A Bullet Through the Chest
Bejamina Sand walked down the main street of a market town. To her right a man balanced brown leather shoes on his nose, watched by a group of youths. Drum beats from some local band drifted past busy shops and restaurants. Further on, costumed actors performed excerpts from Shakespeare for a growing crowd. Titania was laughing and gripping Bottom's legs. Benjamina chuckled but also felt proud. She was one of the committee which had organized this festival.
That performance came to an end so she walked off, towards their local Thai restaurant. Then she noticed a young man in combat fatigues who was addressing curious onlookers outside a clothes shop. He was declaiming, rather loudly, the numbers of game wardens who had been killed by poachers over the last twelve months in various countries.
Then a sound like gunshot rang out, making people jump. The youngster clutched his chest, then fell backwards onto flagstones and lay still, eyes and mouth wide open. His head only just missed a lamppost. Benjamina had been expecting this but still flinched at the bang.
Weeks later, Benjamina opened her front door. A young man stood there, short and dark haired, a bit like a stocky bush dog. She recognized him as her hew dog walker. Her cocker spaniel, Scamper, barked loudly and padded up through a whiff of chicken curry, to investigate.
"You've seen Travis before," Benjamina reminded the animal. "He's going to walk you now I can't."
The baby she was expecting moved inside her. She invited Travis in for sweet coffee, White gold gleamed in her earlobes, contrasting with her dark brown skin. Scamper bounded across the sofa before lying on the beige carpet, on his back, and getting tickled by his smiling mistress. Benjamina gave Travis instructions on Scamper's favorite walk, which was through woodland and over a footbridge crossing a stream, then saw them both off. Had she made the right choice of dog walker? She wished that she could still take brown and gold Scamper out herself, but her pregnancy would make that difficult. She imagined him sniffing around females, grabbing ice creams and wolfing them down, jumping in the canal and coming out stinking - the dog that is.
At first their arrangement seemed to work well, even though Benjamina disliked the rap on Travise's i-pod. It felt as if her eardrums were getting mugged. As soon as he left she would play something from 'The Loin King.' She had, years earlier, been in a West End production of that show. Then she raised her smartphone and rang her husband. He was a pilot and his job had taken him to Singapore.
'Well sweetheart, Mrs Butcher next door wants him sealed in a lead-lined container and buried two miles underground, but Scamper likes him and that's what matters most," she explained over the phone. "She's only seen him - and smelt him - after he's taken the dog for a long walk. I've seen him in a white shirt and tie at an interview... no, not for dog-walking, that other interview. Yes, he's used to animals, he's training to be a wildlife photographer.... Yesterday he showed me a picture of a little brown thing called a bush dog. He bombarded me with all these facts about it, like how they can take prey much larger than themselves. Don't worry, I'm sure the baby won't come before you get home. They've given a bad forecast for tomorrow; heavy rain with a risk of flooding. Travis is taking Scamper out early so they can avoid it.... No he won't copy Mrs Butcher's walk on the way out, I've told him off for doing that."
Tomorrow came. Boy and dog set off as they always did, only at an earlier time. He was sending tweets to friends as they walked. The garden gate squeaked as usual. Benjamina carried out some household chores, then watched a film on D.V.D. It was only when that finished that worry trickled into her mind. Where had Travis and little tongue-loller got to? She had made it clear when they ought to be back.
"I'm worrying about nothing," she told herself. "Scamper often gets distracted by small animals or scents of one thing or another. You can't always time these things exactly."
Then she looked out of a window and saw dark clouds gathering. Shrubs in her garden bent as the wind grew stronger. Benjamina tried to ring Travis, but he didn't answer. When she lowered her device tension made her biceps ache.
The storm hit like a punch from a bigfoot. It felled several trees along the main road out of town. Drains got blocked and streets changed into rivers, as if the town was incontinent. Drivers abandoned cars. Benjamina dialed Travise's number again and again, then tried to text him, but she got no reply. She didn't like waiting at the best of times. Now she threw a cushion across the sitting room. She rang the fire brigade. They promised to look out for Travis and Scamper, but were very busy with other things. It occured to her to ring Travis's parents, then remembered that they were on holiday in Spain.
Benjamina's doorbell rang. Relief surged through her as she waddled to answer it. It wasn't Travis and Scamper but Martin Ellis, one of her colleagues from the festival committee, together with his wife and children.
"Sorry to trouble you," he began, "but our house is flooded. Its up to our knees on the ground floor, which is a bit rubbish. Could you please put us up for the night?"
