Bird Song


Jo Hewlett

    Once upon a time, just a few years after the first World War, there lived, in a little Yorkshire village, a poor boy called Roly Buxton. Roly came right in the middle of a family of eleven: five brothers and sisters older than him, and five younger. It was quite common to have big families in those days.
    A few years before our story begins, a National Law had been passed saying that all children had to go to school, and so all Roly’s brothers and sisters attended the local village school and were taught by old Miss Tarbutt who had been there since the school opened. Roly, however, waved all the children off in the morning and then spent his days on other pursuits for Roly was deaf and dumb. It was considered a complete waste of time for him to go to school – after all, what could you learn if you couldn’t hear what was going on? The new law didn’t seem to apply to anyone with this kind of disability.
    But Roly was not unhappy; he lived in a beautiful part of Yorkshire and, whilst the rest of his family were spending their days in the classroom, Roly was roaming the woods and the fields. He knew all the animals and birds, their names, their habits and where they lived, and he had one human friend – old Tommy Snipper-Snapper!
    Tommy was a strange, wild character who lived in the woods. He wore a tatty, old raincoat that flapped in the breeze and his hair and beard were never trimmed. He spent more time out and about amongst the trees and fields than indoors, and he knew even more about the countryside than Roly did. He had a strange way with animals; they didn’t seem to be frightened of him and seemed easy in his company.
    Tommy lived in a derelict farm cottage with his only companions: a pet jackdaw, a ferret, a grass snake and a young fox cub. He kept very quiet about the fox cub because the local Squire was a hunting man and would not have approved. The old man was very well known in the village and, because of his strange affinity with animals, he was not laughed at in spite of his strange appearance. In fact, local farmers, who had very little money in those hard times, would often call Tommy in if animals were sick, instead of the vet, who was very expensive. Tommy made up animal medicines from herbs growing in the area. His Granny had shown him where they grew and he used the recipes which she had taught him. It was believed locally that Tommy’s grandmother had been a witch!
    Some of the poorer householders would even call on Tommy when they were sick. He had cough mixtures, eye lotions, love potions, and poultices for ‘rheumaticky’ joints, all of which seemed to work as well as the expensive medicines bought from the doctor. Even Dr. Hardcastle himself would send his patients to Tommy when they were troubled with warts.
    “He’ll magic them away for you!” he used to say, half joking and half in earnest. For the funny thing was that his patients often returned to tell him that their warts had fallen off a few days after being ‘magicked’ by Tommy!
    The first time that Roly had met Tommy he had frightened the life out of him! Roly had wandered in through the open door of Tommy’s ramshackle lodging and the old man had suddenly risen up from a pile of heather in the corner of the room! Roly had been sure the place was empty and, in shock, he turned to run, but the old man smiled and Roly paused. Then Tommy put his hand into an enormous pocket in his ancient raincoat and, just like a conjuror at a party, he drew out a baby rabbit and held it out to Roly with a grin. The little creature just sat there, too young to be frightened, and Roly had taken it home, where it grew into a large, and rather aggressive creature, that lolloped about in the garden, and even in the kitchen, prompting Mrs. Buxton to shoo it out of her way with her large apron flapping.
    Roly and Tommy were friends for life!
    Although Roly didn’t go to school, he was by no means stupid. He had learnt to lip-read, and could understand a great deal of what people said to him as long as he could see their mouths. In fact, he was not completely deaf; if people made a really loud noise Roly could hear faint echoes that seemed to come from far away, like the other side of a mountain. Sometimes his brothers and sisters would scream and scream at the top of their voices, and Roly would laugh and wave his arms to show that he could hear them. The game would continue until his mother would come running in, shouting at them to stop the dreadful noise.
    “Are you trying to drive me mad or what? Stop it at once!”
    And so time passed pleasantly enough for Roly until the day when, after a severe bout of ‘flu’, old Miss Tarbutt very suddenly died. She was so much a part of village life that people hardly knew what to do. The school was closed, and Dr. Hardcastle consulted with the Squire as to what should be done about appointing a new schoolteacher.
    Mrs. Hardcastle had a young niece called Lilian Dove. She had just finished training to become a teacher and was looking for her first job; and so it was arranged that she would live with the Hardcastles and take on the running of the village school.
    Miss Dove was about as different from Miss Tarbutt as it would be possible to imagine. For a start, she was very pretty, with big, blue eyes, and her blonde, curly hair was bobbed very short in the latest fashion. Her dresses had rather short skirts and very long waists, and when the Squire first saw her he wondered if she would be able to control the older children. But he need not have worried! Although Miss Dove looked as gentle as her name, she had, in fact, an extremely determined nature. One or two of the bigger boys did try a few tricks on her first day, but an immediate and well directed warning soon sorted them out, and Miss Dove had no more trouble.
