Short Fiction by Suki Linnell
A short story of fox-hunting, sabotage and side-switching. How will the hunter become the hunted?
God it feels good, Baxter! To be back out here with you, galloping across the Dairy Acres stubble! A venerable Wycherly stamping ground. Hounds speaking low and strong, streaking across the fields! The finest view in Europe!
Big hedge coming up now, steady now, Bax, steady – hang back – let the others go, wait for the opening and now! Good chap. It’s a joy to feel one’s blood up on a day like this, isn’t it? And where did my little Lila get to? There she is! Well turned out in ratcatcher tweed. Still game for a hunt after a term among all sorts at the LSE. A real credit to me. Come on, Bax, you lazybones. Can’t lag about in the middle of the field with these grubby little mountain ponies and their snotty child riders.
My dear daughter! Catch her and that dainty little mare Damson. Not cut out for this clip one bit, are we old boy?
Funny that Lila can’t seem to hear me! Deaf as a post. Let’s see if Damson will see this crop if I wave it, eh Bax? There we are, shying away, that’s done the trick!
“Dad? What the… everything alright?”
I’m sure I detect a hint of exasperation there. Hardly called for.
“Just seeing how you’re getting on! How’s Damson, being a good girl?”
Why she chooses to roll her eyes at the slightest prompt I’ll never know, Baxter. An unbecoming attitude in a young woman at the best of times. Best press on:
“John needs spinney look-outs while they draw Dant’s wood.”
Doesn’t quite seem to grasp my meaning, does she, Bax? Maybe the lingo’s gone rusty on her. It’s been a few years.
“John needs us at the spinney, up by the lane back to Plumpton Burcote. To keep an eye out for the quarry. And for sabs or antis sneaking about.”
A nod. Very good.
“Lila, John is the Master of the Hunt.”
“I know Dad. Honestly. Let’s get on with it then.”
She was once such a biddable girl. She may be eighteen now, and reading Economics, but she remains an utter child.
It’s freezing inside the van. We have to keep the windows open because Mike insists on smoking his straights. I blow on my hands and say it looks sketchy, parking the van up in a lane with smoke coming out of the windows, but Jenna gives me a look.
“Don’t worry about what I’m doing, Sammy boy,” Mike says before taking another drag. “Not my first time, is it? Tell me exactly what you’re going to do again. Exactly. No room for mistakes.”
“I’m going into the beech spinney just off the lane. Just normal, out for a ramble, maybe watching the hunt as a spectator.”
“A foot follower,” he corrects me.
“A foot follower.” The girl at the stables told me about this. She’d been pretty forthcoming, all in all. “The foot followers aren’t a bad lot,” she’d said. “It’s a community thing, a nice way to get out and about.” I hadn’t said anything to contradict her.
Mike is looking at me, eyebrows raised. “And then… ? Sam.” He holds the horn up, as if I need a cue to answer him properly.
“Once I’m there, I wait in the spinney. Once the hunt’s started drawing the covert, I blow the horn.”
“Yep. How do you blow it?” He points the long brass cone at me. I go to take it from him. “Not now! We don’t want you parping about when anyone can hear!”
I grit my teeth and answer. “I double the horn, with the quick piping notes,” I pause, waiting for him to comment. Mike nods for me to continue “– and wait until the hounds have changed course. When they’ve started following the scent back up from the covert to the spinney, I walk to the van and we head to Plumpton Burcote. But only once they’re on the scent.”
“Alright.” Mike looks happier now.
‘The scent’ is our name for what we bought in the only supermarket in Holtam, our town. The butcher there called it black pudding. We’re all lying about what it really is: the cooked blood of pigs, slaughtered for humans to eat. Pigs died so we can save foxes today. I know what goes on in the abattoirs, have watched my share of undercover footage, where distressed pigs are funnelled through filthy pens onto the killing floor. Their screams echoing off the walls.
Jenna was sympathetic when I’d questioned us using the scent, but she also said “you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette”. It wasn’t like her to say that kind of thing. At our last pub meet up she’d told me about how she’d met Mike a decade ago, and not eaten an animal byproduct since. After another pint she was off on one about people keeping pets and riding horses. Mike was more philosophical.
“There’s a relationship there,” he said, “between man and horse. Not so exploitative. No-one’s putting mare’s milk in their tea, are they? Thank God!” I agreed with him there.
