HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

A Bullet

Jacqueline lives in Paisley, Scotland and is a former nurse, unable to work at present due to extensive knee surgery.She enjoys writing short stories, fiction and non-fiction. Jacqueline has had a few writing competition successes and has just had a short story accepted for publication in Take A Break Fiction Feast, her first. She love books and reads all the time, and is also very interested in nature and wildlife.


A BULLET AT DUSK


They didn’t normally go out in the afternoon, but today was one of those days, when life was different. A blast of frozen wind slashed Isla’s face, a sudden touch that usually pleased her, but today there was something wrong, far wrong. The sights, sounds and smells were unfamiliar. Acrid puffs of petrol hovered in misted shrouds, giving the air an eerie pallor, and clogging Isla’s nostrils. The atmosphere filled her with a sense of foreboding. Niggling sensations of unease crawled beneath her skin. Something bad was going to happen.
The street was busy, lined with brightly lit shop and office windows. Smudged figures hurried by, scurrying like ants, a dark, seething mirage, heads drooped, trying to stave off the sting of a bitter winter’s chill. The sky was low and sullen, a menacing, slate roof, pressing down on Isla’s skull, crushing her against the damp pavement where blobs of crystallised grit formed mottled patterns. Her mother, Morag, gripped Isla’s arm so tightly, it hurt. In front of them, an automatic door slid mechanically open. They stepped inside.
The jobcentre was quiet. Morag was relieved. She scanned the room. A few hooded figures milled around and several pale-wooden desks housed a man or woman, chewing pencil ends and tap-tapping on keyboards. No-one was looking at them, but Morag could not shake off the cloak of dread that draped her shoulders, and settled like a boulder in the pit of her stomach. The timing of the appointment was a mistake, but the man at the other end of the phone wouldn’t listen. Three appointments have been cancelled already, he said, if Isla doesn’t turn up this time, her benefits will be suspended.
Morag could feel Isla’s fear and confusion. She maintained her arm grasp as they squeezed into a booth. A woman with plaited ginger hair and a flowery, summery cardigan glanced up from a mound of paperwork placed strategically in front of her. ‘I’m Julie, your personal advisor.’
Isla let out a sharp noise like the bark of a dog.
‘Relax,’ Morag hissed. ‘We’ll go home soon.’
As Morag and Isla dropped onto red, plastic chairs the woman spoke again. ‘It looks like you may be fit for work soon, that’s good news.’
Isla turned her face away. She gazed at the doorway. She wanted to keep an eye on the world beyond the glass panel. The stormy sky threatened snow. Isla frowned. She would have to eat early tonight in case snow fell, thick and deep, burying the meadow grass. The problem was she could not see or smell any grass. All she could make out was concrete, glass and bricks, an environment that smacked of danger, of something sinister and evil.
Cars and buses trundled through the heaving throngs of people. The smudged glows of their headlamps moseyed through the gloom. Isla could hardly breathe. Things were not right. Why could she not see the edge of the meadow, straddled by copses of skeletal birch, branches stretching upwards like marble, bony hands grasping a slippery sky. Nor could she see the familiar jagged heads of teasel, where goldfinches gathered in colourful charms.
‘I see from your notes you suffer from zo-an-thr-opy,’ Julie’s words spilled through the gaps in her teeth. ‘Perhaps you could tell me how this affects your day-to-day life and ability to work.’
Isla ignored her, scrutinising the doorway with wide, startled-brown eyes. The movement of traffic made her dizzy. The drone of engines was unbearable. Where were the usual sounds of her crepuscular world? Noises she liked, the whistle of the wind slicing through frosted blades of grass, the babble of the stream, and the endless chatter of starlings flocked high-up in the treetops.
Exhaust fumes made Isla nauseous. Her nose twitched, frantically searching for the scents of her meadow: frost, wood smoke, wet ferns and pine trees. Julie scraped her chair closer to the desk, wrapping her cardigan tight around her chest. Morag plunged into the silence.
‘My daughter has a psychological condition which makes her believe she is an animal. Isla thinks she is a deer, a roe deer to be exact. She doesn’t identify with human beings. I don’t know why, all of a sudden, they think she is capable of holding down a job. We’ll have to appeal.’
