Mark’s dad had taken us along to our first big November shoot. As ten-year olds, we were by far the youngest of the beaters. The day started with the breakfast. In a high-ceilinged yeoman-farmhouse kitchen, we sat on a high-backed settle next to the blazing log fire. Beneath huge, hooked hams, in the middle of the room, was a massive pine table. Upon its scrubbed-white surface, a banquet of cold cooked meats, loaves and pickles was laid out before us. Like a display in a butcher’s window, pork-pies as big as tea pots posed proudly next to stuffed chine and haslets. Slabs of white bread leaned on breadboards and pickle jars brimmed with gherkins, red cabbage and onions.
New to such a world of rural affluence, I was struck dumb as the chatter around the table became heartier and louder. Whinnying minor public-school voices clashed with the chewings of rounded Lincolnshire vowels and gruffer northern accents.
‘I say chairps, offly frawsty iteside. I do hairp it woms up.’
‘Dowunt you worry, Peertur. Fooercast sez itull heeut up soon enuff. Sunull beeut off that mist cum mid-mornin’. Any rowud, git sum of that grub dowun yer.’
‘ ’M abite ta… Hi doz Mary mainij sich buyntyus fodda each yar?’
‘Fair comment. There’s nowt like the woman o’ this house when it comes t’ feedin’ o’ the five thousand.’
‘Nowa, that’s true – wok miracles can ower lass. And she can pluck her fair sheeur of pheasants, no mistayuk.’
‘I say, this pawk pie’s d’lishus. Wunnful. Ennya chairps fairnsy a tot to gew with ’t?’
‘Now yer bloody talkin’. Add a splash in ‘ere.’
‘Me an all, Peertur. Itull wash dowun the hayuslet what’s got stuck in me throwut.’
‘Eeeyo, Raym’n, yar incorrijbil. Dine the h’tch, haw, haw.’
Stuffing deer-stalkers or flat caps into the pockets of their tweed jackets, men of all ages, shapes and sizes arrived to a chorus of greetings and back-slaps before piling their plates high with slices of pie and spoonfuls of chutney. They were the guns, at whose service I would be employed all day. All had variations of the same brown and green checked uniform. Deer-stalkers, knitted woollen ties and garters, checked shirts, tweed jackets, ballooning breeches, coarse woollen socks and brown brogues. And in the lobby, an arsenal of shotguns, cartridge belts, shooting sticks and game bags. It was like an Edwardian fancy dress party. I was captivated. I felt as if I should be tugging my forelock and passing between them with a tray filled with clinking glasses of piping hot mulled wine.
Half an hour later, I was rudely bounced back into reality on the back of a tractor drawn trailer as it jolted us towards our first station of the morning. Behind us, in the yard, we could hear Land Rovers roar into life and the whining and yapping of the dogs achieving new levels of hysteria. The tractor picked up speed, flinging fist-sized lumps of mud from its tyres. We had been given ash sticks for the beating. I tapped mine on the heels of my wellies. The straw bales on the trailer were prickling my thighs and I could feel damp beginning to seep through my jeans. Either side of us, eddies of ground mist swirled into the air and snaked through the glistening hedges.
Juddering to a stop, the tractor ticked over as we leaped down from the trailer. We were at the edge of a stubble field. Looking across, I could just make out a copse of trees drifting in and out of view like an island in a heavily swelling sea.
‘Spread yersens, then. And wait fer the whistle.’
Jumping the ditch, we ran along the bank, positioning ourselves every twenty yards or so.
‘Mek sure yer stay in a line. Any dawdling and the birds’ll git through.’
On the whistle, we began to walk across the field like a well-trained platoon of soldiers venturing into No Man’s Land. Although the ground was firm, it was difficult not to stumble over the furrows.
‘Keep it steady.’
Several of the older beaters were thrashing at the stubble and calling out incoherently like newspaper sellers outside an underground station. I put my ash stick under my armpit and whistled through my fingers. Still nothing was stirring. By now we could see the copse clearly. Perhaps we had chosen a vacant field. It all seemed a bit of an anti-climax.
