The keeper collected Paul at the train station at 8.30 on a late October morning. Paul didn’t see him at first but then a man came forward and offered a limp hand. His hair was light brown and he wore a wax jacket of the same indistinct shade. They climbed into his muddy Land Rover. He spoke in a mild, offhand manner so that Paul had to lean sideways over the roar of the engine to catch his words. Certainly not the brogue he’d associated with Scots; the keeper’s voice was a watered down version of a BBC radio announcer.
‘Your brother’s probably told you that we’re an established shoot. One hundred fifty to three hundred bird days in good shooting company. Meals at the house. The pheasant and partridge are fine quality and there’re plenty of them. You’ve not been on a shoot before? Jeff says you’re a crack shot. And he’s the best American client we’ve got.’ He glanced at Paul, then back at the motorway that would take them to the Borders south of Edinburgh. Paul nodded. Yes, he’d set a new record for marksmanship on the target range this year. And he was state of Virginia’s top archer, though he didn’t mention this.
The sweeping hills on both sides of the road were treeless, speckled with white dots of sheep. Wisps of cloud kited across a pale sky. A perfect hunter’s backdrop. And his prey would move – he wouldn’t be aiming at fixed targets like those on the shooting range at home. Scotland’s moors would offer different scenery, too, and a climate cooler than autumn in Virginia.
The keeper turned off the motorway and the vehicle jounced along rough, C roads to a collection of small buildings squatting in a glen. As they drove up to the Edwardian manor house Paul saw that members of a shooting party had gathered on the front porch. He took his roller bag out of the boot and followed the keeper to the house, where he parked it against the wall. In a few minutes, six guns, including Paul stood in a circle, drinking coffee provided by the keeper’s wife. Beneath their plus fours several men sported thick yellow or green woollen socks with bifurcated flashes at the turn down.
‘Meant to say at our post-mortem last evening that the beat through the rape field was my best this season. I bagged nine,’ a spectacled man with the long, baggy cheeks of a bloodhound was speaking. ‘Good shoot-to-kill ratio – five to one, I should think.’
‘Too w-w-windy for me, mate, the b-b-birds were wh-wh-whooshing past. Only brought down t-t-two on that drive,’ stuttered a tall, skinny man with ginger hair.
‘You just have to lead the bird more – remember, the higher up they are, the more you have to lead’em,’ offered a florid faced man who blinked continuously.
The keeper stepped forward, addressing them in his quiet voice:
‘Good morning, gentlemen. Our final day today. This is Paul. To replace his American brother, Jeff.’ When waved toward Paul the latter went around the circle, nodding and shaking hands. Those that offered hands in return, pressed gently. A self-effacing bunch, or maybe fishy handshakes are a British trait, Paul thought. The keeper handed Paul Jeff’s jacket, a heavy pouch and Jeff’s gun in a gun slip, then turned as his wife asked for a word.
Paul had booked his Scottish trip ages ago, to go hill walking with his brother. He’d planned to spend the first day touring Edinburgh, on his own. Then Jeff had messaged to say he’d need to miss the last day of his shooting party – why didn’t Paul take his place? Paul had balked at first – he’d never shot birds or any other game – why would a group of pros want him along? But Jeff, who’d been flying over for these shoots annually, had already arranged the swap with the keeper. Paul would be fine; he was an excellent marksman. Why turn down a great opportunity?
‘Archie here will tell you what you need to know.’ The keeper indicated a wiry-haired man to his right, while his wife collected empty coffee mugs. ‘He’ll watch your first couple of shoots – you’re new to us – safety precautions.’ He turned to address the group:
‘Rules, same as always. No ground game, avoid the hens and white pheasant – don’t want any bad luck, eh?’
He offered the men a choice of thin, white plastic sticks, fanned above a closed palm. When his turn came, Paul drew number four, which meant he would stand at a peg halfway around the circle of eight guns, Archie told him. Fine by him; Jeff had mentioned that a middle position is good because there are more possibilities overhead.
‘Right, we’ll walk to the first peg, then come back here to ride to the others,’ the keeper was saying. ‘Two shoots this morning, and another longer one this afternoon. You’ll walk for no more than 150 yards at the most, as always, heh!’ No physical exertion, no stalking, no need for concealment, Jeff had told him. It seemed true. Paul swung the gun and pouch over his shoulder as they filed down the front steps into a garden bordered by tawny forest. While others walked to their cars for weapons, Wellington boots and outdoor gear Paul checked the contents of Jeff’s pouch: a tweed cap, an ammunition belt and cartridges. The men returned, their voluminous pockets bulging with boxed cartridges.
