I used to kill sackfuls of woodpigeons. Shooting filled my world, and I longed for the dusting days of late summer when the stubbles were cleared and the doos would come sledging down to my hand-made paper decoys. I was fifteen years old, and I would lie in the whinns and watch the birds arrive in flights of four and five against a backdrop of rough grass and blue hills. My life smelled of feathers and gun oil and the dust of gathered corn.
I was keen as mustard in those days. I would shoot from dawn to dusk, and endure long spells of four and more hours without firing a shot or seeing a bird. This was no lust for blood or carnage, but a bottomless, laser-guided appetite for excitement beneath wide skies. Even on days when I failed to fire a single shot, my knuckles were cast white on the stock of my shotgun for hours.
New thrills were uncovered with every trip. A hawk ambushed my decoys; wild grey partridges scuttled along the yellow rigs; adders lay in tangled clumps around dyke-foots. One day I broke my cover to gather a shot bird and found another coming in. I hit this second and then a third as I stood barefoot in the ribbons of stubble. I was breaking every law of camouflage and concealment; the birds could see me and they were just coming in anyway. I sat down on the open field and shot twelve brace in half an hour, marvelling at their crazy enthusiasm; the same wild-eyed suicide of mackerel through a line of hooks. Then suddenly it was over and the spell was broken; the birds were stand-offish again and I had to pinch myself.
I plucked the pigeons and sold them to the pub in the village. Nothing was wasted, but then school returned and the hot days were gone. And nowadays we stay away from chancy crops like barley around these parts. The best fields are down in grass, and there is nothing to feed a shoal of hungry birds. You cannot shoot like that anymore in Galloway – small farms cannot afford to grow their own barley, and big ones would turn away a keen boy with empty pockets.
But now I have my own stubbles, and the last few days have filled them with clattering blue wings again. I watch the birds sliding in to the fallen crop and I relive some flares of glory from teenage years. On the spur of a moment, I dug out a sack of old decoys and spread them again last week before the cool breeze of coming rain. I could hardly deny myself a brace of birds for the pot, remembering that my harvest includes more than oats.
The birds came again, and I rose to kill them. But I am out of practice, and my shot flew past them in wide margins of error. There followed a lull of half an hour and my brain wandered back to work. I began to fret and puzzle over the knots which waylay me at my desk. A pigeon came and flared away and I was so distracted that the moment passed without an attempt. There was a time when this would have fouled me with frustration, but now I merely shrug.
And then I grew cold and uncomfortable, battered by rain and a chill breeze. I lasted an hour after the smirr began, then I gathered my brace and walked back to the house, telling myself there were more important things to do. It was hard to recall the wild, burning passion and focus of boyhood days because now it seems I am boring and sensible, bogged down with balance and misled by a sense of my own importance.
It turned out that I worked at my desk for the rest of that day, and very little good it did me. My teenage self would have been disgusted by that passive, cowardly resignation from an afternoon at the doos. I would love to meet that boy again and receive a richly deserved kick in the arse.