"JOHN WILLY, THOU ART A LUMP'EAD"
Could you run a race with your heart on your sleeve and the seat out of your pants? No? Well, you’re not from Yorkshire!
D. C. CULSHAW
JOHN WILLY WIGGLESWORTH was a right champion fell racer. For more than 15 years, during summers, he had been chasing up and down the limestone crags of the Yorkshire dales, and what he didn’t know about this special kind of hill-country racing you could have shoved in your eye corner and shouted, “Lost.”
His mother was rarely well set up, was Mrs. Wigglesworth, what with her little post office at the upper end of Tattlewick High Street, and John Willy’s prizes. She hadn’t bought a towel or a piece of table linen in over 10 years and she had enough tucked away into camphor-scented cupboards to last her for another 10. There were so many clocks, carving sets, hatracks, umbrella stands, brass teakettles and silver cups and spoons scattered about her small kitchen that it looked more like the front of a pawnshop than the rear of a post office.
Still and all, being Yorkshire, Mrs. Wigglesworth had her own opinion of fell racing and she didn’t keep it to herself.
“I think naught of it,” she would say to neighbors who dropped in of a Saturday night to see what else John Willy had brought home. “Ask our John Willy to go gallivanting up Tattlewick Top and such, and wild horses wouldn’t stop him. But ask him to fill a bit of a coal bucket and you’d think there wasn’t enough go in the lad to knock the skin off a rice pudding—What did ta win today, John Willy?”
Of course he didn’t always win first, prize and one afternoon in early summer, while he was leading the field down Elmsley Craig, John Willy came a right nasty cropper and finished second with a broken arm. He returned to the village with a grin on his ugly face—Tattlewick said John Willy’s smile would stop a clock or start a horse and a gent’s umbrella under his sound right arm.
“And that should knock a bit of sense into thee, if it does naught else,” said his mother sharply, when she had made quite certain that he wasn’t badly hurt. “I’ve looked for ’em to bring thee home feet first on a shutter any Saturday these 15 years and more. I should, think you’d run no more after this.”
“What, me?” said John Willy, sitting in the rocking chair by the fire. “Nay, luv, I’m only in me prime.”
“Prime nowt. You’ll run yerself into yer grave, rate yer going. Yer not a flaming nanny goat, yer know.”
“I shall have to miss Keddleby next week,” mused John Willy, swilling tea, “and Garth Pike the middle of June, but I ammot saying no to the Tattlewick, come September. I’ve never won it and I mun do that before I retire.”
“Talking of retiring,” said Mrs. Wigglesworth, as John Willy wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and then began to unlace his boot«, “you’d best away to yer lied and rest that arm.”
“Nay,” said John Willy, “I’m nobbut changing into me shoes.”
“Shoes?” His mother’s voice rose an octave. “Whatever for?”
“To go to Keddleby.”
“Tha’s going to thy bed, John Willy Wigglesworth, or I’ll know the reason why.”
“There’s a dance. Come on, luv, and tie us me shoelaces. I shall be late.”
“No, I will not. If tha’s no more sense nor to go gadding off to Keddleby, condition tha’s in, tha can go barefoot for me.”
“All right,” said John Willy. “Then I’ll go barefoot. But I’m going.”
His tone was so decided that his mother folded her arms across her chest and eyed him speculatively. She was a plump little woman and had been a beauty in her day. She was still good-looking.
“There’s something up,” she said, and added shrewdly: “Who’s the lass?”
John Willy grinned crookedly. “Tie us me shoelaces and happen I’ll tell.”
Mrs. Wigglesworth sank slowly to her knees and did what he wanted.
ilYer’ve got just about enough brains to spread yer treacle on yer bread. I pity the poor lass as weds you. Who is she?”
“Eh, begoff,” said John Willy dreamily, “She’s right bonny and she has a nice bit of brass put away, too.”
“It’s nobody from Tattlewick, then.”
“John Willy,” said his mother slowly, “you’re going on 33 and you’ve had a fancy to this lass and that. Is it genuwine this time?”
