We reach the housing estate by mid-morning.
The site office is closed for business and surrounded by construction vehicles long since abandoned. Buildings hide behind frameworks of scaffold with empty windows and hollow interiors. Here the recession has spoken with confidence. Construction work has ceased and the estate is destined to stand empty and unfinished.
In the dust is the marked outline of a road that branches off into several cul-de-sacs, each one home to a number of empty buildings. The foundations are clearly visible and exposed to the sun. Piles of rubble sit by the road, dug out from the trenches that circle the vacant plots. These empty moats cut through our landscape, preventing our access to the ghostly houses beyond.
We stand together at the edge of a trench contemplating how to cross. Someone finds a plank that can serve as a makeshift bridge, covered with adult sized footprints of a workman before us. It fits across the gap and settles onto the far bank easily. The trench below is deep with steep sides, one of the many dangers of this playground that we inhabit. We discuss whether to run across or edge across slowly – but instead we decide upon neither, striding across the plank with arms outstretched like walkers lost in a fog.
The plank wobbles a little with our combined weight and so we limit ourselves to cross one at a time. No-one looks down into the deep trench as we cross and make our way into the shade of the building. The air inside the house is stale. We touch every wall and window. There are no stairs to the upper floors and so we ascend the internal scaffold. The top floor is unfinished and exposed to the sky, the large roof space acting as a giant sun terrace. The irregular walls are as high as our waists and resemble the battlements of a castle. From up here the estate resembles its original blueprint, the layout and symmetry apparent.
We eat lunch on the roof. Once finished we wipe our hands on ourselves and each other before continuing back downstairs to play our games. It is only a few hours before we are exhausted, our lunch heavy and our freedom exhilarating. Encouraged by the mid-day heat we settle down to sleep in a south facing bedroom, like survivors of a nuclear blast.
I wake some hours later.
Dusk has brought with it cool air and long shadows. Back on the roof the estate shimmers like an old video recording. The fields undulate to my every movement. Flies have appeared in spherical swarms hovering over rooftops. The air that lights the estate feels good to inhale and I contemplate living alone in this empty, unfinished neighbourhood.
Basking in this fantasy I notice that our bridge has gone. For a short moment I wonder if it is an illusion caused by the low sun. I circle the rooftop perimeter twice, checking the trench on all sides of the house, confirming what I had already feared.
The plank has gone, trapping us in the evening fields.
Unable to do any more I wake the others. I wonder how to break the news that we are stranded but they already sense that something is wrong. Outside the house we walk the inner perimeter of the trench together, double checking ourselves as we do so. We peer into the trench to see if the plank has slipped and fallen but all we see is a carpet of rubble and litter. Even if we were able to jump down safely, the far side of the trench is too high and steep to climb out from.
We hurriedly scavenge our plot to find anything that could be used as a replacement bridge. Although unfinished the building work is generally sound, with no loose parts or materials that we can prise away from its structure. The only plank we find is too short, falling into the trench as we drop it across the gap.
Back on the roof we scan the ground for fresh footprints and survey the estate for any signs of movement. Our homes are far across the fields and dipped below the horizon. We howl in the direction of our parents, hopeful that the silence will carry our alarm.
It is only once we stop shouting that we hear the others for the first time. On the far side of the estate children have appeared on a rooftop. They flap their arms at us and scream words that we can barely hear. They appear to also be stranded and we stare at each other across the street with frightened reflections.
A thought crosses our minds – how many others could be in these oversized traps, but no-one says a word. Someone vomits over the edge of the roof and down the brickwork. It seems to calm him down and I wonder if we should all do the same.
Our escape is planned by late evening.
The other children watch from afar as we discuss the options that they have probably already dismissed. The estate remains deserted. As the sun continues to fall we become more desperate, our assumptions becoming fact, our possibilities becoming more tangible.
Our plan involves using the exterior walkways that surround the first floor of the building. These boards are supported within the cage of scaffold and jut out beyond the perimeter of the building. It is our intention to try and jump the trench by using the length of a first floor walkway as a run up, hopeful that the momentum and additional height will be enough to land safely on the other side.
As night begins to creep into view it is ever more our only available option.
We climb through a first floor window onto the boards that wobble beneath our step. A large pile of rubble sits on the opposite bank, a safety mat of dirt and glass. We walk up to the proposed take-off point, mark a line to jump from and then build in some margin for error. Across the estate the other children watch the beginnings of our attempted escape and I wonder if this was an option that they have already considered and dismissed.
Flies hover in the proposed path of my trajectory and I wonder how they will feel on my face. The others climb back into the house and lean out of the windows ready to spectate. I stand and once more take in the air, delaying the inevitable task ahead of me. The others watch as I twitch a couple of times, my mind and body at odds with the instruction of each other. I take a final look at the trench below to reassure myself of our plan, even though we were never assured to begin with. The children from across the estate have vanished from their rooftop and I assume that they are unable to watch.
With one last breath the moment finally comes and before realising it I am running down the walkway. I pass the others in consecutive windows, their encouragement louder with every running stride.
Just before reaching the take-off point I launch into the air a couple of inches earlier than planned. As I jump I am still hopeful that the momentum of my run up will compensate for my poor take-off. I see the trench below and spin my arms like some early pioneer of flight. From inside the house the others are cheering, the noise reassuring but cowardly.
In flight the air feels heavy. I see the other children once more, no longer trapped in the house opposite but running down the road towards us. Their faces beam with unrecognisable smiles. It is difficult to see but I think they carry a plank between them.
I land where planned but not as imagined – my left foot sinking and twisting deep into the rubble on the nearside of pile. For one moment everything is static, the universe delicately balanced and unsure of itself. I hear rejoicing from inside of the house and the unfamiliar chatter and laughter of the other children on the blind side of the pile. None of them hear the pile shifting internally, the noise deafening as the internal structure collapses beyond repair.
The top layer of rubble spills back into the trench gracefully taking me with it. Everything goes a shade of red that no-one else can see. Carried back into the trench by the weight of forever, I hear the applause of the children from the neighbouring island.