Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Full Cry with the Chascomus

Full Cry with the Chascomous


Hugh Morshead c2012

       “How was your day?” Said Mum, as she placed the plate of steaming food in front of Dad.
       “Oh, the usual,” he replied, barely glancing up from the paper.
       “Well, Rory, I’m sure your first day at the Chascomous Hunt and Country Club was interesting.”
       “You betcha!  Richardo, the tennis guy, says the cross-country course is kaput and I’m not wanted.”
       “No! But he’s the manager,” said Mum, in disbelief.
       “It’s 8 in the morning and my job has vaporized before I even start. The place is deserted; I go and bang on the bunkhouse door. Eventually, Ian Twisted-Jones, the course builder, appears. Empties everywhere, a dumpster smell. Someone had written on the wall, ‘rat lives here’, with an arrow pointing to a huge hole in the ceiling....”
       “Please, Rory... we’re eating,” said Dad.
       “I passed on the coffee...the mould in the mug matched Sapphire’s orange and green hair... she’s his girlfriend and was wandering around in her nightie like a disaster victim”
       “Oh, how frightful,” said Mum.
        “Anyway, he’s really pissed off. No timber, no money and they are looking for another job.  I shared the couch with congealed pizza, I could feel the e coli crawling all over me, I had to get out of there. Next, I try the workshop; it reeks of diesel, an ancient tractor lies in a pool of oil with its guts strewn across the floor. A short person in a crumbled suit is whacking something in the vice. I asked if there was a problem. I could’nt understand him, he’s Russian or something and the words are scrambled. He kept bashing away, muttering, ‘it can’t be fixed until it’s broken’.”
        “I’m calling Gloria, this is a catastrophe,” said Mum.
        I wondered if I had said too much. I had been really looking forward to my new job building horse jumps and hanging around guys with revving tractors and chainsaws ripping into fresh pine. 
       “Rory, I had a long chat with Gloria, she is going to drive you to work tomorrow and sort everything out. You are having dinner with them tomorrow night. I’m going to put good clothes in a bag for you, they change for dinner,” said Mum.
        The next morning, sitting in the plush front seat of Gloria’s sedan I experienced why she is known throughout horse country as ‘the Queen of Cajole’, I was her prisoner strapped in by a seat belt, my brain still dozy with sleep. First, she gave me a heartbreaking account of her personal sacrifice for the common good and then she manipulated my teenage machismo. The final tightening of the thumbscrews came when I let slip that I would be applying for my amateur jockey’s license when I turned sixteen later in the year. Her husband, Major De Bacle chairs the Amateur Riders Committee for the Jockey Club. 
         “When the Chascomous Hunt was disbanded ten years ago we allowed tennis players to join. Now, they are the majority. I am not a snob...after all gardens have slugs and worms – although, of course, worms are beneficial. The tennis players may drive Audis, but they just don’t have the deep pockets of us horse people. The Hunt Breakfast will pay for the cross-country course and then next year we will host the National Pony Club Championships,” said Gloria. She was the potentate of the Pony Club and her daughter, Penelope, would continue the dynasty.
         As we drove up the driveway to the Club, I felt like I was riding with mythical Queen Boadicea in her war chariot, the kind with the extended knives spinning on the wheel hubs. She drove to Ricardo's front door.
        “How are you Gloria? It is always such a pleasure to see you,” said Ricardo graciously.
       “Ricardo, what is going on? This young man is here to build jumps and there are no materials or equipment.”
       “The account is empty; I can’t keep the grass cut, let alone buy logs.”
       “Where is that tenaciousness you displayed on the tennis circuit?  The word, ‘can’t’ is not in my vocabuary
       “Pleeze, Senora...”
        Next, we went to talk to Ian and then Banjax. I marvelled at the way she turned their objections into threats; with Ian, it was about his prospects for the national Eventing team and with Banjax, his immigration status. I hovered in the background cringing. An hour later, under Ian’s guidance, we hauled rocks from the hedgerows and by evening had built a pair of stonewalls. My hands were raw from handling the rough fieldstone and I regretted not wearing gloves. I cleaned up in the bunkhouse and walked through the trees to the De Bacles’ stone farmhouse adjacent to the Club.
