I live in Piltingdon, a beautiful hamlet located roughly sixty miles off of the edge of my roadmap. A place as quiet as it is remote, Piltingdon's local economy consists solely of our duck pond, into which people lose more money each year than NASA does on its rocket launches. The ducks are becoming quite afraid to swim on the pond?though that's a problem unrelated to the no-longer-spendable green slime with which they share it.
Piltingdon is famous for one thing: its panther. Canada has its geese, Australia has its hopping things, and Piltingdon has its panther. Or "The Piltingdon Panther" as our local newspaper editor put it?local in this case being a town some fifteen miles distant, and editor in this case being a prat.
The panther isn't something that you can visit with your little kids, because it'll eat them. It roams freely through the fields and countryside, destroying all hopes of real tourism for the village. Which is irritating because there's no actual proof that the panther exists to eat anything. Whilst everyone has their stories of the panther, there are no photos without blurs, no claw marks that couldn't be that of a dog's, and no dead sheep that weren't probably screwed to death by our local pervert (with whom the ducks are all too well acquainted).
But the panther exists. Even I've seen it, whilst out walking with my wife.
It emerged from behind a tree, and was soon out of view?a powerful, big-assed panther. Not that I was looking as its ass specifically, because it reminded me very much of Norman Schwarzkopf in a catsuit. But there's something irrepressibly exotic and exciting about seeing such an out-of-place animal in the wild?as if someone brought a little piece of Africa home to our area.
A mystery isn't really a mystery until the people affected by it have been belittled by their local newspaper?constantly undermined by a rude and skeptical editor who refuses to believe that the mystery isn't a myth. Which is why the locals and yokels, fed up with this constant insultation, have set out to catch the little bastard (the panther, not the editor). And if you've ever tried to catch a panther in miles of open countryside, not that you would have done since you haven't, then you'll know that it's an extraordinary pain in the ass. And not because of the pervert.
A local nutcase that claims to be a truck driver from Derbyshire, Mike-Somebody (no one I asked knows his last name), was the first to mention the idea of catching the panther, in a village meeting which everyone attends for the delicious cookies that the mayor's sprightly wife makes for everyone. The minutes don't record why our miniscule village has a "town" hall and a mayor, though each meeting they surreptitiously state that the cookies are fucking beyond excellent.
Some say that the magic ingredient is pig's milk. But I digress.
Though everyone ignored Mike from the point of suggestion onwards, the idea of catching the panther stuck with the community. Given that the village has more money than sense (witness the duck pond), a team of people quickly volunteered to capture the panther, and set about acquiring the latest equipment in order to do so?tranquilizer guns, night vision scopes, and panther urine from eBay (Mike's purchase) amongst them.
James "Jim" Travis, our hip young mayor, suggested that we camp out at Tithers-Wran?a well known, history steeped tree on the road out of the village?near which the panther had recently been spotted by night. The black leopard (or melanistic panthera pardus), can, as we found out, hunt by either night or day, but ours seemed predominantly nocturnal.
Our vale's haught idyllatry being concealed by the gloaming, we set up camp. The watch on that first night went for a couple of hours without much activity, until, rather unexpectedly, a half-naked man came swiftly down the road towards us from the direction of the thorp. My first thought was that it was the village pervert?but then I remembered that he was sitting next to me sipping out of my thermos and discussing Visual Basic with Jim, and so the situation became more imperative thereon. It was, as it turns out, the village vicar: the Right Revd. Richard Jameson Reed (I've always gotten a kick out of his name).
Though it was thankfully his less sinful half which was exposed, he still sounded like James Joyce on turps. After we'd calmed him down, we managed to extract enough of his story from him to find out that he thought he'd seen the panther from his vestry, in the village church. We upped and offed down the road back to the village, hoping to corner the panther in the church's environs. The Reverend was at first quite concerned about us going "hunting" on consecrated ground, but when we pointed out that we were going to be as humane as possible?for example, in our use of tranquilizers?he assented most good-naturedly.
As we got to the church, the team split up to cover the area more effectively?with Jim and Randall Evans, ex-army, in my own group. We sought the back of the church, behind the vestry, where hay bales were being stored on a rustic timber framework. Whilst still some distance from the church, we noticed a black figure, apparently the panther, under the framework.
The man with the gun, Randall, was a trained marksman, but the shot was awkward, and his aim fell onto the timber framework, scattering some hay onto the panther as it ran away. Upon Jim's retrospectively hillarious exclamation of "we're trying to catch it, not thatch it!", and before Randall could reload, the panther was gone.
There was no camera between the three of us, and the panther headed back towards the countryside, to the frustration of the rest of the team when we later relayed the news. Since that day, two weeks ago, the panther has been reported and is still active, but there have been no very close encounters with humans.
Alien Big Cats, as they are medially termed, are often reported all across the country, but since the animals are in fact very timid, it is hard to gain substantive evidence of their existence. It is conjectured that they have been native to the wild since the Dangerous Animals Act required by law that large cats, fashionable in the swinging 60's, have a permit. Many were simply let loose.
The residents of Piltingdon were at first divided in opinion over the panther, but now most view it as a part of the area, and something that is perhaps a menace, but is at least a thing of nature. We still hold up hopes of proving its existence one day, but it's the culture that counts, so at least we're having fun, even though it's unlikely that we'll catch the panther.
I think I hear my darling wife, though, arriving back from the pen. So perhaps I'll go lay a dish of pig's milk outside the door. Just in case.