The Old Timer

Way back in the day

It was pitch black when he crept out of bed and as soon as the winter blankets were lifted off him, the stinging cold enveloped his body. There weren’t many times of the year when it got this cold and the memories of the old country were inescapable. Even the smell of the cold, the harshness of inhalation and the clouds of breathe that rose, heavy with moisture with each subsequent exhalation reminded him of his home. An involuntary sharp intake of breath when his feet touch the varnished floorboards served to make his wife stir but consciousness was still hours away for her. Cocooned in her many blankets, she murmured something incomprehensible and pulled the bed clothes about her face as a barrier to the winter cold. With a cursory glance to check that he hadn’t woken her, he searched around with his feet until he found his sheepskin slippers and then made for the door. He’d almost abandoned his heavy, brown corduroy trousers when he left his native land but something in his nature forbade him. This was precisely the reason his shed was full of copper wire he’d found, and tools he’d relieved friends of when they’d announced they were throwing them out. A certain reluctance to throw something away when another hour’s work could be wrung out of them at some as yet undisclosed date in the future. In short, a hoarder. His wife had berated him countless times over this and with every promise he made that he would change and address the issue, there was the same unspoken understanding that there would be a token sacrifice, a wholly useless piece of junk that even he couldn’t remember why he’d kept it, cast ceremoniously into the bin in a conspicuous show of contrition. They both knew that for every feeling of remorse felt for each sacrifice, for every guilty backward glance towards the bin, these feelings were forgotten once he had the chance to dig out something he’d kept by for just such an occasion. Who could forget that time the kids in the cottage down the way had needed that Highland Cattle horn for school? Or how about when his nephew wanted that tin helmet he’d brought back from his service in Germany in 45’? Vindication. And these examples were trotted out so often that his wife almost knew them word for word, much to their mutual amusement. The cords were further vindication of his magpie nature as who’d have thought this country would get so cold in the winter? He was aware that he probably wouldn’t have suffered as much at home in these current temperatures a few years back, but acclimatisation had a great deal to do with that. He’d been warned that this country was hot but the first summer he spent here was surprisingly cool and he’d been eased into it gently. The way he’d dealt with the heat surprised the lads he worked with but the flip side to that was that he felt the cold once summer had waned. Corduroys in hand, he praised his foresight, knowing full well that it was his seeming inability to throw things away that he really had to thank.

Easing the door to the bedroom shut, he made his way quickly to the sitting room and leant against the settee as he pulled those rough old cords on over his thick army socks. Even though his trousers were cold, they provided instant relief to the freezing cold of the house. What’s a benefit in summer is often a hindrance in winter as far as temperatures go and nothing was more evidence of this than his house. Constructed on stilts, the air was allowed to circulate beneath the house in the summer which provided a modicum of relief from the intense humidity. The very same construction qualities had very different results when the temperatures dropped and the winter weather served to keep the house very cold, especially at night. Of course it didn’t help that there was no carpet either but help in the summer months outweighed the hindrance in the winter months so it was tolerated. His woollen work shirt and thick fisherman’s jumper completed his outfit and there was only his knife to find now. This knife held memories that were very dear to him and he took it every time he went hunting. He could remember the very day his father bought him that knife, his first of his own and he’d kept it close ever since. It was on his sixth birthday that he was considered old and mature enough to have this knife and he had a real spring in his step when his father took him to the store to pick one out. He took the knife from the draw and a smile played across his face as he remembered he’d actually had too much of a spring in his step and he’d been berated by his dad for showing off, a mortal sin in those days and one so hated by working class parents the length and breadth of Britain. There was no question of whether he’d needed the knife at age six, that went without saying, and he remembered staring in awe as the shopkeeper lifted out a wooden draw from his display cabinet that was full of gleaming pocket knives. Never one to make a hasty decision, he’d ruminated over the merits of each one, until the tone of his father’s voice changed, which indicated that now was the time to choose. He’d made the mistake of further pontification in the past and was rewarded with being dragged out of the shop whilst being told that if he couldn’t pick one, he’d make do with nothing. With those words ringing in his ear, he settled on a beauty. Mother of pearl handle with a knife, hook disgorger and descaler, tin opener and a bottle opener. It was handed to him with the warning that it was not a toy and that was that. The proudest moment of his young life so far. Thirty two years later and the metal furniture of the knife was a little tarnished, the handle a bit cracked here and there, but he wouldn’t have replaced that knife for any other. It had been in his possession for almost every day of those thirty two years, with only a slight gap when his grandfather temporarily relieved him of it as punishment for cutting down vast swathes of rhubarb from the top of his garden. Once returned, he’d kept that knife close and it had never once been in danger of seizing through underuse.