        “Come in, come in,” said Gloria, I entered, except for recent photographs in silver frames, I felt like I had stepped back two centuries to the days of the Raj.  Gilded portraits and the stuffed heads of hunting trophies stared down from the walls. The atmosphere was of imperial authority.
        “Come into the kitchen and tell me what you built today.”
        “The stonewalls are done. Banjax is a genius at stonework; he spent his teenage years alone in the mountains. He says it was a mystic experience and that an individual stone is a solid, but when fitted together the wall becomes a liquid that flows naturally with the landscape.”
       “That’s nice; the Russians love their walls and liquids...ah, here are the others.”
       “Hi, Rory,” said Penelope with a beaming smile that took me off guard, we were only nodding acquaintances from the show ring.
       “Hello, young man, how is the work going?” Said Major De Bacle.
       “Jumps are getting built, despite the some challenges.”
       “Ahh, that’s what builds moral fibre. Set goals and then strive to the summit.”
       “Yes, sir,” I replied. I resisted the temptation to say that Banjax was some kind of mutant mechanic washed up from the Cold War, Ian Twisted-Jones, a high plains drifter with a horse and a chainsaw and Ricardo, with his gold chains, a refugee from a dance studio. 
         The conversation steered around to plans for the upcoming Hunt Breakfast and how the Mullaghcurry Hounds were coming and that they were going to lay a drag.
       “What is that?” I asked, wondering if it was some kind of Oscar Wilde-style perversion.
       “Instead of hunting live, a rabbit carcass is soaked in aniseed and dragged across the country. The hounds roar after it in full cry. It’s jolly good fun going on a real tear, although of course it is frowned upon by the Quality,” explained the Major.
       The Major drove me home and lectured on the necessity of using what he called, the field expedient and the importance of making alliances. It took me a while to realize this was military talk for stealing and partnering with dodgy characters.  My thoughts were on doing some ‘field expedient’ with Penelope. I had been totally mistaken in thinking her aloofness was coldness, she was like all of us at our age, a little shy. I was beguiled by her charm and warm smile. He dropped me off and said in parting.
       “Now, my man, what are you going to do?”
       “Use the field expedient and make alliances, Sir.” I wasn’t sure whether I was referring to jumps or his daughter.
        “Jolly good.”
       “The Hunt Club is looking for timber?” said Mick.
       “Yes,” I replied, and explained how they need jumps for the upcoming Hunt Breakfast fundraiser.
       “They are beyond wealth and their coming to us tinkers for free logs. No problem, we’ll get them logs and more besides. We’ll harvest the long acre.”
       “What’s that?”
       “The trees along the roadside are there for the taking”.
        Mick, with his brusque manner personified the phase – don’t give a tinker’s curse about anything. It was the adrenaline shot we needed to get the job done. We drove the back roads in the quiet of mid-morning looking for a stand of evergreens with straight trucks. Mick and Ian quickly dropped them with chainsaws screaming in harmony. Banjax and I chained them to the truck and towed them to the edge of the road to be loaded. One end of the log was rolled onto a steel bar, Mick and Ian lifted the log with the bar and Banjax backed the truck up so that the end of the log was on the truck bed, they would then lift the other end up and push the log onto the truck. There was much cursing and yelling. Meanwhile, I attacked the limbs with a machete and loaded the evergreen boughs onto the other truck. Lunch was a cook-up in the bunkhouse, the commonality of the storytelling was that all three had an inability to worry properly. In the afternoon, we built the jumps. Ian knew all the tricks on how to build jumps quickly. He wielded the chainsaw, while Banjax and I manned the spades.