"Of course, come in." She felt a little better for being able to help. Whilst they entered the hall and removed wet coats, she went upstairs and, in spite of backache, got her spare room ready.
Repeated ringing of the doorbell made Benjamina come downstairs. Surely time... When she opened the door and Mrs Butcher was there, like a spectacled toadstool, Benjamina struggled to conceal her disappointment.
"Do you mind asking your friend to shift his car?" Mrs Butcher snapped, her voice as sharp as the taste of beetroot, "only its where people coming to us normally park."
"With respect Mrs Butcher, its a public road and people can park where they like on it. Are you expecting anyone today?"
"Well, not today no, but...what if somebody turns up unexpectedly?" Rain dripped from her hood and onto the doormat.
"Then there are other spaces. I know they're further away, but Martin's home's been flooded so I think he deserved a rest. And I'm worried about Scamper, he hasn't come home yet."
"You know why that is, don't you. Its with hiring a young boy to walk him. A lad that age has a one-track mind, and its a dirt track!"
Mrs Butcher spun on her heel and marched back to her house, treading on wet leaves and twigs. Whilst closing the door, Benjamina heard rain lash the window panes even harder than before. I was warm,but in a clammy and headache causing way. A kick from her unborn child did nothing to improve her mood. She tried to look cheery for the benefit of Martin's children, to whom she gave some biscuits. Then she put a cartoon channel on for them.
Their father came up to her,reflected in a full-length mirror, thrusting an arm through a jacket sleeve.
"I can see you're worried about Scamper and Travis," he announced, "so I'm going to look for them."
"Don't go Martin," Benjamina urged, "it's still dangerous out there."
"All the more reason, I'd have thought." Turning to his two daughters he explained "I've got to go now, but I'll be back soon, and then we can watch 'Ice Age' together."
"O-oh why?" the eldest grumbled.
"Because I must." he kissed them both, then made his exit, surprising Benjamina with his tenderness. He never showed much emotion at work. Benjamina looked across to Mrs Ellis, who shrugged and spread her hands.
Benjamina offered to make coffee but Mrs Ellis insisted that she sit down, on the leather sofa, while she did that. As she waited, Benjamina could only think of Scamper, out in the storm. Had he been crushed by a falling tree? or swept away by a swollen river? She imagined him howling in fear as dark water closed over his floppy ears and brown eyes, pain in his lungs. She would arrange a proper funeral for him, at a pet cemetery with a white headstone that would say how much they loved him.
That stupid dog walker could have a clearing in the woods, marked by a little wooden cross with 'idiot' scrawled on it. Well, his parents would probably want more, but if it was up to Benajmina....
Sirens on police cars and fire engines blared from down town. The main street should have been selling goods from across the world: clothes from China, vegetables grown in Spain, wines from Australia and South Africa, furniture made locally. Now it was almost deserted. Slate roofs streamed with rainwater and hanging baskets overflowed. Paving stones disappeared, not under puddles but under large pools. Dirty, smelly water lapped at shop doors, them ebbed under some of them. Members of staff met it with brooms while their colleagues moved stock upstairs.
Back at her house, Benjamina tried to ring her husband, but his line was busy. Lowering a pink smartphone, she thought about their first meeting. She had been touring regional theatres, doing a tribute act to Whitney Houston and had just finished for that night. That tour was necessary because her (former) agent had swindled her out of some money. This had left the singer with a cynical view of the world; it wasn't normally her and she wanted to shake it off. Whilst leaving the Victorian building her attention was caught by one of the ticket collectors. A woman who walked on crutches had slipped and nearly fallen, but he reached out and saved her. Benjamina looked across the street to him and couldn't take her eyes off his lamplit face. Somebody else spoke to her and she barely registered him. The road was crowded with theatregoers and jammed with parked cars. She tried to reach this special man, but the crush was bad and he was walking away from her, behind a truck loaded with instruments.
There were fewer people on her side than on his. Benjamina pulled off high-heeled boots. Then she threw herself over the front of a black B.M.W. For a second she was reflected in shiny paintwork, as if in a mirror of volcanic glass. Then she found herself in front of a startled ticket collector, her future husband, not yet qualified as a pilot. Thinking back, she could still feel the impact of landing on gritty tarmac.
The tingling of her doorbell returned Benjamina's mind to the present. By now she was prepared for disappointment. Mrs Ellis insisted on answering it. Benjamina heard voices, then sounds of stamping feet in her front hallway. The a familiar wimper reached her ears. Surely not, after those earlier disappointments.
