Copyright is held by the author.
LAURA WALLACE watches her husband, Geoff, assembling the shotgun, and thinks tonight might be even worse than she anticipated.
The shotgun isn’t for her. It’s a deterrent. The Deterrent — Geoff’s name for it. He’s had it the entire four years they’ve been running the pub, gifted to him by local farmer Ted Gargrave. When you’re running a public house, the gravitas of a deadly weapon helps avert unruly behaviour.
He takes a sip from a glass of Bell’s Scotch. His little finger is almost, but not quite, extended. It’s as if he’s indicating points of interest in their living room. The olive wallpaper with its honey and amber flowers. The hexagons and diamonds of the carpet, splashed with every colour the manufacturer could cram in, but still dark and oppressive for all that.
The telly’s finished at this time of night, so the tranny’s tuned to Radio 1. Terry Wogan is winding up Late Night Extra with some big band stuff, the trumpets crackling through the tinny speaker.
“Who’s on for cleaning tomorrow?” she asks. She doesn’t look up from her textbook, Principles of Mathematical Analysis. She hasn’t cracked open this imposing volume since her A Levels. She still finds it interesting. She still gets it.
Geoff snaps the action onto the barrel of The Deterrent.
He doesn’t even flinch as he says her name.
“Any problems getting punters out tonight?”
“John Beakin had a few too many milds. Had to push him out the door. He seems to like it here.”
“Can’t imagine why.”
She knows that Geoff thinks she’s sweet on John. John’s easy on the eye, but there’s more to life than attractive young miners.
“Was that Eileen Kent I saw before?” he says.
“What’s she doing now?”
She must have told him 10 times over the past few years, but it passes through his head like there’s nothing between his ears.
“She went to Manchester University.”
This is where he gets distracted, because if you leave Ricksfield, you’re a traitor.
“We’re not good enough for her, eh?”
She looks up at him for the first time in minutes. He’s draped a large rag over her mum’s old dining table. Spread across it are shotgun parts, a scarlet can of Young’s gun oil, wooden rods, a bright yellow cloth, and other gun-cleaning paraphernalia. His bottle of Scotch is to the side.
She looks back down at a page of equations and dense text about differentiation. She can hear him breathing in and out, preparing for a rant, but something comes out of the radio that stops him.
Terry Wogan has said goodnight, the pips have pipped midnight, and Newsroom starts. The newsreader announces: “Good evening. Cynthia Lennon, wife of John Lennon, has filed for divorce from the Beatle today. Mrs. Lennon’s lawyers have cited adultery as grounds for the action. There has been no comment from Mr. Lennon so far…”
She looks up. Geoff has been messing with a box of shells, which he now fumbles. Red and brass cylinders patter onto the rag.
“You know who’s that with, don’t you?” he says.
“The Japanese girl?”
“Aye, Yoko Ono. Cynthia Lennon can’t divorce him for that.”
“Why can’t she?”
“Because she was having it off with someone else first, some hanger-on of theirs.”
“I never knew that. Was it in the paper?”
“No, just heard.”
“I think it’s fair enough if Cynthia wants to divorce him. He’s been hanging round with Yoko Ono in broad daylight.”
“Yoko Ono’s ruining them,” Geoff spits with sudden bitterness. “Ever since she got her claws into John, they’ve been churning out a load of weird hippy stuff. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and Sgt. Pepper. What happened to good songs like ‘She Loves You’ and all those upbeat ones?”
He hasn’t finished, but she returns to her book. He’s said the same thing a million times. He’s shared it with his mates downstairs in the public bar, the private bar, the lounge. They’ve shared it straight back because they all think the same way. If the publican says it, it’s okay for them to say it too.
“Are you listening?” He’s got that strained edge in his voice. His aggression has gone up a notch.
“No, not really.”
She doesn’t mean to be so dismissive. It just comes out. She doesn’t bother looking up. He clicks something wooden, presumably the stock, onto the shotgun. It clunks as he puts it on the table. It sounds like it’s all back together again, ready to deter.
