Previous: Carl Tennant: Life on the White Nile
The long road back – Things lost in South America – Fire at will – A bad shot.
Taking the life of another human being is perhaps the most
well acknowledged of sins. The destruction of a whole future,
a whole universe that still had in it the person you have just
destroyed. It is the most quoted commandment in the Bible:
Thou shalt not kill, even though the Hebrew distinguishes
between ‘murder’ and ‘slaying’. Name an evil man at random,
and the greatest chance will be that he killed one or more
human beings. Even to take a life out of mercy, to end or
avoid suffering, is a transgression. Why is it, though, that we
should suffer? Is it our duty to endure the pain, the physical
pain of wounds, burns, illness, or the pain of the mind that
comes from knowing that the world is wrong, and that for us,
it might never be right again? When predicting the future, are
we so likely to be wrong that we cannot take the risk of denying
ourselves the light that lies beyond suffering? We sufffer most
from the suffering we fear, but that never comes to pass. Thus,
we have more to bear than we are given.
— Alexandra L. Tennant, “Decisions on the spot”
I was sitting on a bench in the University’s gymnasium, watching my father walk, or attempt to walk, between two parallel bars for support. His prosthetic leg had been made for him by Andrew Parsons himself, who had sat for a long time, observing the stump of Father’s leg, untroubled by the uncomfortable feeling that affected anyone else who looked at it, including myself. At last, he leaned back, closing his eyes, watching my Father walk again in his mind. Then, he had made my father put his leg in a bucket of gel, and made a mould. The doctors in that strange place he had visited, and of which he had only spoken in dark hints, had done an excellent job in sawing off, rounding off the bone and re-sculpting the skin and muscle so that he could comfortably rest on it. Our physicians were suitably impressed. With Father’s typical pragmatism, he had asked for a leg that would allow him to walk best rather than one that would look like a normal leg. He had been offered the choice of a glass eye to replace the one he had lost, and had opted for an eyepatch instead. While wearing it, he looked like a pirate. When he was not wearing it, it looked as if his right eye was simply closed, except that it was not as convex as his other eye. He had suffered a savage cut to his left arm, severing muscles and tendons. A series of operations had restored some of the function to it, though it would most likely never be as strong again as it had been. I watched the leg in motion. Andrew had done a marvellous job. The lower leg was able to swing freely between straight and bent, until Father put his weight on it, at which point the limb locked. With practice, Father would be able to walk almost normally. And practice, he did.
“Come on Father,” I said. “Put a bit of effort in. I can walk faster on my hands!”
Father laughed grimly. “Come here and say that again.”
“Long John Silver could walk as fast as you on a moving ship,” I said. “And you may lay to that!”
“Long John Silver was a scurvy cur. He used a crutch for goodness’ sake.” Father reached the end of the parallel bars, and turned round. His eye glinted at me. “Time me,” he said, and started to walk to the other end while I counted.
“Thirty three,” I said. “Walk back in thirty for extra rations of grog.”
“Make it rum, or a nice claret.” Father set off again.
I laughed. “Pass the Château Margaux, me hearties? Mr. Stevenson would turn in his grave. Twenty-seven, twenty-eight…”
“Avast!” Father reached the end of the bars. “So tell me. Have we heard from that philandering brother of yours?”
“Not a word,” I said. “Though to be fair, can you call it philandering if it’s just the one woman?”
“Hah! You don’t know the half of it. If I had a penny for every time I’ve had to rescue him from a brothel…”
I waited. Father looked at me and grinned broadly.
“I’d have a single shiny penny.”
“I’m shocked! My brother? In a house of ill repute?”
Father turned round at the end of the parallel bars, a private smile on his face. “He was eight at the time. He’d wandered off and then followed someone he thought he’d recognised. The young ladies were very nice to him. Gave him cake and lemonade. Up until he was sixteen, he thought that was what people did in brothels.”
“I shudder to ask. What happened on his sixteenth birthday?”
Father turned round again, frowned. “How many laps left?”
Father set off again to the other end of the bars. “Someone told him. Illusions shattered, innocence lost.”
“Not to mention money,” I said. I was learning things about Carl that I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know.
