While at agricultural college, I rented a cottage in a picturesque, touristy village. I thought myself lucky to get a beautiful home at a price I could just about afford, the only mild drawbacks being that occasionally the owner would return for a weekend of social whirl, and that I had to feed her cat. On such onerous terms, I agreed without a murmur of dissent to cash in advance.
The cat was friendly. As anyone approached, it would roll over on its back to have its tummy rubbed, and any tourist worth the name would bend down to oblige with an: "Ah! How sweet!" But, as I began to realise, appearances can be deceptive; in reality this innocent-looking bundle of fur was a killer! As spring drew into summer, it stopped eating the food I put out, which I had to bin as it began to stink in the increasing heat. However, as the endearing little creature was obviously in good health, initially I wasn't too concerned, presuming that neighbours were feeding it, until I noticed it hunting in the Nature Reserve, just across the road and the stream from the cottage ...
Around this time, my car broke down, and I had to hitch into town to get a part. My lift back was in one of those Noddy car Hillman Imps, driven by a kindly gentleman, though again I was to discover that appearances can be deceptive, who from his hangman's noose collar was clearly the local vicar. Apart from the strong smell of dog which somehow seemed to linger even after I'd been dropped off, there had been a grizzled labrador dozing in the back, I was grateful for the lift.
A few days later, this same gent, complete with regards to dog, but incomplete with regards to neckwear, causing me some initial difficulty in remembering who he was, knocked on the front door. After some polite formalities he asked in a meaningful tone: "You have a cat, don't you?" I confirmed. "Well, we've just had a Parish Council meeting ...", now I remembered, "... and we're most concerned about the number of ducklings it's killing! The wildlife here is such an asset to the village, you know, it helps bring people in. It's such a terrible thing, what your cat is doing!"
I was too taken aback to reply. For one thing, it wasn't really my cat, and for another I couldn't really see how to stop it in a way that would be acceptable to the RSPCA, not to mention its real owner. "You do feed it, don't you?!" he asked suddenly, as though he hoped to catch me out, but on this point at least I was safe. I pointed to the fresh, though rapidly becoming less so in the afternoon heat, plate of food on the kitchen floor, untouched by Moggus Domesticus.
"Oh!", he said, taken aback in turn, as though he had quite made up his mind in advance that I must have been starving it near to death, and in the obvious absence of a Plan B, he could only think of repeating Plan A, even though I had just discounted it. So we explored the subject many times: "Wildlife ... Nature Reserve ... Asset to the Parish ... Visitors ... Popular tourist destination ... Terrible shame ...", and each time ending: "Are you quite sure you are feeding it properly?!"
He showed no sign of letting up, and it was beginning to get boring. At least, I thought so, and his dog seemed to agree, for it lifted its leg on one of the garden flowers, and wandered off (a week later, that plant was dead - my landlady and I were rather unhappy about that, actually). Finally, to put an end to it, the next time he asked: "You do feed it, don't you?!", I began to ask him which he would choose, tinned corned beef or fresh Aylesbury duckling?
But just then there was a tremendous commotion from the stream - splashing, frantic quacking, and the guy who had rented the holiday cottage next door for a week was yelling up the bank at the vicar: "HEY YOU! Come and get yer ****ing dog, it's got one of the ****ing ducks!" and much, much more besides, all in similar style, as he chased ineffectually hither and thither after the dog, surprisingly nimble for its age, like an Aladdin on tranquillisers trying to catch a genie on speed.
What exactly can a vicar do if subjected to a torrent of verbal abuse from a stranger? Particularly, in front of his parishioners, he can't exactly return it, can he? Perhaps he wished he'd worn his, ahem, dog-collar, but you needn't feel for our hero, well not much anyway, because such people are well versed in their calling. You could practically see the frantic inner-workings of his brain as he tried to think his way out of his predicament. His choice soon became clear. It was: Pacify the man!
"It's alright!", he said, "He's a gun dog! He won't harm it!". I should perhaps explain that a gun dog is trained to pick up downed birds, dead or alive, and hold them in their jaws while retrieving them. That is, they are specifically trained NOT to damage the bird through biting it. I knew this, so I knew what he was trying to say, but unfortunately for him the neighbour was a townie and did not. In fact, the vicar couldn't have said a worse thing. His very calmness and complacency had exactly the opposite effect to that intended, it was like a red rag to a bull: "Waddya mean it won't ****ing hurt it! It's got the ****ing thing in its ****ing teeth, ain't it?!", and another burst of abuse followed.
Obviously, amidst all this the last person the dog was going to obey was the neighbour, and indeed, with it being distracted by all his aggression, shouting, and chasing, it was only with difficulty that the vicar called it to order and retrieved the victim. The bird flapped its wings experimentally a few times and then flew off into the reserve, clearly both shaken and stirred, but not, apparently, harmed.
By this time I was straining at the seams so much to contain my laughter that when the vicar came back to conclude the discussion with as not much dignity as he could manage to scrape together, I didn't even think to ask him whether he'd been feeding his dog properly ...
There is a postscript to this story, which, though also quite amusing, is even more revealing ...
A few months later I was working on a farm during the summer holidays, and related the above to my boss. It happened that he had formerly been on the Parish Council, and knew the vicar well: "Keen shooting man! I think that's probably rot about the wildlife and the tourism, he just wanted a go at the ducklings when they became ducks in season!"
He then related how a village bypass had been much discussed over the years, with different plans being objected to by one interest or another, and so falling by the wayside. Finally, to everyone's relief, one evolved that seemed to meet the needs and avoid all previous objections, and there was new optimism surrounding the procedures to put it through. However, amid surprise and dismay, the vicar objected to it. Noone could understand why, and when pressed his reasons didn't convince. Nevertheless, he succeeding in obstructing it to the extent that it, too, fell by the wayside.
It was only some years later discovered that the vicar had shooting rights over a plot of land that would have been tarmacced over! Therein lay the real reason for his objection ...
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
I love to blast them all!
Far be it from me to suggest that the world would be a better place if such people wore their trousers the same way round as their collars. You may suggest it, I may even think it, but I could not possibly comment further ...