Photograph by Karim Ben Khelifa, Story by Dan Dalton
When I was a kid the GP surgery down the street burned down. It was summer, and we’d been out late somewhere. We saw the smoke first, thick and black, filling the sky. Then, when we got closer, the flames. The main road was blocked off with fire engines and we took a long detour to get home. They rebuilt it much nicer, with a second floor and a pharmacy on the side. If you asked me now I’d say it was an insurance job, but as a kid I just watched in fear and fascination, hoping the firemen, with their hoses and their yellow helmets, didn’t put it out before I got home, before I could run up to my room and watch the flames dance on the horizon.
We were free range children, tiny nomads on two wheels. There was always somewhere to be, some mischief to ride towards. A few summers after the surgery fire a group of us found a shelter in the woods, built from fallen branches and bits of string. It was deserted, save for some old rags and a few dirty magazines scattered and torn. The pages, rain soaked and soggy, fell apart in our hands as we looked at pictures, too young to understand the poses, the context, but old enough to find it interesting all the same. The man who’d built the shelter, who’d left his belongings, had moved on already, off toward some other mischief.
The summer we turned thirteen we played a game we called manhunt. The rules were simple. It was the world against us. We wore black, stalked down side streets, behind and between parked cars, ready to hop a wall or jump into the treeline the second we saw headlights. The object of the game was not to be seen, not to let the light hit you. We were good at it, we thought, this game nobody else was playing. We were seen, of course, and the police were called on us several times. We’d sprint away from the flashing blue lights, over fences, across fields. Hiding in allotments, in the woods, in the undergrowth. Whatever it took to not get caught.
In the summer between year seven and eight our history teacher was murdered by her husband. He caved her head in with a claw hammer. There were rumours it was a crowbar, or a frozen joint of meat, or maybe all three. She wasn’t well liked, and the first week back at school was full of whispers and fictions. She was abusive, they said. She was a bitch. People made jokes. What time was she killed? Hammer time. I don’t remember the school having a memorial. The new teacher was younger and nicer and we soon moved on to other things.
I can’t remember who started the fire. This was the summer I had my first cigarette, when we stole smokes from our parents and went twos on each one. We’d found an old oil can in the middle of the woods, and decided to burn it. It caught quickly and exploded, flames flying up thirty feet, igniting leaves and grass. We stamped on the spot fires, smothering them. The fire wasn’t much bothered. This was before we had mobiles, and we had to find a phone box to call the fire brigade. I wasn’t there when they arrived. I ran, deeper into the woods, away from the sirens, ready to dive behind walls and bushes like it was a game.
The sofa appeared overnight, in a field at the edge of the woods, away from the road. It wasn’t in bad shape and we claimed it as a place to sit and smoke. We’d dropped the bikes by this point. Too worried that the girls might see, the same girls who took no interest in what we did. We were still a year or two away from cars, but we had the sofa. That summer was unusually dry and hot, perfect weather for outdoor upholstery. It became a clubhouse of sorts. A place to hide from the world. We kept expecting someone to come and pick it up. The owner of the field, maybe. The council. But no one ever did.
Life started catching up with us the summer after that. Girlfriends, jobs. Responsibilities. We were sixteen. Drugs had been on the periphery for a while but suddenly they were everywhere. We wanted to be where people were, to get drunk and high. We’d outgrown the woods, the villages, the tiny streets you could barely squeeze two cars down. There were nightclubs, and pubs, and car parks to smoke weed in. There was other mischief to ride toward.
Without the sofa, without the summers, we grew apart. I spent much of those last few years by myself, reading, smoking, counting down the days until I could leave. When I turned eighteen I travelled to the US, worked at a summer camp on the East Coast. Made the kind of friends you keep for life. It was the summer before the towers fell, back before desk jobs and debt, before marriages and kids, when everything seemed possible.
I was seventeen the last time I went to the sofa. Summer was almost over. We’d been out to Greece, a few of us, for ten days of sun and sex and not much sleep. But boredom had crept in since. No money, no job, no school. I sat there a moment, sparked up a cigarette and took a drag, watched the match burn in my hand. Maybe I was trying to destroy something. Maybe I was trying to preserve it. I stood up and dropped the match. The fabric, torn, tired, thought about it a moment then caught light. It burned fast, fuelled by the foam rubber inside. I left before the smoke and the sirens, walking aimlessly, cigarette in hand, not much caring if anyone saw.
Dan Dalton is a writer and journalist originally from Yorkshire. He lives in North London. His first novel, Johnny Ruin, was published in March 2018. He is represented by Curtis Brown. Find and follow him, joining the many fans of his work @wordsbydan
Karim Ben Khelifa has worked in more than 80 countries and territories and has exhibited work on four continents.
In 2012, Ben Khelifa was the Carroll Binder Fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. Ben Khelifa has freelanced for Time, Vanity Fair, Le Monde, Stern, The New York Times Magazine and dozens of other publications. He has been a member of the advisory board of the Observatory for Photojournalism of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, and is part of the committee that nominates photographers for the World Press Photo Foundation’s prestigious Joop Swart Masterclass. In 2015, the Sundance Institute named Ben Khelifa a Doris Duke New Frontier Fellow. Find him here - @KBenK