SHOTGUN AND HERONS
By Ian Dorking-Clark
Is it poetry? Is it serendipity? Is it chance? Is it the Great Architect of the Universe telling us that nothing occurs randomly, but that there is a great and changeless symmetry, a universal pattern, if only we could stand back far enough and see and understand? Or is it just poultry?
Take Wednesday July 14th. Several seemingly unconnected incidents came together in glorious concert to provide a talking point and a cause for smiles and genteel laughter for months to come. It was a pivotal moment in history – in personal history. Many there were who used that day as a benchmark:
“It was the day after . . . ”
“Where were you on the day that . . . ?”
We had been experiencing the most dreadful invasion of feral pigeons. They were squatting on the roof in colonies and their constant crooning and moaning was driving us to distraction. The pigeon droppings were defacing the portico above the main entrance.
The Secondary Building with its fine eighteenth-century battlements was showing the effects of a great number of nesting pigeons also. There was also the tumultuous roar when some silly bird felt the need to fly and the whole colony would ascend with a great flapping of noisy, creaky wings – the noisy clapping sound of a less-than-well-bred audience at a second-class concert hall – only to make a couple of circuits above the main drive before returning to their roosts and resuming their incessant soft coo-coo-cooing.
Tom Mould, our Head Gardener, came into the dining room on that particular morning during breakfast, muttering and grinding his teeth and complaining that there appeared to be fewer giant carp in the Virginia Woolf Ornamental Lake than he thought there should have been. His eyes raked the assembled Residents as if he expected one or more of them might be secreting a giant carp or two about her or his person.
Raj, the Gardener’s Lad, came in behind him and stood by his side. It was patently clear that he had important information to convey. Raj was fidgeting. Raj always fidgeted when he had something to say:
“It’s herons, Innit,” said Raj. “Dey’s eatin’ da fish, Innit.” And then as an afterthought, he added, “Nowah Amin.”
Very few of the assembled Residents noticed this little interchange, but Maude, ever the observer, thought she heard Tom Mould mutter under his breath, “First it’s bleeding pigeons shitting on the roof and now it’s herons . . . Bastards!”
Absent mindedly Tom scooped a handful of bread rolls from a table as he left the dining room. Raj followed him, explaining as he went that he had seen a heron on the roof and it had been eyeing the Virginia Woolf Ornamental Lake in a suspicious manner.
“Dey do dat,” he explained, darkly. “Herons is like that.”
Raj also expressed his anger that almost half of the chicken feed he was buying for his Black Orpington hens seemed to be ending up in the crops of the marauding pigeons.
They made their way together to Tom’s Hideaway where Betty would, no doubt, be waiting to offer him consolation. Betty, his constant companion. Betty, the light of Tom’s life. Betty. To Tom’s eyes, the most beautiful sheep in the world.
Tom was usually a taciturn man, yet this morning there was a slight tremor in Tom’s voice.
“Bleedin’ herons!” he muttered, partly to himself, partly to Betty, and partly to Raj. “Those carp have been there for years. Herons! Ha! . . . Bastards!”
The postman had delivered several letters that morning. In one, Lillian was informed that “Her Majesty’s Government Pension Service have decided that due to greater expenses incurred . . . blah blah blah . . . by Members of Parliament . . . completely, honestly, and above board . . . blah blah blah . . . and within the law been making claims . . . blah blah blah . . . irrevocable deficit in the Exchequer . . . blah blah blah . . . your pension for the work you claim you have put in at the Royal Courts of Justice . . . blah blah blah . . . Lord Chancellor’s Division . . . blah blah blah . . . no record of you ever having worked here. Your pension ceases forthwith . . . blah blah . . . You have fourteen days to reply to this letter. If no response is received by that time the case will be permanently closed . . . blah blah blah.”
Later that day, Tom and Raj drove to the nearby quaint little market town of Streatham-in-the-Vale. Tom went directly to the local ironmonger’s. Above the door were emblazoned the words, TACK, IRONMONGERY & EVERYTHING FOR THE COUNTRY GENTLEMAN. Raj stayed in the van, talking to Betty in case she should fret due to missing Tom’s company.
