“A word before you all dash off to sample the culinary delights Cook has prepared for your lunch today.”
Miss Rutherford has ended her lesson a couple of minutes early. The expectant buzz from our class anticipating being first in the lunch queue is replaced by other sounds when she makes her announcement. She smiles as she waits for the obligatory groans and barf noises to die down before continuing.
“It may surprise you to learn that my colleagues and I enjoy teaching at this school. A big contribution to our job satisfaction is that the pupils, and this class is no exception — quite the opposite — are engaged with learning. Of course, sometimes there are one or two whose attitude and aptitude are misaligned…”
Miss Rutherford’s tone tells us we are not being told off (my boyfriend, Tony, would say reprimanded), but as she pauses to look around the room her gaze is the trigger for a few giggles and a few red faces.
“… but we never feel we are casting pearls before swine, in the way some of my colleagues experienced in the places they taught before coming here.
“Alas, however, I fear the philistines have moved amongst us in regards to one of the pearls we have so lovingly prepared for you. It appears to have largely been ignored.”
Miss Rutherford pauses again to let a muffled titter finish passing through the room.
“I am referring to the school outing organised for your year that is in ten days’ time. I would like to think that the notice was posted so long ago that you have forgotten you need to sign up, with your parents’ consent of course, should you decide you want to go. Before you decide, perhaps I should point out that, as the trip takes place on a school day, those not going will be expected to attend school.”
The teacher picks up some papers from her desk and moves to stand by the classroom door.
“I have consent forms here for anyone that wants one. They have details of the trip so that you, and your parents, can see what is involved. Please return your completed forms to the organiser, Mrs O’Reilly, by Friday.”
Miss Rutherford gives us all a form as we file out of the room on our way to the canteen for lunch.
“If the Wicked Witch is supposed to be organising it, how come Miss Rutherford is handing out leaflets for the school trip?” Donny asks as he sits at the lunch table we have grabbed for our group.
My mouth is too full of sausage — Cook has done toad-in-the-hole today — to reply immediately. Mel is first to respond.
“Because Miss Rutherford is the most popular teacher and everyone listens to her,” she says in her best schoolmarm voice. She looks directly at Donny. “However some people don’t always take Mrs O’Reilly seriously. For example: does she know you call her the Wicked Witch?”
“Of course she does!” Tony replies on Donny’s behalf.
Donny is red-faced for the second time in five minutes.
“There can’t be enough people signed up to get the group discounts,” says Raj, who has been reading the leaflet as we attack our meals. “Or cover the costs more generally.”
Trust Raj to see the business angle. But then his extended family all have small businesses of some sort.
I pull out my copy of the leaflet to read and digest while I eat and digest Cook’s ‘culinary delight’.
The trip is to the village of Eyam in the morning and the nearby stately home, Chatsworth, in the afternoon. As well as expected start and return times, the leaflet gives brief details of what will be seen at each place and the relevance to our school courses. Mainly social studies, history and art. I’m not interested in going except as a day out of school. I’ve been to Chatsworth a couple of times with the ’rents and we often visit Eyam. Both places are about equal distance from home and Sheffield, where my grandparents live, so they are convenient places to meet up for the day. There is a cost involved for the school trip, so I am not sure the ’rents will consent, either, since I’ve been to both places before.
“We’ve heard of Chatsworth,” says Naveem, Raj’s brother, “but what is so special about this ‘Eye-am’ place?”
“Eem?” I query, wanting to correct Nav without showing him up. “It’s known as the plague village. There was an outbreak there in the sixteen-sixties. There were no other outbreaks in the region at the time so the villagers agreed to isolate the village to prevent it spreading. It would have been devastating had it got to other villages and especially to nearby towns like Chesterfield and Sheffield.”
“The outbreak was contained in the village,” adds Tony, “so the isolation worked, but I’m not sure how voluntary it was. I suspect the local landowners and neighbouring villages would have turned back anyone trying to break quarantine. On pain of death.”
“You two obviously know about it. Have you been before and is it worth going?” Raj asks.
“I’ve been several times. Chatsworth too.” I explain about meeting the grands there. “Eyam is interesting because there are plaques outside each of the houses showing who died in each household. It brings it home to you how many died and how virulent is the disease. So, yes, worth going. I’m not sure I will, though, since I’ve been to both places so many times before.”
