This is a photo from The Times today, of a deer in Richmond Park, London. For those of you who don’t know London, this park is three times the size of Central park in New York, and five times bigger than Monaco. Created in the 1600’s, as a Royal Park, it’s home to a herd of more than 600 Red and Fallow Deer, roaming freely. There are lakes and ponds, hills and woods, an out door swimming pool (only the Summer!), gardens and arbors and magnificent views across London to St Paul’s Cathedral. Just a few miles from the noise and bustle of Central London, Richmond Park is the city’s lung, the air clear and crisp, even the roar of traffic and the sound of flights into Heathrow too distant to intrude.
The image of this wonderful stag, his breath a mist among the copper ferns, took me right back to the years I lived in Central London. Most mornings I would take my bulldog to one of the many small local parks but when I needed a longer break from the keyboard, we’d head off to Richmond and wander for hours. One very misty morning in November, able to see only the next step or two ahead, we went for a long ramble, one pocket full of dog treats and a flask of coffee in the other.
Did I mention that it was November?
November is the rutting season, when deer will charge, trample and kill. Full of testosterone, the male deer is ready for trouble, itching for a fight, primed to protect his females, a fearsome beast.
It was a lovely morning to be lost in the mystery and enchantment of the mist, as we headed off towards Sawyer’s Hill, not needing to see where we were going, familiar with the climbs and dips of the Park. We’d been walking for an hour or more when I sensed, more than saw, movement ahead of me in the grey shrouded mist. A dark shape, moving slowly. I have always been a little bit deaf so I don’t hear the sounds of atmosphere, the breaths of the Earth, small sighs of movement…. maybe that’s why I didn’t see them until it was too late. And then I remembered. November! I had led Mr Punch, my lumbering playful young bulldog, right into the middle of the rut, and there I stood, in the damp silence, frozen, lost, blind. Should I call Mr Punch? Would my voice startle the deer? Did they know I was there? Surely they could hear Punchie… happily charging through the fern, cracking twigs, snuffling and snorting? Should I stand, frozen until the mist drifted away? I tried a low soft whisper “Punch. Punchie. Come.” I tried a slightly louder mumble. Punch was too busy. The dark shape moved nearer and now I could see the mist pluming from his nostrils, wreathing around the antlers. Yes. It was a stag. A big bloke.
There was another shape to the right of me, smaller. Maybe a female. This wasn’t looking good. I’d like to say I prayed. I didn’t. I don’t think I even managed a coherent thought. Now I could hear the deer chewing, and breathing. Or was I just imagining it? I could see other shapes as the mist drifted. I really was right in the middle of a herd of rutting deer. Heads were lowered, grazing, but the stag held his head alert, poised, his eyes gleaming. Watching. Wary. He had me in his unblinking gaze.
Where the hell was Punch? Would he suddenly see what I saw and joyously run up to play, or would he be startled and bark… my lovely clumsy bully…. in my mind’s eye I could see him being gored and tossed, thrown in the air, vanishing into the grey. What a fool I was! November! I hadn’t given it a thought…. November!
And if that head was lowered… the hoofs pawing the bracken floor…. how easily would he break a rib, puncture a lung, pierce the heart?
Now the stag was inches away. Staring at me. How long did we stand there? I don’t know. Could I smell him, hear him, feel the warmth of his breath? I don’t know. Was it two minutes or five? It felt like an age. And then he lumbered slowly past. The female vanished into the grey, another shadow melted out of view, and another…. now I could hear the hooves…. the herd was moving on. All was silent.
My legs were stiff and my heart was hammering… I moved down that long hill a lot faster than I had ambled up it. Ahead of me I saw Mr Punch’s fat little bottom, his wrinkly tail, and I have never been so glad to see a dog’s bum in all my life.
One day I’ll tell you about being shipwrecked off Sheppey Island, crash landing at Orly airport, ricocheting down a spiral staircase, coming off a motorbike on Charing Hill, etc etc