Alexandra Tennant: Make neither love nor war.

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Rack in ruin – Who is the fairest? – Girls’ night in – Distraction – Not as much fun as you thought

A topic that is shied away from in discussions of the ethics
of killing, is how satisfying it can be. To watch a human
being turn into a thing because you, you wished it to be so.
It is a dark part of the human psyche, and not a popular one
to explore. We are human, and we wish to project the evils of
this world onto designated “evil” beings. To contemplate that
we too are prone to committing even the most evil of acts is
not a comfortable thought. Still, we must. If we are to
understand the darkness, we must blow out the candle, and meet

Fourteen people now lie dead because I killed them. I do
not blindly hack and slash at my enemies. I am a precision
instrument. At the base of all my killings lies a cold and
rational decision. That person must die. I take great care
to be precise, so that they die quickly. I will aim for either
the head, or the heart. When I see them fall, the first
emotion is one of satisfied elation. Next comes a wave of
remorse, doubt, guilt. Then, my reason reminds me of why I
took aim at this person, and that makes most of the guilt go
away. I put my own life, and that of my loved ones, above that
of those who seek to take it away from us. I will kill to
defend myself and mine, without hesitation.

There is only one kill that I remember most vividly. A man who had
come upon me in the night, seeking to violate me. He was caught,
and his officer sent him away into the jungle, hands tied behind
his back, with no food or water. I took out my rifle, and shot
him in the head. The satisfaction I felt as I saw his head bloom
up in red fragments was more intense than any other. The resulting
guilt was correspondingly large. My rational thoughts were
quick to explain that I had saved the man a slow and agonising
death, but to this day, that explanation does not drive away
the guilt. Am I lying to myself? Did I truly wish to spare that
soldier the suffering he was in for, or did I simply want him
dead because I hated him?

If the former, then I need to think on this no more. I acted
out of kindness, and no more is to be said. If the latter,
then there is a dark patch in my soul that will continue to
haunt me until the day I die.

— Alexandra Tennant, “Decisions on the spot”

It was evening when I stood in my bedroom, looking at the ruins. My assailant and I had not been careful with the furniture, having other things on our minds. For him to kill me, and for me to stop him from doing so. Nobody had come yet to restore order to the room. The old cleaning lady had presumably taken one look at it, thought that nobody was paying her enough for this, and rightly so. It struck me that I probably owed my life to the girl with the amorous intentions towards me, because if I had been in bed asleep, rather than searching my soul by the window, then I would be dead now. A cowardly deed, though I couldn’t fault the efficiency.

There was a noise behind me, and I turned round to see Linda Davenport. She was staring at the scene with wide eyes behind her glasses.

“Oh my God,” said Linda. “I heard that you’d been attacked, but not… this.” She turned toward me. “Are you alright?”

“Yes, quite alright,” I said with a smile. “A frank and open discussion ending with me still breathing. Are you here for an interview?”

“This is a bit on the heavy side for the Clarion,” said Linda. “Anyway, I’d get embargoed three ways till Tuesday, pending investigations.”

“People interfering with the freedom of the press.”

Linda sneered. “Not unreasonable, really. I wouldn’t want to write a piece detailing precisely what we know for the murdering bastard to read.” She looked round the devastation of the room, then back at me. “You’re not sleeping here tonight, are you?”

“I’ve slept in jungles,” I said. “I can probably put the bed back upright.”

“I’ve got a better idea. Melanie went home early for some family business. Her bed is free. Why don’t you come and sleep in the dorm? Much safer. The porters have been keeping boys out of our dorms for years, and they are much more motivated than any assassin.”

“Is this some way to get me to sleep in the same room as you?” The words left my mouth before I could stop them. I mentally kicked myself.

Linda frowned. “What?”

I took a deep breath. “I am truly sorry, Linda, I shouldn’t have said that. It’s just that I overheard that one of the girls in the Rifle Club apparently has a bit of a crush on me.” I looked at her seriously. “It’s not you, is it?”

Linda gave a little snort. “The issue of the Clarion where I reported on the Rifle Club was the most popular one ever. My love for you is purely Platonic, and fuelled by self interest.”

“Thank goodness,” I said.

“Hey! I’m not that unattractive, am I? Mind you, I’m not one of the inverts either.” She stared at the wall. “I’m wondering who it could be, though.”

“So am I.”

“Hmm. I’ll make some discreet inquiries.”

I swallowed. “Please don’t stir up too much. I don’t want there to be any trouble.”

“No worries. I’m good at discreet inquiries.” Linda pointed at my trunk. “Want me to help you carry that thing into my bedroom?” She gave me a smouldering look.

Alright, I’d deserved that. “Yes please,” I said.

