New Year’s Day in Wendover, England. A mist covered everything but the uppermost green of the hills, turning every ridge into a series of islands to be explored, or sailed past. Our second floor cottage window was just high enough to see out over the fog. Most of the hedges were submerged.
It was a new year, and we were feeling rather adrift.
A fire roared in the living room stove, heating up the radiators so hot that we had to open the windows and let in some of the cold winter air. Woodsmoke escaped the chimney then settled around the house, combining with the mist. The house was a suitable fortress.
But at the prearranged time we donned our coats and boots and walked, hand in hand, down the lane through the fog. The winter sun rose above the mist, the submerged hedges, the line of trees, the island-hills, and began burning off the haze. Just as the fog was disappearing we arrived at the top of the pasture beside our house.
Our landlords stood there, waved us over. J wore knee-high Wellington boots and a smart hunting jacket. V was less formal, but just as formidable, as she cracked her shotgun in half and stuffed in two shells.
“Ever shoot before?” she asked.
Maile and I both shook our heads, no.
She motioned for us to move around behind her. The fog was lifting. Stanley the gardener dropped two florescent orange clay pigeons into a small contraption.
“Pull!” V shouted.
The two targets eased into the morning air, forming an arc through the mist. Then
Both targets exploded in mid-air, showering the field with small fragments.
“Well done!” J shouted. V smiled.
* * * * *
Another day, another gathering. Eventually 15-20 of J and V’s children and their friends arrived, all in various stages of recovery from the previous night’s revelry in London. Some winced at the firing of the guns. Others grinned. A small competition was organized.
I did not win.
* * * * *
The shooting went on for most of the day. Then a light lunch, then more competitions. The ever dutiful Stanley towed more and more clay pigeons to the field. When he was finally convinced to take a turn of his own, he blasted both targets before they reached their apex. All eyebrows rose, and a smattering of applause sounded out across the valley.
Finally, dinner. Warmth. The large round kitchen table was surrounded by faces flushed from the heat of the stove and the fire warming the entire house from the formal living room. Shots, good and bad, were revisited over steaming curry and lamb and potatoes. The winner, whose identity escapes me, was expected to stand during one of J’s not so short presentation speeches. It drew many laughs and toasts. The winner was also expected to give a short acceptance speech amidst the clinking of champagne glasses.
Clearly, once again, we had landed square in the middle of close friendships, traditions that went on before and after us. These were roommates, childhood buddies, young people who had left the nest to chase something, yet still returned for every New Year’s Day clay pigeon shoot: a pilgrimage of sorts. And, somehow, they made us feel at home.
We walked home that night, shoulders sore from the recoil. But it was a good soreness: the kind that comes from encountering new things.
* * * * *
To read the first installment of England Stories, click HERE