They were two big men who knew everything about the most important things in the boy’s life: guns and women. His father knew only books, did not understand anyone having the desire to destroy something they were incapable of creating, and had been cuckolded by his wife, the boy’s mother. But worst of all, six months after she’d finally left him, he announced that his wife was returning. “She’s been let down,” he said. Then, to Kevin’s disgust, used him as the main reason: “She is your mother,” he bleated, “I have to take her back for your sake alone.”
“She wants a good slapping,” Mick said.
“No real man takes a woman back who’s done the dirty deed,” Andy assured him.
Kevin was sitting in the dunes with them waiting for the tide to pour over the expanse of sandbanks, mudflats and gullies so they could run the skimming net along its edge for the flatfish, crabs and shrimp. “Second highest rise and fall of water in the world,” Andy told him again. Kevin imagined it must be some consolation for this moonscape of always glistening silt, the small strip of sand with, just below its surface, a treachery of shifting mudbanks and the graveyard of abandoned cars, rusting and sinking to mark its subterranean movements. The sea was going to be freezing and both men would take turns at making a scissor shape out of the rough-hewn poles with the net fixed between them and then shoving it through the water. On the bottom of each pole there was a horn from a huge bull of some kind. They were turned upwards and acted as runners to help the net slide along. Even so, to move it empty on the moist sand was beyond Kevin’s strength; to do it full of silt-heavy water and fish and against the pull of this tide, beyond his imagination. Mick and Andy could plough it along so fast Kevin could hardly keep up just carrying a bucket to gather the catch at each pause. Kevin was amazed that neither of them felt the cold. They stripped off to their underpants and did not bother to put anything back on even during a break.
The two men had been born in the same village, gone to school together, and both now ran their own small businesses nearby. Neither of them had ever been away from the place and saw no reason why anyone would want to. The only differences between them was that Mick was fair-haired, handsome, married to a tall, elegant blonde and had no children; Andy was dark, matted in hair and married to a short fat woman and had four children. Kevin also knew that Mick did not care for him and seemed jealous of the fact that he was being included more and more, by Andy’s invitation in their activities, especially since his mother had left. Though the shooting trips were still private.
They held the shooting rights on a promontory that ended a long hill range by suddenly dipping whale-backed into the sea they were now fishing. Kevin longed to be allowed to accompany them. “Too dangerous,” Mick stated every time he asked them. “The cliffs are over three-hundred-feet high in places; dropping straight into the sea with no fences to stop you falling. There are old shafts and flooded mines hidden in bracken, a wind that can sweep a man away with a sigh.”
Kevin had tried at first to convince himself that there was no pleasure in Mick’s refusals, or exaggerations, just concern.
Now he’d told them that his mother was coming back. The shame of it burnt inside and he dreaded their opinion. But they would see her anyway, if not arriving home with his father struggling to carry her bags from the car to their house, (Andy lived in the same row of terraced cottages) then later, as she put in an appearance at the village store buying up tins or something else instant and easy for their meal.
“She’s a good-looking woman, though,” Andy said, beginning to peel off his clothes. “You can’t blame your father for marrying her in the first place.” And Kevin saw a look pass between the two men. He’d seen it from too many men before and knew if his mother had been present she would have responded with delight.
Kevin had been spending nearly every evening around Andy’s house, sharing in the family meals and staying long after their children had gone to bed. He’d forced himself to deny any guilt he felt that his father was alone a few doors away. Besides, there was no comfort sitting with him and hearing him blame himself for everything that had occurred, then scolding Kevin if he dared voice any criticism about his mother. Also, he enjoyed the care and sympathy Andy’s wife, Jane, showed him. Kevin knew she was disgusted that he’d been abandoned. Now his main concern was that they might stop making him so welcome.
“She’ll be at it again.” Mick stated. “Once they get a taste for roaming, they never stop.”
“Keep them half-starved and poorly shod,” Andy told the boy, “and they’ll not wander far.”
The bull’s horns began to cut two furrows on the surface, charging across the gray shallows as if the water had aroused the ghost of the creature. Kevin watched as Andy struggled to break its spirit again and force it under the surface. It appeared to him like a scene from mythology and filled him with pride as his hero slayed the Minotaur.
