I know because I talk to people – on buses, in doctors waiting rooms and in the family room with its cream walls and brown carpet. I know that other people also feel like their childhoods took place somewhere else. The memories may be more vivid than the images from the square in the corner, with the remote control clutched in Mr Molineaux’s liver spotted hand. But they still seem distant, as if they took place in some other world. I feel this more acutely than most. Not because I’m older – I’m not, I’m laughingly described as one of the young ones – but because my childhood took place in a place which no longer exists.
We didn’t have a house in those days. We perched in a corner of my nanna’s house like nestless birds. Father attempted to prove his worth at the farm where he was the Grieve.
What I remember most about that summer was the warm cement dust which coated the village like icing sugar. In my fourteen years I’d grown used to the dust. It coated the ground, the trees, the workmen’s cottages and even the children. In other years the dust would lie thin on the ground but that was the year the wind dried up. In the vacuum of stillness left behind, the dust grew so thick that it deadened sound. The heat worked on the ground day after long day. By early July it smoked into the air when you walked, making the simple act of breathing seem fraught with danger. The air became hard to swallow, the horizon vague and the village hard to look at. Our village was little more than a tumble of cottages in the shadow of the cement works. The works themselves were all dead windows and sharp angles. I looked across at the pipes and chimneys which would soon start pouring smoke into the air. Noises of drillings and whirrings would then begin, but the works were silent as we drove to the farm. We had to negotiate mad-eyed myxie rabbits on the quiet roads. Some, still living, were lolloping around in blind confusion while their siblings gradually melted into the hot roads.
At the farm we layered up for ratting.
In our short walk to the hills the sun started to sear. Two Jack Russells ran ahead of us. My father and the apprentice, Will, both carried spades, while Sandy, the pig boy, had a stick. Despite the heat, I walked with my hands thrust into the pockets of my overalls. Out in the North Sea I saw 3 colourful fishing boats. I could smell smoke from yesterday’s burnings. On the hillside the triangular sties were empty.
‘Where are the pigs?’ I asked.
At the first sty Will and Sandy each grabbed a corner, so I did the same. We lifted the whole sty and placed it down behind us. As the rats were revealed the dogs went crazy. My Father kicked a dog aside to get a piece of the action. Raising a spade over his head he brought it down two-handed. Will and Sandy joined in, and after a few seconds every rat was dead.
‘That’ll teach them,’ Father said.
‘Next one,’ Sandy said as he was already hurrying up the hill.
At the next sty my reluctance did not go unnoticed.
‘Have my stick,’ Sandy said, passing me a stick he had deliberately sharpened.
Standing beside the next sty, we were ready with our weapons. Will bent forward and silently lifted his corner. My father exploded in a fury; his wispy white hair whirled like candy floss as he took his spade to the nest. The terriers bared their yellow teeth, their eyes bulged out and they gleefully joined the bloodbath.
I was told I was a pretty child, my lips were bright red and my hair was a mass of tight curls. But looking less than cherubic, I slowly pushed a sharpened stick into a dying rat. Sandy glanced up from his enjoyment to nod my way. In a spot-lit panic I accidently stood on my second victim.
As each sty was lifted the rats scuttled and tumbled away from the light into the dusty corners. The dogs threw themselves into the panic to rip and tear. Stunned rats limped away from the bubbling pit and ran straight into our flailing sticks and cutting spades. If they were hit down, they were crushed back-broken into the dirt. If they were hit up, they arched through the air in momentary freedom before falling back to earth half-dead, dying slowly. If a spade caught them they died in two halves.
The more the madness continued the more unbearable it became. Instead of becoming sensitised to the violence my nerves became rawer with each new victim. I felt sickened by the genocide we inflicted. I hated the way the men delighted in this endless game, finding new and disgusting ways to kill, perhaps using a stick as a bat and a rat as the ball. I hated the way my father orchestrated the whole scene, calling the dogs, laughing with the men and knowing when to move on to the next sty for the nightmare to continue, over and over again. I hated the way I couldn’t stop, my tired numbing arms weakly thrusting at the rats hoping they were dead already. A childish love and fear of my father kept me killing. I couldn’t be seen to be weak: this was my arena, my coliseum, a place to prove my worth. It was early evening when we carted our bloody tools away. The midges were starting to congregate in clouds. I fixed my eyes ahead on the farm house and tried to make sure that no one could see my face.
Mr Molineaux falls asleep and I wait till he’s snoring before carefully extracting the remote from his grip. There’s nothing on, there never is. TV is made for the young, along with everything else as far as I can see.
I worked on that farm for two years. Two long years of trying to make my Father proud. It never worked. I didn’t have the hide for it, but there was nothing else to do in that God-forsaken Highland village. It was that or the cement works and my asthma closed that particular door.
When the letter came I hid it from Father so he had no warning when the bulldozers came. Despite his anger I refused to join the villager’s feeble attempt at protest. The protests soon fizzled out anyway. It took a mere six months for the village to be flattened and concreted over to eventually make way for Dounreay nuclear power station. While they destroyed our farms and homes the villagers were re-housed in Inverness. No such luck for my family though. My nanna was re-housed in a one bedroom flat leaving my Father and I fighting a futile battle with a government 500 miles too far south to care.
I’d forgotten about the rats until I came here and found Sandy Molineaux, the pig boy, displaced once again from his home like the pigs on the hills. I’d assumed everyone from those times was dead but he still laboured on, fighting meaningless battles with authority. Some afternoons we rail against the nurses together, refusing to be treated like the old people we so clearly are. But he knows I never really had the stomach for conflict. The afternoons I like best are the afternoons when we eat ham sandwiches and reminisce about a life which took place somewhere else.