Ash Wednesday by Jan Edwards
I slowed by the small shaw that separated our lane from the main farm road, dropped my bike on the verge and surveyed the woodland’s edge. Fortunately for me this section of frith had yet to be cleared and there were plenty of saplings to be raided. I jumped across the ditch and grabbed onto a young ash standing proud from the mass. It took only a moment or two to select a couple of growing tips; slender and smooth and grey, their foliage still encased in cool black buds that looked for all the world like the hooves of tiny goats.
I tucked both sprigs into my bag and knotted the string carefully. Losing them was not an option. It was Ash Wednesday, when every Sussex school child would arrive at the gates armed with the Ash. These short lengths of twig were transient in extreme but essential for surviving the day. Those lacking Ash could expect to suffer pinched arms and stamped-on feet by all that noticed their error. And with playgrounds being what they were that would be every student on the premises before the first bell rang. Like an injured wildebeest they would become prey to the pack and it had been known for the ashless to scaddle off rather than suffer their fate. A few short hours after this the Ash would become unlucky sticks that needed to be discarded as close to midday as lessons allowed. To be caught with Ash by the dinner break would result in a fresh orgy of violence. Being opposed to pain, on the whole, I went to great lengths to prove my solidarity with tradition.
I arrived at Sawyers Common to Haltwood Primary School fifteen minutes before the bell and made for the cloakroom to change my welly boots for school browns. The cloakroom smelled, as it always did, of old socks and wet coats, with a faint undertone of farmyard, but it was warm and I lingered for a few minutes, taking extra care over my shoelaces before retrieving my precious ash twigs.
I tucked one into the top of my sock, making sure it was both well secured and prominently displayed. Thievery was not unknown, either by stealth or overt mugging. The wise and windy would always carry a spare and I shoved into my pocket as an emergency backup and headed for the playground.
Voices raised in chanting, accompanied by the rhythmic slap of rope against tarmac, told me that Angie Cartwright’s skipping corner was already up and running. I considered joining in, except for the fact that Angie was a villager, and though we bore no personal grudges, each of us knew that Villagers and Commoners did not mix. It was an ancient rule; never voiced but always obeyed. Nobody quite knew why.
Half way down the steps when Bobby Fuller issued me the challenge.
‘Ash,’ he called. ‘Ash or bash!’
I turned my leg awkwardly to display the twig. ‘Got mine,’ I said loudly. ‘Have you?’
‘’Course,’ He replied. ‘Peter Marshall hasn’t though. Adam Garton dead legged ‘im.’ He grinned at me. ‘Got yer marbles?’
I shook my head. Marbles season always saw the boys in a frenzy. Marbles were a serious business but I hadn’t the stomach for their fierce tournaments that would carry on until Easter and which were the basis for many a grazed knee, bruised arm or worse. Bobby shrugged and moved off to join the kneeling gaggle of gamers.
I looked around for a sign of the unfortunate Peter. I would add my time-honoured blow to Ash if a victim was under my nose but I didn’t seek them out. Bobby was a real bully, as was Adam. I was glad that both kept contact with me down to taunts about my size. They left me alone because Len was a Scout patrol leader, and Len was a lot bigger than either of them. It was small change as bullying went. I ignored them and they ignored me and all was good.
I turned to see my best friend, Linda, crouching half way down the steps. ‘H’lo Lin. You got yours then?’ I said, striding up to her and pointing at my ash twig.
Linda glanced about her nervously. ‘Fer’got,’ she whispered.
I drew an exaggerated breath, slapped my left hand over my mouth in mock horror, and reached my right hand into my pocket to tweak the spare ash tip into her palm. It was the same smooth grey, starkly marked with far fewer matt-black buds and far smaller than the piece I had kept myself, but was Ash, nevertheless.
She curled her fingers over it like a slow gin trap. ‘Ooh, thanks, Sue.’ She bent quickly and slid the twig into her sock before flinging both arms around me. ‘I was thinkin’ I were a deader there, then.’
‘S’alright,’ I said. ‘Got yer rope?’
‘Yer ‘tis.’ Linda shook out her tangle of clothes line, tied one end to the fence and played the rest out across the tarmac. ‘You first,’ she said, a sure sign of her gratitude when the owner always had first dibs. She began to turn the rope, slowly at first with exaggerated wind-milling of her right arm. The cord billowed into a flowing arc, and slapped the ground, lightly at first, steadily building to the air-cracking rhythm required for serious play.
Another Commoner wandered across to stand expectantly next to Linda. ‘Can I join?’ she asked.
‘If’n you turn first, Mags.’ Linda handed over the cord-end without further comment and went to stand opposite me. As if by arrangement three more girls drifted up. One untied the tethered end and the rope suddenly turned easier for being guided by human hands. The lines of waiting girls swelled to four a side, all watching the rope, each gauging the speed with a practised eye, each one a paid-up expert on the unwritten physics of the skipping-rope.
I bent down to push my ash twig further into my sock, and grinned as Linda mirrored my movement.
‘Teddy bear on three,’ I shouted, ‘One… Two… THREE!’
We leapt into the rope’s blurred ellipse and began to skip and mime, whilst the assembled girls chanted.
Extract from Sussex Tales (c) available in paper and kindle formats