THE HARE AT MORNING – an extract

I’ve had a hard working life but I cannot think of a better. Working on the same sort of job for the whole of my life, I wouldn’t change much of it. Not many people can say the same thing these days. And I still can turn out as a beater if they have need of me, even though I touched eighty this summer. And in all that time the very best thing would be for my employer to turn to me at the end of the day and say “Thank you Price. That was a good day’s sport.”

I was born when Queen Victoria was on the throne. You tell a child that nowadays and they look at you as if you were some kind of fossil. Perhaps I am. Mind you, there’s not so much remaining of me what started out. Precious little hair, none of my teeth and even my hips are made of metal these days. But I can still fend for myself. Don’t need to go into any old folk’s home or be a burden to my daughter.

Since my Edith passed on I’ve learned to do all kinds of things around the house. Put some bacon under a grill and let it drip onto some cut up tayters, a dish fit for a king.

I suppose I’ve always been a solitary sort of cuss, keepering does that to you. My father was a keeper before me. He kept for a Welsh gentleman near Knighton in Radnorshire, where I was born. Parts of the estate was in Wales and part in England so you might say I’ve crossed more boundaries than a lot of you, even though I’ve been in the same place all my life, apart from the war.

I was always keen on guns. I liked nothing better than to watch my father take down the two he kept in a polished wood case by the door and set down to clean them. I’ve never been happier than when I’ve been cleaning my old guns, thinking of all the things that have been and all the times still to come.

I had two sisters older than me and then, when I was aged about four, my brother Arthur was born. Soon after, my mother caught me dragging one of my father’s guns up the stairs to put him out of the way. It was his yowling what got me annoyed I suppose. That and he was taking up all my mother’s time. She had no patience for the rest of us. I got a good wiping down with an ash towel from mother. After, my father said I was going to make a natural keeper. In families there are stories that stick and that was the one that stuck to me.

My father had not always been a keeper. He started out being a soldier with the South Wales Borderers. Spent some time in Africa and won some kind of medal in the war against the Zulus. He never looked at it much but, when he wasn’t about, mother would take the medal out and polish it and let us kids look at it. After her day I gave it to my daughter Mary. What’s she done with it I can’t say.

I think it must have been in Africa where my father got his strange way of looking at the world. Some under-keeper gave him lip and my father laid him out, right in the middle of a shoot; almost lost his job because of it. If you annoyed him he had the habit of looking at you as if you was just dirt. Made you stop whatever it was you was doing, though many’s the time I still got his boot up my backside. Kids today don’t know how lucky they are.

He didn’t take drink very often, but when he did, my God! It took three constables once to put the cuffs on him outside a pub in Hay and they were still nervous about getting him out of the cells in the morning. Honour thy father and mother it says in the Bible, but it doesn’t say anything about loving them and that’s how we felt about our father.

Mother now, she was a different story. She had been born in Presteigne and father met her when she was house-maiding for a solicitor’s family in the town. Threw a snowball at her which knocked her hat off! If he was hard and likely to go off at any moment, I remember her as soft and warm. Whatever happened in the day we knew we had her to come back to.

I suppose it was their differences made them get on so well together, though on more than one occasion, after he’d been up to something, I’d catch her in the evening just staring at the fire and she’d say “Oh Horace, never get married.” But she’d soon cheer up.

She must have been a good maid because she kept our house as neat as any in the village, even though her tidying used to get on father’s nerves. Sometimes she’d make us little treats the cook of the big house had shown her the way of doing. The cook must have taken a shine to her because, after her death, she left our mother a little something in her will.

Life was as good as it gets I reckon afore I had to start school. As I’ve said it was just after young Arthur was born and I think that was another reason why there was always a little coolness on my part towards him I think, though of course it was none of his doing.

What can I tell you of Norton school you would believe in these modern days? For a start it was a seven mile walk, there and back, for us. It makes me laugh hearing about all the ways kids have these days of getting to school. In my day we had no choice but walking, be it pouring, snowing or blowing a gale, which it seemed to do quite a bit. I’ve never been one for dark mornings, though heaven knows I’ve had more than my fair share in my line of work and I think that’s when it started, having to say goodbye to mother and being sent out from the candle light into the cold and the dark. And the worst of it was that dratted Arthur could stay home with mother.

I’ve never been a great one for book learning, but, looking back on it, the school did not set much store by it either. I thought then and I can’t see any reason to change my mind now, all it was there for was to stop me enjoying myself out in the fields. I could never abide it.

It was run by a husband and wife, damn me if I can remember their names. He taught the older ones and she taught us smaller ones. My sisters had the master. He was a tall, thin cuss, good enough at knocking a bit of learning into country brains I suppose, but still fond of the strap, especially for the girls, as my sisters had found out, even though they were quiet girls that should have been no trouble to any one.

But the mistress, by gum, what a dragon! We always thought there was something wrong in her head and a few years after I left she died of a brain tumour. She must have been having terrible headaches and it must have had something to do with it, but that was no reason to take it out on us. Many’s the morning I was sick into a hedge at the thought of spending another day in her company.

She had it in for all of us but she seemed to take a particular spite against me. I think because I came in all smiling and happy when I first joined her class. She never could abide anyone looking happy. Hardly a day seemed to go by but she found a reason for me to stand up so the rest could laugh at me. In the winter she would get me out to stand next to the old stove which was the only heating. While the rest of the class shivered I was roasting. Once she made me stand right against it so that my trousers were scorched and I got it from mother. In the summer she would make me stand facing the window, so I could see all that was going on out there but not be a part of it. She did this to others, it was not just me, but I think she had a particular old fashioned way of looking at me. Now I can’t think of anything I did in the class to make her have a go at me other than to forget my spellings or get my countings all wrong, which I did all the time. If she could see me now, reciting this thing into a tape recorder so it could become a book, wouldn’t that learn her!

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