George was a lucky man. He looked over his fence at the destruction next door. Not so lucky. His neighbours’ house was unrecognizable. Ex-neighbours’. God. Only the colour of the bricks and weatherboards and bits of iron roof amongst the rubble tied with his memory of it. He exhaled noisily and lent on the freshly stained fence. Nothing wrong with it at all - not even a mark, and yet just meters away . . . well, it was heart-breaking.
They weren’t sure where the Montgomery’s were when it hit, but at 3.30am they were probably in bed and maybe didn’t know much about it. They bought in a dog to sniff them out and then dug them up early next morning. Took three blue bags away on stretchers, and that was that. It was on the news, of course. Tornado. Small northern community, three killed, one house destroyed (pictures of), power lines down, unusual weather event , residents in shock. That was George. People he had known for years had been squashed flat right under his nose – it was shocking.
Ironically, up until a few days ago, Al Montgomery was almost perfectly round. The man was a human beach ball. In certain lights he had a cartoon-like appearance that begged a photo, and a nasal profile any Roman would covet. He blamed his portly figure on his wife Cath for feeding him three huge meals a day and introducing him to pay-TV sports on comfy sofas. It’s probable that the abnormal amount of beer they both consumed while watching sport on comfy sofas contributed also. At one stage, his doctor advised him to start an immediate diet and stop drinking, or face death inside two years. He was more than a decade out, as it happens, but this shook Al up enough to take notice. He reasoned that beer was fattening, but certain other brews were less so. White wine, for instance. And gin. Al chose gin, and as a man incapable of sipping anything, this was a dangerous move. One pumped stomach and an ambulance later, he had acquired had an aversion to anything vaguely gin-like, including water. Beer, mate?
Al met his wife Cath at the first and last speed-dating night at the Memorial Hall in town. Five hopefuls turned out – it was extremely speedy. He said he was struck by her looks the first time he had seen her, which just goes to show there is no accounting for taste. She was a small, thick-set woman with those weird light-blue coloured eyes which were a bit too far apart. No cheek-bones at all. Without fail, she wore her blonde hair in a bun on top of her head. Said it made her taller. Nice woman Cath – very caring, beautiful voice. Hard case, too. Al reckoned she was way too good for him and he was probably right.
Then, three years ago, Al’s dad Monty came to stay with them. Al’s full name was actually Allen Montgomery II, his father being the original. What that was about is anyone’s guess. Monty was steadily losing his marbles, and could not live alone safely any longer. Cath was not impressed, and who could blame her, but they couldn’t afford professional care for the old man. There was no other choice.
Unlike his son, Monty was tall. With a full head of wiry white hair, false-teeth several sizes too large for his mouth and the biggest hump since Notre Dame, he was certainly a striking figure. And he could talk when he felt like it. When he was in the mood, anyone straying too close to Monty was baled up and subjected to seemingly endless monologues about anything from shoe polish to fertilizer. There was no question of getting a word in edge-wise. Back away and he walked with you, oblivious. The only chance of escape was to point one way and run the other. He even threw his teeth at George one day – well, lobbed his teeth. Denture grenade. Did a lot of nocturnal wandering, bit of banging, the occasional wail – peed in George’s chest freezer in his shed once. Al tried locking him in his room at night, but the old bugger attempted to dig his way out. Got the carpet up alright, but needed a crow-bar or a claw-hammer for the floor-boards. Al’s golf clubs kept breaking. That’s got to be upsetting. You might say that Monty was going over the wall generally, but not quietly.
To give Cath a break, Al took Monty to the RSA on Saturday afternoons to have a chat with the only other World War 2 veteran left in the district. His old friend Malcolm was a communist from way back. Used to write endless letters to the editor denouncing America and quoting inspiring soviet ideals. Thought Brezhnev was the business and Stalin was a great dictatorial success, never mind the butchery of millions. When the wall fell Malcolm was distraught. He hit the booze for a messy year and a half and ended up in a wheelchair. A couple of organs fell over – lucky to survive, by all accounts. Didn’t have much to say after that, just sat in his chair being crushingly disappointed.