“They still take the old ones to the knacker’s yard, though,” Jenna muttered. “Shoot them for dog food.”
Jenna probably feels as sick as I do about the pig’s blood. Mike’s a persuasive bastard when he wants to be.
Jenna prods my arm. “Remember, Sam, keep your scarf up. We don’t want you getting IDed on your first outing.”
My hands are slippery despite the cold and my heart is beating fast. I feel ready. I want to ease Mike’s mind though, stop him stressing out. Time to share a bit of background info.
“So, at the stables they say John usually rides Goshawk, the hunter I was mucking out, but he went lame in the week. So he’ll be out on the chestnut who doesn’t do well on soft going. Will make for a slow field, buy us a bit of time.”
“Whoop-de-fucking-do. A slow horse won’t stop his dogs killing innocents, will it?” Mike lights another cigarette, then sighs.
“Ah, your nerves are getting to me. Remember, this is our part of the world too, though the hunt scum would disagree. It’s no crime to remind them that they’re the wrong ‘uns. You’ll be okay.” He reaches out, gives me a shake on the arm.
“You’re right, you’re right. Give us a fag then and I’ll get going.”
The last time I hunted I was eleven. Dad took me cubbing on Oscar. We’d had an amazing day, on home turf, and we jumped our first hedge. I’d hollered when I saw the cubs and their mother streak out across the Williams’ meadow. I’d been blooded at the kill.
I’d arrived at school on the Monday morning, desperate to talk about it, and said “Guess what I did on Saturday!” No one could work it out. I rushed it all out – how wonderful Oscar had been! How I’d seen a kill! How the Master had said what a fine rider I was.
I hadn’t anticipated the cold stares everyone gave me.
“So you killed a fox cub?” Harriet Owens asked, part sceptical, part revolted.
“No… I didn’t kill them… ” I wanted to defend myself. I’d kept back the worst of it. Town people don’t understand country ways, as Dad likes to say. Blooding’s a very old-fashioned tradition, so old-fashioned that I believe most hunts stopped praticising it decades ago. The Wycherley is as old-fashioned as you get, I suppose. Blooding happens when a child rides up to a kill for the first time. A huntsman cuts off the fox’s brush, then smears the blood on your cheeks, or forehead. It’s an honour, really, and a rare one, with as much secrecy around it as pride. Dad was never blooded, started hunting too late in life. When he saw the marks on me, he was gruff with joy. He was the only person I ever discussed it with, and I’d left a lot of detail out: the wet dead cub smeared in the grass. The dab of gristle not yet cold. I’d closed my eyes.
For Harriet Owens and other girls, the townies, me going hunting was enough reason to stop talking to me. I didn’t care at first. Those girls didn’t know you could eat rosehips from the hedgerows, even though they were poison-red. They’d never sledded down grain stacks the height of a farm shed; had no idea about cleaning newborn lambs with handfuls of straw; knew nothing about country ways.
They did know about boys, and what to wear, and what music to listen to. It wasn’t long before I became their student. I took up an acceptable Saturday hobby, shopping. Father found it ridiculous. In return I rolled my eyes whenever he suggested I come along to a hunt meet. He soon stopped offering.
It all came to a head when Father sold Oscar to the Bond-Roper family, saying it wasn’t on to keep him if I wasn’t going to ride him. He was right, but it hurt. He still tutted when I spent pocket money on lipglosses that made my lips sparkle, and colourful gel pens that smelt like cinnamon. You used to be such a sensible child.
That’s ancient history now. Here we are, clattering along the lane together, ahead of the Wycherly in order to look out over Dant’s wood. My scalp itching beneath my velvet riding hat, my hair tidied into a fine hairnet, my legs aching from ten solid minutes of rising trot. I’m out of breath. Apart from schooling Damson at the stables this week I haven’t ridden in years. Steam is rising off her shoulders now, and I breathe in her warm sweet-hay smell. I try not to think about the foxes that will be dead by nightfall. I won’t holler if I see one make a break for it this time. And my friends at uni will never know I was here.
Dad reins Baxter in near a galvanised metal gate, where two older ladies with a spaniel are looking over the valley. They move to one side, saying “Hallo, Crispin! You should know, we saw a van along there on our way over” – pointing down the lane. “Could be sabs. Empty, but you never know.”
