The spaniel was given specific instructions. ‘This is your big moment, Cydney. In fact, this is our big moment. Do not embarrass us.’ We were driving up the long track to the elegant estate where the annual shoot barbecue, marking the opening of the season, is held. It is a huge deal to be invited, the equivalent in parenting terms of your daughter being invited to the Queen Charlotte ball for debutantes.
Cydney has had to work hard for this. Hours and hours of lessons in deportment around game birds have led up to this point. We go out with the gamekeeper and he gives her jobs to do, like moving stray pheasants from one field to another. She is coming on so well that the other day the gamekeeper gave me a leg of venison — the second highest compliment the gamekeeper can bestow — and then invited us to the annual shoot barbecue — the highest compliment he can bestow.
His invitation was not without risk, given the spaniel’s previous form. Midsummer she was still engaged in a range of wild antics, including throwing herself from third floor windows. ‘That the mad cocker?’ became the standard greeting of everyone in the village when they saw me walking her. The gamekeeper was therefore placing a lot of trust in me by inviting us to his hallowed shoot barbecue and it was vital that I did not let him down. Cydney’s impeccable behaviour was crucial if we were to proceed to an actual shoot day.
We arrived fashionably eager — at 1.01p.m. — Cydney trotting alongside me into the garden where guests were sipping home-made cider, gundogs sitting obediently at their feet. I surveyed the scene and made an initial risk assessment.
Hazard number one: the trestle table laden with roast pork, beef burgers and potato salad. That would have to be given a wide berth. I didn’t want a repeat of Cydney’s performance at my friend Ingrid’s Diamond Jubilee garden party where she leapt on to a table laden with iced cakes from the Women’s Institute, skidded across the length of it, sending half a dozen cakes flying and then devoured, amid much screaming, a big Victoria sponge, only coming up for air when she was entirely covered in whipped cream.
I ran the reel in my head of a scene involving Cydney skidding across the trestle table laden with the gamekeeper’s lovingly roasted pork and decided that on balance it was worth going hungry.
Next, the entertainment was problematic. It was a troupe of performing birds of prey. Two enormous owls sat on perches, while a hawk flew between the gloved hands of two handlers. It made for a super spectacle and the children were enchanted. But my heart was now in my throat. Again, I couldn’t help but play the reel in my head. Cydney leaping, feathers flying, children wailing…
The reel was interrupted by a deafening screech. Not the screech of an owl being carried off by a spaniel — or a spaniel being carried off by an owl, which was the more likely scenario according to the handler — but the screech of what sounded like a car alarm. It screeched until everyone was running towards the line of cars parked on a stubble field and clicking their car keys at their
I ran too, clicking like mad at the Fiat but it wasn’t mine. Phew. I walked back along the line of cars. The strange thing was, wherever I walked, the sound seemed to get louder. And that’s when I remembered the rape alarm on my key ring. I’ve been carrying it since a sleazy-looking bloke approached me in the car park of Ockham Common and asked, ‘Is this the place to get sex?’
‘No, it most certainly is not,’ I said. ‘It’s a gay cruising spot and we’d like to keep it that way. We don’t want your kind here.’
Well, it’s true. Cottaging is one thing. But straight men going around asking women for sex while they’re trying to walk their dogs is totally unacceptable. So I rang in and Surrey police sent the policewoman who works that beat to come and find me and give me a rape alarm. It was a nice thought, but the rape alarm is not terribly good because the pin is always coming out. And it had come out as I tried to ease Cydney’s passage into the shooting world.
When I realised what had happened, I threw my key ring down on to the ground in exasperation, then, in an instinctive attempt to silence it, I threw myself down on top of it. Then I writhed around on the floor trying to get the pin back in. When I got back up the spaniel was looking at me accusingly. The look said, ‘Now that was what I call embarrassing.’