Paul breathed in the mix of cut hay, trodden grass and manure as the keeper led them past the stables. They walked up a gentle incline, into a cooler, softer air than what Virginia offered in October. Daphne was asleep, mostly likely: they were five hours behind on the east coast. She had mentioned that her family was celebrating her mother’s birthday end of this month. She would be surrounded by the unruly brothers she’d grown up with. No matter that she was out of his life forever, Paul was thinking of that startling chemistry of rough and fine, old-fashioned and modern that was Daphne. She played forward in her all-women soccer team and had out footed him with ease whenever they messed around.
If they met for lunch in the square near her office he could always spot her straight away – the white of her linen blouse framed by her dark suit jacket. Close up, her porcelain face, the swathe of freckles across her nose, making her skin whiter still. Small, round, wire-framed glasses wrapped around her ears and combs held back her wilful dark curls. He had teased her about covering up in the sun – most girls went sleeveless at the faintest hint of spring. His own permanent tan came from years of archery practice.
‘I prefer white,’ she’d said. And besides, her skin didn’t tan like his; it burned and then freckles appeared and she didn’t need more. Daphne feared neither his teasing nor anything else, it seemed. She left food for Simon, a kitchen mouse. Once, when they were hiking, a snake had reared up. She had calmly skirted it and continued talking in her low voice.
He had been drawn to her in spite of himself, like his discovery that spinach tasted good. She talked sense, not girlie girl nonsense like others he’d been attracted to. Her tendency to dress more formally echoed his own. He wore khakis, not jeans: she was often the only girl in a skirt. And she’d been a formidable catch. She was busy, even two weeks in advance, when he first phoned. How could she be booked up like this? he’d asked, and got his comeuppance: ‘I’ll be honest, Paul, I’d prefer not to. But thank you.’ For a while he busied himself with Jane, his old standby whenever he needed a cuddle. But Paul pretty much got what he wanted in the female department. His looks didn’t hurt, either, he knew. This elusive quarry was a red flag to the bull. He devised clever ways of kindling Daphne’s fancy, even prompting friends to peddle his virtues if they spied Daphne at a party. And never flowers: he packed a new soccer ball into a hatbox and had it couriered to her office.
His story on postcards finally ignited her interest. In a rhyming poem on a series of postcards sent on consecutive days he described how he’d hooked a rainbow trout with his father’s fly rod. The fish had whipped this way and that to disengage from the barb that pierced its lip. Paul reeled it in slowly, slowly. Jeff had stood nearby, making unhelpful ‘fish in distress’ noises.
‘Mmmph, oooh oowwwuch, get this sharpie outta me.’ Jeff’s high-pitched, breathy voice. ‘Oooh! it’s ruining my lips; I’ll never kiss again, mmmpph. I’ll need plastic surgery.’ Jeff had wiggled and squealed. With a final tug Paul flicked the silver-speckled trout from the water. It measured nearly a foot long and bent his rod almost in half. He levered the spinning, dripping fish nearer the bank until Jeff could grab it. Once he had put down his rod, Paul took the fish from Jeff while it fought, cold and slippery, in his hands. He eased the hook out of its lower lip and tossed it on top of the other fish in his wetted canvas bag: by far, the day’s prize catch. He and Jeff were tying new flies when his shiny trophy leapt out of the bag and disappeared into the rushing stream.
Daphne had been charmed, she confessed, when he called for what he expected would be another futile request for a date. A quick drink, she conceded. To his amazement, the drink turned into dinner, and dinner, into permission to see her regularly. Later, when an audience with his cagey nymph included weekends, he saw that she had pinned up his last postcard in her office:
Behind us the silver trout poked up his head
Then, seeing us busy, jumped from his bed.
With cartwheels and somersaults, his fury so keen
He whirled with defiance back into the stream
We stood with mouths open, too stunned to believe
That my hard won booty would now go scot-free.
Paul’s sketch at the bottom showed a speckled fish, winking as it arched gleefully from bucket to stream. Corny, foolish but somehow it had won her over. And why had she waited so long?
