Comment: Fred the cock pheasant and Meg the cat

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The Independent Culture
"WHERE'S FRED?" asked my mother. "It's long past his breakfast. He must be starving." She was standing at the kitchen table tearing scraps of popadum and paswari naan left over from last night's Indian takeaway into small pieces and packing them into an empty ice-cream carton. My mother has never knowingly thrown away an empty ice-cream, yoghurt, soft margarine or coleslaw carton in her life. There are boxes full of cartons meticulously stacked with their lids in her garden shed alongside boxes full of short, neatly coiled pieces of string, empty jamjars and folded plastic carrier bags.

When you ask why she hoards all this junk she replies in one of two ways, depending on the time. Before noon, ie before her daily nicotine quota - 30 a day - has taken effect, she is defensive. It may be junk to us but if we, like her, had been brought up in a mission school for Anglo- Burmese children in Moulmein, we would have counted ourselves lucky to have an empty yoghurt pot to play with.

Do we know what her favourite, indeed her only, toy at school was? We do, actually. We have heard this story many times but we feign ignorance. It was a matchbox, says my mother, her voice breaking tragically; an empty matchbox in which she kept nothing but a tiny piece of cotton wool.

Resisting the temptation to point out that in that case it was not strictly empty, I say yes, things have changed; we've moved on. Anglo-Burmese mission schools are thin on the ground in Petworth and matchboxes have given way to more sophisticated pleasures such as Game Boys and mountain bikes. So why the obsessive need to husband coleslaw cartons? The exchange invariably ends with some sort of Delphic response on my mother's part, in the nature of "easy come, easy go" or "penny wise, pound foolish".

After supper her mood is defiant. The nicotine-released endorphins are riding high, the adrenaline is racing in anticipation of the lottery draw. Now she justifies her junk by inveighing against the criminal negligence and moral turpitude of Western society, which disdains thrift and values only wealth.

"Who's Fred?" I asked, adding jokingly that I hoped she wasn't giving him stale popadum for breakfast. "I certainly am," said my mother. "Just you watch; he eats anything. Ah, there he is. What were you doing in my bedroom, you naughty boy?" What indeed. My mother is well over 70.

Coming nimbly down the stairs, the apotheosis of sartorial elegance topped by a sleek velvet cap, a vivid scarf of dark blue about his neck, was a cock pheasant. At the bottom of the stairs he paused, glanced briefly and incuriously at me and then ran clucking softly towards the kitchen table. "He must have come through the window," she said. "He's taken to wandering round the house. Come on Fred, outside. I don't want popadum crumbs on my floor."

At this point I should mention that my mother's cottage is set at the edge of a wood where, on Thursdays and Saturdays in the shooting season, green-wellied stockbrokers pay the local squire thousands of pounds to shoot pheasants. They are pretty useless shots. I've watched them from the kitchen window firing furiously as birds, tame as budgerigars and heavy as turkeys, flap out of the bushes and fly off unscathed. Those they do manage to kill are so peppered with shot that they are inedible. Like eating a toolbox.

They are pretty useless sportsmen. In the hunting season, the woman at the end of the lane regularly gave sanctuary to the fox, hiding it under her bed. When the hounds traced the scent to the front door, followed by the pink-coated stockbrokers on horseback, our neighbour and the fox would stare down at the mystified hounds and hunters below.

When the shooting season finished, Fred moved into The Maple and, little by little, took over.

As for Meg the tortoiseshell cat - a ruthless killer whom I have seen drag a rabbit twice her size backwards through the cat flap, her paws under its armpits like a lifeguard rescuing a swimmer, before demolishing it on the carpet - whose tally of butchered voles, moles, sparrows and squirrels would make Jack The Ripper blush... why, Meg and Fred are nothing short of chummy.

I confess I am not a bird-lover. When I read yesterday about the pelican in St James's Park that mangled a moorhen in front of horrified tourists, the only thought that crossed my mind was that I could take the kids there on Saturdays as a change from the Natural History Museum. Nature red in tooth and claw, and all that. Better still, we could go down to see Granny and Fred, with an Indian takeaway and a couple of jamjars.

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