It’s a hard to keep your chin up at this time of year, and that’s when things are going well. This winter has come blue and godawful, and it’s tough to find daylight in a relentless screed of dusk and rain. In moving some old files, I stumbled upon a photograph which I took one August evening more than twenty years ago. For a few moments I was there again, and how I gasped to feel the daylight again.
I seem to gripe in my writing that time has served us ill – I’m a bugger for the “good old days”. I usually try to fight the idea and keep it under, but it’s Christmas and surely I’m allowed a swell of nostalgia for half an hour?
Because that was a summer of sunshine, and I spent it with hardly a care in the world. My uncle had grown fifteen acres of spring barley, and it was cut in the snarling heat of an August morning. The harvester was a grand yellow machine which whirred up the crop like a dryer. I was allowed to drive it once, and felt the tap-tap-tap of engine hands and pummelling pistons. The back field was clear by lunchtime, and I was free to lay out some pigeon decoys and try for a bird or two as the men gathered and regrouped and moved on to a different field. Cows were put through to clean up the margins, and then the field was mine. For some reason, I took a photograph of the beasts as they fanned out and began to sift through the remains of the crop.
Barley stubbles crackled like old tape in the sunshine. I’d made my own decoys out of plywood and cardboard, and each one was hand-painted to varying degrees of success. They crouched and made dark shadows as the sun moved past the vertical and began to pitch away. In those days, the back field ran into moss and moorland; streaks of gorse and birch which seemed to run far into the blue distance. And below it, the field rolled away to the sea and the simmering tide.
A few woodpigeons came in the mid afternoon, but they were only dribs and drabs. I’d stripped off to my shorts and lounged barefoot in the stony grass, listening to test match cricket on a pocket radio. A brood of grey partridges came through a lunkey in the dyke, and I heard them chirruping in the dust. It was absurdly hot, and I was drunk on the smell of honeysuckle and buttery gorse.
I could’ve lain like that forever when the pigeons began to focus, and soon the trickle became a flood; I stirred powder smoke and gun oil into the scent of the afternoon. One bird was stung and floundered on the stubbles. It began to shed a drift of white feathers which can arouse suspicion amongst incomers, so I stood and carried the gun out to catch it and keep the pattern tidy. But for all I walked in plain sight, the birds seemed to ignore me. Two more came in as I stood among the decoys, and I dropped them both. Then others came, and I fell at last to sitting in the midst of my pattern, shooting just as hard as I could to keep up. Something in them was blind to the reality of my presence; they were in a mackerel frenzy, and there was nothing I could do to put them off. I’ve never seen it before or since, but twenty birds were felled in half an hour before sunset; every one low and fast as a driven grouse.
At last the evening seemed to creep home. I built my bag into a pile and smelled that warm, dusty reek of pigeons about me. There was no way to carry two dozen pigeons, so I tied my shirt into a rucksack and loaded them up inside it. With bootlaces around my neck like Tom Sawyer, I walked down to the seaside with the sunset behind me. Red-letter-days are easier to see in retrospect, and it’s often the case that we only know what we have when it’s gone. But I seemed to know even then that the warmth of that day would hang upon me for the rest of my life.