I always have mixed feelings when I come to the end of a good book. There is a certain melancholy which sweeps over me like a grey cloud. I want to find a similar book, but I rebel against the idea that there might be a book that could replace the one I am grieving for and its characters. Lately I have been getting into Enid Blyton which delights my inner child. There is a nostalgia to the musty, yellowing pages and the stories of children building secret hideaways, as Peter, Susan and Angela do in “Hollow Tree House”. I have long been intrigued by the way children and animals seek out cubby houses and other secret worlds within our worlds in which they retreat. It became my topic for my psychology thesis (which I never got around to finishing unfortunately) where I started looking at what these places mean in the context of a child’s life, such Peter and Susan’s abusive home life with their aunt, and what purpose they serve.
Secret spaces was certainly a huge feature of my own childhood, and I thought I’d share some of them in this post, although a novel would probably do better justice to the rich and numerous secret spaces I created. They were both tangible and non-tangible, from places in the yard, tree houses, the “elf tree” (where a secret family of elves gathered), forts made of boxes, and the den which emerged by heaving blankets over my bunk bed, to diaries or clubs I formed where the member list consisted of one other person. The most important feature was, of course, the point of access. To protect the privacy (and perhaps fragility) of what lay inside, the entrance was always guarded, whether by barriers made of rope, holes dug in the ground and concealed with a blanket to catch an intruder, deliberately flimsy ladders or small entrances which could support only my body and definitely not that of an adult, locks, passwords, or strict selection criteria and prerequisites. The point of access was elusive, exciting and dangerous. Truly, it was the most highly charged area of the entire secret space.
The significant events of my childhood were the moments when a secret space of mine was entered upon by others. When invited, this meant that a person had gained my full trust and respect. I remember fondly the time I found a magical, wooden object under one of the pine trees in the schoolyard. It felt smooth and was artefact-like, as if somebody had started carving it into the body of a guitar. It was as though I’d struck gold. I picked it up and hid it under one of the classrooms. It took me a while to work up the courage and trust to reveal its existence and location to my best friend. I made her promise not to tell anyone else. She did not, and it strengthened our friendship.
When not invited, however, having someone in my secret space was tragic. I can remember taking ownership of a particular bush in the schoolyard which I only felt comfortable sharing with a small circle of friends, of trusted individuals. One day I found another group of kids who I didn’t know playing in the bush. I felt hurt and almost jealous, as if the bush was a romantic lover which had been stolen from me.
Discovering the secret spaces of others became an equally significant event, for it meant discovering the truth about them. I can remember being stuck in a tug of war between curiosity and morals, between wanting to find bird nests, enter the boy’s toilets, or explore the rooms of my friends’ houses which I hadn’t been shown, and the horrible, dizzy sensation this elicited in me.
At times, my curiosity got the better of me. Across the road from the house I spent the largest proportion of my childhood in lived Rebecca who I felt a kinship with. Together we speculated about the mysterious house with the triangular-shaped roof down the road. We suspected that it was home to a witch and decided to accompany each other there one night so we could get a closer look. As we reached the driveway however, a light suddenly flickered on. What I remember to be a black cat approached the driveway, confirming my suspicions. There were further movements and I was convinced that the witch inside was coming for us. Setting off the dogs in the neighbourhood, the two of us bolted back to her house at a speed which would have beaten any professional athlete.
One day Rebecca shared with me her own secret space; a platform which sat amongst the top of the enormous hedges which formed a barrier between the road and her yard. On the platform was a chair and other various pieces of furniture she and her father had collected from the hard rubbish. And there she would sit, in limbo between the outside world and her peculiar and sheltered home full of hard rubbish, a faint connection to this outside world.
Rebecca’s family were the subject of much neighbourhood gossip. They had no electricity as they’d disconnected themselves from the grid. Her mother wasn’t interested in mixing with the neighbours and was awkward to converse with. She forbade her children from giving out their contact details in public. When in public herself, she wore stylish, carefully planned clothing which sat in stark contrast to her home surroundings.
Rebecca’s father, I was told by her younger sister, was psychic and could predict major world events before they happened. He did not work and was claiming disability allowance for a bad back apparently, yet was frequently seen around the streets collecting hard rubbish and heaving it back to his house. The rubbish he collected was then dumped in the yard, providing an obstacle course to their front door. As a child I found it intriguing and always enjoyed visiting Rebecca’s house as I never knew what kind of treasure I’d find, although the neighbours found it feral. Then one day her parents decided to build a very sophisticated security gate to their property. I always wondered why, their junkyard was not exactly a place that would excite the burglars. Only now do I better understand the motivations of this idiosyncratic family, these societal drop outs, these real-life Radleys (if you’ve read Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ you would know what I mean). They too were preoccupied with privacy and secrecy. They didn’t build the gate to keep only the burglars out. They built it to keep the world out. Their entire property was a secret space, a parallel life in which they could escape. A refuge from the world’s ugliness, cruelty and danger which they knew all too well. A refuge from the danger of becoming an adult oneself perhaps.
The ultimate secret space to me was the body, especially the private regions. I became obsessed with discovering other children’s bodies and therefore who they really were and whether we were of the same kind. “Doctor” and the like became a ritual in many of my friendships. There were particular secret spaces we’d create purely to partake in this activity for it was one which adults did not approve. It violated what it meant to be a child.
These are some of my secret place making stories from my childhood, and I guess I’ve never really grown out of it too. With the rise of the internet, I now find myself creating private blogs and quiet corners of cyberspace like “hsphaven” to share my inner world and bring me closer to others in my life.