With apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge
I had just parked the Maserati outside the country pub where they were holding the wedding reception. I didn’t know either of them that well, but good champagne is good champagne is good champagne. He was, like me, a trader in tobacco futures while she worked for a hedge fund. Money was the name of our games. Money was the only thing people like us had in common. Money was our social glue; there was nothing else.
Suddenly a grey and bearded old man nudged me and said, “Ah, Mr City Slicker Wedding Guest, buy me a pint and I’ll tell you a right good story.”
My first reaction was to shrug him off – I didn’t want to miss any of that free bubbly that I had been looking forward to, but he looked me straight in the eye and grabbed my sleeve and I felt compelled to stay. “Okay, I’ll listen but get your hands off my suit. And be quick.”
And then he started, “Well, we’re all farmers around here and as you know farmers are a superstitious bunch. But in this area we are also practical and we use modern farming methods and we work as a community, sharing equipment, helping each other out. It helps keep our businesses afloat.
“Last autumn – harvesting season to you – things were going really well. Weather was good. The harvesters were on good form, no breakdowns or anything. Lunchtimes we would lie back on the warm earth washing our sandwiches down with cold beer that old Joe there behind the bar would deliver, watching the curlews fly over to ponds and pools down the valley. Things were good and we congratulated ourselves on being such good farmers. The only help we are getting, we would say, is from the curlews – they dish out all the luck around here.”
The man suddenly looked pale and stricken.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t know how or why, but after I guess too many of Joe’s best bitter, I went and shot one of the curlews. Pow. Got it on the wing. Dead. I guess I expected all the others to applaud, but they just stared at me.
“And it suddenly started raining, with a vengeance, and we knew we had to get the crop in or it would be ruined. The harvesters started their rounds of the fields but within half an hour all three were stopped. One had a broken drive shaft, one sheared a wheel axle and the other just didn’t run smoothly – a fuel pump problem, we guessed.
“We phoned the co-op to come and help fix things and decided to meet here in the pub while it was all sorted out. Then suddenly, one of the lads pointed at me. ‘Your bloody fault,’ he said, ‘Killing that curlew. That’s brought us bad luck.’ And then one of the others ran back to the field and collected the dead bird and brought it back into the pub where they fastened it around my neck with a piece of rope. ‘You wear that until we tell you otherwise,’ they said.
At this stage I could hear some applause coming in from the wedding reception rooms. Obviously the speeches were under way. I said to the old man, “Look, I’m terribly sorry, but I must get away.”
“Be calm,” he said, “This won’t take much longer,” and I, despite my desire to leave, felt compelled to stay.
“Well, life wasn’t too good from then on. The rain kept on coming – there was water everywhere. The harvest wasn’t brought in, I had this bloody bird around my neck, I was dying for a decent pint but had been banned from the pub. There was a meeting at the co-op’s offices with representatives from the NFU present and everyone, but everyone, said the flooding was all my fault. I tried to speak up but they all just glared at me.
“I spent the next week or so feeling sorry for myself, as would anyone in this situation, and cursing my fellow farmers, the co-op, the government and anyone else I could think of. I wasn’t a nice person. Not an ounce of love or charity in my bones. I spent my days in a fog of anger and if I had stumbled across a neighbor in that mood, there’s no doubt there would have been violence.
“And then, early one morning, I was walking my fields and in one of the small woods, came across two fox cubs, lying shivering in the grass, abandoned temporarily by the vixen while she hunted for food in the flooded fields. I looked at these young and defenseless creatures and thought to myself how beautiful they were and what a wonderful thing is nature, and without thinking about it, I muttered some sort of prayer asking whatever god exists to protect them.
“Suddenly the rope holding the curlew fell from my neck and the rain stopped and the sun came out and slowly the fields dried out.
“And so I went back to the pub and told all what had happened and they were pleased for me, and they said, ‘You have been punished for what you did, but it’s not over. You must never forget what happened and you must make sure that others know too. So for the rest of your days you will tell this tale to every third person who comes in through that door so that they may learn from what has happened to you.’”
“And the point is, Mr Wedding Guest, love and charity overrides all. Think about it, think about it, and farewell, farewell.”
At that point the noise from the reception hall suggested the formalities were all over. The fun had started. I wandered over and looked through the open doorway. All the beautiful people were there. Expensive hairstyles, expensive make-up, expensive costumes. Caviar on all the tables and waiters rushing around refilling glasses. Oh, the smell of money.
I watched the festivities while simultaneously trying to make sense of the story I had just heard. “Damn that man,” I said to myself and turned away from it all.
Outside I used the fob to unlock the Maserati, sank down into the comfortable leather seat. “Time to rethink my life,” I thought.