Suddenly there was a scrambling noise at my feet and a furious whirring as a partridge was startled into flight. Flying low at first, it banked to the right, then climbed. Seconds later, I could see two clouds of smoke burst from the edge of the copse. As the reports of the shotgun reached our ears, the partridge doubled up in mid-air in an explosion of feathers as if it had hit an invisible barrier. It dropped in an arc towards the copse and bounced with a thud.
‘Walking on...Keep the line.’
Immediately, the field in front of us erupted. Craking pheasants launched themselves high into the air, their wings clapping and long tail feathers rapidly vibrating. Below them, coveys of partridges thrummed in formation then scattered in a chaotic race for cover. Rabbits sprinted in zig-zags down and across the furrows.
There was an instantaneous response from the guns. Like an accelerating drum beat, the blasts came faster and faster, then rolled into a wild crescendo. The copse echoed to the thunderous crash. A hail of birds dropped from the sky in front of us followed by a pattering shower of small balls of shot. A cloud of smoke drifted out into the field smelling of cordite. We walked on slowly towards the shouts and the gun fire.
By now we could see the glint of the barrels as they swivelled to lock on to their next target. Caught up in the excitement, I urged them on, disappointed if a pheasant managed to elude the onslaught. Even before the last shots rang out, the field and copse were alive with brown-and-white spaniels, heads lowered to the ground, scurrying in search of the mangled heaps. Dogs with wildly wagging tails clamped jaws round the necks of pheasants and dragged them purposefully towards the guns.
Miraculously, the scene of carnage quickly transformed into one of order and calm. As we approached the ditch where the guns had hidden, the tree tops once more resounded to the chattering of starlings. Smiling men in deerstalkers conversed in happy groups, their shotguns now snapped and resting over their forearms. Ear plugs had been removed and game had been stuffed into bags, or strung from belts or poles. Whisky flasks changed hands and dogs’ ears were roughly scratched. The only signs that we had been there were freshly broken branches, trampled grass and piles of ejected orange cartridge cases.
During that morning, we must have walked miles over endlessly furrowed fields. As the morning sun broke through the mist, the ground melted beneath us into a quagmire of clinging, muscle-sapping mud. Nevertheless, between thigh wrenching slips and slides, it was possible to attain a trance-like state. The crashing of the guns, when they came, provided the only worry. It wasn’t the dead birds which concerned me. It was the wounded ones which made me flinch. There was an unstated rule that required you to finish off anything lying directly in your path. My ears still rang to the squeals of a young wounded rabbit killed earlier that morning. One of the older lads had picked it up by the hind legs and snapped its neck with a deft chop of the hand. Unnervingly, it had sounded like a screaming baby in a cot.
Consequently, my heart sank when I came across the twitching form of a wounded cock pheasant ten yards in front of me.
‘One fer yer theeur, mayut. Wring the bugger’s neck.’
One of its wings was splayed out on top of the furrow and congealed blood smeared its belly and legs.
‘Hook it betweeun yer fingers and give it a good wrench.’
I quickly picked it up, its head lolling in my palm. I could feel the weight of it beneath my hand, tugging frantically to get free. I flicked it round, its body jerking in spasms through my fingers.
‘Swing the bugger rowund, then snap it quick.’
In a state of panic, I closed my eyes and swung it round again, clenching my fist quickly as I tried to jerk it to a stop. There was a thud in front of me. Opening my eyes, I could see the body bounce then roll to a standstill, the tail feathers flapping violently against the ground. My fist was still clenched, squeezing something hard like a golf ball.
‘Oh, Jesus, no!’
Through squinting eyes, I peeled back my fingers, one by one. Nestling in the cup of my hand, a pheasant’s head. Vividly green, red and white. Like the Italian flag. I froze. It blinked at me. Or was it a wink?
Flinging the head behind me, I jigged on the spot, flailing the air to rid me of the horror.
‘Bloody hell, yerv got some strength on yer.’
It was one of the stewards in black, calf gripping socks.
‘Never mind, itull do fer the pot.’
I laughed through my nose and smiled weakly at Mark. He could read my glazed stare. I was anchored to the spot.
‘Heh, Keith, I’ve got some of my mum’s chocolate cake. Come on. It’s lunchtime.’
I skirted past the headless body of the pheasant and followed him towards the edge of the field. Numbed by the experience, I nibbled at my sandwiches on the back of the trailer and vowed that I would never again consider bush beating as a means of raising money for my next pair of football boots.