Tom appeared after some time carrying a parcel. It was long. It was wrapped in brown paper. Tom unwrapped the parcel as soon as he entered the van. In it was a long cardboard box. In the cardboard box was a shotgun. A twelve bore shotgun. With ammunition.
Tom turned the shotgun over and over in his hands, he broke open the breach to expose the chamber for effect, he looked Raj in the eye and spoke two words:
“Herons,” he said emotionally. “Bastards!”
Raj was fascinated. Betty looked calmly out of the rear window of the van. Nothing surprised Betty. Sheep, on the whole, are singularly unemotional animals.
The postman had delivered several letters that morning. Lillian had received the first. In another, Katriona was informed by Fortnum and Mason that following a complaint from several of their Staff and also from members of the public following a fracas at a wine tasting in their food hall on the previous Christmas Eve, Mrs Katriona Piesporter-Michelsberg was to have her Store Card withdrawn until a full investigation could be made into the incident.
It was about this time that the heron made an appearance; some while between the delivery of the letters and Tom’s excursion to Streatham-in-the Vale. The heron had been feeding himself very adequately in a pond behind the Sports Pavilion at Crystal Palace, and thought he would rest his wings for a while before he made his way home to Surbiton where he lived. His mother had always warned that too much exercise after a decent lunch would not be wise.
So he came to rest to take in the scenery and to encourage healthy digestion in his rather full tummy. He perched on the roof of the Secondary Building and gazed around at the scene.
“Bucolic charm,” he thought to himself. The sun was shining, the pigeons scattered around him were doing what pigeons do best – making the noises for which pigeons are famed. Their call was a continuous, bubbling moan.
If the heron had been one of the Residents and Staff of the building on which he was standing, he would have noted that the call of a feral pigeon is remarkably similar to the call made by Sharon when Raj is in the vicinity. But he was not, nor had he ever been, a member of Staff nor a Resident. The heron was a stranger, never having been in the vicinity before.
As he looked around at the roofs of the buildings he noticed that there was quite a large expanse of water at the back of the grander house.
“That looks like an ornamental stretch of water,” he mused, “and ornamental stretches of water frequently contain carp.”
He was about to investigate when there was some movement behind him. He turned to look. Two old women were standing on the roof very close to him and looking over the edge.
He moved out of their way politely and considered whether he would investigate the stretch of water he had just noticed, or stay for a while and take in the warm sunshine. After all, he had just eaten and his investigations could take place at another time.
And to fly away at precisely the moment when the two old women had arrived could have been seen as a sign of rudeness. Rude he was not. He had been brought up and spent most of his life in Surbiton and had the good manners to prove it. Regardless, the old women weren’t bothering him, so why bother them?
Lillian and Katriona had climbed onto the roof in order to make their own completely unrelated protests concerning Lillian’s letter from the Government Pension Service and Katriona’s letter concerning her Store Card at Fortnum and Mason. They stood, half obscured by the late eighteenth-century battlements of the Tower over the entrance to the Secondary Building – they, the only thing marring the beauty of the Main Tower in the early afternoon sunshine; they, a minor blot on the roof above the Portico on that lovely day; they, Lillian and Katriona, destroying the calm that hung like a whispered prayer over the Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst Memorial Billiard Rooms and Gymnasium.
Below them, Matron (Mrs Hilda Plantagenet-Featheringstonehaugh) was walking beside Sister Mary Perpetua. They had indulged in a very pleasant lunch together and were enjoying a postprandial stroll, the lovely morning having developed into a glorious afternoon. Matron was telling Sister Mary Perpetua how Tom Mould (in his capacity as Head Gardener) was maintaining the beautiful rododendron border so expertly.Matron and Sister Mary Perpetua spoke in well- modulated voices, unaware that above them stood two old ladies and a heron.
Suddenly there was a cry from above. Both ladies raised their eyes to see two of the Residents standing just behind, but not concealed by, the late eighteenth-century battlements. Two ladies of advanced years.
“Fairness to Pensioners,” called out one of the ladies on the roof.
“Death to Fortnum and Mason,” called out the other. “Death to the Oppressors.”