“That’ll do, then,” said his mother, rising to her feet. “Who is she?”
JOHN WILLY unravelled his long six feet from the chair, felt for his key, twitched his tie straight and patted his mother’s little white head. He couldn’t resist teasing her.
“You’ll know soon enough, luv,” he said.
“John Willy Wigglesworth, you’ve said you’d tell me and I mun know.”
“I didn’t say I’d tell. I said ‘happen,’ ” grinned John Willy and ducked under his mother’s roundarm swing. He came up under her guard and planted a resounding kiss on her cheek.
“There,” he said, “I always knew you luved me,” and slipped through the little doorway into the shop.
His mother suppressed a chuckle and then sighed. “If the lad won’t tell me her name, it’s serious,” she said to herself.
“Shop,” said John Willy, tapping on the counter with a shilling.
“If you’re going, go.”
“Shop,” said John Willy again.
“Don’t I ever get any peace with thee, lad? What is it now?”
“Half a pound of Pomfret cakes. Do I pay for em?”
“Half a pound! Nay, I dunnot mind yer having an ounce or two in a week, but I ammot Bank of England, like. You pay for ’em.”
“Courting comes dear,” sighed John Willy.
“Aye, and marriage comes a flaming sight dearer, so think on that.”
“Not if the lass has a nice stocking leg tucked away.”
“Aw, for goodness sake!” Mrs. Wigglesworth was beyond all patience. “Get out before I throw summat.”
“Throw us a kiss,” said John Willy and opened the shop door with a flourish.
Mrs. Docker was just coming in. “Well,” she said, as John Willy passed her at the threshold, “Lord Muck hisself!” She took in John Willy’s appearance, from the crown of his well-brushed head to his Sunday shoes, with one swift glance and drew her own conclusions.
“Your John Willy going courting?” she asked affably, as the door closed.
Mrs. Wigglesworth had no use for gossips.
“Aye,” she said shortly.
“When will the wedding be?”
“John Willy hasn’t said.”
“Will it be at Keddleby?”
“Well, if he get« Polly Yarker,” said Mrs. Docket, not noticing the sudden gleam in Mrs. Wigglesworth’s eye, “he’ll be lucky. They tell me owd Bob Yarker has near a thousand pounds in the Penny Bank and he owns his own house too. There’ll be a nice bit of brass there, and Polly’ll get her share of it when the t ime comes.”
“She’ll need it if she weds our John Willy,” said Mrs. Wigglesworth, sardonically.
“Aye,” agreed Mrs. Docker, who’d borne 14 and buried nine, “marriage is not a cow that gives all cream, that must be admitted. Give us two penn’orth of candles, will ta, luv?”
John Willy covered the four miles to Keddleby in next to no time. There were a middling few at the dance and t he little Town Hall was full.
“Now lad, hit of bad luck, like, this afternoon.” It was Titch Armitage, the pint-sized doorman, taking tickets as usual.
“Ah,” said John Willy.
“Still and all, you cannot beat a Keddleby chap, when all’s said and done. Our new man Eatough is a rare flier.”
“Ah,” said John Willy, “but he’s not a Keddleby chap by rights. He’s from Lancasheer, they tell me, and Lancasheer’s a foreign country.”
“He’ll do for us till we find a Iwtter. Good money says you’ll not best him this year, John Willy.”
“Nay, Titch, I dunnot bet,” said John Willy mildly. “You know that. Have a Pomfret Cake.” “Thank ye kindly Well, that just, goes for to show you how gormless Tattlewick folk is. You could have made a fair bit of brass this past, 15 year, John Willy, times you’ve won.”
“Aye, and I could have lost a fair bit, too, times I haven’t. 1 race for fun, tint, money.”
“That’s more than Henery Eatough can say, then. He cleaned up a nice packet t his afternoon, they tell me, at odds of five to one. For a Dincasheer chap he’s fearful sharp where brass is concerned. He won 10 quid.”
