An Ode to Valentine's Days past February 9, 2016 13:17
Growing up on a farm, whilst not without some incredible perks such as unlimited pets, learning to drive before we reached double figures and the freedom and space to tramp over miles of beautiful countryside whenever we felt like it, was not without its drawbacks. This was never more so blatantly obvious than during the awkward teenage years, when it slowly became clear that for some unfathomable reason boys aren’t particularly drawn to girls who can carry a bale of hay under one arm without breaking sweat, who sometimes smell a bit like they've just mucked out a stable and who enjoy scrabbling around in the bottom of hedges. Add this to the fact that you live miles from another house, most of your clothes come from Peacock and Binningtons and the hottest competition for your attentions are two brothers from the local Pony Club called Doggit and Tatty and you begin to get an idea of what we were dealing with.
As they surely are for everyone, those early adolescent years were a hormonal wilderness but Pa Pheasant, whilst not the most outwardly emotional man to walk this earth, tried to do his bit to make them easier. When he quickly realised his plan to set us up with two neighbouring farm boys*, on the basis that they wore leather patches on their sleeves so were obviously thrifty and good with money, was doomed to failure, he resorted to more subtle tactics to smooth the adolescent transition. Every year without fail, he would send all of us at least three Valentines cards, always anonymous and with mysterious messages inside (such as “to a devil, from a devil, who the devil sent it?” Or the even more cryptic “Now then?”). It was his way of demonstrating to us that he could begin to understand the complexities of youth, and although he always denied sending them, he knew we knew who they were from. If some inner voice shouted “ever so slightly tragic” at the back of our minds, we ignored it long enough to answer honestly at school, when grilled by the Mean Girls, that yes, as unlikely as it may seem, the postman had indeed been kind to us. Of course, we didn't let on who they were really from but they gave us the space to breathe on one of the most awkward days of the school social calendar.
Although no longer here to send us cards, Valentine's Day is synonymous with Pa Pheasant and it always means something more than a cheesy excuse to buy a bottle of cheap champagne and a box of chocolates. So thank you Pa Pheasant - this card is for you.
*It turns out one of those farm boys is now a professional tennis coach in Miami. If only we’d listened to Pa we could be living under palm trees now….
Getting lucky on Boxing Day December 27, 2015 12:45
Pheasant Plucker’s Old Man, Pa Pheasant, loved a bet on the gee-gees and it was his ambition to visit every racecourse in the UK. Rather than being an out and out gambler, although that was definitely an appealing part of it, he loved horses and the glamorous sense of drama he found during a day at the races. I think some of his happiest moments were watching the horses’ leggy, graceful movement, ears pricked in anticipation, as they circled the paddock before a race. He loved hurrying over to the winner’s enclosure afterwards and seeing the victor, sweating and triumphant, three quarters of a ton of power, stamina and strength with its head held high and crackling with adrenaline.
It was inevitable that some of this would rub off on us and Pheasant Plucker’s baby brother’s fate was sealed one Boxing Day when he spotted a horse in the racecard called Master Cornet.
We often went to the races on Boxing Day and Pa Pheasant would always give us £5 – we could keep it or spend it, it was up to us. We were too young to put bets on but if there was a horse we fancied he’d go to the bookies on our behalf and place our 50p stakes.
Baby Bro was about nine or ten at the time and, being greedy like the rest of us, his eye was caught by a name that reminded him of ice-cream. He went uncharacteristically large and put his last £2 on – it was Christmas time after all. They were under starters orders and then they were off, racing round our local racecourse with all the focus and energy of the Gold Cup. Halfway around Master Cornet was third and Baby Bro was pissed off that he hadn’t backed it each way. Three minutes later, none of that mattered as our conquering hero romped home and Pa Pheasant was ushering us over to the Tote where he’d put the bet on. We queued impatiently and I remember standing there while Dad spoke to the woman behind the till. Then there was a slight commotion and the woman went away and came back with someone else – all three of them seemed to be studying the ticket incredibly carefully. Dad looked over at us and we looked back apprehensively – maybe there’d been some mistake, or maybe they knew that he’d put the bet on for a child and we weren’t allowed the winnings. Then Dad mouthed, almost inaudibly, “he’s won £400”. We couldn’t believe our ears – Baby bro had backed a winner at 205 – 1. The woman at the till had to go into the back room to get some more cash as she didn’t have enough, then she counted it out in crisp £20 notes and handed it to Dad. We walked away and Dad passed it over to my brother who stuffed it nonchalantly in his back pocket. £412! We had never seen so much money.
Over twenty years later, Baby Bro has never had such a big win again. Fortunately, he’s a fairly sensible lad and his stakes haven’t increased much since he first got the taste for gambling but every time we go to the races, we remember that little boy who came away with a bundle of cash and think “… maybe this time it’ll happen again.”