“Don’t look, Sister,” said Matron. “It’s most probably somebody cleaning the guttering.”
There was a slight movement as the heron, somewhat embarrassed by the noise and the less-than-genteel raised voices, moved slightly to the left so that the two old women on the roof could take as much room as they required.
“And fairness for pensioners,” shouted Lillian, with less conviction. Death to the Oppressors sounded so much nicer. She wished she had thought of it first.
“Polish chaps, I should imagine,” said Matron.
Suddenly, as if from nowhere, there appeared a third female figure on the roof. The new arrival was Old Mrs Prendergast (Ghastly Prendy, as she is affectionately known to her fellow Residents). Being on the roof was no new experience for her. She began to shout obscenities to those below.
“Attagirl,” said Katriona. “We’re here to protest. All visitors welcome.”
A voice came from below. It was Matron. She stood looking up at the protestors. Beside her stood Sister Mary Perpetua. Matron didn’t look as if she was enjoying the situation.
“What’s going on?” she called. “Desist. Stop it at once.”
“To the barricades,” shouted Katriona. “Death to the Oppressors!” And then unaccountably she began to sing in a loud and particularly strident voice:
“Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !”
Maude and Cook had just come out of the doorway of the Secondary Building. The noise had drawn them and several of the other Residents.
“Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L’étendard sanglant est levé !” continued Katriona.
“I don’t know what that’s all about. I’ve never heard her speak French before,” said Maude, turning to Cook. “She’s from The Isle of Wight”
L’étendard sanglant est levé !
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats ?
Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras
Egorger nos fils et nos compagnes !”
“Death to the Oppressors,” chorused the three rooftop ladies. “And up yours!” added Ghastly Prendy.
At this juncture, Tom Mould, accompanied by Betty and Raj, appeared in the van. As they drove past the quickly-swelling crowd of Residents and Staff, Tom leant out of the van window.
“Wozzup?” he asked.
“On the roof,” came a chorus of those watching the protest.
“Bleedin’ pigeons and herons . . . bastards,” growled Tom. “I’ll be back.”
He shortly reappeared with Raj. They were carrying a ladder. Leaning the ladder against the side of the portico, Tom started to climb. He held the cardboard box under his left arm and drew himself up with his right hand; his pockets bulged with cartridges.
Quite a large gathering of the Residents were making a day of it, singing along with Katriona:
“La-la la-la la la la laaaaaa la-la,” they sang in chorus . . . more or less.
Tom Mould scrambled to the top of the second story window that projected over the drive. A crashing of wings and a cloud of pigeons rose in the air and began to describe a slow circle of the ground in front of the Secondary Building. Bending down, Tom drew the shotgun from the box, broke it open and inserted a cartridge. Hardly taking aim, he fired at the flying pigeons.
There was a crash and then momentary silence except for the sound of Katriona’s voice, still passionately singing:
Aux armes, citoyens !
Formez vos bataillons !
Marchons ! marchons !
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons !
Then a flurry of feathers and four pigeons fell to the ground, followed almost immediately by a slate from the roof. Ghastly Prendy stood there with another slate above her head.
“Death to the Oppressors!” she shrieked, and almost as an afterthought, “Up yours!”
“Oh, Sweet Jesus!” exclaimed Sister Mary Perpetua. “I can’t look.” She brought her hands up to her eyes. Then, peering slyly through her fingers, she said, “Let them get down safely.” Then she murmured more quietly, half to herself, half to a Greater Being, “Please! If they fall, don’t let me miss it”
“Death to the Oppressors!” shrieked Ghastly Prendy once more and with that, hurled the slate to the ground.
“Be careful of the rhododendrons you wicked, wicked woman,” bellowed Matron, and turned towards Sister Mary Perpetua to see if she had noticed her rage. Sister Mary Perpetua was too busy looking through semi-closed fingers to notice.
“If you don’t come down immediately, there’s no supper for you tonight, you naughty girl,” called Nurse Smythe.
