In the village there was a row of identical council houses on a narrow road called Cherryhurst. Opposite the houses was a large paddock in which a gymkhana occurred every year, and 12-year-old blondes with muscular thighs and plump backsides competed for rosettes before, a few months later, transferring their attention from ponies to boys. In the bank of the paddock you might find hibernating tortoises in winter, and oxlips and primroses in the spring. In a large redbrick house at the southern end, tiled on the upper half in the Surrey farmhouse style, lived the family of Mr Hadgecock the spy, and up a muddy lane behind it lived the antiquated Mrs Mac, her sister, and the ghost of her husband.
At the northern end of the road was The Institute of Oceanography, implausibly located as far from the sea as possible. This complex of buildings had once been a workhouse, before becoming a home for abandoned and unfeasibly delinquent boys and girls, who devoted their spare time to engaging in pitched battles with the native children of the village in the road outside their 12-foot walls.
A scar from a gash on the forehead was a considerable badge of honour in those unprissified days, when youngsters were expected to be out all day, grazing their knees, getting stung by nettles, and being pushed into ditches by their friends and siblings. Behind the Institute sprouted a pink water tower that was unmistakably phallic, but this was studiously unmentioned by the villagers and all who gazed wonderingly upon it.
Before the paddock was a large house owned by a famous actress and her bisexual, alcoholic, hellraising husband who was friends with the likes of Richard Burton and Oliver Reed. She was to divorce him eventually when he came home with one too many boyfriends. They had a large, savagely insane golden retriever that was the result of a mother mating with her son, and this dog occupied its empty hours by hurling itself against the palings of the fence in a snarling, demented fury, desperate to shred any and all passers-by. The children loved to provoke it to ever greater fury by bashing the fence with sticks.
Cherryhurst was the main thoroughfare on the way to the common, and much used by dogwalkers, who had become used to running the gauntlet. Along this road, almost every day, accompanied by Calypso, his son’s collie, walked Captain Pitt, with his military moustache, distinctive limp and the unmistakable demeanour of an old war hero; this in spite of dressing as a Canadian backwoodsman in winter, and as a Pathan tribesman in the summer. Occasionally he would be accompanied by the General and his black Labrador Bella, both of them well on the way to senility, but otherwise reasonably fit.
In one of the houses on Cherryhurst lived John the Gardener, and his wife. This lady had a strong aversion to motorcycles, and so John had kept a secret motorcycle and sidecar in a friend’s shed for the past 20 years. Every day he would set off for work on foot with his packed lunch of honey sandwiches in home-made bread, and his pouch of home-grown tobacco, collect his combination, and ride it to the stud farm in Munstead. In the days when this stud had been owned by an American rock star, his job had been to grow marijuana and magic mushrooms, but now that it was owned by the Shah of Iran, he grew pleasant swathes of varicoloured pansies around the tank traps in summer, and in winter spent his time having bonfires and washing green rings of algae off the flowerpots.
Next to John and his wife lived a boy named Robert, with his mother and his ‘Uncle’ Dick. The identity of Robert’s father was a mystery even to his mother, who had conceived him in the long grass behind the Chiddingfold Ex Serviceman’s Club after a particularly frivolous night out. Uncle Dick, who spoke like a Londoner and might even have been one, was an artisan at the golf club, and Robert’s mother was a ‘daily help’ who did one day a week in five different middle-class houses. Nobody knew her real name because she was always referred to as Mrs D.
Robert was well-known for three things; he had caught the girt pike in the Glebe Pond, he had passed his eleven-plus and got into Guildford Grammar School, and he always had a pet corvid on his shoulder. Since childhood he had brought up abandoned magpies, jays, rooks, crows and jackdaws, and by the time that he was 12 had already acquired some of the mystery, menace and charisma of Odin. Uncle Dick had achieved much success in teaching obscenities and insults to these intelligent, affectionate and mischievous birds.
When Captain Pitt and his son’s family were away for any reason, it was their custom to leave their collie with Robert’s family. Mrs D was Kate Pitt’s ‘daily’, and as often happens in such situations, the families had become friends of a sort, concerned with each other’s affairs, and solicitous in times of misfortune. Robert enjoyed taking Calypso for walks, throwing sticks for her into Sweetwater Lake, and sitting with her in the sandpits behind the railway cottages as he wrote love lyrics for the many unattainable girls with whom he was simultaneously in love. Even the family cat was tolerant of the dog, whose only fault was energy and hyperactivity so exaggerated that it was as if she had been wired up to the mains. The cat would sit impervious as Calypso tried to round her up and herd her from one room to another.
