Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Gunfight (2009)

This story was inspired by the ultra-brief tales of Daniil Kharms (1905-1942) which I was devouring at the time. Writers are always influenced by the authors they choose to read, but this influence is often subtle. Kharms' influence on me was forceful. His absurdist fables, violent, peculiar and funny, were supreme acts of aesthetic and political resistance against the totalitarianism of the era and place he lived in. Not having to face the difficulties and dangers he did, my own 'Kharmsic' style is perhaps less urgent and crisp than his, but nonetheless we can all acquire counter-intuitive insights from his methods. This following tale was published in my collection THE JUST NOT SO STORIES.

“The English are coming,” said Hopkins.
“Following us, they are,” confirmed Jones. He frowned and tapped his commander on the shoulder. “I thought you said we won the battle?”
“So I did,” responded Williams, “and so we have.”
“Then why are the English chasing us?”
Bullets zinged into the undergrowth on all sides. The moonlight streamed through holes in perforated leaves. The spores of shredded mushrooms floated.
“And firing at us!” squeaked the other Jones.
“Because we didn’t win the battle in the right way. Instead of winning it in the style of a victory, we won it in the style of a defeat,” explained Williams. “That’s why.”
“Daft, that is,” commented Hopkins.
The first Jones said, “If that’s the way it is, we’re done for. Here’s a bloody ravine with no way across.”
“Doomed, we are,” agreed Hopkins.
“Not at all, boyo. Look here!” cried Price.
“An abandoned cottage is what that seems to be,” said Williams, “and maybe we can knock on the door to see if anyone’s at home?”
“What fool would live in an abandoned cottage,” wondered the first Jones, “on the edge of a ravine?”
More bullets pinged around his head, striking sparks from the stone wall. He was about to speak again but Hopkins interrupted him:
“Maybe we can live there? At least until the English go away. What do you think about that?”
“Perfect place for a redoubt,” said Thomas.
“What’s a redoubt?” asked Price.
“Something that is doubted more than once,” ventured the other Jones, but Williams clucked his tongue and shook his head.
“Don’t be daft. A redoubt is a kind of stronghold or sanctuary.”
“That’s clever,” commented Thomas.
Bullets continued to whiz. Williams tried the front door and realised it was locked, but Hopkins noticed that a window was open. “Someone help me and I’ll climb through,” he said.
“That’s smart,” said the first Jones.
Hopkins stood on Price and clambered inside. “Dark in here. Come and join me. Hurry up!” he hissed. Williams sighed and said:
“Don’t be daft. Pull us through. Give me your hand.”
One at a time they were drawn into the interior of the deserted cottage. Williams groped with outstretched hands but the room was bare. Then he remembered his electric torch and turned it on. There were no furnishings of any sort but a broken lightbulb dangled from a cord in the middle of the ceiling.
Williams rummaged in the pocket of his jacket for a spare bootlace and used it to suspend his torch from the lightbulb cord. He had to ask for a volunteer to crouch down on all fours so he could stand on his back and reach. It was Thomas who finally agreed to do this. As Williams jumped down he said:
“A fine bloody pickle we’re in! We can’t retreat any further and if we make our last stand here, a few grenades chucked through the window will finish us all off. We’ve only gained a few minutes of safety, so we must counterattack!”
“Why don’t we just surrender?” asked the first Jones.
In the cone of dim light Williams displayed an ugly grin. “Don’t take prisoners, the English. Heard all about it from my dad. He told me what they were like. No quarter is what we can expect from them. Blot us out, they will! We have to go back out and take the fight to them. But we’ll prepare ourselves properly. Make ourselves immune to their bullets. I know a way of doing that!”
“Is it a magic dance?” asked Price.
“Daft, that is,” commented Thomas, but Williams spoke over him:
“Not a dance, no, because there's no such thing as magic. Science is the only way to make things work. My uncle went to college to learn medicine, he did, and he brought back lots of those oblong things called books. I remember them well. I was only a child but I knew how to read because my mam taught me. Uncle Dewi let me read his college books and I learned secrets from them. Such secrets!
“That’s lucky,” said Hopkins.
Williams nodded. “One of the secrets I learned was called vaccination. Sounds like a magic word but it’s not, it’s a scientific word. It means curing a disease in advance by being infected with a weaker version of that disease. The body fights the weaker version and beats it and in the process develops the ability to take on and defeat the bigger disease. We can vaccinate ourselves against the English, see?”
“How will we do that?” blinked the second Jones.
Williams smiled faintly. “Listen carefully and tell me what kind of ammunition the English are using.”
The bullets continued to hiss and clang outside.
“I think it’s .45 calibre,” said Price.
“That’s correct. Fired from semi-automatic pistols. And now tell me what kind of cartridge we use in our own guns,” continued Williams.
“The size is .22, isn’t it?” answered Hopkins.
Williams nodded and reached for his holster. With a deft motion he drew out his pistol and waved it in front of his men. “The English have got the bigger ones. So we can vaccinate ourselves against them, but how can they vaccinate themselves against us? They would be daft to try. One shot of this for all of us and we’ll become immune to their bullets. Then we can go out and kill the lot of them. Easy when you know how…”
“That’s logical,” said Thomas without any conviction.
“Come on, form a queue. Not a request but an order. Want to beat them properly, don’t we? You first, Jones.”
“Not me!” cried the first Jones but Williams shot him anyway.
“Daft!” objected Hopkins but he also got a bullet in the face. So did Price, Thomas and the other Jones. Williams licked his lips. His men sprawled on the floor in ungainly postures. Blood trickled.
“A bit sore, I suppose,” he said sympathetically.
He waited a whole minute, then he frowned. “Come on, get up. We have to go out and face the English. No need to be scared, you’re immune now. What’s the matter? Having a rest first, are you? Fine, but don’t make it too long. Be here soon, the English will.”
His men still didn’t stir. Their eyes held a glazed look.
Williams sighed. “I’m going to vaccinate myself now and the moment I’ve had my shot, the time for resting is over. Serious, I am. You must be ready to leave when I’m done. Supposed to be fighting the English, we are. The bloody English. Do you hear me?”
He jammed the barrel into his open mouth and pulled the trigger. He fell down. His own blood poured out of his head and joined the spreading puddle on the floor. It might have been nice if that puddle had formed a significant Welsh shape, a red dragon perhaps, or a daffodil, or even a fully-grown leek, but it didn’t.

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