    It was a few days later that Miss Dove heard about Roly. While chatting to her class she discovered that one of the Buxton children did not attend school. It occurred to Miss Dove that perhaps he was ‘simple-minded’, and she made a few tactful enquiries.
    Norman Buxton was incensed at the implication.
    “Our Roly’s alright!” he said. “He didn’t come up the canal in a bucket!”
    Miss Dove was puzzled; she had never heard this expression, and Ivy Buxton tried to explain.
    “Our Norman means that our Roly has got all his marbles, Miss!” she said.
    Miss Dove looked even more puzzled and Rosie Buxton chipped in.
    “Our Roly’s deaf, Miss,…..”
    “ ….. and dumb, too!” continued Ivy.
    “’Course he’s dumb,” said Rosie, “that’s because he’s deaf! YOU can’t speak if you’ve never ‘eard anyone speak!”
    “He’s not completely deaf,” said Norman reflectively. “If we scream really loud he can ‘ear us!”
    “Till our Mum stops us!” said Ivy, and they all laughed.
    That evening, Lilian talked it over with her uncle, the doctor.
    “It seems dreadful,” she said, “that the child is getting no schooling at all. His brother says he is not completely deaf. Can nothing be done for him?”
    Dr. Hardcastle felt embarrassed. Mrs. Buxton paid tuppence a week to be ‘on the panel’, as it was called, so Roly was definitely Dr. Hardcastle’s patient. He looked in a rather worried way at his niece and, in his agitation, packed the tobacco into his pipe far too tightly. Roly’s deafness had been diagnosed by his long-dead senior partner, old Dr. Burtwhistle. It was highly likely that hearing aids hadn’t even been invented in those days. In fact, Dr. Hardcastle could remember Mrs. Burtwhistle using an old-fashioned ear trumpet towards the end of her life. Dr. Hardcastle felt pangs of guilt for not addressing the issue of Roly’s deafness and felt quite cross with himself, taking out his irritation on his pipe!
    “This rotten pipe won’t draw at all!” he muttered, and then said, rather sheepishly, “I had better have a look at the lad.”
    And so it came about, a few weeks later, that Mrs. Buxton, taking her eldest daughter Sarah with her for moral support, set out for the great, and unknown city of Leeds, to take Roly to a specialist.
    Roly had never travelled on a train and he spent most of the journey gazing about him in amazement. He had no idea there were so many people in the world.
The specialist shone lights into his ears and made all sorts of noises to ascertain what Roly could hear, and, about an hour later, the boy was fitted up with a most strange contraption: a box about the size of a Brownie camera was strapped to Roly’s bony, little chest. It had dials and switches on the front, and a wire led up to a large, pink, shell-like instrument, part of which went right inside Roly’s good ear. The specialist manipulated the dials and repeated some of the noises; this time Roly smiled and nodded at him.
    “I think we will take this off now, Mrs. Buxton,” said the doctor, “and you try it out carefully when you get Roly home. You will find he can hear quite a lot, but you will also find that it will take him quite a long time to get used to it.”
    When they got back to the station, they found they had three quarters of an hour to wait. They had a cup of coffee and a sandwich at the station buffet and settled down on a bench to wait for the train.
    Roly’s hand kept creeping out, touching the contraption which was carefully packed up in Mrs. Buxton’s shopping bag.
    “No, Roly!” said his Mum, pushing the hand away. “Wait till we get home!”
    “Oh, go on,” said Sarah, “ let him try it! We’ve got ages to wait!”
    Mrs. Buxton looked a bit doubtful.
    “The man said ‘wait till we get home’, didn’t he?” she replied.
    But the next time Roly’s hand strayed towards her shopping bag, she relented.
    “Oh, alright!”
    She took it carefully out of the bag, and Sarah helped her mother wire Roly up.
    It was desperately unfortunate that, at the very moment that Roly turned up the dial on his box, the express train thundered, screaming into the station.
    He thought for a moment that his head had split in half, as the pain was unendurable.     He snatched off the hearing aid and his mother only just caught it in time. Roly started to scream; he screamed and screamed and screamed! For the very first time he heard his own voice faintly in the distance, just like the voices of his brothers and sisters when they played with him. A great many faces were crowding round, all peering at him. Their mouths were opening and shutting, but to Roly no sounds were coming out. He hurled himself into his mother’s arms and, burying his face in her ample bosom, he burst into tears.
    “There, there, chuck, there, there!” said his mother consolingly. And they bundled him onto the train and got him home.
    That night, when Roly was in bed, a family conference was held as to what to do next. After a good deal of discussion, it was decided not to produce the hearing aid for two or three days, to give Roly time to get over the shock.
    So it was not until the following Wednesday morning that Mrs. Buxton gave him a glass of milk and a biscuit in the kitchen, and then, rather nervously, brought out the hearing aid. Roly went white and stiffened as soon as he saw it. As his mother started to approach him, he jumped off the stool, over the rabbit, out of the kitchen door and headed for the woods as fast as his little legs would carry him.