“Why don’t you give her a good slap?” Kevin asked his father. He had just finished helping prepare the spare bedroom, getting it ready for her return. It made him shudder to see the way his father was fussing over hanging curtains and placing and smoothing out a pale cream bedspread over the single bed. “This is going to be your mother’s room,” he had told Kevin. “We better make sure we get it looking pretty for her.”
Kevin wanted to say that the last time he had seen his pretty mother she’d been arm in arm with some rough-looking man staggering towards the beach. She’d stared glassy-eyed right through Kevin and been unable to keep her hands off the man. Instead, he decided to offer his father some of Mick and Andy’s wisdom.
“I’ve never laid a hand on you or your mother,” his father replied. “You cannot beat respect or love into anyone.”
Kevin could remember getting smacked across the face by a science teacher at his previous school. When he’d returned home the marks had still been smarting and impossible to hide. His mother went mad while his father seemed unconcerned. The next day, in the middle of the science lesson, his father walked in. He had made that teacher look and sound pathetic without raising his voice or hand.
” As a scientist, do you not believe in proof and reactions?” he’d asked. “You are proving to these students that you are too stupid to control or interest them with anything from your brain, and the answer to that problem is solved through the use of violence and brute force. Where exactly do you conclude any positive reaction to this experiment will lead these people?”
The class cheered and Kevin had been glad to join in. Now he saw only the weakness and impotence behind all this talk-talk.
Kevin was deliberately not at home when his mother arrived. He slipped in later and could hear the drone of their voices from upstairs. When they came down she embraced him and, for one perfect moment, it felt safe again and as if nothing had really happened or changed. Then he saw that her eyes were red with tiredness and he could smell cigarette smoke on her though she was supposed to have given that up years ago.
“I’m going to Andy’s,” he said.
“But,” she simpered, “you’ve not eaten. I was going to cook us all something nice.”
“I‘ll eat round there,” Kevin said. The hurt look on her face, then his father’s, was all the food he wanted.
The gun was the most beautiful object he’d ever seen. Andy swung it up to his shoulder a couple of times, then opened the barrels and squinted down them, before closing it and testing it for tightness.
“I’ll buy it off you,” Andy said to Mick who’d just brought the gun in for him to see. “I’ll double your money.”
Kevin watched in disappointment as Mick took the gun back and grinned. “No way is that gun going anywhere but with me,” he stated.
Mick told them he’d found it at an old farm auction. It had been filthy with the barrels painted in old, black tar. No one else had even bothered to bid for it. But he’d known and had worked on it for the last three weeks. “Solidly,” he claimed, “every single night to get it like this.”
The stock was highly-figured walnut, swirling and deep with colours running from orange to black. The barrels were brown Damascus steel with each intricate inlay fresh and alive. Inside, according to Andy, they were spotless. The two hammers and the rest of the action were silver and engraved with delicate flowers and leaves.
Kevin wanted to ask if he could handle it and he knew Mick was going to refuse, but at that moment his wife, Cara, came walking in with Jane. As always, when she was around, Andy started showing off; and Mick tried to appear interested in the children – Kevin included. Kevin took full advantage by begging to hold the gun. He also looked at Cara as Mick reluctantly handed it over. As well as being stunning, she was very sophisticated and classy. He tried not to imagine what a woman like this would think of his mother.
“Right,” Cara said, “let’s get going or we will be late again.”
Kevin handed the gun back to Mick. “We’ll test it out Saturday night,” Mick said to Andy.
“It’s going to be a good night for it,” Andy told him: “dark and wild with no moon.”
They were all, except for Kevin, standing and pausing by the door.
“Can I go with you?” Kevin asked loudly. “I could really do with getting out of our house Saturday night.”
Everyone looked down at him, even Mick, with what he hoped was pity.
“Of course they’ll take you,” Cara assured him. “And Mick will make sure you are safe.”
After they left, both Andy and Jane wanted to know all about the return of his mother. Kevin made it sound as bad as possible. He was determined that nothing was going to prevent him from going with the men on Saturday. He did not, however, tell them about the single bed and was even happy to go along with Andy’s second honeymoon gibes. Though it made him vaguely aware of the spaces that lay between his parents and sense something of their sorrow.
The first animal that Kevin saw killed was a rabbit: running in the spotlight one moment, the next lying sideways on the silver grass, its fur strangely full of smoke even before the bang of the gun had deafened him and he was left standing as the two men took off at a sprint towards its body. By the time he caught them up Andy had the dead creature in his hand.