“Alright,” said Old Mrs Prendergast and looked over the late eighteenth-century battlements to see what was happening at ground level. She withdrew her head as Tom let off another round at the by now swirling pigeons, and suddenly she was beside Cook, at ground level. No one knew how she got down from the roof so quickly but Old Mrs Prendergast hated to miss supper.
The heron thought better of staying and decided to fly off.
Several more pigeons now lay on the gravel.
“Shotgun,” said Maude, turning to the Reverend Hugh Halitosis who had just rounded the corner on his bicycle. He gazed at the scene before him and a shudder went through his slight frame. The sound of the shotgun had brought him, but it repelled him also.
“I don’t like violence,” he said, and turned to go, head bent down low over the handlebars as if to shut out sight and sound.
There was another resounding crash from Tom’s firing piece, followed almost immediately by the thuds of little feathered bodies landing on the gravel and in the rhododendron border.
“A shotgun, also known as a scattergun, peppergun, or, historically, as a fowling piece, is a firearm that is usually designed to be fired from the shoulder,” said Maude. “Always had them around the house when I was a girl. Useful for hunting birds and other small game. We were a country family. A hunting family. Killed a lot when I was growing up. Slaughtered any amount of rabbits and grouse and things. Came back home with hands full of them. Up to the elbows in blood.”
The Reverend Hugh Halitosis fled, pedalling as quickly as he could whilst attempting to retain the dignity required of a man of the cloth.
It was at that exact moment that the whole concoction came together in one glorious confection.
It was at that precise moment that Tom, looking up directly into the bright sun that hung in the afternoon sky, saw movement from a large creature.
“Heron,” he intoned. “Bastard.”
He thrust one more cartridge into the breached chamber and, aiming directly over his head, pulled the trigger.
It was at that very moment that the heron, feeling that Surbiton was a much more restful place to be, bent his legs slightly and prepared to fly off. With two mighty flaps of his wings he took to the sky and flew gracefully in a gentle arc towards his home and family.
At precisely that moment Lillian looked over the late eighteenth century merlons and embrasures and shrieked, “Death to the Oppressors.”
At exactly that moment, the flock of pigeons decided that it was safe to return and did so, wings clattering, directly over Tom Mould’s head.
“CRASH!” There was a report that shook the watching crowd. Feathers floated down gracefully in a light breeze. The heron flew off gracefully to a well-earned rest amongst his nearest and dearest. Lillian, describing an arc as elegantly as possible under the circumstances, fell from the roof, headfirst into the rhododendron border. Several dead pigeons fell with and on her.
There was a monumental silence for several seconds, broken only by the sound of the Reverend Hugh Halitosis gently falling off his bicycle. The noise and the bloodshed and Maude’s graphic description of her childhood days of slaughter had been more than his constitution could bear and he had fainted.
“Oops!” said Tom. He climbed slowly down the ladder and immediately went to seek solace with Betty.
Sister Mary Perpetua removed her hands from her face. She wore a seraphic smile. She hadn’t missed a thing.
The rooftop demonstration came to an end. Katriona came down and had a lovely afternoon telling everybody about the fracas at the wine tasting at Fortnum and Mason. Most of the Residents went for their afternoon nap. Tom told Betty everything in the minutest detail. Raj fed his Black Orpingtons.
Sister Mary Perpetua went back to the Convent of The Little Sisters of Selective Charity a happy woman. Matron, on the other hand, decided that rhododendron borders were all very well but did need an awful amount of care.
Sharon gathered up several of the dead pigeons and returned with them to the house. When she reappeared with a laundry basket there were enough dead pigeons remaining from Tom’s carnage to fill it almost completely.
Cook, after having hung the little corpses for a couple of days, created a lovely meal, the main course being pigeon pie with juniper berries. There was the happy sound of Residents dropping shot onto the edges of plates, and a feeling of well being throughout the dining room.
And Lillian? Well, she had received that letter from Her Majesty’s Government Pension Service and the gist of it had been, “ . . . no record of you ever having worked here. Your pension ceases forthwith . . . blah blah. You have fourteen days to reply to this letter. If no response is received by that time the case will be closed, permanently . . . blah blah.”
Nobody seemed to miss Lillian, so we thought, “All’s well that ends well,” and left it at that.