        I had moved my pony, Tonka, to the Club’s barn and in the evening Ian, Penelope and I saddled our nags. It was like romance, we started out orderly and with intentions of restraint and just pop over a jump or two as we trotted around the trails that criss-crossed the property. Then the excitement mounted and it became a headlong gallop as we screamed in exhilaration leaping the fences. Penelope’s face was flushed with excitement when we stopped to catch our breath. She invited me to dinner; her parents were dismayed at the Club voting for two new tennis courts. It would enable them to host national competitions. Penelope and I escaped to the rec room and swapped stories of teenage angst; our friendship was blossoming. She told me about the upcoming Summer Ball hosted by the Tennis Committee; it had a Great Gatsby theme. I asked her if she would give me the honour of being my partner, she agreed with a warm smile.
        “You know, the reason they have no money is they have no sport. Who is going to keep a horse just to go on a short canter over a few logs?” Said Mick over lunch, “Back in the day we’d be gone all day galloping over everything before us.”
       “Sport today is strangled with rules and regulations,” said Ian.
       “What about the field expedient?” I asked and explained how the Major had said you do whatever is necessary to achieve the goal.
       “Jajus, you’re right,” said Mick, “we’ll lay our own drag and give them a run for their money.”
        We started planning; first, we needed fox pee. To dig up a fox den and keep the foxes in captivity was not an option, because for Mick, any eviction scraped raw bone. It was Siobhan who came up with the answer; she had a friend who worked at a petting zoo were there was a tame fox. A plastic sheet would be placed under his pen and the pee collected. Mick and Siobhan planned the route as if they were designing a racecourse. It would be a six-mile gallop to the edge of the moor and back. All of it open grassland with plenty of jumping and the stream and woodland added variety. Siobhan knew the country and laying the drag under cover of darkness would not be a problem – or so we thought.
        The week before the big day was a long hard slog. We worked late into the evenings and the temperature climbed into the thirties. Ian gave us a work list each morning and the jump building became a mindless endurance slog. I told my parents that I would stay at the bunkhouse the night before the Hunt breakfast as the signage and roping of the parking area had yet to be done. That evening we gathered in the bunkhouse for a war party council.
        “Here’s your fox,” said Mick, handing me a dead rabbit wrapped in a length of twine and a full plastic dishwashing bottle. “I cut the fox pee with cooking oil; otherwise it would be too strong and burn their noses. Every once and a while give the rabbit a squirt to freshen’ him up.” The reek of fox was so strong it stung my eyes. Mick gave us final instructions.
       “Don’t go through any gates, that’s a dead giveaway it’s a drag and not a live fox. Go through the hedges as a fox would and skirt around livestock to prevent the scent being foiled.”
        Siobhan and I set off around 10pm. It was still warm and muggy; we were dressed in t-shirts thinking we would run most of it and be back in a couple of hours. Although it was pitch dark and no moon, we could still roughly differentiate between the open fields and the hedges. Siobhan navigated by the lights of a distant farmhouse. We scrambled through ditches and over stonewalls, our jeans were soon soaking wet and mud clung to our running shoes. Briars tore vindictively at our clothes and scratched our skin. It was still a game to us and we giggled as we hauled each other out of the ditches. A barking dog shattered the quiet as we passed near a farmhouse. The turnaround point was a distant Church on the edge of the moor. The wind gusted and clouds obscured the stars, then thunder boomed in the distance like artillery and the skyline was illuminated in a blinding light turning the storm clouds into ragged shrouds. In the blackness, we had missed the bridge across the river, we knew it was shallow this time of year and so we slid down the bank and held onto each other as we crossed using rocks as stepping-stones. Splash! I lost my balance and both of us fell headlong into the water. The wind shrieked and the temperature plummeted, we crawled up on the bank soaking wet and chilled to the bone.
        “Come on,” said Siobhan, “There is no way we are going to wimp out.”
       “Your right, we have to move fast to get warm.”
       “We are near the church and that’s half way.”
        The worst of the storm pasted and we staggered on with the wind howling. It had taken nearly two hours to get this far. I could hear Siobhan’s teeth chattering and my arms were trembling, it felt like ice-cold needles were being jabbed deep into my skin. The distant lightning bolts lit up the church with gothic malovance.  Behind us, the barking increased to a cresending howl as farm dogs found the line of scent. It was like having hellhounds on your trail. We were shivering and uncertain about our direction.
