2 April 2011

A Sunday outing

One day last September I went to Moreford to visit my old schoolfriend, Edward, and his wife, Jocelyn. Just between ourselves, the household is unusual. Edward is a keen taxidermist. He also keeps birds of prey and with the assistance of a buzzard brings home rabbits which Jocelyn casseroles. Lunch consisted of just such a dish. Edward (a zoologist) is wont to identify the various bones on his plate: between mouthfuls he invites one to admire a radial fossa or zygomatic arch, then elaborates its function.

After lunch we repaired to what he calls his “mews” – an old barn where he keeps his birds. The smell, to which he is immune, is vile; the interior is gloomy, paved with dank stone, and recedes into half seen stalls and cubicles which one has no desire to investigate.

Pride of place, on the front bench, as it were, was given to his latest acquisition: a harpy eagle named “Harriet”. The species, Thrasaëtus harpyia, is native to South America, and is one of the largest of all raptors, ranging as far north as Mexico, where it is known as the “winged wolf” or “lobo volante”. It has a wing-span of some two metres and feeds on fawns, sloths, foxes, and, for preference, monkeys. To avoid the dangers of the forest floor, these monkeys take to the tree canopy, where they fondly imagine themselves secure.

When first I set eyes on Harriet I confess I felt a twinge of fear. She easily dwarfs the other birds. Her somewhat owl-like facial mask and startling crest give her an expression of stern puzzlement, as if she is unable to comprehend anything that does not involve extreme violence, terror, mayhem, blood. The deep musculature of her chest, the massive flight-muscles, and above all the development of the beak, legs and talons: all these create an impression of overbearing ferocity.

She is so heavy that Edward can barely carry her on the glove. Moreover, she is so highly strung that, for fear of being attacked himself, he must keep up a continuous babble of babytalk. Nonetheless, once the hood is in place she becomes docile enough.

An outing to Petersfield Heath had been mooted. On the way there in Edward’s van (with Harriet seated on her perch in the back), the tactics for the afternoon were explained. I was to be dropped off by the recreation ground next to the Pond, while Edward, Jocelyn and Harriet continued to the other side of the heath.

Heath Pond is a pleasing expanse of water, lined for the most part by trees. It is popular with anglers and dog-walkers, is visited by the odd heron or sea swallow, and also has a collection of rowing boats and canoes that may be hired by the hour. To the east and north lies a golf course. On the western shore are swings, an ice cream kiosk, a flock of noisy Canada geese, and the tame ducks which appreciate the cubes of Hovis tossed to them by children and their parents.

On Sunday afternoons the place is busy. The perimeter path has been resurfaced so that wheelchairs may use it. At intervals there are benches giving views towards War Down and the Queen Elizabeth Country Park.

I installed myself on one of these benches and removed my binoculars from their case. An old retriever, grey-muzzled and obese, limped past, preceded by its equally ancient owner on a leather lead. Further on, a spaniel was defecating on the path itself: its owners pretended not to notice and, once it had finished, called to it to catch them up. Black Labradors, and a couple of yellow ones, were in evidence: these are the essential fashion accessory sported by the sort of people who wish to be thought countryfied.

Allowing the glasses to range about, I noticed, out on the water, a hired rowing boat being propelled by a young man in a blue top. Opposite him, at the tiller, sat a young woman in yellow. She had set a course to the far side of the Pond. Behind the rower, on a sort of plank across the bows, stood a corgi. It was drawing attention to itself by continuous barking, whether occasioned by innate neurosis or fear of the water I cannot say.

Knowing the cast of Edward’s character, I kept a special eye on this boat.

I did not have to wait long. Emerging in silence from a stand of pines, the menacing and alien shape of a gigantic bird of prey, buoyed along by broad and sweeping wingbeats, cast its speeding shadow across the surface of the lake.

I began to hear startled cries from the more observant strollers.

No more than thirty seconds elapsed before Harriet reached the boat and, barely pausing in her flight, snatched the corgi aloft.

As she gained altitude, she adjusted the disposition of her burden, even letting it go for an instant before catching it again. She may have heard the cries of astonishment and rage from below, especially from the man in the boat, who had now stood up, shaking his fist: she may have heard them, but remained indifferent, circling round to the east, a superb spectacle when seen above the trees on the southern shore.

A commotion at the recreation ground drew my notice. Mobile phones were being deployed. An attendant of some kind was being beseeched by shocked parents. Few of these, perhaps, noticed the man in the blue top losing his balance and falling into the lake, upsetting the boat and so also depositing the woman in the water.

Harriet reached the stand of pines whence she had started. Here, I supposed, her keeper was waiting. But instead of meekly yielding up the prize, she retained it. Instead of flying to the glove, she ended her flight at the top of the tallest pine.

There, on the bleached prong of a dead branch, and with one foot clamped on the dog, she looked about her. Even at that distance I detected malice in her glare. She was defiant, but also guilty. She knew her behaviour was at fault: but it was at fault only by the grubby and artificial standards of humans. Perhaps she wished to believe herself, however briefly, back in the rainforest.

Then she seemed to have second thoughts, took wing again, spilled air, and vanished into the vegetation below.

My rendezvous with Edward and Jocelyn went off as predicted, smoothly. After an irate search-party had hurried past my bench, I walked back to the roadway near the swings. As I heard a distant siren, the van came along, with a hooded Harriet once more on her perch.

During the ride back to Moreford and tea, Edward quizzed me as to what I had seen and spoke animatedly about his lifelike collection of small pedigree dogs. And as he talked, I was left to reflect on the eccentricity of some of my friends and to wonder whether my address-book could do with a little pruning.


David Smith said...

Thank you, this is a superbly written and most enjoyable short story, which I had saved to a diskette several years ago,and then death of PC etc. caused me to lose the connection to the author.

I seem to recall it was connected to one "Dennis The Hunchback" and a cyber-village of eccentrics, and I look forward to renewing my acquaintance!

Richard Herley said...

Guilty as charged, a distant literary crime it is best to gloss over, so we shall make no mention of Scotton Pinkney or Thomas Petrarch Fuller, editor of the communal website, nor indeed of Dennis Legge and his parkour about and upon the church steeple ...