“Yeah. Worth going,” Paul confirms. “But like you, I’m not keen on going. Dad often wants to go to one or the other when he is home on leave or between contracts. I get dragged along.”
Donny jumps in. “I’ve been to both before. But it’s still worth going because it’s a day off school!”
I’m not sure that is quite the correct attitude. Mel puts Donny right.
“It’s worth going,” she says, “because there will be homework set on the visit to Eyam, whether you go or not. My sister told me. She went on the same trip when she was in year ten.”
Ah! What’s the expression the Americans use: ‘slam dunk’?
I think we will all be going.
On Friday morning Paul meets us before school. He is asking if we have our consent forms for the school trip when Donny bounces up to us.
“I’ve had an idea,” he enthuses.
“That’ll be a first,” we three chorus, then laugh that we have all had the same thought.
“Piss off, you miserable bastards!”
Paul takes pity on Donny.
“What’s this idea then?” he prompts.
“Well, we’ve all been to Eyam and Chatsworth before. Mel said we have to go to Eyam so we know what the homework will be about but she didn’t say anything about Chatsworth House. We’ve all been round the house so we know how long the tour takes.
“I’ve been thinking…”
That gets three raised eyebrows, but we make no comment.
“As you’ll know, it’s a good area for walking. I reckon it will take about as long for us to walk from Eyam to Chatsworth via Froggatt Edge as it will for the others to do the tour. It will take them longer than the usual visit, having to herd the kids around the house and grounds and on and off the coach. We can ask if we can do the walk instead of the house visit.”
“Where’s Froggatt Edge?” Paul asks.
“It’s the gritstone outcrop that overlooks the river before it gets to Chatsworth. I’ve brought a map so I can show you but we haven’t time now.” Donny goes on to explain that he has walked along the Edge before with his sisters so knows most of the route.
“That sounds a great idea, but we’ll need permission,” says Tony, “You had better show us on the map at lunchtime so we all know what’s planned before we ask Mrs O’Reilly.”
“You’re not just a pretty face,” says Paul as he fist-bumps Donny on the shoulder.
Donny grins but the bell for lessons goes before he can reply.
At lunchtime we scarf down Cook’s offering of the day in double-quick time. It seems disrespectful of Cook’s efforts, but needs must if we are to catch Mrs O’Reilly before our classes restart for the afternoon.
Donny always has loads of ketchup with his meal. I gather up our empty plates and take them to the counter. I don’t want to risk Donny ruining his map by accidentally trailing it into the excess red goo he leaves on his plate. I needn’t have bothered. He brings out a colour copy of the relevant part of the map that has been laminated with a protective cover and lays it on the table.
“Who’s a good little boy scout then? Preparing a special map for the walk!” I say.
“Not me, I’m not in the Scouts,” Donny admits with a grin. “Dad did it for me because he didn’t want me to bring the big map. He said I would only lose it, tear it or drop it in my dinner.”
Donny shows us his proposed route on the map.
“Dad thinks it would be doable in the time we think we’ll have available as long as we don’t dawdle.” Donny looks at Tony and Paul. “You two are in the Scouts. You should be able to read a map. What do you think?”
“What scale is this?” Tony asks.
“It’s from the one to twenty-five thousand, so two and a half inches to the mile.”
First Tony and then Paul use their thumbs to roughly measure along the walk on the map. Then they calculate an estimate for the distance and the time it will take.
“Should have plenty of time,” Paul announces.
“Nearly an hour to spare,” Tony adds.
That doesn’t tally with what Donny says his dad thought. I pull the map towards me to study it.
“So are we ready to go and see the Wicked Witch?” asks Donny.
“Hold on. Not yet,” I reply.
Dad has shown me how Ordnance Survey maps are divided into one kilometre squares. I can see the faint blue lines that mark the squares on Donny’s copy. They don’t look as though they are four centimetres apart. The copy probably isn’t to the same scale as the original. I get a pencil out of my pocket and use my thumbnail to grip the pencil at a length matching the side of one of the kilometre squares.
“What are you doing?” Paul asks.
