A Little Bit of Me

Jottings and Writing, miscellanous misgivings

The Hunting Party

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The boy didn’t know if he had woken of his own volition or the hand that gently shook his shoulder. He blinked and tried to focus his eyes in the gloom of the pre-dawn light. The man, his father, whispered to him,

“Its time. Get your things together. I have some breakfast on the go. See you in five minutes.”

He closed his eyes and then jerked awake fully, guilty hoping that it had only been seconds, not minutes that the first awakening had happened. He knew his father would be furious if he didn’t get up in time and it would be likely that he would leave without him.  He could hear the clinking of plates in the kitchen and he could smell cooking bacon so he guessed that time was on his side. The boy rolled out of bed and his feet hit the cold planks of his bedroom floor. He shivered as he struggled into his underwear, a new pair of long johns his father had paid for but his mother had gone to the menswear shop to buy for him. His father would not have the time to spend on such frivolities as shopping for his son but he was adamant that he had to be properly equipped for his initiation into manhood. This morning’s excursion was the first time the boy had spent any time alone with his father who was usually distant or absent. It wasn’t that his father was a monster, he was just away from home at his work or immersed in something in his study. He pulled on a heavy woolen shirt, then a woolen jersey over that, then struggled into a crispy new pair of denim trousers. He felt like a monster and his mood lightened as he saw himself crashing through the countryside, arms outstretched and frightened girls screaming and fleeing. He heard his mother’s voice rising in urgency and he hurried into the kitchen. His father looked at him and then the big clock on the kitchen wall and the boy could sense that he was annoyed with him. His mother, still in her nightwear but concealed beneath a bulky red dressing gown, pushed a plate of eggs, bacon, toast, and fried tomatoes, in front of him.

“Eat up. You’ll need your strength,” the whispered sotto voice “and hurry.”

He didn’t feel hungry but forced the greasy food down. It was rare that he had a proper breakfast just like he imagined his father had every morning and he liked the idea. He looked across at his father as he hovered on the doorstep, alternately looking back into the warmth of the kitchen, casting a warm light in the morning light, and the gloom of the morning. His father was dressed in a tweed hunting jacket with a jerkin over the top, which had ammunition pouches around the waist and breast pockets. He had his navy cap, pulled tightly (and to the boys eyes uncooly) down his forehead, and trousers with sharp ironed creases. On his feet were a pair of new boots, which he had highly polished, and obviously a great source of pride to their wearer. The boy gulped down his glass of milk and was amazed that he was allowed to leave the table without a stern reminder to brush his teeth and comb his hair. His father just tossed him one of his old woolen caps and the boy, almost with reverence, put it on. They murmured good-byes to the mother and then hurried down the drive to the waiting car.

The car was stifling hot. Dr Steven, the local doctor, and Mr Middlemiss sat in the front seat and the boy and his father had the spacious back seat to themselves. The old and cranky doctor had the heater cranked up to maximum and he still fiddled with the thing, murmering obscentities, as if that would coax more heat out of it.  Outside the morning was crisp and the boy was grateful for the cars heater but it also made him feel sleepy and the greasy breakfast sat heavily on his stomach. The men talked about the weather and then passed a silver flask around the car. They laughed as his father took a drink and then looked uncertain about where to hand it next.

“Be a few more years before the boy takes his full part,” Mr Middlemiss laughed and the three men laughed together. The sweet smell of alcohol permeated the car and the flask did another round. The level of conversation suddenly increased and the boy nodded off as he tried desperately to keep up with what was being said. He jerked awake at the same time as the car came to a halt.

Doors closed with hollow thuds and the boy could see two other cars with men standing in groups, passing around flasks, talking in soft voices, shotguns under their arms. Dogs yapped around their feet and it looked to the boy that some of the animals were reacquainting themselves after a year’s absence. The men moved toward the back of Dr Steven’s car and started sorting out their own guns. He saw his fathers new Beretta for the first time as he unzipped it from its leather case and the boy’s breath held for an instant. It was beautiful. The blue-black of the steel glowed in the light and he could make out the beautiful wood grip and the intricate silver scrolling on the bright metal bits. His father broke open a box of cartridges and started inserting them into his ammunition belt.  Dr Stevens made some remark about new fanged contraptions as he broke his Bernardelli in two and inserted two orange cartridges into the barrels. Mr Middlemiss lowered the flask and looked over at the boy and winked.

“Nothing beats the old Browning and you don’t have to walk around with your thing open.” He giggled as he reflected on his last comment and the boy looked at him trying to fathom what he had missed. The men ambled toward a low-lying punt that was tethered to the wharf. Within minutes they were looking back at the misty shore as the silenced motor whirred away at the back of the punt. The boy was forced to squat on the floor of the vessel with the two dogs, and quickly found himself wetted as the water sluiced around the bottom of the boat.  He could only see the forest of rubber and leather booted men and the quiet conversation and the occasional cough. Then he heard a series of load blasts coming from up ahead and he sensed the tension in the boat.

