END OF STORY

I'm stewarding the ferrets. Some people dress up for dog and ferret shows, others dress down. It's either the M&S country check shirt and cap or the trousers held up with baler twine. I'm somewhere in the middle, and people are looking at me suspiciously, like I'm some sort of a townie or something - which I suppose I am.

We've hired an indoor show jumping arena for our first show of the year. In case it rains. The place has the warm, earthy smell of horse manure. People are standing around watching the judging and catching up on a winter's news and gossip. Everyone I've spoken to so far is either ill or has been ill, or knows someone else who is ill or has been ill or has died. Never before have I been associated with so many ill people as these down-to- earth country people. It must be the outdoor life. All right working outdoors when you're young, I suppose, but fatal when you get older. Or perhaps it's because they are poor. They're telling us now that only the poor have heart problems because they smoke cigarettes and eat rubbish all the time. There's certainly a lot of smoking and consuming of rubbish that goes on at our shows. I don't know. I don't care, really. I'm healthy and that's all that matters. In fact hearing all these people talking about how ill they've been is making me feel younger and fitter by the minute. "You're all right," they say to me enviously, "you've got yer 'ealth."

Our chairman has been in and out of hospital since Christmas with one thing and another. But as he has hunted all his life, digging badgers until it was made illegal 20-odd years ago, he gets little sympathy from his committee. "Aren't you dead yet?" I ask him, when he comes around seeing that everything's okay. "I'm not ready to go yet, be buggered," he says. But I've even heard his wife reminding him that those who live by the sword must be prepared to die by the sword.

Not only the chairman, but the whole of our dog and ferret club committee seem to have been afflicted with ill-health since last year. Of our dozen or so active committee members, one has passed away after a brief struggle against throat cancer, one has been hospitalised after contracting Weil's disease (or "ratcatcher's yellows"), and another has had to have his toes amputated, which everyone else thinks is hilarious.

There are quite a few people at the show who haven't yet heard about Alec's toes. Once word gets round, however, the general opinion is that he's a very lucky man, because without toes he will be able to stand closer to the bar. And Tom, the club secretary, wondered aloud whether Alec had the presence of mind to ask the nurse for his toes so that he could take them home with him and feed them to his ferrets. And someone else said that knowing Alec, he might have eaten them himself, living as he does on a state pension.

It's a good turnout. One woman has brought 26 ferrets up from Cornwall in an old Transit. She's one of those wild-looking old spinsters who turn up at country shows wearing an old sack and speaking like Joanna Lumley. As she comes staggering in, laden with ferret boxes, she tells me she's a one-woman ferret welfare society, and all her ferrets have been rescued.

It's my job to announce the class number, take the ferrets (and the 50p entrance fees) and put them in numbered cages, ready for the judge to come and inspect them.

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