Alison Armstrong has been writing for many years and has been long listed and short listed for several prizes/awards. Last year she won a Northern Writers’ Award for fiction and was commended in the Bath Flash Fiction Award. She lives and works as a teacher and painter in Lancaster.
His Wife’s Furs
Black sheets flapped from hay bales like tethered crows. They had been there now in the field next to his house for almost two years, which winter they were being kept for was anyone’s guess. Every morning when he looked out of his window they were the first things to draw his eye, snaring his view and weighing in on him afresh each time he saw them. They gnawed at him like some ever present guilt. From there he glanced across the landscape, to where the fields sloped down to the road, about a mile from the house. Dawn had already slit through the sky and the sun had begun its daily ascent. He splashed cold water onto his face, looking at himself in the foxed glass of the mirror as he rubbed the towel roughly over his features, reddening his skin.
His wife brought the pan from the stove and spooned out porridge into the two bowls already set on the table. She poured the tea in silence. The sound of the spoon stirring in the china cup was sad and secretive. They rose early, even on Sundays. It was a habit of theirs. The wooden clock on the mantel shelf ticked loudly into the dull interior. They had inherited the clock from her mother and sometimes it seemed to him that it held something of her passive disapproval, its persistence, measuring. As the years went by there was less and less to talk of and he was glad of it. Not all women were like this. Some talked more the less there was to talk of. Take his brother’s wife. She would never understand a man’s need for peace. It was this he thought of while he ate his porridge, his mind often idling towards his brother and his wife, though he didn’t see them much. Once a year, around Christmas time, when duty bound them to the seeing of relatives.
Yes. He was grateful for his own wife. He glanced at her face. She was looking at her hands, tilting and staring at each one in turn. Her downward pose added extra weight to the slackening muscles of her cheeks and neck. There was something in her look that made him want to say something, but before he could muster a word she had straightened her apron and stood up to clear the pots. It was his cue to make a move, slurping his last mouthful of tea, he handed her the cup and took up his bag over his shoulder and the shotgun from the cupboard by the door and was gone.
He could hear the forlorn ‘coor-li’ of a curlew a short distance off. The smell of the new day chilled his lungs. Only now did he feel fully awake. Setting out with his dog, cutting into the fields that stretched out ahead of him and into the slow, gathering warmth of the day. The sky was already bright. There were a lot of clouds, though none looked like they carried rain.
He had always killed for his living, hanging up the pelts and the corpses from the fences. It was the job of the gamekeeper, to catch vermin on his master’s land, he often described it with this phrase. His brother had once used it as a slight against his lack of ambition, he had taken the phrase to mock his brother’s own lack of understanding. Two years younger, he couldn’t even shoot straight. His eyes were only ever good for books. He walked now by the stretch that leads from the lower path of the stream to the tor, topped with a line of six pines which bent towards the west because of the constant wind. He knew every part of the landscape here, there was not a tree or a rock that he did not know. Sometimes at night, when he couldn’t sleep, he would choose some stretch of the land and recount the features automatically as though he were walking through it, visually noting each point: the stile, the dip in the ground at the other side, the milestone overgrown with moss, the broken stone wall where he had put up barbed wire the summer before, the abandoned chapel. And sometimes in the daytime too, when he needed to re-track his thoughts.
