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December 26th 2017 print

Hugh Canham

The Boxing Day Shoot

From Quadrant's November edition and appropriate to the date, Hugh Canham's short story

purdeyI was not enthusiastic about going to the Boxing Day shoot. I’d had a wonderful Christmas Day with my wife and two small children and did not want to drive down to Sussex to kill a few pheasants, particularly as it was freezing cold and the sky had that leaden look which threatens snow. But the Boxing Day shoot was a tradition held every year by the man who at the time was my best client and I felt I couldn’t miss it.

I am not a heavy drinker, even during the so-called Festive Season, and maybe I felt rather smug looking at the assembled shots—mostly local farmers—as I arrived an hour and a half later. It seemed as if they all had hangovers from Christmas Day, including my host, John, who emerged from his farmhouse aiming kicks at his gun dog, which was always a bad sign because he was really rather fond of it.

Anyhow, after the usual enforced bonhomie and greetings of “Happy Christmas” or “Happy Boxing Day” we walked to the first drive. It was down a narrow path to a meadow in front of a wood at the back of the farmhouse so we were unable to take the Land Rovers and had to walk in single file. The beaters had already made their way to the other end of the wood by a series of lanes, sitting on a trailer hitched to the back of John’s tractor.

No sooner had the beaters started to beat and the first few pheasants were emerging from the wood than it began to snow with snowflakes the size of two-pound coins. Within a minute it was a blizzard. There was a great deal of bellowing from my host to the gamekeeper who was leading the beaters to “stop” but he probably couldn’t hear him. John then shouted to the guns, “We’d better pack up and get under cover.” And there was a somewhat undignified rush back down the narrow path of men and gun dogs.

“Bloody weather!” John kept repeating when we were all in the barn next to the farmhouse, shaking the snow from our coats and hats. “Well, it doesn’t look like clearing so I suppose we’d better pack it in. Bloody weather forecast was wrong as usual—said a bit of light snow midday. You’d better all make it back home before it gets any worse. Scott, my keeper, will organise the beaters getting home. They’re all local lads. I suppose I’d better pay them for a full day even though they only did a few minutes!” Then, turning to me, “I don’t know where this leaves you, Brian. I don’t think you’ll ever make it back to London. You’d better stay here until it clears up a bit.”

So, taking off my wet boots, cap and shooting jacket I followed John into the farmhouse kitchen which was fitted with all the latest domestic appliances among its old oak beams.

“Deirdre, where are you?” bellowed John.

Deirdre was John’s third wife and I knew they were not exactly getting on well.

Deirdre was in the sitting room, it appeared from a muffled reply. “Stay here, Brian,” said John. “I’ll have a quiet word with her.”

I heard, “Shoot’s off. They’ve all gone home before the snow gets too thick, apart from Brian.” He then closed the door and I could hear the sounds of a heated argument. At one stage I heard Deirdre shout, “I’ve done enough yesterday.”

However, after a few more minutes Deirdre emerged with a broad smile on her face and arms outstretched to greet me effusively.

“Well, Brian, you’re stuck with us it seems. You must stay the night.”

Deirdre was a very attractive woman of about thirty-five. John was nearly sixty. She’d been one of his assistants in the vast antiques warehouse he ran nearby which was his main business. The farm was somewhere to live, and it had certain tax advantages.

“God, I could do with a drink,” said John. “Have we got any champagne left over from yesterday?”

“I expect so, John. Even eight of your most bibulous friends didn’t get through three dozen bottles.”

So John opened the first bottle of champagne and we started drinking. I looked at my watch. It was only half past eleven. I phoned my wife and explained that I was stuck. She didn’t seem too pleased and said it wasn’t snowing very hard in London.

