Mill Lane began at the edge of the village with an ancient stone bridge over the stream. If you crossed the bridge and stepped to the left you were in an old copse, long neglected. The lane was quiet and little-used, the mill having closed years ago. To the eyes of an adult it was attractive in a rustic way. Three boys were growing up nearby.
Joe dashed out of the house with a paper-wrapped sandwich crammed in his pocket and ran round to Tom’s. Tom was already heading down the front step with his sandwich and an apple in the other pocket. Billy ran to meet them.
“Where shall we go first?”
To the corner shop first, to buy some pop, after that it didn’t matter. It was summer and the days belonged to them. They might begin in the woods, building shelters from fallen branches, and some that looked as though they might fall, given a bit of help. They would hide in the shelter and pretend that they had to keep quiet to avoid some imagined threat: Martians or The Fish People they saw on ‘Stingray’. Then one of them would have to stay in the shelter while the other two crept up on him.
“Bang bang! You’re dead,” decided if it was the hunter or the hunted who fired the lucky finger.
If one of them had managed to sneak out with some matches they might light a fire. There was often dry wood from earlier shelters and enough fallen leaves and other stuff to get it going. Only once did a fire start to spread on parched, woody ground. It was quickly stamped out by three worried boys and it taught them to be careful to keep their fires in check.
Everybody had a pen-knife. All you needed was a bit of string and two long canes and, with a couple of notches to hold the string in place, you had a bow and arrow. “Wowowowow,” one them would say, if they happened to be nominated ‘Injun’ that day; the other two would adopt what they thought were American accents, talk about pesky apaches and fire their imaginary guns at the ‘Indian’ who crept round the corner with his home-made weapon.
They tried catching fish in the stream but without success. It didn’t stop them trying though and often they would be found at the bank with home-made rod and line.
“My Dad says the fish love them red worms you get at the side of the bank, under the grass,” said Billy.
They dug and found some worms and tied them to the line but no fish ever tugged on the line; neither did any worm ever make its way back to the surface. It didn’t bother the boys.
The Big Tree was frustrating at first, the lowest thick branch still being too high to reach. Billy appeared with some rope and they spent a morning figuring out how to get the rope over the branch at the right point. One end weighted with a stone, thrown by Joe standing on Tom’s shoulders finally did the trick. After that they could ‘walk’ up the slippery trunk while holding onto the rope. The three of them would struggle onto the branch and just sit there chatting and enjoying the view from their little kingdom.
As boys do, they decided to see who could pee the furthest. The three stood on the low wall of the bridge, hoisted up one leg of their shorts and waited till the count of ‘Three’! Tom won. He could hit that big stone in the river but he was the oldest so it was OK. Afterwards they sat on the wall and ate their sandwiches. Nobody ever washed his hands.
If only things were still so simple, thought Joe. That was then and this is now. He stood alone on the bridge. Behind him lay his village and the happy, simple times of his childhood. Ahead lay, well, who knows what? A great shudder ran through his body as he thought of the terrors that lay ahead. Well, he had to face them, but he would love to be nine or ten again. He didn’t want to go to the village dance, he didn’t want to ask girls to dance and he most definitely didn’t want to be fourteen.