This was something John Willy did not like to hear. He had picked out Polly Yarker by this time; she was at the other end of the hall talking to a group that included Henry and she was making more free with her smiles than a lover likes to see. “He seems to have a way with him,” John Willy said to himself, as the group roared with laughter at some sally Henry had just made. For the first time John Willy looked closely at Henry, noting the cock of his head and the way he expanded his barrel chest. “Thinks a lot of himself and will be as fat as a pig two years after he gives over racing,” was John Willy’s private summary. “These little chaps run to seed pretty quick.” Henry was now talking to Polly alone. “And if it’s brass he’s after, he could go a lot farther and do a lot worse than Polly.” John Willy had enough put by not to worry about money—well, not more than any other Yorkshireman—but Henry was Lancasheer and you cannot trust Lancasheer fellows in money matters.
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John Willy was about to go over to join the group but Titch was still rambling on.
“What’s that again?” asked John Willy.
“He’s made a bet wi’ Len Clough over in Soddit”—the local name for Sunderthwaite—“that he’ll win any five races that Len cares to name. If Henry wins next week at odds of three to one in pounds, he puts it all on Len’s next choice. Sort of doubling up, like, see? How much does that come to after five races if Henry wins ’em all, think you?”
“Nay, I’m not that goodat ’rethmic.”
“I’m not that good meself,” said Titch dubiously, sucking his false teeth back into position, “but see you here at this bit of paper. I’ve tried to work it out and I don’t rightly know whether it comes to $204-9-lld or $543-18-2d. It’s a tidy sum, any road.”
“Aye, it’ll be a tidy sum, right enough,” agreed John Willy, “but I fancy your second figure’s a bit high, like. You and me may not be varry bright, Titch, but I cannot see Len Clough giving odds of five hundred to one, not even against Judgment Day tomorn morning.”
He left Titch muttering over his sums and went across to Henry’s group. There were half the girls in the room round Henry. “Sort of holding court, like,” thought John Willy.
“Well, look what the wind’s blown in,” said Polly, as he approached. “The hero of Elmsley Craig.”
John Willy blushed to the roots of his fair hair Polly could always set him afire.
“Now then/’ he said amiably to the rest, by way of greeting, “have a Pomfret cake.”
“Your mother’ll never get rich, the way you eát her profits, John Willy,” said Polly’s sister Liz, a strapping redheaded wench, with arms on her like ham shanks. She helped herself to a fistful of the little leathery, black sweets.
“Nay, I paid for these.”
“Paid for ’em? I thought you was saving up to get wed.”
“Ah, but who’d have him?” asked Polly. Fell villages, where inbreeding has preserved and strengthened the ancient Danish stock, run to big bones, blue eyes and blond hair. Some friendly stranger must have left his mark on the Yarker family, because Polly had clear grey eyes and jet-black hair and stood no more than chv;st high to the generality of Keddleby folk, male or female. She stood out like a blood filly among a herd of Clydesdales. “Every time I look at John Willy,” she said, “I think somebody should rub him out and start him afresh.”
Everybody laughed. John Willy put his good right arm round Polly and steered her to the middle of the little dance floor.
“And who said I were dancing with you, you big nowt?”
John Willy looked surprised. “Well, aren’t you?”
“Aye, but I’ve not been asked that I remember.”
“May I have the pleasure of this dance?” said John Willy formally and swung her through a right nifty turn.
“Aw, go on. Dance with me, and happen I’ll give you another Pomfret
“It’ll take mote than a bit of spice to win my favors, John Willy Wigglesworth, so think on that.”
“Getting a bit uppity, like, aren’t you? 1 thought you were my lass.” “That was before Henry came.”
She was only teasing him, but John Willy was a simple sort of chap and he was very, very fond of Polly. It seemed to him that this Eatough fellow could bear watching.
“And what’s he got to say for himself?”
“Nowt. With his looks all he has to do is to lift an eyebrow and any lass would fall into his arms.”
“If they did, he’d fall flat on his back; he isn’t big enough to hear it thunder.”