‘You are so cocksure, swaggering about like an arrogant Greek sun god. And there’s Jane,’ she confided in moment of post-coital confession. How did she know about his long, drawn out affair with Jane? Whom he’d split with, got back together with. Twice. Whom he’d almost married. They had mutual friends, she said demurely. Informants, he had scowled.
As they picked their way through thickly rutted mud to a western field Archie fell into step beside Paul.
‘I ken ye know’em but keeper says tae tell ye the ropes. Common sense, more like. ‘Dinnae point at a target that’s far off or ye won’t achieve a clean kill. And dinnae point when ‘e’s close; then the bird cannae be eaten. Dinnae shoot at a bird that would make a more sportin’ target for a neighbour – nae poor shots in this group. And safety rules, ken. We’ve a low rate of accidents here. Point only at the ground or high in the air. Dinnae carry the weapon across the body.’ His hand swept in front of his argyle sweater. ‘Between drives, breach open or unload. Unload tae cross a fence or a ditch, or if ye hand over. Dinnae fire in a direction tae worry a beater or a picker-upper. When the whistle blows, that’s us finished: unload.’
Paul nodded, dazed. He fingered the cartridge boxes in his pocket. Archie’s soft burr made the words sound foreign, though Paul had heard similar advice on the target range. The others talked behind them as they crossed the wet fields.
‘I know a bloke that loads an ounce and a half of number fours – they blow right through the bird and there’s only a few pellets to pick out.’
‘It’s a mistake to sh-sh-shshoot too fast – then you have to crank out a long one for the second shot,’ says ginger head.
‘Get a good bead and one good shot’ll make for a clean kill,’ says the first.
‘S’hard to do wh-wh-when all your mates have itchy fingers.’
The group arrived at the bottom of a long, gently sloping hill. A scraggle of trees and bushes made a frowsy pompadour at the apex. The man with the limp set up a canvas stool to the far left and perched as he unpacked his weapon. Archie had drawn the third peg position and set up ten feet from Paul. ‘Ear defenders.’ He looked over at Paul, who remembered that was what they called earplugs here. He nodded at Archie and stopped up his ears, then pulled Jeff’s tweed cap over his head. Soon the men were arranged in a crude semicircle of seventy feet. Whoops and calls in the woodland at the top of the rise announced that pheasant were being flushed by the beaters.
Paul’s fingers were trembling as he unpacked Jeff’s gun. He shrugged off his surprising jitters; a deep breath would sort him when it came time to point and fire. Archie had come over to show off his Purdey. The gun stock was inlaid with ivory and silver. ‘Used tae compete wi’ this – worth close to five grand. Bagged over two hundred birds up in Sutherland last season.’ Archie had opened the breach and begun to slide in the cartridges.
‘Remember, this isna like target shooting – you need tae swing through the bird and point in front o’ it – tae ken exactly where it’s going. When the shot explodes frae the barrel the tiny pellets inside travel along the arc tae your bird. By the time they near the target the pellets’re spread apart, ken. They make a target area about one metre in diameter. That way ye’ve got a fair chance o’ making a kill.’
Paul was grateful for the explanation. He gazed at the expanse of blue above. What would come onto the stage first?
The worn blue velvet of the train seat frames Daphne’s head. They sit together, facing forward in a deserted coach.
‘Maybe to you, I was a statue, virginal and chaste, that you could revere.’ Her words are slow and solemn, her eyes large, like those of a startled deer. But she isn’t looking at him, rather, staring straight ahead. ‘It was a grand chase. But when I stepped off my pedestal and you slept with me, then it was finished …the “would he get the girl?” thrill of it, gone. This last bit uttered in a bitter tone. ‘And I, I was wide open, completely vulnerable. I had begun to love you, with everything in me. In loving someone, you don’t think about safe. About trust.’
Daphne has asked him to accompany her on a three-hour train ride to see her sister in New York on a Saturday morning. First time they’ll meet since their break up a month earlier. She wants to talk, has something important to tell him. At Union Station in D.C. she hands him his paid ticket, tells him he can buy a return on an evening train. It will be a long day. He has an idea of what she will say. He doesn’t want to hear it. But the solemnity of her voice on the phone felt like a command and he had obeyed it. The train trundles through tunnels and minor stations on the city outskirts and then into open country, heading north. Outside the trees are scarved in summer’s dark green. As the train picks up speed their verdant foliage stretches into dark, horizontal blurs, sweeping away idle chatter. Daphne has taken a deep breath and begun to speak.
