THE GUN HANGING ON THE WALL
Tom Bryson ©
(Broadcast on BBC Radio 4, RTE and Dutch radio. Produced by Rosemary Watts. Read by Michelle Newell)
The gun hanging on the wall over the marble fireplace reminded Joan of her teenage years. Now middle-aged but still attractive in a white porcelain kind of way, she stood alone in the centre of the blue room. The gun reminded her of old cowboy and western films she'd seen at those Saturday afternoon matinees in Magherafelt. So long ago.
The gun hanging over the mantelshelf echoed African jungles and Wild West shootouts, hoods from the Bronx. A smoking gun held over a dead body by a man in a soft hat, a wide-eyed moll quivering submissively in the background. Joan saw again Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in African Queen, heard Roy Rogers whistle up Trigger and leap athletically on to the saddle, smelt the cordite as Jimmy Cagney spat lead through the plate glass window of a Chicago bootlegger too mean to pay for protection. With a private, secret pleasure she recalled that the images were not those from the actual films, no; they were her own mindpictures. Pictures formed from the descriptions of Rachael, Harry, Ben and Frank and all the old crowd. That's what she remembered, her own pictures from her friends voices doing the telling. All the crowd, all that old crowd. God!
Of course the films were months old by the time they got to her local cinema. All Joan's cousins and friends from Belfast and Ballymena had already told her the story of the film twenty times over before she ever saw it. So much so, in fact, that by the time she did get round to watching it she felt disappointed. You see, the pictures she had conjured in her mind - from others vivid retelling - of the big screen's story were somehow stronger, more techicoloured reds and blues, keener than the reality - or was it the fiction? These pictures - her mind's pictures were solely her's, unique - owned by her - forged in her own imagination. Even the voices she heard in her head were more potent than those later heard projected from the big screen.
Joan stubbed out her cigarette in the black ashtray on the mantelshelf. The blue smoke from the cigarette's dead end drifted upwards, its path repeated in the dulled, gilt framed mirror resting on the mantelshelf. A mirror dulled enough to mask the beginnings of embryonic clefts and fissures in her face. The smoke stroked the gun barrel, a short, stocky barrel shaped like its owner, Samuel. The smoke enfolding the gun like an embracing lover. Joan turned away and drawing her still slim body erect, entered the red-walled dining room.
Samuel ate his food quietly. Normally he was gregarious, full of the incidents of the day. His job took him all over the province of Northern Ireland: Armagh, Londonderry, Bangor, Portadown, Lurgan, Craigavon. Since the easing of the Troubles in the North, he travelled more often to the South these days, Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Sligo. Occasionally they sent him on business across the water to England, the company was expanding and had set up agencies there in London and Birmingham. When he went to England it was usually with colleagues and they often stayed over for a night or two. She understood the need for that but she didn't like it very much. Not that she minded the bit of crack they were bound to have, male bonding and all that, a drink or two, maybe squeeze in a round of golf - all the boys together. No, she simply felt uncomfortable on her own. Not that there was any crime to talk about in a place like Magherafelt, of course, far from it. But she did worry about Samuel. And she missed him. She had her own small circle of friends locally right enough, they were good friends in many ways, from the Church, Rotary and some from the Orange Lodge days although they had drifted away from that when it all got a bit too serious. But friends aren't the same as the man you love, are they? Mind you she still hankered after the old crowd, whatever became of them? How did they lose touch? Losing touch, that frightened her too, when he was away she sometimes spent too long alone. Alone with her memories, her images and her voices.
She delighted in the way Samuel would tell her about the people he dealt with in his work, their mannerisms, word patterns, their funny little ways. And of course every journey on today's roads delivered an incident that had to be recounted. A bad smash and the inevitable rubbernecking - he was very good in those situations, always driving past quickly to avoid slowing up the traffic or much worse creating another smash through a shunt. Mind you, sometimes when they travelled together on holiday and came across a bad accident she wished he would slow down, she wanted to see the red gore, feel horrified, even perhaps suffer being sickened a little. She never understood why she should feel that way - she just did.
She often wished she could make a greater contribution to the chats they had over dinner, but she was much more the listener than the talker. Sure God knows wasn't that why she was able to suffer her old friends' blow by blow accounts of the films they had seen. She knew many folk switched off when someone started telling the story of films or television programmes they'd seen. Not her, she really liked to hear their stories, to see the pictures form in her head, hear the voices as their words poured out. Of course when the children had been at home she could always talk to him about their antics during the day, their misadventures and news, their foibles and emerging personalities. Now they all lived away, her son as far away as Canada, a daughter in Scotland; Sarah was the nearest in Belfast but what with her and her husband Billy both pursuing professional careers she didn't see much of them at all. No, without a young family and her not working there wasn't much to recount - now and then she had thought about getting a wee job as much for a bit of interest as anything but he always dissuaded her saying sure he earned more than enough just to keep the two of them going. The children - well they were adults really now but she still thought of them as the children - they phoned home now and again and made the occasional flying visit but it was not the same as being part of their lives day in and day out - night in and night out for that matter.
She thought Samuel was unusually silent over dinner. At intervals he made attempts at conversation, a view about something in the news, a little titbit from the current office gossip, a companionable grumble over how long the road repairs were taking on the motorway, an amusing funny about the cones on the roads and how that must be the best long term growth industry to invest in. But there were silences in between as if he were preoccupied, had something on his mind. She had been thinking about their annual holiday and mentioned some brochures she had picked up that afternoon. He always needed a little prodding to get his interest going in the summer holiday. Understandable, of course as he had such a busy schedule. Strangely enough, he seemed more unwilling than usual to engage that topic.