Scraping a thick spread of salted dripping, hard from being left on the draining board, across a stiffening crust of bread, he ate his breakfast while attempting to put on his old wax jacket and simultaneously keeping the sleeves of his heavy jumper where they were supposed to be. Something he still hadn’t mastered from his school days. With the crust in his mouth, the back door was opened as quietly as he could and he stepped out into the still, black morning.
Having heard the sounds of life that were so inaudible to his wife, the dogs had long been out of their kennel and were awaiting their master. The chain that once kept the kennel run closed and secure had long been replaced by an old rope. It had been explained to him on the very first morning after he’d got the chain from work, in unequivocal language, that there’s very little point in being quiet in the house if you then went outside and raked and clashed a chain against a metal dog run. So the chain was quickly discarded in favour of a rope. Discarded is completely the wrong word to use in these circumstances as the chain was hanging up in the shed, ready for when a chain was needed at some point in the future. Security for the dogs was a given as no-one stole dogs. The chain was there to keep the dogs from the potatoes, pumpkins and cold-frames and a rope did the same job as a chain did, with the added bonus of being quiet into the bargain. Not being allowed to jump up, the two lurchers bounced from foot to foot while their back ends fishtailed in excitement; in anticipation of what was to come. Turning his back on the dogs, he walked down the path between the vegetables and they fell in beside him, each nudging either side of his thighs in their desire for contact from him. He stroked the back of the bitch’s neck and patted the old dog and this seemed to satisfy their cravings. With thick, double jackets, the cold didn’t have the same effect on the dogs that it did on him. A stretch and a gallop seemed to shake off the winter night’s worst and as he ducked under the roses that were growing, quite unruly, above the garden gate so beloved of his wife, he felt his knees ache and he was, not for the first time, jealous of his dogs’ ability to shake off the cold and gambol around like spring lambs. After a stretch and some neck biting, the dogs fell in by his side as all three walked off into the wind. The sodium glow of the street lights cast the three in peculiar hues as they made their way along the path towards the open fields. He pulled down his tweed hat as far as he could without impeding his vision and cursed himself for forgetting his scarf. Looking streamlined in the wind, the dogs trotted along beside him, only stopping to sniff the base of the trees that lined the path, catching up again in a burst of concern once they’d finished their business.

Shoulders once hunched, were now loosening, as the walk began to warm him through. The once almost unbendable boots that he’d been issued with in Andover barracks years ago were now considerably softer and perfectly moulded to his feet. It had taken a long time and the skin on his ankles and heels had been rubbed raw many times before those boots finally succumbed to continual use and became pliant. The remains of hob-nails could be heard as he got closer and closer to the fields. Crossing the last road, they ducked down a cut between the Methodist church to their left and a tall, untreated pine fence to their right. Emerging from the passage, they were in the right hand corner of large field and then their mission began.

A blanket of silver grass, stiff with frost, spread before them. Soon the sky would be orange with the dawn, as if some far away city was ablaze just over the horizon, and that icy coating would melt to become mercurial drops of moisture, weighing down the grass, before succumbing to their own weight or the footfall of the farmer. Now however, it was evident that neither man nor beast had been this way overnight as the frost was as tell-tale as virgin snow. A muttered “get on” saw the dogs race ahead and frolic in the field, destroying the serene landscape with dark trails in the white grass. His boots left their own impression as he plodded diagonally across the field, towards a far hedge which would serve as the point where frolicking stopped and his mind addressed the task at hand. There was another field beyond the hedge which gave him and the dogs a buffer zone; time to calm the dogs and time to compose himself for whatever lay in the field beyond. Having done this so many times, the dogs didn’t need to be told and were back by his side as they reached that hedge. Clouds of breath from all three of them served to illustrate the fact that it was still perishingly cold. A quick glance into the field told them there was nothing worth chasing in there so they were off again, keeping to the left hand edge of the field as they made their way towards the next plot, and hopefully the game. A thousand scenarios danced in his brain as he crept along. Past experiences swarmed before his eyes as he looked down at the dogs by his side. Having come out with him on the ship, the old dog was as much an immigrant as he was. Family had worried about how he’d acclimatise to the change in temperature but his only concern was for how his beloved dog would cope. The concern had been uncalled for as the dog had coped admirably and the summer days developed their own routine of languishing in the ample shade of the myriad citrus trees that dotted the small plot where they lived. One particle orange tree was the favourite and a hollow had been scraped there by the old dog which fitted his recumbent form to perfection. With a respite from the heat, the early mornings and late nights were far more comfortable for man and dog and these were the times when both ventured out for exercise or for prey.