“Well,” said Polly wickedly, “he isn’t that big that a lass has to swarm up him to kiss him.”
“And how do you know?”
“That would be telling.”
John Willy was tired of this argybargy. The music came to a smooth stop and he took Polly’s arm.
“Come outside a minute,” he said. “I’ve summat to say.”
“Nay, I’m off to dance with Henry.” “I’m not asking you, I’m telling you,” said John Willy grimly, and when a Yorkshireman says that, in that tone of voice, a wise woman holds her whisht.
Neither of them said a word until they were 50 yards from the dance hall down by the river. A half-moon threw a patchwork of shadow through the trees and the smell of new-mown hay drifted across the water. It was a right nice night for talking about love and such. John Willy squared his shoulders. He had a job to do.
“Now lass,” he said, “let’s have no more monkeyshines. You know well enough how I feel about you. I’d be the proudest lad in Yorkshire to meet you at the altar, and now I’ve said it. So let’s know where we stand. Either name the day or tell me to shunt and I’ll none bother you no more.”
“Is that all you have to say?” Polly murmured.
“Aye, for sure. Whatever else?” “Well, you haven’t said you loved me.”
’I bis was a bit more than John Willy had bargained for. No Yorkshireman will reveal his feelings, if he can help it. Like coal in Barnsley mines his emotions go deep and he has trouble getting them to the pit head, so to speak. John Willy groaned.
“Now, see you here, Polly Yarker, I ammot the sort of chap who can talk about luv and stuff this side of the altar.”
“If you dunnot on this side, you willunt on yond,” said Polly, very disappointed. “1 ammot going to wed no chap as thinks a few Pomfret cakes on a Saturday night enough to show his affection.”
This second mention of his bag of spice fairly got John Willy’s Yorkshire up.
“You’ll get all the affection a woman can ask, if you wed me,” he said loudly, “but no soft soap. I tell you, I ammot that sort of chap.”
“And I must have a hit of both,” said Polly. “I’m that sort of woman.” Neither of them noticed Henry until he spoke.
“If this chap’s annoying you, Polly,” he said, sticking his chest out, “you’ve only to say so and ah’ll put me booit behind him.”
John Willy was quite taken aback at this interruption but he recovered enough to say: “And what are you
going to stand on?”
Henry was sensitive about his lack of inches. He put his dukes up.
“Nay,” said Polly hastily, “John Willy only wants to wed me, it seems. There’s no harm in that, is there?”
“Aye, there’s a lot of harm in that. I want to wed you, too.”
“Well,” breathed John Willy, appalled at such frankness, “if thou doesn’t take the ruddy biscuit. Thou hasn’t been in the place five minutes.” “Ah’ve been here long enough to know a good thing whan ah see it. Nah leave Polly alone, Wigglesworth, she’s my girl.”
“Oh aye? Since when?”
“Since now,” said Henry and put his arm round Polly.
“Now stop this,” said Polly, shoving Henry away. “You’re both taking too much for granted. I ammot having you two lads fratching over me.”
“You’re going to have a job on to stop it,” said Henry.
“I’ll put a stop to it right now,” said Polly, looking sharply, first at Henry and then at John Willy. “You both reckon to be fell runners. Well then, for once you can race for summat worth while. I’ll consider the ch^p as wins the Tattlewick in September. Till then you can both keep your distance.” John Willy looked down at Henry and Henry looked up at John Willy. There was a half-smile, half-sneer on Henry’s face that John Willy would have given a lot to wipe off.
“All right wi’ you, Eatough?” he asked.
“Aye, for sure.” Henry’s smile broadened. “Ah con give thee four hundred yards and a beating in any race tha likes to mention.”
Henry had such an air of confidence that Polly was frightened. She was very, very fond of John Willy, even if he was a lumphead, and she would fain have taken her words back. But she couldn’t do that. She’d spoken hastily, but hastily or not, she’d spoken and she must bide by what she’d said.