Linda and I, one at each end of my trunk, made our way to the girls’ dormitory. She opened the door, and as soon as I was spotted, there was some hurried activity inside. I was absolutely sure I could hear the clink of glass bottles being put away in a hurry. I put down my trunk and looked round the room. Anna was on her bed, practicing the guitar. Jocelyn was lying on the head end of her bed, legs resting up against the wall, looking at me upside down from her History textbook. Florence was writing at the large table. Carrie was sitting opposite her with a copy of the Gazette spread out. Christa was sitting upright on her bed, hands in her lap, looking at me with a very proper expression on her face. Ah.

I walked up in front of Christa and wordlessly held out my hand. She held her composure for maybe three seconds, then sighed and reached behind her. I looked at the bottle, and shuddered as I read the label: Greene Faerie Absinthea. I looked sadly at Christa.

“You know what this stuff is, right? Apart from contraband.”

“Yes Ma’am,” said Christa.

“It’s essentially sugar, ethanol and paint. The only place I’ve seen worse rotgut was in a boys’ dormitory. But their livers are their own to worry about.” I looked round the room. “Who of you have been drinking this swill?”

There was some uncomfortable shuffling all round the room, and a few wavering hands went up. I looked at Carrie, but she pointed at a half-a-gallon bottle of a dark fizzy drink that was slowly making its way from the Americas.

“Never touch the stuff,” said Carrie. “I’ve got other things.”

There were a few giggles from around the room, and I decided I didn’t want to know. I walked over to the open window, held the bottle out and turned it over. Then, I dropped the bottle. I walked over to my trunk and from under a stack of clean shirts produced a bottle of gin, two bottles of Indian tonic water and some lemons I’d acquired from the kitchen. I’d been meaning to invite Margaret over to my room for drinks, but these girls’ need was greater than even hers.

“If you smuggle booze into a dorm, girls, at least get the good stuff. Save up for it, it’s worth it.”

Collective jaws dropped as I pulled out my parang and started slicing lemons. I gave them a grin.

“I’m not a teacher.”

Linda sat down at the table next to me and accepted a tea mug of G&T. She sipped.

“What were you doing in a boys’ dorm with all that booze?”

I spent the evening in a gentle cloud of nostalgia for my own boarding school days, no doubt enhanced somewhat by the gin and tonic. I stopped short of feeding the Rifle Club drunk, I hasten to add. Bonding through shared illicit alcohol is one thing, drunken orgies and debauchery are another. As Paracelsus says: it is the dose that makes the poison. The discussions leapt merrily from one subject to the other, underscored by the gentle tones of Anna practicing a Vivaldi guitar concerto on her guitar. The subject of boys came up, and I raised a finger.

“If I may ask, Jocelyn, what is going on between you and Nigel? You’re giving the poor boy a heart attack every time you’re near him.”

“He deserves it,” said Rina. “Trust me.”

“How so?”

Rina and Jocelyn exchanged ‘You or me’ type glances. Jocelyn waved Rina on.

“Right. Tell me. What is the one subject that boys never get tired of?”

“Girls?” I said. A safe guess.

“Yes, but narrow it down.”

Pretty girls?”

“Nono, I’m thinking of narrowing it down to specific parts of a girl.”

“Parts, plural,” I said.

“Yes,” said Rina.


“So the boys were having a ‘scholarly debate’ on who of us had the best… parts.”

“A really in-depth discussion,” added Christa. “About who had the nicest tits. Fascinating.”

“I still have the list somewhere,” said Linda. “I was going to put it in the Clarion, with full jury’s comments. But then I suddenly got a bad case of good taste, so I didn’t.”

“I won,” said Anna, without skipping a beat in one of the hard bits of the piece she was playing.

“But not without a fight,” said Jocelyn. She smiled sweetly “Nigel nominated me. As I was walking past.”

“I would have smacked him,” said Carrie.

“Oh no fun,” said Jocelyn. She looked at me with a wicked grin. “I jumped into his lap and showed him what he was talking about.”

I pictured this in my mind. Jocelyn, with her long dark hair, lightly tanned skin and expressive dark brown eyes, certainly had a kind of romantic beauty about her. Overly gifted in the dairy department however she was not.

“Maybe he likes you,” I ventured.

Jocelyn shook her head, staring ahead of her. “I’m crazy girl. Stay away or you might catch it.” She looked up at me, with a sad, serious look in her eyes that was shockingly different from her usual exuberance. “Just as well, really. Wouldn’t want to…”

Jocelyn grabbed her drink and emptied it in one go. I was tempted to offer her another one, but it was probably better not to. When she looked back at me, the sparkle had returned to her face, and she snapped her fingers.

“I know! I’ll turn Atheist, so I don’t have to worry about morality anymore. Then I can borrow one of your rifles and shoot him in the knee.”

“Ahem,” said Christa. “Where do you get the idea that Atheists have no morals?”

Linda leaned over to me. “Christa is our designated Godless Heathen,” she whispered.