Julie cleared her throat, and shuffled some papers, buying some composure time. The words ‘why me?’ flitted across her eyes like a banner trailing from an aeroplane. Morag hoped for a glimpse of compassion, but Julie’s professional tone hardened.
‘Thank you but it would be helpful if Isla spoke to me.’
‘I told you my daughter thinks she is a deer. They don’t talk like us.’
‘She’s getting medical help, yes? Let’s start with what she can do and go from there.’
Morag sighed before speaking again. ‘Isla was in hospital for a long time. They don’t know what causes her illness. She tried to hang herself while in the ward. She can’t cope with normal life. They have tried ECT and lots of drugs, but nothing helps. She always reverts back to deer-like behaviour.’
Morag halted, her voice quivering. Hold it together, her inner voice yelled. It’s not the woman’s fault she doesn’t have a clue. Morag had watched her only child grow up different from everyone else. Isla never outgrew the phase of sticking grass and mud in her mouth. Morag would never forget the night Isla tried to hang herself. There’s been an incident, the nurse on the phone told her. She drove to the hospital, not knowing if her daughter was dead or alive.
At school Isla’s classmates made fun of her, nicknaming her Bambi and making comments like ‘don’t go out in the rain, dear’. Isla never mixed with other children and never made any friends. She spent all her time alone, huddled at the bottom of the garden, curled up in the grass, resembling a fragile, doe-eyed fawn. Morag didn’t expect a civil servant to see beyond the red tape of the benefits system, but she wished for once someone would tap into the real Isla, the young, beautiful, compassionate and tormented woman, who’d had more than a lifetime of being bullied and isolated.
Morag could feel Isla’s arm tremble beneath her grasp. She wanted to scream. This was so unfair. Why did they have to be put through this? Why could they not be left alone? Morag learned to love and protect from afar, watching from the kitchen window, as Isla stared into the field beyond the garden, viewing a world no-one else could see or enter. Morag wished she could see inside her daughter’s head, even for a second.
Isla grunted. Her legs were stiff. She wanted to stretch. She needed to be outdoors, feeling the razor-sharp wind cut her cheeks. All morning she had been lying-up in a woodland thicket, half dozing, half listening to the swish of branches as a squirrel leapt to and fro. But mother had appeared and dragged her into Hell. Why?
The insipid, sand-coloured walls of the jobcentre closed in, suffocating Isla. Her scalp prickled. Outside the air was dulling, growing starker. It was the time of day when wintering thrushes foraged among frost-bordered leaves, and pheasants crowed from nearby hedgerows. But today there were no birds, only the oppressive sky poised over an alien landscape. Soon it would be time to head to the meadow. Isla hoped the snow would hold off. She was getting hungry.
The images of hurrying people and rumble of traffic shattered Isla’s sylvan visions. Why could she not see or hear the noisy chattering jackdaws preparing to settle for the night, or the blackbird perched on his rowan tree branch, head under wing, evensong silenced.
Nothing was as it should be. Something bad was happening. Why was mother there? She didn’t come to the meadow until darkness had fallen, and then she led Isla gently into a dim room with grass-green walls and sky-blue curtains, always open, so that Isla could see the meadow shimmer beneath moon and stars. Was she going to be taken away like before? Away from mother, away from the meadow. The thought made her sick.
Would she be able to wander the meadow the way she did last night, in the golden glow of an oak moon, tiptoeing over ice-capped molehills, and listening to the muffled call of an owl. She hadn’t been the only deer in the meadow. She grazed alongside a few does and a lone buck (proud looking in velvet antlers). They were at peace in each other’s company. The rut was over. Feathers of hoar frost tickled her nose as she browsed among twinkling bramble and bilberry bushes.
Isla was blinded by panic. The kind that rips through the skin and punches the gut. Her heart thudded and her bowels turned weak. She wasn’t safe. She had to get back to the meadow. There no-one mocked her. Isla knew she wasn’t like other people. They had arms and legs. She had long, slender limbs and a white, heart-shaped rump.
Dusk was usually her favourite time of day but in the thickening light of late afternoon, the air was electric, weird. The rookery was silent. Surely if something untoward was going to happen, the rooks would rise in flapping, raucous clouds and she would hear them in the distance. Why did mother keep talking? What was she saying? Was there a dog in the meadow? Had a hunter arrived with his gun, or had someone laid traps, the metal-jawed ones that tortured the rabbits and weasels?
