It was an indoor game we played as children with grandpa. I guess it was a way of keeping us three boys amused in the old house with nothing of any interest for children, dusty old books, ornaments you mustn’t touch, pictures in dark frames hung high up on the walls. It used energy in a harmless way on dull and rainy days when we couldn’t go out. Grandma was a very silent woman, and would watch but never say anything, not to cheer us on, or applaud our success, or even complain when we got too boisterous.
Grandpa would invite the neighbour’s children, Jill and Philip from one side, who were roughly the same age as the twins, my brothers Bob and Mark, and Sandra and Gail from the other side. Sandra was the same age as me, nine, and Gail was older, maybe ten or eleven. We must have made a lot of racket – and catch the light was only one of grandpa’s games when we had to be inside.
Being a noisy lad, and often told off for it, my favourite game was ‘how green you are‘. So simple, such simple pleasures – one of us went out and closed the door and the others, whispering, chose a random item in the room. It might be a book, the arm of a chair, the leg of a table, the windowsill, anything. The person outside came back into the room and we all sang ‘how green you are‘ to the tune of Old Lang Syne, getting louder the nearer they got to the object, quieter as they moved away. ‘Catch the light‘ was was simple as it sounds – grandpa had a pencil torch and he would flick it on and off and we had to try and touch whatever it shone on. Yup, it was that simple, and considering how old I was at the time I’m surprised I joined in with as much excitement as the others, and so did Sandra and Gail.
Unlike ‘how green you are’, ‘catch the light‘ couldn’t really be played in one room, too much leaping and running about. We would go into the big hall – it probably wasn’t that big actually, and we would run up and down, and up and down the stairs and round the landing. We’d played it loads of times, but on this one day, Sandra and Gail asked if they could bring a friend with them and of course grandpa said yes, and grandma silently took out an extra beaker and put it on the tray with the jug of orange squash and took another Viennese whirl off the cooling rack and put it with the others on the plate. We always had a break which we called tea and biscuits, although there was never any tea and usually something other than biscuits made by grandma.
“This is our friend Veronica,” Gail said, and then in a grown-up way said this was Mr and Mrs Sinclair and we were Bob and Mark and Terry, which is me.
I hadn’t been paying much attention and looked up as Veronica looked fleetingly at me. She had blond hair, but a reddy sort of blond so it didn’t look thin and wispy. I couldn’t tell what colour her eyes were, I was too stunned, but I think they must have been a greeny-blue, or a bluey-green or maybe grey. The rain suddenly dashed against the kitchen window so roughly we almost jumped.
“Aha!” exclaimed grandpa. “Perfect weather for catch the light!”
We dashed into the hall which was best when all of us were here, usually seven but today eight with Veronica. If there were only one set of neighbours we could play in the front room with the curtains drawn and not too much risk of breaking anything. Grandpa shouted ‘light on‘ which was a variation, a bit like tig where whoever he shone the light on would have to run like crazy to escape the others. It seemed random at the time, but of course it wasn’t. Grandpa made sure we each got turns as it, and the younger ones were in a position where they could run away.
Then he shouted ‘catch the light‘ and would flash the light randomly on something – the newel post, the letter box, a stair halfway up the staircase, occasionally one of us bigger kids, me or Sandra or Gail. We raced and scampered around until he shouted out ‘take five’! He would snap the lights on and we would stop, catch our breath and then it would be off again, ‘light on’ or ‘catch the light’. I’d run up stairs and was hanging over the bannister as Veronica came running up. I heard grandpa shout and Veronica stopped and looked up at me.
We’ve all had moments when time stands still. I was nine years old, and for that moment, time did stand still. Then grandpa shouted ‘tea and biscuits‘ and snapped on the lightswitch and Veronica turned to head downstairs. For a second her beautiful hair shone a coppery gold, it caught the light for a moment, and then she ran downstairs.
Veronica was staying with Sandra and Gail; she might have been their cousin. We maybe spoke a few times, but I was completely tongue-tied, and she was very quiet, and there was all the noisy fun of playing outside when it was fine, and in the house with grandpa when it was not. I was captivated by her, her serious eyes, bluey-green, or greeny-blue or grey, her slight smile, her beautiful hair, like a shining cloud.
I never saw her again after that summer, except in my dreams. Once I was in the gallery of a church at a wedding, and looking down caught sight of a woman seeming to be staring up at me. She turned her head away as the bridal party came up the aisle, and for a second her beautiful hair shone a coppery gold, it caught the light for a moment.
As soon as the service was over, I pushed past everyone in the row and ran downstairs but I couldn’t find Veronica, even if it had been her. I guess subconsciously I will always be looking for Veronica.