BANG, YOU’RE DEAD
It was Sunday, the day before I left. I was sitting in the yard. There was nothing else to do. My brother-in-law’s children were running around like mice, out of control. He shouted at them as he cleaned his shotgun. He was a hunter. He had all the kit, the camouflage gear, the cartridge belt, the boots, everything. He hated me. It wasn’t just that I disagreed with his hobby, or that I wrote books, or that I was foreign. His big problem was that I couldn’t give his sister a kid. I wasn’t a man, in his eyes. Not just in his. People talk. They were talking so much I had started to believe them.
He pulled a brush through the barrel and looked at me, a sneer dancing along the ridges of his teeth. ‘Have you seen my gun?’ he said.
I looked dumbly at the thing propped on his knee.
‘Not this one, you idiot,’ he said. ‘The other one.’
The basement smelled damp. No one ever went down there. A dusty lightbulb shivered on naked wires. He made a path through the junk and managed to open the rickety wardrobe in the corner. He pushed aside a mound of blankets and removed a green box. It was an ammunition case, like something out of Action Man, but full-size, metal. He pulled back the hasp and levered the lid open.
‘What do you make of this?’ he said, and came towards me with something wrapped in an oily rag. I don’t know much about guns, and I don’t want to, because I know what they are for. It was a revolver, even I could see that. He did something with his thumb and the cylinder flipped out. It was full of bullets. ‘Here,’ he said.
‘No, you’re okay,’ I said. He wanted me to be impressed like a real man would. I wasn’t. Apart from that, I was wary of leaving fingerprints.
He sliced the cylinder with the side of his hand, making it spin. ‘I brought it back from Tirana when I finished a job there,’ he said. With a flick of his wrist the gun clicked shut. He raised it and pointed it at me. ‘They’re not blanks,’ he said. ‘You know all about them, eh?’
I had stopped breathing.
He closed an eye. ‘Bang, you’re dead,’ he said. He laughed. ‘You prick. Look, it isn’t even cocked.’ He did something else with his thumb. ‘When the hammer’s back like this it’s…’
Hysterical yelps. He looked at the door. His children, in the house, coming down the stairs. He moved back to the corner.
‘Keep this to yourself,’ he said. ‘If you know what’s good for you.’
My wife was up on the first floor, in the kitchen. Maria, her sister-in-law, was there, too, breastfeeding the baby, the latest addition to the family. I stood at the door, unsure whether to go inside.
Maria wouldn’t look at me.
‘For God’s sake come in if you’re coming in,’ said my wife. ‘There’s a draught.’
Maybe watching another man’s woman doing what comes naturally is healthy. My wife certainly seemed to think so. I felt sorry for the baby. I’m no expert, I know even less about babies than I do about guns, but there was obviously something wrong with it – it was too skinny by half, and had strange little pointed ears. My brother-in-law had disowned it. He preferred to spend his time with his friends, dressed up like soldiers, killing things.
I wanted to reach out and take it in my arms, hold it.
‘What are you staring at?’ said my wife. She placed a bottle of rubbing alcohol on the drying board, next to the syringes. The baby needed regular injections. Of what, I had no idea. Another of its problems. ‘Did you fix the cistern?’
I’d attempted it that morning. I couldn’t stop the leak. Too much pressure in the pipe. Or something.
‘Well?’ she said.
‘It needs spares,’ I said. ‘I’ll phone the plumber tomorrow.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ she said.
‘It’s okay,’ said Maria, the sister-in-law, the lady with the baby. ‘I’ll get Harry to do it.’
‘Thanks, Maria,’ I said. I looked out the window. Harry was back cleaning his shotgun, polishing it. I didn’t know where the kids were. It was very quiet. ‘I’m kind of useless at some things,’ I said.
My wife made a noise through her nose. ‘One thing,’ she said. She smiled and made a face. Not at me. The baby released a milky nipple and slowly turned its eyes towards her.
‘I’ll see you later,’ I said.
‘Aye, away and write another story,’ said my wife.
‘At least it’s something I’m good at,’ I said.
‘You think so?’ she said.
Noise down in the yard, then a shout.
The baby rolled its head at me and started to whimper.
‘There, there,’ said Maria, as she buttoned her blouse with her free hand. ‘That’s your daddy!’