        We struggled on. I cursed myself for being so stupid. We should have checked the forecast and eaten more than a snack before starting out. Both of us were trembling with cold and exhaustion. We made our way around the church and into the pine plantation. Branches whipped our faces and we could only feel our way by the crunch of the gravel track. It took an hour dragging ourselves through ditches and stumbling over ruts to make it to the road leading to the Club. We were both beyond caring. I could hear Siobhan whimpering, in the darkness I could not see that she had lost a shoe and was limping. I put my arm around her waist and she put her arm around my shoulder. A car headlights lit up the road, we were too slow to hide in the ditch. It pulled up beside us.
        “And what would you two love birds be doing out at this hour of the night?” Said Ricardo.
       “Feck off, yer gobshite,” said Siobhan.
       “Gloria is going to love this,” he said, as he drove away.
 We had survived the nightmare trek only to have it turn to ashes at the finish line. We staggered to the bunkhouse and collapsed on the lumpy couch and armchair.
       The next morning Ian drove us both home. I still felt groggy even after a hot shower and cooked breakfast. My mother was concerned that I was working too hard and disapproved of my scratched face.  We arrived at the Club to find it a sea of trailers and horses. The huntsman and the hounds had gathered in front of the Clubhouse. The Major blew a few sharp notes on his hunting horn and the riders gathered in a semi-circle in front of him. He gave a speech extolling the horse, tradition and hunt etiquette. Trays of port in plastic glasses were circulated and toasts made to the glories of the chase.  I was tired and, for me, behind the excitement lurked an awful phoniness. Gloria saw me in the back of the crowd and bore down on me with a full head of steam.
      “Rory, I am disgusted with you. How can you have the gall to show up here? Penelope has been in tears all morning. Ricardo told me all about you and Siobhan using the bunkhouse as your personal love nest. You are fired!  Never darken Chascomous again,” she said, with a look of daggers.
       I was spitting mad. We had worked our butts off for her and risked our necks last night – and all for her stinking Club. I didn’t care what she thought, but it was hurting Penelope that really burned me. In anger, I wheeled Tonka around and pointed him at the paddock fence; he cleared it almost from a standstill. I cantered through the trees towards the road and home.
        “Hooowoo” bayed a hound, and then another joined with a sharp yelp, and another.
        The baying exploded in a high-pitched roar as the pack screamed in unison. I heard two cracks like rifle shots ring out in quick succession and shouts from the huntsman. I turned around at the sound of steel horseshoes clattering on the road. The hounds were racing across the field. The lead riders were leaping the rails off the road and strung out behind the hounds. My pony pranced with excitement; we took a run at a low wall and galloped after them across the field. I joined the main body of riders as they jostled for position at the ditches. The fences came quick and fast. We passed the slower riders, a ditch and hedge was next, I aimed Tonka at a spot were the shrubs was thinner, he launched into the air. The drop on the landing nearly unseated me. We galloped on, I glanced up at the hillside to my left, it was lined with people, suddenly they moved, two dozen horsemen charged in a cavalcade down the hill, whooping and shouting as they joined us. Mick was on huge Clydesdale, galloping upright in the saddle and with a long rein, Siobhan was on her roan pony, both grinning like idiots. A riderless horse with broken reins galloped alongside to the left. A siren wailed behind us, I looked back to see an ambulance in pursuit.
