Pulp.net - The Shoot

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Stephen Jefferies
I am leaning forward, my right leg caught on a bramble. The thorns scrape across my dungarees, which are wet and heavy with melted frost. Rooks fracture the silence.

I hear these birds from my bed as I lie in late, waiting to rise for Sunday Mass, and I am thinking about who I am and what I am and, in a moment of clarity, I know that time is both an infinitely small point and an endless road.

Soon after my ninth birthday Father acquires one hundred and sixty acres of land and Mother is persuaded to let me accompany him on a rough shoot. She is opposed to violence, but Father is insistent. He asks her to look around our London house, which is in Russell Square. He invites her to admire the location and reminds her to reflect on our circumstances.
Father and I prepare to drive down to Sussex. We leave my mother at the front of the house and set off towards the Aldwych and Waterloo Bridge. I wave through the rear window of the Bentley. She half-raises her arm and smiles for a second, but then she drops her hand and becomes solemn.

I turn to Father.

‘Let’s think about today,’ he says. ‘First, we’ll walk the land to assess its potential, and maybe do a little shooting.’

‘Do you mean animals and birds?’

He is quiet for a moment. ‘I’ll explain about etiquette,’ he says and sighs through his nose, ‘and respect for life’.

It is enough to know that my father will enlighten me.

• • •

Nadine goes back into the house. She presses her fists into her stomach and steps heavily upstairs, thinking about Hector and his arrogance. Earlier, during the discussion, she had noticed her son watching from the other side of the room, his eyes full of questions. Then, perhaps sensing the tension, he had laughed in his wonderfully husky voice and run to her.

On the dark landing she pauses then briskly opens the door to the drawing-room and walks into light. Tall casement windows, shutters folded away, curtains tied back. White light. White sky. She can be calm now for this is not the dream. As the seconds pass Nadine relaxes and then, with suppressed excitement, she reaches for the envelope on her writing desk. At the breakfast table she almost panicked, but managed to hide the letter in her housecoat pocket while Hector continued to read his newspaper. He is a liar, she decides, I am a liar, we are all liars. She slides out the letter, hand-written on expensive paper and signed in dark brown ink.

McEwan Publishers Limited
August 30th 1917

Dear Lady Atwood,
Thank you very much for sending me your poem, ‘Love over Death’. Regrettably, after careful consideration, I am not able to deem the work as suitable for publication. However, there was much that I enjoyed in the poem; it is a work full of feeling, but, I think, not yet completed.
May I recommend the following? I urge you to read widely. Look critically at your work. Read aloud to yourself and to anybody who will listen, and listen to others, while keeping one’s eyes and ears open for the effect produced on those present.
Use no superfluous word, no adjective that does not reveal something. Avoid abstractions and use either no ornament or good ornament.
I should like to end on a positive note: I would be pleased to look at your poetry again, after it has been revised.
I have annotated your draft with comments, which I hope you find useful.

Yours sincerely,
Greville Johnson

Nadine unlocks a desk drawer and removes a leather-bound notebook. She places the poem down and considers the neat writing in the margins.

Out December morning, out mineral tear, out closing sky.
She moves to the window, stepping like a ballet dancer, toe first, heel second, arch settling into place. Her fingertips hold the poem away.

Out ageing frame, out deepening moan, out obscure glaze.

The wintering trees in the Square are black with soot, inert except for thin branches moved by the wind. People, clothed to the ears, appear static as she reads, moving again at her last word. She sighs and acknowledges the presence of a man, a boy, a dog.

He runs across the field,
Joints stiff with age
And harsh December chill.
He calls
⎯Nadine, Nadine
And jumps the icy ditch,
His white face shaking
With the effort and the shock.
Strangers walk through the Square noiselessly, the sound of their lives, past, present and future, overcome by the rushing in her head.

• • •

Father parks the Bentley in front of the farmhouse and calls on the tenant.

‘We’ve bought the Manor and intend to make it our country home,’ says Father, ‘and we’ve retained the shooting rights.

The farmer is silent for a few moments. ‘Have you shot before?’

‘I beg your pardon!’ says Father, instantly angry.

The man mumbles, ‘Just asking—’

Father cuts him off. His soft sibilant speech becomes loud and his difficulty with the pronunciation of the words ‘rough’ and ‘shoot’ is obvious.

I want to say more. I know that Father has hunted game in Africa and has been a guest at some of the most prestigious shoots in Scotland. Instead, I lean against my father’s side, hold the edge of his coat, and breathe in his smell of leather, tobacco, and warm clothing.

That night the dreamfields spread around me. Someone calls my name. I look about. No one. I hear the murmur of conversation as if through a closed door. There is only sky as I fall slowly to the ground. A dog barks. Clothing rustles in my ear. I turn my head and realise that my father is carrying me.

Father invites three clients to the Manor for the weekend. Two of the visitors have never held a gun before, but follow instructions well. The third, however, shoots too low and does not take care. Father admonishes him. The silly fellow, who has drunk from a hip flask since sunrise, pays no heed and looses off a couple of rounds into the trees, and worse, into the hedges where the dogs are running. Father walks up to him boldly, whips the gun out from under the man’s arm, breaks the barrel and removes the cartridges.

‘No more shooting for you today,’ he says.

I guide the flushed visitor, who clutches a brace of shattered birds in one hand, over the fields to the house, then make my way out to where the shoot has progressed, to the marshland, the domain of the duck and snipe.

Twice, in the distance, I hear the report of Father’s gun, short and crisp with a faint echo, like hands clapped in an empty hall. He has a beautiful double-barrelled twelve-bore with an exquisite engraving of a pheasant on the breech. It is one of the best London guns, the most modern Holland and Holland sidelock with a single trigger. I imagine him standing with one foot forward, gun skyward, the glint of sunlight on the fore-plate. I hear the sound of the discharge and imagine the recoil into his shoulder. I know all about the closing of a bird’s wings, the parabola of death as it falls, and the unhurried lope of the dog, off to collect the prize in her soft mouth.

