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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Parting Shot
by Ian James

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The small fat man beamed, 'And how are you today?' as he struggled to extend his seatbelt over his crumpled white cotton jacket, the seams of which were straining to enclose his bulging stomach. The stewardess confirmed that she was, 'Good,' in the same tone of insincerity as she methodically re-fastened the overhead luggage lockers. Flight 279 from Manchester to Atlanta was already running half an hour behind schedule. The bumps and thumps of the luggage being hurriedly loaded in to the hold below the deck floor shook Chris's seat as he swallowed the third boiled sweet he had intended sucking on take-off, but had ended up rapidly chewing in an attempt to take his over-active imagination away from engine failure, fire and wing-snapping turbulence. Long before he was familiar with such terms as hijackers, terrorists and shoe bombers, Chris had developed some might say an illogical fear of flight. What fuelled Chris's fear was his almost perverse attraction to news bulletins, highlighting the over stretched and stressed resources of the air traffic controllers, the pending bankruptcy of many of the major airlines and, as Chris perceived it, the resultant skimping of maintenance schedules. Then of course there was the feeling of helplessness and the lack of control and anyway how did such a huge thing stay up in the air?

During Chris's last week behind the till of the 'Eight 'til Late,' he had casually dropped into the set script of: 'Would you like cash back? Have you got a saver card?' 'Flying to California Thursday.' Some said, 'Wow,' others, 'You most send me a card,' or, 'Can't stand yanks,' 'Never fancied it myself, but good luck anyway.' Glenys from the Chippy, whose Mam spat into the fat to see if it was hot enough for the chips, said she had done it with a black baseball player from Georgia once, round the back of the 'Portaloos' during the Eistedfod of '98, and as far as she was concerned, 'Once you've had black, there is no going back, I mean to say everything in America is bigger and better isn't it?' Huw Pritchard, Chief Stylist from 'Caprice Haut Coiffure' next door to 'Kwik Save,' said he dreamt of tying the knot with his loved one at the 'Gay Chapel of Love' in Las Vegas, he just needed to find Mr Right; anyway there can't be that many Mr Wrongs left as he had been with most of them. Gary the 'Optic' Chief Steward at the Legion and 'Locum' Bingo caller said that the beer was like piss from what he had heard and, 'Those McDonald's fancy burgers are greasy and thick like their fuckin' owners.'

Chris's Dad did not know what to think, and what he did, he probably kept to himself. Deiniol Evans shared precious little of his time and even less of his thoughts and feelings with his son, since losing his wife Llinos to Dafydd 'Logs' from the Forestry.

Chris's Mam had taken to walking Moss, her beloved Border Collie, past the Saw Mill twice a day on the off chance of seeing Dafydd Logs flexing his biceps next to the din of the circular saw. Deiniol Evans fought to keep control of his year seven class between exasperated attempts to compose 'Bardic Chair' winning stanzas to present at the 'Maes.' Whilst Mr Evans quoted the 'Mabinogion' chapter and verse and sang 'Myfanwy' like a linnet, he was sallow and drawn, his shoulders were hunched, his ears sprouted alarmingly thick ginger hairs and his yellowed teeth were crooked from slovenly neglect. Dafydd Logs had skin tawny and smooth from the pure air of the outdoors, his square yet tapering torso, the engine of his muscle-rippling limbs, his leathery hands scooping up the shavings like firemen's shovels. After several weeks of frolicking in the sawdust, while Moss innocently kept guard tied to the steel leg of the diesel tank, Llinos decided she wanted a real man who knew how to treat her with virile passion, not bardic chants and morbid stanzas. Llinos left Deiniol a note placed in an envelope behind one of Nain's china dogs. Deiniol knew things were not right, not in any prelude to Llinos's departure to the Woodsman's Cottage, in fact the bungalow was cold and empty except for most of the furniture when Deiniol returned and noticed there were no saucepans of boiling vegetables over the gas rings, or belching Sunday joints hissing their juices in the tinfoil-shrouded oven. While Deiniol had been enthusiastically reading the sermon as he stood in for the Rev Rhodri Jenkins, himself struck dumb with laryngitis (though some of the congregation from the neighbouring Hebron Chapel blamed Rev Jenkins' addiction to Embassy Regal rather than the scriptures.) Llinos had, with the aid of the Forestry commission pick-up truck and armed with Moss's food bowl (free with two cases of Pedigree Chum with Rabbit), slipped out of the house and the life of Deiniol Evans.

On reflection, Llinos had spent more time applying her mascara in recent weeks; Deiniol had even thought that he could smell cigarette smoke on Moss the dog, when he rushed tail wagging to greet him at the kitchen door.

Two weeks after Chris started the autumn semester at the University of Wales Aberystwyth, not to fulfil his father's secret ambition to study Music or Divinity, but to study Business Law and Accountancy (which when all said and done were respectable professions with potentially excellent prospects), Llinos moved out of the marital bed. Though initially Deiniol Evans missed the warmth which exuded from his flannelette-encased beloved, he did not miss the constant chiding and complaining that Llinos had abused him with for the last twenty years. A stranger to the dentist's chair, Deiniol Evans had for some years suffered from a disease of the gums which caused his breath to permeate the bedroom with a foul, almost acrid smell. As Llinos constantly complained, when he was not snoring his bouts of flatulence were of such power that they threatened to stain the gusset of his draw-string pyjama trousers, an affliction she was sure would win him few friends in the Bardic Circle. Chris's devotion to an obscure heavy metal rock band had made him something of a loner at school; his father's position as head of year seven at Coed Coch Juniors had presented Chris with something of the dilemma of expectation to do well, yet not to appear to be a creeping subserviant swot.