It was his job to shoulder the game bag – a large, green canvas sack with the name of the newspaper it was meant to carry, fading but still readable. Andy and Mick were taking turns shooting and operating the light. Kevin had been told not to speak, as the human voice was a stranger here and would betray their presence. The wind was strong and seemed greedy for even their breath. It drove the sea against the cliffs and the ancient mound trembled under their feet. Kevin took the rabbit off Andy; he felt its weight, warmth and softness, followed by something sticky on his hand. He shoved it into the bag and fought to keep his excitement quiet.
They had shot thirteen rabbits by the time they got to the end of the promontory. The weight of the bag was cutting into his shoulders and he had staggered and fallen twice. One time it had been very near to some folds of rock that, even in the darkness, gleamed all the way to the water below. Nothing would stop a person from sliding down into its icy embrace if they got started. He could not imagine anyone in his life until now allowing him to get within a mile of the edge of this place. Mick just called him a clumsy fool and Andy told him to be careful, otherwise he was going to bruise and ruin the flesh of the rabbits. Now both men were having a smoke in an old gun turret they’d reached by crossing a narrow bridge over a ravine that cut this point off from the rest of the land.
As Kevin tried to concentrate on them talking about what a good killer this gun was, and the hard hitting pattern it threw, all he really heard was the water rising higher and higher under the bridge, which was no more than a couple of railway sleepers laid at a sloping angle and balanced on uneven rocks. It had moved as they crossed, the water sounding deep and fast a short way below. Kevin found it frightening to be this close to the point where the land dipped into the sea. He was already dreading the crossing back and wished the men would hurry up. The empty room was cold and had clumps of seaweed jammed in corners and hanging from steel girders above. The air was full of the stink of urine and smoke. Someone had painted a pornographic picture of a man with a huge penis mounting a woman from behind. Even that did not distract Kevin from watching the sea rushing towards them.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” Mick asked.
“I’m not sure,” Andy said. “Sometimes I get the feeling we are not alone, that there is someone watching us.”
Both men were looking out to sea.
“I know there are ghosts,” Mick said, “and they are lurking around, waiting for us to make a mistake, so that they can take pleasure in no longer being alive and having to go through all the pain.”
Kevin’s father had told him many times, when he asked if he could have the light left on at night, that there were no such things as ghosts and the people who saw them were weak and afraid. He wished that his father could be in this dangerous place hearing these real men confirming what he’d always sensed.
He was about to tell them that he believed in ghosts when he saw something dark swirl over the flat bridge. He leapt up and stared back.
“The water is over the bridge,” he screamed. “It’s cutting us off.”
“Bloody hell,” Mick said, springing to his feet. “He nearly made me jump out of my skin hollering out like that. Silly little fucker’s scared every rabbit for a mile I should think. I don’t know why you brought him.”
They tramped back across the bridge with the cold heavy water rushing over their feet and trying, Kevin thought – his fear still stronger than his feeling of embarrassment at what Mick had just said – to sweep them away.
“This,” said Andy, putting his hand reassuringly on Kevin’s shoulder, “is the worst tide in the world for sneaking up on you.”
It was the early hours of the morning by the time he crept up the stairs to bed. His nose was still full of the bitter smell from paunching the rabbits; the sound of the cheap, old, kitchen knife entering then ripping, before the rabbit’s insides were slopped onto the sea grass below, had been louder than all the gunshots combined. Kevin looked at his face in the bathroom mirror, bits of fur and smears of blood covered his skin. He heard a bed move and then a groan or word. It was his mother’s voice and the noise had come, as he’d expected, from her own room. The smug smile he could not stop appeared grotesque behind this mask of death and he skulked off to his bed.
On his third trip to the promontory, Kevin shot his first rabbit. It was one of those that froze and cowered in the light’s bright beam; but he did not kill it cleanly and it began to drag itself towards the safety of the buckthorn. Mick chased after it trying to keep the light as steady as possible but still managing to imbue the scene with a strobe-like quality. Andy crashed through the darkness to cut it off from the hedge. Though Kevin was desperate for his first kill, he wished it could have been outright, with a clean shot as it had raced away. He did not even want to picture what his father would think of this moment: three men with a gun and blinding light against a hurt and petrified little animal that was still alive, struggling to survive. Andy scooped it up and holding its back legs gave its neck a long stretch. Even then it kicked and flayed until the man looked puzzled and gave it another pull.
