Leaves from a Dorset diary
By David Edelsten. The illustration is by Becky Unwin.
Published in June ’11
‘Behavez-vous votre self, s’il vous plaît!’ I say to naughty Bella, as I try to struggle her into her bridle. It’s like trying to put on an eel’s socks; she fights the whole way, always, and always does her best to remove one of my fingers as she at last accepts the bit between rebellious teeth. She’s a dear, Bella, I adore her – mad as the proverbial hatter, typical chestnut mare, but quite the sparkiest, most responsive and rewarding hack I’ve ever sat on.
She is also highly intelligent, and brilliantly helpful when I am opening and shutting field gates, the mechanics of which she mastered as a two-year-old, when we first put her under the saddle sixteen years ago. Bella doesn’t speak foreign languages of course, but understands the tone of voice. Italian does just as well, particularly the explosive ‘Basta!’, meaning ‘Enough!’, which I find works with children too.
I was, as you may have guessed, perfecting my mastery of the French language as I saddled her up for a last ride before a trip across, or rather under, the Channel. You should have seen the fuss when we presented ourselves and our luggage for inspection, before boarding the Eurostar at Paddington. Just as we were leaving home, a call from our hosts had advised bringing extra warm clothing, so I switched a smart top-coat for my stables jacket… which of course has a clasp-knife in one pocket, for broaching hay bales.
Got there? Mayhem erupted when the knife showed up of the x-ray machine, there was such excitement amongst officialdom we must have made their day. I have been told since, by less fortunate travellers, that I was lucky not to have the offending weapon, which is very dear to me, an heirloom, permanently confiscated. As it was, it was returned to me, on the quiet, by a very pleasant young lady, along with a gently smiling rebuke, she saying that I was breaking the law by carrying such a thing about my person. I always think of her now as I use it, grateful that she had a sense of humour and could turn a blind eye to a daft law: I wish that there were more like her.
* * *
It was on our return from the continent that my new friend Cocky first showed up. He would meet me at the paddock gate first thing as I went to get the horses from Chantry Mead, the meadow across the lane, onto their day-pasture and for their breakfast. He would help himself from one of their feed-bowls, cheeky thing, while I fetched them… or rather, as they fetched themselves; I just open the gates, they know the drill.
Sometimes Cocky would vary the routine by following me, at heel, like a dog, just to check out the horses’ tea-site, in case he had overlooked any pickings on the previous afternoon. I never actually touched him, but he became extraordinarily tame and trusting… and vocal, making endearing little, happy-sounding, approving, liquid clucks as he pecked around my feet. Sometimes he would crow and clap his wings, there, just by me.
I could never get used to the extravagant beauty and variety of his plumage. A healthy live cock-pheasant, his ancestors immigrants from the Black Sea shore a thousand years or more back, just radiates exotic magnetism, and, in my mind at least, raises all sorts of unanswerable questions. How could such superfluous, detailed, aesthetic splendour, so pleasing to the human eye, just have evolved by chance, or in response to picky preferences expressed over millennia by the dowdy female of the species? Surely some Designer took a hand? I just don’t understand, but am inclined to credit Creation rather than Natural Selection… a shocking thing for someone who bears the name Gould to say. My Dorset-born great-great-grandfather, is credited with giving Darwin his eureka moment, by suggesting an explanation of the variations in the finches he had brought home in HMS Beagle.
On the morning of writing this I rode the bridle-path that runs the edge of Middlemarsh Common, hoping to see progeny of the even more splendid Golden Pheasant that I found living there ten years or so ago, and which, like Cocky, used to follow my horse’s heels, almost the length of the wood, clucking; he must have been somebody’s pet. Sadly, there was no trace of him.
When, with the new grass coming strongly through, we left off the winter feeding routine, Cocky went AWOL too. It had nothing to do with the shooting season, by then long over, he had evidently found another friend. It was a case, I must suppose, of cherchez la femme.