The Sword Of Christmas

“As you can see,” Graham said with pride, “Zack and his group have been doing an awful lot of groundwork. Indeed, they discovered these,” he continued and produced three swords from the armoury. “We have quite a selection of these and after out talk earlier, I think that swords may be one of our best forms of defence. Without their appropriate limbs, the leathers will struggle to do much harm.”

For once, his gentle humour failed to reach an audience so he continued.

“The next thing that I wish to ask is difficult,” he cleared his throat slightly. “You see, we need to get an early warning of their arrival so we would be best served by deploying a scouting unit that can cover the immediate areas around the castle. It will be a dangerous task so I only want volunteers. One thing to bear in mind is that you may have to move pretty quickly to get back to HQ if and when you do spot them.”

Keith Rains shot up a hand and this was followed by several others, all men in their late twenties or early thirties, all of them having lost family members. Then, Michael stepped forward and he was holding the sword he had picked out for himself. It was a shorter version of a long sword yet had a blade that was not straight. The blade had been fashioned into a facsimile of a series of flames, each one glinting with shiny menace. Graham had told him that the sword was favoured by German soldiers protecting the most important personnel. 

“It would have been used in a sweeping movement to ensure greater coverage and to keep the unwanted attentions away from those who were being protected,” Graham touched the blade and drew a little of his own blood in doing so.

“As sharp today as it was when it was first forged. They called this a Flammanschwert, the flame sword, and these edges meant that any strike would be intensified by the additional surface area. It was meant to maim.”

Chris had noticed that his brother’s presence brought immediate attention from the rest. It was not born of the charisma of Graham, the wisdom of Mr. Dale of the admiration of Judith. No, when Michael was in the room, people just stopped doing those things that they would have been doing; chat and movement were stilled as if awaiting the arrival of some natural disaster.

If Chris had not known his brother so well, had not understood his truly sensitive nature, had not seen his head stuck, night after night, into some grand book or other, he would have felt the same as the others.

“I volunteer,” Michael announced. This was followed by his brother who was now standing shoulder to shoulder with him.

The rise in optimism was matched by a hike in temperature. The signs of a thaw were there for all to see and, whilst usually the disappearance of snow brought about a twinge of sadness, everybody welcomed its short, if powerful life span.

Within little time, the organisation for the defence of the castle was completed to a satisfactory level. The rat runs were trodden and re-trodden to familiarise all with the evasive measures that would probably be required. Graham, his knowledge of history becoming their guide to survival, set up three murder holes, confined areas were attackers could neither move backwards or forwards once they had entered and where his quickest and strongest males could strike with relative impunity.

Because of the confined spaces, only short swords and spears could be used. However, Keith Rains had equipped himself with a ‘morning star’, a brutish looking club that was studded with vicious spikes. “I used to play cricket a bit so I should still have a good swing,” was his explanation for choosing such a weapon.

Towards twilight, the first of the refugees began to emerge from the countryside. First there came two young men, all smiles and greetings not disguising their discomfort at being within such a large group of strangers. Then, very soon afterwards, came more and more. On questioning, it would seem that the empty landscape through which Graham’s band had travelled was not so empty after all. The group’s reluctance to venture into buildings meant that they had missed numbers of others who were just hiding and surviving. For all they knew, Graham may have been in charge of a mopping up exercise run by The Piper so they did not show themselves.

“So why now?” Mr. Dale wondered aloud.

The dreams. They had all experienced dreams about the leathers and these dreams had been so disquieting, so very different to the replays of the previous terrors, that many of them took them to be warnings of things to come. Then they had dreamt about the man who was yet a boy, the one with a sword of flames, the one who had the brightest light at his back but not upon him, and they headed towards the castle in which he resided believing that he could halt the flood of their hunters.

“That’s him,” a voice cried out in amazement, its owner pointing towards Michael who had just entered the room with his brother. “That’s him from my dream.”

A tide of rising whispers seeped into the library with faces turning towards the one who had been identified. In return, Michael walked quickly from the place intent on becoming as invisible as he could.

“Michael wait for me,” Chris was after him. “What is it? Why were they pointing at you?”

Michael had broken into a run by this point and his brother had to do likewise to keep up. The pace increased to a sprint as they raced along the ground floor and then the eldest darted to his left and through a large opening that took them into another tower. Taking the stairway two steps at a time, they were soon at its summit. Chris was breathing heavily, the short activity having taken a surprising amount of energy from him. His brother, who was standing by the towers widow looking out to the east, was apparently in no discomfort at all.

“What was all that about? Why did you run away?”

Michael hesitated for a long time before answering, “They think that I can save them. They believe that I have been sent here to stop the leathers.”

“That’s stupid. How do you know that?”