“Wonderful, thank you, Mary.” He doesn’t want to get into it with them, though I can tell he’s rattled. “You know my daughter, Lila –”. I smile politely while they look Damson and I up and down. Father manoeuvres Baxter alongside the gatepost and unlatches the squeaking gate with ease. He looks at home on a horse. Growing up, I never saw him working – that’s his other self, his London office self. At home for the weekend, he wears Barbours and corduroys like all the other county chaps.
Damson tosses her head as we pass through the gateway, eager to gallop. Father’s still chatting with the followers as he relatches the gate and moves off, cheerily saying “see you at the Hunt Ball!” He doesn’t see me wince. None of my uni friends have met him yet. It’s still too soon.
We’d better get a shuffle on, Baxter. Hounds’ll be along in no time, flushing out the wood. Really Dant’s is a poorly kept thicket, all thorn, hazel – low, scrubby trees, useless but for the vixen spotted there. We’ll get a good line if she breaks cover from the furthest end. A straight gallop out, with any luck. Gone away!
Have a canter and then we’ll halt at the beech spinney. Nice spot for a view of the valley below. We’ll shoo that vixen back to the hounds, should she try anything on.
There they are! Hounds in full hue and cry, nothing like it. Time for a spot of refreshment, eh Baxter. Hipflask a bit warm from the boot but who gives a damn, really.
“Lila! Have a nip of this. It’s good stuff. Nothing like whisky to keep one’s toes toasty. Good girl. Don’t know if you caught what Mary said back there, but keep your eyes peeled for the sabs. Holler if you see one.”
“Okay, Father. I’ll be sure to flush some out for you.”
“Sarcasm is the lowest form of humour, darling.”
Quite hard work, my daughter, isn’t she Baxter? Don’t mind if I do polish this off. Should have brought another, to keep my spirits up.
After smoking Mike’s ciggy and donning my rural disguise – a battered Barbour, Mike doesn’t go in for all the stealth gear that some animal liberation activists do – I get out of the van. The verge is still crunchy with frost, the sun watery bright. I pause at the five-bar gate at the top of the hill, looking over the valley. The van moves off along the lane towards the village. Over the gate, I walk in amongst the spinney trees. Climbing up into the fork on of one, I wait for the hunt to reach Dant’s wood.
It’s all going to plan.
Then two hunt riders gallop up. Fuck. They stop dead right outside the spinney. There’s fuck all cover here but they seem not to have seen me. I press against the cold tree, horn tucked in the jacket. These bastards will string me up within seconds of my blowing a note but I’m here now – the trail is laid. If I don’t act, foxes will be killed.
I can hear the hounds baying down the valley. Fuck.
The horses spook at the piping of the horn coming from directly behind Dad and I. It’s the call whippers-in use when they sight a fox. Despite myself, I feel a rush of excitement. But we’re the only hunt in the field, and the horn is far too close to be legit.
“Who in God’s name was that?” Father shouts. “Who’s in there?”
He’s craning in his stirrups, urging Baxter in amongst the trees.
“Don’t think I can’t see you, you pitiful excuse for a man!”
There’s a commotion; it seems that whoever blew the horn is up a tree, standing in a fork slightly above Baxter. It’s a young-looking guy, slight even in a bulky waxed jacket, wearing a scarf wrapped high on his face. The hunting horn is in his hand, and he’s facing down my father.
Disgraceful. This sab oik will have mucked up the line along the valley. Disgusting that some people get their kicks by ruining other people’s traditions. What happened to live and let live? Well, this twerp won’t get away with it! Trespass, that’s what this is.
“This is private land, you know. You’re trespassing. Not for long though. I’ll see to that.”
Baxter, old boy, I need you to block off this twerp, keep him up his tree. Ha! I’ve got him cornered, by God. A mute as well as a twerp, it seems. Nothing to say for himself. There he goes, reaching for his phone. To film me for some poxy sab YouTube no doubt. Well, I’m not having it. Hold firm, Bax, time for me to report a trespasser. These bloody gloves, not made for dialling mobiles are they?
One ring, two rings, now we’re through to emergency services.
“Crispin Digby speaking, of Plumpton Burcote. Reporting an aggravated trespass. Foul play involved. Yes. Off Dant’s lane, a mile south of the village. Would you please send an officer.”
What a feeling! I could bottle it and sell it! Rather compensates for the loss of the chase, though less fun for you, eh Baxter? But it’s not every day we get one over on the scum that is the Wycherley Hunt Saboteur Association.