I tell him about the squares. Tony face-palms to acknowledge that he had forgotten about them. He watches me as I use the pencil to measure the route and get my own estimate of the distance. While I am thinking about how long the walk will take, I am also looking at the contours and spot heights on the map.
“I agree with Donny’s dad,” I say when I have finished my calculations. “Apart from the walk itself, which is further than you thought, we need to add about half an hour for the climb up onto the Edge.”
There is an embarrassed ‘ah!’ from the two boy scouts.
Tony adds the extra time for the climb to the number he first thought of after watching me work my pencil across the map.
“So we should get to the coach at the same time as we think the rest the class will finish their tour,” he says. “Maybe ten minutes to spare at most.”
“Do you think that will be enough for them to agree?” I ask.
“Only one way to find out,” Paul replies. “Let’s go and see Mrs O’Reilly.”
We gather up our stuff and troop off to see if she is in her classroom. Merkin, the school cat, glares at us from her usual place on top of the cupboard as we enter. Mrs O’Reilly is there and looks up at us.
“Good afternoon, boys. How can I help you?” she asks and then, looking directly at Donny, adds “Do I need my pointy hat?”
Needless to say, that gets a blush from Donny and an amused grin from Merkin. Paul blushes too, since he is our appointed spokesman. He got the job because the other three of us have form where Mrs O is concerned.
“Er. It’s about the school trip, Miss,” says Paul.
“What about it?”
“We’ve all been to Chatsworth before. We were wondering if we could possibly leave the group at Eyam and walk up onto Froggatt Edge while they’re visiting the house. We would to meet up again at Chatsworth. It’s an opportunity for us to get some exercise somewhere different.”
“And it gets you out of school for the day.” Mrs O’Reilly is smiling. “But I suppose you have heard from previous years that there will be some homework on Eyam and the plague. You don’t need to do the trip to be able to do the homework. You can do the research in school.
“The Chatsworth visit is more about drawing your attention to the culture and history that is on offer nearby. It intrigues me that people overlook what’s pretty much on their doorstep until someone points it out to them.”
She pauses just long enough for us to think she won’t agree to our suggestion before continuing.
“How far is this walk and how long do you think it will take you?”
Paul puts Donny’s map on the teacher’s desk and starts to point out the proposed route. As he does, Merkin jumps down from her perch onto the desk to watch his presentation. Paul tells Mrs O’Reilly the distance we think it is and how long we have calculated the walk will take. She looks at the cat.
“A bit too far for you to go with them and keep an eye on them, eh Merkin?”
Somehow I get the feeling we would have had the cat’s company if the walk had been shorter.
“Can any of you read and follow a map?”
I hold my hand up and Paul explains that he and Tony have been taught at Scouts.
“What about you, Donny?” the teacher asks. “Will you know where you are going?”
“Yes, Miss. I’ve been on the Edge before. My sisters took me last year. They wanted to look at the prehistoric stone circle that’s up there.”
“Ah, yes. Stoke Flat it’s called. I remember now your sisters mentioning they had been there. Said they were disappointed there wasn’t a sacrificial altar in the middle. They’d hoped to leave an offering.”
There is something sinister in the amused looks that Donny is getting from both the teacher and the cat. He goes pale. ‘Blanched’ is the word Tony would use.
“It’s not the most exciting stone circle, but you should still show it to the others,” Mrs O’Reilly says to Donny.
Mrs O’Reilly gets a note pad out of a drawer and puts it on her desk.
“Right. I’ll have to check that what you are suggesting is feasible without altering our schedule too much. There are some other things I will need to check as well. However, before I agree, I want you to do something simple for me. I need confirmation that you have been to Chatsworth and can remember about it.” As she talks, the teacher tears four sheets off the pad and hands us one each. “I want each of you to write down four things that you remember and why they impressed you during your visits to Chatsworth. No conferring.”
Merkin sits up on the desk and watches us as if she is making sure we don’t cheat.
One of the things I list is a sculpture called ‘The Veiled Vestal’. It’s a bust of a woman’s head that appears to be seen through a fine cloth veil. It must have taken great skill to carve as it is very convincing.