“Have you not seen it in their faces? Every time somebody looks at me, there’s something in their eyes. Have you not noticed how only a few of them actually talk to me. The young ones, they talk, they’re not the same, but the older ones…sometimes some of them can’t even meet my eyes. They look at their hands or their feet. Others just rush away as soon as they can.”

“Perhaps it’s just your imagination.”

Again Michael looked towards the gathering dusk.

“When I was with Mum, I had this dream, it was as if I couldn’t wake up. You were in a wood somewhere and you were with Lucy. There was a man who was pointing a gun at you. You were in danger. I saw the man. No the physical one, but the one inside him and it was The Piper. He’d coiled himself up inside this bloke. Inside him was this snakelike creature that controlled all of his actions and the creature was commanding it to kill you. Payment. That’s what it was after. Payment.”

“That happened. Just last week. We had stopped by this big private school and Will, a bloke who came in with Judith, made me go up the woods where he was going to kill me. He had a gun. Said that it was for The Piper and he talked about the debt. It’s a good job that he couldn’t shoot straight.”

“I distracted him. At the very last moment, he saw me and I saw him. You were thinking about the window you had seen in the church.”

“How do you know?”

“You thought that the figure in the window was me.”

The younger brother listened without interrupting.

“The Man in the window had something like this hadn’t he?”

Michael was holding up his sword and, in an instant, Chris noticed the flames, the real fire that danced along its edge. “Chris, I don’t know who I am any longer. I have blackouts. Look at me. Am I the same brother you had less than two months ago?”

To Read Or Not To Read

images-160
This Is The Question

My early schooling was spoilt by the fact that I found it almost impossible to learn to read. My friends were running through the programme as if it was a ride in the park. They were fast readers, accomplished learners who never had to endure the torture of actually learning something from scratch. Me? I was just a dumbo whose brain had not evolved to the level required to decode the books that were placed before me.

images-164

These two little ‘lovely’ children made my life hell, on a daily basis.

It was common practice to let children read aloud. It was a way of getting everyone to participate in the story. It ought to have been good, but I found it excruciating.  

I grew to hate these two.

I also grew to dread that long path that led towards my desk and the moment when one of the easy reading community passed on the bemusing baton for me to latch on to. I would stumble over the easiest of words, struggle with compounds and blends, and collapse over consonants and vowels. I absolutely hated reading aloud.

READING SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED!

Apart from my dad, nobody else took much notice of my lack of literacy. It was funny for many of my pals when I stumble and fell off each and every sentence that was placed before me. I discovered that the laughter was a screen that I could hide behind. I had a talent that could make my life a little easier. My talent was not reading, but it was the ability to prompt amused responses from those around me. I couldn’t read so I decided to try to make people laugh instead.

I have come across this in students that I have taught throughout the twenty-five years I have had in teaching. The class-clowns, often razor sharp, frustratingly ahead of the game (if the game is to avoid learning), practiced in numerous techniques and strategies to avoid going anywhere near their Achilles Heels in the course of any given school day. They have mastered diversionary tactics that mask their deeply-rooted anxiety about the one thing that trips them up. They build around the problem, develop new skills, nurture talents that may not have been cultivated if it hadn’t been for their issue. Often, they succeed in avoiding the literacy thing all together; that is until it comes back to bite them when they cannot hide any longer. I had the chance to become one of these kids, but something stopped me. I loved learning. Even the class-clown that I was, loved learning.

My literacy problems did not go away overnight. I still have them. When I first became a teacher, I would fret about my poor spelling. I would fret about writing on the boards. Back then, it was the old blackboards that took some rubbing clean. Any mistakes that I made would stubbornly remain, ghostlike behind my intention. Smart kids would offer up alerting hands to point out words that I had incorrectly placed before them. I would joke and point out that that was why I kept a dictionary close at hand, so that I could check before I wrote. Even now, many years an English teacher and practiced writer, I still check my words. I have mild dyslexia. A gift from God.

It was Shakespeare who first helped me.

shakespeare_william

I loved Shakespeare because the language seemed as impenetrable as the ordinary stuff that was served up at school. Everybody struggled with Old Bill and that made me happy. All those self-satisfied smug looks fell away in one reading. All at once it was me who was finding the going amusing. I took a copy of Romeo and Juliet home and set about reading it aloud. Nobody at home worried about this because it was me doing it and I did funny things anyway. And you know what? When I read Shakespeare, I read it in role. I became a Shakespearean character reading Shakespearean English. I was not myself. I was not the lad who could not read. I could read and I was brilliant at reading Shakespeare! It wasn’t until later that I found that I had to become someone else in order to overcome the many challenges that were to stand in my way.

Sally-Gardner-012

Sally Gardner From The Guardian newspaper November 2014.

