Lingering in the Lane

"There's a dead body in Pasture Lane," said Michael.

"No there's not!" said Susan kicking him hard under the table.

"Don't speak with your mouth full," scolded their mother who was struggling to coax a spoonful of mashed carrot into the mouth of the baby in the high chair. Success! She turned and asked, "Now, Michael, what did you say?"

"Nothing," said Michael and immediately shoved a forkful of baked beans into his mouth, bringing an abrupt end to the conversation.

His mother shrugged and returned to the task of feeding the baby. Susan narrowed her eyes and fixed her little brother with a fierce warning stare before resuming her own meal once she was quite sure that Mother had not heard. But, sitting forgotten behind his newspaper by the window at the other end of the living room, Grandpa had heard. "Pasture Lane," he thought. "Pasture Lane." And his mind drifted away, out of the window, across trim lawns and neat flower borders, over the tarmac road and through an overgrown tangle of elder, hawthorn and brambles to the strip of rough wasteland beyond. That was Pasture Lane. That was Pasture Lane and he was little Percy Collier, pounding along in hand-me-down shoes and falling down socks, vainly racing to beat the summons of the distant school bell before it stopped clanging and the lines of children would have to file into school under the fearsome formidable eye of Miss Frobisher.

Father said that Miss Frobisher was naught but a miserable old maid who could do with being taught a thing or two herself but Mother told Percy not to heed his father's comments. He must pay close attention at school because without an education he'd get nowhere in life and end up an ignorant evil-mouthed lout, like some others she could mention. That made Father laugh. "That's the way you like me, girl. Leave the lad alone. All he needs is to get out of the grip of womenfolk."

True, life at home was dominated by womenfolk with his mother and four older sisters forever telling him things for his own good. Every morning Mother would send him on his way to school, all spruced up with a clean handkerchief in his pocket, and the girls would be told to keep an eye on him and make sure he didn't linger in the lane. They would set out together, walking as nice as nine pence till they turned the corner, out of sight of the cottage; then the girls would run off and leave him straggling behind, unable to keep up with their long strides; not really wanting to. Percy walked alone along the lane taking his own good time to get to the other end.

To most folks Pasture Lane was naught but a rough old path for the farmers to drive their beasts out from the village to low lying summer grazing, but to the family at Keeper's Cottage it was a highway, leading for half a mile directly from home into the heart of the village - to church, school, shops, pub and cricket pitch; all of which were a good two miles away if you went round by the road.

Young Percy loved the lane, every rut and rock of it. He knew the pool where there was frog spawn in the spring, the thick clump of hawthorn where finches built their nests, the bank in Smollett's Pasture where rabbits would sun themselves on a summer evening. And he’d learned to read the tell-tale signs of secret night-time activities when he could not be there to watch; tracks at the edge of the common which showed that badgers had been out, broken spiders webs where a fox had pushed through the hedge, scattered heaps of fur and feathers that told of a struggle to the death and, sometimes, the sad neglected corpse of a shrew or vole where a hunter had, for some mysterious reason, abandoned its prey.

The big silver bird never lost his prey. He was the best creature of them all to watch. He’d come skimming the twigs along one side of the hedge, then, without altering pace, he'd roll and tumble dive over the top straight onto some poor unsuspecting finch and soar away with it, up to his mate on the nest at the top of the elms. He was the champion! Percy could have watched him all day.

But the school bell would clang summoning him to lessons and he'd arrive late and dirty and Miss Frobisher's fearsome formidable eye would pin him to his place. He'd be ordered to stay there all through break doing sums while the other boys played football in the yard. He'd hang his head and pout as was expected of a boy in disgrace but, as soon as Miss Frobisher left the room, he'd climb up onto the dais and bring down the book from the teacher's shelf, the big heavy book with pictures of every living creature in the whole of England. It was worth the scolding and the detention just to get his hands on that book.

One fine afternoon the class was outside on the school field playing 'Rabbits and Foxes'. The children were rabbits and stood behind a rope line laid on the grass. Miss Frobisher was the fox standing between them and another line, ten yards away. They chanted the rhyme;

When the farmer shoots his gun

Rabbit better run

But Rabbit best look out

For Fox may be about

Miss Frobisher waited; sometimes just a few seconds, sometimes agonisingly long minutes; then she clapped her hands for the noise of the gun and all the rabbits had to run past the fox to the safety of the opposite line. Anyone touched by the fox must join her and become another fox. So they raced back and forth with more foxes and fewer rabbits each time, again and again until every rabbit had been caught and they all collapsed exhausted on the grass.

