The beaters were huddled together now, leaning on sticks and gossiping as their terriers and spaniels sniffed and scent-marked around the courtyard and stables. Jason peeped out from the tack room. He wanted badly to go over to them but could not find the courage. It did not matter how hard he might have tried. That would not count. He had failed and shortly everyone would know.
He had been attempting for the last thirty minutes or so to light the old cast-iron range. Up until today, he'd imagined it as merely ornamental, the wall full of bits and stirrups he was required to polish once a week, or the yards of leather he soaped and shone. Now he knew much better. His hands and face were black. The cuffs on his new, and bought specially for the occasion, tattersall shirt were ruined. And his latest attempt was a dancing yellow stain about to collapse and die behind the soot-blackened glass. Sir Robert, the owner of the estate and his employer, came rushing through the door. He snatched the poker off Jason and opened a plate at the base of the fire. "I shouldn't close that particular one down until it is roaring," he said. Then noticing Jason's grimy and angry face, made one of his trained and practiced efforts at pacifying. "We don't want them getting too warm and comfortable or we'll never get them moving again."
Outside, Sir Robert introduced Jason to the beaters. Each of them beamed and shuffled as a little anecdote was laid alongside the memory of their name: true or false: Jason saw that it did not matter: they were servants born and bred: this was still the master. "Jason," Sir Robert then told them—and made it sound like the funniest thing of all—"is in charge." He turned to go and greet his guests. "Remember," he whispered into Jason's ear, "they are getting paid for today. Make sure they keep in line and keep their sticks going. Nothing looks worse for the ladies than an untidy line of beaters out for a paid stroll."
They had already started ignoring Jason and returned to their loud conversations about other shoots. He stood there and listened, hoping that there might just be a chance of something to help. Instead, it did the opposite. He could not imagine what had brought these men here today with all the commercial shoots paying more money, and offering all the perks they were now discussing. Unless it was to see him fail. Another Johnny-come-lately, townie, intruder sent packing: their illusion of self-importance and exclusivity preserved. Jason had thought there might be a kinship between these men and himself, that they might understand his predicament and somehow join together to make the day work. Now they were unwilling to even look at him. He began to stare into their worn faces and pale eyes wondering how many times they had seen these same things unfold and what, if anything, it was they still desired to see. He saw only a craftiness being unmasked and imagined a lifetime of having to hide one's true emotions: pulling a forelock and doffing a cap, when you would like to have cried out loud or spat. He suddenly wished he could grab hold of his wife and swing her off the ground in front of all these eyes. And let her know that he understood.
He remembered his interview for the job, where they sat in the big house for the first and only time. After all the niceties, followed by a long list of many different and challenging jobs, Sir Robert had suddenly said,
"What if I told you one of your duties would be to polish my shoes in the morning. What would you say to that?"
"It wouldn't bother me," Jason had answered. Karen, Jason's wife had been unable to contain her look of disgust.
"You," she had said, as they drove back down the laurel-hedged lane, returning waves and taking one more look at what, if they got the job, would be their cottage, "you are going to shine his boots. I just don't believe I heard that!"
"Look," Jason had said, "it was only a test question. You don't honestly think these people are so stupid to pay someone like me by the hour to shine shoes. I am going to be looking after the estate and shooting. More a manager than a servant. This is the 1990's, not the 1890's."
Now, each time he had to slip his hand into another pair of well-worn, moist shoes and begin polishing he heard those words, brushstroke after brushstroke. Once, Karen had come upon him as he was doing a pair. He'd panicked, feeling deeply ashamed and tried to hide them and she had pretended not to notice. Then changed her mind, stopped, and glared back at him as if she was no longer sure of who he was.
At the start, everything with his work appeared to be going well. The chicks had arrived and been released into the pens which he'd prepared. There were a few fatalities in each of the three enclosures as they settled down—he was told to expect this, but still found it distressing to have to peel another of them, flattened underfoot, from the ground, especially when Karen came for a visit and found one before he could remove it: "Oh my god," she'd yelled, "pheasant by Picasso," and fled from the pen with her hand over her mouth, out through the tunnel of trees; and nothing since could persuade her back.
In quick time they began to grow stronger and wilder. Each day he put food pellets into their feeders and fresh water into the drinkers, checking every time—with a leaf to lessen the pain of the shock—that the electric wire was working for their protection. Then he walked the perimeter, making sure that there were no holes in the high fence, or a tree that had fallen over it making a bridge for any predators. He also had to tip a foul-smelling substance called fox-oil on old stumps and rocks, blackened with years of warning. The scent could leap across space and impregnate skin. At first he had worn it with pride and sometimes had brushed against it or allowed it to splash him deliberately. Karen complained that their sheets were beginning to smell of it, and one time as they made love he tasted it in the sweat glistening on her neck. Now he wore gloves and avoided it like everyone else.