We must pass the test as Mrs O’Reilly dismisses us, asking us to come back after lessons when she hopes to have a firm decision for us. She borrows Donny’s map and heads for the staff room.
When we compare notes on our way to afternoon lessons, Tony says he put down a different sculpture that he liked: ‘the Sleeping Endymion’. I mention I liked it as well.
“Well, you two would,” remarks Paul, “since it’s of a very pretty boy!”
“And you didn’t notice?” Tony queries.
“Talking of sculpture,” Donny says, “I wanted to see Damien Hirst’s Saint Bartholomew that I’d heard was there. It’s super gruesome: a man holding up his own skin. But my information was well out of date. It was only on loan and had been given back to the lender before we ever got to visit.”
When we go back to Mrs O’Reilly’s classroom after lessons, she isn’t there. Merkin isn’t in her usual place either. Standing just inside the room, we try to decide if we should sit down and wait or should leave and catch her on Monday if the teacher has forgotten about us. My decision is made for me when I feel something rubbing against my legs. It’s Merkin. First one leg, then the other. I think she is trying to be friendly but with her reputation, I stand still, not wishing to give her any cause to strike out. For once I am thankful we have to wear uniform long trousers. They will give some small measure of protection if she does turn vicious. She works her way around all four of us, keeping us in place.
Mrs O’Reilly arrives after about five minutes. She is carrying some papers and a piece of orange plastic.
“Sorry to keep you boys waiting,” she says, “but I had to collect something from the office, after seeing Mervyn Sproat in the gym.” She motions that we should join her at her desk. “At least you had Merkin to keep you entertained.”
Entertained in the same way as a horror movie, perhaps.
“Mr Sproat agrees that you should be able to do the walk in the time available,” Mrs O’Reilly says as she hands the map back to Donny. “I’ve also spoken to Mr Butterman, the teacher who is in charge of the Eyam part of the visit. He has agreed to alter his walk around the village so that it ends at the Riley Graves which is on your route. It will get you an extra twenty minutes or so, as the rest of the group will have to walk from there back to the coach. You, however, will have to carry your backpacks, with your lunch and everything else you need for the walk, as you tour the village.
“Mr Sproat asked me to remind you that the weather can change quickly in the Peak District. You should take waterproofs and a fleece even if the forecast is good. He also said one of you should wrap this around your backpack.” She gives the orange plastic sheet to Paul. “So there is more chance of finding you if you get lost or injured. And more chance of you being seen by traffic when you are walking on roads.”
Mrs O’Reilly then hands us all a sheet of paper.
“These are new parental consent forms amended to reflect that you are not part of the school party while you are on your walk. Please let me have them back first thing on Monday.
“Finally, although you will still have to pay for the coach trip,” she says, and then pointedly looks at me, “you’ll be pleased to hear that you won’t have to pay the entry fee for Chatsworth.”
Has she picked up on my reputation for being tight? Probably. Oh well, the parents will be pleased. They took a bit of persuading to sign off on the full trip. They only agreed when I mentioned homework would be based on it.
On the day of the outing the weather forecast is sunshine with occasional showers. Winds: light to moderate. Not bad, at least it’s not going to be raining all day. We might even be lucky and the showers miss us altogether.
Tony is waiting by the coach when I get to school. Donny is usually at school before anyone else but not today. I ask Tony if he has seen him.
“He’s had to nip back home to get the map. It’s a good job I thought to ask him.” Tony replies.
The coach driver opens the door to let us on when Mrs O’Reilly and Mr Butterman arrive. Mrs O’Reilly checks us off on her register as the kids climb aboard. Tony, Paul and I hang back waiting for Donny. He dashes up just as the teachers are urging us to get on the coach.
“Not like you to be last, Donny. Did you forget your lunch or something?” Mrs O’Reilly asks.
“Something like that.”
With everyone on the coach, Mr Butterman does a last headcount. Satisfied, he tells the driver to set off.
We pass through some showers on the way, but thankfully they have stopped by the time we get to Eyam.
Mr Butterman calls for attention when the coach has stopped.
“This is the plague village of Eyam. The plague was brought here in sixteen sixty-five by a flea-infested bolt of cloth that had been sent from London where plague was raging at the time.
