We group of nervously smiling children were made to stand in a row facing two or three older and less smiling children, but children just the same. Each of the unsmiling children held a crude home made bow in one hand and a pair of primitive arrows in the other. We, standing in a row, were asked by the other children whether we would prefer the nail or the used shot gun cartridge. This question referred to the different tips on the arrows. The used shot gun cartridge had a flat, brass plate on the end, which would hurt a bit, whilst the rusty nail had a point which would cause an injury. We all chose the cartridge every time. I don’t remember anyone choosing the nail. We were then told to turn around so that our backs faced the less smiling children, who called themselves Cobras, as in the snake. It was a summer’s day in the Worcestershire countryside and we were standing in a country lane, with steep banks rising up on each side; my memory has an image of a deep, steep sided lane whose banks were covered in vegetation interrupted by small serpentine paths leading up to the ridges. We weren’t smiling now. We were fidgeting. We didn’t look over our shoulders or at each other. If I had looked to my right I would have seen the large, rusty iron farm gate that led to fields where cattle grazed and where we would be taken on “walks” in the afternoons after classes. Looking to my left, if I had done so, would have given me a view of the copse at the far end of the cutting where we “hens” built our “dens” from old farm sacks and sheets of corrugated iron. We waited patiently to be shot but the bell rang and we all ran back to school. I don’t think we, or I, were ever shot but we waited quite often.
Proust was a Cobra, pronounced rather harshly as Prowst rather than Proost, and was the most threatening of that elite band of 11 year olds who made us 8 year old “hens” march as soldiers, in ordered groups, around idyllic country lanes so that we could be ambushed and lined up to be shot at their pleasure. There are apocryphal stirrings in the back of my mind that draw a picture of Proust with a raised hammer smashing the lid of my, or perhaps it was some other child’s, “tuck box” or maybe not a picture but a memory of hearing the story. It was only at the end of my final term at the school when I and my friends finally plucked up enough courage to enter the long deserted Cobras’ den. There was little to see save for a scattered array of rusty empty tins of Fussel’s Condensed Milk and faded sweet wrappers, evidence of the taxes that had been appropriated from us “hens”, together with the small cracked plastic body of a “Crystal” transistor radio which together were as clear a sign of their sway as would have been the bleached human bones in a cannibal’s cave. Proust, by then, had long gone on to matriculate as a bully at one of the great Catholic public schools. This was in 1952 and we children were still innocent and the irony passed us by.