Although it was a long time ago, I’ve never forgotten the evening when I got into an argument with a rear admiral. It was at an old-fashioned English drinks party, the kind of middle-class soirée that my parents occasionally gave in the nineteen sixties and that, as a small boy, I very much disliked, involving a couple of hours of polite chitchat about nothing of any consequence. I was always sent round bearing the titbits – salted peanuts, twiglets, hard green olives stuffed with red pepper, and those extraordinary cheese footballs in which the blobs of old cheese looked as if they’d been masticated and then regurgitated. I vowed that, when I grew up, I would avoid the trap of drinks parties as much as I could.
Still, here I now was, in the wing of a large, elegant house in the Dorset countryside. My son had become friends at school with a boy who was the son of a brigadier, and the brigadier and I had occasionally talked on the touchline, watching rugby matches. We got on well, and the drinks party invitation followed. My wife and I arrived a little late, and while she stayed in one of the two crowded rooms, I took my glass of wine into the other.
This was where, in a knot of people, I encountered the rear admiral, whom I later learnt to be the brigadier’s cousin. He was a leathery man in his fifties with a no-nonsense, slightly curt manner which, I guess, he had developed during a long career in the navy. A certain brusqueness must be a handy thing to have when commanding a destroyer or some other ship on the high seas. No doubt he sized me up at once and, as the phrase goes, disliked the cut of my jib, but we scarcely spoke until the conversation turned to fox-hunting, which at that time was still legal. I felt passionately about fox-hunting, and so, as it turned out, did the rear admiral, but we were on different sides of the argument. My view was that, as with all matters concerning the treatment of animals in which suffering was involved, the most important moral question was one of necessity. He, as I recall it, discounted the notion that the foxes suffered, and argued in favour of tradition and liberty; people had been hunting for years, and why shouldn’t they?
Although we both kept our voices under control, the intensity of our feelings must have become apparent, and for fear of embarrassment the people around us gradually detached themselves and eased away. We continued. We had entirely exhausted the arguments, but we were a bit like scrapping dogs, and neither of us was willing to stop. At last, I said – my eyes locking on to his: ‘I suspect the difference between us is a matter of empathy. It’s a matter of whether one empathises with the fox or not.’ Or I may have said: ‘It’s a matter of whether one has the capacity to empathise with the fox.’
Whatever my exact words, they had an astonishing effect on the rear admiral. For about five seconds he was completely silent. Then he lost his temper. ‘That is,’ he said, with the utmost venom, ‘the most fucking stupid remark I’ve heard in my entire life!’ Turning on his heel, he stalked off. It was rather as if he had flung his glass of wine across the room. Bemused, I searched out my host. ‘Oh, don’t worry,’ he reassured me, ‘he’s always like that.’ It was a fair while later before it struck me that empathy – or, at least, an excess of empathy – might be a handicap for a military commander. Then I began to wonder whether we had been talking about fox-hunting, or something else.
All this came back to me one day last December. On a bright, late afternoon I was walking up to the chalk downs near my home in Wiltshire, the sky a pale winter blue, the clouds tinged with violet. In low sun, the mouldering stubble stalks on the rising ground were gold, and the old man’s beard in the straggle of elder seemed radiant with white light. My aim was to reach Win Green, the highest point on the down, just before sunset.
When the footpath entered the wood, the sun gave way to shadow. Elliot’s Shed was possibly planted in the early 17th century by one Edward Elliot, who with his wife Jane owned land in the nearby village of Charlton. ‘Shed’ is a word linked to ‘shade’, and by planting a small sycamore wood on the steep side of the down his idea was perhaps to give grazing sheep a shady refuge in hot weather. Today, the wood has a neglected, morose atmosphere, especially in winter, and although one corner is occupied by a large pheasant pen, it seems unsure of its overall purpose. Few people walk in it. It doesn’t intrigue and delight in the same way as the rich, ferny, bluebell woods to the north.
I was halfway through the wood when I became aware of a frenzied commotion. A big deer – a roebuck – was thrashing round, as if doing battle with an invisible enemy.
It took a moment to work out what was happening. The antlers of the deer had become entangled with trailing honeysuckle. Wild honeysuckle is common in the local woods, climbing high into the trees, from which it falls in long, grey strands that are remarkably strong. This buck had tried to escape by twisting and turning, which had only made matters worse. Its head was now held fast by a knotted cable thick as a man’s arm. Its chances of escaping without help were zero.