“We will be walking around the village looking at how the plague spread through the population and looking at some other features of the village.
“Just to remind you this is a school day. School days have homework, so I will be announcing your homework when we get back on the coach this evening.”
Most of us already knew that homework would be set. We still give a collective groan and the usual mumblings of discontent.
“Why do we have to do homework?” complains Donny. Tony provides the answer.
“So you concentrate on what is being said during the visit, instead of goofing off!”
“Me? Goof off?”
“Yes, you.” The three of us reply.
Mr Butterman leads our group around the village explaining that plague was known to be highly infectious and unpleasant with high mortality rate. He tells us how Reverends William Mompesson and Thomas Stanley persuaded the village to isolate itself from the outside world along with other measures to help control the spread of the disease.
Burials in the churchyard were stopped: households had to bury their own dead close to home. Religious services were held in the open air where households had to stand apart. Social distancing was recognised as a sensible and prudent measure.
Mr Butterman stops at various places and explains their significance in the progress of the outbreak.
Mrs O’Reilly does her share of teaching. Mainly things to do with the history of village in general and not plague related. For example, she points out various architectural features on some of the buildings. She also shows us the stocks that were used to punish offenders. Donny declines when she asks if he wants to demonstrate their use.
The last stop on the tour is the Riley Graves. They are a little way out of the village to the East. Mr Butterman explains that seven members of the family of eight all died within eight days. The remaining member of the family, the mother, had to bury them. When he has finished his explanation, he tells the group they have a few minutes to explore the site. He beckons the four of us towards him.
“Right boys. The path seems to be that way,” he says, pointing towards a stile to the southeast of where we are standing. “Have you got your map and your mobiles?”
We make noises of confirmation.
“Good. You’ve given me your route. I want you to text me when you get to the Stoke Flat circle — that’s about half way. I also want you to text me again when you walk through the ornamental gateway to the Chatsworth Estate in Baslow. From there to the house is about a twenty-five minute walk. Slightly less to the coach park.
“If any of you have an accident or you get held up for any reason, ring me immediately and keep me informed. Got that?”
The teacher makes sure we all have his mobile number, then reminds us what time the visit to the house is expected to end and when the coach is to leave for the journey back to school.
“Enjoy your walk. But don’t be late!” he says, dismissing us. We head towards the stile as he and Mrs O’Reilly start to round up the rest of the group for the walk back into the village.
Donny is supposed to be leading but he hasn’t done this first part of the walk before. Not long after we leave the others, we follow the wrong path through a little wood. Fortunately it only loses us about five minutes but we do have to walk about quarter of a mile along a road we had expected only to cross. We are glad to have Brussels’ bright orange piece of plastic to help us be seen as the road is busier than we thought it would be.
The weather lives up to its billing as a rain shower starts just as we re-join our planned route. We all get our waterproofs out of our backpacks and put them on. I take the opportunity to study Donny’s map. I think it wise to monitor where he is taking us.
“Keep it,” Tony says quietly to me as I am about to hand the map back to Donny. “Donny isn’t referring to it. I don’t think he’s being serious enough about leading.”
The rain shower only lasts about fifteen minutes, by which time we have walked down the hillside, crossed the river and started northwards along the path above the east bank. We all groan when Tony suggests that the others would have just had enough time to get back and on the coach before the rain started and it would have finished before they had to get out at Chatsworth.
The path leads us into another wood and the first serious uphill section. Although it is getting towards lunchtime, we agree that it would be nicer to wait until we have completed all the climbing and are up on the Edge. Donny says there is a good place just beyond the stone circle. The view should be worth the wait as long as the weather doesn’t close in again.
Although we are walking through woodland, it is hard work as we tackle the climb, so we are all getting warm. At the top, we finally come out of the wood and onto a track. The sun is high in the sky and we can feel its warmth. We are not on the Edge yet, but we stop for a drink from our water bottles. We also take off excess clothing (only excess $mdash; not everything!).
I remove my waterproof leggings. I don’t take off my anorak as there is a breeze blowing. It’s noticeably stronger than in the valley below.
Tony and Donny do take off their anoraks. I ask Tony why he hasn’t taken off his maroon leggings as well.
