The Mystery of Catbrain Lane

WPC Winnie Maitland was new to policing.  This was her first posting after Passing Out and it had been to the sticks of Burnthorpe.  She was not very impressed.  Either with the town or its crime rates. Or rather what the crimes seemed to consist of.   “Mind you”, she thought, “it’s better to be outside than in that wretched little rest-room they put aside for the women working in the station.”

She shifted her feet into a more comfortable angle on the grass slope they stood on. Winnie was waiting for her companion to say something, or was he expecting her to conclude something from the scene?  She sighed and looked down at the mud now creeping over the toes of her once polished black lace-up shoes…”I suppose it’s better than talking lipstick with the secretary, or dress making with Sarg’s wife when she brings him the sandwiches he leaves behind.  Why won’t he tell her he hates sandwiches and eats at the pub?”

Winnie looked across the miniature valley again then at the young policeman at her side and back to the silent scene before them.   Her thoughts wandered: “I bet Wendy was picked up again last night. If I could talk with her, get her to explain what’s so wrong.  It must be something. I could help, whatever it is.”

“It’s a vardo.”   Walter Copper spoke at last.

“What is?”

“That is.”

“For goodness sake! The campsite, the tent, the caravan, maybe the horse?  Be more specific.  Please!”   Winnie didn’t have time for all this silence and now the guessing games.

“The caravan. They all live in it and travel in it.  It’s a  ‘vardo’,  a Romany caravan.  The children sleep in the tent if there is no room in the van.  There’s always some children.”

“There’s no-one about. It looks clean, even the wheels.”

“They always are.”

“The horse is just standing there, not even tied to a tree or anything.”


“Oh.”  She was beginning to lose patience with this struggling conversation. “There’s no one there, it looks pretty.  Pretty okay, that is.  Shall we be off?”

With that she turned to walk back the way they arrived.

“Wrong way.” he said, ” Up through that open gate and down the lane at the back,” and walked forward down the little slope where the grass leaked into the mud at the side of the small brook running through the lowest point of this valley’s meadow.  WPC Winnie followed unhappily with each squelching step.

Walter took a large step over the narrowest part of the stream. Winnie stopped at the edge as it was too wide for her to step over with the uniform skirt she was wearing to below her knees. “Damn, how you’re supposed to be able to run in this!.”  Hesitating enough to let Walter move forward, he never bothered to look back, she took a step backwards. He continued forwards  toward the ‘vardo’.  WPC Winnie Maitland grabbed at the lower sides of the skirt with both hands and yanked the hemline up high and took a step and a leap over the brook, keeping sight of the spot for her landing.  At the high point of her exaggerated leap Walter turned to offer help just in time to see a flash of police woman’s black stocking top and white thigh.

She landed squarely, without slipping and brushed her skirt smoothly down. He was facing the caravan again as she looked up to follow.

gypsy-caravanHe stopped within a few feet of the steps down from the front of the  vardo, the lower half of its ‘stable’ door closed.  Winnie caught him up and continued to the tent beside the caravan, lifted the fly and peered inside.

“Looks cosy in here. The quilting is really pretty, all hand stitched and lots of it. Nobody in, of course.”  She stood up. “Come on Walter, my feet are soaking, can’t we get back to the station now?”

He stopped imagining the inside of the van, piecing what he could see with what he had been told as a youngster.  The bright paintwork inside and the clever fixtures with all the decorated panels and the nick-nacks and family icons, heirlooms, that would be safely packed away for the travelling and put on display when parked up for a few days, or weeks at a time.  Reverie broken he started to traipse up the slope to his companion and the open gate to the lane.

As he reached Winnie they heard a stifled, almost scream, from behind them and he grabbed at her arm. “What was that?”

“The horse?” She said hopefully and looked at the horse, still as a statue standing on three legs, its fourth slightly cocked, seemingly off the ground.  Head drooping slightly, ears just at alert, it didn’t seem interested in anything.

“I seen ya!”  A woman’s voice panted from inside the van.

Policeman looked at policewoman. “Come on”, he said and moved toward the van.  A gulped noise from the van and a pained, “Holy, holy, holy”.

Walter put a foot on the second step and grabbed at the ledge of the half-door ready to push himself into ‘who knows what’.  His head appeared above the door and he could see into the bright interior of the vardo.

“Don’t you dare come in here Copper. The woman can!”    His head remained in situ until he reversed quickly to the ground and pushed into the WPC as she stood at the bottom of the steps. She was knocked away as his back reversed into her.

