15th April 2021.
The missus and I have high-fived for having completed two years on this sea rock. The past thirteen months without escape. Easter has slipped past. A grand year for sloe gin lies ahead. The blackthorn blossom’s magnificent. Delicate. White as… hmm… the unseasonal flurries of snow. The rarest of Guernsey happenings in mid winter. Let alone right bang at the start of the cricket season as the woodland bluebells open along La Folie des Doux (The Madness of the Sweet). While at Moulin Huet, which so inspired Renoir, bathers are inspirited by him.
The Princess Elizabeth hospital’s ‘Ratatouille’, still just about quicksilver, continues its squeeze. Under the drain cover outside the Emergency Department. The large and happy, charmed brown rat has spent these past nights stealing cheese from the adjacent kitchens and ducking the wheels of blue lighted ambulances.
While, along the swanky Queen’s Road, and wearing her ‘on duty’ green scrubs and an ‘off duty’ single woollen mitten, the missus has rescued the rat’s antithesis, a fat, eejit hedgehog gone from pottering pink-nosed-air-sniffer to bring-it-on ball. As the headlights bore down. Of the number 61 bus. Fast headed for St Peter Port’s harbour terminus. My role? Futilely flashing Poopsie the Smart’s weak beams. Noticing too late the pair of rugged leather gloves nestled in the door pocket.
Gentle nudges up the bum by the missus met with resistance. Instead, the scoop up, the much ‘ouch’ and ‘ow’ and the brief trespass. The pricky-back, dropped from shin height safe under a camellia in the paradisiacal garden of the Lieutenant Governor of Guernsey, Sir Ian Corder KBE, must have guessed itself in Heaven. I salute it.
It’s in this bonkers world that I continue my bettering. From Colin the Cockle. A Guernsey ‘Guern’ and ‘help-self’ connoisseur. Who picks his favourite snack out the beach where he ‘moors’ his boat. And he’s full of useless information. Like: “Soak ‘em in flour and seawater for an hour. That way they spit out their sandy goop. Makes ‘em less crunchy with bread and butter. Lovely cockles are.” I take his word for it.
Last Friday arvo Colin was where I’d imagined. Messing with crustaceans
From distance his buddy, young Davy, chucked lady crabs at a bucket target, failing to take into account the aileron effect of flustered claw waggles.
“G’day, mate!” I called.
“Where you from?” asked Colin as I haltingly, rock-wobbled alongside. The question had obviously been brewing.
“Originally? Pompey… Portsmouth. I’m a Hampshire hog. Somerset adopted me. Australia then fostered and kinda cultured.” It sounded like an apology, so I added that the missus and I had exchanged the excitement of echidnas for the delight of Guernsey hedgehogs.
Colin furrowed his brow. My explanation of bus and mitten didn’t unfurrow it. “I’ve been to Australia,” he said thoughtfully. “Went for a month. Met a couple from Jersey. Small world. I was in that hot place near Perth that has all the boats. What’s it called?”
“Fremantle?” I hazarded. “Did you feel the refreshing ‘Doctor’ wind?”
“Yeah, hmm, maybe.”
“Braved my mandibles on charcoaled kangaroo chunk skewers there,” I remembered. “Something once tasted, never repeated. Like your cockles.”
Colin’s mind-cogs clunked a notch. A grin spread. He pointed east across the sea-watery Little Russel. “Roos got eaten on Herm. The wallaby sort. The Mermaid has some info.” I lay a tentative mental bet he meant the island’s foodie pub.
And I wasn’t about to get snobby over marsupial subtleties of difference. Not when in a state of wonderment. “Really? Wallabies on Herm? Actually bouncing like Kanga?”
“Nah. Not now. Used to be lots. I know a lady. Carly she’s called. Her great grandad Thomas worked as chief wallaby looker-afterer. Can’t blame him, though, for what happened. That was the fault of the German prince’s butler and chef.”
“Do tell,” I beseeched, just as Young Davy kicked the bucket. A goodly way closer to his crabs.
Behind us a church bell tolled. Funereal.
“Hope that isn’t for a Davy’s lady or the missus’ hedgehog culled by the guv’nor’s mower. Forget Ratatouille aspiring,” I joshed.
“Nothing, nothing. Bad taste. What were you saying about a prince and wallabies?”
“Dunno much else. You’ll have to look it up.”
That evening I did. Herm’s wallabies were a bunch of red-necks. Bennett’s (Macropus rufogriseus rufogriseus). Hardy souls. Shipped from the vast warm land of gum trees to a Channel Island speck. An Elysium likened to a cross between the mediterranean and the Yorkshire moors. And much loved by eccentric Prince Gebhard Blücher von Wahlsatt a surprisingly sensitive, direct descendent of the Prussian von Blücher, Fürst von Wahlstatt, ‘Marshal Forwards’ famed Waterloo blood-bather, Wellington’s ally.
Oddly, Gebhard was Herm’s sub-tenant. At the start of the First World War he’d already lived on the island for twenty-five years. Many of them in the company of his exotic free-rangers. And why not? By all accounts they seemed happy enough getting a mention in light dispatches and in the Scientific American.
Unfortunately for Gebhard, the fickle Westminster parliament took umbrage at having ‘a Hun’ of gung-ho ancestry on Herm . In 1915 he was forced to pack his tweeds. Until doomsday. The moment his back was turned grim dispatches followed. His butler and chef – particular bounders – got blotto. And went cold-hearted, red-neck hunting.
Guns blasted from the 11th century Saint Tugual’s monastic chapel to Shell Beach. Wallaby was on the menu. Be it stew pot or grilled. ‘Guerns’ fretted over the provenance of pies. All of which perhaps had a lot to do with the prince’s heart giving out a year later.
Saturday noon, however, again bought the boom of guns. Big ones. The cannons of Castle Cornet. Forty-one rounds whumped. For 40 minutes. One round for every minute of them. The castle is one of only a half dozen saluting batteries around the UK. The salutes vibrating my cheese board were for a prince. A more cherished one than Gebhard. Flags flew at half mast. In itself half a mast more than Colin’s boat can boast. Heavy-headed tulips drooped. The previous day’s bell toll explained.
After a grand innings of 99, prickly, game-bagger Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh had passed. It’s chiselled in granite the royal sea dog was a Guernsey visitor. And, so it was said in the ‘Drunken Duck’, a memorial stone plonked. Marking where the Duke and the Queen took a summer stroll out west in Les Buttes, around St Pierre du Bois parish church. That was in the late 1970s when John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John topped the charts with ‘You’re The One That I Want’.
The one I wanted was that stone.
The sweet lady doing the nave flowers knew nothing of it. She did know, however, where there was a dead pigeon. Not a quitter, I roamed the churchyard for a fruitless twenty minutes. The mystery deepened. “C’mon Guerns, where’ve you put it!” I muttered.
Having confirmed he was local, I asked a sarky gent with two collies. He thought I was blathering nonsense. Until I shouted ‘Yay!’ to set his dogs barking. The ruddy lump was hidden in plain sight. Parked as close to Poopsie’s front bumper as the hedgehog had been.
And so to the future. Fresh in the knowledge Somerset’s cricketers, having grumbled at the umpire’s upward pointing finger in the new season’s opener at Lord’s, had prevailed victorious against the odds, next week this Hampshire hog shall spring aboard the Herm ferry and go say hello to the Mermaid.
Safe to say, swigging a tot in memoriam won’t be for the hospital rat.
Illustration & text © 2021 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.