THE TREE OF SHAME
by Merlin Fraser
Imagine a picturesque English village set high in the West Country hills circa mid-1950’s. The sort of tranquil and picturesque chocolate-box scene everybody thinks of when they think of England.
The roads into the village are like an upside down Y with a large tree right in the centre of the downward prongs, making the tree a central feature and focal point for the village. Most of the village cottages radiate from that centre point along the three routes.
Close to the tree is the village public house, even more of a central focal point than the tree, if you catch my drift. But don’t forget the tree. It’s important and we will return to it shortly.
Our cottage overlooked the centre of the village, and the tree was between our cottage and the pub. To my left and directly opposite the pub was the house of my best school friend and co-conspirator, Alan. (I was going to change his name to protect the innocent, but what the Hell. He was as guilty as I was, and besides, I owe him one.)
Now to the central character. In those halcyon days, rural crime was almost non-existent, so our village shared a solitary police constable (let’s call him Police Constable (PC) Plod) with four other villages. Plod was a typical English country bobby. He was ex Army, recently returned from the Wars, solid and dependable, friend to all and known by all, and, of course, a very obvious target for my practical jokes.
To cover his vast patch, PC Plod was supplied with the standard black “Sit Up and Beg” ex-Army surplus bicycle, complete with solid rod brakes and battery-operated front and rear lights. You know – the type that wouldn’t attract the attention of German bombers passing overhead.
At this time in British history, public house opening hours were a source of laughable confusion to most people, so it is hardly surprising that in far out-of-the-way places like our village, these laws were, shall we say, stretched a bit.
Enforcing said British licensing laws was strictly part of PC Plod’s duties, and on rare occasions he was known to do just that. To that end, you had to know both the working code and the official procedure, If Plod entered the premises through the front door wearing his hat, he was on duty and had to be taken seriously and addressed in the formal manner, I.e., not called Fred, as was more usual.
If, on the other hand, he entered the pub via the back door with his hat and bicycle clips off, he was off duty and therefore answered to the name of Fred, and was available to drink all the beer on offer. This was a well-understood procedure for all pub customers and community members above the legal drinking age.
PC Plod was friends with, and on first name terms with, my father. They drank together and played darts on the same team. And our cottage had a Grandstand view of the centre of the village and of the comings and goings from the pub. So it was not unusual to find Plod sitting on our stairs, mug of tea in hand, as he surveyed his patch in the warm.
Our front door opened towards the stairs so, on the afternoon in question, as I came home from school, I was well inside the house, door banging behind me, before I realised PC Plod was sitting there.
Now, to find a fully booted-and-suited officer of the law in your house at any time is alarming if you are ten years of age, doubly so if you are me. The trick is not to show panic while your mind races in twenty different directions at once as you a) try to remember all the things you might have done that could possibly have brought him here in the first place, while b) attempting to come up with a string of reasonable excuses why he’d got the wrong guy, because one small child couldn’t possibly have done all that, and probably a big kid did it all and then ran away.
I suppose it was the silence that brought my mind back to reality. My full, formal, given name had not as yet been shouted out as if I were deaf (which was normal for those occasions when I’d been caught at something) and my mother was working placidly in the kitchen, quietly getting on with dinner preparations as if nothing had happened.
So whatever had brought PC Plod to our house that afternoon, it wasn’t me.
Now, most normal children would simply have breathed a hefty sigh of relief and headed for the kitchen and food. But this man’s presence, hiding – lurking, I thought – as he was behind the front door during my arrival home from school, annoyed me. He had scared me out of at least two inches of normal growth, which I never got back, by the way. So some form of revenge was clearly necessary.
Later the same day Plod returned to the village after his rounds, Alan spotted him a good two seconds before I did. Well, Alan was well on his way to the six foot three inches he would ultimately reach, while I remained much closer to the ground.
Of course by this time I had told Alan all about my recent scare and we had been discussing what I/we should do about it. We watched as Plod headed towards the pub, pushing his bicycle, He lent it against the wall, took his helmet off, and headed for the back entrance of the pub.
With a fair amount of giggling we began to hatch our dastardly plot. As the gloom of evening took hold of the day we removed Plod’s bike and, with a bit of rope and a lot of grunting, we hoisted it up the tree in the centre of the village and went home.
As I described earlier both Alan and I had a clear view of the centre of the village from our respective homes so I was still hanging out the bedroom window awaiting pub kicking-out time of 10 :30. At what point I gave up my surveillance and went to bed is long since forgotten. Suffice it to say, the following day I arose refreshed and disappeared to school without a backward glance.
