"Come on then, Rob -- no dawdling, if we want to go all the way up and back before dusk."
"Is there going to be a flood? You said there was a flood."
"I said one time there was a flood. But that was early spring. It's high summer, now. It's all quite dry."
Christopher crossed the wooden footbridge in just a few strides, but turned back when he didn't hear his son's footsteps following. Rob had promptly clambered onto the railings, just as he himself used to do. He ran his hands over the rails and saw that many of the boards were new. He was glad that someone was still maintaining the bridge.
"We used to throw sticks in the water and then go round to the other side to watch them float under the bridge," he said.
"It was a contest. To see whose stick would come out first."
"I want to play!"
Christopher was relieved. He had wondered if Rob was going to worry and drag his heels and ask to go home the whole way there and back. He bent to collect some sticks from the streamside brush.
"One for me and one for Cowboy!" Rob said.
When Christopher sat down on the bridge, he pulled a small toy from his jacket pocket. "Here's one of my old friends. Did Grandmother show them to you yet? This one is Piglet. I think he would like to play, too."
"He's very shabby," said Rob.
"Well, yes. But that doesn't mean he shouldn't have some fun."
So father and son dropped two sticks apiece, and Cowboy (who was a wooden cowboy figure, and not very nice to cuddle, Christopher thought, but there is no accounting for the likes and dislikes of children) won the first round. And Christopher thought things were all going quite well, until Rob looked up with a stricken face.
"We forgot to do a stick for Mummy! We have to do it over with a stick for her, and then when go home we can tell her if she won!"
"We can certainly play again, if you like. And I'm sure Mummy will like to hear about how Cowboy won, too." He thought it better not to remind Rob that his mother wouldn't be home when they got there, but in hospital for another fortnight.
Five sticks went under the bridge, and Cowboy won again. (Christopher had secretly been hoping for Piglet.) Even after the sticks had floated from view, Rob stared sadly at the sun-dappled water. "Mummy could have come," he said. "She could even bring George, if she really wanted."
"Mummy and George need to rest for a bit. Being born is very tiring work." For everyone, he thought, rubbing his eyes and wishing he'd brought a hat to keep the sun out. "We can visit them again just before bedtime. But we really need to set out now if we're to do this walk properly at all."
In the beech-wood, Christopher looked and looked for the TRESPASSERS sign, his heart sinking a bit, until he finally found a little stub of the post next to the tree that he had been almost sure was Piglet's. "This was Piglet's house! Look, he nestles into the roots, just there. It's a perfect fit. I know I told you about the big flood before -- would you like to hear that story again, or would you like to hear about the time that he and Pooh were hunting a Woozle?"
"Did Grandmother used to tell you the stories? Mummy knows all the best stories."
"No, it was Grandfather."
"I don't remember Grandfather," Rob said mournfully, in the way that a child does when he is rather proud to have something to be sad about.
"Are you sure? He died only a year ago, and you saw him quite often when you were three. I wish we could have moved here sooner, so that you could have known him better."
"Somebody told me that I don't remember him," Rob insisted.
"Oh, well, there's no arguing with that, then, I suppose."
Rob was now lying stretched out on a knobby tree root, investigating the little hollows of green moss with their icing of fragile red and ochre stalks. Christopher felt it was rather unfair that his wife was always the favored parent in Rob's eyes. If she were here right now, she'd probably be telling him not to get dirt on his new trousers.
"If you don't want to hear a Piglet story right now, perhaps we should get on to Pooh's house and the Six Pine Trees. We won't have time to see everything today, but that's all right. Now that we live nearby, you can come to Grandmother's house any weekend and play out here all you like. You can still see Eeyore's gloomy place and the Hundred-Acre Wood. My house is gone, though. It was the very best tree in the whole forest.... But that end is all housing estates, now."
Rob was using Cowboy's outstretched arm, the one with the pistol in it, to dig up pillows of moss. He didn't appear to be listening. "Robin? Come on."
"Can I bring this moss with me?"
