I was never frightened of Charlie Barling. We both grew up in the same village, an isolated place, on the fringes of salt marshes in north Kent. It is a landscape Charles Dickens used for his tale of an escaped convict in Great Expectations. In Victorian times prison hulks moored in the adjacent waters, on the Thames Estuary, and the ghostly skeletons of decaying boats still lay along the banks of the sea wall when I played there as a child in the sixties, making up stories of pirates and treasure and what might have been.
Charlie’s family farmed on the edge of the marsh, around the system of muddy inlets which once played host to smugglers. They were probably Charlie’s ancestors. It is a peculiar environment, set between land and sea, an unstable wilderness where legends lie in waiting and lost treasures remain lost. And we children understood this was where Charlie and his brother wandered freely with their shotguns – shooting anything in sight.
Charlie didn’t go to the village school but most villagers gave him a wide berth, knowing his reputation, except for my best-friend Janet and I. Charlie was our friend and treated us with respect. Janet’s mum said he possessed something rare, something she called ‘impeccable manners’. I don’t remember how we all became friends but during the long summer holidays we would explore together the warren of creeks and marshes while our mum’s worked in the Barling orchards picking fruit.
All this happened many years ago, but recent events have reminded me of Charlie Barling.
When he was eleven Charlie went on to senior school in the nearby town. It was a boys school, a new comprehensive with very forward looking ideals and no reputation. At the age of fourteen Charlie killed his form teacher. Not with a gun, although he was well used to guns. Charlie used a knife. With a single stab wound he murdered his teacher in front of the whole class. The horror of what happened was headlined in the local papers for months. Somehow I couldn’t recognise the ‘monster’ in the news with the boy I knew. People spoke of his unstable temperament and unruly manner, but nobody seemed to ask why he snapped that particular day. I’m not apologising for Charlie but I wonder what would have happened if he had been able to access automatic weapons, like those used by Adam Lanza. And that thought haunts me.