Early on, when he still went out late at night to make certain all was well and keep a look out for poachers, he'd liked to stand in the shifting darkness and picture all the people that had applied for the job. According to Sir Robert there were hundreds of applicants. Everything from lawyers, bank managers, and doctors to some of the most experienced estate managers and gamekeepers around. Sir Robert had also told him that he knew what he wanted and prided himself on being able to pick just the right person. Jason imagined them all at home in their beds wishing they could be in his place, and was determined then not to fall short of expectations.
The next job had been to lure the birds, now completely feathered and recognizable as hens or cocks, away from the pens. It was done by laying a trail of fresh straw scattered with handfuls of feed along the rides to strategically placed feeders at different parts of the estate. And all the time whistling: from their very first meeting, until the last, when that signal of instilled confidence would call them to their death. A tone-deaf siren stalking through the ancient woodland and shrilling until his tongue and lips bled.
Then the birds started to disappear.
He had thought it was because they were now spending their days in the woods and fields, and not returning to the pens until it was time to roost, that he had begun to notice fewer and fewer of them. Sir Robert constantly asked him: "Are your birds doing well?" Jason had said yes too many times to suddenly change. Especially after, and without any previous guidance or warning, counting was mentioned.
"Your counts," Sir Robert had said, looking deeply into Jason's eyes, "when you whistle them back in for the evening and check their numbers—no dropping off?"
"No," he'd replied, trying to hide the fact that such a simple and practical idea had not even crossed his mind. He saw Sir Robert smile: his thin lips making a slight crackling noise as if being stretched into something familiar. And so began the count. Or as Karen gleefully called it: 'The countdown.'
The two lower pens had started out with one hundred and fifty chicks each, the larger top pen with two hundred and fifty. He had been told by the man supplying the pheasants that some of the estates were charging over thirty pounds a bird for each one shot, plus hundreds of pounds a day to each gun for the privilege. "Think of what that makes these little buggers worth," he had said to Jason, and then with a wink: "to the poachers and buzzards on this dead place, mostly!"
On his first frantic count, which included him returning with a torch to double-check even after they had flown into the safety of the branches to roost for the night, he could barely make one hundred birds by adding all the pens together. Over the next few weeks the number kept falling steadily no matter what he tried. Last week he had struggled to find thirty. On the previous two evenings, only one of the pens had shown any life at all—and that handful had managed to look sickly and incapable of flight. Sir Robert had stopped mentioning the pheasants and filled every meeting with more instructions and etiquette for the coming shoot days.
Jason wanted to yell poacher. To invent a gang of vicious, unstoppable professionals that must have cleared them out in one night. He began to believe something like it might be the truth. He had to sleep. They could have been spying, waiting their chance. There had been nights when he thought he may have heard something, many nights. But what if he was wrong and the police arrived with a gamekeeper from another estate who revealed with easy trites of experience all of Jason's mistakes—or worse still: the birds, safe in some obvious place that he'd overlooked?
At first he had managed to convince himself that they were still around. They had reverted to the wild and no longer cared to trust him and his stupid call. Probably they came back to the pens when they knew he was not around. And though he was supposed to only feed along the rides now and keep the distant stations topped-up, he put some feed in the pens. It went each time. Also, the oil drums, converted into feeders and filled with corn were always being emptied. So they had to be somewhere. The trouble was the place was so neglected anything could hide. Too much cover, he told his family, each time he returned from another search.
Nobody was allowed to visit the large woodland—part of his job was to drive off any trespassers, though so far he had seen none. In places there were cliffs and caves, lichen-coated and dripping glades that were dark and still. Paths suddenly stopped, blocked by an undergrowth so dense it was not even possible to see through. Anything could vanish or sneak about; sometimes he could almost feel he was being watched. Karen had quickly banned Stuart from going into the woods alone and refused to walk there herself.
It had felt so different when they had arrived. Like a dream come true. A beautiful cottage hidden in a secluded wood with its own large garden, outbuildings and spring water bubbling into their private well. A huge wisteria strangled the house and filled every breath with its scent. Jason had loved the place from the start. He had tried to make them realize how lucky they were and how grateful they should feel. "This is what everyone needs," he told them, "a chance to be alone and develop." The removal van had just finished inching its way back out and the silence had engulfed them. The three of them began to move slowly as if afraid to disturb it. By the end of their first month it was agreed by all that it was the best thing they had ever done.