I observed John and Deirdre as they sat side-by-side on the sofa consuming three or four glasses of champagne to every one that I had. Deirdre looked very young and pretty. Her dark hair was expensively coiffured into a long bob. She had on close-fitting jeans, fashionable boots and a low-cut green silk blouse. John, who had on his heavy stockings and shooting breeches, Tattersall shirt and gilet, looked exactly what he was—a balding, sixty-year-old overweight heavy drinker. He had, however, a great deal of business sense and was a first-class antiques dealer.

“Do put some more wood on the fire, John. It’s awfully cold,” Deirdre kept saying.

I thought it might be a good idea if she put on a thick jumper over her blouse, but it might have spoiled the visual effect.

“I think I’d better make some cold turkey sandwiches to sop up some of this champagne,” Deirdre said after about an hour of desultory chatter.

I’d rather forgotten about the time and was feeling rather sleepy with the champagne and the heat from the fire.

“Would you like to come and help me, Brian? The housekeeper’s got the day off because she had such a lot to do yesterday.”

I was glad to get into the kitchen, which was decidedly less stuffy than the living room with that huge fire blazing in the inglenook.

“Could you please carve a few thin slices off the remains of the turkey which I’ll get out of the pantry? It’s a man’s job and John’s drunk so much champagne he’s looking comatose. Anyhow, Brian, I’m glad for a few moments on our own as I want to talk to you.” She came and stood very closely in front of me. “Look,” she said, “what’s the state of John’s business?”

“Ah, I’m not really able to tell you.”

“Come on, Brian. You’re his accountant and I’m his wife. Am I not entitled to know? I have my suspicions that all is not well, but he won’t talk to me about it.”

“I don’t think I can go into details,” I said, starting to carve bits off the turkey.

“So you won’t tell me? That means things are bad, doesn’t it?”

“This is all very difficult for me, Deirdre, you must realise. John made me promise that I would not talk to anyone about the financing arrangements he’s making.”

“Well, I’m not just anyone.”

“He specifically asked me not to discuss the matter with you.”

“I see!” Deirdre’s eyes were blazing as she sliced her home-made loaf and started to spread the slices with the butter she’d been softening on the top of the Aga. She then stared at me enigmatically while she instructed me to put the bits of turkey on the bread.

When we took the plates through to the sitting room John was asleep. “Wake up, John. Here are the sandwiches.”

John sleepily munched his way through two sandwiches, had another glass of champagne and then went to sleep again.

Deirdre went to the window and looked out at the garden.

“There must be about a foot of snow at least. The flower beds have disappeared. It’s all so soporific. It must be the weather, not to mention the champagne, but like John I feel sleepy. Would you like to have a snooze too, Brian? I’m going upstairs to lie down. Would you like to do the same? I’ll show you to your room.”

At first I did not suspect anything. I was feeling very dozy and must have consumed three or four glasses of champagne; far more than I would usually have.

“Look, along here. It’s quite a warm room and I’ll turn the radiator up for you.”

“Oh very nice,” I said as we went into the bedroom.

She closed the door behind her and brushed against me.

“You know, I’ve always liked you, Brian. You’re so dependable,” she whispered as she pushed herself on top of me on the bed.

I should not have succumbed. But that silk blouse was so inviting. And so we started to make love. Suddenly she gripped me so hard that I almost shouted out with the pain.

“All I want to know is whether John has still got his millions? Tell me! Oh, please tell me. I’m very worried about him.”

I should have broken things off at that stage, assuming I could have persuaded her to let go of me. But I was very aroused.

“No, no,” I said. “Basically, everything is all right. It’s just a serious cashflow crisis. Too much stock and not enough sales.”

“Oh thank you, Brian. That does ease my mind.” She released her hold on me, smiled, stroked my face and said, “Please carry on.”

After she’d gone, I got under the duvet in my underwear and tried to sleep. But it was difficult. I felt guilty. I’d betrayed John, my wife and my children all in a few moments.

I don’t know how long afterwards it was, but there was a banging on the door and Deirdre shouted, “I’ve made some supper if you’re interested.”

