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By the summer of my second camp, I had been installed as patrol leader, with Mark as my seconder. We were above Baslow in Derbyshire. Unfortunately, the hills were crawling with rabbits suffering from myxomatosis. My first task was to organise a detail to check for the bloated remains of bog-eyed carcasses in the stream which we were using as our water source. Failing that, we were under orders to dispose of as many of the unfortunate creatures that could be found in the immediate vicinity. Leading by example, I tottered with a huge rock towards the first infected rabbit. It didn’t take a lot of skill. The rabbit was virtually immobile and totally blind. Closing my eyes, I released the rock directly above its skull. Following a sickening crack, the body tensed then slowly relaxed, before finally emitting what could only be described as a grateful sigh. Jim tried to reassure us that we were putting the rabbits out of their misery. True, I thought, but we had come on the camp to enjoy an experience of the Great Outdoors, not spend the first hours earning a proficiency badge in Animal Culling.

The day was saved, however, by the discovery of an extensive assault course which had been constructed above the stream bed of a hidden valley. A maze of rope slides, swings and bridges had been woven between the trees like a gigantic cat’s cradle. We couldn’t believe our luck. It had been designed to test the courage and skill of the most fearless climber. With the entire troop dangling above his head, Mr Finch’s ruddy cheeks drained noticeably as he tried to settle himself on one of the jagged rocks which lined the steep banks of the stream below. Whenever he was called upon to witness a feat of daring, he would shield his eyes and wave meekly. Most of the time, however, he muttered to himself, composing letters in his head to the parents and lawyers of the unfortunate boys whose dashed brains he could imagine steaming on the rocks in front of him. In stark contrast, Wiggy was clapping his hands and yodelling at the top of his voice. Suddenly, as if responding to the call of a Siren, he started edging closer and closer towards one of the alder trees, an expression of glazed contentment fixed upon his face.

‘Not a good idea, Sam…. Sam!’

Deaf to any warning, Wiggy was tugging at the rope ladder and shuffling in his brown, suede shoes, readying himself for an ascent. Spurred into action, Mr Finch was soon charging over the rocks and grabbing for his elbow.

‘I think it’s strong enough, Sam, if that’s what you were worried about.’

Broken from his trance, Wiggy let go of the ladder, as if ridding himself of an obnoxious smell, and rubbed his hands.

‘Ah, yes, John. Quite. One can never be too careful.’

Returning to the camp, we found Jim in the middle of digging his second latrine. A communal cauldron of stew was bubbling over the rock ringed fire.

‘Heh, Jim. There’s this great assault course.’

‘Dun more than one o’ them in me time. Yewell hav t’ show me tomorrer.’

When we arrived on the following morning, the trees were already occupied. As we gained the top of the bank, all activity above us stopped instantly. Staring down at us was a rogues’ gallery of threatening faces. Everywhere we looked, there were shaved heads, scarred skulls, chewed ears, broken noses, curling lips and drilling eyes. It was like confronting the incestuous offspring of a penal settlement.

‘Shit, do you think they might eat us?’

The stalemate was broken by a bellow which echoed from the upper reaches of a beech tree to our left.

‘Halloo. Welcome.You must be the chaps who were here last night? Be with you shortly.’

We could see the branches rock before a figure emerged through the leaves, swooping towards us. Hanging from the pulley, like a trapeze artist, came Simon Fellowes, lately of the Guards, currently serving as master in charge of PT and extra-curricular activities at Her Majesty’s Approved School, St Bartholomew’s, Walthamstow. As his body zipped towards us, legs held parallel to the rope above him, we could see the fruits of a lifetime’s dedication to muscle proliferation. It was impossible to imagine that he could have been pumped up any harder. With the pulley emitting a high-pitched squeal, his body loomed ever larger. By now, we could see the veins throbbing on his biceps. Just as it looked as if he might concertina into one of the rock- strewn banks, he jerked to a swaying halt.

‘Well done, brakemen. Best one so far.’

An ironic cheer burst from the trees above us. Disentangling himself from the looping brake ropes which we had failed to spot, Simon Fellowes bounded over to Mr Finch and Wiggy.

‘As you can see, they’re a rum lot. It’s a test of nerve. If I cry out, they’ve won…. Simon Fellowes, by the way.’

I could see Wiggy wince as his hand was gripped.

‘Crooks, get down here. And bring Simpson with you.’

