Growing down the centre of my ring finger, left hand, is a groove. A neat, one millimetre wide, one millimetre deep channel running from the cuticle to the distal edge or tip of the nail. In fact beneath the cuticle to the proximal fold. Its beginning, physically presumably lies just beyond this in the nail root under the skin at the base of the nail. Temporally it lies around sixty years in the past.
My cousins lived on the edge of the village. Where I had motor vehicle exhaust to breathe on the way to school or shops they had the odours of pig muck, silage clamps and occasional whiffs of grass and foliage. My back yard was flagged in part and cinders for the rest, surrounded by a six foot wall which, when rather than if, you climbed it and dropped down the other side, left you in cobbled streets lined with smoke blackened terraced cottages. You walked through their overgrown garden, hopped the slack wire fence and landed in ‘the field’. The field was a neutral space between habitation and country, a DMZ between village and farmers. From a child’s perspective a huge swathe of grassland swept up the hill to Mr Ward’s farm where the country proper started, cows grazed and splatted, pigs rooted, chickens clucked, a cockerel crowed and men with tractors and odd machinery still walked and worked the land before farming became the loneliest job in the world.
The grassland was mowed and managed off to the right of the field but the left was generally left long in a meadow, hide and seek played, dens made in it, wild flowers picked, but not Mother’s Die, just in case. You probably know this as cow-parsley, but where I grew up it was Mother Die or Mother’s Die and remains so in my head still.
Down the field from where Ward’s land began to the bottom road where my Auntie’s house stood ran a track. It wasn’t paved or tarmac covered. At some stage someone had casually, lazily and without much thought for anything other than trying to get a grip in the wet for poor quality 1950s tyres scattered a thin intermittent layer of loose chipping over the sandy ground. Not the fine graded chippings you got on the driveways of the bigger houses lying off country roads in the distance, but the odds and sods left over from the process, ranging from cricket ball size chunks to tiny lentil sized grains.
Compaction by farm vehicles, cars and feet had, over the years, compressed this into some sort of surface marginally more traversable for wheeled traffic than grass and mud and sand, but only marginally. What it did provide in summer was a fast, bumpy, exciting go kart track for the enterprising children of the village. When I say go kart, stop right there with the Lewis Hamilton visions and skip back a few generations to odd planks of wood hammered, occasionally screwed if there as an adult involved in the construction, together with filched pram wheels and, if you had a Barnes Wallace among your constructors, a steerable front axle! One of the locals was a revolutionary designer and had a steerable rear axle but this was felt to be a design flaw rather than a promising innovation.
If my Uncle John was around, the rules were, generally to stay in sight of the rear window and no off roading to gain more speed before hitting the track, and one driver, one passenger max at a time on the descent. This was more summer bob sleigh territory than motor sport. Power was leg and gravity. Approved safety wear was; boys in shorts and shirts, girls in summer dresses, no helmets, no elbow pads, knee protectors, or any other protection come to that. My uncle was in the house that day and so we should have been okay and obeying the track safety rules. But you know how it is, two people max meant people waiting at the top, a long wait as pushing and pulling the finely crafted machine uphill was much less thrilling than riding down. So driver, navigator, rear gunner and engineer/supernumerary noise maker rapidly became the standard crew. We were all getting tired and near to calling it a day but one last death defying ride seemed to be required. Pretty sure Peter was driving, I think I may have had the ‘brake’, it was a piece of wood you hauled on but frankly I don’t think it was connected to anything. We decided that just going a bit further up would be fine and perhaps to extend the experience for the probable last run of the day, a short(ish) pre track grass hill run in would be best.
It certainly got the speed going although there were ominous squealing noises coming from the axles almost immediately. Progress was held in check a little by the dry grass on the slope but as we negotiated, a loose term, the entry onto the track proper that residual braking disappeared and we seemed to leap forward. Not just the axles were squealing by now. I knew we were fine in a straight line, we would bump and trundle our way down the hill and come to a more or less dignified stop where the hill ran out, the chippings were deeper and the emergency brakes (feet) could be safely deployed. Unfortunately we had joined the track higher up than the position we normally started from and our recce had been faulty. This meant that we joined the track at an angle and had therefore to apply steering correction to stay on the track. This automatically set up a slight yawing motion on the loose surface , but in addition we had to immediately counter steer as the track took a sharp opposite turn to the place we normally began our descents.
All those fighter pilot films where they lose control and the camera is thrown from side to side for a bit before flicking into a slightly nauseous spiralling motion were what happened next, without the benefit of being in a padded cinema seat. I have no idea how far we got down before it all became blurry then scrapy and painful but it felt like section two of the descent went on longer than section one. We all had cuts, grazes, a bit of gravel rash and bruising but I remember thinking as my finger went under the rear wheel somehow, that that felt a bit worse than the rest.
We limped ignominiously into the house. I was most definitely crying. Cuts and bruises were nothing new, but I was most decidedly of the opinion that nails shouldn’t be sticking up like that and there seemed a bit too much blood to come out of one finger. My mother soothed most minor bumps and she was there, but I knew I’d been right that this was bit more than a simple plaster job when I was wheeled before Uncle John. John was a nurse and although by then very high in the local mental health hierarchy, retained enough of his wartime nursing to be quite capable of dealing with this. He always had a bit of a scary authoritarian feel to him for me, but that day he was so brilliant for a small child in pain and more importantly worried about things being different than they should be. It was only a nail of course but it had been ripped from the quick and bent back at a weird angle. He cleaned it without killing me, talked to me to distract me, flicked the thing back into place, which I can assure you hurt a tad, and dressed it.
My mother hovered wanting to ask all those questions mothers want to ask and that I was not sure I wanted to hear the answers to.
‘He’ll be fine. It might come off but I don’t think so. Keep an eye on it, but I think he’s probably going to have a bit of a minor mark grow down the nail. It might be permanent but nothing to worry about.’
He was right. The nail stayed on and the damaged bits grew out. All except for that little groove nobody except me notices, but which reminds me of sunny childhood summers long ago, and also reminds me that, even though it was scary at the time, it came from fun and childhood isn’t or shouldn’t about being cocooned in cotton wool.