IN these narrow Cumbrian lanes, hemmed in by stone walls, even the tiniest of incidents can have the impact of an Event. Last week, for instance, it began with a small girl. Stopping short as we met, she asked sharply, ``Have you seen an old genelman and a little white dog?'' I said I was sorry, but alas, I hadn't.
She looked tired, hot, and exceedingly cross. So intending to sound kindly, I asked if she'd lost them. An ill-worded inquiry, at once acerbating, it seemed, a standing grievance. Bitterly she said, ``They lose theirselves!'' Time and again, one was left to infer.
Since we were standing there quite alone, in an immense stillness, something further was plainly called for. Especially as the child herself really did look at the end of a tether.
Casting around, I came up with, ``But if they've done it before, won't they be able to find their own way back?''
This appeared to land with all the delicacy of a last straw. Quite savagely, she said, ``But they don't want to! They never do!''
Momentarily floored, I looked around, taking stock of what the scene itself might offer.
On the other side of one of the walls, there was a familiar pasture, steeply slanting upward and usually occupied by a flock of sheep. Today it was empty: a serenely green slope against a clear blue sky, as simple as if crayoned by a child in a nursery.
``Listen!'' I said. ``I've thought of something! If we climb up there - '' indicating the slope, ``perhaps we'll catch sight of them.'' With two possibilities from such a vantage point: a lower lane leading to the nearest village and a ruler-straight farm road crossing a valley.
Providentially at hand, in the wall bounding the pasture, was one of those slits provided for walkers. Getting ourselves through it, we began the brief climb upward, the child managing, un-cannily, to exude without a word both a boiling resentment and a grim determination, even plowing deliberately through the avoidable mucky bits, as if to underline what she was obliged so unfairly to put up with.
At the top, still in silence, we looked down. On to a wide, shallow valley and, beyond it, toward the first visible lift of Wordsworth's hills, with all the fabled little lakes secreted among them. A scene now memorized mood by mood. And one continuing to draw the most likable of travelers - an astonishing number of whom turn out to have been infected in their own childhoods by a poem not really all that wonderful! Which just goes to show there's no telling, is there, what will lodge itself in the oddest of receptacles? This innocent human heart, or whatever it should be called.
A serene landscape, that's all. And joyfully springing out from it (several life spans ago) those daffodils that have danced half across a world....
Now we, the child and I, were peering directly down at what lay beneath us. And lo and behold -
``Why it's them, isn't it!'' I was quite taken aback by my own delight. For there indeed they were! A tall, stooped, skinny old genelman, and a touseled, rather grubbily white small dog. Both equally oblivious of having been spotted.
And at that very moment, really quite magically, everything was explained: The old genelman, straightening himself, though still gripping his cane, had suddenly broken into the jauntiest of little jigs. To be joined instantly by his disreputable chum, who, barking ecstatically, began to whirl around him, in circles that would have done credit to a ballet.
Any dolt could have grasped it for what it was. A performance! A celebration! Perfected through who knew how many gala truancies?
The child herself had let out an explosive sound. An oath, one would have said if she were older. And now lifting both hands, she was cupping them to her mouth.
``Ah, don't - please don't,'' one wanted to say. But inexorably she had resumed control of her world.
``Granddad!'' she was hollering at the top of her lungs. ``You come right home and have your tea.''
Both the figures below instantly froze.
I didn't wait to see them competently brought to heel. Nor, to tell the truth, did it seem in the least necessary to commiserate with them. They'd manage - that pair! - soon enough to contrive a next escape.
That was last week.
Yesterday the encounter was of a quite different kind.
When first noticed, the little boy was hardly more than a dot: coming from the opposite direction down an otherwise deserted, sun-streaked lane.
Neither of us was hurrying. Which meant one of those awkwardly prolonged approaches, when both parties - narrowly confined between the same stone walls, and so aware, inescapably, of each other's presence - have still to negotiate the considerable distance remaining between them. This, one soon learns, calls for a certain delicacy in timing. The proper form is to wait until a mere few paces apart. Then speak up, as if only just tumbling to the other's existence.