“I was saying that it was Coventry Cathedral where they did their first proper public engagement. So it’s like, official now, they’re a couple.” It might have been a totally neutral statement of fact. But there’s a volcano of anger simmering there, its caldera bubbling with Bell’s rather than lava.
“What were they doing there?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Weren’t they planting acorns?”
“Something like that.”
“Yes, I remember now. What was all that about?”
“How the hell should I know?”
“Sorry, I just thought you might know, seeing as you like them so much.”
She looks up and he’s wrestling with whether he should admit he knows, or pretend he’s ignorant about something a Beatle has done. He knocks back the Scotch, splashes some more into his glass, and says: “So him and Yoko plant these acorns inside this round bench, and it’s meant to mean peace, right? Like, the acorns are pointing east and west, like him and Yoko and from east and west, but they’re together.”
“They turn up in this white Rolls-Royce, do their thing, leave a plaque saying ‘John by Yoko, Yoko by John’, something arty-farty like that, and bugger off.”
“They’re all about peace and love, yet it’s a married man carrying on with some other woman and breaking up a marriage.”
“All I’m bothered about is them getting back to good music. Get rid of Yoko.”
She leaves it a moment, savouring.
“Weren’t those acorns stolen?”
“I don’t know.”
“They shouldn’t have moved them.”
“What do you mean?”
“First they were in the actual ruins of the cathedral, then they were moved to the Cathedral Garden, where it was easier to nick them.”
“You were in Coventry the other week.”
He’s holding his glass, but now his free hand goes to a shell on the table and turns it between his fingers. He doesn’t appear to know he’s doing it. He doesn’t say anything. He’s watching her. She notices his eyes are a bit bloodshot.
“Meeting up with John,” she reminds him. “Kendle. Not Lennon.”
The shell turns. He stares at her.
“So did you steal them?” she puts to him.
“Why would I do that?” He sounds like he needs to clear his throat.
“You run The Oak. Imagine what having John Lennon’s acorns would do for business.”
“You can’t base a tourist attraction on stolen goods, love.”
“No, you’re right. But you can sell them.”
“Sell acorns? Any Tom, Dick or Harry can say they’ve got John Lennon’s peace acorns. No one would believe you.”
“Right again. Blimey, and I was sure you’d stolen them.”
“Yeah,” he snarls. “Well maybe you shouldn’t be casting accusations at your husband. Can’t I even go to Coventry to see an old mate?”
“Course you can.”
“Shut up then.”
The equations and axioms she’s been looking at stop making sense, her understanding of them washed away by a white rage she didn’t know she was capable of. It’s so unexpected she barely suppresses a snuffle of laughter. She looks up at her husband of four years and says: “I found the Polaroid.”
He didn’t flinch when he said Margaret’s name, but he flinches now.
“The one of you stealing the acorn at Coventry Cathedral.”
He doesn’t say anything. He’s still twiddling the shell.
“It was in the box of ammo in the cupboard.”
“Was that so you could give — what’s the word — provenance to whoever wants to buy it?”
“Love.” His tone is chilling. “Stop.”
“Not bad composition, Geoff. It’s got you holding up the acorn. You’ve got the bench, plaque, cathedral, everything. There’s no doubt whatsoever it’s one of the acorns. Did John Kendle take it? It’s really good.”
Geoff’s face sets solid. His lips press themselves together. Jaw muscles bulge and stay that way.
“Did you use our camera? The one we’ve used for all those pub parties and functions? The one we used for our wedding day? Did John claim the other acorn? I hope you didn’t do his picture, because you always cut people’s heads off.”
Geoff’s eyes are granite.
“The only thing is, you’ve incriminated yourself. Show that photo to any copper and you’re banged to rights. Wakey Prison for Christmas. How much did you think you’d get for them anyway? I didn’t know there were any acorn fences round Ricksfield.”
He erupts from his chair, knocking it back, shotgun in his hands. He cracks it open, slips in a couple of shells, snaps it shut, and points it at her. She remains seated but can feel her body pressing itself into the back of the armchair.