“You go up, she needs you.”  His eyes were wide as he spoke.  His reaction seemed urgent so with a quick shrug of shoulders and a hoarse “What?”, at him.  She brushed him aside and climbed the steps.  At the top she looked in, “Oh no!”  Fumbled the bolt open and clambered into the cabin of the van.

“What do I do?”  She called from inside.

“You’ve done the course more recently than me.” He called back quickly, “Anyway, I’m not allowed in.”

The woman shouted at them to “stop mithering and shut up”.

“Shall I radio for help, for an ambulance?”  He called up to them.

“No!”  Yelled the woman.  Walter said no more and took his hand off the radio at his shoulder.

“What do I do now?”   He heard Winnie ask in a panicky voice.

“What I tell yoi.” The firm response.

Walter walked over to the horse at the rear of the caravan.  He was trying to keep out of the way but in earshot.  After some time he heard swearing, assumed it was the woman but couldn’t be sure.  Heard a short high-pitched scream that wasn’t the woman and more silence.   The horse responded to his rubbing its neck by pushing towards him and bending his neck so the brown and white head knocked into Walter”s arm.

“No, no apple for you, Pie”.  Rejected, the head turned away. Then he heard the wail from the van.  A thin, angry squeal that briefly filled the the scenic little meadow-valley they stood in.  The piebald’s ears twitched to alert in the direction of the sound.   PC Walter decided he had to go and do his duty and check on his colleague.

He gingerly tiptoed up the steps, peered over the ridge of the door and continued to the top step where he leaned on the ledge with both hands and spoke to the WPC,  “How is she?”

“She did fine,” said the woman quickly, now draped in a huge, hugely patterned quilt and sitting on a mound of cushions on the bench at the side.

“I thought she would faint but she kept a head on her shoulders.   Its her first one I reckon.” She continued, looking at Winnie.

WPC Winnie Maitland stood at the back of the vardo, next to the neat black-leaded stove, still warm from the small fire kept in it.   She held a bundled cream shawl in her arms and was beaming into the wrinkled face inside.

“Ere, give ‘er me.”  The woman waved her arms for the newborn baby and Winnie relinquished the baby-parcel to its mother.

“What type is it?” He screwed his eyes at his wrong words.

“It’s a girl-type.  You know, female?” Said Winnie.

“As long as its out, any type will do.”  Said the woman softly to the baby. She put her forehead to the babe’s then kissed the little creased brow.  The baby cried.  She rocked it in her arms.

“What will you call her?”  Asked Walter.

“What’s your name?” Came the reply, looking at Winnie.

“I’m Winnie and he’s Walter,” came the hopeful response.

“Well,  Winnie,  thanks for the help.  You can leave as soon as you like.  My girls will be back from runnin’ the town any minute now so you can trot along.  Their dad and the lads will get back before sunset so we can get on.”

“Oh.”  Winnie, slightly abashed,  looked at Walter, “Shouldn’t we stay, call a doctor or something?”

‘If she says we go we can go.” He shrugged.  “You said lads and girls, are you sure they able to help you. You might need help.”

‘Three boys with their dad and the two girls here at camp, should be enough for me to keep under me thumb.”

“Right then, I will radio in that we are back on the beat.”  Said Walter, ” Come along WPC Maitland”, and he turned down the steps to hear Winnie ask:

“Has she a name? I’d like to remember today, and her and all this, and you.”

“She’ll have my name, it’s Catherine.  She’s the sixth generation with the name.  In fact”, she continued proudly, “she’s the sixth generation to be born in this very spot. Not the van but this meadow.  We’ve travelled these lanes for a hundred years now, so be it, a hundred more.”

Winnie stroked a finger gently down the baby’s shawl, “‘Bye, Catherine”,  and stepped out and down to Walter.   They walked to the gate and onto the rough tarred road towards town.

“She didnt want us there, did she?”

“Doesn’t need us, once the baby’s born. In fact you turned up at the exact right time.”  Walking through the gate.

“Shall I shut it?” Putting her hand on the top of the five bar gate.

“No. she said they were returning soon”

“I hope the baby will be okay. I think I will get a midwife to call just in case.”

“She won’t thank you for it.

They continued down the lane and stopped at its junction with a properly metalled road back into town.  Two girls came screaming round the corner in long chequered dresses and flaring cardigans.  They stopped as they met the two police officers. Looked at them both.  Giggled into each other’s shoulders.  Whispered conversation briefly.  Within seconds they were separate again and looked at both constables. With another outburst of giggles they plonked the wicker baskets they were carrying on their heads with one hand and immediately danced round  the two adults with a teasing, “Copper Copper, who’s a Copper Copper?”  And were off up the lane apparently screaming in fear of their lives.

