Under the playground

A few months ago I was in a really bad place. Much much worse than I am now.

Honestly when I look back I think I ignored the signs of a nervous breakdown. I simply could not stop crying, and i’d never been like this before, and it lasted a week or more.

Mortifyingly when it started I cried in front of my team at work.

Sitting at my desk I my shoulders started shaking and out of nowhere I broke down. A quick thinking man mountain of rugby trained muscle on my team saw what was happening, and bundled me into a meeting room, where for a while I cried uncontrollably on his shoulder.

I’ve never been afraid of appearing weak, and liked to think that I was in touch with my feelings – but this was something deeper. I couldn’t turn it off and it scared me.

A manager sent me home. Upon arrival I turned the TV on. Every channel seemed to have families or animals on it and each set me off worse than the last.

Later that evening I went to bed, very drunk, very upset and cried for two hours straight listening to the voice of Jeff Lynne singing ‘when i was a boy’ before I fell asleep.

I heard the song again today and its amazing how a change of mind and a change of circumstance can produce a completely different reaction. Today as i listened it underlined how despite days like yesterday I’m slowly getting better, and this time brought back some happy memories.

The significance of the song you see, lay less in the lyrics, but instead in the history that I had with ELO and a childhood friend.

As a very young boy my friend Richard’s dad had waxed lyrical about the fact that he had been in a band with Jeff (a Brummie as well) and used to get the 45 singles whenever ELO brought out a new song. Consequently the band’s music was all around me when i frequently visited their house.

I spent many hours there when things were bad at home sitting on the end of Rich’s bunk bed swinging my legs in time to tracks like ‘Im Alive’ and ‘Calling America’ while we ate chocolate and drank lemonade.

Richard was a fantastic story teller and shameless fibber when we were very little. On one occasion at school lunch break he proudly told me that he and his dad had constructed an underground railway from his house to school in total secrecy, and it could transport us to school at the rapid speed of 7 seconds from the station beneath his house.

It was in the testing phase he explained and wasn’t quite ready, but early runs had proved promising. Its incomplete status was the only reason why (together) we were still walking to school instead of arriving in the lap of luxury at the school gates in our own personal bullet train.

I didn’t believe it. Complete nonsense. How could such a thing be true?

‘Its running at the moment’ he said. ‘right beneath us.’

I looked sceptical.

‘If you put your ear to the floor you can hear it passing below us.’ He said, pointing to a cracked concrete playground surface with some netball markings painted on it.

Un-noticed by me other children were listening to our conversation, and as I looked behind Rich I could see a boy drop down and press his ear to the floor.

‘I can hear it!’ he said excitedly.

‘Told you.’ Said Rich triumphantly, also getting down to the floor and pressing his ear to the crack in the concrete. ‘They come every few minutes – if you wait you’ll hear another.’

I looked round and multiple children now had their ear pressed to the floor.

‘I can hear it coming!’ said one. ‘Me too!’ said another girl.

Before I knew it about 20 girls and boys were all lying down, convinced that there was a train passing beneath us. Rich had suckered them all and was loving every minute of it.

The ruse wasn’t uncovered until the dinner ladies rang the bell and explained to the prostrate children that the noise in the crack was actually traffic on the road next to the playground, and that my friend’s nose had qualities in common with that of Pinocchio’s.

I drove past that playground last week. It’s no longer a school and is instead a small housing estate. I smiled at the blissful ignorance of it’s occupants as i looked out of the car window.

If only they knew what lay beneath them wasn’t bedrock or concrete foundations but the dusty, unused station of a dreamed bullet train that existed for a brief but shining moment of childhood fantasy.

I hope that there’s a child in a bedroom above that exact spot that dreams of speeding trains at night and has no idea why…



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