Julie gave up trying to engage Isla in conversation. She addressed Morag.
‘I see your daughter requires a lot of support. We need specialist help. Is it okay if I ask my manager to join us? He may be able to suggest appropriate agencies and approve any recommendations we make.’
Morag glanced at her watch. ‘Can we finish soon? Isla becomes more deer-like at dusk.’
Isla watched as daylight faded, and early evening shadows lengthened across the pavement. Things didn’t feel right at all, and she could smell snow. It wasn’t far away. The wind had taken on a new, peculiar urgency, moaning and gusting, trying to snap the shackles of city life. Leaves scuttled down the road like neurotic spiders. Isla wanted to follow them, skipping on nimble hooves, away from the rabble of voices and tooting horns. She longed to see signs of pre-dusk meadow life: browsing rabbits, a flickering kestrel and magical v-shaped formations of wild geese passing overhead.
Isla’s heart beat so fast, she felt it was going to burst through her ribcage. Ears pricked, her head swivelled from side to side. A man appeared behind the desk. Morag recognised the voice. It was the idiot she spoke to on the phone. Isla saw her mother stiffen.
O God, there was a man in the meadow. He smelled of aftershave and sweat and peppermints. Morag took an instant dislike to his armpit-stained, lilac shirt and purple-spotted tie. Isla saw tweed, a deerstalker hat, moleskin breeches and muddy-green wellies. Isla wondered why she hadn’t picked up his scent beforehand. He must have sneaked downwind. The prospect of snow had distracted her. She had not heard his approach, no snapping twigs, no crunching bracken.
Still the rooks remained mute. No pheasants lunged into the air on clattering wings. The explosion of a gun was the worst noise an animal or bird could hear. Its bullet the ultimate fate. Why had there been no warning signs to alert Isla to the man’s presence at the meadow’s edge? There was only one reason Isla could think of. The hunter was not there for rabbits or pheasants or corvids. He was after her. On a bleak, midwinter’s afternoon her time had come. Isla began to cry.
‘Hey, it’s okay, I don’t bite,’ the manager twiddled a silver pen between his fingers. Its metallic gloss captured the sheen of the fluorescent lighting.
Morag tried to work out what was going on in the jittery hell behind Isla’s eyes. If only she could see what her daughter did, maybe she could help. Isla did not see a pen. She saw the blackened barrel of a rifle. She could smell grease and gunpowder. Unblinking, gasping, she stood on the cusp of death. Isla didn’t want to die. Not now, not ever. She recalled the bed sheet-noose around her neck, the breathlessness, the strangulation. No-one had understood. She wasn’t attempting suicide. She had just wanted to release her soul from her body, and let it flee to the meadow, escaping the doctors and nurses, the stench of antiseptic, the pills, the injections and the electric shocks.
‘You’re scaring her,’ Morag could smell Isla’s terror.
At the sound of her mother’s voice, survival instinct kicked in. It would be better to run and be hit from behind. If she took the bullet on the leg or thigh, she could maybe crawl into her woodland glade and make it through the winter. It wouldn’t be easy with snow on the way, but how she wanted to experience the magic of springtime again.
The beauty of new-risen life after the cold and dark of winter stirred desires deep within her, a longing to sniff the intoxicating perfumes of bluebells, wild garlic and lemon-flowered gorse. The yearning to taste fresh, dewy grass made her taste buds prickle, and she could almost feel the soothing chill of ice-melted stream water, as her tongue lapped among shuddering clumps of jellied frogspawn.
She imagined the dawn chorus and call of the first cuckoo arriving in its lonely spinney. Her mind swirled with visions of eldritch-like forms of swallows, bats and moths, gliding against a backdrop of twilight skies. Her spine tingled with pleasure at the thought of new born buds stroking her ears, and mandarin-streaks of sunlight chasing away the drab rustiness of her winter coat.
The manager extended his hand. Isla screamed. She struggled and broke free from her mother’s grip. With giant leaps and bounds she wove through desks and chairs, and bolted out the door. Every head in the jobcentre lifted. As she ran, Isla anticipated the crack of gunfire and thud of the bullet as it smashed through flesh and bone. Helpless, Morag watched her go. Small flakes of icy snow began to flutter on the wind.