“Too much of a faff, getting them over my boots,” he replies.
Paul goes the whole hog and removes his anorak and leggings. And his fleece. He keeps his knitted tea-cosy hat though.
We stuff everything into our backpacks. As we straighten up, we see Donny is wearing sunglasses. But these are not ordinary shades. These have pink frames!
“Those’re a bit over the top even for you, Donny. Where did you get ’em?” Paul asks.
“I couldn’t find mine, so I nicked a pair of my sister’s.”
“Don’t forget to give them back if you want to live!” I’m not entirely sure I am joking.
We set off along the track. When we get to another road, we cross over and find the small gate at the end of the path that leads onto the Edge proper. We have just passed through the gate when a guy comes towards us. He is carrying a synthetic rope over his shoulder and has various bits of rock climbing ironmongery hanging from his belt.
The path is easy to follow and is mostly wide enough for two to walk side by side. In places the path runs close to the edge of the outcrop and we see why it attracts serious climbers with serious kit. Some of it has a near vertical wall and quite a drop. There are some gaps where it might be possible to scramble up or down and the map shows one or two paths coming up from the wooded slopes lower down.
Whether it is because the path is easy or he is just being his normal Tiggerish self, Donny is messing about. He keeps bumping into one or other of us to knock us off balance as we walk. Sometimes, when the path is close to the clifftop, it seems he is making to push his target off the edge. Not exactly sensible. I drop to the back to try and avoid his foolery. When the path is wide enough, Tony joins me.
“Donny is being a pillock today,” he says.
“You can say that again! Pratting about bumping into us or trying to push us off the edge.”
“Have you noticed it’s mainly Paul he is doing it to?”
“I hadn’t thought about it, but now you mention it, yes.”
“Paul is getting pissed off with it. He says Donny has been nudging or bumping him pretty much all day if he has been close enough.”
We stop talking because we have caught up with Donny and Paul.
“The stone circle is just over here on the left,” Donny says before leading off in that direction.
I suppose it is something that he remembered he wanted to show us and where it was.
Like Mrs O’Reilly said, it isn’t very exciting. It certainly isn’t Stonehenge. Just a circle of stones, none more than about a metre and a half high. Paul is next to me as we are looking around.
“I know why Donny’s sisters thought there should be a sacrificial altar,” he says to me in a voice meant to be overheard.
“He is being a prat. Especially to you.” My comment is just for Paul.
“I’ll have an opportunity to get him back,” he replies.
With not much to see, we are not there long. Not that we have time to stay there and anyway I want my lunch. Preferably before the weather closes in again. It looks a bit black to the south of us.
“Come on, Donny,” I shout to get us moving. “I’m hungry. Where’s this picnic spot you were telling us about?”
“About five minutes from here,” comes the reply.
We walk south along the edge until we come to a flat area of bare rock overlooking the valley. We have seen some similar areas before, but this is bigger. There will be room for us all to relax as we eat our lunches. As Donny leads us onto the rock, I remember we are supposed to have reported when we had arrived at the stone circle.
“Did anyone text Mr Butterman?” I ask.
There is a chorus of ‘Er, No’s’ including one from Tony behind me.
“I’ll do it,” I sigh.
I dig out my mobile, pull up Mr Butterman’s contact details and key in my message. I have just hit ‘send’ when, from my right, I hear a short scream immediately followed by a thud. I look round. I know that Tony is behind me. Paul is staring at us. He has gone as white as his shirt. Donny is nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s Donny?” I ask.
“Over the edge,” Tony replies, “Paul pushed him.”
“You’d better call Butterman,” Tony adds.
Don’t panic. Keep calm.
“Not till I have a better idea of what happened and where Donny is.” I take a step towards Paul. He is not crying, he just looks horrified. “Paul?”
“I only meant to nudge him, like he’s been doing to me all day. I thought he was standing far enough back. I was going to catch hold of his pack anyway. But as soon as I touched him he was gone.” Paul sucks in air. “Oh, Gawd. I’m so sorry.”
Paul starts to shake, so I get close enough to put an arm round him. I signal for Tony to come round the other side of him.
“Tony, what did you see?”
“Donny was a bit back from the edge but leaning forward, feet together. When Paul pushed him, he sort of leapt over the edge. And screamed.”
