The picturesque village of Rowandale, nestling in a leafy valley between the Lakes and the sea, was known throughout the district for two things: its ancient grammar school and the excellence of its annual summer fete. When the Headmaster had the happy idea of holding the school sports on the same day as the fete, the village became the venue for many families seeking a pleasant day out.
On the evening of this special day, a concert was always held in the village hall. The first half featured amateurs, but the second half was given over to some well-established professional act. Local entertainers considered it an honour if they were invited to perform there.
The Sports were held in the morning and afternoon, culminating in a five-mile cross-country run. This was the modern counterpart of the school's nineteenth-century paper chase, and the puzzling maze of narrow country lanes around the village was ideal for the purpose.
Making his final preparations in the school changing room, fourteen-year-old Billy Tempest was determined to do even better in the cross-country this time. The previous year, in spite of his slight build, he had kept up with the leading group until the winning post was almost in sight. Then, rounding the last bend, he was blatantly pushed out of position and had to settle for fourth place. This year he was determined to run alone, and to lead the field if possible. And after the race was the concert where he'd been invited to present his magic act, the youngest performer of the evening. Perhaps his first step on the ladder of fame....
At half past four, the starting pistol cracked, and Billy and about thirty others leapt forward and sped on their way through a line of cheering onlookers. By making a special effort, he was soon in front and held his place easily for the first two miles, threading his way through the country lanes. When on a number of occasions, burlier lads tried to overtake him, he put on a spurt and held his position, but he found it more difficult each time.
Billy knew the course intimately, having practised hard for this occasion. He knew that at the farthest point from home there was a long steep hill, which wound its way through the woods. If he could keep his lead there, the way home would be much easier.
As he approached the hill he tried to conserve his strength but was challenged almost immediately by big Frank Turner, the boy who had jostled him the previous year.
Soon the race developed into a test of stamina and determination. Frank overtook Billy and gained a few yards, but Billy came back. And so it went on, each snatching the lead in turn.
As the lane became steeper, Billy felt his strength leaving him, and a pain developed in his side. He tried to ignore it, but it gradually became worse. Frank overtook him once again and forged ahead as the stitch in Billy's side became unbearable and he had to slow down.
Frank looked back with a triumphant leer and was away.
By this time Billy was weaving all over the place and then, without any warning, he was violently sick. He staggered to the side of the road, bent double with pain, and collapsed, almost unconscious. Through his agony he was aware of other runners pounding up the hill and past him. And then there was silence.
In spite of himself Billy almost wept. He staggered to his feet and tried to get going again, but it was no use. He was completely spent.
After a time the pain subsided and he was able to reach the top of the hill. And then began the long, lonely journey home. He tried to console himself with the thought of his coming magic act, then realised that time was rapidly passing. Luckily he knew the country lanes intimately and was able to take short cuts. But he would have to hurry.
He was rounding the bend of a particularly narrow lane when he saw a minibus parked a few yards ahead. Its back doors were open, and two men were puzzling over a large folding map. A small group of people, evidently the passengers, were sitting on the grass verge talking quietly together.
Billy thought that perhaps he could cadge a lift. As he approached, the men looked up with evident relief. "Ah, son," said one, as Billy came up. "You obviously live round here," taking in his sport's strip.
Billy nodded. "I'm from Rowandale. A couple of miles away. Are you lost?"
The man laughed. "You could say that. We've been going round in circles for what seems like hours, looking for your place."
"Yes, it is confusing." agreed Billy. "Lots of visitors get lost. But I can show you the way. I'm in a bit of a hurry actually. You see, I'm in a concert tonight at the village hall, and it's getting a bit late."
By this time the men and women on the grass verge were on their feet, their faces wreathed in smiles.
"Get away!" said their spokesman. "That's where were going. Were on tonight too. Second half. The Eversleigh Singers. Perhaps you've heard of us? From Skipton. I'm their manager--and driver. I was beginning to get worried. We've not missed a gig in fourteen years and I don't want to start now. Lucky you came along."
Billy was amazed. "Course I've heard of you. Your bills are outside the hall. Got two of your tapes." Then, rather diffidently, "I'm doing a magic act." (He didn't mention his showbiz ambitions).
The driver smiled and turned to his companions. "O.K. folks. Pile in. We're on our way." Then, much to Billy's delight, "He's one of us. Jump in the front with me. Theres some CDs in there for you. On me. What's your name, lad?"
And as the eight relieved singers and driver took their places in the van, Billy felt quite virtuous. Nice to know he'd saved the day--the pain in his side really had been a stitch in time.
Ron is 80 years old and served with the British Army in India (and Ceylon) during World War II. He retired from the teaching profession in 1985 and, following his wife's death shortly afterwards, took up creative writing as a hobby. Since then he has had short stories and poetry published and broadcast. The North West Network of the B.B.C has broadcast seventeen of his stories.