Then the three hours' domestic work Karen was required to do each day as her part of the contract began to fill every second of their lives. Some of their oldest friends came for a visit. Their excitement at the wonder of the place faded quickly as Karen began, for the first time in detail, to state her endless list of grievances. Then the man had said, "I've never met anyone 'in service' before—I guess it takes some getting used to."
"In service," Karen said after they had left. "In service," as if suddenly a great and terrible truth had been revealed. "Do you know what one of the removal men said to me? He said: 'Perfect isolation. A bit like dying and going to heaven.' I know what I could tell him now: It's like being buried alive, with those people up there only too glad to dig the hole and you, my partner, wanting more than anything to keep on shoveling in the soil."
After that, everything Jason had hoped for began to dissolve. She was not born to be anyone's 'skivvy.' There was no satisfaction in her part of this life. Doing someone else's housework was embarrassing and an insult. Jason began to spy on her from the cover of the woods, watching her force herself along the lane to the big house, usually a few minutes late and looking so unhappy.
"You knew what your part was," he reminded her night after night. "You were packing our bags before we even had the job." Then she started apologizing—which was something she had never done in their marriage before. It made him glimpse how much this place was changing her: and yet he could not accept it.
Then Sir Robert had a 'quiet word' with him. His wife, Lady Caroline, in charge of all domestic matters, was not totally satisfied with the standard of Karen's work; and more worrying, with her general attitude. Could Jason sort the matter out quickly? He shouted at her that night: "Where the hell can we go?" They had deliberately burnt all their bridges to come here.
"I don't care," she answered trying to hold his hand. "On the streets. Just out into the light and freedom again. So we can see who we really are, or were, or even better who we could become after this terrible mistake."
Jason shook her off and went out with a rifle and spotlight. He lay all night on the edge of one of the large fields shooting rabbits with a silenced rifle. The whap of the bullet slapping into flesh the only answer he could give, or cared to. "On the streets or some council estate," he whispered between each tiny breath-held squeeze and pop of discharge. "Better than this!"
Then their son, Stuart, became interested. He started helping Jason at every chance. The school informed Karen that Stuart had told the careers officer that he wanted to become a gamekeeper. Not only that, but that he wanted to try and find a job on a bigger estate, maybe even work for a Lord. Jason hoped this might help. Instead, it made things worse and she began to withdraw into herself: skulking around the house and deliberately, he was sure, leaving it untidy, cooking the most basic food, staying scruffy and spending all her time reading books he'd never even heard of. They no longer made love and hardly spoke. The garden began to grow wild and once, as they both sat in their new silence, Jason saw Sir Robert pull up in the Land Rover and take a long slow look at their cottage, his sad elongated face more melancholy than usual at what he recognized.
It was his son that noticed the squirrels. And that it was them eating the pheasants' food. The woods were heaving with grey squirrels—once you learnt to look for them. They had, Jason found out, murdered all the weaker resident brown squirrels and were now working their way through the songbird population. It had been years since anyone had managed to gather anything from the many walnut or sweet chestnut trees. Now Jason had been feeding them for weeks. He shot some of them and felt sick at the sight of their grasping, covetous fingers. His son, who was better at spotting their attempts to camouflage themselves as twigs and leaves, said it was the best thing he had seen so far in his life, the way they crashed dead from the trees, and the noise they made as they hit the ground. He said it in front of his mother as they had all sat at the table eating. She looked at her son, and then at Jason, as if this was also part of the plan, before rushing from the room with heaving sobs.
That night he had crept out with a gun and waited for the rabbit to appear. When it crawled out he shot it. He put its body into a plastic bag and sneaked it back to their dustbin. He had planned to tell Karen all about it—how much he had risked in this act of defiance—and that it was possible to overcome and make your own type of freedom in any place if you worked together.
Sir Robert had met him the week before. He had a cardboard box in his arms. He opened the lid right under Jason's nose. There had been a rabbit inside, "It has a thick head," Sir Robert had attempted to make a joke about it. The smell and heat came out in a blast and Jason felt his stomach churn as he had looked into its sealed eyes oozing with pus and at its cracked and bleeding lips. "I bought it from a keeper on another shoot for twenty-five quid—that is the going rate, I'm led to believe. I want you to push it into one of the holes on the biggest warren you know: then block the entrance with some earth so that it can't get out for a good while: give the plague chance to spread."
He had placed one of his weak hands on Jason's shoulder and whispered into his ear, "Don't tell anyone though: and certainly not your wife. Spreading myxomatosis is against the law and we'll be in trouble."