"Of course. That's what pockets are for."
When they left the shade of the beech-wood, they found that the last few clouds had wandered away and the sky was a spotless, shining blue. The summer had been unseasonably cool thus far, but of course, the weather would pick today to remedy that. Christopher removed his jacket and hoped that Rob wouldn't be too warm in his long sleeves.
The old paths still wound their way through the gorse and the heather. Christopher thought about all the other feet that must have passed this way since the time long ago when these fields and woods were his. Of course he had played here during school holidays, and even in university he liked to go for a walk after Sunday dinner, when he was home. But that wasn't near enough to keep up a path. How strange to know that the Forest must be someone else's world now, and not even to be able to guess who that someone might be.
Soon they reached the Pine Trees. Christopher wanted to sit down and tell Rob the story of the Heffalump trap, but the sandy path was scarcely wide enough to allow a child to sit without being assaulted by prickles; there was simply no way for an adult to do it. He could cover a bush with his jacket to make a seat, but most likely the jacket would never be the same again. So he swung Rob up in his arms, "Up, up, up!" and waded through the bushes until they were at the very foot of the pines, where the fallen needles were smooth and fragrant. He set Rob down and took a seat.
"Somewhere along that path is where Pooh and Piglet dug a trap for a Heffalump. That was my word for elephant, when I was very small. They dug a pit, and baited it with honey, but Pooh got hungry in the middle of the night, so he went to take the honey back, and his head got stuck in the jar. When Piglet came and saw the strange jar-headed beast the next morning, he had the fright of his life!"
Rob still didn't appear to be paying his father much attention. He was raking up a great mound of pine needles at Christopher's feet. Then he found a knobby twig and said, "This is Cowboy's horse." Another scattering of twigs and, "These are the Indians. They're coming with their bows and arrows, but nothing can hurt Cowboy, because he has his gun."
Christopher shook his head. "Sometimes I wish your Uncle Nicholas had never given you that Wild West book."
"Because aren't you a bit young to be worried about guns and getting scalped and what-not?"
"I'm not worried about that! I'm not afraid of anything."
Now Christopher felt that this was a bit of a puzzle. Admittedly, his experience with children was not especially broad, but it could hardly be denied that Robin was one of the world's more fearful children. If Rob was trying to talk himself into feeling brave, should Christopher play along, or should he encourage Rob to be honest?
His own father would have known exactly what to say. And it dawned on Christopher, as he realized that the small lump he was sitting on was not, in fact, a tree root, but was Piglet still nestled in his jacket pocket, that that was exactly what the Piglet stories had been for -- for letting Christopher feel scared, safely.
He didn't know how Rob would feel about Cowboy being scared, but he tried something else: "Were you just a tiny bit worried when Mummy first went to the hospital?"
"Just a bit," he admitted. "But then we saw her this morning and she said she was fine."
"And so she is," Christopher agreed.
"Only... if she's not sick, why does she have to stay?"
"Because she worked very hard when George was born. Now she deserves a good long rest, with doctors and nurses to fetch things for her and keep everything tidy. It's like a holiday."
"Next time she goes on holiday, I want to go with her."
"We'll see." And then Christopher had an idea. "Would you like to hear a story about Cowboy? Maybe about the time... that he met a grizzly bear?"
"Oh, yes!" Rob cried. "Look, he can climb this pine tree to get away from the bear!" And looking more animated than he had in several days, Rob helped Cowboy scramble up the pitch-sticky trunk.
"Perhaps Piglet could play the part of the bear. Grargh!" growled Christopher.
He still hoped there would be time for the old stories, someday, but if Robin needed a new story now, that was all right, too. It's what his own father would have done -- he was sure of it.
They never made it anywhere near Galleons Lap that day, as Christopher had hoped at first, but they did make it to the Sand Pit -- everyone knows that Cowboys are terribly fond of deserts. They came home sunburnt and merry, with their pockets all full of sand.
And the very next day, Rob asked if they could please go play there again, together.
Please post a comment on this story.
Read posted comments.