• • •

Nadine stares at Hector who sits reading in an armchair. The light reflects off his oiled hair. She thinks of him as a difficult guest flitting inconveniently in and out of her mind as easily as he flits in and out of their Bloomsbury house. She cannot understand why he insists on this formal sitting together on the evenings they are in London.

I have better things to do.

Smoke from Hector’s pipe curls into a question mark.

I write poetry.

Bluish clouds issue through wet, pursed lips.

A gun lies broken to one side,
Stock splintered on a rock.
The dog whines at my trembling heel.

He knows as little about her writing as he believes she knows about the Mayfair flat. He puts his paper down and looks up. ‘You should have a hobby.’

Nadine inclines her head and the corners of her mouth twitch. She has practised everything. Conversations last all day but she speaks to no one.

‘What a good idea,’ she says.

Hector gets up. ‘Well then.’

Nadine has practised relaxing too, but she stiffens as Hector breezes past her in a whirl of cologne and tobacco smoke.

She waits one minute, then retrieves a letter from inside the book on her lap.

November 17th 1922
Dear Lady Atwood,
Thank you for your letter and poem ‘Love over Death’, which I remember reading. It is much improved; however, I should like to emphasise that you must be careful not to confuse the necessary obscurity of poetry with unnecessary abstraction. I have made a few suggestions where I feel the poem might be improved further.
Yours sincerely,
Greville Johnson

Nadine scrutinises the comments in the margins and begins to dismantle the poem again. Her heart beats forcefully in her throat. Her eyes close and she joins the landscape, glides out over the downs, believing she is alive.

He stands and clutches
At his chest while
One hand pats the accidental air.
Fresh blood congeals
Upon his cheek and neck,
The shoulder of his coat
Is crimson wet,
And glistening salt-pale tears
Caress his face.

A particular December morning. There are no guests at The Manor. Nadine slept badly, woke in the night shouting a name and, in the silence that followed, every blind sound threatened her.

The Manor is empty. Her husband and son have gone out early with the dog. At times she craves loneliness, confusing it with freedom.

What shall I read to them? She has been invited to address a circle of friends.

Nadine looks from her bedroom window. The window is open and the cool air pinches her cheeks. She rehearses the walk downstairs to the sitting room, imagines sitting in a chair near the fire and opening a book.

What shall I do if I cannot read? What if I cannot speak?

‘Love over Death.’ The words form behind her eyes and her scalp tenses. She breathes deeply. In the distance she can hear the raucous rooks in the copse.

There is a gunshot.

The birds screech in response then settle, and the silence that follows becomes unnatural, muffled. She shouts, walks to the middle of the room, stops, rushes back to the window, calls loudly, then, hearing nothing, races from the room, downstairs and out into the fields.

• • •

I am leaning forward, my right foot caught on a bramble and, as if for the first time, I am aware of my surroundings. The sky, pale with thin cloud, through which bright wintry sunlight diffuses; the horizon, as the mist disperses; the rolling fields of adjacent farmland; the marshland and the small pond; the ditch with its thinly iced water; the hedge where Cassie sniffs and yelps as she searches.

Next to me stands my father. I look up at him. He is smiling. His hair bushes out from under the sides of his flat cap. He nods and puts his free hand to his throat to adjust a red cravat, and in an instant I glance through many childhood images and cannot remember him shouting at me.

Cassie, still invisible in the hedge, barks once, then there is a clatter and whirr, and out from the undergrowth breaks a hen pheasant flying for her life.
The pheasant is a marvellous bird to shoot, and the hen bird is a most agile and accomplished flyer. When alarmed she leaves her nest, generates maximum revolutions very quickly and reaches fifty miles per hour in still air. Then, not wishing to waste hard-earned energy, she fixes her wings and glides back towards the home covert. Father regards the high, curling pheasant as the most difficult shot in the book, and I agree with him.

Cassie leaps between us, her colours flashing red and white, legs and belly black with mud, mouth open, tongue pink, teeth immaculate. I smell her sweat and her tangy breath mixed with the scent of earth.

‘Steady,’ says Father, but Cassie turns and twists and jumps, and Father, the most careful of men, roughly pushes her down with the stock of his gun.

Deep in the twin dark holes of the gun-breech the universe expands. A light glows red, then yellow, then white as the cartridge explodes and the tightly packed pellets, pressed home, sealed, and now released by my father’s accidental hand, rush towards me and exit the muzzle at one thousand and seventy feet per second.

• • •

December 22nd 1926
Dear Nadine,
I was so very sorry to hear of the dreadful accident last week. You have my deepest sympathies. I think it is most regrettable that the newspapers have made such a fuss over the poem ‘Love over Death.’ In my opinion their reporting is completely without taste, not to mention sensitivity.
Once again, please accept my sincere condolences. Be assured that you have my support, and that of McEwan Publishers Limited, at this desperately difficult time.
Yours truly,

Nadine places the letter on her desk. She walks over to the bookshelves and selects a small volume. At a window overlooking the Square she stands for a while and then, shaking herself slightly, reads out loud.

He turns his back
And leads the way,
Then stops and kneels,
And tenderly the flesh filled clothes
Are lifted.
And I say,
⎯Oh, my poor darling,
And reach out to pick
A piece of bloodied bone
From his shoulder.
• • •

I am leaning forward, my right leg caught on a bramble. I am thinking about who I am and what I am and, in a moment of clarity, I know that time is both an infinitely small point and an endless road.

© Stephen Jefferies 2007