One fine, cold, dry January afternoon, back in about 1950, three boys, two brothers and their neighbour were walking home from school, boots echoing on the hard ground. They were talking about this and that. Not much. The air misted in front of their faces, the low sun making them squint.
The village school was a two-mile walk along a quiet lane bordered by massive chestnut trees, planted by a long-dead Duke. On both sides the woodland was slowly being cleared for farming. There was an old footpath that ran through the woods to home, which had been cut in two by tractors.
It used to be that the boys could go between home and school without touching the ground, the trees were so dense, with branches thick enough to walk along. Not anymore.
They left the lane and followed the old path through a stand of elm and silver birch. Holly trees busied themselves filling in gaps where they could. At the end of the path the three lads stood and surveyed the new field that had ploughed under their path. The earth was thickly turned and the colour of chocolate. Tiny shards of ice glistened in the late afternoon winter sun.
‘We’ll have to go around,’ said Douglas, the youngest of the three.
‘No, we won’t,’ said Roy, his older brother, ‘I’ll show you how to run across a ploughed field. It’s easy. It’ll be like you’re flying.’
‘We’ll have a race then,’ said Charlie, the neighbour’s boy.
Roy looked at Charlie. He was faster than Charlie, always had been, and Douglas could never keep up. This was an easy challenge to accept.
‘You sure?’ said Roy, rubbing his hands together to warm them up.
‘Not sure I can run very fast across a ploughed field, but I bet I can beat you,’ said Charlie.
‘I’m going around the side,’ said Douglas, ‘see you over the other end of the field.’
‘We won’t wait for you,’ said Roy, jamming his hands deep into his trouser pockets.
‘Don’t care,’ said Douglas.
‘Ready, go!’ said Charlie, and he was off, skipping across the ridges of the furrowed field.
Roy was after him like a flash. He’d heard a trick from Albert, the poacher’s son. Running across a ploughed field was easy if you knew how, like running in the dark, stay on your toes and lift your knees as high as you can. That way you are less likely to trip or get a foot caught in a rabbit hole. Knees up, toes down, don’t look at the ground, look at the sky and the gamekeeper will never catch you.
Roy flew past Charlie whose boots were getting bogged down with the half-thawed mud. He kept his eyes on the sky just above the empty crown of trees ahead, his toes slip slapping on the dirt, until suddenly they weren’t, his legs simply spinning in the air. The rutted earth had let him go. He soared, a bird, released from the chains of gravity.
He felt joy, elation, but it was short lived as he realised the earth regretted it’s decision and now wanted him back. He landed face-down, winded. He stayed still for a moment getting his breath back. His cap had come off and he could feel ice crystals melting against his forehead, the taste of dirt on his tongue. A crow cackled overhead, laughing at his misfortune. He pulled at his hands but realized quickly that they were stuck tight in his trouser pockets. He could not get up.
Charlie caught up with him, ‘You alright?’ he said.
‘I’m stuck,’ said Roy.
Charlie laughed, ‘Looks like slow and steady is going to win this one then.’
‘Help me up,’ said Roy.
‘Not that old trick,’ said Charlie, and went slowly on his way.
Roy wriggled and struggled until he was able to turn onto his side, but every movement, every shift in position seemed to add weight as the dark earth clung to his trousers, his jacket, his boots. He lay back and looked up into the cloudless pale blue arc of the sky. Two crows wheeled and dived. He thought of vultures waiting for the adventuring pilot, Biggles to die in the desert.
At last, when he was all the way over on his back, he was able to work his hands free and pull himself up from where he lay in a furrow. Water crept into the seat of his trousers, and he shuddered. Roy cast about for his cap, found it, and crammed it onto his head. At the edge of the field, just ten yards away, were Charlie and Douglas, doubled up with laughter.
They stopped when they saw the look on Roy’s face and took off down the woodland path for home. He tried to chase after them, but the mud on his boots was tenacious, and his wet clothes slowed him down. In the lane Basil the goose was patrolling, waiting for the boys to come home. He trumpeted and flapped and led them to the kitchen door.
‘No further,’ called Roy’s mother when he arrived on the doorstep,’ off with your clothes right there. All of them.’
She was not a woman anyone ever disobeyed.
‘You boys are trouble all through,’ she said, but she loved them dearly, and the story was still making her laugh fifty years later.
That’s what her boys were like, and they fell in and out of trouble from time to time. When Douglas got his first job with a local building firm he was told by his boss that to hire one boy was a good thing. One boy would do a good day’s work and maybe learn something to boot. However, hiring two boys was like employing just half a boy, because of all the chatter and messing about, and three boys? Well, that’d be no boy at all.
I like the end