Harry and his family lived in the top half of the house. It was handy for running water for the baby. Our bedroom was directly below the kitchen. Wooden floors and ceilings. Mealtimes were noisy affairs, the kids fighting over who got the biggest share until Harry told them to shut up. There was no evening meal being prepared today, however. We were going to the local taverna. All of us. The Sunday evening ritual. See and be seen, the family close, tight, like a fist. That was the line they used. Like a fist. My wife was sitting at the dressing table, making herself up. She was a good looking woman, I have to admit, but no one knew her like I did. She stared at me in the mirror.
‘You’re not wearing that,’ she said.
I’d just put on a clean shirt, a brown button-down. ‘Why not?’ I said.
‘Because you look stupid,’ she said. She screwed the top on her lipstick. ‘Where’s that blue one I got you?’
It was in the cupboard, still in the packet. I unwrapped it and put it on. ‘Is that better?’ I said.
She rammed her feet into her shoes and tugged at a heel. ‘It’ll do,’ she said.
The taverna was at the other end of the street, but we never made it there in less than an hour. Harry was a popular guy, men were always stopping to talk to him, his hunting pals, well-fed and unshaven. They had taken to ignoring me completely, which was to be expected, although, like everything else, it had started to play on my nerves.
The family, scrubbed, was assembled in the yard. I felt my usual Sunday evening fear descend. I told them I would meet them later. This did not go down well. I suppose it spoiled the image of the fist. There was a good reason, however, for my reluctance to go with them. It had nothing to do with being embarrassed in front of Harry’s friends. I couldn’t face seeing the kids running around in the road. It seemed that I was the only one who worried about them. But they weren’t my kids – they weren’t my problem. Neither Harry nor Maria ever told them to be careful. They seemed to think the less you worried about them the less likely they would come to harm. Maria always pushed the baby in its pram, so at least it was safe from the traffic.
I locked myself in the toilet and smoked three cigarettes. I flushed away the butts.
The cistern had been fixed.
When I got there, the table was laden with food. Obviously, Harry hadn’t bumped into his usual plethora of friends on the way down. I sat next to my wife.
‘You found the road, then?’ she said.
The waiter served me a pork chop.
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘That looks lovely.’
Harry looked at me over the top of his glass and shook his head.
Conversation was minimal. The kids grazed whatever was in front of them, throwing the occasional punch when someone dug too deeply into the salads.
I looked round the table. Something was missing.
‘Where’s the baby?’ I said.
Harry put down the bone he was chewing. ‘That?’ he said. ‘What’s it to you?’
Maria was rubbing a child’s hand with a napkin. ‘I dropped him off at my mum’s,’ she said. ‘She hasn’t seen him for a while.’
Harry slugged wine. He put the glass down firmly, but he was still holding it. His huge fingers began to flex. His eyes were red. ‘Better no kid than a spastic kid, eh?’ he said. ‘Is that what you’re getting at?’
‘Give it a rest, Harry,’ said Maria, and tossed the napkin into the ashtray.
‘Watch your mouth,’ said Harry. ‘If you know what’s good for you.’ The children stopped what they were doing and looked at their plates.
‘Maybe you should cool it on the wine,’ said Maria.
‘You think so?’ Harry laughed. He picked up the jug and waved it over his head. ‘Heh!’ he shouted. ‘Another one of these when you’re ready!’
‘Maria’s right,’ I said. ‘Take it easy.’
‘What the fuck would you know, you poof?’ he said.
One of the kids sobbed loudly.
‘Oh, well done,’ said my wife. ‘You’ve spoiled it.’
She was talking to me.
The room was dark, the heat stifling. I opened the window and got undressed. She was already in bed, waiting. I would go through with it, as I always did. I needed the sex part, the release, but she was in it for so much more. She craved something I couldn’t give her. I’d done all the tests. She’d seen the results. All of them. Zero motility. My sperm were dead. Are dead. She couldn’t accept it. It would have made sense for us to split up, but I’d already thought about that. If I went back home, I wouldn’t last a month. I would be just as much of a foreigner there as I was here. At least here I had somewhere to live. I was scared to go, it was a coward’s choice. As for her, she carried the stigma of being soiled goods. She wasn’t ‘intact’, that was the word they used.