Father reached the other end. Two more. “Oh, I don’t think he ever did get anything from a prostitute other than a glass of lemonade. I don’t know how he did lose his innocence. For all I know this African girl, Fata… Fita…”
“Fatin,” I said.
“Fatin, thank you. She may have been his first love.”
Given our stay at boarding school, that was unlikely. Without going into unnecessary detail, neither of us came out with our virginity intact. Not that I particularly needed my father to know about that.
I kept my silence as Father walked the next-to-last lap. The strain was starting to show in his face. He had been expecting to be running round South-America months ago. Doctors trying to explain to him that the human body needs more time to recover and readjust, had unfairly been proven right. He was leaning on the supports more as he made his final run. As I got up to fetch his wheelchair for him, he shook his head, and insisted on walking to it himself. He almost completely succeeded in hiding the relief as he sat down and composed himself.
I had specially requested a wheelchair with smaller wheels, so he would not be tempted to propel himself with his weakened arm. I had also lied to him, saying this was the only chair available. I wheeled him to his room, a small but comfortable place containing a desk, a bed, bookshelves, everything a scientist needs to get work done. I put my arm round him, kissed his temple, and went my way.
If one thing is tonic for the mind, it’s watching a classroom of enthusiastic girls hanging onto every word you say. Other teachers had to contend with slouching teen-agers, interested only in what you have to say because they would get exams on it. Not I. I had a secret weapon. In fact, I had a well-locked cupboard full of entirely not secret weapons. In the last Anglo-Prussian war, Algernon University had been a training ground for the Home Guard. These men, now old and grey, not to forget a few courageous women, had defended Ipswich Town from the invading armies using rifles that were out of date even then, and ingenuity. They had been honourably discharged at the end of the war, and gone on to live their lives, leaving only their rifles behind. For any military purpose, these rifles were completely useless. For our little club, they were perfect.
I had spent a vaguely nostalgic few evenings disassembling them all, checking them for rust and dirt, and re-oiling them. They were in remarkably good condition, having been used by people whose life might depend on them. I now had a dozen of them, with the promise of more where they came from. I had one of them lying on the table behind me. The almighty Porters had given me a stern talking-to on the subject of firearm safety and never to carry them around loaded. This was roughly on a par with them instructing a fireworks manufacturer that smoking on the job was strictly not permitted. Amazingly, Algernon University did have an outdoor shooting range, but it had fallen into disuse. The booths looked a bit decrepit, but the big mound of sand was still there. It would do.
I sat down on the desk, and looked at the girls. Sitting at the front, bright-eyed, was Florence, the girl I’d given a little practical sniping lesson just before leaving for Sudan, almost a year ago. Next to her sat her friend Jocelyn, dark-eyed, with long dark hair. Behind them sat Christa, Anna, and Carrie. Two desks behind them sat Linda Davenport, editor-in-chief of the Algernon Clarion, the student’s newspaper. At a strategic distance, so as not to miss anything important, was Miss Rina Prescott, another reporter and illustrator. She was observing everything, notebook on her desk, pencil in hand, ready to record anything that happened for posterity. I honestly hadn’t meant for this club to be girls only, but apparently, word had spread. Perhaps another little talk with Linda was in order. I gathered myself up.
“Ladies, welcome to the Algernon Rifle club. Who of you is ready to kill?”
Half a dozen jaws dropped, trying to work out whether this was a trick question. Which it was. I could see their eyes moving to their neighbours, trying to see if anyone would put their hands up. Finally, Miss Davenport raised a hand.
“Who, or what, are you expecting us to kill, Miss Tennant?”
“Nothing, and nobody.” I picked up a rifle from the table and held it up. “This rifle used to belong to Mrs. Dorothy Gray, member of the Ipswich Home Guard in the last War. It was an instrument of death. I believe it was responsible for the death of about six German soldiers. But its killing days are over. Now, it will be an instrument of learning. The art of marksmanship is primarily one of self control. Breathing, clarity of mind, clarity of eye. A steady hand.”
I could see Rina starting to take notes. Undoubtedly, a full report would appear in the Clarion.
“Now the most important thing when handling firearms is… anyone?” I looked round the class.
Christa raised a hand. “Hit what you’re aiming for?”