“This is my Boxing Day evening special,” she said, when we were sitting round the kitchen table. “Kedgeree, ad lib, as change from turkey, plum pudding and mince pies.”

“It’s wonderful,” said John, who seemed to be much brighter.

“The pub will be very miffed that none of us turned up for the shoot lunch. I suppose they’ll want me to pay for it. I’ll have to speak to them. Jolly good fish pie, my dear.”

“No, John, it’s kedgeree!”

“Sorry. Oh God, the sheep!!” He stood up. “I’d forgotten all about them. They’ll need some hay, poor things. Won’t be able to get to the grass. I’ll have to get some to them.” He tore to the kitchen door and opened it and was greeted with a flurry of snowflakes and blackness. He came back and sat down. “It’ll have to be first thing in the morning. Will you be prepared to help me, Brian? It looks as though we’ll have to get the tractor started. The snow’s too deep for the Land Rover.”

So, as soon as it was light, the next morning we did manage to get the tractor going and then uncoupled the trailer that had carried the beaters and attached to it something that John called a transporter box.

“Never get through the snow with a trailer,” said John.

Then we put as many bales of hay in the transporter box as it would hold. “That should keep them going for the time being,” said John.

All this manual effort (and bales of hay are very heavy) was accompanied by a great deal of cursing and swearing from John, who no doubt had his refinancing arrangements in the back of his mind.

“Got nearly a hundred ewes in a field not far away. I think we’ll make it. Otherwise we shall have to carry the hay bales to them one by one—God help us!”

It was somehow very refreshing to my soul or whatever you like to call it to struggle through the snow to feed the sheep on that cold winter morning. They stood huddled in a corner of the field with snow covering their backs and bleating fitfully from time to time. As soon as the first bale of hay was put down they made such a rush for it they nearly knocked me off my feet. All this feeding of the sheep took well over an hour but Deirdre cooked us a huge breakfast when we got in.

She was looking very happy. Neither she nor John appeared to be the worse for the amount of champagne they had consumed. No doubt they were both used to it.

After I’d finished my breakfast I had a headache and wanted to get home as soon as possible. Fortunately by midday the snow ploughs had been at work and I was able to get my car up the lane and onto the main road which had been completely cleared, and made my way back to London.

I tried to forget all about my encounter with Deirdre.

But then in the New Year I heard the news that John and she were divorcing. I was in my fifth-floor office in Trafalgar Square when I heard about it and I immediately had terrible contractions in my stomach.

So that was why she was so badly wanting to know about John’s wealth and gripped me so hard to get me to tell her. Now I was probably going to be dragged into the divorce on the grounds of my adultery with her. Oh Lord, what a folly of mine on that non-event of the Boxing Day shoot. My wife would want to divorce me and the family would break up and my life would be ruined, I thought. I needed to get out and breathe some fresh air. I walked quickly to the lift, got in it and pushed the button for the ground floor, but as it descended the lift made a grinding noise and stopped suddenly between the third and second floors. The contractions in my stomach became almost unbearable. I had never felt so claustrophobic! I pressed the alarm button and the ground floor button alternately and repeatedly. I thought I was going to faint and be sick all at the same time. I sat down on the floor and put my head between my legs and I think I must have uttered a prayer or two. Then just as suddenly as it had stopped, the lift started again but went upwards back to the fifth floor. I staggered out of the lift and went to the toilets.

“You okay, Brian? You look a bit pale,” said one of my partners, who was just leaving.

“Yes,” I said. “I just got stuck in the lift.”

“Bloody thing’s always going wrong. You’ve heard about your client, John the antique dealer, getting divorced again? I used to look after him at one time. This one’s divorcing him on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour, I understand. The last time it was about his other liaisons; but he’s probably beyond all that what with what I gather is his alcoholic intake. You’ve met this one, Deirdre, have you? A real box of tricks, as they say!”

“Yes, I do know her slightly,” I said. I splashed my face with cold water, walked down the corridor, went into my office and sat down at my desk.