“That’s the two girls”. Walter remarked casually, watching them run away.

“You’ve seen them before, then?”

“Oh yes, a few times.”

Winnie walked to the turf at the side of the road and tried wiping the mud off her shoes and only succeeded in spreading it more thinly. “Damn”, she thought out loud.  Walter watched.

She saw the etched black letters of the road sign and made a connection,

“This is the same name as on the gate to that field. This is Catbrain Lane and that was Catbrain Meadow on the gate.  Where on earth does that name come from?  Was there a cat-murderer on the loose?”

Walter moved on, Winnie followed but they had to step into the gutter as a truck rushed towards them. One headlight was covered over with tape and they could see four hunched bodies squashed in the cab as it approached and sped past.  The klaxon sounded as it neared and a few hands waved gaily as it scrunched by. The sides were heightened by planks above the wooden sidewall. The two automatically turned to watch it hurl round the corner. It slowed right down, choked into a lower gear and blue-smoked its way round to roar up the incline.

“That’s the dad and brothers” he said turning back and walking on.

“She was right then.”

“She’s always right.”

“You know them all then?”  She was intrigued now. What mischief had they been up to?  She reckoned Walter Copper was the sort of bloke that always had mishaps and teasing.  Suspected he was easily embarrassed.  Wondered how he could actually be an effective policeman.  Began to think she wanted a different beat, or rather a different colleague to show her this tin-pot little town.

“Catbrain” he started.

“Who me?” She tried it as a joke, it landed nowhere.

“It’s not dead cats, you know.”  They were walking briskly now needing to get back to the station. They had kept in touch by the radio but now the desk sergeant was getting impatient. He had allowed them to deal with the emergency but was not happy with their inaction re medical care and wanted an immediate report written up.

“It’s a joke, sort of.”

“Some joke.”

“Well, yes.  That’s a Romany field up there, has been for years. Like she said, it’s been used as a laying-up camp for several generations.   A fact, it’s not generally known, but we do.  Old families in the town that is.”

“Come on,” she thought, get on with it.  Your so slow, just like everyone round here. “The travellers own that land?  I didn’t think they owned anything, just wandered around all the time.”

“Romany, gypsy.   She, they, are Romany, not travellers. There is a difference. They might own some land but only in place to place for stopping.  They don’t stay long in one place.  Always on the move to earn a living.”

“Like tinkers, you mean?”

“No, not like tinkers.”  He was getting sidetracked. “The name of the lane and the field.  The field came first but the lane just followed on with the same name after a while.  All fields had, well, have, names. They just do and Roads running by or to usually catch the name.  Like Church Road or Vicarage Lane in towns. ”

“Catbrain?”  She was scornful, “Some joke!”

“It’s that clan’s family name.” He paused too long and she made a noise of disbelief.

“The family name is ‘Brain’.    She told you, in the caravan. The baby’s name,”

“Is Catherine.  Is Catherine!  It’s Cat., short for Catherine.  Catherine Brain!”

“They keep the family first name, the ancestors if you will, in their memory. They keep them to themselves. They have special times, gatherings and storytelling.  Parties with memories and storeytelling; oral history.”

“Sagas round a camp fire?”

“They’re not Vikings! Well yes, family stories, true or just elaborated.”

“And this ‘joke’ does everyone know about it?”

“Not particularly, it’s not shouted about but I suppose outsiders do know.  They like to keep their secrets, their privacy. They don’t really see it as a joke, either.  Don’t go telling all and sundry.  I only told you because you helped the baby get born.”

She wasn’t bothered, it wasn’t too much of a secret to keep, easy to forget.  But watching a baby being born! That really would be something to write home about!  Though she did ask:

“How do you know all this if it’s a sort of secret joke?”

“Well.”   The station was in sight and he had to tell another sort-of secret.  “She’s my auntie, that’s why I had to stay out when she told me to.  My dad married one of her sisters and they set up home in  Burnthorpe.    I visit them when they arrive here.  Just to keep in touch.  They know I’m  police  but I promised to drop it whenever I am on their property.  Which I do, as long as I can.”

By which time they had reached the station, feet in unison up the two stone steps.  “It’s a sort of secret, though.”  He finally whispered into her ear.

Another one she felt able to keep.


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