After our spectacular season opener, the spaniel and I were on probation. Cydney, you may recall, retrieved a hen bird stuck in a stream but then ran off on a freelance flushing mission between drives. I thought it was rather a success, on balance. But the rest of the shoot begged to differ and judged her performance a net disaster. That said, we decided to give it another try and turned up at 9 a.m. the next week at the barn where all the pickers-up, beaters and guns were having coffee.
We were not exactly welcomed with open arms. No one wanted to take us in their 4×4 to the first drive, least of all the head of the picking-up team, whom we normally stand with. He headed straight for his truck, without so much as a good morning. Stranded, I appealed to the gamekeeper and he told me how to get to the first drive on my own. I told him I didn’t think I should stand on my own, affronting all and sundry with my complete inability to work out what was going on.
I can only tell which way the birds are flying and which have come down dead when I am with an expert who gives me a running commentary: ‘That one’s hit. See?’ And I squint and say I can see when I can’t. They all look the same to me. Sometimes, I could swear a bird is falling out of the sky as dead as the parrot from the dead parrot sketch, only to be informed that it is running for cover — so no, it would not be a good idea to send my dog for it.
The gamekeeper stood scratching his head, trying to think what to do with us, and after a while he said, ‘I know. Get in your car and follow me to the first drive.’
‘But don’t you go with the beating line?’
‘Just follow me.’ And not really feeling I was in a position to be picky, I did.
The gamekeeper deposited me in the middle of a crowd of beaters next to a crop field. They were all zipping themselves into protective clothing that would probably have kept Ebola at bay.
‘Don’t let that dog off the lead,’ said the gamekeeper. I nodded. ‘Just watch the boys and do what they do.’
I nodded. I put on my waterproof coat and a broad-rimmed leather cowboy hat. The gamekeeper skidded away in his off-roader and disappeared over the horizon. After a bafflingly long wait, the beaters suddenly started to line up in front of a vast field of head-high maize. About 20 of us stood in silence, apparently waiting for a signal.
The atmosphere was a cross between All Quiet on the Western Front and Children of the Corn. Suddenly, the head of the line got the word down his walkie-talkie from the keeper and gave us the signal to advance.
‘Keep together!’ he shouted. ‘Good luck,’ said the man next to me. ‘Remember, whatever you do, walk in a straight line and keep going no matter what.’ ‘Come on, lads! Forward!’ shouted the head beater.
Slowly, we advanced. At first I thought it was a good thing Cydney was pulling me so hard by her lead that I would be propelled through the maize under the spaniel’s hysterical steam. But as soon as we hit the maize, I realised this was not right. Cydney doesn’t walk straight and so as she weaved left to right the more than man-high stalks of maize got tangled in her leash and crashed down on me, trapping me and lashing me to them until I could disentangle us. My hat got swept off my head in seconds.
‘Keep going!’ shouted the head of the team. Then suddenly the shout went up: ‘Hold the line!’ We stopped. A terrible silence descended. I looked to my left and right through the maize and could see all the men frozen. ‘Maybe it’s over,’ I said to myself. ‘Maybe they’ve realised this is madness. Maybe common sense has prevailed and they’re going to call it off!’
But as soon as this thought formed, the shout went up: ‘Go go go!’ and we had to advance. How I got out the other end I will never know. When we started I had been so idiotically naive, I had put both hands in my pockets for warmth, including the one grasping the dog’s lead. The force of her pulling when we hit the maize ripped the coat to shreds.
I stood there in tatters, my face scratched, my hair on end. My lovely hat from Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply in Bozeman, Montana was long gone, somewhere back in the maize. Along with Cydney’s hopes. And my dignity.
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