The Pecking Order

Entry by: macdonald

3rd June 2016
The Pecking Order

When Fiji became independent dad was surplus to requirements and we had to leave. Moving to Somerset aged fourteen was always going to be a shock. Small, shy and bookish, I worried about making any new friends after such a carefree childhood. When our new neighbour greeted us on arrival with:

‘It be a bit dimpsy tonight, bain’t it?’ I knew I was in trouble.

The following week, the only new boy in class the teacher asked me:

‘How be on, Jack?’

The pidgin english of the sugar workers in Fiji was easier to understand and I didn’t have a clue what he’d said, causing great hilarity. From plantation manager’s son to the class fool was quite a tumble down the pecking order. Daphne du Maurier and RD Blackmore hadn’t prepared me for the constant mixing up of ‘S’ with ‘Z’ and ‘F’ with ‘V’. A couple of years before the ‘Wurzels’ hit, ‘Combine Harvester’ I’d never heard English like this.

Many of the boys were farmer’s sons, with no ambition other than to follow their father’s footsteps and minimal interest in school education. Some had been held back a year, or even two, in the hope that eventually they would manage a few GCSE’s. Most were much bigger than me and their conversation, when I followed it, was of cider drinking exploits, tractors and muck spreading. My talk of Fiji and University aspirations was met with puzzled looks.

Rugby football was played by every boy and a couple of the biggest, Dan and Geoff, already in the junior Exeter side, were always surrounded by girls. Feminism hadn’t spread to Taunton by the early seventies and although the girls were more mature than me they mostly imagined futures as air hostesses or farmer’s wives. But one of them, a smiling mass of dark hair and alabaster skin, was different.

Finding me hopelessly lost in a corridor on my first day she asked:

‘You alright, me luvver?’

before taking me by the hand into the correct classroom. When she told me her name was Lorna, I was smitten. To think of all these big-hearted West Country lads as the evil Doone clan took a vivid imagination but that night I was John Ridd fighting for Lorna’s hand.
Luckily another new boy soon appeared. Malcolm came from Surrey (as exotic as Fiji to our classmates), was even smaller than me and wore spectacles. He spoke English in a way I could understand and we were soon firm friends. He was a reader too, although most of his books were on ornithology. At fourteen he’d already been a ‘twitcher’ for ten years.

Apart from constantly trying, but failing, to impress Lorna, I mostly stuck with Malcolm that first Autumn and Winter. The following spring, I was probably five inches taller, and excited by the fact that she would be on the Geography field trip to the South Devon coast that Whitsun. Unfortunately, Dan and Geoff, would also be there.

On the first morning of the trip the teachers left us on the beach to get on with things. Malcolm and I, working together, listed every shell, plant or animal in the vicinity. Dan, Geoff and a couple of the other lads, bored rapidly by our Biodiversity project decided to sneak off early for lunch (and a pint or two of cider) at the village pub. To my disappointment they persuaded a few of the girls, including Lorna, to go with them.

When the rest of us got back to the field centre we quickly heard why they hadn’t returned in the afternoon.

They’d had their cider, then bought fish and chips and sat on a little pier in the sunshine. Some gulls had begun to annoy them, but the boys chased them off. Then a gigantic, fearsome bird,

‘Twere bigger than an eagle’ said Geoff, appeared from nowhere, screeching horribly. It ripped some battered fish from Lorna’s hand, pecked Dan’s head, then chased them along the beach until they’d thrown all their food away.

‘Did it have a white head, yellow beak, pink legs?’ Malcolm asked.

‘I think so,’ said Laura. ’But we was all in such a tiswas.’

Apparently the same bird had been terrorising the chip shop customers for a couple of weeks. A council inspector was visiting to assess the situation that Friday afternoon.

‘Fat lot of good that does us,’ said Dan, who’d been to the cottage hospital to have his head wound looked at. ‘We leave Friday. Wants shooting that monster does.’

‘It’s nesting time, said Malcolm. 'Perhaps you got too close.’

‘It were after our fish and chips,’ said Geoff. ‘Best cider I’ve had in that pub. Thought we’d go back tomorrow, but not now.’

Malcolm winked at me, then said:

‘We could try and get rid of it.’ There was much smirking and raising of eyebrows as he went on. ‘I’ll need some money though. To buy stuff at the chemist.’

‘You plan to poison it like me dad does rats?’ said Dan.

‘Sort of,’ said Malcolm. Fifty pence each should cover what I need.’

‘What you using?’

‘A combination of Acetyl salicylic acid, sodium bicarbonate and anhydrous citric acid. A few other bits and pieces, maybe.’

‘You sure four quid will be enough, Professor.’ said Dan, grinning.

‘I’ll have to buy some bread rolls and fish paste,’ Malcolm replied, leaning back in his chair, hands behind his head. ‘Maybe another pound.’

At noon the next day we all walked to the village together. The others went to the pub, while Malcolm went to Boots to buy the ‘poison’ and I bought two rolls and a jar of sardine spread from the grocer. Malcolm baited the rolls with a white tablet he broke into two and we sat together on the little pier eating crisps. Seagulls began to appear.

‘Will the big gull be the dominant male?’ I asked.

‘No,’ he said. These are mostly herring gulls, some lesser black-backed. They’re solitary. Any loose social order they have together is based on size and aggressiveness. I don’t think it’s one of them anyway. On cue a throaty, blood curdling cry echoed over us and an enormous gull flew past about thirty yards out to sea. I held my breath, preparing to run for it but Malcolm was calm.

‘I thought so,’ he said. ‘Larus Marinus, the Greater black backed gull; King of the Atlantic. The largest gull in the world. Isn’t he magnificent. His wingspan must be over six feet.’

As the huge bird glided toward the pier I threw one of the baited rolls. It caught this, swallowing it whole, without even landing. Our classmates burst out of the pub, excitedly, as it flew off.

‘How long will the poison take to work,’ said Geoff.

‘Five minutes at the most,’ replied Malcolm. The gull perched on top of a corrugated iron hut a stones throw away and began making a strange, gurgling cry.

‘I hope you haven’t killed the poor thing,’ Lorna said.

‘ I hope you does just that,’ said Geoff. ‘I’m gasping for some fish and chips after that cider.’ As he finished speaking the huge bird toppled off the shed roof onto the stony beach.

‘You done a proper job on the bastard’ said Dan, slapping us both on the shoulder. Malcolm and I trotted over for a closer look.

The bird was squawking miserably, weakly flapping its wings, hopping away, but only just managing to keep its distance from us. White froth bubbled from its beak. I heard it burp.

‘What was the white tablet?’ I asked Malcolm.

‘Alka-seltzer,’ he said. ‘I’m glad I only used half a tablet. It might have exploded if I’d used a whole one.’’ It kept hopping away and ten minutes later, managed to launch itself shakily into the air, before heading south.

‘It’ll be fine,’ said Malcolm. ‘It’s intelligent and won’t risk pinching food here again for a while. It was only doing what we humans do to every other species on the planet. Taking advantage of weakness. It’s learnt a lesson now. We made two pounds fifty profit by the way. Fancy celebrating with a cider tonight?’

On our third and last day, when Geoff and Dan set off for the pub at lunchtime, Lorna told them:

‘I think I’ll stay with Malcolm and Jack. I feel safer with them.’

And for the rest of the afternoon I was John Ridd, knowing at last that Lorna Doone was his forever.
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