They finished their meal and she started to clear up. She scraped uneaten yellow sweetcorn, potatoes and green runner beans onto a single plate to empty into the waste bin, more leftovers than normal, they must be losing their appetites. Memories of their old dog, Ben, long dead, came at these times. He used to chase her for the scraps, never letting the plates out of his sight. But when old Ben died they decided against a puppy - so much energy sure they'd wear you out.
Samuel reached out and snatched her arm. Looking distressed, he muttered something. She didn't catch what he said. Alarmed, she wondered if he was in some kind of pain, he'd hardly eaten a thing. She sat down beside him and leaned over him to better hear what he was saying. He twisted his head, his face a pale white, to look at her but quickly turned away again and the words all came out in a rush. He wanted to leave her, he'd met someone else, from the office, not his secretary, no, a colleague who had joined the company from a competitor and they had become lovers, she was divorced, a boy by a previous marriage. He kept saying he was sorry, how sorry he was, how he wished it had never happened, how he couldn't help himself and how he felt destroyed. She captured fleeting images from "Brief Encounter", the here and now seemed unreal to her, her images fought to push away the reality. When Rachael first told her the story of the meeting between Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard she omitted to mention that it was in a railway café. They laughed together about that later. Rachael had left her with the impression that the meeting had taken place in a room, like this room she was in right now, a hot and red room, over an evening meal, like this evening meal he had barely eaten. That was her image of that parting. This, too, was a parting, right here, now, she supposed. But this was real, though; not one of her internal fictions of the story of the film, or even the actual images on the screen itself.
"Will you excuse me please." She stood up from the table. Samuel remained seated, his head buried in his hands. She felt distanced, as if floating rather than walking. She wondered if this was what acting was like as she squinted at the wall lights which had taken on an increased luminescence making her eyes start to water. An amused look crossed her face as she left the room. Wasn't it "Down and out in Brooklyn" where the heroine took the gun she had never used in her life but had so often, in trepidation, watched her man load and cock, and turned it on herself. The supreme act of self-sacrifice. She softly closed the door behind her. She stood alone in the middle of the living room and stared at the black gun hanging on the wall over the fireplace.
She obtained a small key from a locked, mahogany bureau and standing on a chair removed a box of ammunition from the top shelf of the high cupboard over the drinks cabinet. To be fair Samuel had always been careful like that, locking things away, avoiding any possible harm coming to the children, all scattered now of course. Like the old crowd. You can't really relive the past, or even renew it, can you? No, you can only have new beginnings - or endings? That was how it was with those films, so concrete, full of beginnings, middles and endings, and such strong characters. Heroes and villains, good and evil, light and dark - gripping stuff and no room for doubt or ambiguity, how she loved those films, those days, those endless mindpictures from the telling of Rachael, Ben, Harry and Frank. But of course her mind always turned the stories they told to her own fashion. That was why she was always disappointed when she saw the reality. Her brow furrowed. The reality - or was it the fiction? She now recalled "Down and out in Brooklyn". A "martyred heroine" film. The first telling of the story of that film was Ben's but when she actually saw it she had pictured the heroine quite differently. Indeed it was the second telling of the story, Rachael's, that anchored in her imagination. She screwed her face as she dug deep into her memory bank. Yes, of course, yes, she smiled. Rachael's description of the martyred heroine, Rachael, strong, dependable and always up and doing, Rachael, full of fire and passion, Rachael, so unlike herself, never giving up.
Joan sat down heavily, lit a cigarette and took a deep drag. Her hand trembled a little. With the cigarette hanging between her lips, she reached up and removed the gun from over the fireplace and slowly loaded the cartridges. Carefully turning the gun and pointing it between her eyes she drew in another lungful of cigarette smoke. She exhaled and watched the grey cigarette smoke nuzzle the short gun barrel. Joan pressed the gun against the space between her eyes, feeling the cold, hard metal form an indentation in her flesh. Her legs felt weak and thinking she might fall she descended to her knees. She thought of her children, of the crowd, Ben, Harry, Frank and Rachael. Dear, strong Rachael. She thought of Samuel - her husband - her lover, her companion, friend and confidante, the father of her children, the only man she had ever known in that special way.
She held the gun steady; then moved her thumbs to the trigger and waited. She leaned her head a little to one side, attentive. The voice came loud and clear. He was singing this time, which made her smile. Singing his trademark song, those words so true, oh, so true.
"A four-legged friend, a four legged friend, he'll never let you down,
He's honest and faithful right up to the end,
That wonderful, one - two- three- four legged friend."
Roy smiled at her and said, "Don't worry, we'll get you right away from all this trouble and woe. Now, you jes do as I say, honey, okay?" She nodded her head, listening, listening, straining to hear his voice. He gave a soft whistle and sure enough she could hear the clip-clopping of Trigger's hooves as he cantered up the drive, past the blue and pink hydrangea bushes and the wisteria she'd planted only last year, past Samuel's gleaming Ford Cavalier. She heard the beautiful white horse jump the low gate and the closer, slower dip-dop on the red, block-paved patio outside the patio doors. A faithful friend, loyal to the end, no, Roy and Trigger would never let you down. Nor would Rachael. Nodding her head, she listened carefully to the cowboy’s gentle, smiling instructions.
Reversing the gun, Joan pushed the polished, wooden stock against her shoulder and hooked her finger around the trigger. She smiled serenely. With her left hand she eased open the door into the red dining room.
Copyright Tom Bryson