Matt turned his key and pushed the door open. He peered in. The coast seemed clear. He listened for a moment. He couldn’t hear the TV or radio. Becky must not be home from work yet. Letting the door swing open further, he stepped inside.
‘Where have you been?’
Shit. She was home.
‘What’ve you got there?’
Becky stood between the stairs and the living room door, arms folded, her eyes fixed on the long thin box Matt had tucked under his arm.
Matt closed the door and took a deep breath.
‘It’s an air rifle.’
‘What? Why’d you get that?’
‘Why do you think? To shoot stuff.’
He tried to pass her but she stepped to the side and blocked his path.
‘What kind of stuff?’
Matt cocked his head and blinked, then pushed past her and into the living room. She followed him.
‘I said, what kind of stuff?’
He turned to face her. ‘We were talking about getting our own rabbit and pigeon and that in The Wheatsheaf the other night.’
‘Is there an echo in here? Yes, The Wheatsheaf.’
‘Is that where you were on Wednesday? Why wasn’t I invited?’
‘Oh forget it.’
He cleared a space on the coffee table and laid the package on it.
‘You can’t go shooting rabbits. I told you how I feel about that!’
Matt sat down and started to cut away the tape at each end. He spoke without looking up.
‘I didn’t buy it to shoot cans, Becks.’
He pulled the weapon free from the box and studied it for a moment.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’
‘It looks expensive.’
Matt stopped. He looked at Becky and raised his eyebrows.
‘Don’t start, eh?’
‘Why? How much was it?’
He looked down. Becky scoffed and turned away, shaking her head.
‘You know that Jacqui rang earlier? She said you missed an appointment today.’
‘Another labouring job. Is that what I trained for five years to do?’
‘It’s work isn’t it? How much longer are you going to be able to blow cash on stupid toys like that at this rate?’
The doorbell rang.
‘That’ll be Rob.’
He sprung to his feet, laid the gun carefully on the table and walked into the hall. He paused and turned back. ‘We’ll talk about this later, all right?’
Rob sat down on the sofa opposite Matt. He held the rifle firmly against his shoulder and looked down the scope.
‘It’s a .22 isn’t it?’
‘Something like that, yeah.’
He snapped it open, took a long drag on his cigarette and exhaled down the barrel. They both watched as the smoke lapped out and around the end.
‘What does Becks think?’
‘She says we can’t afford it. But I know the real reason.’
‘What’s that then?’
Matt took the gun, glanced at the door and smiled. He wrapped it in a black bin liner and placed it at his feet.
‘She doesn’t want any bunnies getting hurt.’
‘I ran over a rabbit a little while back.’
‘And what’s that got to do with shooting them?’
‘She was in the car behind. She saw it dragging itself across the road afterwards. Its back end was all busted up apparently.’
‘She says that when she closes her eyes she still sees its little legs going. Reminded her of the one she had when she was young. Soppy Mare.’
They laughed but cut it short as Becky entered the room and sat down next to Matt in silence. She switched on the television and stared straight at it. Matt looked from her to Rob. He had dropped his gaze and was focused on his mobile as if willing it to ring.
Matt leaned toward Becky and pulled the best ‘puppy dog’ face he could manage. She noticed and tried her best to ignore him. She failed.
‘Don’t look at me like that.’
He persisted. A slight smile breached her lips and she grabbed a cushion, which she raised to hit him with. She stopped herself and pulled it tight to her chest instead.
‘Why don’t you go test it out?’
Matt looked at her.
‘I know you want to. Just go.’
Matt leaned toward her and kissed her gently on the forehead. He grabbed the bin liner-wrapped air rifle and nodded to Rob, who had finally looked up from his phone. They both stood and headed out of the room.
Matt looked at Rob. He frowned and shook his head.
‘Of course, love.’
After half an hour sitting on the ground, Matt had realised that it was damp. Now he was cold, his arse was wet and he had just leant on a stinging nettle. That, along with the fact that they had not seen any animals, let alone have a shot at one, meant he was beginning to get pissed off.
He looked at Rob. He was lying on his front, alternating between squinting down the barrel and peeking over the long grass.
‘If we don’t get anything in half an hour, I’m going to The Wetlands.’
‘What, the pond?’
‘Yeah. Why not?’
‘It’s illegal for a start.’
‘Only if someone sees us.’
Rob eyed Matt carefully then shook his head and returned to his vigil.
Twenty minutes later, Matt was on his third cigarette. He took a long drag and exhaled hard. He sat up quickly. Rob swore to himself.
‘Look, we’re not going to get anything here, are we? Let’s go.’
‘If you keep smoking and moving about like that then we won’t.’
Matt avoided his gaze and grabbed a handful of grass. Rob glared at him.