“Without God, there are no absolute morals,” said Jocelyn. “And shooting people is fun!”

“You say that absolute morals can only come from God,” said Christa. “That is false. I hold that we can derive moral values by observing the world around us and reasoning about what we find.”

I noticed the change to Christa’s vocabulary now that she had set herself to debating. Atheists are a small and universally mistrusted group of people, and I could hear in Christa’s voice that she had had to defend her convictions on many occasions.

“Nonsense,” said Jocelyn. “Without God, there is no absolute knowledge, so any notion of good or bad is just opinion.”

“Really?” Christa blew a blonde curl out of her face. “Is darkness the absence of light, or is light the absence of darkness?”


“If we didn’t have any information, either could be true, but since we know that light comes from a source, we know that darkness is the absence of light, whether that is the sun or a candle.”

“So what? So we can know some things, but morality is not a thing to be measured with a yardstick. It’s only in our minds. No minds, no good or bad.”

“Not so,” said Christa. “Imagine there is a kitten, all alone. No people around, and it is being squashed under a rock, and in great pain. Is this good, or bad?”

“Oh you are pulling out the kittens on me,” said Jocelyn, with a sniff. “The answer is neither. The kitten may be suffering, but it’s only in the kitten’s small fluffy mind. And kittens don’t know good from bad.”

“Is it not a fact that all creatures that can suffer, spend their days trying to get away from suffering? If that is not an absolute, then it is relative to so many creatures that the difference is nearly nothing.”

“There are people who enjoy being beaten and humiliated,” said Jocelyn. “They are called masochists. So not all pain is bad.”

“Ah. Masochists’ pain is not suffering to them. Their mind works differently.”

“Then it depends on who is in pain. Suffering is just someone’s opinion. So why is their opinion more important than mine?”

Christa shook her head. “No. Pain is not the same as suffering, and suffering is something all creatures try to avoid. A masochist likes physical pain. They know that they can stop the pain with a single word. They still do not want to be shot, or suffer hunger, cold, or something like that.”

“Yeah, but…” Jocelyn raised a finger. “Why is their desire not to suffer more important than my desire to shoot them?”

“Because you are not alone, and you live in a society where the same rules apply to everyone. Would you want to live with people who could rape you or beat you up or shoot you whenever they wanted?”


“So in order to be in a society where you are safe from people shooting you, a rule that says not to is objectively good, without the need for a divine ruling on the matter.”

Christa looked into Jocelyn’s eyes, waiting for a response.

“I need a drink,” said Jocelyn.

“Miss Tennant tipped it out of the window,” said Christa.

“Tipping that stuff out of the window was absolutely morally good,” I said. “I can probably justify another small gin and tonic.”

Jocelyn considered, then shook her head. “Got a History test tomorrow. I need every ounce of wit I have.”

That evening, despite Linda’s assurance that the Porters had never let boy nor man slip by them sad to say, I slept back to the wall. I was in the top bed, with one hand on my revolver under the pillow. I didn’t sleep very well, partly due to the idea that I was putting these girls at risk by being here, even though there was no way a would-be assassin could know where I was.

In the middle of the night, I felt the bed move, as someone jumped on. In a single motion, I twisted round, sat up, cocked my revolver and aimed it at my assailant. But rather than a murderer, I found myself aiming for the frightened, pale, wide-eyed face of miss Carrie StJohn.

“Jesus Christ,” said Carrie, as I quickly pointed my revolver elsewhere, then put it back under the pillow.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry,” I said. “Are you alright?”

Carrie took one or two deep breaths. “I should have known you’d be jumpy, sorry.” She closed her eyes for a few moments. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“So…” I said, not knowing quite what to say. “What can I do for you?”

Carrie put her back against the wall, and looked at me, a bit nervously. “I heard you were wondering who of us was, um, interested in you. And it was getting on your nerves.”

I simply looked at Carrie. She gave a little nervous laugh.

“Well… it’s me.”

“Ah,” I said, somewhat stuck for words. Carrie was very pretty. She wouldn’t have any trouble finding a willing boy, so what would she want with a woman? But that of course was a stupid question. She preferred girls. Not many girls would share her… her tastes. She must be so lonely. But then again, how many girls did secretly desire each other? And it would have to be secret, because despite the matter-of-fact attitude Linda and at least one other girl had shown, inverts were still looked down on by some, if not most people. I felt a measure of sympathy for her, as a person in a difficult situation. Still as she sat there, looking at me, the idea of kissing her, pressing my naked body against hers, filled me with a sense of wrongness I was unable to shake. Quite apart from the fact that I was, in a sense, her teacher, with enough authority over her to make the situation uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry, Carrie,” I said, finally. “But I just don’t…”

Carrie smiled. “Yeah, I got that. From the way you’ve pulled the blankets up over your boobs.”