Monty’s war lasted about eleven months. Doesn’t sound like a long time, but Monty said it was plenty long enough. It ended when he fell through a partially collapsed wall several feet onto rubble and broke his pelvis. Malcolm reckoned he was a lucky bastard. Last thing he said to him before he was stretchered away. He did another year before he could get home.
Anyway . . .
George stood up and stretched. His back and arms were stiff and sore. Wasn’t sure how long he’d been staring into space, but the light was fading and it was getting chilly. He looked at his watch. Time for a good stiff drink. Give ‘em a toast or two. Yeah, what the hell. He turned and went inside.
Monty awoke in alarm to total darkness. Heavy rain lashed the iron roof in irregular roars, thrown by vicious gusts of wind. For a few moments, he was completely lost, adrift and blind, cart-wheeling with sour fear lurching in his stomach. He flinched as the window pane rattled like a volley of shots.
He stood in a small, cobbled courtyard, dragging deeply on the French cigarette Haines had just lit for him. There were four of them – Butler, Haines, himself and Captain Lucke, stamping their feet, rifles slung over shoulders. It was cold. Bloody cold. Small drifts of snow remained along the base of the stone walls. Cigarette smoke hung in lazy, dense clouds above their heads. In front of the far wall stood a six foot pole. Several cobbles had been pulled up and the post had been driven into the ground. It was splintered around the edges and pock-marked with bullet holes. Dark stains ran its length. Someone was going to be tied to it and shot. By Privates’ Montgomery, Butler and Haines – good morning and welcome to today’s firing squad, thanks for coming.
It was not that Monty had never shot anyone before – he had. You pretty much had to shoot them before they shot you. Nice and simple for the troops. Live or die. He did remember the momentary shock of the first – soldier walking into the ground like pretending to disappear down stairs behind a desk. No time to think until later. Some didn’t at all. This, though. This was different. He hoped it wasn’t one of ours. Could be a deserter, he thought. Bloody hell. Heavy footsteps approaching from around the corner. Hob-nails. Here we go then.
Lucke’s command echoed off the surrounding buildings. They shuffled together in a line, un-slinging rifles. Two soldiers marched into the courtyard and over to the post with the prisoner between them. Short and slightly built, baggy brown trousers, grubby white shirt, worn grey pin-striped jacket, shorn brown hair. He was truly shocked to realize it was a woman, maybe 20 or younger even. Oh no. They tied her hands behind her back to the wood. One took out a black cloth from his pocket and secured it around her head and both stepped away to each corner of the wall. Took less than ten seconds. Efficient.
The three men loaded a round into each chamber. Monty stole a look at Lucke – his eyes were fixed on the woman, who remained motionless except for laboured breathing, head up. Trapped. Thanks God, thanks for this.
Raised his gun to his shoulder. Everything was slowing down. His back prickled in sudden heat as he raised the barrel and peered along it to a spot between her breasts, finger resting on the trigger. Thought about closing his eyes . . .
Monty groped for his small lamp on the night stand next to his bed and finally found it, flicking it on. He was awash in sweat. Damn it. He’d seen that day enough. He was sick to see it. That and others. They wouldn’t leave him alone. Now his back pain was intense, the tortured spine in chaos. Rain turned to hail thundering against the roof. He eased his legs out of the bed and slowly, painfully stood up, panting with the effort. He limped down the hall into the kitchen for water. The house was shaking badly in the violent gusts. He turned and squinted out the large kitchen window. A flurry of movement in the blackness. Then flashes of fizzing blue light as it approached - the lights went out. There was a smack as the garden shed exploded at the bottom of the property. Pressure squeezed his skull. Everything shook. The darkness rose above the old man.
About bloody time, was all he thought.
About the Author
John Drennan was placed first runner-up by the judges in the 2010 NZ Writers' College Short Story Award.
The judges commented that his story "Expunge" was "very entertaining", with "vivid imagery" and "has everything a good story needs".
This was the first story John has ever submitted to a competition.
John worked in newspapers as a Typographer (pre-press production) for several years, then worked in logistics, and is currently a fundraiser for Kidney Health New Zealand.
John had this to say about his win, "This has given me a huge boost to continue writing, and once again, all people involved have my sincere thanks for their attention and appreciation."