‘You said you didn’t think it was fair to stay with me – that I was 29, I should be free to get on with my life. You said you knew we could never be a long-term thing. And that was after nine months.’ Then, the bit about the statue and the chase. She speaks with a muted candour, like someone hypnotised, without energy, with resignation. Does she even know he sits beside her.
In a few minutes there was a cackle and a whack of wings. A first pheasant flew overhead, the sun flaming its spotted breast. He flew only as high as a two-storey building. Paul figured that these slow-flying birds were less vulnerable to hawks if they stayed close to ground cover. A dull crack from Archie’s gun interrupted the bird’s flight. Wings crumpled and it hurtled toward the ground, somersaulting over and over. When the body hit the grass, it bounced up, then down, then rolled over once, twice, until it lay on its side. The plump breast heaved below a green neck. The cock’s eye was a dark slit in the red badge of his face.
Soon there were more cackles and thumpings of wings: the birds were flying overhead in twos and threes, an iridescent russet illuminating their round bodies. With each new appearance came the dull kak, khadak of guns. And with each gun blast, the glorious arc of flight ceased, wings folded, a dark round shape spiralled downward. Paul pointed his gun at the sky. His finger hovered. He lowered the gun when he heard a neighbour shoot. Archie looked over, shouted:
‘What’s up, Sir? Cannae get a good bead?’
Paul flushed and pointed his gun at the sky again.
The air is bright. He hears the distinctive ‘cuck cuck’ as another pheasant flies above. He aims, pulls the trigger quickly. The bird flies on. He fires again. Archie has a go and a spotted tawny hen falls at the edge of the field. Paul hears his neighbour curse; it’s a hen. He waits for the next grouping. A cackle and the silhouettes of three pheasants. He inhales, holds his breath, tucks the butt of Jeff’s gun against his shoulder. He sweeps through one of the birds, aiming two feet in front and knows, before he pulls the trigger, that he will hit his target. There is a kickback with the crack of his gun and then the bird is twirling down and down to a few yards from where he and Archie stand. Small white fluff lands on his jacket. More milky feathers settle on the ground near his boots. His eyes widen. He sees before it hits the ground: a white pheasant. The hen’s short tail and plump body thump and roll over and over, away from him. The beak is opening and closing and a crimson patch seeps from beneath a snowy wing.
‘Shit.’ He squeezes his eyes shut.
‘I did it, Paul. I did what we agreed I would do.’ Daphne has turned, is looking at him for the first time. She opens her backpack and slowly extracts a sheaf of papers. ‘I want to read you something: “At six weeks, the lips, tongue and teeth buds appear. There are ears, eyes, mouth and nose by seven weeks and the formation of the skeleton has begun. By eight weeks all of the organs are formed; arms, legs, fingers and toes are detectable. Pain receptors have developed.”’
‘Is that what’s bothering you the most – the fact that it would have been a life, that it didn’t happen?’ Paul reaches to try and take her free hand as she selects another page. She reads: ‘A hollow tube with a knife-edged tip is inserted into the womb. This is connected to a vacuum machine. The vacuum suction is 29 times more powerful than a vacuum cleaner. It tears the foetus and placenta into pieces, which are sucked through the tube and discarded.’
Paul takes her hand. It is small and cold. What to say? Not only does he feel insubstantial, his words seem meaningless, empty. ‘Did it, did you … were there complications – is that what -’
– ‘Some tearing of the uterine lining. Some cramps and bleeding,’ she interrupts him in her low voice. ‘But those things will heal.’ She draws a breath. ‘At the clinic there were protesters. Women with white crosses representing aborted babies. Holding signs – ‘Abortion Stops a Beating Heart’, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’, ‘Is this a Choice or a Child?’ They’re there every day. At other clinics, too.’
‘So, it was the protesters that upset you -’
‘No.’ She cuts him off, her exhalation is sharp. ‘I don’t know how to heal. In here.’ She points to her heart and speaks with slow deliberation. ‘How could I have been so careless? Not to protect against….not to see what might happen?’ She swallows. ‘I killed something that was part of me…and part of you and part of something that wasn’t either of us, that we made together.’ He squeezes her hand. Her eyes are dark. ‘Some One,’ she says. ‘Whom I will never know. I can’t forgive myself. I am not worthy of caring for a human life. Of carrying a human life. I have thrown one away.’
