Cats, Worms & Moles
“Christ! We’ve killed the missus’s cat”, groaned my father looking across the field, past the silent frozen ponies with their steaming nostrils, to the far hedge. A black cat hangs stiff in the frost.
I’m eight years old and my father, in his post-war job, is second gardener and chauffeur for Lord and Lady Hunt which means we live in a cottage, one of three workers’ cottages on the Hunt estate. Twice a week we put out the snares and early the following morning, before work or school, we go out to collect our rabbits. Some days there are none but sometimes we’ll come home with three or four and my mother will give them to her girlfriends in the village.
The Hunts own a big foundry in the village where they manufacture and export agricultural equipment.
Fast forward nine years. I’m now a migrant kid and I’m with four Aussie lads and a small arsenal of weapons in the beetle-backed Vanguard heading to Lake Tyrrell, north of Sea Lake, to shoot ducks. The boys feel duty bound to teach me how to be an Australian and I’m a more than willing pupil. Adventure and new experiences were everything.
Someone told the ducks we were coming so we became rabbit and fox shooters instead. Mid-morning and the spread-out line of hunters get the signal to stand still. Noel lifts his rifle and takes aim at something. A shot and a shape leaps from the long grass close to a thicket of blackberries. Six or seven more shapes streak away into the thicket. “Cats!” mutters the lad along from me.
The hunting party strolls over to the body. “Nice shot”, said Paul. I move on over to the blackberries. Why are they growing here in the middle of nowhere? Rusting iron protrudes from the clump and I inspect it. A giant harrow lives here supporting the forest of blackberries, no doubt made redundant by new lighter and more modern equipment. On a wide cast iron cross bar at one end, I see raised lettering: Hunt Foundry, Earls Colne, Essex, England. Like me, it’s 12,000 miles from where it was made. I turn to face the others who are taking a break, lighting cigarettes, checking their guns, having a piss. Without thinking about it, I blurted out with a smile, “You’ve killed the missus’s cat”. Four sets of eyes stared at me. No sounds except for a low whistling of wind across the vast dry grass covered paddocks. No one understood. Then Noel looked at me with some amusement in his eyes, and said, “Stupid Pommie bastard”. Everyone laughed and we moved on.
Fast-forward fifty years. Maldon a couple of months back, before the first rains. I’m talking to a man around my age and originally from England about his new front garden in front of the renovated cottage he and his wife have restored.
“Aven’t seen a worm. Not one”, he said. “Where will I get worms then?” he continues.
Before I can fully comprehend his regional English accent, he goes on.
“The wife asked me why we don’t have moles”, and he laughs heartily. “I told her straight, if we don’t have worms then we don’t get moles”.
Suddenly, in my head and across the years, filed away in the box labelled 1957 came Noel’s voice. “Stupid Pommie bastard.” For one horrible moment I thought I’d actually said it out loud, but I hadn’t. Then I realized how Australian I was.
We love irony, but just sometimes, people from far away places manage to convince you that what they are saying is what they truly believe when in fact they are having you on. Trouble is of course, you can never be sure.
I smiled wanly and suggested a place where I had found worms. Take a bucket and garden fork to the large mulch-come-compost bays at the corner of the Castlemaine Botanical Gardens, next to the gate nearest the creek. If the leaf mulch has been there for a while and is damp, there is good chance of finding worms. Find just one, and you won’t be able to stop.
Footnote: 1. The European mole has long been regarded as a garden and farm pest although this is changing as the benefits of its aeration of the soil becomes appreciated. The small animal burrows across British and Europan lawns or gardens or sports fields or race tracks, usually at night, leaving ‘mole hills’, small heaps of earth, every two to four metres. The mole was once hunted for the fur trade. A mole skin coat required many moles skins and was regarded as a luxury item. 2. European moles do not exist in Australia but we do have an unrelated burrowing mole. Our Marsupial Mole lives almost entirely under ground in semi-arid, sand dune country.