    Mrs. Buxton was certainly not the right shape for running, but she set off after him, accompanied by Sarah and Betty, all running in an attempt to keep up with Roly.
    The boy was heading for the dwelling of his old friend, Tommy, with nothing much in mind except to get away from the hearing aid.
    His sisters caught up with him just as he dived for the open doorway and threw himself, sobbing, onto the pile of heather, which Tommy used as a bed.
    “Hullo, hullo, hullo, what’s all this then?” enquired old Tommy Snipper-Snapper, as Mrs. Buxton, very red in the face, finally caught up with the others. She sat down, panting, on an upturned orange box.
    “Oh, Mr. Snipper-Snapper!” she gasped. “We are having the most dreadful time with our Roly!” And the whole story of the doctor, the trip to Leeds, the hearing aid disaster came tumbling out.
    “Now, don’t you worry, mum!” said old Tommy. “Just you sit there and get your breath back while I have a think.” He paused for a moment, and then continued. “I think you had better leave Roly here with me for a bit. I’ve got a bit of an idea in my head, and you mustn’t worry if he doesn’t come home all night!”
    Mrs. Buxton exchanged worried glances with Sarah and Betty. She didn’t at all like the idea of Roly spending the night in the woods with this strange old man. On the other hand, as she had told him the whole story, AND asked for his help, she didn’t quite know what else she could do … and he was a very clever old man. It was well known that his granny had been a witch.
    “Our Roly’ll be alright, Mum,” said Sarah. “He can look after himself … and we’re only down at the bottom of the hill after all.”
    So Mrs. Buxton kissed Roly and then left him with old Tommy Snipper-Snapper.
    Roly had a wonderful day! They went out and caught some fish in the Squire’s river. Old Tommy had a roll of fishing line in his pocket with a lump of bread on the end, and, by this simple means, secured two large fish that the Squire had been trying to catch for months; his very expensive fishing-rod sent all the way from London and baited with carefully hand-made flies had proved no match for Tommy’s simple method! Tommy also extracted two large potatoes from The Squire’s clamp and these they baked in the embers of the fire while the fish cooked on top. This feast was rounded off with a large enamel mug of tea, made with condensed milk of which both Tommy and Roly were exceedingly fond.
    Old Tommy introduced Roly to his newest acquisition: a tiny, white kestrel chick whose mother had been killed by the Squire’s gamekeeper.
    “I call her ‘Mrs. Mump’, because she has got such big feet,” said Tommy, obscurely.
Roly nodded wisely and fed the tiny creature with a sliver of meat. He played with the fox, now fully grown but as tame as a dog, and when it was finally time to go to bed, Roly thought it was great to curl up on a pile of freshly cut heather without washing, or cleaning his teeth! He could see the stars shining through a little hole in the roof and was soon fast asleep.
    Tommy Snipper-Snapper awoke early when the first of the birds were beginning to stir. When he emerged from the little cottage the sky was beginning to show pale grey in the East, with a thin line of bright lemon on the horizon. More birds were beginning to wake up. Tommy could already distinguish thrushes, warblers, blackbirds, many pigeons, a cuckoo, and a late-to-bed nightingale serenading the morning. The sky began to lighten, the lemon strip turning to gold. As he stood there, a skylark suddenly joined in with a glad paean of praise. 
    It was time to wake Roly.
    He shook him gently by the shoulder and beckoned him to come out into the open. The woods were to the west of them and open down-land to the east. Tommy felt in one of his enormous pockets and brought out a baby hedgehog, its prickles still soft and its eyes only recently opened. But when Roly held out his hand for it, Tommy held up one finger and shook his head. He fished in his other pocket and brought out Roly’s hearing aid. The boy took a step back and stared at his friend. Tommy held out both: the hedgehog stretched out, unafraid, on the palm of one hand, and the dreaded hearing aid in the other. Roly understood; if he wanted the hedgehog he must put on the hearing aid. Reluctantly, he went forward and allowed Tommy to wire him up once more.
    More and more birds were joining in the joyful dawn chorus as Tommy very gently turned up the volume on the hearing aid.
    A look of absolute amazement appeared on Roly’s face!
    He stared at Tommy with his mouth open – such an expression of incredulity and delight on his face that the old man laughed out loud. In some sort of way, Roly had known that birds ‘sang’ but, if he had thought about it at all, he had thought that perhaps they made the sort of vague squeaks and grunts that he could sometimes hear in the distance. Never in his wildest dreams had he imagined anything like this wonderful, wild halleluiah and hullabaloo, which rose to a crescendo as every bird for fifty miles around seemed to open its beak and sing.
    Tommy looked straight at Roly and spoke very clearly and slowly.
    “Birds, my lad,” he said. “That’s what those are … birds!”
    “Birds!” said Roly.