I looked and found I had done exactly that, without realising or meaning to. Carrie looked back at me with interest, waiting to see whether I would lower the blanket so she could have another look, or keep it up so she could savour my embarrassment a bit longer. Little minx.

She laughed and looked away. “What I wanted to say is, don’t worry about it. It’s only a little crush. I’m not going to leave flowers at your desk, or write your name in my diary with little hearts round it. I don’t want to do it with straight girls anyway. It never works out.”

Despite myself, I wondered what she meant.

“Most of them are ready enough to give it a try,” said Carrie. “So I turn them into a happy little puddle, because I’m pretty good if I say so myself. But then it’s my turn and then they go all ‘yecch’ on me. Now how’s that fair?”

I laughed, a bit nervously. “Not fair at all. I’m sorry. How hard is it to find a girl who’s willing?”

“Unicorn in a haystack,” said Carrie. “A miracle when I do find someone.”

I sighed. “That must be hard.”

“Would be, if I only liked girls. There’s a few who really don’t want anything to do with boys. Worse for them than it is for me. So. No need to feel sorry, I’m fine really, and I won’t try to seduce you. Promise.”

“But you’ll still be looking at my boobs?”

“Well yeah!” Carrie gave me a grin, and dropped down from the bed.

“Um,” I said, to nobody in particular. That seemed to suffice.

Carrie had assured me that I was safe from her Sapphic attentions. Nevertheless, it was written in the stars that I would not sleep easy that night. I hovered between dreaming and waking, and I dreamt mostly of dark figures showing up in the night. This was unfortunate, because it took me a moment too long to realise that the figure that appeared before me was not a dream. I tried to aim my revolver, but my attacker grabbed my wrist and slammed my hand on the edge of the bed, so that my revolver went clattering on the ground. A hand with a knife came down, and I only just managed to grab it. We wrestled for a moment. I could not push hard enough to turn the knife away, but my attacker could not bring enough leverage to bear to press it into my body. To break the impass, I threw myself off the bed, and managed to unbalance my opponent. The movement, though, was not controlled enough to dislodge my attacker, who recovered and tripped me up. I fell to the floor with my attacker on top of me. I clawed at the face, and ripped away the mask. I stared for a moment. Up to now, I’d assumed that the assassin would be a man. Now, I saw my mistake. I recognised the old woman who cleaned our rooms. Except that she was not as old as I’d thought. Her strength was frightening. She pushed down on the knife with all her weight, and I could just barely keep her from pressing it down. With a vicious snarl, she suddenly pulled up, rammed her knee into my midriff, and pressed down again. I coughed, fighting for breath. I felt the strength leave my arms, and the knife slowly came down. I screamed as the point of the knife pierced my skin.

There was a loud noise, and the pressure fell away. Finally seeing my chance, I twisted the point of the knife away from me and threw my attacker off. It was surprisingly easy to do. I raised my hand, and chopped her in the throat. She made a choking noise, and rolled onto her back, gasping for breath. To finish it off, I punched her in the stomach, once, twice, three times. She stopped moving, staring into the air with wide-open eyes.

As I looked round, I saw Jocelyn. She was on her knees, in her nightgown, eyes wide open, and she was breathing fast. In her hands, she was clutching my revolver. I leapt for her, and turned the revolver to the floor. She almost threw it away from her. I put down the revolver, and held her face in my hands. She screwed her eyes shut, not wanting to see. I put my arms round her. She felt so awfully thin and fragile.

“It’s alright,” I said. “Everything is fine.”

Jocelyn looked into my eyes, and her teeth were chattering.

“It’s… not… fun,” she said.

People came. My attacker had suffered a gunshot wound that had punctured a lung, but she was still alive. She was rushed to the infirmary, where the surgeons managed to stabilise her for now. Porters were now at the doors of every dorm, every hallway. They knew they had failed in their duties and were doing everything they could to make amends. In the bed next to me, Jocelyn was asleep, sedated. The door opened, and Margaret came in. She looked me over once, then embraced me with a surprising force.

“I’m so glad you’re alright.” She let go of me to look into my eyes. “Are you?”

I forced a smile. “Yes. Yes I am. Poor Jocelyn.”

Before she had been given the sleeping draught that had knocked her out cold, I had been reassuring her over and over again that the woman was alive. Jocelyn had saved my life. Nobody had died, thanks to her. I wasn’t sure how much of it had penetrated the state of shock she was in. I wanted to be there when she woke up, or the doctors would have sedated me as well. Margaret all but pushed me into my bed.

“She’ll be asleep for ages,” said Margaret. “I’ll be there when you wake up, and then you can be there when she wakes up. Deal?”

Soft pillows touched my face. The blankets were soft and warm.

“Deal,” I managed to say, before I fell asleep.

Next: Philip Tennant: A passing kindness


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