(No! That’s not me dressing up. This lovely person is a writer who’s embraced her dyslexic gift.)

When I was at school nobody really knew what dyslexia was. They called it word blind. I always think not being able to spell is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a bit like seeing the iceberg and saying there is dyslexia – but it’s what’s underneath it that interests me a lot more than the boringness of spelling and reading and writing. Because before the first dictionary was written by Mr Samuel Johnson, we spelt rather imaginatively. Nobody was dyslexic, there wasn’t such a word. Some really famous writers from the past such as Chauncer and Shakespeare would have been in a special reading scheme as they hardly spelt the same word the same twice. A lot of Shakespeare’s work was written down for him.

I was sent to a school for maladjusted (which means behaviour problems) children which I eventually left. Then I was 14 went to a posh girls school, but the girls were absolutely horrid to me. I eventually learnt to read at 14 and my mother told me if I got five O levels (old fashioned version of GCSEs), I could go to art school. I just memorised everything. And did manage to get the five, even English literature. When I took that particular exam my English teacher told me write very quietly and not make any noise. She told me: “There are children here going to university and you’re not. So don’t disturbe them please.” So you can see she wasn’t a very supportive teacher.

Sally Gardner

b280e7542b721579396f956b367a4cb5

It has taken me my life to come to terms with the pain of not ever having been a natural reader. I think that I have passed my gift on to my daughters. And the good thing with that is that they are thriving because of it.

The Last Hope

Safe and Sound

The castle was built for both attack and defence. Its commanding view of the surrounding countryside gave it a great advantage for seeing the enemy whilst providing a platform from which counterattacks could be launched.

Facing to the south and east, lay the moat and to the north and west the castle was perched upon the most imposing of rock precipices that few would dare to climb. Below the rocky outcrop, separating the fortress from the town, was a river which snaked into the grounds from the west and curved round the northern walls before swinging east and then north back towards the source of its flow. Again, nature had been thoughtful enough to provide another line of defence. In other times, the castle could be said to be a complete fortress.

It had been the curiosity of the young ones that had discovered the armoury and it was also their adventurous nature which provided the group with a working knowledge of its internal layout. The various tourist maps of the castle had given them a basic compass, but it was the energy and need to explore that made their knowledge so impressive. While the adults had been busy with the celebrations on the first night, the kids had been off, working in groups, opening doors, venturing down stairwells and hallways; even descending into the lower places that used to be the dungeons. In the space of twenty four hours, they had a complex understanding of the place. And, they had found the armoury.

Since escaping the school they had grown. They were, to all intents, twenty first century children who had had the twenty first century stripped away from them. In essence, they had been picked up by the scruff of their necks and thrown back almost three centuries to a pre-industrial age. They were not only children but integral members of a self-sufficient community and they were contented creatures of this new age.

Zack, although not the eldest, was a leader of sorts. He was tough and brave in a way that allowed him to enjoy an occasional spurt of recklessness. His foray into the deep halls of the castle was the adventure that resulted in the discovery of the golden fleece. He was also a bright lad. All in all, there were now thirty three youngsters, a number having deserted the group during the days whilst leaving the city. Nobody ever mentioned these, dreading to think about the fate that they had decided upon.

“It’s in here, Mr. Hunter,” Zack had not had sufficient contact with the old man to use his first name.

Double doors surmounted by a silver plaque proclaiming the word, ‘Armoury’ opened up to his touch. Graham, a child once more, walked into the room, struggling with the possibility that he would be allowed to handle such weapons. Moving along the glass cases and cabinets, he saw sabres, cutlasses, claymores and even a scimitar (brought back from a crusade). His eyes were wide with glee and expectation. Zack watched with an imperceptible shake of his head, adults were often as childish as children.

“Its okay, they’re open, Sir.”

Carefully placing his hand on the unlocked casing, Graham eased it open and reached inside to place his hand on the hilt of the scimitar. Fingers forming a soft glove, he lifted it from its restraints.

“A scimitar, Zack. I can’t believe that I am holding one. It’s fabulous. When I was a boy, I dreamt of owning one of these things. Don’t you think it’s beautiful?”

Zack did indeed think that it was a thing of considerable beauty.

“Yes. I think it is wonderful.”

“It was the sword of the Moors. You can still see it on the flags of Arab countries.”

“I know, Sir. We did that in History with you in Year 7.”

“Yes, Zach. I had forgotten that you were in my class back then. And here we are now.” He paused for a while to consider what had gone. “We have work to do, don’t we?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Zack, you know the castle as well as anybody.”

“Better.”

“Good, then I want you to show me all that you know. I want shortcuts, hidden passages, I want to see places where we can run to if it gets bad, I want a way out if it gets really bad. Do you understand?”