John Willy turned and walked away. “I’ll be around after the Tattlewick,” he said to Polly.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” said Henry. “Come on, let’s dance.”
“Nay,” said Polly, “I dunnot feel like dancing. I’m off home.”
ONCE in a generation the north of England produces a fell runner who knocks spots off the records from Skipton in the south to Carlisle on the Scottish border. Henry Eatough was just such a runner. Nobody had even heard of him until that season when he’d suddenly appeared out of nowhere, or Lancashire—they are both the same place to a Yorkshire man—and carried all before him.
In addition to less difficult feats that year, he came in first at Firthholm, Marthwaite, Crookrun and Cawthor, and Len Clough nearly went out of his mind when he thought about his fifth choice, the Tattlewick. Two hundred and forty-three pounds, said Len, would not only put him out of business, it would put him in the poorhouse. He almost wept. Nobody wept with him. Whoever felt sorry for a bookie?
Tattlewick folk were loyal to John Willy and bet even money that he would turn the tables on Henry, but, when asked his opinion, John Willy merely grinned ruefully and said: “Well, if I were a foxhound, like, I might do it.”
He might well be rueful. Time and again that August and September he held even with Henry up a fell and down, but when they hit the flat, Henry would fill his barrel chest with air and streak for home like a whippet. It was this capacity to sprint over the last quarter of a mile or so that made John Willy shake his head. You couldn’t beat a chap who was that good; well, not by ordinary running. John Willy was properly heartsick.
He was even more distressed when he discovered that the whole valley was chuckling over the argument at Keddleby. He, himself, kept quiet and he rather thought Polly had. He confirmed this when he saw her again, and he only saw her once all that summer.
It was the Sunday before the Tattletóck and John Willy and Shunt, his Airedale, were returning from a bit of a stroll over to Pensai Foss—a matter of five miles either way—when they came across Polly sitting on the river bank not far from Keddleby.
Her head was bowed and she might have been crying. John Willy wanted to speak to her, he did that, but he didn’t want to intrude. Shunt settled the question by flushing a rabbit and chasing it with little snuffling cries. All at once the rabbit vahished as if the earth had swallowed it, as, of course, it had.
Polly looked up and recognized Shunt. She glanced over her shoulder and crooked a finger at John Willy. Very willingly John Willy went over and sat down beside her—but not too near. The wind was rising and a few oak leaves, giving up the autumnal battle before it was fairly started, drifted down between them.
“Nice night,” said Polly.
“Ah,” said John Willy.
A curlew whistled high overhead and a trout rose at an unwary midge.
“Any chance on Saturday, John Willy?”
“About as much chance as Shunt has of catching that there rabbit.”
The dog was still digging. They could see nothing of him except his stumpy black tail and the hump of his hindquarters when he made an extra effort to shift more earth with his forefeet.
“Well,” said Polly, watching Shunt, “the lad never gives over trying.” “No,” said John Willy. He dropped a pebble into the pool below and stared at the rings as they widened.
“You mun do the same.”
“Ah,” said^John Willy.
A belated Wyandotte hen picked her delicate way down the opposite bank and drank thirstily of the river. She dipped her beak a half-dozen times and stood there, a small white pyramid against the green grass.
John Willy couldn’t resist it. “Pst!” he said, “Henry!”
“Where?” said Polly, startled. “There,” said John Willy and pointed. “The little white hen what never laid away.”
Polly was relieved. “Oh that,” she said. “Lump’ead! I thought you’d seen him coming.”
“Don’t you want to see him?”
Polly blushed faintly and her clear grey eyes were troubled.
“He’s not my sort of chap.”
“What’s up with him?”
“He talks too much.”
“Ah,” said John Willy.
“He’s told anybody and everybody about his spat with you. He says he scared you. He says he’ll win the Tattlewick and wed me. He says—” “Let it go,” said John Willy interrupting. “I can guess what he’s said. I’ve had a fair bit to take one way and another this last two months. You know I’m not afraid of him?”
“That’ll do then.”
They fell silent again.
