We turned back into Marine Parade at the bottom of the Drive, and walked along the top of the Cliffs Gardens opposite the big houses. The public gardens fell away steeply, down towards the railway line and the mudflats of the estuary beyond. There were thickets of shrubs and paths into patches of woodland, places where it was easy to run and hide.
A short way along the Parade some vans were parked, and there were piles of scaffolding and a cement mixer in the front garden of a house where the front door had been left open. But there seemed to be no one about.
We walked past on the side where the trees of the public gardens grew up close to the road. Some fifty-gallon steel barrels had been placed on our side of the road, no doubt awaiting transfer into the house with the open door.
We walked past the barrels, stopped, and then walked back as if according to a pre-prepared plan.
Roderick leant on one of the barrels and rocked it to and fro. It was full of something. He pulled it towards him until it toppled over on to the grass. Despite being quite heavy it came down easily, as did the rest of them. This made us feel as if we had special powers. We lay down on the grass behind the barrels and waited.
The barrels had metal caps which were tightly screwed in and also secured by a loop of wire sealed with a tiny cube of lead. There was also a small plastic plug in the centre of each cap.
We waited a little longer but nobody came out of the house. Nobody drove along the road. In any case we were out of sight.
Roderick pulled at one of the plastic plugs and it popped out. Thick oil started to glug out of the barrel. It looked like the Mazola cooking oil that my mother used to deep-fry chips, although why there should be 250 gallons of cooking oil outside a residential house on Marine Parade is a mystery. Perhaps it was central heating oil. The oil began to pool on the grass, and then gather and run down the slope. There was already a surprising amount of it on the ground.
We pulled out all of the plastic plugs. Then we retreated a little way down into the scrubland, ready to run. The oil formed an ever larger pool, then a small lake which moved of a piece down the slope travelling like living lava. Blades of oil-soaked grass protruded from the surface.
I felt a great sense of power. It had been so easy to unlock all that precious oil, and then gravity had done the rest. It was as if rather than destroying we had created something.
Then Roderick said we should set the oil on fire. I thought that was probably extending our luck and said so but Roderick was not listening, and he had the matches that we had used earlier to light our cigarettes. He produced the matchbox. I felt that the afternoon was getting out of hand but I did not know how to steer things in a different direction. I backed further into the scrubland.
There was only one viable match left in the box. Roderick lit it. He held it for a moment as if waiting to be dared, and then threw it on to the oil. The match sizzled for an instant and then went out. There was a thread of smoke, then nothing.
“Oh, bollocks,” said Roderick.
We sat for a short while and watched the oil slick which now seemed less interesting. It was beginning to soak into the ground.
Then we moved off following a winding path through the scrubby trees and clearings where there were the dead remains of small bonfires and picnics, doubling back up on to Marine Parade further down the road. We walked away slowly, occasionally looking back to check on the scene from what now seemed a safe distance. No one came out of the house. Nothing happened. The delayed explosion which I half-expected did not take place. We just walked away.
I can’t remember what happened next. Probably we walked back down to Leigh station and took the train one stop back home. Perhaps we walked the whole way. In memory the scene fades out with us looking back as we made our casual escape, hiding in plain sight, filled with exultation and disappointment at having done something large and destructive and inconclusive, all driven by causes I did not understand.
I look back on that memory as we looked back on the scene of our crime, the picture continuing to recede and grow smaller, as a camera might pull back from a close-up and then perhaps swoop up into the air looking down on the shrinking figures.
I can imagine how the film might show the different paths we might take, one scene succeeded by an alternate version of the scene, and then another. Perhaps in one version the pool of oil we had left at the clifftop would suddenly ignite. There would be smoke, then flame, then a whoosh and a thump, setting the emptied barrels aflame and bringing men in overalls running out into the street. Then the camera would close in as we were singled out as the obvious culprits and confessed immediately, and soon a police van would be driving along the Parade.
Or perhaps the end of our friendship would be shown differently. Perhaps Roderick’s mother would not be institutionalised with schizophrenia, and Roderick and his brothers would not move away to live in a different house with their father’s new girlfriend. Perhaps there would be an alternate ending where Roderick’s mother did not die in the mental hospital while still in her thirties, but instead would remain at home in the house in Westcliff, smoking Everest cigarettes and making steamed puddings in the kitchen. Perhaps I would have stayed friends with Roderick, and he would have won the scholarships that his early promise had suggested would be his, and he would have studied law, or politics, made money, and driven an expensive car. Perhaps the last sequence would be deleted and we would never see the final scenes where Roderick went from trouble to accident to more trouble, spending some time in prison and eventually drowning in the Serpentine after a night of drinking.
As it was in the following months I would only see Roderick once or twice more, and then never again in the way that friendships are suddenly severed in childhood, like nerves that cannot be repaired.
This was all in the future. For now there were other things happening.
At home there was change. It was a vaguely thrilling change, even though I understood there to be a dark side which might have consequences for me. My parents were trying to sell the house that I had grown up in, just as the house at 1755 London Road had already been sold: I did not know exactly why this was happening although I guessed it to be something to do with the end of the family business. People were coming to our house to view it, walking through our rooms, sometimes as if they already owned them, sometimes as if they could not understand how anyone could suppose that such a house could possibly be sold for money.
A replacement house had already been found, somewhere in the country, in a setting that could hardly be more different from suburban landscape that we knew. We had seen a picture of our new home. We saw a house that was standing alone in a field for no reason at all.