He took two cartridges from the pocket of his bag and shoved them into the barrels of his Winchester, which he had been carrying, hinged open over his arm for the last mile or so. He cocked the gun ready, moving to a flat rock where he sat down and waited. He took off his cap and wiped his forehead, smoothing his hair in the same movement. For the last four days he had come to rest at the same spot. Each time, before long, a stoat would appear and move out in undulating spurts, not ten yards from where he sat. He fancied that it was the same stoat out to test his resolve. Each time he had aimed at the creature but not fired. The sun that had been collecting its strength behind clouds for much of the morning broke out and glared. Thinking it must be nearly twelve, he replaced his hat and sighed a deep sigh. Distant sheep could be heard and an occasional grasshopper, hidden among the grasses and bracken, chirruped close by, first in one direction, then another. Though he was an excellent shot, for nineteen months he had not killed a thing, save for the obligatory rabbits for the dog and the pot. The stoat appeared and stopped. He lifted his gun to his cheek, the barrels level and steady, locating the stoat. He raised his aim and fired just above the creature. It sped off without stopping. The violent crash of the shot rang out, shudder of air in its wake. Crows screamed free from the tops of trees, disturbed by the assault. It gave him a sense of power, choosing not to kill. With a simple hand movement he could kill or not kill, like the Roman emperors in films he’d seen, deciding the fate of a defeated gladiator with a flick of the thumb. The decision all his. It seemed to quell, too, his own savagery, stem impulses that swelled in some unarticulated part of himself. At first it had seemed something of an experiment and was worried that the pheasants and grouse might suffer with too many stoats and weasels and crows out to get their eggs and young. That first February he had caught extra birds for breeding to boost up the numbers, but he had noticed no real difference.
Nineteen months earlier, he had been out on the other side of the ridge, checking his traps in Crofter’s Copse. He had taken aim at a weasel and fired. Something had been niggling at him all that morning, he remembered that, though he couldn’t say what it was. At the same moment that he fired the shot, a pain like the kick of a horse centred in his chest. He had fallen backwards, sliding down against the bulk of a tree. The next thing, there was a light, brighter than any he had ever seen. It seemed to come from nowhere to surround him. There was a swell of blood in his head, his ears, he could smell the iron in it, feel it filling his nostrils. He must have fallen asleep or been knocked out because after that he remembered waking up. By the position of the sun it must have been some hours later. He had grown very cold and his limbs, when he tried to move them, were stiff through muscle to bone. With what seemed like the squeezing of all the effort that remained in his body, he had taken his watch from his pocket and registered with surprise that it was almost 3 O’clock. It had been even more difficult to stand. The blood had drained from his head with the elevation. By some gift of fate, he hadn’t been far from home. His wife was stood in the kitchen. She asked him what was wrong as soon as she saw him come through the door, he was the colour of a sheet she’d said and wanted to call a doctor. ‘Don’t fuss, woman,’ he’d growled at her like a dog, so that she’d leave him be. He said not a word about what had happened, for, in truth, he wasn’t sure what had happened himself, only that it was something uncanny. The more he thought of it the more stripped of sense it seemed. The world was a straightforward place for him and he didn’t give much weight to things outside of nature. For the next few days he’d stayed in bed and slept. Barely conscious even of his dreams. He hadn’t been comfortable killing for no proper reason for a long time. Though he’d laughed at himself. Him a gamekeeper all these years. When he went out to work again he had already decided not to kill like that again. It made sense to him, though he couldn’t have explained it in a million years.
He laid his gun beside him on the rock and brought his bag onto his lap. The dog moved to sit by him. He took out his tin and flask and looked down towards the valley. Best countryside in the world he told his brother when his brother announced that he was going to live in Leeds. ‘What d’you want to go there fer?’ he’d asked him, though he knew the answer even as he asked it. It was down to that wife of his, and her fancy ideas, holidays and dinners out, all red lips and breasts heaving beneath her clothes. His brother had met up with her just after he’d married his own wife. Who’d agreed with him at the time, calling her flighty, a woman like that. And the last time they’d seen them, still wearing dresses that hugged and stretched at her curves, like she had worn twenty-odd years ago. It wasn’t decent, he muttered to himself when he found his mind going back to those curves. He didn’t know why meeting up with them always sent him into a kind of fermenting rage in the days and weeks just after. He had a mind to tell them not to come again. Fuck that brother of his, with his superior ways. And that wife of his.