Thirty years ago I had seen a stag on the Richmond Park golf course, streaking across the fairway with a red scarf wound round its antlers, but I had never seen nor heard of a deer caught by honeysuckle. I went closer and in fear it flung itself about, hooves flying. That made me wary – a large roebuck can weigh more than 70 lbs, a single kick would easily break a rib – and I fished out my mobile phone and called the RSPCA. ‘Choose from the following four options…for wildlife, press two…for trapped or entangled wildlife, press two…for wildlife in a building or out-house that can’t find its way out, press one; for wildlife you think may be trapped in your chimney, press two; or for wildlife that may be trapped or entangled elsewhere, press three…’ Then a ringing tone, then music, interrupted by notices informing me of the RSPCA’s good work.
In my impatience it seemed a small age before a human operator answered. I explained the situation. ‘How long before anyone can get here?’ – ‘I can’t say,’ she replied. ‘It could be a while. Someone will be with you as soon as possible. Can you wait?’ – ‘I can, I will, but it’ll be dark in forty-five minutes.’
The deer was still strong, to judge from its vigour. If it had to stay here all night, with its antlers caught, it would still be alive in the morning. That’s what I told myself. At the same time, I very much didn’t want to leave it here. I hated the thought of going away, abandoning it.
The light was fading fast. I phoned my daughter, who happened to be at home with a car. Ten minutes later, she arrived with a pair of secateurs.
By now the buck seemed calmer, as if it might have become more used to my presence. Who can say? With my heart in my mouth, I edged close enough to cut the first strand, some six feet from its head. The sound of the cut was a loud snip, and I expected an instant panic reaction. Instead, to my great surprise, the buck seemed to collapse. Its front legs buckled, and it lay in a sprawl on the ground, neck bent. The honeysuckle held its face in a tight cage, with a dozen strands wrapped around its nose and brow.
As I cut on, getting closer and closer to the deer’s head, I was in a state of intense, palpitating agitation. It wasn’t only that I felt its fear, its anguish, its bafflement, but also that being this close to such a large wild creature seemed intuitively wrong, a transgression of the deer’s innocence, a violation of its sacred right to be left alone. Yet it continued to lie motionless, not making a sound. I was now kneeling by its head, and I could have touched the pale fur on its cheek. One strand of honeysuckle, I saw, dug deep into its mouth.
There came the point when the secateur blades were within an inch of the antlers, which in the poor light seemed as grey as the honeysuckle. Then the roebuck had had enough. In one convulsive movement it flung itself into the air and broke free. It hurtled away, crashing downhill, disappearing into the darkness of the trees. A little shakily, I picked myself up and phoned the RSPCA to say that its services were no longer needed. ‘Did you think it was all right?’ I asked my daughter. ‘Probably,’ she said.
I wasn’t sure then, and I’m still not sure. Although I had severed the cable that tied the deer in that particular spot, much of the honeysuckle was still wound round its head. Had I cut off enough? Had I cut the strand that cut into its mouth? If so, I tell myself, the deer will have been all right; if not, it will surely have starved to death. My imagination has continued to follow the deer. On several occasions I’ve been back to the wood, hoping to see a buck sprouting a set of antlers adorned with honeysuckle. No luck there.
I’ve also relived my emotions, my fear and desperation on the deer’s behalf. Thinking over the way it seemed so compliantly to give up any attempt to escape, and remembering the medieval legend of the unicorn that lays its head in the lap of the Virgin, I’ve been tempted to believe that in some deep way the deer knew that I was trying to help. Briefly, somehow, our minds locked: just as I entered its mind and, by proxy, became part of its plight, so it entered mine and understood my good intentions. We were joined by empathy. What a stupid idea – fucking stupid, as the rear admiral might have told me. From the first to the last snip of the secateurs, my buck was frozen with terror, expecting every moment to be its last. Still, I reckon that it’s better to feel empathy than not, even if it’s unreciprocated.
In what remained of that December day, my daughter and I continued up to Win Green. The air was calm. The sun had set, and the land below the down, with its fields and woods, among them the wood in which I had found the deer, was slipping into a uniform grey. A few last crows strutted here and there among the molehills, while a kestrel rose in the darkening sky and began to hunt over the rough grass between the car-park and the clump of beeches.
CHRISTOPHER NICHOLSON’S latest book is Among the Summer Snows (September Publishing)
Illustrations by MIRIAM COCKER