ Harlie said to him.

God, she really had changed.

‘Do you want to go and get an ice cream?’ Zach said to her.

‘I don’t have any money,’ Harlie said.

‘That’s okay, I can buy you one. I’ve got enough for two.’

‘All right,’ she said. ‘Thanks.’ Harlie put her magazine down on the blanket and stood up. She was a lot taller than Zach remembered.

Zach and Harlie walked to the ice cream van together. Zach couldn’t think of anything to say to her. Offering to buy her an ice cream was all he had. Luckily, it was Harlie who got the conversation going. ‘Are Jake and Liam here?’ she said to Zach.

‘I don’t know,’ Zach said. ‘I haven’t seen them.’ And he hoped he didn’t. He could tell that the twins fancied Harlie – that they wanted her as well. But after he had bought her this ice cream, Zach was sure that she would be his girlfriend, and that would be the end of it.

‘Maybe we could go and look for them after we’ve got the ice creams,’ Harlie said to him.

‘Okay,’ Zach said to her, even though he didn’t want to do that.

Zach and Harlie made it to the ice cream van. ‘What are you going to get?’ Zach said.

‘I think I’ll have a Screwball,’ Harlie said.

‘Good choice,’ Zach said.

They were next in line. And when it was their turn, Zach said, ‘Hello. Can I have a

Screwball and a Ninety-Nine, please?’

‘With a Flake?’ The ice cream man said.

‘Yes, please,’ Zach said to him.

The ice cream man turned his back to them as he made the ice creams.

‘When he gives them to us, let’s make a run for it,’ Harlie said. Zach couldn’t tell if she was joking or not.

‘But I have the money,’ Zach said.

‘I know,’ Harlie said. ‘But it would be fun if we steal them.’ Zach didn’t know where this was coming from. Harlie never use to say these things.

But before Zach had time to think about it, the ice cream man had finished preparing the ice creams. ‘That’s one ninety-nine, please,’ he said to Zach.

Zach panicked and gave him the money. The ice cream man handed the ice creams over to him. ‘Thank you,’ Zach said. He said this very quietly so that Harlie didn’t hear him.

As they turned around to leave, Zach spotted Jake and Liam approaching in the distance. Luckily, Harlie didn’t see them. ‘Let’s go this way,’ Zach said. ‘Jake and Liam might be down here.’

‘Okay,’ Harlie said.

They walked down the hill with their ice creams. There was a secret area down the bottom of the hill where all the kids would play games like It or Manhunt because there were lots of places to run and hide in the bushes.

Zach and Harlie made it to the secret area. There weren’t any other kids playing down there. It was just the two of them, and Zach was glad because that’s just what he wanted.

Harlie finished her ice cream and threw the plastic container down on the floor. Zach still had a way to go with his, but the ice cream was starting to melt, dripping down the side of his cone. Harlie took the bubble gum that had been at the bottom of the cup and put it in her mouth. She started chewing.

‘Can you blow a bubble?’ Zach asked her.

‘Yeah,’ she said. She flattened the piece of bubble gum on her tongue. Then she put her tongue through the centre and blew a big bubble. After a couple of seconds, it popped. Harlie stuck out her tongue and licked her lips, trying to wipe off all the bits of bubble gum that were stuck to her face. ‘Told you,’ she said. ‘Can you?’

‘Yeah,’ Zach said. ‘But I don’t have any bubble gum.’

‘Here,’ Harlie said. She took the piece of bubble gum out of her mouth and passed it to Zach. He couldn’t believe he was going to get to taste something that had been inside

Harlie’s mouth. Zach was just about to put the bubble gum in his mouth when he saw Jake and Liam walking in their direction.

‘You got the last Flake,’ Jake said to Zach. At least, Zach thought it was Jake. It could just as easily have been Liam. They looked exactly the same.

‘I wanted that Flake,’ Jake said to him. ‘Give it to me.’

‘No,’ Zach said. ‘It’s mine.’ Zach knew he couldn’t let Jake take it from him in front of Harlie. That would be the end of everything.

‘I’m warning you,’ Jake said. ‘This is your last chance.’

Zach looked at Jake, then at Harlie. It felt as if something bigger was happening here.

Zach pulled the Flake out of his ice cream and took a big bite.

‘That’s it,’ Jake said. He walked right up to Zach and shoved him. Zach’s feet got caught on a stick in the mud, and he tripped over, landing in a big pile of stinging nettles. Jake and Liam started laughing at him. Zach even thought he saw a smirk form on Harlie’s face.

‘Are you all right?’ Harlie said. But Zach didn’t think she cared either way.

‘I’m fine,’ Zach said, even though he wasn’t. He could feel the tears forming in the bottom of his eyes.

‘What’s the matter?’ Jake said to him. ‘Are you gonna cry? Is the baby gonna cry?’

Jake and Liam both started laughing again.

Zach was going to cry; he could feel it. He got himself up off the floor, dusted himself off, and walked away in the opposite direction so that Jake, Harlie, and Liam couldn’t see his face. Zach heard Harlie call out his name, but he didn’t turn back; he just kept going.

Zach had had enough of this – he’d had enough of everything. Nothing good ever happened to him. Not here. Not in this family. None of this would’ve happened to him if they’d just gone in.

Zach wanted to get away from it all and find a new family; he wanted to find a family that didn’t argue all the time, that didn’t say the words ‘we can’t afford it’, that gave him everything he wanted. Maybe there was a family like that somewhere around here. He could pretend he was their son, and maybe they’d go along with it. Maybe they’d go along with it, and he’d get in; he’d get in, and it’d be glorious, just like they say it is.



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