“There’s another thing too,” said Polly, after a while. “Henry spends money with a spade. I reckon naught of a chap who sloshes it around the way Henry does and then has to pop his mother’s piano to raise enough brass for his week’s holiday at Blackpool.”
“Ah,” said John Willy. No Yorkshireman likes to hear of a man who cannot handle his money.
“And he tells me we’ll have a slap-up
wedding in October. But 1 dunnot want a big do. My own lad and a few friends to wish me luck will suit me fine.”
John Willy had nothing to say. He was thinking. He was thinking it would be a fine thing to walk up the aisle with Polly on his arm, to run to the church gate under a shower of confetti and bad jokes, to sit at his own table while his friends ate their fill and drank his health, and then to turn them all out and take Polly in his arms and call her wife. It would be right champion, that would.
A dog fox barked somewhere on the moor behind them. John Willy stirred and came out of his trance.
“Give us a kiss, lass,” he said huskily.
Polly sat still for a second and then leaned toward him and put an arm round his neck. John Willy kissed her and the kiss was sweeter than clover honey.
“You mun win on Saturday,” she whispered.
“Bury me on Monday, if I don’t,” said John Willy and got up to go.
THE following Thursday, long after supper, John Willy went off with Shunt to take the kinks out of his legs. As he set his face toward Tattlewick Top, soaring 800 feet above the narrow valley, he thought, as he’d thought 100 times before, what a corker of a race his own village provided.
You start from the green down by the river and run half a mile at an angle to the face of the Top, and then take the right-hand sky line to the flagpole, set almost on the edge of the fell. Coming down you disappear for a minute or two into Gawthorpe Ghyll, which splits the crag to the left of the summit, and reappear 400 feet below. You cannot come from the flagpole to the green in a beeline because Tattlewick Top on the village side is nothing but a flight of giant stairs, where the rock has weathered, ending in Big Drop —a sheer 18 feet of space-—and a long slide of limestone. On the Slide John Willy had worn out more than one stout pair of britches when he was a lad. Ah, his mother had given him some rare good hidings for playing on the Slide, she had that.
He made toward it with long, steady strides, and as he did so a couple got up from underneath Big Drop and wandered away along the ledge of grass that runs across the top of the Slide.
“Well, now,” said John Willy to Shunt, as he eyed the couple keenly, “it would never have occurred to me to take a lass there for a bit of courting, but it’s a right handy place for it, when all’s said and done.”
It was even better than he thought when he got there, because someone had made a careful bed of bracken at the foot of Big Drop, and while bracken is hardly the softest bed linen in the world, it will serve if nothing better offers.
“As nice a spot as you could wish,” thought John Willy, standing calf-deep in the piled bracken. He looked up at the lip of Big Drop. No, no one could see anything from there unless he risked his neck. John Willy shook his head, called to Shunt and went on with his walk.
When he got home his mother had just finished baking. John Willy helped himself to two or three currant buns and began to slather fresh butter on a newly cut piece of teacake, so thick with raisins and currants and candied peel and angelica that it fairly squeaked when the knife bit into it. At this point his mother caught him.
“Put that down, lump’ead,” she snapped. “I dunnot work after shop hours to line thy belly with fancy stuff. If tha wants to do summat to help instead of hindering, take and fill this coal scuttle.”
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John Willy did as he was bid, but just as he lifted one foot onto the sill of the little coal shed across the back yard, an idea struck him and he stopped dead in his tracks. It was some time before he became aware that his mother was rapping his head with a bent knuckle for all she was worth.
“ ’Ere—-’ere—’ere,” said John Willy, coming back to earth, “what art to nawping me for?”
“Don’t thee thee-thou me, John Willy Wigglesworth,” snapped his mother, dealing with the minor offense first. “I’ll have thy respect if I get naught else. Your arm is no more excuse to loaf. Fill that coal scuttle and look sharp. I’ve been hammering on thy head like a flaming woodpecker for the past five minutes.”
“Well, you’ve no occasion to shout. I ammot deaf, luv.”
