My Secret Superpower

All families have their private mythologies and secret histories, stores of signs and wonders and strange tales, but my own family lost or suppressed most of its past after my grandparents and my mother and uncle moved inland, from the South Coast to Gloucestershire. My grandfather was one of twelve children raised in a shepherd’s cottage on the Sussex Downs; my grandmother’s family were shopkeepers – one of her relatives, I’m not quite sure who, ran a photographic studio in the 1880s. She and my grandfather owned a small grocery shop, but their business foundered after the Second World War, and they moved from Bognor Regis and came to rest near the little town of Stroud, at the western edge of the Cotswolds. This story will have to stand in for all the stories and private mysteries they left behind.

Of my father’s family, a swarm of uncles and aunts and cousins mostly living in Belfast, I know very little. As I grew up I saw less and less of my father, who served in the Royal Navy; eventually, he completely disappeared from my life. Like Laurie Lee fifty years earlier, on the other side of Stroud, I grew up mostly in the company of women – that is, my mother, and my grandmother, for my maternal grandparents lived next door to us, in a row of four little Elizabethan cottages. My grandfather was there, too, but he was a terse, lonely man who, except at Christmas, when he fortified himself with Whyte & Mackay’s whiskey, avoided company whenever he could. He had fought in Palestine in the First World War, and had spent a couple of years in a prisoner-of-war camp, but never ever talked about it.

The cottages where we lived were next door to an iron foundry (small, privately- owned, it was a complete stranger to health and safety: the main entrance was open to the street, and I often lingered on my way to school, to watch men channel molten pig iron through channels dug in the sand floor, or pour it, amidst Hell’s own amount of sparks and flame, from chain-hung crucibles into moulds). Across the road were two factories, and there was a big BP plant, where my uncle worked, a little further up the hill. Even so, my childhood was extraordinarily bucolic. We had an acre of gardens, with an orchard and vegetable plots bounded on one side by a brook (with the foundry on the other side) and the remains of a canal lock at the bottom, where pike and roach and trout could be caught, and a branch line railway station beyond, where steam trains ran until the mid 1960's. My sister, my brother and I went to a village school a mile away, divided into Juniors and Infants, with only two teachers and never more than forty children. There were woods to explore, and a huge, high, windy common with holloways down which (so the story went) menhirs had been dragged towards Stonehenge, a walled field, Dead Man’s Acre, where we children didn’t dare trespass, and an old quarry with a finger of rock that, clinging halfway up one side, was called the Devil’s Pulpit.

Despite the local stories and superstitions, and although we lived in cottages that were allegedly Elizabethan, with thick stone walls and flag floors and blackened oak beams, I never saw anything like a ghost, although my uncle once did. Visiting my great-aunt’s boardng house (I learnt many years later than Auntie Bea wasn’t a blood relative, but had been secretly adopted years ago by my great-grandparents) just after my great-grandfather died, my uncle went into the kitchen and saw the old man sitting in his chair by the range. Of course, he rushed out to fetch Auntie Bea, and the apparition was gone when they returned, but it badly upset my uncle, who said he saw great-grandpop ‘as plain as daylight’. It occurs to me now that this ghost was nothing more than a trick of memory: when he stepped into the dim kitchen, my uncle expected to see the old man in his usual place, and his mind pieced together a phantom from shadows and memory. But my uncle, a practical, rational man who had been trained as an electronics technician in the RAF, and had built his own television, insisted that he’d seen the ghost of my great-grandfather, and I believed him unquestioningly. I hadn’t yet seen a ghost myself, but I supposed that it was only a matter of time before I did.

Instead, my only psychic experience involved an industrial accident.

It was a hot summer’s day, in June or July. I was supervising my sister, who was learning to ride her bicycle. I was seven or eight, so my sister would have been five or six. I was almost certainly dressed in a short-sleeved Aertex shirt and kakhi shorts held up by a red and green elastic belt with a snake clasp. I had blond hair then, and it was always in a crewcut. I can’t remember what my sister was wearing, but her usual summer outfit was sandals and white knee-high socks, a cotton dress with a flower print. Although the bicycle had training wheels either side of the rear wheel to keep it steady, my sister had trouble steering and pedalling at the same time, so I trotted behind her as she wobbled along the pavement, making sure that she didn’t stray into the road. There was far less traffic then, in 1962 or 1963, but because of the factories and the foundry there was always the danger of lorries and vans hurrying to deliver their loads.

We were outward bound, past the village shop, past the tiny terrace of three brick cottages with their neat front gardens, past the high wall of a larger cottage. We stopped to watch a mobile crane go past in the other direction, the catenary of its jib neatly tucked behind its cab, and then my sister started pedalling again and a moment later I grabbed the back of the bicycle’s saddle. Before my sister could protest, astonishingly, cables dropped all around us. One fell right in front of the bicycle; another fell right behind me; others fell in the road in a skewed criss-cross grid. I stood behind my sister on her bicycle in a little patch no more than three feet square defined by fallen cables, neat as a magician’s trick. I remember the noise they made, like whips snapping on the tarmac.

The mobile crane had taken the corner by the old pack-horse bridge too fast, and its jib had swung out and knocked over a utility pole. Because of the factories, there were many cables strung above the road, and all of them had come down, a hundred yards in either direction. Some were six inches in diameter, and I remember how difficult it was to carry the bicycle back without touching them. I knew about electricity, and treated them with the utmost respect, as if they might suddenly strike like snakes.

I do not know what made me stop the bicycle, and the web of fallen cables lay so thickly across the road that it was a miracle that neither my sister nor I were brained. With hindsight, I suppose that I heard the crane’s jib hitting the pole, but I do not remember it. I simply acted, as if I knew without thinking what was about to happen. In the next few days, I began to imagine that the cables hadn’t missed us by chance, that I had either somehow guessed where they would and wouldn’t fall, or that I’d actually influenced their fall, thrown up a protective bubble. I began to believe that I might have some kind of magical powers. I remember practicing them, although rather modestly. I did not command the sun stand still, or predict the outcome of horse races, but instead tried to change traffic lights from red to green, or influence the dipping flight of swallows.

Meanwhile, I continued my experiments with the chemistry set I had been given that Christmas, and with the little microscope from the Christmas before, and avidly read about space rockets and jet fighters. It did not occur to me that science and psychic powers required incompatible world views; instead, I was capable of holding both in my head at the same time. After all, like cats, children are only partly domesticated, and are able to easily move between the civilised world of home and school and their tribal culture of fierce loyalties and territorial disputes more involved than any in the Balkans, and rites and rituals as complex and important as those of any Stone Age tribe.

The cottages where I grew up are gone now. Where they once stood is a roundabout that regulates the constant flow around the Stroud bypass, part of which runs along what was once the old branch-line railway. The gardens are gone, too, except for a clump of willows at the bend of the brook, and the village shop and the pub next door are also gone. Razed like Troy, or Carthage. I grew up, and chose the world of science, where everything can be explained by chains of logic forged collectively and held in common. The prescient sense of engagement with the world’s secret workings that I’d felt after the fall of the cables only came back me once, in a casino in Las Vegas when I was playing roulette. For spin after spin of the wheel I bet with utter certainty, and won on every bet, parlaying my small pile of chips into several hundred dollars (the man who started following my bets won much more, but he was playing to win, not for fun). I stopped after half an hour, with a mild headache and a dizzy sensation, and cashed in my chips, and bought my friends cocktails.

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