"I have decided to tell you something," he said.
"I am going to let you in on the deepest darkest secret of my whole
I was sitting up in my bunk watching my
"You asked me where I had been, " he said. "The
truth is I was up in Hazell's Wood."
"Hazell's Wood!" I cried. "That's miles
"Six miles and a half, " my father said. "I know
I shouldn't have gone and I'm very, very sorry about it, but I had
such a powerful yearning ..." His voice trailed away into
"But why would you want to go all the way up to
Hazell's Wood?" I asked.
He spooned cocoa powder and sugar into two mugs,
doing it very slowly and levelling each spoonful as though he were
"Do you know what is meant by poaching?" he
"Poaching? Not really, no."
"It means going up into the woods in the dead of
night and coming back with something for the pot. Poachers in other
places poach all sorts of different things but around here it's
"You mean stealing them?" I said,
"We don't look at it that way, " my father said.
"Poaching is an art. A great poacher is a great artist."
"Is that actually what you were doing in
Hazell's Wood, Dad? Poaching pheasants?"
"I was practising the art," he said. "The art of
I was shocked. My own father a thief! This
gentle lovely man! I couldn't believe he would go creeping into the
woods at night to pinch valuable birds belonging to somebody else.
"The kettle's boiling," I said.
"Ah, so it is." He poured the water into the
mugs and brought mine over to me. Then he fetched his own and sat
with it at the end of my bunk.
"Your grandad," he said, "my own dad, was a
magnificent and splendiferous poacher. It was he who taught me all
about it. I caught the poaching fever from him when I was ten years
old and I've never lost it since. Mind you, in those days just
about every man in our village was out in the woods at night
poaching pheasants. And they did it not only because they loved the
sport but because they needed food for their families. When I was a
boy, times were bad for a lot of people in England. There was very
little work to be had anywhere, and some families were literally
starving. Yet a few miles away in the rich man's wood, thousands of
pheasants were being fed like kings twice a day. So can you blame
my dad for going out occasionally and coming home with a bird or
two for the family to eat?"
"No," I said. "Of course not. But we're not
starving here, Dad."
"You've missed the point. Danny boy! You've
missed the whole point! Poaching is such a fabulous and exciting
sport that once you start doing it, it
gets into your blood and you can't give it up! Just
imagine," he said, leaping off the bunk and waving his mug in the
air, "just imagine for a minute that you are all alone up there in
the dark wood, and the wood is full of keepers hiding behind the
trees and the keepers have guns ..."
"Guns!" I gasped. "They don't have
"All keepers have guns, Danny. It's for the
vermin mostly, the foxes and stoats and weasels who go after the
pheasants. But they'll always take a pot at a poacher, too, if they
"Dad, you're joking."
"Not at all. But they only do it from behind.
Only when you're trying to escape. They like to pepper you in the
legs at about fifty yards."
"They can't do that!" I cried. "They could go to
prison for shooting someone!"
"You could go to prison for poaching," my father
said. There was a glint and a sparkle in his eyes now that I had
never seen before. "Many's the night when I was a boy, Danny, I've
gone into the kitchen and seen my old dad lying face down on the
table and Mum standing over him digging the gunshots pellets out of
his backside with a potato-knife."
"It's not true," I said, starting to
"You don't believe me?"
"Yes, I believe you."
"Towards the end, he was so covered in tiny
little white scars he looked exactly like it was
"I don't know why I'm laughing," I said. "It's
not funny, it's horrible."
"Poacher's bottom they used to call it," my
father said. "And there wasn't a man in the whole village who
didn't have a bit of it one way or another. But my dad was the
"How do you actually catch the pheasants when
you're poaching? Do you have a gun hidden away up
"A gun!" he cried, disgusted. Real poachers
don't shoot pheasants, Danny, didn't you know that? You've only to
fire a cap-pistol up in those woods and the keepers'll be on
"Then how do you do it?"
"Ah," my father said, and the eyelids drooped
over the eyes, veiled and secretive. He spread strawberry jam
thickly on a piece of bread, taking his time.
"These things are big secrets," he said. "Very
big secrets indeed. But I reckon if my father could tell them to
me, then maybe I can tell them to you. Would you like me to do