“Of course. It’s like Lord of the Rings isn’t it?”

“You’ve got it Zack, but I think that Orks have a nicer disposition.”

They were sharing the joke when Chris spoke. He and his brother had made their way to the armoury using one of the other boys, Lewis, as a guide.

“Is it alright if we join you?”

“The more the merrier,” chuckled Graham through heightened spirits.   

A Tale Before Christmas

Talk Room

“We were just driving along, the car was handling the roads easily enough, Ian was driving. I was sitting in the back with Sue. Then they came from nowhere. They were all around us, coming out of the trees.

I think Ian thought they were human because he swerved to avoid them. When he did, he lost control and that was when we hit the wall. We went straight through it and then down the slope towards the stream. We’d been travelling slowly but our momentum took us down the slope quickly. We were hitting trees and stuff, bouncing from one to the other. We were getting thrown around a bit in the back because we had not bothered putting out seat belts on. When we came to a stop, we had straddled the stream, bank to bank, and that’s when we saw them.”

Each of his sentences carried a note of dread that was transferred to congregation around him. Each word built on the one before to create a deeper realisation of what they could be facing.

“We knew we had to get out. There were  child-locks on the back doors and Ian was slumped over the steering wheel. Blood was everywhere, coming from his head, I think he was dead. Louise was panicking. I’ve never seen her like that before. She had the baby in her arms, it was a surprise that she hadn’t dropped it in the crash, but she was out of the door. Sue was screaming, she was puling at the handle, begging Louise to let her out. For a moment I thought that Louse was going to leave us there. She had that look about her, survival and all that. At the last moment, she undid the door and Sue managed to get out. I’d climbed over the front seat and was in the stream. Those things were almost onto us. I just ran.”

“What about Sue?” somebody asked.

“I thought she was alright, I thought she could run…” hesitation precipitated confession. “I left her. She was on her knees in the stream and I left her. They were there at the other side of the car and I left her.” 

Jason started to sob heavily, the recognition of his sins now standing before him. Heaving his way through the pain, the faces of some of the others showing reproach, he was lost at the lacerated point of his original decision. It was replaying itself on a loop, his hand reaching out and then puling away, Sue there in the water, the dark figures splashing madly towards him. This could be his purgatorial landscape, forever.

Laura, seeing his struggle, touched his arm. It was only the lightest of touches, one that was meant to remind another that they were not alone, a touch that suggested that others had travelled on that path. Still down there in his own depths, Jason felt the pull of the woman and started to climb towards it..

“I just ran. I ran. Louise had got to the other bank and she was starting to make her way up the hill. Those things were right behind us and we had the baby. I heard screams, screams that came from Sue but I didn’t look back. We ran.”

The room was quietly waiting for the rest of his narrative.

“We managed to get to the top of the first hill. Well, almost to the top. Louise was carrying Tom, the baby, and she was tired. No she was exhausted. She fell in the snow. I was in front of her when I heard her shouting for me to come back. The things were only about thirty yards away. I wanted to run some more but I looked in her eyes and I heard the baby cry.

I shouldn’t have left Sue there for them to get her. I turned back and tried to lift her. All she said was that I should take the baby. She pleaded me to take Tom and save him. I said I could help them both, but we knew I couldn’t. They were closing in and I got Tom. I just ran and ran thinking that my lungs would burst, that I’d have a heart attack or something. I must have been running for a while, up and down those hills with those things always behind me. Eventually, I reached the top of another hill. I fell most of the way down and then these people showed up. They saved me.”

Nobody spoke. A solid silence had been thrown across the gathering in the library, each individual having been transported to that cold landscape where only demons kept one company. Jason sat motionless with the hand of Laura still upon him. Most people were doing everything they could to avoid making eye contact with anyone else.

“There but for the grace of God go I, “ uttered Mr. Dale.

Addressing the library, Graham said, “Well, I think that this may have changed our plans somewhat. In the light of this I think we ought to open up the debate. Out there are hundreds, possibly even more, of these things. I hate to say the word Zombie, but that seems to fit.”

“We call them Leathers. We fought one and he was certainly not one of the ‘recently dead’. I don’t think  they go in for whole scale cannibalism or can infect anyone they bite, but they are dead. The one that we came in contact with was all hide and nothing else. It was as if he had been dry frozen or something. He was strong, not super strong, but strong like it would have been if it had still been alive. We burnt ours. It didn’t like that, but I have a feeling that it was not fully finished with.

The second one we ran into was a more recent one. His skin hadn’t turned to leather, but he was one of them,” Laura looked anxiously towards where Michael was standing with the mother and children but he had taken them and left the room. “Michael, my son, killed him by blowing up the house we’d been staying in. It was a massive explosion and that, most definitely, finished him off.”

