Barry Hines’ tale of George Purse, ex-steelworker turned country estate gamekeeper, is published in a new edition this week by And Other Stories. Read an extract below.
The Twelfth. The glorious Twelfth. ‘What’s fucking glorious about it?’ the gamekeeper snarled as he struggled out of bed at half-past six in the morning. His wife pulled the covers round her shoulders and turned away from him.
‘Your language is getting terrible, George.’
‘Yours would be if you’d to get up at this time and go and stand up on that moor all day.’
He walked across to the window and parted the curtains slightly.
‘At least it’s not raining, that’s one thing.’
His best keeper’s suit and a clean shirt were arranged on a coat hanger, hooked on to the side of the wardrobe. He had taken it out of the wardrobe and hung it there before he went to bed because the wardrobe door squeaked, and he did not want to risk waking the boys up at such an early hour. If they did hear him, they would be up and wanting to help. But he had too much to do quickly to accept their help this morning. A new pair of green knee socks and his best knitted tie hung over the chair back at his side of the bed. He got dressed, pulled on his socks and carried his tie downstairs, carefully striding over all the steps which creaked. His best brogues were standing by the kitchen door. But he left them there and stepped into a pair of wellingtons. He had polished his shoes the previous evening, and as he had some jobs to do before setting out for the moor, there was no point in spoiling them before the real day’s work began.
He unlocked the kitchen door and went out into the yard. He had opened the door quietly, and he was wearing rubber soles, but the dogs had heard him, and they came stiffly out of their kennel, stretching and yawning and shaking themselves awake. There was a mist in the yard with no wind to shift it, and the gamekeeper felt cold in his shirt-sleeves as he unlocked the outhouse door. But above the yard the mist shaded into blue and the gamekeeper knew that it would soon disperse once the sun got through.
He scooped a bucket of grain from a sack, then started up the path through the trees to feed the pheasants which he had released on the rearing field. It was gloomy in the wood under the full leaf of the trees, with the mist blocking out the spaces between them. The mist had drenched the trees, and the moisture dripping from their leaves made it sound as though it was raining. The birds in the trees were quiet in the subdued light. The mist had retarded the morning. As he approached the rearing field, he started to tap on the bucket and whistle the same notes that he had whistled at feeding time since the pheasants were only one day old. And they were soon there, scuttling about in the bracken and under the rhododendrons. When they showed themselves they were a darker shade of brown, because their plumage was saturated by the grass. The gamekeeper scattered some grain in the undergrowth as well as in the grass, so that the pheasants would have to search for their food, which would keep them occupied, and give them less time to wander. Up on the moor the grouse were just starting their day as well. The coveys were moving out of the long heather where they had been roosting, into the shorter patches where they could pluck the shoots and flowers off the young plants. The cocks were standing on rocks and mounds surveying their territories, but they could not see very far because it was misty up here too. But on this high ground there was a breeze which kept the mist moving across the moor, and continually altered its consistency. The grouse were accustomed to mists, and for them, this was a day just like any other day.
When the gamekeeper came out of the wood the mist was just as dense as when he had gone in. But the light appeared to be brighter because he had just come out from under the trees. From the corner of their pen, the dogs watched him load two buckets of grain into the back of the van for the pheasants in the Duke’s wood. They pursued him to the back of the pen when he drove out of the yard, and although he quickly faded from sight, they remained there, heads cocked, listening to the sound of the engine receding through the trees. Then they turned away; the terrier went back into the kennel, and the labrador and springer lay down on the platform in the centre of the pen. But they were all up again at the sound of the van coming back, wagging their tails at the back of the pen, then at the gate, to watch the van drive into the yard, and the gamekeeper climb out and take the empty pails from the back. He walked across the yard and took off his wellingtons outside the kitchen door.
They had dried during the drive back from the wood, but each boot was a collage of grass stalks and seed heads, tokens of his walk through the wet grass.
Mary Purse was in the kitchen, cutting sandwiches for his lunch. Bacon and fried tomatoes were cooking on the grill, and as soon as the gamekeeper walked into the room, she put down the bread knife and cracked two eggs into the frying pan, which was standing ready on a low flame.
‘Nasty day for it, George.’
‘It’s not nasty enough.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I wish it was that thick that you couldn’t see a hand in front of your face. We might get a day off then.’
‘It might get worse.’
‘No chance. It’ll be gone in an hour. They’ll be shooting in their trunks this afternoon, it’ll be that hot.’
‘That’d be a sight wouldn’t it?’
She flicked hot fat over the eggs with the spatula, until the yolks blistered and faded, like the sun being obscured by thin cloud.
‘Do you want a hard-boiled egg packing up with your sandwiches?’
‘No, I’m not bothered about them. They’re too cloggy on a hot day.’
‘I’ve done you some boiled ham, a pork pie, and packed you a couple of tomatoes. Is that enough?’
‘Plenty. It makes me tired in the afternoon if I have too much snap. It’s all right for the Duke and his team, they can scoff and sup as much as they like. If they feel dozy and miss a few shots nobody dare say a word, but we mustn’t be slow when we’re loading or they’re soon on at us.’
Mary Purse arranged the bacon and tomatoes alongside the eggs and placed the plate in front of him.
‘You’d better hurry up, George. What time do you have to be at the House?’
‘You’d better look sharp then, it’s quarter to now.’
‘That clock’s fast isn’t it.’
‘Not that I know of.’
‘Put the wireless on then to make sure.’
She did. This song came on:
You load six-teen tons
And what do you get?
‘The Gamekeeper’ is published by And Other Stories this Sunday, to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the Kinder Scout Trespass. Buy a copy here (£11.99).