The Pigeon Shooter – Was childhood really so much safer back then?

That summers day when my friend Lynda and I were held hostage by the pigeon shooter started out no different from any other.

The  houses that we lived in and grew up in backed on to a farm. That morning, Lynda dressed in her luminous green dress and me dressed in my luminous orange dress had climbed over the railings into the field of horses and walked across to the meadow on the other side of the farm house. The grass had grown high but the drought of the  summer of 76 had turned it the colour of wheat.  We followed the well worn trail of a badger track, the silence  broken by the ubiquitous sounds of a hot summer ,crickets and the velvet humming of bees.

Suddenly a man appeared on the well worn bridle path from literally nowhere. We stopped in our tracks and stared in silence at the unexpected appearance of an adult. I don’t remember immediately spotting his gun but it was quite soon after he spoke that I saw he held one in his hand. It was a I assumed a hunting gun, but in truth I had no idea about guns whatsoever but it was long and he had it balanced over his arm rather like an umbrella. Split in the middle hanging at an angle. He also had a dog, a retriever who seemed friendly enough. It was the dog that brushed any suspicion from mind. Only good people had dogs in my childhood.

“Hello girls.” the man casually said.

Both Lynda and I were silent and then me being the more brazen of the two finally replied, “Hello”.

“What you both doing over this side of the farm?” he asked.

“Nothing.” I shrugged,  “Just playing.”

The man eyed the two of us and then finally said, “Those dresses are bright. They’ll  frighten the birds away.”

The dresses were indeed bright. It was a batch lot of cloth that had been given to our mothers. And  six dresses had been made from each roll of cloth in luminous orange, green, pink, yellow and blue. Lynda, her sister Kim, me and my sister Karen and two other girls in the block, Penny and Donna had become the proud owners of new dresses that summer and we saw no reason not to wear them. To us they were fantastic, all the more because they weren’t hand me downs.  Just what the original purpose of the cloth could only be guessed at, this was after all the 1970‘s.

So it was with a touch of insolence that I met the man’s eye after his apparent criticism of the dresses. Although to be fair I was naturally an insolent child and did not need much encouragement.

“I think you need to come and sit in my hide so you don’t scare my pigeons any more then you have. Come on.” he almost sighed.

I glanced at Lynda who by now was staring at the gun. I hesitated, was this the right thing to do? I mean shouldn’t we just have turned tail and gone home?  But he seemed so harmless and I guess as he was an adult we had to bow to his better judgement, that and his gun of course.

Lynda and I gave each other a bemused look and walked towards where the man had pointed. Just in the first clump of trees there was a “hide”, a shed made of netting camouflaged with pieces of cloth in different shades of green, which was only apparent when you got up close to it. We were ushered into the hide and commanded to sit on the two wooden orange crates.

I felt uneasy and I could now see the look of apprehension on Lynda’s face. A raft of unasked questions began to fill my head. It was apparent that now no one could see us, not just birds but people also. And we were so far from the farm buildings that no one

would hear us scream. I wondered how long he would need to keep us detained in the hide.  I plucked up the courage to ask.

“How long do you think it will take to get your pigeons?” I asked, the sound of childish    petulance already creeping into my voice.

Again the man shrugged and didn’t reply.

“I expect our mums will be wondering where we are soon.” Lynda cryptically added.

Unfortunately this was not at all likely, not yet anyway. We had only been gone a while and until lunch there would be no question of any one looking for us. It was the summer holidays those halcyon days when all rules were forgotten for six weeks until the trip to Lester Bowden’s for the Autumn school uniform.

Although uneasy by the situation we were in I didn’t feel any deep rooted fear. It was  more a slow impatience as the morning wore on and the body count of dead birds rose slowly, piled up by the entrance of the hide. The pop pop noise of the gun as the stranger fired at the birds in flight seemed unnatural but not threatening. Each time he shot one his dog would run off to collect the unfortunate bird and return it so the hunter could add it to his growing stock of dead birds.

It was then I remembered my father’s friend Jim who was a gamesman. Well that’s what he told us, but the point was he had an agreement with the gamekeeper over at the Beaverbrook estate, “I only take enough game to feed my family and a couple extra to sell down the local, Gordon. Any more would be greedy and they would put a stop to it”.

Well this man seemed to be intent on wiping out the whole of the pigeon population in England. Even the dog had started to slow down bringing the birds back. His tongue began to loll from the side of his mouth and he began to pant heavily. Clearly overworked even by a retrievers standards.

At one stage I asked, “Can I go and collect the pigeons with your dog? I am bored.”

“No” he curtly replied.

I huffed and scowled at him but it fell on blind indifference.

So Lynda and I sat in silence for the most part just occasionally hinting at the fact our “Mums would be very worried about us by now.”

Fortunately this transpired to be true because after what seemed like an interminable time we heard the shouts of ,“Lynda, Lena where are you?”.

Without further ado we rushed from the hide past the gun man and sped of towards the shouts. Kim, Karen and Gary had been sent to look for us. My sisters first retort was, “You two are in big trouble.”

As I stared at my sister I noticed the stream of blood from her knee, she had tied a handkerchief round the knee which was now soaked with a viscous red liquid.

“What’s happened to your knee?” I frowned, not out of sisterly concern but out of curiosity, there was so much blood.

“That’s your fault.” she chastised. “Mum sent us looking for you and I got caught on the barbed wire down in the meadow. It won’t stop bleeding.”

Lynda and I just shrugged and followed our older sisters back to the house. One cursory glance behind revealed nothing of the pigeon shooter, he had disappeared along with his stock of birds.

Once home the first response was, “Where the bloody hell have you been? That’s it you two are grounded.”

And then my mother spotted my sisters knee and the moment to tell of gun men had passed.

Lynda and I were relegated for a week to playing monopoly through the garden fence. A situation we often found ourselves in,  usually when our bickering got too much for the adults to listen to. And we were told as we couldn’t play nicely together we were grounded to our respective gardens. Usually within five minutes of the start of punishment, Lynda would stroll out of the house into her back garden, with the box of monopoly and we would begin  the game across the garden fence. I feel quite proud that I used to endure my punishments as a child with such stoicism.

My sister continued all week and on regular occasions for over forty years afterwards to point at the rather angry scar on her leg and say, “See that’s your fault. If you hadn’t gone wandering off …….”.

Now many years later when I hear of young children disappearing I wonder, just how close my friend and I had come to being one of those statistics. I always tell myself he really was just a innocent person, and that our dresses were scaring the birds off.

But and there is always a but, if that was the case surely he should have just let us continue across the fields to do what young children do? Why did he want us to sit in the hide? And why did he kill so many birds?

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