Silent Witnesses

When I was about six or seven I was witness to a crime. I clearly recall the event, which still plays in my mind like a scene from a film.

One afternoon I was playing on the piece of open ground opposite my house with my friend John, two years older than me, and full of bright ideas. This land was a wonderful playground: it had been the site of old back-to-back houses demolished for slum clearance in the mid 1930’s, and left undeveloped through the war years. Ten or twelve years later, it was a wilderness, nature having done her best to heal the scars on the earth’s surface with grass and weeds, and in fact some of those old houses must have had gardens with flowers and vegetables growing in them, because in among the usual long couch grass and rosebay willow herb there were sweet peas, golden rod, dill, comfrey and Jerusalem artichokes. Elder bushes also grew randomly among the ruins. The cellars of some of the old houses were still discernible though partly filled in, and there were remnants of the old brick walls. The street, a cul-de sac ending in a field, was on a gradient, so some of the houses had been taller than others and when they were demolished their foundations were left at different levels. This lent itself perfectly to the construction of dens and secret hideaways, and we could lie low and spy unseen on the few people who passed by. Most of the time, these were innocent enough: the occasional courting couple stealing a kiss or an underage lad puffing on a cigarette.

Rosebay Willow herb CREDIT Paul Lane compressed

Rosebay Willow herb CREDIT Paul Lane compressed

That afternoon – probably in the summer holidays, because the rosebay willow herb (known to us as Pretty Nanceys) was high and full of pink flowers – we heard the clip-clop of hoofs and the rumble of wheels. We ducked down low, Apaches spying on covered wagons, and tracked the cart to the top of the road which petered out into a dirt track across the field. Strangely, the cart stopped there. We saw a man in the driver’s seat with a woman hanging onto him, and as the horse and cart came to a halt they looked at each other with a gleeful grin, and fell into one another’s arms. We thought this was another boring courting couple, but as we knew the woman who lived in a neighbouring street, we stayed where we were in our hiding place. The man wasn’t her husband, and looked like a gypsy or tinker. She probably wouldn’t be pleased to know that we had seen her with him.

They dismounted and from the cart the man took an old zinc bath, the kind that was used to give us children a bath in front of the fire in winter when the bathroom was too cold. It looked very heavy and the woman helped him carry it a short distance, where they hid it behind one of the broken brick walls under an elder bush. Then, chortling and giggling, they climbed back onto their cart and drove off the way they had come.

Curious, we investigated. What could be in the bath? Were they murderers hiding a body? Kidnappers with a hostage? Was it pirate’s treasure, gold and silver? We peered into the space under the bush, and saw that the bathtub was filled with a flattened roll of dark grey metal, dull, even black in places. Not gold or silver at all, and too heavy for us to lift. Disappointed, we went back to our games and forgot about the incident.

A few days later, the same couple came back with their horse and cart and retrieved their dull load. And then I heard my parents discussing a theft: someone had stolen the lead from the church roof. I put two and two together.

“I know who it was,” I said, “It was Mrs M. from the Lane and a gypsy man.” I told my story, but my parents didn’t take it seriously. In any case, the loot had disappeared. I had only John to back me up, but we were known for our overactive imaginations, and our tale was dismissed. We weren’t interviewed by the police and didn’t have to appear in court to give our evidence. I was deeply frustrated. However, this did teach me that we adults should listen to what children have to say, even if it does sound too fanciful to be true.

Were the thieves ever caught and punished? I don’t know. Perhaps one day, when I have a lot of time on my hands, I’ll look in the archives at the local library and see if the local paper carried a report of the crime and if it was ever solved.

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