I shook my head, looked round.
“Um,” said Florence. “Not shooting your friends?”
“Oh I’d never shoot you!” Jocelyn put her head on Florence’s shoulder. “If I shoot you, who’ll I copy Maths notes from?”
“Exactly,” I said. “In fact, if even one of our bullets comes near another living being, this entire club is finished. These rifles are still quite capable of hurting people. Fire arms discipline.” I raised the rifle. “Is this rifle safe?”
“No Miss,” said Florence. “All weapons are considered loaded, to prevent accidents.”
“Correct,” I said. I removed the magazine from the rifle. “How about now?” I looked round the class. “Anna?”
“Correct. Why not? Christa?”
“Guns are always loaded, Miss.”
“I just took out the bullets. Surely now it’s unloaded?”
Carrie raised a finger. My eye was drawn to the little silver ring she wore in her lower lip. I’d been told that there was a rule against students piercing their ears. Here was a girl with inventive ways of getting round the rules.
“There may be a round in the chamber,” she said.
“Full marks.” I pulled back the bolt and a cartridge leapt out. I caught it in my hand. I’d carefully prepared it myself. It had no primer, nor did it have any gunpowder in. Still, under the rules it would have been disallowed. I could justify it for educational purposes. I put it upright on the desk and pointed at the bolt.
“This is how you show a weapon empty. Bolt back, magazine out, safety on. And still you don’t point it at people. When carrying, you point it at the floor.”
Christa chuckled. “We are on the first floor, and these floors are made of wood. There may be people walking below us. Tough shit, suckers!”
I nodded sadly. “In that case, graduation was simply not to be. But joking aside.” I looked round the class. “I don’t care how high your score is. I don’t even care if you are so spectacularly bad that you hit someone else‘s target. But fail on fire arm discipline once, and you are out of my class. I do not give warnings.”
I put down the rifle, walked over to the board and picked up a piece of chalk. I wrote on the board.
“The firearms we have, are the Rifle, short, magazine, Lee-Enfield. Or SMLE.” I looked over my shoulder. “Pronounced ‘Smelly’. They were used in the last war, and actually are still in use throughout the world. Does anyone know why we call these things rifles?”
Carrie StJohn raised her hand. “Rifling, Miss. A spiral in the barrel that makes the bullet spin when it’s fired.”
“Correct. The bullets acually spin tremendously fast. This makes them behave like a gyroscope, increasing range and accuracy. In this case, about five hundred and fifty yards for an accomplished marksman. For comparison…” I picked up my own sniper rifle. “This is the Mauser SR-220. It has a much longer barrel, uses ammunition with a larger load of higher-grade gunpowder. It has a theoretical range of eighteen hundred meters. I’ve hit a target at a distance of two thousand and twenty.” I looked round the class. “I got lucky.”
There was a kind of hush, as the girls realised what I meant by ‘Target’. I looked away. I shouldn’t have said that. They were firing mortars at us at the time. I don’t think I actually killed the man, but… I looked back at the class.
“And that’s why I am here today,” I said.
I took the girls through the procedures, what to do on a misfire, how to load a weapon, how to aim, how to fire. Then, we walked over to the gun cupboard, and each of the girls picked up a rifle. I picked up a box of ammunition, and with proper safety ritual, we made our way to the range. It was a bright sunny day, with only a little breeze. We set up our targets at twenty-five yards, ridiculously short for these rifles, but not the people behind the rifles. I could see that there was some difference between the girls. Jocelyn aimed carefully, pulled the trigger and gave a little shriek, of delight no doubt. Carrie was keeping a nice steady rhythm. I looked at her target, and saw she’d definitely held a rifle before. Christa was in the next booth over, clearly enjoying the noise, though not paying much attention to where the bullets ended up. Closest to me stood Linda, one eye screwed shut, aiming, aiming, though not actually firing.
“Hey Linda,” I said. “Are you going to fire anytime soon?”
She kept aiming. I could see the rifle weaving back and forth. She was far too tense for an accurate shot.
“Come on Linda. Just make it go boom.”
“I’m gonna miss.”
I laughed. “Of course you are. Nobody hits the bullseye on their first try.”
“Be lucky if I hit the target.”
