He had observed them from some distance away and set about stalking the two; testing his skills as a stalker to the maximum as he crept through the undergrowth amongst the trees. He walked not with the over-emphasised tiptoe that people mistakenly think makes for silence, but with the careful practiced stalk of the hunter as he had been taught by the estate manager and poacher alike. His friend Bill Rodgers was an excellent poacher, and one tolerated by the estate as he was careful to only take rabbits (and the very occasional pheasant); he was good at his job and the tolerant respect afforded by both parties to each other meant that life was mostly more pleasant for all. On the occasion of the poachers from the city arriving with the clear intent to denude the shooting of its birds Bill had warned Mr. Elliott – the estate manager – and worked with him to keep a 24 hour watch. The result was that their estate was far less badly hit than some others; something that ironically caused ill-feeling as the other estates felt it reflected badly on their ability to defend their own patches. One indeed was rumoured to have re-introduced illegal man-traps.
Mr. Elliott was estate manager to Sir Archie Macpherson, who took as much interest in the wildlife as in shooting and was more flexible in the approach to the destruction of pest species. Mr Elliott was happy working for such a man since he too enjoyed tramping the higher moors and watching the buzzards circle and drop as much as he enjoyed managing the fishing, hunting and stalking for the estate.
Thomas Brooks had encountered Mr. Elliott when he was caught freeing a rabbit from a snare. The rabbit had struggled and drawn the loop tight around its neck, but not so tight to kill it yet. Tom was loosening it when Mr Elliott’s dog rushed up. Not one to hasten to a decision, Mr. Elliott observed the situation and realised the animal was being freed – was that a precursor to dispatching it he wondered aloud? And was assured vehemently (Thomas was often shy, but could be strident when talking of something he cared about) that he was simply freeing it. Was that good or bad though? He wasn’t poaching, but he was freeing a pest that dug the lawns and ate the flowers. Mr. Elliott smiled and knelt to help. He saw no reason to kill needlessly and painfully; the snare was not one of Bill Rodgers’s, he would have checked it a while ago and put the rabbit out of its misery. After sitting stunned for a period, the rabbit ran off, unaware of its extreme good fortune since it was only a rabbit and not a philosopher.
Thomas had rescued Bill’s dog from a sink hole a year later, when he was 11. These holes were a perennial problem, new ones were fenced off as soon as they were found, but old ones filled in and new ones would appear in the winter rains as water percolated through the peat and finally washed holes out to the caves beneath. Bill’s dog had been unlucky in discovering one just beginning to form and the boy had risked his own life to pull the dog to safety – something the dog still remembered with the affection it showed the youth. These two events had drawn him into the two sides of the perennial battle between estate and poacher; he was lucky that this particular war was fought with less violence and more civilisation than many and so Tom had been able to learn the poacher’s skills and the estate manager’s knowledge. He was equally fortunate to be bright and a quick learner so whereas his colleagues at the Grammar School had sweated long and hard over Latin declensions or learning The Charge of The Light Brigade, Tom could read once, read twice, recite, read again to rectify errors and recite word perfect. He learnt to hide his gifts to avoid the occasional drubbing at school but it did mean he had more time in summer evenings to roam the forest near the town, and to roam more widely at weekends up onto the moors or out onto the lake in his canoe.
He loved to watch the peregrine stoop and hit a pigeon at a mind-numbing speed, or the otters playing on the foreshore of the lake ; it was true they were greedy at taking the trout, sometimes only eating the head (Tom, Bill and even Mr. Elliott were not above ‘rescuing’ the fresh body of a headless trout and having it for tea), but they were beautiful creatures. Tom never enjoyed the days when the otter hounds hunted the estate, but even this was done in moderation. Red deer on the high moor, roe in the woods all added to wonder of the interconnections of nature. He even provided some observations in later life which helped Arthur Tansley with his concept of ecosystems. But as a boy he was simply delighted with the great outdoors.