Jason was looking forward to some rabbit shooting later in the winter. He'd planned on arranging his own shoot with some of the other keepers as his guests. He had placed the rabbit in the largest hole on the largest warren. There were fleas moving through its lusterless fur and he had felt them crawling on his skin for days.
He crept back to the warren and as he dreaded, spotted the diseased rabbit straight away. It had dug its way out of the red soil and was slouching and flopping around in its own protracted danse macabre. Before the shot echoed away and was swallowed by the dense woods, he knew it was too late and that the contamination had already spread. Karen watched him that night silently cleaning the gun—his gift unoffered—and even his son had not dared to ask.
Jason had decided on the evening before the shoot to tell Sir Robert about the missing birds. At least it would give him a last-minute chance to call his guests and make some excuse for canceling the shoot. Better that than having to face the humiliation on the day—and knowing that his trust had been betrayed. He knew that Sir Robert would get mad and perhaps even sack him. He would probably accuse him of being deliberately neglectful or dishonest. Sir Robert had told Jason when he had given him the job that loyalty was the most important thing. Jason, he said, would be treated as a member of his larger family—protected and secure for the rest of his life. In return, his loyalty to the family must be total. "For instance," Sir Robert had said: "You are down in the local pub and you are asked questions about us. Everything you see and hear is to be treated in the strictest confidence. Or, say you overheard plots to rob or kidnap: your duty to us would be instant and I hope obvious."
He knew that Sir Robert and Lady Caroline were going out. It was another of Karen's responsibilities to take a turn at babysitting and she had already gone to the big house. Jason decided to be out walking along the lane. If he was stood near to one of the paths leading to a pen, Sir Robert would be certain to stop. "I don't want to spoil your evening, but . . . " he mouthed his lines over and over as he walked along. He stood at the spot, looking down away from the woods and into the surrounding countryside—virtually everything he could see belonged to this estate or was still under its control. It fascinated him how every part of it had been divided into enclosures of different shapes, colors and movements: each reflecting its task and position in a cycle. It seemed to him at first to be quaint and endearing: then suddenly brutal and hungry with no regard for anything but its own continuation. Perhaps, he began to see, Karen was right and they should escape before they were lost to its endless demands.
Sir Robert pulled over. He was wearing the most immaculate dress suit with a red velvet bow tie and matching cummerbund speckled in gold. Lady Caroline trembled in black silk and jewels. They appeared to Jason like a prince and princess from the pages of a fairy tale.
"Jason," Lady Caroline started to speak before he could open his mouth or clear his head of the picture he was still unraveling, "I really do need to talk with you about your wife."
"Darling," Sir Robert interrupted her, "not now please. Time and place. Time and place for heaven's sake. Now Jason, forget all about that. Go and get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow is your big day. And don't be too nervous."
He walked back to his cottage with the vision of anything he may have started to recognize already fading behind the fear of what was coming with the dawn.
The beaters took up their positions and Jason got into line with them. "Make sure they all keep up and keep their sticks going," Sir Robert told him for the hundredth time. "And a nice straight line. Don't want anything missed."
Karen had to dress up for the occasion, ready to help with serving drinks and dinner. She came out of the big house and waited at the top of the large stone steps that led down to the drive. She was with Lady Caroline and some of the other ladies. They were all smiling and staring down at the guns. Jason thought Karen looked better and prouder than any of them and wanted more than anything to be able to go and say something to her.
In the distance, each of the guns was taking up his position at the numbered pegs. Jason had been given a list of names and titles and more instructions on how to hand over a brace of birds to each of them at the end of the day and how they would tip him for his good show—he even knew how much to expect.
He remembered the first time he was told, thinking about how they would take the money, get dressed up and go out for their own celebratory dinner. Now, looking at his wife as she came elegantly down the stone steps with all the other ladies to witness the start, the idea felt ridiculous. Especially as Karen told him last night when she returned that if he did not get them away from here she would leave him. "I wanted you to know, so that when tomorrow is your big success—and don't think all your talk about missing birds has fooled me for one second—and they are all over you, wrapping you in their cocoon, you will be developing into whatsoever it is, alone." She had stormed out of the bedroom when his laughter became almost hysterical. He wished now he could have held her and made her know what he now felt.
Sir Robert was going to start the first drive with a blast on the family's long, dented, antique hunting horn: Jason longed now for that ululation to fill the air as the beaters' sticks began to twitch and then tap and the dogs trembled and strained on their leads to be set free—the primitive rhythm of the hunt throbbing into the earth—with everyone poised for what was about to burst from cover.