The Children in the Copse

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We play in our copse. No one sees us. We are a secret society. We have secrets.

There’re trees to climb, squirrels and woodpeckers to befriend … and hundreds of rooks. A black roaring cloud of them at times. Dawn and dusk can be deafening when they sally forth en-masse, frightening the world.

We can be alone here; even the hunt splits either side when it comes this way – hounds, horses, drunken dukes, lords and their retinues all avoiding the tangled brambles under the trees. They splash and slither through the flood field instead.

The flood field is our defence against the world. It’s all rushes and bog. Sheep nibble only at the very edges and afterwards have to be treated for liver fluke or they die.

It’s a huge field stretching almost as far as we can see in every direction. I know it costs the duke dear because it can’t be used. It goes up to the road so high, all the way down to the river and the bridge which looks tiny from here. Rabbits, foxes, hare and deer are hard to see among the waving rushes; the soft ground silences their tread. There’s no chance of crops or grazing here to fill the duke’s purse.

Not that we care. We have this idea he’s cruel to children and hates them but not nearly as much as we hate him. Stories, whispers, terrible tales and rumours. We pretend he’s a friend of the Dashwoods and a member of the Hellfire Club.

But that’s all silly and horrible. Let me tell you about good things. We watch the dawn and sunsets while we’re up among the highest of high branches, hanging on to waving twigs tight with our fingers and toes. The rooks don’t mind us. But they do look at us, unlike the rare people who choose to pass through the copse. We hide. Even the gamekeeper doesn’t see us. We are clever when we play.

There are other people today. They wear jackets of yellow, and pat some of our trees or mark them with running paint. We watch, cautious, hidden, untrusting, hostile – but always secret.

Up the slope, on the avenue leading to the castle, lorries come and unload yellow machines. So much yellow! It’s like spring with dandelions and buttercups and daffodils. But these are noisy machines that growl and spew smells.

Oh, I was telling you about the nice things. There’s Felicity, she’s the one who’s eight and wears three bangles that are really gold-plated! Bryan is five. His special treasure is the watch his grandfather gave him. It plays tunes and is so big it nearly fills a whole pocket. He’s the only boy and we are all going to marry him, when we don’t hate him – we change our minds a lot.

At twelve years old I’m the most grown up. Thinking about it, I’ve been twelve for ages and ages – as long as I can recall. I’m the leader, of course. My treasure is a satin dress. Blue, down to my feet. So shiny! and I can roll it up to climb to the tops of the trees as high as the sky. There are five more girls; Constance, Theodora, Charlotte, Prudence and Amelia.

The machines approach our copse. Other mechanical monsters are laying logs down to stop them sinking in the squashy mess of the flood field.

They are digging big holes! Men and women chopping down trees to be hauled away. This is our copse!

All day long yellow pipes big enough to clamber through are being dragged down like caterpillars and laid in trenches. Is this to drain the field? Our beautiful field…

The duke marches down from the stable entrance. He’s looking angry, all stiff limbs, waving arms, and red face.

Why’s he like that? We’d expect him to love the destruction of our special place.

He’s shouting at the factor and the man holding rolls of paper and pointing to them.

Theodora leaps from a falling tree to a safer one. She’s crying, cursing the people killing our copse.

But there’s more shouting, right beneath the branches we’re all hiding among. Someone’s stopping the machines digging. A woman in a yellow coat holds up a long glove. Some bones and three gold-plated bangles fall from it onto a bit of what looks like a blue dress deep in the mud. Constance is also screaming at the tree-destroyers. What’s amazing is that, though the people don’t look up to see where the voices come from, they seem to be unsettled, worried: all wide eyes, frowns and pale faces.

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That was at the end of summer. Now the first frosts have come. The destroyers stopped laying pipes and chopping trees but other people came and dug up more bits of buried bodies. After a few days the duke was taken away in a police car. Good riddance … for a while … but he just came back, as politely superior as ever. Something is wrong. He shouldn’t ever have been able to come back – we know what he does now.

Something changed when they dug us up. Our memories came back – dark caves and screams and pain and horror. Good things happened as well though. We don’t just stay in the copse now. We can roam so much further. Bryan likes to play on the castle battlements and spires where he’s among the squawking crows, kestrels and eagles.

But today we’re huddled round him. He’s sad and missing his family. We’re held together and don’t go our separate ways. There’s something binding us, a need, a fury, a plan.

Theodora, sitting on a crumbling crenelation, puts some of it into words and everyone argues until we decide what to do.

We’re going to go into the castle to bang doors, knock things over, mess with the lights, and – this is the best bit – get into the duke’s dreams. Felicity has found a way to do it. We want the duke to know we’re waiting for him. First we’ll drive him mad, then he dies, then he’s ours. Playing is going to be very different.

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©Gary Bonn, 2017

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