Last time we learned how Frank became lost on Paddington Station as a 10 year old boy. Now read how a simple mistake led to him becoming lost in a Surrey wood on a bitterly cold January day.
Travel Troubles, by Frank Parker.
Travelling by coach from London along the A3 Portsmouth Road necessitated that I alight from the coach at a place called Fairmile. From there a twenty minute walk through woodland took me to the School. It must have been January 1954. I’d not returned to school on the appointed date. There were two reasons for this: I’d contracted chicken pox during the Christmas holiday and early in January there was a heavy snowfall which made travel from our cottage near the Black Mountains impossible for several days.
My return therefore took place on a bitterly cold foggy morning near the end of January. I alighted from the coach in what I believed to be the right place. After waiting for a suitable gap in the traffic I crossed the road and sought out the entrance to the path through the wood.
I was familiar enough with the route. After all, I’d taken it in reverse only a few weeks previously. And the path skirted a small lake, known to us school boys as Black Pond, which was a frequent destination for weekend walks. In weather such as I was presently experiencing such walks might include skating on the ice. Swimming there had been banned after a boy a year or two older than me had become entangled in weeds and drowned the previous summer.
There was, however, nothing familiar about the path I’d chosen. Where was Black Pond? And I certainly did not recall a ploughed field beyond a wire fence at the edge of the wood.
I decided to retrace my steps and try a different path into the woods. This one quickly turned out to be as unfamiliar as the first. By now I was shivering with the cold – or was it fear? I could not feel the fingers of the hand holding the small attaché case I carried. My nose was numb and running. I regularly suffered from chilblains in winter. This year was no different. Every step was accompanied by searing pain. My breath came in sobs.
I wished I could find somewhere warm to curl up and die. I stopped walking and looked around me at the frost fringed undergrowth. This – the situation I’d got myself into – was stupid. How could I have got things so wrong? Had I got off the coach at the wrong place? If so, where was the right place?
Once again I retraced my steps. I had definitely got off the coach at the right stop. I recognised the place I’d stood waiting for the London bound coach back in December. It was at that moment that I realised my mistake. And cursed myself for an idiot. My sobs turned to hysterical laughter as I re-crossed the road. There, immediately recognisable, was the right path. The fog began to lift and a pale sun sent splinters of light bouncing from the cobwebs festooning the briars at the path’s edge.
I look now at news footage of refugees trudging for miles in appalling weather or braving a sea crossing in overcrowded leaky boats, and realised that, however painful it may have seemed at the time, nothing I had to endure as a child could begin to compare to the suffering of such people.