“No, you’re daft. Stop potterpoking about and get cracking, do. I want to get to my bed.”
John Willy filled the coal scuttle and returned with it to the kitchen where he stood thinking. Ideas come hard to fell folk and John Willy was fairly bowled over.
On Friday night he went up Tattlewick Top again, but without Shunt, and was very busy for a couple ofhours.
“There,” he said finally, “it’ll be a danged good man as beats me tomorn— if I survive, like.”
The bookmakers stood on their little wooden boxes in a long row. “Three to one on the field, bar one,” they shouted. Bookmakers have all their buttons on. Not one of them would give odds on Henry Eatough.
John Willy had stripped at home and as he came across the green Len Clough beckoned him over. Len was a florid little man, an innkeeper on weekdays, but the unfailing cheerfulness that marks his profession was absent now and his cheeks and his check waistcoat drooped together.
“Dosta think tha can do it?” he whispered mournfully, as John Willy drew to a halt. “If you cannot, it’s all up with me.” John Willy glanced at the Top and then looked Len right in the eye. “You’ll not go bankrupt,” he said briefly.
“ ’Ere, lad, I wish you meant it. There’s 20 quid in it for you, if you win.”
John Willy stared at him.
“For a wedding present,” Len explained.
“Ah,” said John Willy.
“Metcalfe, Wigglesworth, Lewthwaite, Papay, Titterington, Helmsley, Barraclough, Eatough, Pocklington and Surr.” As usual the schoolmaster was lining them up. The lads took off their overcoats and danced up and down to keep warm. There was a sharp September nip in the air and while it would be warm work running, it would be none too warm watching.
“Now, lad,” John Willy admonished himself. “This is it.”
He saw Polly Yarker standing by the timekeeper. She smiled at him. John Willy nodded, though his bones turned to water and he hardly had the strength to stand. upright. He took a deep breath and turned away to stand in line.
“Ready,” shouted the schoolmaster. He raised the starting gun. “Get set.” The crack of the pistol jerked every man forward. They were off.
It was a cracking pace from the start. Across the green they swept, over the road and into Old Margrave’s pasture. That was the only open gate on the course. From now on there would be nothing but dry stone walls, heather and ling, limestone, bracken, bramble and gorse. They came to the first wall almost in a line. John Willy took it with a leap, one foot on top and the other touching the side for an instant to steady him. He was first over, but Henry was right behind him and would have taken the lead in the next 300 yards but for John Willy’s skill at mounting walls. His long legs were an asset here.
They were beginning to run uphill, little Henry’s legs churning like a bicycle rider’s in low gear. The next wall was set at a slant to their course and well over six feet high. Henry climbed it—he still had something to learn about fell racing but John Willy had been clambering over these walls since he was small enough to be scared of sheep; he veered slightly to his right where the wall tilted away and ran up it like a sheep dog after a runaway. They landed together.
And now began the crucial climb to the summit. There were no more walls but a series of sharp slopes, matching the stairs on the face of the fell. And it was here that Henry’s size helped him. He made no bones about going on all fours when he had to, and he had to quite a bit. He shinned up the slopes as if someone were hauling him on a rope. Yard by yard he drew away from John Willy, do what John Willy would.
“Begoff, lad,” John Willy thought. “This won’t do. If Henry’s more than 20 yards ahead at the flagpole, you’ll never beat him.”
The top drew nearer. They breasted the last steep incline and made for the flag. John Willy estimated the distance between them at nearly 30 yards. His lungs were bound with copper wire and his legs were lead, but he spurted and had enough breath left to yell his number at the checker as he slapped the flagpole.
Henry had already disappeared into Gawthorpe Ghyll and those who had wagered on John Willy were about to tear up their betting slips, because the old saying: “First up, firs.t home,” had never been known to fail at Tattlewick —when a woman screamed.