        “Tis’ grand sport!” Mick shouted, as we approached the church. The parking lot was full and the on the wall stood cheering spectators. The hounds had lost the scent at the river, allowing us to catch up. Steam rose in clouds and horses ‘flanks heaved as they caught their breath. We were all mud-splattered and red-faced from our mad gallop. The hounds crossed the river and we were off again. The Major was cheering the hounds on with Penelope close behind. I looked back down the valley and saw horses, with and without riders stretched back to the Club. The hounds tore through the pine plantation were Siobhan and I had so much trouble with branches in the dark. By the time we jumped the wall out of the wood, the hounds were already two fields ahead. Tonka was fit and still going easily, there were about a dozen of us galloping in hot pursuit of the Major. Ditches, walls and rails, we flew them all. The other riders cut across the fields and joined in behind us, including the huntsman. We jumped out onto the road; sparks flew from the horseshoes. Finally, the hounds lost the scent just before the Club entrance.
       The riders gathered around the barn with horses blowing and sides heaving. Everyone was high with excitement.
     “What luck that Charlie was home,” said the Major, referring to the fox.
       “That was no fox, it was a drag and my horse has a bad gash on his fetlock from those blasted walls,” said the Huntsman, “it was a dead giveaway the way the line was cut by the farmer ploughing and picked up immediately afterwards on the unploughed grass.”
       “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
       “What is this then?” he said, producing a muddy pink running shoe from his jacket. “I found this in the field before the road. It belongs to whoever laid the drag.”
       “Ah, come on man, we had damn good sport, come on up to the Club house and we’ll have a snorter.”
       “I demand an inquiry to find you is behind this. There will be damages to pay.”
        I listened to this as I washed Tonka down. The Major followed me into the barn.
       “By Jove, that was like good old days, worth a guinea a minute. Glad you were with us and well mounted,”
       “Oh, Yes Sir, it was great fun. I was nearly off over the big drop, my pony pushed me back in the tack.”
       “Apparently it was a drag. I don’t care, it was brilliantly executed.”
       “The field expedient, Sir,” I said in a quiet voice.
       He looked at me with one of his bushy eyebrows arched.
      “The field expedient, eh...thank you very much, absolute marvellous. I can’t give you drink, but come on to the clubhouse and dig into the cake,” he said, with his hand on my shoulder.
        The Clubhouse was packed with mud-splattered riders and their entourage. I enter with the Major, the crowd parted as he strode to the bar, acknowledging greetings and cheers from riders. I saw Gloria and Penelope cross the room towards us.
       “That was an absolute disaster. The police are coming back to take a statement from you. I have not heard back from the hospital, three were carted off in the ambulance and the Rev. Ffooks is traumatised, a funeral had to be delayed because the hounds ran through the cemetery,” said Gloria.
       Before the Major could reply, three robust men pushed to the bar and shook Gloria’s hand.
      “The Chascomous really knows how to put on the sport,” said the man in a Melton coat as he handed Gloria a cheque. The other two also handed her cheques.
       “Why, thank you, most generous,” for once, she was at a loss for words.
        The Major turned to me and produced the pink shoe from his coat.
       “You might know who to give this to,” he said, handing me the shoe.
       “What’s all this about? Asked Gloria.
       “Our success today is entirely thanks to the efforts of Rory and his friends.”
       Gloria and Penelope stared at me as the Major explained about the drag and the Huntsman finding the shoe.
       “It’s a Cinderella story, no idea who Cinderella is,” said the Major.
       “It was you and Siobhan wasn’t it? Said Gloria.
       “Yes” and I explained that her foot was raw after losing her shoe and that was why I was supporting her with my arm was around her as we limped home along the road.
       “Oh really,” said Gloria, “boys are inherently bad; however, we may give you the benefit of the doubt this time.” Then she turned and addressed her husband. “What about the injured and the Reverend?”
       “A horseman’s grave is always open and that is an unspoken contract every rider makes; as for the parson, a funeral is a dreary business, and we brightened his day.” Ian joined us at the table.
       “The proposed new tennis courts and dressage rings are one and the same. Stone dust can be packed for a hard court and then harrowed to make a dressage ring,” he said.
       “Splendid,” said the Major, “A toast to the glorious Chascomous,” as he raised his glass.
Penelope looked across the table at me with a wintery smile. Perhaps there was hope yet. 

1 comment:

  1. It's been a while since I've had the pleasure of reading one of your stories, Hugh. Much enjoyed.