Opening pages from the first story
“Birch Sap Poachers”
Sussex Tales – The Birch Sap Poachers
There was a lamb in the oven. Not a joint, or a chop, or even a shepherd’s pie from Sunday’s leftovers. On that particular morning the Aga door was wide open, all of the shelves removed, and there, curled into an old meat tin, was a new-born lamb no bigger than the teddy bear that sat upstairs on my bed.
The tiny animal raised its head, opened its eyes, and with its head thrusting forward and its pink mouth open, trumpeted a thin, rusty wailing; full of demands and defiance and pathos all at once. It was plainly out of sorts and saw me as the possible if not probable cause.
My mother flapped her teacloth in our general direction as she bustled around in her usual breakfast-hustle. ‘Feeling a bit perkier?’ she said. ‘Well, you wait a bit. I’ll fetch you some milk for your breakfast.’
I assumed she was talking to the lamb because, despite living on a farm, she knew I did not drink milk if I could avoid it. In her book there was nothing that could not be cured with food and tea. Doling out food in prodigious quantities was her way of signalling comfort and affection.
I wasn’t quite so sure when she poured cereal into a bowl, and placed it in front of me. Quite obviously both lamb and I were being tended on auto-pilot. Her attention was not fixed on food but on my father and his latest doings.
‘So what happened then, Stan?’ she asked.
My father laughed, slapping his calloused hands on either side of a large demi-john and making the jar’s cloudy contents slop and gurgle. ‘The Guv’nor wanted two brace for his dinner party come the weekend, and you know he won’t go after en his-self, not out of season, not even when they’re all flying over from Dranton estate. He’s not above asking me to bag ‘im a couple though. Anyway, I was goin’ up past Tone Ley and working across to the pheasant chee, when I hears voices. So I drops down quiet like, an’ creeps up, an’ there was these two lads, hangin’ about in the shadows.’
‘Did they have guns?’ Mother’s tone was curt from her fear for him and I could see her point. One man with a thumb stick and a hessian bag was no match against armed poachers.
My father nodded. ‘One of them,’ he said. ‘I’d thought as they were poachin’, and maybe they were an’ all. But then they stopped by that stand of birches just up the other side of the Manor road.’ He paused, aware that I was listening. ‘So I stayed right where I was. They didn’t have a clue I was there,’ he added, and shot me another reproving glance. ‘Anyhow… They was fiddling around for quite a while and I couldn’t make out what they were up to from that distance. Then our old dog caught up and comes straight past me, all gas and noise, hackles up, gnashers on show, an’ ‘e took the arse straight out of the biggest one’s trousers. The pair of them took off like a pair a robbutts… and left this behind en.’ He slapped the jar again and laughed. ‘It’s birch sap. Alby reckons it makes a good drop. Get us a pound of raisins from the Stores-van when he comes round, will you, love? An’ a couple of bags of sugar. I’ll get a good gallon out of this lot.’
He grinned at her and her eyes laughed back, though the rest of her face maintained its habitual pursed-lipped judgement. Many people wondered how these two ever made a pair, but I think that was it, right there. He made her laugh.
Mother sighed, eyeing him with suppressed amusement, and said. ‘White or brown?’
‘Whatever’s cheapest, duck. It makes no odds.’
‘Dad,’ I said. ‘If they were poachers, what was they after?’ I leaned forward, eager for the details mother would never ask. ‘Was it a stag, Dad? Or robbutts?’
He only laughed. ‘Stag? No, poppet. Not over that stretch. Them lads might’ve took a pheasant or two if they got the chance.’
‘So was you poachin’ then, Dad?’ I said.
He hesitated, glancing toward my mother. ‘No… It’s on the Guv’nor’s land,’ he said, finally. ‘So I weresn’t poachin’. And don’t you go tellin’ all your mates at school. Especially them Garton boys.’ He waved a finger at me in a half-hearted warning. ‘I don’t want folks knowing we’ve got chees in that wood or we’ll have en all down here. Promise?’
I dug my spoon into my breakfast, avoiding his eye. I didn’t like keeping those kinds of secrets. They were no fun. Just for once I had a genuine tale of late night skull-duggery, a real coup, and my father was expecting me to keep it to myself.