I can’t hunt. Fate saw fit to make me allergic to horses, dogs, and foxes.
I discovered my dog allergy early: we had a dog. I discovered my horse allergy during riding lessons, and my fox allergy while skinning a fox to turn into a rug. Which, I realised, I couldn’t have in my house.
Allergies never fail to make life new. Three days ago I discovered I was allergic to reindeer. (Thankfully, these allergies are only to living, not cooked animals: reindeer venison is yum).
Indeed, the longer life goes on, the more I realise that most quadrupeds make me ill.
Though I can ride, I can’t ride for long. Twenty minutes on a horse, and my eyes are closed, my hands mottled with nettle rash and I’ve lost the ability to concentrate on anything other than fighting for breath.
So it’s not surprising that I’ve never ridden to hounds. And so, I guess, I’ve never really understood foxhunting. I’ve never been part of that rural crowd, and even though the Hampshire Hunt met often outside my parents’ house, by the grain drier at the top of the hill, ready to take in miles of good country, I never really got what it was all about. It wasn’t a kind of hunting I understood. Because I only ever saw the pink coats and the horses and the hounds clustering and the fence-menders and the police and the saboteurs. And that just didn’t seem very interesting to me.
Last Saturday I was back at the Hampshire house. It was a day of heavy rain and wind, and I was tired, and sad, and distracted. It’s a year Thursday since dad died. And while lots of times, talking to mum or my brother helps share the pain, sometimes the words won’t come, and the loneliness stoppers me up, and I can’t talk at all. So much pressure was building up inside me that by mid-afternoon I had to hide. I’d left the house to have a cigarette out on the porch. And standing in the murky light by the drive, I heard the music of hounds.
Even with my sporting ignorance, it seemed clear that the hunt was drawing the covert at Ham Farm, that thick copse of coppiced hazel, sweet chestnut and bluebells just across the road and away. I pulled up the collar of my coat and walked out into the near-sleet. Sure enough, a succession of muddied, battered 4x4s passed where I stood at the edge of the drive, windows steamed on the inside. They all turned left down the track to Wadgetts Copse.
After they’d gone, a long silence but for the hounds in the distance. A giddy, wet, rainy echo of a cry. My hair was wet and my cigarette damped to extinction. The asphalt at my toes was running with water, and shallow pools were slowly being born in the waterlogged paddock across the road.
And I heard a light pattering of footfalls, growing louder; a pattering of nails and pads through water to tarmac. Coming along the road towards me on his way to the covert, his head high, his body smeared all breast-deep in clay that stained the lower half of him copper-ochre, came a foxhound. A pale hound. He was alone, which was wrong. But being alone made him the type of all hounds that ever existed. He was running as if he’d been running all day, and he was running as if he would never stop, tongue out and eyes fixed. He was running to be with the rest of the hounds, and the sound was drawing him along the rainy roads as if he were underwater and swimming up to the light to breathe. I was transfixed. I’d never seen a hound be a hound before. He was doing exactly what he needed to be doing, and he was tired but joyful. He was late, but getting there. Lost, but catching up.