“No matter how strange or interesting the story, chances are pretty good that at least some raven somewhere actually did that.”
Mark Pavelka, quoted in Mind of the Raven, Heinrich Bernd, 2006
I was on traffic patrol with my wife. Our beat was a couple of thousand feet over Watling Street, between Oswestry and Shrewsbury. It never got really busy in those days. Harvest time would be about as busy as it got. Farmers liked to get their corn to market quickly, or at any rate before the weather changed. After Michaelmas, you wouldn’t see any wheeled traffic on the road at all. Just nags and men.
It was a beautiful day. We hauled the sun above the fields and danced in its rays, flying wing to wing, then rolling and tumbling apart, playing dead, then up again circling higher and higher. We could see for miles. The Wrekin rising above the cornfields like a temple. Snowdonia. The Lake District, too.
I had struggled with addiction and we’d separated for a while. But mine wasn’t a typical expression of PTSD. The bloody side of the job didn’t worry me at all. Roadkill was my bread and butter. It was the unkindness of humans that kept me awake. Without seeing the incremental steps, I somehow fell into a prolonged depression. Now, with help, I had begun to turn my life around. I had got my badge back, and my wife. Life was good.
I liked meeting new people every day – and people on the Steet were nearly always new: strangers by definition. Locals didn’t travel. Where would they go? But even strangers, returning monthly or yearly with sheep or kine become friends of a sort. You recognized their outline from their routine. Some gain a name: John Jones, you could set your town clock by if it had one. Billy Badger on his way to Shrewsbury with eggs. Tom Thorn the furze-cutter coming back from Knockin Heath with fuel for Widow Smith and her beautiful but feeble-minded daughter.
I knew Thomas Elks by sight. A brat, by most accounts, brought up by his grandmother. Where exactly his income came from at this point nobody was quite sure, but at some stage, his grandmother ran out of money and Elks turned to other schemes to make a crust. He was known the length of the Street right down beyond Brummigum where he had the reputation of a journeyman shoemaker. But listen, I’m a traffic cop, not a plod. If I’d known any of this I might have been able to intervene sooner.
Elks’s brother owned a plantation in Barbados but he lived in the New Manor House at Knockin. His foreign estate was run by an overseer and the home farm was managed by a bailiff.
‘Hard to see exactly what my brother does all day,’ thought Thomas, not unreasonably. ‘But he is a respectable widower: a sideman at St. Mary’s where his wife, Anne, and our parents are buried, and I’m a laughing-stock.’
On the plus side, Thomas reasoned, his brother was in constant agonising pain from a fistula and not expected to survive the winter. The problem was that he also had a young son who would inherit, as things stood, everything: plantation, house, farm, reputation. It wasn’t fair.
On the day in question, Thomas asked the Smith girl to invite his nephew into the cornfields to gather flowers. They might sell them to the higgler if he was passing and in funds. Or perhaps hitch a lift on a cart into town and hawk the flowers themselves. I saw the pair approach Elks about four fields from the Street. They exchanged greetings. The girl walked away and Elks carried his nephew into a cornfield where we lost sight of them.
I nodded to my wife and we set off after them. Before we could intervene, Elks had drowned the boy in a pale of water which he had hidden in the field. The boy was lying lifeless in the corn. One of his eyes had popped out in the struggle and was floating in the bucket. Elks saw us and fled the scene. I shared the eye with the missus on the basis of ‘waste not want not’ and because there was no good forensic argument not to in those days and we followed Elks back across the fields. Reaching the Street he jumped on his horse and took off in the direction of London.
It’s not unusual for us to fly a hundred miles a day. We don’t recognize county boundaries – or national borders come to that. Elks was familiar with the landlords on the Street because he changed horses several times (good horses too which shows he was liked) and reached the outskirts of London, like a sensible fishmonger, in hours not days.
At Mimms in Hertfordshire, he entered a field, tethered his horse and climbed into a haycock to sleep. We flew up into willow tree and took it in turns to stand guard. I had done my training in Hertfordshire. The road through Mimms was probably as bad as anywhere along it. Some of the ruts were so deep there were carp in them. Near to London, the roads could be busy too. Rich pickings for highwaymen. Especially if they could swim.
I slept soundly when it was my turn and dreamt about my first case. A grazier from Halloughton with an empty cart and a full purse was coming back from Smithfield when he was set upon by two footpads at Mimms Wash. They cut him and his horse and made off with four hundred guineas in cash and banknotes. They also were never caught: at least not for that job.
In the evening when there was still no sign of Elk’s nephew at Knockin Manor, the alarm was raised. A search of the fields discovered the foul deed and the village sent two men on horseback in pursuit of the perpetrator. At about eight o’clock the next morning, I saw the pair approaching on the road and the missus and I set up a right old clamour. I flew out to them quorking and gesturing towards the haycock. They stopped and stared for a second or two, spurred their horses and continued on their way.
Sometime after these sad events took place, a version of the story appeared in print. The author, for reasons known only to himself, ignored me and the wife’s professional interest in the case: worse than that, he gave it a happy ending.
‘Hee (Thomas Elks) was brought backe to Shrewsbury, and there tryed, condemned, and hanged on a Gibbet, on Knockin Heath.’
The Thomas Elks we tracked to Mimms that day was never caught. The horsemen ate breakfast at The Red Lion in Barnet and returned to Knockin empty-handed. We filed our report and carried on working. Someone had to see that the sun came up and that the Street was kept clear for legitimate business and the free passage of news.