They both congratulated Kevin, but he was glad that the gun was taken off him quickly and he went back to the game bag. Andy told him that they would have that rabbit for tomorrow’s dinner. Kevin was not allowed to take any rabbits home anymore. He’d left two on the kitchen counter after the first shoot and been woken by screams and shouting. Kevin had forgotten all about them and was made to go downstairs still undressed and carry the cold and stiff rabbits out to the dustbin.
Later, his father told him he could never bring anymore home. “If you had skinned and jointed them,” he said, “maybe even gone to the trouble of trying to make a family meal out of the rabbits. But to have left them there cut open with their heads and fur still on! Can you imagine what it was like for your mother to find them?”
“Nothing would have made any difference to her,” Kevin said. He’d felt them both standing at the kitchen window looking out as he dropped the carcasses into the trash. They were close together and he guessed that they might even be holding hands or touching under the counter, pleased with how they’d just dealt with him. He was disgusted as he saw the rabbits’s bodies, stiffly side by side, with wounds gaping and announcing their death a waste through his parents’s games.
A week later he went shooting alone with Andy. Mick was supposed to be coming but had not turned up. “Why don’t we call round for him?” Kevin asked, dreading it might be because he’d been invited once more.
“I don’t think that would be such a great idea,” Andy said, giving Jane a strange look and getting his gun from its cabinet.
Kevin was delighted and shared the gun and spotlight equally with Andy. “Mick has missed a good night,” he said to Andy as they took a rest in the turret with the tide a long way out.
Andy drew on his cigarette and looked first at the graffiti then at Kevin, “Did I see your mother all dressed up and going out last night?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Kevin admitted, “the old man’s letting her roam again.”
“These weak men and their fucking women,” Andy said, throwing the cigarette away, then snapping the gun together with a flick of his wrist – something he had once told Kevin was okay in cowboy films but nowhere else.
The start of the wildfowling season had nearly arrived. Andy had told Kevin that this was the greatest form of shooting. Widgeon and teal moving at incredible speed above the spray of salt to test your ability; the sound and power of geese in flight offering the ultimate challenge and prize.
“Do you think Mick will be free for the opening day?” Kevin asked.
Andy had told him the last time they shot together, again without Mick, that he was too busy trying to get Cara pregnant and doing up a nursery in case he managed it. He’d sounded angry and Kevin had known to keep quiet.
“Too wrapped up in wallpaper again I’m told,” Andy said.
“Or maybe learning to be a little less selfish at long last,” Jane said.
It was the first time that Kevin had heard her say anything that sounded even slightly contradictory to her husband’s will or opinion. He waited for Andy to put her in her place and was surprised when there was no response.
“I wonder if Mick would sell that gun now, if he’s not going to use it anymore?” Kevin asked, needing to break the silence.
“It’s broken,” Andy said flatly, “I meant to tell you but forgot.”
Kevin thought back to the feel of the gun, how balanced and beautiful it had been. “What happened?” he demanded.
“Cara was in a play with her amateur dramatics and they needed a gunshot. Mick lent them the gun to shoot some blanks and on one night it never went off so the man banged the stock on the stage to make the noise and it broke.”
“That could be repaired,” Kevin said.
“Mick threw it away. So end of story.”
“I don’t believe a word of it,” Kevin said getting to his feet. “It’s just another grown-up lying.”
Andy looked as if he agreed, but once again said nothing.
The wildfowl shooting was every bit as good as Andy had claimed. They shot along the tide, then waded into the mud and pools to retrieve the duck. The geese came over one night just as they were getting ready to leave and the sound was so joyous and sad it made Kevin shiver. They were too high to try a shot, Andy said, even with the big magnum shotgun they had carried along as well. Kevin was glad, though he did not know why. Then his father told him that geese paired for life and asked him what he thought it must be like for the one left behind when their mate got killed. It angered Kevin and made him long to go and shoot one just to distance himself from more of his father’s weakness. Kevin had been trying at the time to make him understand how it was possible to love and respect something that you hunted. He’d been just about to react to this latest bit of sentimental rubbish by saying if that was the case he’d make sure he always shot the couple, when a woman started screaming from the track that ran past the front of the cottages. Both of them rushed to the large bay window.