I let go of Paul and walk towards the edge.
“Where was Donny standing?” I ask the others. They talk me to the right place. Just under two metres back from the edge. “And where were you, Paul?”
“About where I am now.”
Turn to face away from Paul, then lean forward and look down. I can see a ledge that follows the curve of the rock I am on which looks to be about two metres below me. I didn’t notice it when I was standing up. From where they are standing, the others certainly won’t be able to see the ledge.
“So forward from here then?” I want confirmation of Donny’s direction of travel.
“Yes, pretty much,” Tony replies.
I try to imagine how I would react if I was pushed. If I was leaning over, I think I would have fallen flat on my face, not gone over the edge. But Donny had. What was it Tony said – he sort of leapt?
I walk to the edge so that I can get a better look at the ground below. There is no body. No sign of Donny.
“There’s a ledge below here,” I turn and shout back to the others. “But I can’t see Donny.”
I am about to suggest that they come and have a look for themselves but with Paul in the state he is in, it’s probably not a good idea. I return to where Tony is holding Paul who is shivering and looks out of it. I suppose he is in shock. To be honest Tony doesn’t look much better.
“There’s a ledge about two metres down. Donny should have landed on it but I can’t see him. I’m going to climb down for a better look.” I don’t think any leap Donny made will have carried him beyond the ledge, but I have to check. He can’t have just disappeared.
“Paul’s shivering,” I say to Tony as I take my pack off to make the climb easier. “Can you get him into his waterproofs? And that fleece he had on earlier.” That will give them something to do and take their minds off what has happened.
I don’t actually have to climb down. Looking over the edge, I can see that there is an easier route to scramble down. The beginning of the path is about ten metres from our rock.
The descent is a bit like steps in the rock face so I have to concentrate. I don’t want to lose my footing and risk injury or worse. When I get to the level of the ledge, there is nothing lying on the part that I can see so I move to the edge and look over. Nothing there either. I keep looking over as I slowly move along the ledge. When I think I have moved along far enough to see the rest of the ledge I look back towards the rock wall. I wasn’t expecting it, but this part is undercut forming a shallow cave.
And there, crouched in the cave and wearing a silly grin, is Donny.
“Found him!” I shout up to the others before I turn to Donny.
“Give us a pull up,” he says holding out his hand, “I’ve got cramp, crouching here.”
I do as requested but give him a hard look.
“Any injuries?” I ask when he is standing. He doesn’t look injured.
“Nah. Just a bit winded when I landed. I judged it wrong and rolled onto my pack.”
I know his answer to my next question is going to make me very angry.
“So you knew about this ledge and jumped deliberately to wind us up?”
“Yeah. It worked too.”
I am too angry to swear.
“You stupid idiot! Poor Paul is going spare up there, thinking he’s killed you. Tony’s not much better. Never mind that you might have misjudged it enough to actually kill or injure yourself.
“Get your pack and get up there. They need apologies and explanations. Don’t expect them to forgive you.” I push him to make sure he leads the way.
The relief on Tony and Paul’s faces is obvious when they see us. I push Donny forward.
“Confession time, then lunch,” I say before the others can ask him how he is.
Donny does apologise and then he explains that he knew the rock and cave were there because this was the path that he and his sisters used to climb up onto the Edge when they visited the stone circle. Understandably Paul is not pleased with Donny and — to use one of my dad’s expressions — calls him everything in the farmyard but a duck.
Things are still frosty when we settle down and break out our pack lunches. Even now Paul looks cold so I share some of mine with him. I’ve brought a food flask full of dhal. Warm and spicy, it’s one of the recipes I learnt from Mrs P, Raj and Nav’s mother. I’ve also brought some of my special samosas. They work their magic even when cold.
There is a plaintive wail from Donny when he opens his backpack. He brought a couple of bananas with him and they got crushed when he rolled on the bag. Everything is totally covered in squashed banana.
“Serves you right, you daft pillock,” says Paul when he has finished laughing.
I think those bananas are just the therapy Paul needed.
Tony reminds us that we need to move on or we will be late getting to the coach. We gather up our rubbish, shoulder our packs and set off. Donny is told he has to walk five paces in front to stop any more of his foolery.
