The Jewish Chronicle
Walking back to the playground
AFEW WEEKS ago, my best friend from primary school was going through a tough time. I wanted to be supportive, but she lives far away and hence I couldn’t get to see her in person. So I took some flour, mixed it with water to make a gluey paste, then formed it into little flat pellets and left them to dry overnight.
I then went out and bought a Kinder Egg and extracted the yellow plastic container. (My sevenyear-old son was an incidental beneficiary because he got the chocolate and the toy.) I put the flour pellets into it, stuck a label to the outside saying “Aposhnac”, and put it in the post to her.
Aposhnac was a concoction my friend Anna and I used to make 35-odd years ago; we’d keep it in the pocket of our school blazers in identical Kinder Egg containers. In times of need, all we had to do was take the lid off and smell it, and we were immediately invested with the power to run extraordinarily fast and to answer any question, however hard. As you can imagine, these abilities came in handy during numerous games.
Anna was a powerful inventor of games and almost everything we played was suggested by her. One game was called “Backwards”, and consisted of us holding hands, closing our eyes, and attempting to walk backwards from one side of the school field to the other. This was interesting for two reasons: firstly, we would almost certainly crash into other children in the process and fall in a heap, and secondly, there was the thrilling possibility that we may unwittingly turn 90 degrees as we walked, and find when we opened our eyes that we were in a forbidden part of the grounds.
Another game, called “Nothing”, had as its main feature the fact that if we were asked what we were playing, we could reply “Nothing”. Which was hilarious every time — obviously.
When Anna wasn’t around, I’d play a thousand different types of game, too, depending on where I found myself. There were board games at friends’ houses; team games with Bnei Akiva on a Shabbat afternoon; “Sevensies” with a tennis ball at break time in cheder… These all brought me a mixture of joy and anxiety: the triumph of winning, squabbles about the rules, the feeling of excitement when everything was going well, the outrage of someone cheating… The games Anna and I played, though, were special: they allowed us to immerse ourselves in an impenetrable and completely absorbing world.
Not that everything she made up was just for us two. One term, she invented a game called “Underlegs” that monopolised playtime for a number of weeks. The entire school stood in a row (it was quite a small school with a very big field), then someone took a run up from a distance and crawled through another child’s legs. It was then that child’s turn to run up and crawl through someone else’s. Unfortunately, Anna failed to add a “no repetition” clause to the Underlegs Rule Book, meaning that two friends would crawl under each other’s legs again and again while everyone else just stood there. For some reason, this didn’t make the game less popular.
I left that school when I was nine; it was hard for both of us, but I suspect harder for her as it’s always difficult to be the one left behind. In the weeks leading up to my departure, the teachers tried to separate us at play-time, with the misguided idea that we should get used to not being together. I remember us laughing at how absurd and pointless that was. In a world where adults had control over pretty much every part of our lives — and teachers especially so — this was something they could do nothing about at all. It was an oddly powerful realisation.
Years later, when I was well into secondary school, I came across my old school blazer. Tucked deep in an inside pocket was a piece of paper containing the key to a secret code Anna and I would use to communicate. The paper was soft and the creases worn from constant folding and unfolding. I must have used the code one play-time and then stuffed it into my pocket — not knowing that was the last time I’d ever do so. The discovery made me feel quite dizzy, in the way that can happen when something long forgotten is unexpectedly revealed.
Anna is now a paediatric neurologist and I am a writer. We hardly ever walk backwards with our eyes closed any more. After she received the Aposhnac in the post, she messaged me saying, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry”. While crying was definitely not the effect I was aiming for, I think she knew the my peculiar gift was intended as a gesture of love and support. And it’s almost certainly no coincidence that, these days, Anna is both an impressively fast runner and a highflying career woman, able to answer any number of difficult questions. That Aposhnac is powerful stuff.