“Well get on with it then.”
Linda pulled the trigger. A hole appeared in the top right corner of the target. Could have been worse. Linda sighed.
“Right. Close your eyes a moment. Take a deep breath. Now breathe out.”
Linda did, then looked at me.
“Good. Now take a deep breath, hold it, then aim above the bullseye.” Linda did as I said. “Good. Now squeeze the trigger, but don’t pull it yet.”
The rifle went off with a big bang. I gave Linda a smile.
“Alright, cycle and try again. A little less squeeze.”
Linda pulled back the bolt then pushed it forward. Then, she took a breath, aimed, and put her finger on the trigger.
“Good. Now let out your breath, and at the same time lower the rifle. When you’re on the target, pull the trigger.”
The rifle went off, and she got a three out of ten. A little to the top and right.
“Very good. Now do it again. Aim for the bullseye. See where the bullet ends up.”
Her next shot ended up a little bit below the previous one.
Linda put a hole a bit to the right of the first two. Not bad at all.
“Very good. Now reload and keep trying.”
She removed the magazine and started putting in five more bullets.
“I’m not hitting the target,” she said.
“That’s to be expected. There may be a slight misadjustment in the sight, the barrel may be a fraction of an inch off. Even my Mauser doesn’t fire exactly true. What you are looking for is tight grouping. Consistency is the first resort for a sniper. Look at what Christa is doing.” I pointed. “Clearly, she’s having fun, but she’s all over the place. Carrie is keeping her shots nice and tight. Rina isn’t doing as well, but still good. So is Florence. Jocelyn…” I looked over. She was popping off shots as fast as she could, with predictable results.
“Never mind Jocelyn. Now you fire off a few more series. Then if you keep them nice and close, then you compensate. Aim a bit below and to the left. Got it?”
Linda nodded. She clicked the magazine in and chambered a round.
“Remember. Breathe, hold, pfffft, boom.”
I watched Linda fire off a few more rounds, then wandered over to where Jocelyn was still rapid-firing through her ammo at an alarming rate.
“Hey. It’s not a race, you know?”
“Aww!” Her bubbly enthusiasm almost made her bounce. “I’m providing cover fire! They say that in a firefight, only one in a hundred bullets hits a target.”
“Not for us, they don’t. We’re snipers. Every shot counts. We don’t spray bullets like crazy.”
“That’s alright,” said Jocelyn. “I’m not crazy. I’m sure I’ve got that written down somewhere.”
“Good to know,” I said. “Want to learn how to actually hit the target?”
When all the targets started running out of places without holes, I called cease fire, and all the girls made an exemplary show of unloading, showing empty and stepping back. We replaced our targets with fresh ones, then did another round. By the end of the afternoon, all the silliness had drained away and the girls were all actually trying to hit the bullseye, with various measures of success. Carrie was the best, and I made a note to put her target further away next time. I pulled out my watch, saw it was hurrying towards dinnertime, and called quits. Florence walked up to me.
“We haven’t seen you shoot, Miss. Could you show us how it is done?”
I looked at her a moment, then picked up my rifle. I hadn’t actually fired it since I came back from Africa. I put a cartridge in the magazine, chambered the round. We’d taken away the targets, and I looked round for something to shoot at. About a half-mile away stood a small chapel, disused and overgrown with bramble. On the top of the tower was a rusty weather vane. Behind it were only fields, empty after the harvest. No chance of hitting any innocent people. I set my sight for eight-hundred meters, I closed my eyes a moment, then planted my feet firmly on the ground, and aimed. At the merest touch of the trigger, my rifle fired, and the weathervane spun as the bullet hit it. Through the scope, I saw that I had hit the sheet metal flag a few inches to the left of the middle. The girls cheered, but it was a bad shot, even from a standing position. I had to keep practicing. The only thing worse than being a killer was to be a sloppy killer. Doing it right meant your target wouldn’t even hear the shot. Doing it wrong meant unnecessary suffering.
I took my rifle apart, quickly brushed out the barrel, and put it in its case, snapped the locks.
“Come on, ladies. I could use a cup of tea.”
Carrying our rifles, we walked back to the University.
Unnecessary suffering is not what we want.