Something has surged up her gullet and squats there, pulsing like some monstrous toad. She doesn’t think she’ll be able to speak. She takes a moment, gulps it down, and manages to say: “I took a Polaroid as well. I’m holding your picture up, and the acorn in its little bed of tissue paper in the ammo box.”
The ends of the twin barrels are the blackest of mine shafts, leading straight to Geoff’s livid, drunk face. He squints at her through the sights.
“I’ve hidden the whole lot. You’ll never find it. Someone else might though. Who’s to say? Won’t be too hard for them to work out what’s gone on.”
His finger shifts. It’s gone inside the trigger guard.
“That’s enough,” he says. “Where is it?”
She mimes buttoning her lips closed.
He adjusts the butt of the shotgun against his shoulder.
She shrugs theatrically. “Are you going to add murder to theft? Do you want all your Christmases in prison?”
The tendons in his hand flex. The end of the barrel wavers. He’s trembling. A line of sweat has found its way through his hair and is running down his forehead.
Her breath wants to explode from her, but she controls it, willing it to leave her chest the way she wants. Steady. Steady.
She wonders what it will be like if he pulls the trigger on that well-oiled, freshly-cleaned gun. He’s never had to use it, so it must be baying for blood by now. Sick of being a deterrent and hungry for prey. It’s nothing but a mindless weapon, she knows that. Of course she does. But it’s barrels are aimed at her, and that inanimate steel and lead and gunpowder has taken on a definite and dreadful personality.
He can’t hope to get away with it. The neighbours will hear. The police will be round in a quarter of an hour, if that. If he jumped in the car he’d get maybe 10 miles before they found her body. What was he going to do then, go on the run? Not Geoff. He wouldn’t last five minutes.
He blinks away the sweat that’s stinging his eyes.
She says, “I know about you and Margaret.”
He blinks again, this time in surprise.
“Having it off when I’m down the front street. I’m not daft. I know what goes on when I’m not around. You want to run off with her? Get married? You think she’s going to want a wife-murderer?”
He ekes out his defiance a second longer, but that’s all he can muster. The stony look on his face collapses like a landslide. Tears spring from his eyes and the gun drops. It thunks onto the carpet and for a microsecond she’s sure it will go off and the last thing she’ll see is a burning black rain as her face is peppered with hot lead shot. But nothing happens. It lands safely and slaughters no one. Geoff has stumbled backwards and found the dining chair he knocked over. He’s sitting in it now, at the table, head in his hands, doing hiccupping crying like a six-foot toddler. His shoulders are bouncing up and down with each weepy gasp.
She’s filled with pity for him. He’s a defenceless, scared boy. She’s known that for years. The kids bullied him at school, so he’s erected one macho barrier after another. His vulnerability, which occasionally peeped out like a jerking bald chick, was partially why she married him. But it’s run its course.
She gets up and goes over to him. He’s still crying. She puts his hand lightly on his shuddering shoulder. After a while it subsides.
On the tranny, Newsroom has finished, and Night Ride is on. The harmonica in “From Me to You” is whining at them.
“I could have heard them playing this at the Azena in Sheffield,” she says.
They listen to John and Paul harmonize for a while. Geoff sniffs and wipes his eyes and looks up at her.
“Instead I went on my first date with you.”
She says it gently. She doesn’t want it to hurt him. She’s simply making things clear. “I want a divorce.”
He’s taken aback for a second, like he might try to argue. But he knows it’s useless. Her hand is still on his shoulder, which is motionless now. He covers it with his own.
“Yeah,” he says. His face crumples with emotion again, but he grinds it back down. The tears are fought back.
The two of them stay like that for a few heartbeats. Then she leaves him sniffling at her mum’s dining table.
She moves through the dark pub, down the stairs to the private bar. The juke box skulks in the corner, mute. She unbolts the doors and goes out into the car park. The night is cloudless and mild. She lets herself into the passenger seat of Eileen’s grubby Vauxhall Victor. She throws Principles of Mathematical Analysis in the back seat where her packed suitcase is waiting. Eileen gives her a look, and Laura nods.
They set off for Manchester University.