Cast your mind back to 1950 — if you were alive then. I was alive. I’d been invited to the tenth birthday party of a boy called James Walker.
His family lived in a ramshackle house near Dorchester, with a huge garden.
There must have been a dozen of us children. We played games, then there was a lovely tea. This was the era of rationing, but the Walkers must have saved up their coupons. We had fish paste sandwiches, and iced birthday cake. It was the first time I had seen, or eaten, jelly.
Suddenly a silence was imposed. Colonel Walker stood in the doorway of the dining-room looking grave.
“I’m sorry to break into this happy party, children. But something serious has happened and we need your help. The Zoo has just telephoned me. One of their tigers has escaped. I’ve looked out of the window, and it’s taken cover in the pampas grass at the end of the garden.”
We all knew that clump of pampas. We’d been playing round it before tea.
“Now — I’ve had lots of experience of tiger hunts, in India. If you do exactly — exactly — as I say, you’ll be in no danger. Mrs Walker has a saucepan and a wooden spoon for each of you” (indeed, we could hear clattering in the kitchen behind him) “and you’ll be beaters. I want you to walk out very quietly and surround the pampas in a horseshoe shape, open towards the house. When I say the word — but not before — I want you to bang your saucepans and scream and yell. Has anyone ever asked you to make as much noise as you possibly can? That will drive the tiger towards the house. I’ll be standing on the roof and I’ll shoot it as it comes up the lawn.”
No child protested. Nobody begged to stay in the house in safety. And certainly none of us laughed. I remember the others looked pale. We were terrified. But we were war babies. All our lives people had been jolly brave and kept stiff upper lips.
So we trooped into the garden with our saucepans and surrounded the pampas, in the depths of which we could see something large with black and yellow stripes. It seemed to be moving.
At the word of command we screamed and yelled and banged. And soon the tiger emerged from the clump and, just as predicted, ran up the lawn. There was a loud bang, and it collapsed.
I looked up at the roof. There was Colonel Walker with his gun. But why was he pointing it at the sky? I looked back at the tiger. And there was James the birthday boy, struggling out of a tiger-skin hearthrug.
We all screamed again, almost as loudly. Then we went inside and finished our tea.
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