Today, after saying the first hello, I paused, uncertain. Several small boys have been encountered during these wanderings. But not this one. Of that I was sure. Once met, the impression he made would have stuck.
How are these flashes of ``recognition'' to be explained? Between adults, the consequences may prove momentous. But this was a little boy. In a Cumbrian lane. So I simply said, ``We haven't, have we, ever met before?''
At once he nodded. Shy, but evidently not put off.
``Then please, do tell me who you are.'' For some reason, this seemed to give him pause. When he murmured something, it was only just audible. ``Robin Smiff,'' it sounded like.
After a moment, one cottoned on. ``Oh, you've lost some teeth!''
He turned bright pink. Probably with relief, at having a dilemma so personal at least quickly diagnosed.
When I asked how many, he indicated two. But those important front ones, without which the tongue - having nothing to press against - is balked when it comes to that crucial th.
``Well, not to worry. The next lot'll pop through soon enough. Although actually - '' as this struck me, ``I think Smiff sounds much more interesting than Smith.''
He looked surprised. Then puzzled. So I tried it out a bit. ``Brigadier General Smiff. Prime Minister Smiff. You see what I mean? Much more interesting!''
There was a pause. Then suddenly emboldened, he said, ``Police Sergeant Smiff.''
``Oh, splendid! I like that. What made you think of it?''
``My dad - '' he said.
``Your dad's a police sergeant? Goodness, how convenient!''
During this opening, he'd been carrying, carefully cupped in both hands, something I couldn't make out. So I asked, ``What have you got there?''
Stepping closer, he gently disclosed it. A tiny feathered being, evidently immobilized but gamely attempting, as introduced, to half lift a wing.
``It's a blue tit,'' he said.
``Yes, so it is. Hello there, Miss Blue Tit Smiff!''
Quickly glancing up, he for the first time smiled.
``Where did you find her?''
``On the road. Near my school. She's hurt, you see.''
``And where are you taking her?''
``To my Mum,'' he said - in his voice a trust so utterly without bounds that he might as well have said, ``Wherever else?'' In a whole universe.
``Well, you are in clover, I really must say! A police sergeant for a dad, and a mum who can mend birds.''
Again that quick flush. But this time, or so it seemed to me, with surprised pleasure at having his family so openly lauded.
For up here among these northerners, one soon learns not to expect certain of the social pleasantries elsewhere taken for granted. Direct tributes, personal compliments - these aren't exactly bandied about. So I said, seriously, ``I really mean it, Robin. You sound to me very blessed. And then to have as well - all this, all this - '' indicating with a gesture the whole wide landscape without another soul in sight.
Just the enduring stone walls, several parts of them still testifying to those Romans dispatched from so different a world. Walls winding and climbing among the cropped slopes: their fissures tightly crammed with lichen and mosses and now again the first gushes of multicolored wildflowers, so fragile that the wonder is they ever chose to sow themselves in such rough crevices.
Suddenly I asked, ``Is this a way you come often?'' A shortcut, perhaps, between home and school?
As if communicating, sideways, something more than a fact, he said, ``It's the longest - ''
``But the most beautiful, I expect?''
Again the quick nod.
``That's what I think, too, now that I've found it.'' And it seemed perfectly natural to be standing there telling him, ``Whenever there's something I've got to think about hard, something difficult, I mean, I shall come up here.''
``Tomorrow?'' he asked quickly.
``No, not tomorrow.'' London friends would be stopping off, en route to a climbing holiday in the Highlands. And not the next one, either: still another commitment. ``What about three days from now?'' I asked.
Figuring quickly, he said, ``Thurs-day.''
``Would that be convenient for you, too?''
Again the quick nod. Then, ``Where?'' he wanted to know.
``Well, why not here again? I like it, don't you? I mean we can watch each other coming - closer and closer - ''
We didn't actually say goodbye. There seemed no need to. For a last word, turning, I said, ``You remind Miss Blue Tit I'll expect her to fly to meet me!''
When the point was reached where, at the start, he'd been glimpsed from below, I paused to look back. He was still standing where I'd left him. And quite alone. Lifting an arm, I waved. He couldn't, of course. Because of havening his bird.