In the summer break where some children had to help with the harvest he had been able to walk or read all day by virtue of his father being – as his father would miss-state – ‘one of the rude mechanicals’. His father ran the small engineering works that had been one of the results of the industrial revolution. They made ploughs and potato planters and anything else that a farmer might want, or they could create iron railings for the squire, or supervise the construction of the tramways from the old lead and slate works. This would all be swept away as centralisation became the order of the day after the second war, but in the meantime these factories stood between craft blacksmith and mass production and burgeoned all over the country. It meant that Tom was no agricultural worker’s son nor a tradesman’s son expected to work in the shop; his holidays were largely free and at fourteen he had learnt much of the country skills, could recite Virgil, and was called upon to translate French for a visiting pen friend of the Vicar’s daughter when she visited the draper’s shop. In short he was a jack of all trades and often mastered them too.
So now he was stalking these two through the woods that occupied the steeper slopes above the fields at the lake side and below the cliffs and ravines that led to the higher moorlands. He had seen them from Matcham’s Point, the outcrop that afforded views along the lake and up the river valley and down to the fields and roads below. They had been like ants crawling across the green sward and then into the broadleaf forest that held the scree slopes in place. In a moment Tom had opted to try and stalk them as an exercise; how close could he get? He had scampered down the first steep path like a mountain goat, he was sure footed, sure sighted, picking the rocks for his foot to land on and allow his next step with quick care. Once into the trees he knew it would be harder to guess where they had gone, he had to be careful to be unobserved and soundless else they would hide or flee and he would have lost the competition. The open slopes created an impenetrable view from outside, but once in amongst the trees it was possible to see a surprising distance as each tree was some way from its neighbours. At the upper slopes there were only brambles and dry leafs to be aware of, at the bottom the ferns grew thickly, as they did above parts of the tree line before the heather dominated. Tom had wondered about the reason for the gap between lower ferns and higher ones many times and had many theories but no positive explanation.
There! He saw them. The two stood 50 yards in from the lower tree line, confident that here they were not visible. They stood facing each other, observing each other, safe in their tree-lined security they seemed to be establishing their social relation. Now he moved carefully and smoothly. No sudden movements to attract his quarry’s attention. He sometimes hunted for real, Mr. Elliott had once taken him on an early morning stalk to remove a stag hurt in a fight. After shooting it, he had allowed Tom to sight and fire the rifle too and had been impressed by the accuracy of his shot. If the war continued long enough he, Tom, would make a good sniper he thought and contemplated that that would probably mean he had a short life. Tom had since shot rabbits and the occasional duck. He had never shot animals you couldn’t eat, his field note books instead contained copious notes and jottings on the way crows communicated with each other, on foxcub play being a way of learning hunting techniques. He even had the perspicacity to realise that his ‘playing’ at stalking was the same learning process as the foxcub’s.
He was close enough to see their mouths moving, but too far away to hear any sound. Dare he get closer? His aim was to get as close as he could without spooking them and then get away again with them never realising he had been there. He edged closer, 50 yards, 40, 30. Now any movement would send them for cover. He got to within 25 feet and stopped, satisfied and delighted with his success. If he was a hunting caveman now he would be close enough to strike!
Then he froze even more still than before. One girl was leaning against the tree and the other facing her. This second one leant forward and kissed the first. They would be a year or two older than him he estimated; the uniform showed they were from the school. He was confused. It was just kiss on the cheek and yet, and yet there was something more. There was something not quite a sisterly greeting. She stood erect again and took a small step forward and leant in again. Not the lean in of two females greeting each other, the lean from the waist to prevent bodies from touching too much. No pelvic or breast touching. No, in contrast this lean was deliberate to allow bodies to touch. Their small busts compressed visibly as they increased their contact. And this time the kiss was on the lips. Both closed their eyes. Whatever this was it was not a simple conversation and whatever it was he could not risk being seen or heard. He had hunted them for fun, but now, if caught they might complain that he had followed them and he would be in trouble with the school, the minister, his father, who knew who else? But rather than retreat he somehow shrank into himself, willing himself to be smaller and less visible; and continued to watch.