The only thing out of the norm that day was that “Hissing Sid,” the headmaster (he had badly fitting false teeth that made him hiss whenever there was an S in the word) (thus making it critically important to be seated in at least the third or fourth row back from the front of the class).
That day Sid was called out of class mid-morning and when he came back he declared an extra assembly before everybody went home. This announcement meant no undue cause for alarm. This sort of thing had happened on other occasions and usually meant an appearance by the ‘Nit Nurse’ or other such grownup-devised activity designed to cause embarrassment to children.
It wasn’t till we were ready to go home that all classes were duly assembled and ‘Hissing Sid’ returned, accompanied by PC Plod. Together they announced the theft of the policeman’s bicycle. This was a very serious crime, they told us, and anyone who had any information was to come forward immediately.
Yeah. Like that was going to happen.
Like two old pros, Alan and I didn’t flinch. We didn’t even look at one another. In fact, we even joined in the growing clamour of chat until Sid brought the meeting to order and we were all dismissed.
I high-tailed it home, making sure not to raise any suspicion as I rode my bike casually under the tree. I hardly dared to breathe as I looked up and ascertained that the bike was still there.
“See ,” I reasoned with myself. “Nothing was actually stolen.” The bicycle was still where we’d left it.
Of course, unbeknown to Alan and me, and because of the loose interpretation of the rules regulating such things, it had been well past midnight and very dark, before the pub had actually emptied and the bike had been discovered missing. A local farmer had volunteered to take Plod home and had lent him another bicycle to use until his was found.
Unfortunately for all concerned this borrowed bicycle merely added to Plod’s misery. And to the list of things Plod was going to do to the culprit when the culprit was eventually apprehended. I never fully understood the problem, but apparently it had something to do with a wobbly, misshapen saddle – and piles. Piles of what was never explained to me.
The case of the purloined bicycle was far more serious than two ten-year-olds could comprehend. It was official Police Property. Our pal Plod had Signed For It and was Responsible for its safety and well-being. If it had indeed been stolen, then Plod had lost his Official Mode of Transport and would have to Formally Inform his Superior (i.e. the desk sergeant) in the nearby town.
That would mean the incident must be logged into the county’s Monthly Crime Figures as an Unsolved Crime. This in turn would look bad on the Chief Constable’s Annual Report to the Home Office department of the Government and, in due course, all hell would come down from On High upon any humble PC who had been so careless to allow his bicycle to be nicked in the first place.
Or put another way, Plod was in deep doodoo and he was looking for someone to share it with.
Of course all the usual suspects were rounded up for questioning and Alan and I were at the head of the queue. Naturally, we stoutly denied all knowledge based on the unspoken conviction that we hadn’t, in fact, stolen anything. We had done a bit of relocating, perhaps . . .
Now whether by clever police deduction and detective work, or by sheer process of elimination, the attention of the investigation stayed focused on the kids of the village. There were veiled threats of mass groundings, an increased police presence, and compulsory inspections of all bicycles for road worthiness, but even all this was to no avail. Neither Alan nor I cracked, and because we hadn’t done any bragging about our supreme cleverness, there was nobody who could squeal on us.
Still, it had to be said that all the kids for miles around began to have their own suspicions. If any of them were to come under suspicion and be grounded or otherwise punished, they would know what to do about it, and to whom. The true villains (meaning Alan and I) would be shown no mercy from any quarter. This was getting seriously out of hand.
The mystery of the disappearing bicycle entered a fourth day, the weekend approached, and the powers that be, having gotten nowhere in their investigation, devised a new strategy. An area-wide Amnesty was called. No action whatsoever would be taken against any party for any information that led to the recovery of the missing property, i.e. one official policeman’s bicycle with a PC Plod-sized saddle.
At that point, I cracked and told my father everything. Well almost everything. I said I had no idea who had done it of course – I’m dumb, but not that dumb. But I knew where the missing bicycle was because I had spotted it there. I led him to the tree and showed him the missing and much-sought-after article still swinging quietly in the breeze.
Needless to say, the whole village knew about it long before Plod arrived to reclaim it. But now there was the more serious issue of how to explain the affair so as to both protect the guilty from prosecution and to prevent the local Bobby from becoming the laughing stock of his fellow law enforcement officers.
Over another late night in the pub, and while consuming a considerable quantity of beer, the grownups concocted a cover-up story: Some drunken ne’er-do-well had purloined the constable’s bicycle to get himself home but, being too drunk to ride it, got fed up pushing it and tossed it into a ditch where in due course it was found by the neighbourhood children.
The end result was that the villains became the heroes, so to speak. In fact, I may well have got off completely unscathed if only I’d kept my mouth firmly shut. But alas, full of heroic pride, I had to ask if there was a police reward for the recovery of the bicycle.