Dad is being very embarrassing about the whole thing. He’s practically crowing at the guy filming us from the tree, saying he ought to be locked up for spoiling a fine day’s sport, and Have you nothing better to do than ruining other people’s way of life?
“Perhaps you’ll view your actions in a new light,” he shouts, “once the police have a word with you. Hope you have a job! You’ll be needing it to pay the fines!” He’s as happy as a toddler crushing insects. I suppose he didn’t become well off by finding it distasteful to be cruel.
Then, without warning, the man moves to jump down. His stiff waxed jacket doesn’t hide his graceful movements, and he lands sure-footed, still holding up his phone to film Dad. With his free hand he pulls his scarf away. I catch myself gaping, in stunned silence.
It’s Samuel, the groom from the stables. The one who looked nothing like a Young Farmer. I’d made a joke of standing beneath the mistletoe in the tack room, asking him for a kiss. And he’d kissed me on the cheek, so sweetly. A bit of holiday fun. And he was a sab all along.
I wonder if I am as flushed as father. He looks rather florid.
Samuel stands firm, his eyes on Dad. Not looking in my direction, but I sense that he has clocked me, that he has taken me into account in some way. His voice is deep and steady.
“I will not apologise for doing what’s right. No animal should be ripped apart by hounds just for the sake of a rich man’s pleasure. Of anyone’s pleasure. It’s wrong. And, deep down, you know it. That fox’s life is worth no less than your horse’s life, or your own. You are an animal too. So am I. And so are you –” he addresses me; I blush again. “Animals, all of us.”
This is marvellous. I’ve never heard Father be called an animal before. Samuel makes it sound like a special thing, to be an animal, but I know Dad feels differently. Livestock, game, vermin: he barely calls ordinary animals what they are, let alone humans. He even refers to Baxter and Damson as ‘fine horseflesh.’
Samuel continues, “Animals are sentient, whether you like it or not.” He sounds very granola now, warming to his theme. I suppose Samuel is a vegan. It never occured to me that vegans could be so compelling.
“And even trees can communicate.” He gestures at the beeches around us. Crikey. No huntsman alive could stomach this kind of talk. But does that make it untrue?
“Why kill any living thing, unless,” he says – a pained expression comes over him, his voice is at breaking point – “unless there’s no possible alternative? It’s all sacred.”
Father is speechless.
“And you, sir. You kill. And for what? For fun?”
Dad can’t bear it a second longer. He vaults off Baxter in one swift motion and, with a strangled cry, goes for Samuel’s phone with one hand, and raises his whip with the other; the phone hits the earth as Dad clouts Samuel. It happens so fast – the rigid leather crop catching Samuel hard across the face, Samuel stumbling back against the tree, the police car pulling up by the gate. Damson is panicking, jerking away in fright, so I have to restrain her. I can hear the hounds in the valley below, and see two police officers, hauling the field gate open. Spittle flies from Father’s mouth as he strikes Samuel again, and then all of a sudden, the officers have reached us, and they are upon them, one seizing Father’s arm and twisting his whip away, the other ready with the handcuffs.
Samuel is clutching one side of his face. I dismount to grab hold of Baxter, who remains placid. My heart is thrumming and I’m stumbling on the cold ground. One of the officers, a lean, dutiful-looking man who could just as easily have been a postman, reads out a charge for assault.
“THIS IS OUTRAGEOUS,” Father shouts. “It’s him you should be arresting, him! He’s sab scum!” The disgust in his voice is familiar to me, having heard him talk about sabs scornfully often enough, but the volume is difficult to take in. Then he really loses it.
“I AM CRISPIN DIGBY. Get your hands off me!” The officers do not comply; they actually seem more determined.
I hope Dad isn’t having a heart attack, he is that red.
The other officer wrestles Dad in the direction of the gate while the postman officer asks Samuel and I what happened. We don’t get far as Dad is bellowing about trespassing.
“Alright Mr Digby,” our officer calls over his shoulder. To Samuel he says “You’ll need to come in to give a statement. Holtam police station. Today or tomorrow.” He looks towards the lane, and I suspect he is enjoying the sight of his colleague cramming Father into the police car more than his neutral expression lets on. Samuel goes to pick his phone up, checks it, pockets it. “That won’t be a problem,” he says to the officer, his voice mild. “I’ve got evidence.”