The path is easy enough to follow so we are able to set a good pace. We think we pick up some time. Just before we start our descent into the village of Baslow, Paul says he needs to hide behind a wall for a minute. While he is occupied, Tony and I corner Donny.
“Paul was getting pissed off with you even before you pulled that trick at lunch,” says Tony, “bumping into him like you were. What was that all about? Are you hitting on him?”
Donny looks bashful.
“Er. He did say I was a pretty face and fist-bumped me the other day,” he says. “And he did say he had noticed the statue of the pretty boy. I wondered, if he was interested, that I might be in with a chance since neither of us have girlfriends.”
“You were never in with a chance,” Tony states, “and you certainly aren’t now.”
“Donny. Paul is straight. He’s not interested in trying the other side,” I add.
We get a grudging acknowledgement from Donny.
Paul re-joins us and we continue down the hill to the village. We find our entrance to the Chatsworth Estate. I text Mr Butterman as we walk through the gate. I get a reply saying we have timed it well. We should arrive at the coach just as the rest of the party finish their tour.
The road is wide enough and there is no traffic (cars enter a different way), so we let Donny walk with us, four abreast.
Our timing is even better than expected. When we reach the coach we can see the others coming out of the house and starting to cross the car park. Tony says we should be diplomatic and check-in with the teachers before boarding.
Mr Butterman asks if we have enjoyed our walk and if we had any problems.
“All good, thanks, Sir.” We’re not going to admit anything.
Mrs O’Reilly asks if we found the stone circle.
“Yes, Miss,” we reply.
“Not that interesting is it? I hope you weren’t disappointed.”
“A sacrificial altar would have made it more interesting,” says Paul.
Mrs O’Reilly smiles and gives Donny a sideways look.
When everyone is seated on the coach, Mr Butterman does a headcount and then calls for silence.
“I hope you’ve all enjoyed your day and found it interesting,” he says.
His comment is met with varying levels of enthusiasm.
“Good. Now I’m going to spoil it.”
The teacher waits for the groans to die down before continuing.
“I mentioned this morning that this is a school day and as you all know school days wouldn’t be the same without homework.” More groans. “You would normally have more, but today there are there only three topics of homework for you.”
Three! I thought there would only be one.
“First for Economics: On our walk around Eyam this morning, Mrs O’Reilly pointed out architectural features on some of the buildings marking them out from the vernacular. This demonstrates that there was some wealth in the village. You are to research and report on the sources of that wealth and how it has changed over time to the present day. The plague years should be indicated on any timeline you include.
“Second for Biology: You should read about the plague, and the ways the bacteria can spread and how the disease can present in humans. You should note the virulence of the disease and high death rate prior to the discovery of antibiotics. In your report you should also discuss why you think, in a small village like Eyam, the outbreak lasted as long as fifteen months. You should consider any other factors you can discover that might have affected the death rate in the village.
“Finally for History: The plague outbreak in Eyam started in sixteen sixty-five. We saw how the Rector of Eyam, Reverend Mompesson, had the help of the previous incumbent, Reverend Stanley, to convince the villagers to accept isolation. You are to consider why Mompesson needed that help, and why Stanley had been ‘ejected’ from his post as rector. As context, you should refer to the political situation in the country at the time. I assume you are all aware that this was only a few years after the Restoration of the Monarchy in sixteen sixty.”
The teacher repeats the topics to make sure everyone understands what is required before he instructs the driver to start the journey home.
The coach is noisy enough to make conversation difficult and everyone is tired after their day. Sleepy kids are soon leaning on each other while they doze. I’ve got Tony cuddled up to me. Donny must be forgiven. Paul is letting Donny use him as a pillow.
Copyright © Pedro September 2021
To help you do Mr Butterman’s homework, here are some leads. The embedded links in the articles should help you find information on all the topics:
Wikipedia - Wikipedia: Eyam
Wikipedia - Eyam Village Website
Wikipedia - PastMasters: Plague Days
The walk suggested in this story is actually around nine miles (14.25 Km) with 600ft (180m) of climbing and therefore likely to take considerably longer than the school’s visit to Chatsworth.
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