“Unreasonable behaviour!” The sense of relief was enormous and I breathed deeply for sixty seconds. But at the end of sixty seconds the thought came to me that you never could tell with divorces. The question of my adultery with Deirdre could still come up. I was not safe until the thing was finalised.

I think I then descended into what we used to call at school “a blue funk”. I couldn’t bear to find out what was going on between Deirdre and John about the divorce, although I have no doubt it was common gossip in the office.

About a week later, I got a message from John that he would like me to advise him about various of his assets which might be involved in the divorce settlement. (No doubt to see if he could “hide” any of them.) I really couldn’t face it and sent my assistant, Sidney, to see him, pleading pressure of other work. It was quite convenient, as Sidney had lived near John and commuted to Central London every day.

I had asked Sidney to report to me the next day after his meeting with John. I always arrived at the office early as I lived not far away and I remember sitting at my desk feeling extremely jittery waiting for Sidney to appear.

I must explain about Sidney. Although looking superficially like any young, keen chartered accountant with dark pinstripe suit and horn-rimmed spectacles, he fancied himself as a wit and raconteur.

“Well, how did you get on?” I asked Sidney as we each consumed a cup of black coffee.

“Christ, Brian, she’s trying to squeeze the last drop out of him. Apparently she’s got this very smart woman lawyer acting for her and boy is she giving him a hard time!”

“And how is John coping?”

“He says, ‘Well, it’s only money and I know I’ve been at fault.’ He’s going to have to sell up if it goes on like this. No possibility of protecting any of his assets as far as I can see. Frankly, I feel sorry for the old sod. He’s very popular locally, you know, and generous and friendly. His missus is a flighty bit of goods, I’m told, although I’ve never met her. My own feeling is that if someone could find out that she’s been having a bit of hanky-panky on the side it would help John’s position no end. You’ve never heard anything, have you?”

I could feel my face flushing and I swivelled my chair away from Sidney and gazed out of the window at Nelson and the pigeons.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anything.”

When Sidney had gone, I had those terrible stomach pains again. “Why should Sidney ask me that?” I kept saying to myself. There was nothing for it. Blue funk had prevailed! I took a taxi home.

“Gastric flu,” said the doctor.

I lay dripping with sweat in bed in the spare room for several days between bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting. It was almost a week before I felt better.

“I can tell you this now,” my wife said. “Sidney has phoned several times and wanted to come and see you as soon as you were better. He sounded very excited. Says he has lots of news and says you will be interested!”

I didn’t know what to expect, but I supposed I had better hear the news whatever it was.

“Just after I saw you last,” said Sidney, eagerly leaning over my bed, “it all came out. Deirdre had been having an affair with a local farmer for about a year. That put a different complexion on the financial settlement. Retreat of smart lady lawyer. Local farmer decides to leave his wife and four children and go off with Deirdre. Deirdre a bit dubious about it, it is said. Presumably worried about money. However, ever resourceful, Deirdre has apparently also been having on-off doings with a Formula One racing driver who lives in a tax haven somewhere and only visits the UK from time to time. So Deirdre contacts him and offers her exclusive rights in her person for the future. He is delighted and Deirdre promptly goes off to the tax haven with him. Beats any bad soap opera, don’t it?

“No doubt John will divorce her in due course, but in the meantime his money and business are safe and no doubt he’s downing a few glasses in celebration. God, Deirdre must be a hot bit of goods. I wish I’d seen her. What’s she like?”

“A sort of femme fatale, I suppose,” I replied.

“Yes, must be. But, God, Brian, I’m sorry. I forgot to ask you how you are feeling now. You must have had a really nasty time—and still in bed, too!”

“Oh, I definitely feel much better now,” I said. “And I think I will get up this afternoon.”

Hugh Canham lives in London. His novel Lucasta and Hector, the first chapter of which appeared as a story in Quadrant, was published in 2015.