Jeremy Clarke

Odd dogs and Englishmen

A social leper tells you of his miserable existence

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In my experience a long coat on a man is often a sign of mental instability. Frankie’s brown woollen overcoat was so long he kept stepping on the hem and treading it into the mud. Jim did the introductions. Frankie took no notice of my name, calling me ‘laddie’ instead. Then he said he’d got the kettle on and led us into the house. His hunting dogs had the run of the ground floor and there were little piles of their excrement on the bare floorboards. In the kitchen a tractor tyre was leaning against a wall, and there was a chainsaw leaking oil on the kitchen table. We took our coffees outside and drank them standing up in his backyard.

In the backyard, a tanned, dark-haired man was sitting on a log splitting hazel poles lengthways with a machete. Split four ways, hazel poles make durable thatching battens. Chained to the back of a wrecked lorry was the most powerful looking pit bull terrier I’d ever seen. It had such tremendous presence, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The stick-splitting man was disinclined to speak, but nodded assent when I asked him whether the pit bull was his.

With his coat trailing in the mud, Frankie led me into the workshop, where he kept his ferrets. ‘That pit bull. Is it a dog fighter?’ I said when we were out of earshot of the stick-splitting man. Frankie stopped and looked appraisingly at me, assessing my worth. ‘Butterflies mostly laddie,’ he said. ‘But Tyson’s got it in for crane flies at the moment.’

Frankie kept his ferrets in clean straw at the bottom of an old chest freezer. I reached down for one, a young polecat jill, and it bit my hand. A warning nip rather than anything committed. I withdrew my hand and examined the twin puncture marks. Frankie took a close look at my hand as well. A hand as small and clean and undamaged by work as mine was, to him, a curiosity. He placed one of his hands next to mine, for a comparison. For size, texture and hairiness, it could have belonged to an entirely different species. The tops of the first three fingers were missing and it was criss-crossed with white scars. Then he reached down with this hand and pulled out first a pink-eyed albino hob ferret, then a little black jill and shoved them into a sack. ‘Any of them bite me and they go straight in the Rayburn,’ he said.

We drove out to a field on the edge of the moor. The rabbit warren we tried first was in a hedge. We netted up. Jim and I netted the holes on one side, Frankie netted those on the other. When Frankie went to put one of his ferrets down the hole, he found that they’d both escaped from the sack and absconded, so I put my hob ferret, King Suleiman the Magnificent, down instead. Frankie was sceptical about the working ability of a ferret belonging to a man with effeminate hands. ‘He’s a worker, not a pet, I hope, laddie,’ he said sternly. ‘We can’t be hanging around for no pets.’ I assured him that Suleiman was a proper working ferret, and my claim was verified almost immediately as an escaping rabbit became entangled in a net on his side of the hedge.

Suleiman was soon bolting rabbits left, right and centre. Frankie was yelling and in his excitement he kept tripping on his coat and falling down. His method of breaking a rabbit’s neck was most unusual. He wound it round his waist as if it were a belt and tugged from both ends. Another thing I hadn’t seen before, and which I objected to, was his habit of lobbing King Suleiman the Magnificent back over the hedge to us whenever he appeared on his side. ‘Coming over!’ he’d say and bowl him, overarm, ten feet in the air and I’d have to run to catch him.

Suleiman is not only a good worker, but he’s also as obedient as a dog. If he’s been down a hole for a long time and no rabbits have appeared and I want to move on, I can call him out. Frankie nearly died laughing the first time I put my head down the rabbit hole and called to him and out he came. ‘How much do you want for him, laddie?’ he said. I told him I wouldn’t sell my Suleiman to a cruel old man like him for a hundred pounds.

When we got back to his place the man splitting hazel poles was still at it. He acknowledged a gift of a brace of rabbits with a curt nod. Again I couldn’t take my eyes off the dog. Before we left, Frankie talked me into swapping Suleiman for a reconditioned chainsaw. ‘You should never have done that,’ said Jim in the car on the way home. ‘That was a good ferret.’