Can I tell you about the time I went back to Nathan's Wood? I took Louise to show her where some of my childhood was spent. It hadn't changed much. We had gone for a walk after dinner at her mother's place. Dinner in those days in England meant the main meal at about midday! It was the usual Roast Beef, roast potatoes, sprouts and carrots boiled into submission and the gravy made up with the fat from the roast. Needless to say the beef was accompanied by a Yorkshire pudding. The obligatory Apple pie and custard followed and after a short break Louise's Mum suggested that we two should go for a walk while she did the washing up.
We turned off the main road by the wood cutters track, alongside an old five barred gate, deeply scarred, covered in lichen and moss with a tangle of brambles worrying the posts at the sides. The approach to the wood this way was by a large open field now sprouting tender shoots of wheat. The curve of the ground looking now like a pregnant woman in her early months. Which of course it was. The rooks fossicking in the furrows scattered reluctantly as we climbed up to the wood's perimeter. The late spring's sun wrapped us up in her warm embrace and on reaching the hazel coppice we felt that exhilarating sensation of well being from brisk exercise. The hazel shoots burst out from their cut clumps and forced the late bluebells swaying in the light breeze to say their last farewell before the shadows of summer foliage put them to rest for another year.
The sun excited midges, may flies and red admirals into activity and dragonflies, helicopter like, zoomed across our path. The scent of nettles, burdock and stinkwort triggered my memory and transported me back to my childhood. So it was, together with Jeff and Tom I had discovered Nathan's wood. The first time we had gone there it had been more by direction than desire. Tom's mum had asked him to go there. His grandfather's brother lived in the woods. For years I assumed that he had a job there. A woodman like in Red Riding Hood or perhaps he was a gamekeeper, I didn't know, nor did Tom. He had a delivery to make so we all made that first journey together.
The old man lived deep in the woods in a cabin that sat comfortably in a small clearing. A tiny verandah looked out onto the remnants of an old oak forest that was peppered with the occasional chestnut and sycamore tree. Behind the shack was a dark, brooding, plantation of mature pine trees.
It took us some time to get to the cabin. Boys like streams do not follow straight lines but take to the natural contours. So we followed our inclinations also, and only returned to the forest track when our interest in foxes holes, partridges and squirrels had waned.
A curl of blue smoke wisped out from the bent chimney shaft and a larger cloud of smoke surrounded the old man sitting on a rickety chair by the door. With his shoulders bent over some task he had an enormous pipe firmly grasped in his mouth that was the source of this other smoke.
When he saw us emerge from the oaken trail, we heard him cough, hawk and spit onto the ground in front of him.
"Ahhh!" He uttered, stuffed the pipe back in his mouth and continued his task.
"Mum sent these," said Tom, proffering the untidy bundle of papers, woollens and other oddments. It had been neatly parcelled up, but two miles, three boys and countless adventures had taken their toll.
"Ahhh! Put 'em in there then." The old man gestured with his pipe toward the door and the wafting stench of his pipe tobacco enveloped us. Tom made to enter the building, while Jeff and I stood awkwardly outside the verandah posts. The old man was dressed in a rough brown shirt with no collar and the sleeves rolled up, his trousers were grey but stained with grease and muck and his boots were dull and tied up with string. His dark face was lined and unshaven and his hands were large with knobbly joints and blackened nails. He got up from his seat and mumbled to us to come in as well. So we all trooped into the little hut.
It was dark in there, and smelled of wood smoke and cooking and socks and candles. A little light filtered in through the window, the panes of glass smeared with grime, cobwebs and dead flies. There was little furniture, a wooden table, two chairs, a dresser packed with crockery, tins, packets and bric-a-brac and a single bed in the corner by the cooking range that strangely, was neatly made up with a checkered quilt of kaleidoscopic colours.
"Ahhh! Sit ye down."
We sat on the floor by the black leaded range in a stone alcove. An enormous iron kettle puffed a fine stream of steam into the archway and we could see other pots, pans and ladles slung up over the arched structure. As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, I picked out the curtained corner, where his clothes must have been kept; the rag mats, no doubt lovingly made by a relative, deft with the rughook; and the assortment of boxes and tools and trash that made up this old man's life.
For us boys it was a wonderland. So entranced were we, that we spoke not a word but glanced around us, taking in the spectacle of this strange man's life, breathing in the peculiar smells and hearing the crack of the fire and hiss of the kettle.
The old man spoke again.
"Ahhh!" every sentence started with this growl. "You'd be wanting a biscuit, then?"
We all nodded, not that we were particularly hungry, but we were so in awe, that denial was unthinkable. He went to the dresser, and produced a worn tin and we each took a biscuit. I don't know what sort of biscuits they were but so large and hard were they, that we could only nibble at the edges and then stuff them in our pockets for later consumption.
"Mum says is there anything else you need?" Tom blurted out, suddenly remembering this parental instruction.
"Ahhh, No! You be a telling your mother I'm right for a bit."
With that he winked, at Jeff and me, knocked his pipe against the chimney breast, shifted the kettle, lifted the iron plate on the range, hawked and spat into the glowing fire, with an accuracy that made us all grin with admiration. He sucked on the pipe to no avail, and commenced to load it again from a packet of tobacco labelled Black Beauty. I could see on the packet, there was a picture of a black girl with short frizzy hair, looking serenely out at me. I determined there and then that I was going to smoke a pipe when I grew up.
"Come an have look at this 'ere outside," he said tiring of entertaining us inside the hut. Replacing everything as it was on the hob, he shifted to the door. We got up, and followed him out.
"Got rats," he then said and showed an array of dead rats strung up on a wire a few feet from the verandah. He returned to his chair and we could see that he was maintaining his rat traps for further use.
"Could use a dog," he went on. His sparse words were all we needed to paint a picture of his life in the woods. He told us of, "that damned fox; the hooting owl, those pesky squirrels." On an on went his menagerie of companions and adversaries and how they filled his world.
"Saw n'adder afore you came." He pointed to the far end of the clearing. "Won't do no harm if you leave 'er alone. So don't go chasing 'er." The thought of chasing an adder had never entered my mind but now it sounded like a really good thing to do.
He walked with us a little way, talking about the trees and plants, his pipe billowing clouds of rank smoke around us. Then with such suddenness that I felt a pang of regret, he dismissed us.
"Ahhh! Off you go then." He turned abruptly and left us to find our way out of the woods.
We often went back there, and he tolerated us, giving us the 'dog' biscuits as we called them or a drink of water.
I told Louise about him and we found the clearing in the woods, not quite so far in as I had imagined it. The hut was gone except for a few stones and wooden stumps still in the ground. We found an old enamelled basin and of all extraordinary things a rusty rat trap, virtually hidden in the nettles that had overtaken the site.
"So what was his story?" Louise asked.
We were walking now on the soft pine needles beyond the clearing. The fresh pine smell filling our senses. I was going to shrug my shoulders, when I remembered that Tom's Mum said he was a recluse, and my Dad had called him a poor old sod. So I told her what I could.
"We didn't see him much after we had started High School, we tended to do things in town then. You know, chasing girls and that sort of thing,"
Louise opened her mouth wide with mock indignation.
"When he died," I went on. "There was this talk of his wife dying soon after they got married. Caught the flu in 1918-19. Hundreds of people died then in an epidemic. Well, what with being in the trenches in the war and all that sort of thing he couldn't cope and just disappeared. The loggers found him camped in Nathan's wood and he stayed there ever after."
"Well make sure you do the same if I go first," said Louise with a grin.