It was Polly Yarker. She had been watching the race through a pair of glasses and was saying to herself, “Nay, John Willy, luv, it’s all over, bar shouting,” when she saw him turn and head straight for the edge of the fell. Without hesitation he jumped and landed nine feet below. It was like watching a chap flying. Again and again John Willy jumped, while menfolk held their breath and women turned away. Even the bairns stopped chasing to watch him.
“He’ll break his neck, he’ll break his neck,” moaned Polly, as John Willy came to Big Drop.
It seemed as if he would, too. Instead of slipping over the edge and hanging by his hands before letting go, John Willy leaped. For a full second it seemed to the watchers, he hung, crablike, in space - and then fell.
A great cheer went up when they saw he was still running and then the cheer turned to a roar of laughter, because John Willy was tearing the backside out of his britches coming down the Slide. As he lit on his feet and started down the rest of the fell, twisting and turning so as to land on the sides of his feet as a fell runner must, Henry Eatough came trotting out of Gawthorpe Ghyll.
“It’ll be a tight race yet,” said the experts. “Henry can run, if he’s a mind.”
Henry did have a mind. He fairly flew down the hill, when he saw John Willy in front of him. Nobody could tell who was winning until they struck Old Margrave’s pasture again, because John Willy was running a dead straight line and Henry at a slight angle.
“John Willy wins,” roared Tattlewick.
“Come on, Henry,” shouted Keddleby.
But it looked like Henry. There was no doubt about it; he was overhauling John Willy and overhauling him fast. A good fell runner can save his strength descending a fellside and Henry had plenty left; whereas John Willy had taken it out of himself coming down the way he had, for even the mountains of bracken he’d piled the night before had not saved him as he’d hoped. He felt as if somebody had carved his insides out with a right sharp knife, and at the same time he wanted to be sick. A great gout of sweat trickled off the end of his nose, and it was no ordinary sweat.
“Come, lad, tha can do it,” he told himself, hut he could no better than stumble over the last wall. He had no spring left.
He pounded down the last stretch to the open gate and the road, and the noise of the crowd grew louder. He daren’t turn his head to see how near Henry was, hut as he crossed the road somebody shouted: “Fifteen yards.”
“Fifteen yards,” thought John Willy, “and over 200 to go. Frame thyself, lump’ead.”
Two hundred yards for the honor of Tattlewick and 20 pounds and tho bonniest lass in Yorkshire . . . 100 yards ... he was still in front . . . 50 yards. He could hear Henry now over the yelling of the crowd . . . 20 yards. He could see Henry out of the corner of his eye. John Willy made one last tremendous effort and broke the tapt; a whisker ahead of Henry.
The crowd went out of its mind for a full three minutes. Nobody took any notice of the next man home. The timekeeper was staring at his watch as if hypnotized. “Twenty-seven seconds off of the record,” he murmured. “Near half a minute. Nay, 1 can’t credit it.”
JOHN WILLY sat on the damp grass and his face was blotchy white, like curdling cream. After a minute or two
he got up and Polly helped him on with his overcoat. Len Clough came up. He pressed two 10 pound notes into John Willy’s hand and blew his nose and wiped his eyes and went away without a word, shaking his head.
“By gum,” said John Willy, with his arm round Polly. “I’ve broken more than one record today, it seems. I’ve made a bookie weep.”
“Ee, John Willy, I thought I’d die when you jumped Big Drop,” said Polly, holding tight to his hand.
“So did I,” said John Willy. “Dunnot cry, luv.”
“You great lump’ead. Whatever did you do it for?”
“Thee,” said John Willy softly. “I wasn’t going to see thee wed Henry Eatough. He’s no fit mate for thee.”
“Now what does that mean?” asked Polly.
But John Willy never explained. He didn’t tell her that Henry had cut bracken for a love nest under Big Drop and so given him his idea for winning the Tattlewick. He never told anybody. Not even Henry. Henry knew anyway.
“Come on home,” said John Willy, “and if you’re a good girl and don’t ask daft questions about luv and such, happen I’ll give you a Pomfret cake when we get there.”
Polly laughed. He was a right nice lad, was John Willy.