The sitting room door opened and Martin came in, past a wood carving of stylised birds on the cream coloured wall. He indicated a limping, sodden youth accompanied by a dog and asked "are these two yours?"
Before she could answer Scamper bounded up and threw himself onto Benjamina's lap. He reared up, planting muddy front paws on her chest, and she gave him a hug, also a broad smile. Varnished fingernails shook as tension escaped. He top got soaked but she didn't care. Martin's children came up and stroked the spaniel's back. The youngest said "he's got a waggley tail!" while feeling grit and knots in canine hair. Floppy ears looked as if they had been badly permed.
"Oh Scamper, I've missed you so much," Benjamina cooed as dirty water seeped into her monochrome carpet, all but unnoticed. "Where have you been?" She felt his damp tongue on her hands.
"L-let me explain," Travis stutterd. She gave him a black look but Martin raised a hand and the gesture said "give him a chance." He said aloud "get yourself cleaned up Travis, then you can tell us everything."
Later on, Travis sat down on the floor while Benjamina and her guests listened from the sofa and armchairs. Outside, wind and rain were moving on, but raindrops still clung to the windows. The emergency services were busy so Travis was having to wait his turn.
"I took Scamper into the copse like I always do," he began, "and at first everything was fine. I let him off his lead and he had a good time. Well I called him back, put him back on the lead and set off for the little footbridge, right. When we got there I came across this grass snake basking on the path. I heard my phone ring, but I wanted to photograph the snake before Scamper disturbed it. I got him to sit - with difficulty - and took a few pictures before she slithered under some ferns.
"When we got to the footbridge it was already underwater. It must've been raining where the stream rises before it was here. I'm sorry, I didn't know that had happened."
Scamper watched from his basket, hairs appearing to ripple down his back. The children looked aside from the television, more curious than alarmed.
Travis went on, saying "obviously I set off on the longer way home, right, but the storm caught up with us. Me and Scamper broke into a run 'coz we knew you wanted us back early. The rain came pouring down, the path turned into mud and I slipped and fell and twisted my ankle. It was the worst thing ever. I pulled myself up, using this hazel bush for support, and I tried to carry on but I had to stop and lean on an oak tree. I was soaked and I thought I'd be gettin' pnumonia."
"What did you do?" Benjamina asked. On T.V. Sid the cartoon sloth was in trouble, as usual. Both children ignored him; they were getting caught up in Travis's story.
"it's not so much what I did as what Scamper here did," Travis replied. Scamper ran off, dragging his lead. I shouted at him to come back, went after him but it hurt like Hell. He took no notice of me; I was afraid he'd catch his lead on a bush but he was lucky. After a few minutes he came back with your friend Mark."
"Yes that's right, I was driving along the road through those woods, looking out for these two, and there was Scamper, at the roadside, on his own. I thought 'that's not good' so I stopped and got out,then Scamper led me to Travis."
Benjamina asked "why didn't you answer when I rang you?"
"When I fell I landed on this side," Travis explained. "Its only the side where my phone was in my pocket,isn't it, so when I went down the bloody phone got damaged by me landing on top of it."
Martin asked Travis "er, have I seen you somewhere before?"
"Yep," he replied. "I was performing at the festival a few weeks ago. Do you remember a guy in combat fatigues who supposedly took a bullet through his chest?"
"Oh of course, that was you wasn't it. Weren't you protesting against attacks on game wardens?"
"He was indeed,"said Benjamina. "I first met him interviewing acts for the festival." Benjamina shifted in her leather armchair before adding "you caused quite a stir, didn't you. I had to reassure some people you were pretending to be dead."
When his ankle healed, Travis set out, brave as a bush dog, and returned to the spot where he had fallen. This time he was alone but the weather was far better. In a birch-ringed clearing, bracken had turned to the colour of rust. On a pile of logs, orange fungi grew, rare as amber in coming winter.
Travis took his phone and scrolled through his messages. One from Benjamina included a photo of her baby son, Kaden. It made Travis smile. He came to some from friends who attended different schools or collages, all urging him to go back to where he had slipped, every one promising it would restore his confidence.
As a woodpecker drummed on smooth bark, the youngster tapped a reply on his keypad.
"Thanks for telling me to do this, you're right, I feel better now. And thanks for all the times when I felt isolated because nobody else at college was interested in nature, and you showed me I wasn't the only one my age who was."
Last edited by IanG; 04-13-2017 at 03:07 AM..