Crooks shimmied down a rope and was soon standing before us. He was older than the other boys and, in both manner and appearance, as sharp as a flick-knife. His hair was freshly trimmed and his wardrobe uniformly Mod in design, from the shortsleeved Ben Sherman shirt to a pair of last season’s loafers. He looked as if he had just joined us in between shoots for an Italian clothing catalogue.

‘Ah, Crooks. Over to you, laddy. Look after our guests. I’m retiring for a pow-wow with these gentlemen.’

Crooks managed to combine a sneer and a smile as he slowly surveyed our group. With a flick of his head, he beckoned us to follow him.

‘Not you, Simpson.’

It was Simon Fellowes.

‘I ain’t dan naffin’.’

Simpson was a scrawny little boy with a weasel face and shaven head. He was standing still, his eyes lowered to the ground.

‘Yes, you have, laddy, and I will not tolerate that kind of behaviour.’

Turning around, we were just in time to witness the stinging slap which spun the unfortunate Simpson on his heels and which eventually led to his sobbing collapse at the feet of his bull-necked leader.

‘Now pick yourself up, laddy, and get back to camp…. Sorry about that, gents. Now, where were we?’

My stomach churned and my ears burned. I looked at Mark. His face was drained of blood.

‘Jesus. He’s a bleeding psycho.’

It was some time before any meaningful communication took place between the two groups who now shared the assault course. At first, it was purely non-verbal: a nod of the head, a jerk of the thumb or the lift of an eyebrow. The ice was eventually broken, however, when a number of our group showed themselves willing to place their lives in the hands of the band of skinhead brakemen who operated the Death Slide. Mind you, it helped that at least half of our troop was composed of streetwise and physically imposing individuals who had been attracted to the scouting world of Skirbeck by the prospect of playing for the football team. Chris had been the first to arrive. After a couple of games, he had been joined by a group of his friends from Kitwood Boys Secondary Modern. Although they had deigned to attend Monday troop meetings, it was clear that they had little desire to don a uniform or learn how to read on Ordinance Survey Map. It was what had accounted for my lightning promotion. I was one of the only scouts left who had any experience of setting up a camp site or who showed more that a flicker of interest in Jim’s lectures on Survival in the Wilderness.

With Fellowes, Wiggy and Mr Finch out of the way, dare-devil rope work soon took a back seat. Echoing a building site when the foreman is suddenly called to the phone, both groups promptly downed tools and sat amongst the branches for a communal cigarette break. Having escaped a mass scalping, we were now swapping tab ends with the enemy, our reputation intact.

Chris and his mates had certainly played their part in establishing a peace pact with Crooks’ army of thugs. For the rest of the week, however, they proved to be a real burden. Incapable of carrying out the most rudimentary of tasks, either through ignorance or by design, they forced the rest of us into the role of child-minder. Chris, in particular, was insufferable. As he was in Falcon patrol, Mark and I were called upon to share the duties of hotelier, chef, butler, porter and dishwasher. Our leadership was being compromised on a daily basis. By Wednesday, we had run out of patience.

‘Sod it, let’s go for a swim. He can cook his own breakfast.’

‘There’s no way we can win Patrol of the Week. I mean, he never tidies up his stuff.’

‘I know, and he’s always late.’

‘Never fetches the firewood.’

‘Or carries the water.’

‘He farts in his sleep.’

‘And wears the same socks every day.’

By the time we were returning from the lake, we had resolved to get our own back.

‘A cup of salt in his porridge.’

‘I’ll nick his fags.’

‘Pour water on the bottom of his sleeping bag.’

‘No, even better, trap a wasp in it.’

‘Chuck his socks on the fire.

‘Shred a wood louse through his tooth brush.’

‘A needle in his soap.’

‘Nice idea, but, well, you know, probably a bit too drastic.’

‘Okay, what about rubbing it in a sheep turd?’

‘Now you’re talking.’

We didn’t, of course. We just did the next best thing. We ignored him. And it worked. So

full of bile by the end of the week, Chris was determined that this was going to be his last camp. And, to give him his due, he never reneged on his decision. Proof of his disillusionment with the scouting world came when we were dropped off at the church hall.

‘Heh, if we’re quick, we’ll be in time for the second half of the match.’

‘Right, I’ll drop off my stuff and meet you at the green bridge in twenty minutes. Chris, you coming? It’s Lincoln City.’

‘Piss off.’


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