I find myself shouting “I’ll call Mummy! Don’t worry, Father!” rather uselessly. Mum will know which lawyer to call. I should ring her right away, but I don’t. She’ll only flap and shout, and it all just seems so silly somehow. I look at Samuel, breathing hard and fast, a line of red rising along one cheek.
I can feel the blood beating across my face, marking where the crop hit me. My entire body is shaking with adrenaline, even as we stand dead still in the spinney. The girl from the stables has a blank look about her and just holds the horses as we both listen to her dad going apeshit about getting in the police car. Eventually the door slams and we hear the car disappearing down the lane. We hear the hounds too, coming up the hill behind us, and the horn, and all the hooves thudding turf. They’ll be here in a second, might see the police car pulling off.
We stay still among the trees as the hunt pass by. I wonder if she remembers me from before. The quieter things get the more awkward the situation becomes.
“So.” I say to her. “I didn’t catch your name before.”
“Er. Yeah. Sorry about that. I’m Lila. And you’re Samuel from the stables.”
She’s bright pink. Her eyes are shining, her cheeks flushed.
“Let’s wait a moment,” she says, which is fine with me.
The horses and riders move down the lane towards Plumpton Burcote, just as Mike planned. I’m still buzzing. I inhale deeply to clear my mind a bit. I check my phone again: a text from Mike. ‘All OK?! Issues with the fuzz? Bloody good work tho!’ I try to send him the video, but the signal is bad. Instead I send a text to put him and Jen at ease, my fingers messing up the words they’re so shaky still.
I look up and Lila is leaning into her horse, and it lets her, taking her weight.
“I’m sorry about my dad,” she says. “I’ve never seen him like that before. In fairness I’ve never really tested him.” She strokes her horse’s neck, and it seems to calm them both.
“You know, I never met a real life sab before,” she continues. No shit. “I’ve only ever seen clips of the militant ones, with those terrifying facemasks. You’re nothing like them!” Her face scrunches up. “You must think I’m vile, that I want to kill foxes. It’s like… oh, I don’t know. I go along with things, then wish I hadn’t.”
I don’t say anything. I don’t agree with what she’s doing, but I get what she means, about going along with things. The pigs, the scent. Again, I remind myself of the foxes, safe for now, at least in this valley. I think of Mike and Jen, the debrief down the pub later. It’ll be a good one. I don’t fancy whatever scene Lila will get home to.
“You know, maybe I could tell you a few things.” Lila glances at me. “A few things about the Wycherley, I mean. The stuff they still do, that they don’t like people to know about. If you’re interest–”
“I’m definitely interested.”
We both get a bit awkward at that point. The fact is, we can both remember the mistletoe. My heart is jumping away despite myself. I look away, scan the horizon a bit, take a more matter-of-fact tone.
“Come to the White Hart in Holtam tonight, I’m sure there’s a lot we could discuss. You can meet the others, we’d all value your intel.” God, Mike’s right. I do sound like a wanker. ‘Intel.’
She freaks out a bit, starts talking about taking care of the horses, her mum’ll be worried, and then there’s her dad… At this she goes quiet, fiddles with her gloves, then says yes, alright then, she’ll come to the pub later. “I’ll get there for six. If you’re sure it’s okay?” I say of course and even as she’s saying it I realise I need to start working on Mike as soon as possible, lay the ground a bit.
She’s still talking, says we ought to ride the horses back to the stables.
My turn to worry. These horses… they look dainty from a way off, but up close their strength becomes plain. I can see why her dad felt so confident sat up top one, but then he looked like he knew what he was doing.
“We’ll go slow. Take Baxter, he’s like an old sofa, he won’t give you trouble I promise. I’ll give you a leg up.”
On Lila’s instruction I stand close to the side of her dad’s horse and reach up to grip the leather of the reins and the back edge of the saddle. I’m breathing in Baxter’s stable smell, feeling the heat coming off him. Lila stands close behind me, cups my ankle in her hands and boosts me up. By the time I’ve sat upright she’s gone and sprung onto her mare. Baxter shifts his bulk beneath me. What’s he thinking, I wonder? Everything is at a different angle to me now: the trodden earth suddenly far away, the branches of the trees skimming my head. Baxter’s long neck before me, Lila on her horse alongside. I try picturing this girl in the pub later. As if she can hear me think, she looks at me and asks so, are we going to do this, or not?
Featured image credit: Suki Linnell/Amar Chadha Patel