"I have a strange tale to tell, children," said Miss Frobisher. "In Farmer Smollett's field when the rabbits come out to graze near their burrows, the fox comes up from the common and across the lane as far as the hedge. There he lies down in the long grass and watches them. He does not try to catch them, he just lies there and watches. And they see that he is there but they do not try to run away. They continue grazing, watching him, watching them, almost as though they are keeping each other company."

Young Percy Collier forgot his manners. He did not raise his hand for permission to speak but blurted out, "I seen that, Miss."

The fearsome eye was turned upon him. "I know you have, Percy," she said, softly. And in that minute he knew that, although he had never seen her, Miss Frobisher too must linger in the lane. What's more, she'd been watching him. If she knew what he got up to out there she probably knew that he sneaked her big book when he was on detention, for it dawned on him suddenly that she never asked to see the sums she had set him to do. After that, fox and rabbit, they watched in the lane together; together but apart, each conscious of the other's presence but neither acknowledging the other. Season after season, long after he had moved on from her class, leaving the beautiful book behind, they met regularly, wordlessly, in Pasture Lane.

She was there on the day when the sparrow hawk limped home, stuttering as he tip-tilted along the hedge. When he reached the elms, where ususlly he’d swerve up to the topmost branches, he turned his head skywards but somersaulted backwards landing in a helplessly flapping heap by the ditch. Percy raced forward but Miss Frobisher was there first, a shadow gliding out from the shadow of the trees.

"Slowly, Percy, we don't want to alarm him."

Together they bent beside the injured bird. Percy said, "Father must have shot him. He gets angry when they take chicks from the covers."

"That's understandable," she said, then smiled and added, "But I'm glad to say, your father is not a very good shot."

One wing had been caught by the keeper's shot which had ripped off three of the big flight feathers. Miss Frobisher said she thought that, given time and careful nursing, the feathers might grow again. So Percy tore off his pullover and they laid the hawk gently on it and carried him to the shed behind her cottage where, over the following weeks, they kept a careful vigil, feeding him on scraps of chicken begged from the butcher and watching together as the lost feathers grew back until the day he was well enough to fly.

And he was off!

And Miss Frobisher gave Percy the book to keep.

"Night Grandpa."

Grandpa came to, startled by young Susan’s peck on his cheek.

"Night Gran." Michael reached up his face for the ritual bed-time kiss.

The old man leaned forward and whispered urgently in his grandson's ear, "Who's body is it, son? Who did you find in the lane?"

The little boy's eyes opened wide and he looked around in alarm. Susan had gone, but he whispered his reply nontheless. "Big bird, Gran, a big grey eagle bird."

"And is he proper dead? Are you sure?"

"Yeah; all stiff and cold. We put stones on top of him and tomorrow we're going to take a spade and dig a grave and have a funeral with prayers and hymns."

"I'll get my big book out so we can find out who he is and write his proper name on a cross to mark his grave."

"Yeah!"

Ian arrived home from work and there was dinner and conversation then he said, "OK. Dad, if you're ready, I'll give you a lift down the road now, shall I?”

"No, no thank you, son. It's a fine evening and I've a mind to walk back home."

"Well, in that case, I'll keep you company."

As they walked together along the street that ran by the old hedge from the new estate to the old folk's bungalows the old man kept up a commentary on their progress. "They've let that hedge go. A hedge like that wants proper trimming or it gets out of hand."

"Yes Dad."

"Your grandad always did the hedging, lovely job he made of it too, proper layered. Strong, it was, strong enough to keep beasts in, and better than barbed wire with the hawthorn in it."

"Yes Dad."

"This was Pearce's Pasture, you know, before all these houses, and there were three big elms over there and a gate into the lane."

"They got Dutch elm disease, remember: had to be felled because they were dangerous."

"Shame that. They were like guardsmen, standing there, watching over the lane; Pasture Lane, we called it. I used to walk that way every day on my way to school, you know."

"Yes Dad."

"Got along a bit faster in those days."

"You're doing very well, Dad," said Ian and Percy smiled to himself because he knew he was doing well. He felt quite spry tonight, purposeful, almost young again.

It was dark, well past 11 o'clock, when constable Charlie Pearce stopped his patrol car outside the house and knocked sombrely at the front door.

"I'm sorry, Ian," he said, "but could you come please. There's been a body found in Pasture Lane."