Needing another dog for an effective hunting team, the bitch had come to him from a friend at work. Almost two years ago he’d been sat in the shade of a tired looking striped awning that served to cover the handful of tables in the yard of the local pub. His friend had arrived with a fawn bundle under his hacking jacket which he’d promptly handed over. The bitch was free but he’d insisted on buying his friend a drink, and placing the dog at his feet, he’d soon returned from the bar with a whisky and a pint of ruby red ale as a thank you gesture. To the untrained eye, the bitch was the same stamp of animal as the dog, and there was no denying that they did look similar to a certain extent. However, to a man who knew his dogs there were as many things that stood them apart from each other as there were that confirmed the similarities. Two years on and they were both running machines but the dog’s sleek lines were somewhat hidden by the thick, harsh, brindle coat that had served to keep him warm when ferreting in the snow in those homeland hills so many worlds away. A shorter jacket covered the bitch but if anything, it was even harsher than the dog’s, being more terrier-like than any lurcher he’d ever known. Her breeding wasn’t a mystery in so much that her parentage was ever questioned, but her parent’s parents? That was anybodies guess, although a man educated in the ways of hunting and dogs could probably get close without ever being one hundred percent certain. If pressed, he’d go for some deerhound, some greyhound and maybe a cur somewhere along the line but it didn’t really matter. She was his dog and she did what he needed her to with minimum fuss and maximum effort. He’d had to actually stop himself ruminating on what the pups would look like if he ever put the old dog over her. Too many assumptions were coming into play here and he was getting way ahead of himself. He was assuming she’d be good enough to breed from; he was assuming she would survive long enough to find out and he was also assuming the old dog would still be around if she did make it. No, he’d had to physically shake his head to rid himself of these thoughts far too often these days as there’s no sense in wasting time thinking about ifs and maybes.

He could feel the damp corduroys above his boots now as the frost from the grass had soaked into his trousers, making the bottoms heavy and cold. Every so often, the dogs would stop and their ears would scan their surroundings, rotating until they invariably came to the front which made them resemble the terriers of his homeland. He was never sure if both stopped when they’d heard something or that one of them was reading the other’s body language and copied their actions. He could sense them wanting to explore and hunt ahead so a whispered command brought their attention back to him as they neared their location. Their gait had changed from long and languid by his side, to quick steps – stop – look up repeated ad nausea. Being aware that he could feel his heart beating that much harder, he prayed the dogs didn’t bolt ahead as he felt twinges of excitement and adrenalin course through his veins. This was life and death he was dealing with here, not his own, but that of his quarry, and maybe that of his dogs. Many times he’d been told of his father’s and grandfather’s dogs and the occasions when those dogs had been the difference between the family eating or going hungry. They truly were times when a dog that wasn’t up to the task at hand was simply not indulged. A time when his own dog’s ancestor’s reputations were made through hard work and ability; that ever so elusive ingredient when it comes to dogs. Things were certainly not that severe for him. His wife would not want nor find herself hungry if all came to nought this morning. He had that indulgence to fall back on at least but the dogs didn’t know that and that was how they would always be judged. Too many people with food in the pantry made excuses for dogs that didn’t bring home the proverbial bacon and he was always careful to guard against such complacency. At his feet was a legacy, as much prized as that old, battered pocket knife he carried with him, even more so really. That old, brindle dog was the descendant of his grandfather’s dogs as sure as he was a descendant of his grandfather himself. They had history. They were family. But the standards applied to that dog’s forefathers had to be applied to that dog himself; otherwise he’d be unworthy of carrying on the line, the blood. All of that work, all of the craft, that guile that had set apart his ancestors from the other dogs that had been tried and found wanting could not be for nothing. For surely it would have been a waste to not apply those standards and breed from the dog on the reputation of his forefathers alone. No, he had always tested the dog as if he and his family were starving and on the bread lines of the not too distant past. That was why the dog was still here, plain and simple. Sentiment can be a dangerous beast and can often undo generations of hard work with mere seconds of complacency. Maybe the bitch at his side was the start of his own legacy? Here come those dangerous thoughts again.