“Do you think that other things could kill them?” asked Judith.

“They move around in daylight, they are not afraid of water, they have obvious strength, perhaps not superhuman but something. We haven’t tried silver bullets or crosses or holy water or garlic or wooden stakes. Just the fire so far.”

Everybody was listening intently to this modern day ghost story. 

“So they are still made of skin and bone,” asked Keith Rains, “and if they are then we have a chance. I’ve seen a fair share of horror movies and there’s always ways of killing the evil dead things. What would they do if we managed to chop off their heads or legs? If they are skin and bone, leather and bone, then we have chance.”

“And we are in a castle. There are suits of armour all around,” added another enthusiastically.

“And there’s an armoury,” Zack Borthwick, a twelve year old from St. Agnes suggested, “with loads of swords and stuff. We could use them.”

“That’s a great idea,” Graham said seizing upon it, “we need to sort out some defences, get armed, make sure we know all the castle’s strengths and weaknesses. We need places to defend and places to fall back to. At the moment, we hold the advantage, this s a castle after all and the have to try to get in. Fortunately for us, these castles were built with an eye to both attack and defence. We could hold out here indefinitely. All we have to do is get ourselves organised.”

There was a flicker of understanding in the eyes of Dawkins. He had spent his incarceration listening to all that had been said. He was not just looking for his opportunity to get away from these people, but was looking for an advantage, something that he could take back with him and a tribute that could serve him well. 

“How long have we got?” enquired Mr. Dale looking at Laura. His reply came from another place.

“I think that we have another day before they get here. Some may already be here watching us and working out our weaknesses, but the main body of them will take at least another day.” Heads turned towards Michael’s impassive delivery.

“Thank you Michael. In that case, haste shall govern our preparations,” the history teacher replied to his once pupil.

Christmas Memories

Lovely, dark and deep.

Lucy’s Diary 22ndDecember 

Will everyday be like these? I sometimes wonder if we are meant to be living through or just suffering them.

Last night would have constituted one of the best of my life. ‘David’ who still likes to be known as Chris. I can’t help calling him David and it’s becoming a bit embarrassing. Anyway, last night was one of the first normal nights that the world has possibly seen since The Purge and Graham led a celebration for our deliverance. More importantly, Chris kissed me for the first time.

I know that it has been coming, right from the start the signs were evident, but it would have been magnificent if he had not seen ‘The Giant’, as he is now commonly known, snooping around in the grounds. That put a stop to the kissing and started that look again, the look that becomes increasingly unsettled and suspicious, the look he had been wearing when we first met. There is part of me that likes ‘the look’, it’s deeply handsome and mysterious, but then there is another part of me that feels uncomfortable when its appears. There is a story behind that look and I don’t think I want to ever know about it. The result of that was that David kept awake that night, all night, believing that I was asleep. He kept a watch for the thing that he had seen. As soon as it was first light, he was ready and out, I watched him from the window as he covered the area where he thought the thing had been. He found something alright, footprints, made by bare feet, and he followed them out of the grounds before turning back. I was fully dressed at this point, about to follow him.

When he returned to our room, the one in which we made a solemn promise not to share a bed, he told me all about what he had found and we went to Graham and Judith’s room to spread the glad tidings. Graham and Judith are good people and they are also good at meetings. I think they like meetings as a way of bringing about a democracy. Even in these times, they have held onto their principles and one of these must be to be completely upfront with all of the group around them. I think ‘upfront’ should be rationed out so that people don’t get it into their heads that ‘upfront’ means that they have the right to do exactly what they want to do. Louise, the woman with the baby, who wanted to execute Will, obviously thought that ‘upfront’ meant that she had a right to scaremonger and convince some of those closest to her that leaving was their only sensible option.

Graham, Judith and Mr. Dale, managed to quieten any mutiny and we were just drawing up plans against a possible attack when a car horn was sounded. Knowing that Louise’s group had taken a four by four, we thought that it must be them returning, but, at a sprint, Chris was up and running for the main entrance. Most people were too surprised to react as quickly and it took us some time to get to where he had headed. By the time we had gotten there a woman, who I had never seen before, was standing just inside the main doorway and she was holding a child in her arms, the baby that belonged to Louise. People were confused and some became a little angry, one woman who knew Louise well snatched the baby from the other woman’s arms and another asked viciously where she taken the baby from. Fortunately, before things could get any worse, Graham came to the front of the group, looked at the woman, called her Mrs. Andrews, and hugged her.

“This, ladies and gentlemen, is Chris’ mother.”