Jane had most of her dress torn off her shoulders. Andy had hold of her hair and was starting to drag her back into their home. At least two of the children were huddled together outside watching. Jane screamed again and tried to break free. Andy raked a hand across her front pulling her bra up round her neck. Jane had massive white floppy breasts and Kevin watched as she put both hands up to hide them and allowed herself to be dragged backwards like some reluctant dog.
“Go and save her,” Kevin cried out to his father. He felt scared and shocked.
His father stepped out as Kevin saw Jane disappear into the cottage and the door slammed. A second later his father returned and closed their door quietly.
“Why don’t you go round and make sure she’s not being hurt?” Kevin asked him. “She may need help.”
“It is a difficult thing to do,” he said without meeting Kevin’s eyes, “to interfere with a husband and wife; or to know what is happening in the labyrinth of their lives.”
Kevin stayed away from Andy’s for over a week before he finally judged it safe to go back. It was as if nothing had happened. He thought he could detect what may have been fading bruises on Jane’s skin and there was a look in her eyes that seemed cunning and pleased about something.
The next time they shot together Andy did mention it, “Some women,” he told Kevin, “like a bit of the rough stuff. It makes them feel more wanted.”
Kevin tried to smile. The tide was a way out and they were going to have to wait for a while. He wanted to sound worldly and said that he knew and began to invent a story about a girl at school who was just that way. The shock he had felt that day was still fresh and disturbing and yet, Jane was with Andy. She had not left him, she was not sneaking off behind his back. Kevin managed to shoot his first duck that evening and the geese came over lower and louder.
They shot on the promontory twice during the week and both times when Kevin got home he stood outside his father’s bedroom listening to see if his mother was in there. Something inside of him wanted to hear them together, but there was only ever silence. As he listened for the slightest sound a terrible thought came to him: his father was punishing her, making her pay; and would go on doing so forever. Kevin glimpsed a more brutal revenge than any slap could deliver and wanted to go and sit on her bed and say that he forgave her but could not find the strength.
Andy left him on his own just as the first of the winter high tides had turned. “Have the last couple of hours by yourself,” he said without any warning, “it will be good for your concentration. I’ll expect a brace of ducks and a clean gun tomorrow.”
Kevin did not have time to argue and he watched as Andy hurried away across the moist, unmarked sand with the magnum shotgun still out of its bag. He took a few desperate shots at some high speed widgeon and imagined that he might even have hit one.
On their next trip Andy did the same thing. Slipping off as soon as the tide had turned. “You are going to wear that gun away,” he joked as Kevin carried it back the next day, cleaned and polished until it gleamed. He stopped Kevin at the door. “Best not come in,” he said, “Jane’s unwell. Woman’s trouble, you know.”
One of the highest tides of the year was due. The perfect evening for geese. It would fall on the best part of the day and Kevin could hardly wait. He managed to miss the first school bus and by the time he got home Andy was already outside his house with waders on and two guns and game bags by his feet.
“Hurry up and get changed,” he yelled, “or we’re going to miss all the sport.”
Kevin’s mother was out and his father not due back from work for some time. He scribbled a note on a scrap of paper: ‘Gone to get Mr. and Mrs. Goose’.
They crossed the mudflats, nearly to the estuary river that was no more than a trickle, shimmering as it drained into the distant tide. “You wait here with the big gun until the sea reaches the river, then keep ahead of the tide all the way in until you get that first goose.”
Kevin realized that he was being left – and that this time there was some deception taking place. He looked down at the game bag, the flask and containers of food Andy had probably made Jane prepare. He watched the man slouching away and wished he had not left that message at home for his father to find. Also, something his mother had asked him came back. “Whose is that posh car that arrives at Andy’s whenever your big friend takes you off to kill something else?”
His father had given her an angry look. Kevin had shrugged and tried to dismis any doubts her words caused.
“Still,” she’d continued. “I expect she’s glad of the company.”
The small stream of metallic-looking water deep in its sloping banks seemed to pause for a moment, then stop. A series of small waves began to flow in the opposite direction to the current. A tidal bore rolled inwards and the stream became a river, then a lake, suddenly lapping at his feet. He gathered up all the equipment and began moving away.