Paul lets out his breath slowly, slowly. He feels weak, nauseous. Wasn’t eight weeks too small to be a recognisable human? He’d put it all out of his mind, her unexpected pregnancy, the removal of … he’d never thought of it as living, as a collection of cells, with a shape and a destiny. He squeezes her hand again and unclasps it. Would it look like a curved tadpole, with tiny buds that would grow into hands and feet and bulbous facial features? Daphne, alone, lying on the metal table, her legs spread, while gloved hands and machinery perform the suck and scrape. He brings his fingers to his nose and presses the bridge, hard. She is speaking again:
‘Now I see what I’ve done. I went against what I believe in. I wasn’t ever much of a Catholic. But I know I am one now. I will take this with me. To my grave.’ She places a shredding tissue on the tear that moves toward her chin.
What can he say? It isn’t the loss that bothers her so much as that she allowed it to come into being in the first place. He cannot imagine belonging to the church with a capital ‘C’. And Daphne had only seemed to pay lip service, to go for her family, for her mother. But it was deep inside, this hypocritical, manipulative creed, deeper than she had known, deeper than he could go. A month earlier he had told her that he needed to think, that he wanted out. On the threshold, peering in, he had been frightened. The room was more mysterious than he’d expected; he didn’t want to be trapped. And he’d seen Jane the other night. He didn’t tell her these last things. But Daphne had burst into tears, inconsolable tears, and he’d held her and rocked her, thinking that she was crying for losing him. Finally, after what seemed hours, she told him that she was carrying their baby, that she had only just learned. Later she said on the phone that she’d found a clinic that would help her. No, she didn’t want him to come. No, she didn’t want his money. She was in icy, automatic mode, her words, perfunctory and terse. He couldn’t find his way there.
Far off he hears the keeper’s whistle calling the end of the first drive. The man plods over and looks down at the white fowl with its crimson stain.
‘Och, aye, it happens, Sir. Dinnae let it trouble you.’ Archie walks over, too. A cocker-spaniel is there, working his jaws around the rotund body, trying to get a good grip. Again and again he attempts to lift the bird, his teeth sliding across fine feathers. A picker-upper arrives with three or four pheasants dangling. He holds each head between two fingers and the plump bodies sway and knock against each other with his gait. He scoops up Paul’s albino between two fingers of his other hand and frowns. Paul swallows. The picker-upper scours the field and nearby woodland for more kill and heads off. Paul stands looking at a few white feathers on the grass. The men slide weapons into carrying cases at the other pegs, then sling their cases over their shoulders.
Paul reaches down and picks up three of the largest white feathers. He swallows the hot bile that is forcing its way up in his throat. He straightens and walks to his peg to pack up Jeff’s gun. He slings it over his shoulder and crosses the field to the keeper.
‘I’m not going on,’ he tells the man. He clears his throat. ‘I’ll call for a cab to take me back to Edinburgh, don’t worry. Thank you for this morning.’ The keeper’s questions buzz as he calls after Paul, who is walking away. He needs to leave this party of organised murder for would-be big shots. His pace is swift over the bare fields that have long since lost the sparkle of morning dew. At last he crosses the stable yard and walks up the steps to the house. He knocks and retrieves his roller bag. Asks if the keeper’s wife will order him a taxi. He waits on the front porch. When it comes, he takes the stairs, two at a time. The canvas gun slip catches on the dark glossy leaves of the cherry laurel that stand at the foot of the stone stairs. He yanks it free. A few black berries break off and roll through the branches to the ground.
LA Robbins’ fiction is published mainly in UK magazines. In autumn 2017, her short story, ‘Being Good’, was published in Italian in the European Writing Women Association’s compilation. Her story ‘Mirror, Mirage’ garnered third prize in London’s Writer-of-the-year Awards, 2010. A British citizen, Lisa currently works as an editor, a university lecturer, and an alternative medicine practitioner in Florence, Italy. She devotes free time to trekking the Tuscan hillsides and dancing the Argentine tango. Lisa reads science fiction for The Literary Consultancy in London and judges for the Bridport Novel and Short Story competitions.
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