There were a few embarrassed apologies after that but I was busy seeing where Chris had gone. At that moment, Jason, a grey cloud covering him, came inside. Behind him came another woman and two children who were obviously brother and sister. The woman was being led along by the boy and she had the appearance of one of those people who have been confined to an institution for a long, long period. A little after that came Chris, helping to support a boy who was draped between him and another stranger. The stranger I had seen before, just when Will had fired that bullet at Chris’s head way back in the school woods. I remember thinking that he looked like Chris, but darker. That’s when I saw the Labrador and the cat (that had an ear missing). They just sat there on the top step watching the people who were gathering around the new arrivals. There was a strange wisdom about them that seemed more human than animal. All in all, this little group was another ingredient all together.

The questions were coming in waves and Jason started to look more and more like a man who could not face what had happened. Tears were in the backs of his eyes and the now familiar haunted look sat upon him. When he sat down to tell his story, we understood why.

Charles Manson, David Cassidy, the dying mouse, and me.

Re-writing The Past

As part of a generation that grew up within twenty-years of the end of the Second World War, I was always keen on weapons. Any decent human being would assume that the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Japan ought to have persuaded me of the error of our human ways, but it seemed to have the opposite effect.

A fascination for Spitfires consumed me and drove me into playing parachute games (obviously I did not have enough true belief in my aeronautical abilities). From there, my friends and I moved into the realms of Japs and Commandos. The Japs had been depicted as a race of people totally devoid of human empathy. They captured our brave soldiers and made them into slaves on the railway of death. The problem with our game was that all of us wanted to be commandos. Subtle selection strategies were required in order to have an even contest; in which the commandos always won.

The game involved an awful lot of running and hiding, finding and shooting, being found and escaping. It was just like the real thing that we had seen on countless films. We used sticks for guns and sticks for long Samurai swords.

Quite often, the battle would devolve into a medieval melee of hitting each other as hard as we could with said sticks. There was the Chinese Strangulation which was a way of subduing captives. This was an extremely effective method of inflicting the best type of pain; the slow-burn oxygen deficiency method. That way, you knew who had won. The second form of torture was the Indian Wrist-Burn. This involved placing your hands on your enemy’s wrist and then quickly rotating them in opposite directions. It had the exquisite inbuilt reminder of its execution with the angry red mark that refused to shift for days.

Those were the days of innocence, before we moved onto imitation plastic rifles, botched affairs that only vaguely looked like the real thing, but with our ‘dak, a dak, dak!’ it was enough to convince us of their potency.  Hand-grenades were invisible and exploded exactly where you wanted them to. All you had to do was to make a big boom sound, cover your ears and then throw yourself to the ground. If only all wars were so simple.

Things started to get more complicated from the moment that we started to grow up. One of our mates had an air-rifle bought as a Christmas present. He spent all that holiday practising on sparrows and robins. He even shot the cat. Our friend always seemed to be the one who got things first. He had one of the best bikes, he had golf clubs, he had a number of cricket bats, he had ridiculously bright blue eyes, he had a level of freedom that we longed for, he was a talented sportsman, and he shot Robins. He had everything that made him a top friend.

On some of our summer holiday excursions, he would take his air-rifle, slung in a purpose-made rifle bag, casually over his shoulder. At any point in our journey, he would swing it off his shoulder, unzip it and take aim at anything that dared to move. We were once walking along a path that ran beside a golf-course. We had been on this route many times before on ventures of golf ball discoveries. The golf balls often got lost in the rough and they were of sufficient value that we heard some other kids had set up a rather profitable little business finding them and then selling them back to the golfers. Sometimes the treasures would disappear mid-play only for them to be strangely reunited sometime later with their true owners, for a small fee. We also prized tees, but nobody thought that they would provide a realistic sell-back option.

It was a lazy afternoon and we were mooching along, dragging through the dog-end hours, kicking pine cones and providing accompanying commentary for the excellence of each strike. I measured a masterful strike and my pine-cone flew straight and long down the path. When it finally rolled to a halt, I provided the commentator’s awe-struck admiration.

“It’s Best! What a goal! What a strike! What a player!”

My arms shot into the air in a triumphant reaching for the skies and I raced off down the shaded path to acclaim my glorious feat. I almost slipped on the badly wounded body of a mouse.

The mouse wasn’t dead, but it was dying. In such an event, we should have done the merciful thing and caved its head in with a brick. There were no bricks to hand. We could have stamped on it head with the heels of our shoes, but none of us wanted to be seen as the heartless perpetrator of such a heinous act. Instead, we turned to our rifle toting friend to provide the humane solution. He, however, never saw himself as one who would administer the coup de grace nor was he one to pass up the opportunity of a real-life kill. He was a sportsman and would execute his task in a manner befitting such a regal profession. He walked up to the soon to be corpse, turned and took thirty strides, checked the direction of the wind, took his rifle out, loaded it, knelt and took aim. We were in awe.

