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.