“Cheeky lowlifes,” he heard Dr Stevens mutter and then a general agreement from his father. Mr Middlemiss was noticeably silent and the boy recalled his father talking at the rare dinner when he was home of the new group of men who had taken up duck hunting in the past years and who had cheapened the sport. The boy could recall words like ‘lower class, uncouth, ruffians, new rich’ but they had little meaning at the time. Now her could place it in context and possibly would be able to put faces to names. He started shivering just as the boat bumped to a stop and the men scrambled over the gunwale of the punt. He felt a hand on his shoulder and his father’s stern voice urging him to get a hurry on.  The dogs leapt form the boat and rushed and they scrambled through some prickly bush, which clung to the boy’s jacket, and he had to stop twice and extract himself from the thorns. They settled into a small mai-mai and the boy closed his eyes as he listened to the racking of shotguns and the clunk as Mr Stevens put his gun together and flipped off the safety catch. He was also aware that he felt cold and when he put his hand to his head he discovered that his hat had gone. He suddenly felt much colder than the outside temperature as he realised what fury this could arouse in his father. Perhaps he could creep back and find it on one of those branches. His thoughts were suddenly interrupted.

“Just watch where you fire and keep your safeties on until we see birds,” whispered Mr Middlemiss and the other men grunted but seemed more intent in peering out into the dawn which had got just a little brighter. He looked across at his father and despite the turmoil inside of him, he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pride at this tall elegant man, intently peering out into the morning with his new gun. His eyes scanned down to the ground and he saw that his father’s new boots were covered in a thick steaming layer of sticky mud which had splashed up over his newly creased trousers.  Just then there was a flurry of activity and three guns roared in unison. The boy almost wet himself as he had not been warned of the loud sound of the guns and he fell to the ground and put his hands over his ears.

‘Damn! All missed. How can three of us all miss at the same time?’ grumbled Dr Stevens and then the boy looked up and saw his father turned in his direction with a look of disgust on his face.

“What the hell are you doing down there, like a little girl?” he asked in a loud and sarcastic voice, “and where the hell is my hat?”

The boy gulped and was about to say something when Mr Middlemiss chirped in,

“The boy gave it to me to hold. Give him a break Donald. He’s never been hunting before. Can’t you remember your first time?”

The boy heard his father’s sharp intake of breath and waited for the inevitable explosion that would result if it had been his mother who spoke in such a way. Any thought of that happening was suddenly shattered as a screeching and quacking sound was accompanied by a flurry of feathered wings.

“Birds, birds, reload-snap it up,” shouted Dr Stevens and the three men turned and scanned the horizon in front of them. The boy lost count of the number of shots but he could hear cries of triumph from the doctor and Mr Middlemiss and, after what seemed an eternity, he heard them counting. “Five or six I reckon,” “three at least-how many for you Donald?”. There was a silence and that tension in the air again, which was only broken by the sounds of the dogs bringing the killed birds back.

It was obvious that his father had not shot any birds and he was now looking down at his new boots and trousers and the boy could almost see the rage rising in him.

 

 

 

 

The boy held the gun to his shoulder. The smell of cordite, gun oil, and rubber filtered back to him. He felt like sneezing but he knew that would infuriate his father. They had been bird spotting before and his allergies had overtaken him and that disastrous outing had ended in tears and slammed doors and silence. The sun was just starting to show its colors over the horizon and the boy hoped that no more birds would take off before the morning was over. He was terrified of firing the gun although his father had shown him how to hold it and what to do when he fired to minimize the kick. He started daydreaming about being at home when Dr Stevens gave a startled cry.

“Swans. A dozen of them. Coming in low. Perfect shot. Can’t miss.” The boy looked down the barrel of his father’s shotgun at the group of beautiful black birds gracefully slicing through the thick morning’s air. He heard the click of Dr Stevens gun and the obscenity he uttered, He heard his father tell him that it was down to him and his eyes started to tear as he lost sight of the swans but he had the presence of mind to swivel the gun away from where he had sighted them last, and he pulled the trigger of the under and over shotgun. He was thrown about four feet back from where he was standing as both barrels exploded and the gun flew out of his hand and he vaguely saw it landing in a patch of mud then slide into the deep water surrounding the mai-mai. His ears were ringing, his shoulder felt as though it was broken and he couldn’t work out whether his trousers were still wet from the boat journey or he had soiled himself. He could hear his fathers swearing and Mr Middlemiss’s attempts to calm him, which were largely going unheeded.

He couldn’t explain to his father about the ugly duckling or the beautiful pictures of swans he had drawn in art or about his nature study project on swans. His father sat in a silence full of threat, regret, and malice all the way back to the house. Dr Stevens seemed equally as angry but the boy didn’t know what that was about. Mr Middlemiss tried to cheer him up but the boy felt more embarrassed than cheered.                                            

     

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