He poured himself a cup of black tea and took out a corned beef sandwich. His wife always made his sandwiches. Monday it was roast beef, sometimes Tuesday too, depending on how long the Sunday joint lasted. Friday it was boiled ham, after her Thursday trip to the shops. The other days it was corned beef. There was always something sweet too. A scone or banana bread. She looked after him well. He could say that about her. She kept the house clean and didn’t spend too much. All that he could be grateful for. When they were courting, and in the first years after they wed, she’d had a thing about fur coats. She’d said they made her feel like somebody, made her feel special. She’d wear them even in summer, draped around her shoulders. The first Christmas he’d given her a fox fur as a gift. He’d bought it from someone in the pub, though he’d kept that to himself. It had still cost a fair bit. He’d told her, when he was still playing the romantic game, that one day he’d get her a mink – would shoot them himself if he had to. Later, she had put them in bags with moth balls to store them away, said she wanted to keep them nice, save them for a special occasion. All except the mink, which he had forgotten about soon after.
He couldn’t stand the smell of moth balls in that old wardrobe in the spare room. The room meant for a child that never came. It was a musty, acidic smell that clung to the lining of the throat. She must never go in there, he’d thought after the first few months. His secret safe. He still thought it a clever plan. Had taken a while to think of it, he’d been some weeks chewing over the problem, when the idea came. He still killed rabbits, he and his wife, and a few others, ate those. The ones he’d skinned for his own table, he’d cut up the skins and hung them from fences, only there weren’t quite enough of those and the colour wasn’t quite right. Then it had come to him. The furs kept in the wardrobe with no use being made out of them. He’d gone in there, taken one from the back, unzipped the bag it was kept in. He’d felt the thickness of it, its resistance when you folded or scrunched it, different from a fresh skin. He had taken his knife out and slipped it under the lining. Cutting strips of fur from the back near the hem. Five stoat length strips and five mole length. That would do for a while. He laid the coat back in the bag. With the coat fastened up, you couldn’t tell the difference. Like there was no harm done. He closed the bag and returned it to the wardrobe, his heart thumping at the small creak of the door as he closed it shut. He felt the thrill afresh each time he went there to cut new pelts.
He finished his sandwiches and poured another cup of tea for himself. It was a fine day. There was a clearness about the air. He looked out over the valley, the swathes of mauve where the heather caught the sun, bright against the rust of spent gorse bushes.
The summer would soon be over and then the nights would start to draw in earlier and earlier. The anticipation of those long winter nights always filled him with a kind of dull dread. He could never get used to them. Like a weasel in a trap, with death edging in all around, even as a young man he’d felt it. What would he do without the pub to escape to? Though even as he thought it some old dissatisfaction stirred within him. Halfway down the valley, a buzzard rose from a wood on great slow wings, harried by a group of crows. He watched as the bird tried to throw them off, changing direction quickly, the ragged wings of the crows not so adept at changing course. Eventually it lost them, circling high in an updraft, its wings spread, soaring, the end feathers curling upwards, now indifferent to the crows that flapped in clumsy confusion beneath.
He was more his own master than ever, now that he had no traps to set and check. But he chose to follow the same routes, the same pattern. There was always something to occupy him. If he circled back round Low Wood and round past the Kelletts’ farm he would be back by four, half-past at the latest. Have tea and then go for a few drinks down the pub.
As he neared the lane that led up to the house he saw something long and black hanging from a fence. It flapped in the breeze and as he neared he saw that it was a pair of trousers. A little closer and he recognised his own trousers – his smart pair, pegged next to the pelts. Further along there was another pair and several of his shirts billowing in the wind’s growing unrest. He couldn’t quite fathom what it was all about. He turned slowly towards the house and entered. The kitchen was empty. Instinctively he felt at the stove. Gone out hours ago. Everything was tidy as usual. He came out of the front room and called his wife’s name as he began to climb the stairs. The spare room, the bedroom, all was in order, except his wife was nowhere to be seen. He went back downstairs to see if she had left a note to say she had gone to the shops or something. Her coat was gone. And the clock too. And what the hell were his clothes doing out there? But there was no note, nothing. Not a word.
Outside the wind had subsided. Though it had left behind the first of the cold. His clothes hung in stillness from the fence wire. A crow had come down to rest on a post, obsidian eyes in its sleek black head. It repositioned itself, clumsily, stretching and then folding a wing. Craning its head forward from the hunched back, it cawed loudly, moving from foot to foot, measuring.
© 2018 Alison Armstrong