At a recent meeting of the writing group that I attend, we discussed how memories are triggered and how such recollections can form the basis for a story or a poem. Today while I was walking my dog, Poppy, on Otley Chevin, she flushed a pair of Jays out of the heather. A long buried memory surfaced. A memory of my best friend at Lasswade Secondary School. Rob Gillies the Jay spotter.
At school the only subject I really enjoyed was art. I had a natural gift. I was not brilliant at art, but I had a gift none the less, whereas the gift for mathematics, science and languages was notably absent. The head of the art department, on the cusp of retirement, was Tubby Russell, and the only other art teacher I remember was Baxter Cooper.
Tubby was an excellent watercolour painter and some of his works were displayed in frames on the art classroom wall. If we were doing life drawing he had a slightly lecherous tone in his voice, as he discussed the form of the female breast lying beneath the folds of the model’s blouse.
UMr Cooper, or Coop as we called him behind his back was my favourite teacher. I doubt it would trouble him if he knew his nickname. Coop was popular and the name spoken with fondness and respect. He would often sit at his desk, drawing an ink illustration of a hawk or kestrel, for the Scottish Field, magazine, occasionally looking up, eyes swivelling to check that we were hard at work too.
One morning he brought an injured owl into the class. He had found it by the side of the road. Like any good teacher Coop abandoned the art class and used the opportunity to discuss the life of owls, pointed to the struggling bird’s features, the claws, beak, eyes and the texture of the feathers. Coop was, you see, an enthusiastic ornithologist. Through this enthusiasm he started an after school club. My friend Rob and I were two of the first members.
The ornithology club met weekly and we learned about about birds and their habitats. In addition to these meetings Coop would organise weekend field trips to nature reserves on the edge of the Firth of Forth, and to the woods and fields around Bonnyrigg and Lasswade, bird spotting and counting. These Saturday bird watching field trips were an excellent excuse to avoid the horrors of the rugby field and the psychotic PE teacher. My dad, keen to fuel to my enthusiasm, bought me a pair of binoculars from a secondhand shop in Edinburgh. Through the binoculars I would watch lapwings, kestrels, and the fine pair of tits belonging to the girl across the road, who would theatrically open her curtains at 9.30 every Sunday morning to provocatively dress in front of her bedroom window.
During the school holidays Coop would arrange trips to the Highlands where we would stay in Youth Hostels at places like Kingussie and Blair Atholl. I remember experiencing a slight apprehension. I still occasionally wet the bed, and had fairly blood curdling nightmares. Nightmares that I would share with everybody within earshot. Once, on a family jaunt with my father and brother in a Youth Hostel I had woken everyone in the hostel, including the hostel manager, who, thinking a vile murder was being committed on his watch had fallen down the stairs. The next morning he had waved us goodbye with his left hand, his right resting in a sling.
But, I feel the field trips were happy times. I can recall Coop coming out of a forest of Douglas Firs holding an Adder by the tail, waving it about to our, and the adder’s, alarm. On another occasion we gathered round Coop on a hillside as he poked his forefinger into a pile of deer shit to predict, by the warmth of the shit, how far ahead the herd we were following was. We were predictably disgusted.
One night during a trip Coop caught Rob reading, or staring mesmerised at a copy of Titbits, a magazine, that as the name suggests, contained pictures of lascivious bare chested women. Snatching the magazine from Rob’s grasp he had berated him. “You filthy minded, boy. You will go blind!” Said Coop, trying to sound annoyed. The next day Rob redeemed himself by spotting a Jay. Coop was impressed and, like an Apache Chief naming a brave, he honoured Rob with the name ‘Jay Spotter’, the Titbits incident forgotten.
Coop’s sense of pleasure at Rob’s twitching skills were soon to plummet. Later, on the same trip, after a break to scoff our sandwiches (or pieces as they are known in Scotland) the group walked down a rough track that ran along the bottom of a small glen in tandem with an energetic burn. After a while, Rob and I striding along, had pulled away from the straggling group. We were chatting away, probably about the charms of my neighbour’s daughter or something along these lines, when suddenly with a screeching sound and a thudding sound, like a carpet being beaten, a Golden Eagle rose from the heather covered hillside. It was barely twenty feet from us. If a double decker bus had launched itself into the air, we would have been no less astonished. It was an awesome sight.
Coop, leading the main body of the party round a bend, two hundred yards behind us, just had time to see the Golden Eagle disappear into the distance with languid flaps of its enormous wings. We waited excitedly for everyone to catch us up. But of course Coop didn’t share our excitement. We had, by walking so far ahead, spooked a magnificent and rare bird, denying everyone else the experience of a lifetime.
“You, you….you.. complete idiots!” He spluttered trying to desperately to keep a professional grip on his temper and his language.