The boys put down their Commando comics, in which the heroes were square-jawed and wore their helmets at a jaunty angle, and the enemies’ eyes were always in shadow, and determined to play war in the woods. One or two were lucky enough to have their dads’ old berets, a helmet, or a toy gun, the others grabbed dry sticks of the right size, with which to extemporise a weapon. They picked sides and fanned out into the trees.
One of them – the youngest – struck out on his own. He could hear the others. Sometimes a twig would snap as a boy stalked through the bushes. At other times there were yells, whoops, or the staccato cry of “Er-er-er-er-er!” in imitation of a machine gun.
After about fifteen minutes alone, the young boy began to climb up a bare-topped knoll, dodging from tree to tree, imagining that he was storming a stronghold under heavy fire. When he reached the top he brandished his stick and began to cheer loudly. After a couple of minutes his cheering attracted the other boys, who began to climb up towards him, wearing puzzled frowns.
“Why are you cheering?” one of them asked.
“I’ve won! I’ve got to the top of the hill.”
“That’s not what the game’s about,” said another boy.
“Yes it is,” said the youngster. The others shook their heads at this, decided to re-start the game, and they all trooped back to the outskirts of the coppice. Fanning out again, they disappeared into the trees. Their occasional yells, imagined military commands, and mimicked gunfire could be heard, muted by the trees, saplings, and undergrowth. Once more the youngest boy made for the knoll and climbed, ducking and dodging the imaginary hail of bullets, taking the enemy’s machine-gun nest for the second time that afternoon. Once again at the top he waved his stick and cheered. Once again his racket attracted the other boys.
“I’ve won!” he proclaimed loudly.
“Look, we told you – that’s not what this game’s about,” said the biggest boy there, coming up to him.
“Yes it is.”
“No it bloody isn’t,” said the biggest boy, punching him hard on the shoulder to make his point.
The boys all trooped back to the edge of the wood and, starting their game again, filed between the trees in improvised patrols. Doggedly, the youngest boy made his way directly to the knoll. This time when he arrived there he found several of the other boys already on the top, and more climbing up to join them.
“It isn’t about getting to the top of this hill,” said the biggest boy, “and anyway this time we beat you up here!”
The boys couldn’t understand why their young playmate gave a broad smile at that. Shrugging, they made their way back to the edge of the wood. Instead of beginning the game again, they decided to go home. The afternoon sun was getting lower, and they didn’t much feel like another skirmish. Let the imaginary enemy hold the wood. They threw their sticks away, the owner of the Commando comics retrieved his dog-eared property from the hedge, and they set off into the nearby streets that the woodland fringed. At each junction some went left, some went right, until the biggest boy and his brother were left walking not quite along with the youngest but in the same direction. The biggest boy tugged at his brother’s sleeve, held him back, and jerked his thumb towards the youngest boy.
“Why’s he still bloody smiling?” he muttered, and his bother shook his head.
The youngster marched home down the middle of the street, shoulders back, as though he was about to be invested with a medal. He alone had kept his stick, and it was now tucked under his arm, like a Field Marshal’s baton.