‘Do you know nothing about hunting?’
They sat in silence for another five minutes. Finally Matt spoke.
‘Look, it’s getting dark. Let’s just stop by the pond and see what’s about.’
Rob sighed. He cocked the rifle and removed the pellet. He passed it to Matt who cradled it in the crook of his arm. Neither moved.
‘Go on then, lead the way.’
They headed back to the car. On the way they stopped briefly to take a pot shot at a passing pigeon. Then a crow. Both survived unharmed.
The Wetlands was a ten-minute drive away. When they arrived, the car park was almost deserted. They got out and walked to the water’s edge. Along the side of the tarmac, more than twenty ducks were coming ashore to roost. Some stood and quacked at each other, some were already sleeping. Shooting one would be easy. Rob rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a coin.
‘Heads, I shoot. Tails, you.’
Matt said nothing. He had already decided he would let Rob do the deed. He was to serve as lookout on the edge of the road. Rob flipped the coin. Heads. Relieved, Matt headed to the roadside.
He pulled out his mobile phone and pretended to be deep in conversation as a couple out for an evening stroll came past. As soon as they were out of sight he scanned the road one last time then gave Rob the thumbs up. He could just see the end of the barrel poking out of the passenger side window. Rob was hunkered down in the driver’s seat. Seconds passed. Nothing happened. Matt looked at the car. He couldn’t see Rob anymore, it was getting too dark. What was he waiting for? Then he heard a dull thunk. Rob had taken the shot.
The ducks didn’t stir. Matt stared at them. Rob must’ve missed. Then they all started to move. Matt took that as his cue and rushed down the bank toward them. Each one plopped off the concrete and into the pond. They were all in the water by the time he got to the edge. All but one, that is. A young female mallard flapped its wings and stumbled. Matt stepped closer.
‘You got it.’
Rob appeared at the top of the bank.
‘Grab it. Quick.’
He disappeared again. Matt looked at the stricken duck and edged closer. It flapped a few times and flopped into the water.
‘It’s gone in the water.’
‘Then get it before it goes too far.’
Matt looked at the duck. It was swimming in small circles near the water’s edge. As it came close, Matt squatted down, took a deep breath and held his arm out. He hesitated. It went out of reach. He exhaled.
‘You got it?’
Rob was half walking half slipping down the bank behind him with a carrier bag in his hand.
Matt couldn’t take his eyes off the duck. Its head had dropped into the water, small air bubbles rippled out from its nostrils. Rob tutted and pushed Matt aside. He dropped the bag and fell to his knees. Reaching out, he grabbed the duck around the neck. As he lifted it clear of the water he gripped the head in his other hand and twisted violently. The duck fell limp. He took up the bag and dropped it in.
They drove back to the house in silence. Every now and then Matt thought he could hear the carrier bag rustling on the back seat. He reassured himself that it was probably moving due to Rob taking the corners too fast.
When they arrived, Matt opened the door and headed straight for the kitchen.
‘Did you get anything then?’
Becky was in the living room. He stopped. Rob appeared behind him. ‘Yeah, we got a duck. Want to see?’
He pushed by Matt with a chuckle and opened the back door. Matt followed him, Becky close behind.
‘Grab a knife; we need to bleed it.’
Matt searched the drawers but all he could find was a bread knife. He stepped outside and handed it over. Rob took the duck out of the bag and placed it on the floor. Becky watched in silence.
‘Hold it down for me.’
Conscious of Becky standing behind him, Matt laid a tentative hand on the duck. It was still so warm. He swallowed hard. Rob held the head and rested the blade against its neck. He started to cut. Matt couldn’t watch. Becky couldn’t stop herself looking. He moved his gaze toward the sky. She moved closer. With a fast, steady sawing action Rob removed the head.
As it came free from the body Matt felt the duck leave his grip. Good. Rob’s taken it. Relief swept through him.
‘What the hell?’
Behind him, Becky screamed. He looked down. The headless duck was running across the yard. Rob stood open-mouthed, the head in his hand. All three watched, frozen to the spot as the duck crashed into the wall, fell onto its back and flapped twice, three times then stopped moving, save for an occasional leg-twitch.
‘Did that just happen?’
Rob had a look on his face similar to a child’s on Christmas morning as he bent down and picked up the dead bird. He hung it on the washing line, two pegs on each foot. Matt couldn’t move. His heart pounded in his ears.
‘You OK mate?’
If Rob was genuinely concerned, his actions deceived him. He pushed the head into Matt’s face and moved the beak while he asked. That was enough. Matt raced inside and up the stairs to the bathroom. Becky followed him.
Matt wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and rested his cheek on the toilet seat. Becky rubbed his back, ‘No rabbits then, eh?’