He had kissed a girl at the primary school on that last, life changing day when the girls mostly went home to help their mothers or train to be servants and the boys mostly went to the mine or the farms; and a few boys progressed to the Grammar schools on scholarships (few in this town had the money to pay for the fees). On that last day Melanie had dared him to kiss her, and with the goading of the boys he had done so. He liked the taste and feel of her lips but could not admit that for fear of being laughed at. Now, three years later he was fascinated to see two girls kissing in a most un-sisterly way. The second girl reached forward took tree-girl by the waist and moved forward a little more, her left leg stepping between tree-girl’s legs so their whole torsos now firmly touched.
The next kiss, he could see, was with the mouths open and now tree-girl (as he thought of her) had moved her arms. First they had simply hung at her sides, then they had moved slightly behind her supporting her against the tree as the other girl pushed against her to be closer. Now they moved forward and took the other girl. Not round the waist though! Her hands gripped lower, they were grasping the girl’s bottom and pulling her hard against herself. Tom found himself excited and confused at the same time. He saw the hands tense and squeeze and pull and felt his mouth go dry.
He wanted to watch whatever it was he was watching for ever. Were they practising for kissing boys? Surely the buttock squeezing wasn’t necessary for that? Were they genuinely attracted to each other? He had heard that Mr. Cateron (who owned the estate on the other side of the lake) regularly had male guests to stay and some of his school friends had suggested he was illegal, but he had never heard of girls being attracted to each other. ‘Afterall, how could they ... you know?’ He thought. Perhaps no-one else knew of this possibility? There was a noise to the left and the girls sprang apart and dropped down to hide; looking up they saw straight into his eyes. All three stayed silent and the noise – a teacher with three girls in tow – came closer and closer.
“As you see girls, this is a fungus that grows on the stem of trees...”
Tom looked at the two, now terrified that they would be seen, and stood up and loudly made his way down the slope towards the teacher who looked disconcerted to discover a boy in the woods.
“Good afternoon ma’am. I was watching the squirrels. It is a perfect day is it not?”
He was known at the school and when she recognised him she relaxed and they walked together for a way, subtly he led them away from the two lovers.
When the school had evacuated to the Yorkshire coast because of the Zeppelin attacks on London they had thought themselves safe, but the daring and dramatic attacks of the German ships had already shown this had been a misconception, the ships might return! Sir Archie, grandfather to a pupil, had suggested his summer hunting lodge (big enough to have 15 bedrooms!) might be a safe home for the school and they had decamped again and were now safely ensconced in the delightful surroundings. The girls were all privileged daughters of privileged families and had hardly been aware of the war until older brothers and cousins began to be reported missing. At fourteen, too young to join up (though Dan Mattings – a big beefy friend who had pretended to be sixteen had done so and died two days after arriving on the front line) but willing to help Tom had been asked to help provide wood from the plantations, mostly the offcuts, for heating the school. He was known from his deliveries with the estate donkey cart (the horses had all gone). He was the only boy willingly allowed on the premises, though nothing had ever been said, it was tacitly understood that boys from the town were not welcome on the estate now the house was occupied by the girls’ school.
Tom was the exception, he affected to take not the slightest notice of the girls playing netball jumping for the ball, their PE blouses failing to hide the rise and fall of the girls’ expanding breasts, or hockey with the girls bending and intent on the play showing attractive rumps with short sports skirts rising at the back. He was experienced in noting and noticing without explicitly looking, that’s what a poacher, hunter or stalker does; let the prey think you haven’t noticed it and it may not run; let the girls think you haven’t noticed the flash of knickers as two players crash into one another and they will continue to play and probably show as much the next time.
He had of course seen girls’ knickers before. Tatty – Tatiana, her great grandfather had married a Russian in Paris after Boney was defeated; (all had heard the rumours that she was really a camp-follower; it took a while for the children to put snippets together and work out what a camp-follower was) the woman’s name was popular in the family after that – would show boys her knickers when she was eleven, if you asked her nicely. She was rumoured to show more for a penny now, but perhaps that was only a rumour. But he was older now, and these girls had more shape and attraction; if he wasn’t totally sure why yet, he was on the verge of realising.