One summer the Pitt family, including the Captain, went to a bungalow in Cornwall where the rule was ‘No Dogs’. The Captain was going to play golf with his hickory-shafted clubs at Trevose Head, his son Bertie would sleep in the sun, and Kate and the children would cook sausages on the beaches with a Primus stove, bury the paterfamilias in sand, and belly surf on simple wooden boards.
At the same time John the Gardener and his wife went to Hastings, where he had a brother who would drive to the seafront every day, and sit silently side by side in the car with his wife, whilst she read the real news and he read the sports pages, until it was time to fetch a saveloy and chips.
Between the two houses was a fence with a ragged hole in it, and Robert and his family thought nothing of the fact that Calypso was frequently in and out of it. She was not a natural vandal, and a more sweet-natured dog could hardly be imagined.
So it was something of a shock to them all when, the day before John and his wife were due to return, Uncle Dick looked out of the window and saw Calypso crawling through the hole in the fence with a rabbit hanging slackly in her jaws. This would have been perfectly all right if the animal had not been an enormous black and white Dutch rabbit with long floppy ears.
‘Bloody ’ell,’ said Dick, ‘where the f*** did she find that?’ Then he remembered that in John’s garden there was a rabbit run.
He sprinted upstairs to look out of the bathroom window, and sure enough, on John’s lawn was a wire-mesh run with its door open.
‘Ohhhhh f***,’ he said to himself.
Out in the garden, Uncle Dick, Robert and his mother looked at the dead creature that Calypso had reluctantly been persuaded to part with. She stood by forlornly, waiting to have it handed back. She only wanted to lick it, and really did not mind if they intended to eat it themselves rather than feed it to her.
‘Why’s it all covered in dirt?’ asked Mrs D.
‘S’pose the dog was playing with it,’ said Uncle Dick. ‘Maybe throwing it about a bit, just for a laugh.
‘What are we gonna do?’ he added. ‘What are we gonna tell John when ’e gets back?’
‘It’s the Pitts’ dog,’ said Mrs D. ‘They can take the blame, can’t they?’
‘Yes, but we were supposed to be looking after it, and that bloody ’ole is in our fence, innit? We should ’ave repaired it yonks ago.’
‘Why don’t we just put it back in the run and they’ll think it died on its own?’ suggested Robert, whose impatient pet magpie was hopping from shoulder to shoulder, clearly as interested in the rabbit as Calypso was.
‘Cause that’s bleedin’ dishonest,’ said Uncle Dick. ‘We oughter be upfront.’
Nonetheless, a few minutes later, Mrs D was washing the dirt off under the cold tap, and a few minutes after that she was rubbing it down with a towel, and fluffing it up with a hairdryer, so that it was once more a beautiful, if defunct, leporid. She took it downstairs and showed it to the others. ‘Look, it’s come up lovely,’ she said.
‘Bleedin’ ’andsome,’ said Uncle Dick.
Not a minute later Robert was crawling through the hole in the fence, and Uncle Dick was passing him the rabbit. Within seconds Robert had placed it tenderly in its run and latched the door.
The following evening John came round, with his chewed-up old pipe, full of his rank home-grown tobacco, stuck in his mouth.
‘Have a cup of tea,’ said Mrs D. ‘Four sugars, isn’t it? Nice holiday?’
John stood in the kitchen sipping at his mug, drops of tea hanging from the hairs of his grey, nicotine-stained moustache. He looked up, wiped his moustache with the back of his sleeve, and said, ‘While we were away… did you see anything? I mean something a bit suspicious… something going on in my garden?’
‘No,’ said Mrs D, turning her back and pretending to clean the taps. ‘Why?’
‘My wife’s rabbit.’
‘Oh, I didn’t know he was called Giles.’
‘Well, he was.’
‘Why the posh name?’
‘He was a posh rabbit. Pedigree.’
‘Oh, is he all right?’
‘Well, that’s the thing,’ replied John, ‘some silly bugger’s gone and dug him up, and put him back in his run.’
‘Blimey,’ said Mrs D. ‘That’s a turn-up.’
About Louis de Bernières
Louis de Bernières is the bestselling author of Red Dog, Birds Without Wings and A Partisan's Daughter, but it is his 1994 historical novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin that he is best known for. The book won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1995 and has been adapted for radio, film and theatre. In 2003, as part of BBC's The Big Read, it was voted 19th best novel of all time in a poll of three quarters of a million people.
This short story by Louis de Bernières appeared in the November 2019 issue of Saga Magazine.
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