He was taking his morning walk with the dog. It would be the river walk: through the orchard, into the wood, along the riverside path, then back up the lane, into the field and home.
It was early June, a time when the fields and the hedgerows were bursting with renewal. Every year, he would grumble to Mary about it. ‘Bloody nature,’ he would say, wetting his scythe, then sharpening the blade. ‘It’s getting away from us this year.’
Yet he, like the nettles and the elder and hawthorn, was energised, too. He normally liked their annual tussle with the elements, pulling the weeds from the flower-bed at the front of the house, netting the vegetable garden, to the sound of fledgeling blackbirds or great tits in the bushes nearby, hacking back brambles, setting mole-traps, checking the hens with their latest brood of chicks.
Yet this Spring, unseasonably wet and blustery, the battle had seemed rougher than usual. The tide of green had risen as if determined this year to engulf the cottage for good and all, and claim it for its own. The nettles and dock seemed to grow faster. Magpies had taken to stealing eggs from the chicken run, chuckling their contempt at his efforts to keep them at bay. Rabbits, which had once known their place in the field, were moving in, laying open siege to the vegetable garden.
The morning walk was the best part of the day. He liked being alone with the dog. Until five years ago, Mary had accompanied him, but she found it tiring as she grew older or, perhaps, in that instinctive way of hers, she had sensed that he liked being on his own, thinking and planning the jobs he would do that day. The ritual had changed. Over coffee at the kitchen table, he would tell her what he had seen on the walk: a spotted flycatcher building its nest in the old, disused garden shed, a muntjac in the wood, a barn owl wheeling and fluttering over the field, occasionally swooping down for a shrew or vole.
The dog, knowing the walk, led him into the wood. He was thinking, as he thought more and more these days, of the past, its disappointments and setbacks, its small triumphs and resolutions. Once, tiring of life in an office, he had believed that he could earn a living with a wood yard, trading in timber, but he was bad with money and worse with people. His life reminded him of that old Springsteen song. Like river that don’t know where it’s flowing, he had taken a wrong turn and had just kept going.
First going to London had been a chore. Then a trip to the nearby town had made him feel eager to return home. Now even driving to the village shop felt like an expedition, and he was of a sense of relief when, back home, he could close the gate behind him. Where would this process of shrinkage end, he wondered. The house? The bedroom? The bed?
There were compensations. Professional success, a busy network of friends, he told himself, were insignificant things beside the satisfaction of having made a small mark on a pocket of countryside, of living in productive harmony with that landscape. Collecting the harvest of the vegetable garden was their balance-sheet these days, the pleasure of seeing hens run towards them as one of them appeared at the back door was their daily bonus.
Now and then Mary would complain about the tasks which faced them daily, muttering about moving into a village, near a shop, to a manageable house with a small garden, but, to him, that still felt like a retreat. The thought of a busy young family moving into the place they had created, of some t-shirted daddy strimming and cutting and tidying and sitting on gleaming red mower caused him to wince with pain.
Maybe, though, it was at least time to sell the wood. As he walked, he flicked a fallen hornbeam branch off the path with his hazel walking-stick. There was an undeniable sense of neglect about the place, with its fallen limbs and half-collapsed trees. The dog put up a woodcock which clattered into flight, darting upwards through the trees. Once they had owned this place, he thought; now it owned them.
The dog, a mongrelly mix of terrier and spaniel, was showing her age, too. She bounded ahead of him as they reached the path by the river in hopeless pursuit of a rabbit, her hunting instinct sending a message which her arthritic old body was no longer able to deliver. Now and then he would give her a treat: a rat trapped in a chicken coop, a baby rabbit hunkering cluelessly beneath a rotten stump. Even if her prey was caught for her, she sometimes needed help killing it.
A warm summer rain had begun to fall as he turned for home, climbing over the style he had built and entering the field. Once he and Mary had dreamed that they would have their own wildflower meadow, but somehow the wild flowers had never arrived. He hacked irritably at one of the many burdocks that grew there with cheerful defiance.
He was halfway across the field when, just in front of him, there was a sudden burst of movement. Something bundled clumsily through the undergrowth to his right.
‘Rabbit, dog, rabbit!’ he called out, and then saw that saw that she was nearby and that, in its panic, the animal had actually blundered into her. There was a comical dance of death in the grass as the dog pranced about, snapping at the bewildered prey in the long grass.
‘Get that rabbit, good dog,’ he said as she pinned it down. He strode across and laid a hand on the wet brown fur, quaking in the jaws of the dog. Knowing the routine, she released it for him to do the hard work.
He lifted the animal. There would be one less rabbit to invade the vegetable patch.
Putting his stick down, he held it by its hind legs. He never enjoyed killing things, and liked it less as he grew older, but it was part of life in the country. Down the years, he had become adept at finishing off a rabbit with a sharp downward chop of the heel of the hand to the back of the its head.
It was unthinking, an act done quickly and, he thought, humanely. He raised his hand and, at that moment, was aware that something was not quite right about this rabbit. It was too still, too muscular, its head held back rather than downwards. By them, though, his hand was falling. To his surprise, the first blow did not kill the animal. It made an odd low sound, almost like a young lamb. He brought his hand down again, and the animal was still.
He looked at it, hanging limply from his hand, and heard its sound of terror in his mind. He looked more closely, and saw its eye, wide, yellow, soft.
He dropped it and the dog fell on the body gratefully, sinking its teeth into the soft stomach of a leveret. He had just killed a hare. If there had been any doubt, the dog’s excitement at this unusual prey dispelled it.
He shouted at the dog, lifting the corpse. Perhaps it had been sickly. No. The weight in his hand was of a healthy young hare.
He walked quickly towards a nearby hedge, and hurled the body into a ditch. The dog followed it.
He made his way home, head down, unable to believe the stupidity of what he had done. The soft weight, the black-tipped ears, the brown, wet, flecked fur, the wide and fearful eye would be with him, he knew, for as long as he lived, a more nagging guilt in its way than any act of thoughtlessness or disloyalty that he had committed towards Mary, or the children or any human.
No one had seen his blunder, and he would never speak of it to anyone.
He entered the house, where Mary was seated, a pile of elderflower heads in front of her on the kitchen table.
‘Good walk?’ she asked.
‘Not bad.’ His voice was unconvincingly jaunty.
Later that day, he raised the matter of moving to the village. She looked at him, surprised, not expecting this sudden capitulation.
‘Let’s think about it,’ she said. ‘There’s no rush.’
He shook his head. ‘It’s time,’ he said.