The first ducks flew past, but, by the time he’d managed to put everything back down, they were well out of sight. He got set up on one of the high sandbanks. It seemed to him like a good place and might give him the chance of a few shots before being forced into moving.
The light was beginning to fade and a slight sea mist was forming. He got down as low as he could and waited. He could not drive the question out of his mind as to what Andy was doing at this moment. A flock of geese were suddenly upon him, low and powering along. He fired both barrels into them and heard a cry followed by something crashing to the ground. The recoil of the magnum had surprised him and he staggered slightly as he ran towards the downed goose, loading the gun as he went. The bird stood looking at him as if it had just landed naturally and he had come upon it by chance. Then it took off, flapping its one good wing impotently as the other dragged in the mud. Kevin fired and saw the silt behind it explode. He shot again and the goose rolled over. As he got close it began struggling once again. He reloaded and, at almost point-blank range, shot it twice. Overhead he heard the cries of the other geese fading away.
Kevin picked up the bird. It looked terrible, covered in mud and blood with bits of bone and flesh protruding through its down. But it was a goose. He could not wait to get home and show Andy. The thought of that, and the rush of adrenaline for the hunt, drove all the concern about what Andy might actually be doing from his mind.
He hurried to get the rest of the gear, but the mist had thickened into fog and he could no longer make out the sandbank or anything piled on it. He trudged in the direction he thought it should be, then turned and turned again. The sea began licking at his feet and he knew it was hopeless. He was still too excited about his kill to worry about how he was going to explain the missing equipment.
Kevin moved away from the incoming tide and headed for the dunes. After a short while he began to walk into water. It must be a low spot he decided, a little pool or gully between some sandbanks that the tide had washed around and filled. In a minute, he assured himself, he would be through it and onto the dry sand beyond. A wave slapped him backwards and soaked him up to his crutch. Kevin knew then that he was going in the wrong direction. Somehow, he’d become disorientated and merely had to turn 180 degrees to get back on the right track. It was just that he getting so very cold. When the next wave hit him – again from the front – the panic that had been steadily building took over completely.
Kevin began splashing around. The water was never lower now than above his knees and a step in whatever direction just took him deeper. The fog had become thicker and the goose was getting heavier, as was the gun. A stench of the raw sewage, cloying in the fog and sea, was stirred by every movement. His feet slipped as a large wave hit him from the side and he went under. He dropped the gun and bird and started flailingh to get himself upright, before stumbling onto a higher, harder bit of bank and regaining his balance. His breath came back but it took gasp after gasp to clear his lungs. Something was pounding inside his head, a hollow boom boom boom like the knelling of a drowned bell. Then, as he stood shivering and resigned to joining its congregation, he heard the first shot.
He quickly faced the direction it had come from. He judged it out to sea but took a step towards it before pausing and doubting. It might have been from a ship; in fact, it hadn’t really sounded like the report of a shotgun and the water was getting deeper. Then it came again. A thin crack of hope, calling him. He moved strongly. The sea began to shallow. The gun went off again. He knew it was Andy come rushing to the shore to guide him in. The lightness of the sound was down to the density of the atmosphere. Andy would have seen the fog creeping in, known its implications, and regardless of what was happening, come to his rescue. Kevin’s feet began to break the surface and he knew he was safe. The gun went off again and Kevin called, “Andy, I’m here.” The last of the sediment-heavy water hissed behind his heels as he began to run to the faint silhouette of dunes. A short way on, the difuse outline of a figure stood waiting.
“I nearly drowned,” Kevin began to explain before reaching him. “I lost your gun, Andy. A wave hit me over, but I know my dad will buy you a new one.”
“Don’t worry, Kevin.”
Kevin stared at his father; he recognized the replica pistol he was holding – it had been confiscated off him years before for pointing it at his mother.
“And I’m afraid that after what’s happened today the last thing your friend is going to be worried about for a long time is another gun.”
Kevin felt something colder than the sea move through him. He reached his hand out and, without asking, the pistol was handed over. He threw it out into the mist as high and far as he was able, waiting to hear if it landed in the water, but hearing instead the unanswered call of a lone goose behind him. He hurried to catch up with his father, desperate to see his mother and praying there would be time for him to make amends.