With one hand holding the gum tree and the other held out horizontal to him, holding the dogs back, he stood in the scrub at the edge of the field. The bitch would be ran first so a thin rope noose, little more than string really, was placed over the dogs head. The scrub had recently been cut back by one of the machines from the farm, which had the effect of exposing the young shoots which would entice the kangaroos from their forest lair. Running the kangaroos in the forest itself was fraught with danger and often a fruitless exercise as they were simply too fast through cover for dogs whose eye-lines were often lower than the height of the foliage in which they were running. Fallen logs were always a hazard as they were masked by the grasses and bushes and these were a potential killer for a fleet dog. Scales were evened somewhat when the quarry was out in the open, where speed, tenacity and ability came into play. These animals were a damned site bigger than anything the old dog had taken back in the old country, even the Fallow he’d been tried on in the local estate. He’d not been found wanting though and had taken a good number in his time out here. As well as being big, and some were monsters, they were also very dangerous, especially if they could get to deep water. What they would do was to wade out to water deep enough so that the dog could not get any purchase on the bottom, thereby effectively removing any advantage the dog might have. The kangaroo could still stand up of course as they are tall beasts on their hind legs. They then relied on the dog’s innate hunting and harrying instinct to close with their quarry, whereby they would hold the dog with their front legs and kick the dogs with their powerful hind legs. He’d seen it once or twice with his own eyes and been told of it many times at work and the pub. Too many times for it to be the pecularity of individual animals so he was left to assume it was a defence mechanism inherent to the species.

It was hard to make anything out as he stood next to that tree, but the movement of one individual sitting up from it’s grazing position gave the focus to not only him but to his dogs too. The shifting feet of the dogs started again as he gave the old dogs rope a little tug, just to remind him that he was tethered, and sent the bitch on her way with a hiss. She seemed to get into her stride immediately and the contraction and flex of her spine made her seem almost mechanical in her movement. There was certainly nothing laboured or ungainly about her though, as she sought to come to terms with her prey. Being a naturally swift animal themselves, the kangaroo was off at blinding pace and soon both hunter and hunted were out of sight, enveloped by the night. The old dog had given a short pull on the rope as his partner had raced away on her course, but had now settled to his soft shoe shuffle once more. He thought to himself that he should have called the dog Fred after Fred Astaire as they scanned the darkness for anything visual or audible. Nothing was forthcoming so they set off in the direction that the bitch had run.

The crunch of his footsteps masked the sound of the bitch’s laboured breathing but he spotted her away to his right, plumes of steam rising from her mouth, as she stood over her kangaroo. Glancing over her shoulder at him, she mouthed the dead animal once more as if to confirm it as hers. Releasing the old dog from his ersatz lead, he ran his hands and eyes over the bitch and came up with nothing untoward. She’d done well and stuck to her task, catching the prey, bringing it down cleanly and killing it efficiently. What particularly pleased him was the fact that it was a decent sized animal too, much too heavy to even consider running another with the old dog, as he was going struggle just getting this one home. Without even thinking, the old knife his father had bought him was out and shining in the moonlight as he set about making the beast more manageable to carry home. His wife would be glad of the fresh meat and so would some of her friends that she swapped the excess with for the vegetables she didn’t grow on her own little plot.

He walked a short way from the dogs to where the ground was still frosty and wiped his hands in the frozen grass in an effort to clean them as best he could in the circumstances. With the worst off, he ran his hands down his trousers to dry them and reached into his unbuttoned pocket for his baccy. A habit that he took up in Andover and one he’d been trying to give up ever since he’d received his demob suit. He was only a very light smoker if truth be told, but there were certain occasions were he’d allow himself the indulgence of lighting up. In contrast to the blue and white palette of a winter’s night, the match briefly lit his face in the colours of summer, before it was extinguished with a shake of his hand. Dawn would soon arrive and it was time to think about getting home. Home to greet his wife a good morning; home to have a wash and change his clothes and then he would feed the dogs and catch the bus to work. Not everyone’s ideal start to the day but he’d have it no other way. He had no choice; it was his legacy, and he loved it.