After he missed for the third time, he changed his tactics. He strode forward another five paces, loaded, knelt and was about to take aim when he realised that he had forgotten to double-check the strength and direction of the prevailing wind on that most breathless of afternoons. Satisfied, he took aim and fired.

After another five pellets had missed their target, the rest of us thought to check upon the unfortunate creature. It still lived. Its tiny breaths evident in furry inhales and exhales. I was thinking about the heel of my shoe when my friend angrily strode past me and aimed a final pellet, at point-blank distance, into the belly of the beast. It lived no more.

As kills went, I suppose this counted for something, but there was no commentary this time and no overt display of triumph. We had killed a dying mouse. It had died. It would have died if my perfect kick of the pine-cone had not found it. We had had sport and now we were somewhat ashamed.

Our friend went on to kill many other tiny creatures, specialising in birds that frequented his garden. This went on until he discovered girls. After that, he hung up his trusty weapon for ever.

Sometimes it is good to hang up your guns. For one thing, you look silly when you’re older, toting an air-powered, pellet firing rifle. There is also the problem with killing defenceless little birds, tiny ones with redbreasts. Nobody wants to be seen in any social situation with a bird slaughtering psychopath. At some point, many boys give up their pursuit of prey and bloodlust for everyday distractions like life. But it all came back to me this week when the deaths of Charles Manson and David Cassidy were announced. I am too long in the tooth to cheer about the eventual demise of a cult-leading murderer whilst I am not too old to feel a spot of sadness for David Cassidy, my elder sister’s dream boat and reason for having a bedroom wall. I asked a woman who I work with if she was saddened by the death of David and she told me that she was a Donny Osmond fanatic. I accepted that and was instantly taken back to my last adventure with an airgun.

Some years ago, in a land far away, in a kingdom of grey cold, lived me. Another friend of mine lived around the corner. We were both at Sixth Form and the Punk era was well and truly upon us. So, in a situation like that, what would any decent human being do if they discovered a Jimmy Osmond single in their collection? It was obvious. We decided to put it on trial for crimes against humanity.

“Jimmy Osmond, you have been tried and found guilty of unleashing your ‘Long-haired Lover From Liverpool’ without care or regret as to the damage that you have wreaked. And, as you have since shown no remorse, this court finds you guilty. You are to be taken from here immediately and be shot until you are dead.”

And so it came to pass that the said 45 was taken from the kitchen of a council house overlooking the industrial greyness of West Yorkshire and shot to pieces by two rather judgemental youths with an air rifle.

images-141

Since that day, I have vowed never to touch one of those instruments of death ever again.

Crows On Poles

Beginning to get the message.

Michael had been navigating using the road map they always carried in the boot of the car. Occasionally, ‘the mother’ would shout out contradictory directions and always, Michael followed hers. They were getting closer and the closer they got, the heavier their forebodings became. They had not seen any signs of the leathers for some miles but had seen some huge gatherings of crows and ravens. They blotted in the air, a warning of something past or yet to come.

When they reached a small T junction, Mother and son were amazed to see the fresh tyre tracks lining the surface. A sign told them that the village of  Hepley was just one and a half miles away whilst the one pointing to the right indicated that Ravenshead was another ten. 

“I have a feeling,” Laura said, “I have the strangest feeling that the people who were in that car are now in danger.”

“I do too mum. Look over there.”

Laura followed her son’s finger and saw a huge swarm of large black birds circling and falling to the earth. They had found something. Laura swung Brian’s wheel to the right knowing that it could be a costly mistake. 

They travelled on for maybe a mile and then found the place where the car had left the road, Manic skid marks led to the gaping wound in a wall. Some of the stones were marked with paint that had been scraped off and the ground showed evidence of the crash with shards of glass, body trimming and part of a bumper testimony to the event. Brian was eased to a halt.

“Looks like they crashed through there. By the size of the tracks, it was a big vehicle,” surmised Michael.

Laura nodded without saying anything. She was more interested in the other tracks that emerged from the stand of trees to her left and disappeared through the gap in the wall. She counted about twelve pairs, but she could not be sure. There was a muttered, “No,” from ‘the mother’.

“Have you seen the footprints Michael?”

Michael had just noticed them and recognised what they were.

“Looks like our friends ran into some of the leathers. Be careful.”

Michael did not need to be told to be careful as he was already out of the car, walking over towards where the strangers vehicle had smashed through the wall. When he got there, he peered down the sharp slope, through the trees where a path had been bulldozed by the vehicle that was lying jammed between the banks of a stream whose waters were rushing in through the open doors and above the level of the seats. From here, he could see that the driver’s seat was empty, the door flung open, hanging askew from only one hinge.

