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Ophelia’s kiss

Outdoor Living

CROWNING GLORY Fallow deer bucks have palmate (broad flattened) antlers, though many here are hunted and killed before they get the chance to fully develop.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

When James came to the door, his red nose and watery eyes told me he wasn’t well. He waved a bag of prescription medicine under my nose. “I went down to see the doctor,” he wheezed, before drawing himself up to his full height to announce importantly, “Upper Prespiratory Infection, or something like it,” and looked past me into the kitchen, where the stove burned brightly. “Keep yerself warm, that’s what he said.”
Having somebody about the place with anything remotely resembling the flu is nearly as bad as being afflicted oneself. It’s only ever a matter of time – especially with such mild, wet and windy conditions as these, which have turned the entire county into nothing more than a giant Petri dish.
I made my excuses. “I’m a bit busy right now. I’m afraid you’ll have to sweat it out at home. It’s only a winter chill; Ophelia’s kiss, that’s all. It’ll be gone in a couple of days.”
“Then you won’t…”
“No,” I said emphatically. “I won’t.”
He gave me a forlorn look and turned back to the road, climbed crookedly aboard his old bicycle and meandered away through a drizzle of falling leaves.
It was true, I had things to do. News had come through of an unusually large fallow buck, one with fully developed palmate antlers. The local deer are hunted so hard that they rarely live more than a fraction of their natural lives, and we rarely get to see the males in their full autumn glory.
The day was perfect, with plenty of cloud cover and a strong breeze that should create enough natural noise to cover my clumsy footsteps. At the peak of the rut the big buck might even be calling through the day, too, so would be easy to find.
I parked in the usual place, got out of the car and stood quietly for a full fifteen minutes. There were deer calling alright, way down through the woods. With the wind blowing in my direction I doubted they had heard the car. Still, I closed the door carefully.
Even after decades of watching wildlife I am always surprised how much noise there is in a seemingly silent woodland. At first there is nothing. Then a woodpigeon claps through the branches of an ash, making a unique, hollow sound that tells of alarm and hurried flight – it could be anything from a fox to a human, or perhaps the deer I was there to find, that sent the bird away.
Other noises reached my ears. A rustling among dead leaves, the whirring wings of a small bird, the tap-tap-tap of another leaf falling through twigs and the constant dripping of moisture, all weave together to form a comforting blanket of constant sound, through which the sharp crack of a trod-on stick emanates as surely as the shot from a rifle.
I wouldn’t normally mind having James along at all. He has woodcraft and can, when he so wishes, move as silently as anybody I know. More often though, he chooses to clump along, heavy-footed and clumsy, being convinced that an animal that doesn’t think it’s being stalked won’t run away. Today I was happier on my own.
I rounded a bend in the forest track and found a familiar form walking towards me. James.
“Thought you’d be here,” he sniffed. “There’s a big buck down by the river, in among the willows where he thinks he can’t be seen. If you go in clockwise like I did you’ll be upwind all the way. There’s several females there too. They’re kind of nervous. I dare say there’s folks hunting the place. Listen,” he put his head close to mine. “I think... I can... hear... Yawhoosh!” He sneezed a great, slippery cloud of flu-infected droplets into my face.
Apologising profusely, he pulled a sodden handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the lapel of my jacket and then his eyes before returning it to its place.
We walked in to find the deer, only to be thwarted as James coughed and spluttered over everything. Finally, as we were almost back at the car, a fine pair of bucks stepped onto the path almost in front of us. They regarded the pair of us with mild surprise and slipped quickly away through the trees.
I sneezed. “You’d want to be careful with that,” said James. “Ophelia’s kiss indeed.”
That was yesterday. Now I’m at home with my sinuses full of cement, no voice, a rapidly rising temperature and a stove that refuses to light.