In spite of the example set by my older siblings, I was, as a child, reluctant to join an organised group such as the Boy Scouts or the Woodcraft Folk or the Young Pioneers or the Kibbo Kift. I kept myself to myself, content to lollop about in self-imposed solitude. All that changed, however, on the day when I was eight years old and I received an invitation to join Peewit Patrol.
I had never heard of this little fraternity, so I was intrigued. Intriguing, too, was the invitation itself, which was delivered to my bedroom windowsill in the beak of a bird I supposed was a peewit. It took the form of a folded sheet of paper which, when extracted from the bird’s beak and unfolded, revealed a message which looked as if it had been scribbled in blood. “Come to the spinney at midnight,” it read, “Where you will be initiated into Peewit Patrol”. It was unsigned.
That night, I went up to bed at my usual time and pretended to be asleep. Excited and alert, I listened out for the sounds of my siblings and parents retiring for the night. When all was still, I crept out of bed, fashioned a rope ladder from my bedsheets, and let myself out through the window. The spinney was out on the edge of our bucolic – our idyllic – village, and I ran like the clappers to get there before midnight struck.
I was puffed out when I arrived, and for a moment I thought someone had played a trick on me, as the spinney seemed to be deserted. But then, one by one, from behind clumps of trees, appeared several children, a dozen or so. At least, I thought they were children, they were all about my size, but I did not recognise any of them because their faces were concealed. Each wore a painted papier-mâché helmet in the shape of a peewit’s head, roughly double the size of their own heads. From the neck down, they were dressed conventionally, save for a tabard and a sash. I gawped.
One now stepped forward and greeted me. He explained that I was to be initiated into Peewit Patrol, a great honour, but one which I must keep secret. A bonfire was lit, and the children began to prance and caper in a circle around it, uttering shrill cries which may have been imitative of a peewit’s call. I was taken by the hand and pulled into the ring and did my best to prance and caper and shriek like the others. When we were all at the point of exhaustion, at a signal we stopped still. The circle regrouped, with me now at the centre.
The child – if it was a child – who had first greeted me now made a long and frankly incoherent announcement. The gist of it, I was able to gather, was that I was to be welcomed into the fraternity of Peewit Patrol and I must swear to serve it with all my gumption. A bumper bottle of Squelcho! – a sort of fizzy pop – was opened and passed around, and each one took a swig before it was passed to me. I swigged, and swore. And then the tabard and the sash were draped over me, and the painted papier-mâché peewit helmet was placed upon my head. I was a member of Peewit Patrol!
And there and then I set off on my first patrol of the village perimeter, in the moonlight, sworn to protect the village from harm. We were each armed with a stick gathered from the spinney floor, and we marched slowly, keeping a watchful lookout through the apertures in our helmets. Occasionally one or other of my companions would make the shrill peewit cry.
It was an exquisite thrill for me, who had been so solitary, to feel a sense of belonging – belonging to a secret, illicit band, but one which acted for the good of the village, unknown to the adult villagers. And the thrill was never more exquisite than on those nights when we came upon a vagrant or a beggar or somebody who looked a bit funny, and we swooped down upon them in a terrible flock, beating them savagely with our sticks, and, when they were crumpled and helpless on the ground, we fell upon them, pecking at them in a frenzy with the razorblades embedded in our papier-mâché beaks, saving the village from outsiders who would do us harm. Happy days!
You were fortunate not to have been initiated instead, as so many were, into the Owlet Rape-Pit.
Thank goodness for the hard work of Peewit Patrol…
You mention, however, running “like the clappers” to the spinney, which has made me wonder who, or indeed what, a clapper might be. Is there such a thing as a solitary clapper, or do they always move in groups? Should the ‘c’ be capitalised?
Any help greatly appreciated.