“There’s a car down there but there doesn’t seem to be anybody in it. I’m going to check. Mum, keep a look out for anything suspicious.”

For Laura, it was all suspicious but she knew what he meant. She climbed out of the car leaving the keys engaged in the ignition. There was no sound coming from the nearby trees, no birdsong or anything, and this was more unnerving than the obvious signs of leathers, for Laura could see numerous rooks and crows sitting on the branches of the trees from which the things must have emerged.

Michael descended the slope quickly using broken trunks and branches for support. He slipped couple of times but was able to correct this with the aid of the surrounding foliage. When he reached the banks of the stream that was flowing at a furious rate, he understood fully what had occurred. He stepped in the icy flow and stepped carefully towards the open driver’s door. Once there, he noticed the marks left behind by a copious outpouring of blood. With this amount of blood loss, he could not imagine anybody surviving for long, especially not in these conditions.

The passenger door to the front and rear were hanging open too. Scattered on the back seats were sleeping bags, rucksacks and food. Whoever was in this vehicle left in a hurry, leaving behind all those things that were essential for short-term survival. Michael was sure that at least one of the travellers had not survived the initial accident whist the others, well anything might have happened to them.

“Michael,” it was his mother calling from above, “are you alright down there? Have you found anyone?”

“No. Just a car and there’s nobody in it.”

“Come back up then, I don’t like this.”

Michael did not like it either. Touching the car had been like touching a freshly dug grave. He started back up the slope, this time using the branches even more to aid his ascent.

“Let’s get going,” he said when he was back in the car. “Turn the car around and head back the way we came. I think some of them have already arrived and they’ve started the job a little earlier than planned. Laura drove on a little way to a wider stretch of the road and did a 180 degree turn. As they drove slowly past the scene of the accident, Laura internalised a prayer for the people who had been in the car. 

They moved with a little more speed than was wise. Anyway, there were definite signs of a thaw arriving. Run-off water was growing in volume and beginning to wash away some of the snow. There was a suggestion of sunshine from the east that brought some relief to their artic states.

‘The mother’ was mumbling again, speaking words and half words that nobody understood. Regardless of the words being so foreign to the ears of Michael and his mother, her children seemed to understand what she was saying. They, Rachel and Joshua, were holding her as she mumbled in something that was not English.

“She wants you to stop the car,” translated Rachel. “She says there are some people in great danger.”

Laura eased back on the accelerator and changed gears rather than braking. Brian pulled safely to a stop. Everything was still. Then some more mumblings.

“She says they are coming over the hill,” added Rachel pointing to a slope on their right. 

Their heads swung around and surveyed the pristine covering of snow seconds before a head, caught the morning sun, showed itself.

No double-take was necessary as Michael and Laura sprang from Brian’s warm interior. Michael was quickly over the roadside wall and striding up the hill. His mother was behind him, unable to keep up, yet still scouring the hilltop for signs of leathers. She was not to be disappointed. Some forty yards behind the first figure was a pack of leathers moving in the relentless manner, loping strides eating up the ground, that they were to become accustomed to.

“Michael, there are leathers. Take care.”

This was the second time she had urged caution and he was not about to ignore it. He looked up the hillside and noted that the first figure stumbling down the hill was carrying something, a bundle wrapped up in their arms. It was obviously heavy because the strain of it was evident even from this distance. Then the figure tripped, fell face forward and dropped the bundle so that it skidded in front of them, sliding along the snow on its own.

The Leathers proceeded without breaking stride, their progress cutting the space between them and their prey. Michael broke into a sprint that surprised him. He reached the bundle just before the figure had raised itself to its feet. The tiniest cry escaped the bundle, a cry that could only belong to a baby or small child. He knelt and picked it up only to have it knocked from his grasp by the person who had been carrying it. The bundle fell on the soft snow once more and Michael had the air punched out of him. He went down as if hit by a train.

The impact must have been forceful as it also took the breath away from the assailant as well. Valuable seconds rolled by with Michael and his attacker on the ground. For the first time, Michael was able to see firmly into the eyes of the other and he saw naked fear.

“It’s okay, we’ve come to help.”

Gasping for breath, the other nodded as best he could. Michael thought he seemed on the edge of collapse.

“I’ll carry the baby. You just run.”

The footsteps were almost upon them as they raised themselves to their feet and then into a semblance of a run. Laura had reached them and was able to offer support to the person who had been carrying the child. 

When they eventually reached the safety of Brian, they pushed the fugitive into the back, a space rapidly created by the mother and her children. Michael sat in the front with the baby and Laura pressed down firmly on the accelerator. As they pulled away, Michael noticed that the group of leathers were having some trouble surmounting the wall.