We were made for each other.
I lay there, motionless, as she used her hand. She put me inside her. I tried to enjoy it. I thought of Maria. We’d done it. Just once, but the memory lingered. Of course it did. We’d been alone in the house. I’d grabbed the chance. So had she. It was strange being with a woman who wanted me – really wanted me, wanted me for sex, nothing more. For half an hour, for as long as it took, I had felt like a man. A real man. She had bayed like a trapped animal when she came. I’d never experienced anything like it. Perhaps she hadn’t, either; it was the kind of noise that could penetrate wooden floors. Then bam, nine months later she has a baby. The latest addition to the family. I went over the dates. It was possible, until I thought about my problem. Maybe the tests were wrong. All of them. Perhaps that was why Harry wanted nothing to do with it. Did he know? Probably not. He would have killed me if he did. Was it possible the baby was mine? I would take it away from this circus and give it a life. I would look after it. I would be a good father. A spastic baby is better than no baby.
It was this thought, this delusion, that was stopping me going over the edge.
My wife punched me in the chest. ‘Oh, hurry up and finish, will you?’ she said.
I clamped her thighs and firmed up for the final push, my eyes closed tight, tears leaking into the darkness, a new tear born with each creak of the bedsprings.
Monday morning. The house was empty. The kids were at school, my wife was at work. So was Harry. Maria was in the kitchen, I could hear her footsteps through the ceiling.
I went upstairs.
She was standing at the sink, doing something with the syringes. The baby was in its cot, under the window, wrapped in a pale blue sheet. Its eyes were closed.
‘Maria,’ I said. I was careful to keep my voice low. ‘We need to talk.’
‘Oh?’ she said.
‘It’s about the baby,’ I said.
‘What about him?’ she said. She looked at the cot. The sheet didn’t move.
I tried to savour the moment, the stillness. It was just the two of us. And the baby. The three of us. ‘Is it – is he mine?’ I said.
Her eyes narrowed. She crossed the floor and clicked the door shut. I don’t know why she did that. Then she resumed her position next to the drying board, leaning on it. There was a damp patch on her blouse, at the bottom of her left breast. She folded her arms. ‘What the hell are you playing at?’ she said. ‘We agreed never to mention…’
‘I know,’ I said, ‘but…’
‘What do you mean, is he yours?’ she said.
‘You know…’ I said.
Something was playing around the corners of her eyes. The beginnings of a smile. ‘But…how could he be yours?’ she said.
‘Yes, okay,’ I said, ‘but the dates…’
She laughed in my face. ‘He’s not yours,’ she said. ‘I only let you do it because you’re…’
The baby screamed in its sleep.
The bulb crackled. I kneeled on the floor and fashioned the blankets into a small table.
It took a moment to locate the button. The cylinder flipped open. I emptied out the bullets, all six of them, then doused the gun with alcohol. I began to polish it with the rag. I wanted to be thorough. The black metal shone dully, as if it grudged something, keeping its reflection to itself. When I was sure it was clean – sterile – I passed it from one hand to the other. I would never be comfortable with it, I would never be dexterous, but that wasn’t the point. I wanted to leave my mark. I had to. I didn’t want to leave any ambiguity. I wiped the bullets carefully and pressed each one home.
My hands were clasped in the travesty of a prayer as I drew the barrel into my mouth. It rattled against my teeth. I closed my lips and gripped the metal with my tongue. The taste of something vile at the back of my throat. I breathed in deep and let the alcohol fumes clear my head.
I pushed both thumbs into the trigger.
I pushed hard.
‘You’ll need to cock it.’
I forced my eyes open. Harry was standing in the doorway.
‘Go on,’ he said. ‘Do it. I showed you, didn’t I?’
The floorboards were digging into my knees. I regarded the blankets. The material was old, frayed. Mouse droppings were ingrained in the lattice of threads, moulded around the threads like beads on ancient string. The mice, I knew, were long gone.
ANDREW MCCALLUM CRAWFORD grew up in Grangemouth, Scotland. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Interlitq, Gutter and Spilling Ink Review. His first novel, Drive!, was published in 2010. A collection of short fiction, The Next Stop Is Croy and other stories, was released in 2011. Another collection, A Man’s Hands, was published in 2012. He lives in Greece.