Other than a quick agility where arithmetic was concerned, Chris proved to be a good all-rounder rather than the musical prodigy his father secretly hoped for. When, with a handful of reasonable GCSE grades under his belt, his head of year at a parents' evening announced that he was certainly university material, Chris was as pleased as his parents, not because he saw it as some academic accolade, as they no doubt did, but as a means of escape from the narrow incestuous market town.

After two brief drums of overhead locker-shaking turbulence with fewer incidents of wing-dipping changes of direction and the Western coast of Ireland and its Atlantic shoreline obscured by a blanket of cotton wool cloud, Chris relaxed his cheek-clenching muscles momentarily as he stretched across his neighbour's seat to take a small plastic mug of black coffee from a loud, almost aggressive, American stewardess. Chris did not like black coffee but had communicated in a series of half smiles and nods, too timid to express his preference for milk or cream.

There was no such thing as half term at the University of Wales, but there was reading week halfway through November, and with no actual lectures to attend, most of the students chose to do their reading back at home. Though for Chris home was not a great distance from Aberystwyth, the intrusion of two mountain ranges and two bus companies with conflicting timetables meant that it was dark when he carried his rucksack off the step of the Dragon Express and into the empty town square. With nearly a mile to walk and the rain, which had been intermittently spattering the windscreen of the bus on the last leg of its journey, now throwing itself at the black shiny town, Chris sheltered in the doorway of the White Lion. Chris's Nain, who, according to Chris's Mam had devoted her life to despising all forms of pleasure and enjoyment, had saved her most venomous condemnations for the public houses of the town, which to her had represented the cesspit of society. Nain used to sit in her 'Ercol' winged chair in the tiny front room of her pensioner's bungalow shaking her head as she condemned the Lion that never roared, the Ship that never sailed, the Plough that never ploughed and the Sun that never shone. Two years had passed since Nain had been taken, the strain of pumping her fluid-filled lungs finally proving too much for her pessimistic heart. All that remained of Nain was her China dog laden dresser, her framed print of Salem Chapel and her sombre crochet cushions. The contents of her closely guarded Post Office book had persuaded Deiniol to buy a nice little Rover, not extravagantly brand new you understand, but for its short two years, as good as. Llinos had had an away day with her sister-in-law Eirwen, and Chris had the choice of mountain bikes, not from that fancy English shop in Betws-y-coed which frankly specialised in extortion, but from Mam's Catalogue, thirty-six weeks and a free combination lock complete with luminous key fob.

As Chris sipped at a pint of Stella and sought respite from the rain at a small copper-topped table next to the rehearsing darts team (who, desperate to fend off pending relegation, threw their arrows in sombre silence), he tried to blank out the picture of his Nain looking down from the rafters of the Ebenezer Chapel, her head shaking with disapproval, her face like the smell of gas.

Though to Chris it seemed an age since he had made the journey over the Crimea pass to Aberystwyth in the front seat of Dad's Rover, with the Treorchy Male Voice Choir conveniently cutting out the need and indeed possibility of conversation as they blasted from the speakers of the built-in cassette player, nobody seemed to notice that he had gone; Llew Thomas and his brother fat Lloyd had remarked, 'Fuck me there's the professor,' as they searched for Darren Reynolds, 'always good for a spliff.'

There was no blinding intrusive glare from the security light as Chris walked up the path to 'Awelon,' the neat little bungalow complete with pre-cast garage. The curtains remained closed, several Western Mails lay still folded one on top of the other below the mouth of the letterbox. The spare Yale key still hung predictably from the rusty hook out of sight of prying eyes under the rear gable of the garden shed. Once indoors the house felt cold and damp. The kitchen sink was cluttered with gravy-congealed saucepans, tea stained mugs and potato peelings. In the bathroom, the toilet seat sat bolt upright away from the urine-stained bowl, the toilet brush sat undisturbed like a hibernating hedgehog in its plastic container. The remnant trimmings from Deiniol's ginger moustache littered the soap dish between the hot and cold taps of the washbasin.

Other than to request some money, Chris had felt little inclination to contact home during his first weeks at college and had decided to surprise Mam and Dad with his return. It was only when he ventured into Mam and Dad's bedroom and found Mam's note to her husband amongst the discarded clothes and crumpled bedding, that Chris began to make sense of the chaos and emptiness. Chris was halfway down the path to have it out with the woodsman when he remembered seeing Dafydd Logs beat Wayne (postman by day, doorman by night) Roberts to a pulp outside the Aluminum Works Social Club last summer. Instead, Chris kicked the wooden hall stand sending a variety of canes and umbrellas clattering across the tiled floor of the hallway, and phoned his Uncle Gwilym in Bethesda.

Gwilym was Deiniol's younger brother; whilst he shared few of his brother's artistic talents, he was seldom seen away from his grocer's overall, and saw potential profit and the talents of salesmanship as gifts bestowed from above. After popping the corks of half a dozen bottles of Cava with the help of his scissor-wielding beloved Eirwen, he had just opened his fourth convenience store and had been featured on the inside cover of 'The Grocer' extolling the virtues of the small (if not to mention in his own case rather fat) shopkeeper.

Unable to be blessed with the joys of parenthood for reasons veiled in some secrecy, Gwilym's Eirwen busied herself socialising at coffee mornings for Merched y Mawr, pampering her vicious jaw-snapping Yorkshire Terriers and enhancing the profits of Evans' outsize range for the fuller figure on away days to Llandudno, or sometimes over the border to Chester.

Whilst throughout his childhood Chris had been smothered with treats and gushing affection from his Auntie Eirwen, he had quite early on formed the opinion that she regarded her husband's brother and his family with condescension and mocking pity. For his part Gwilym had found little in common with his eccentric brother, but as he had said to Eirwen in the whispered privacy of the master bedroom, 'Blood is thicker than water and I could hardly turn my brother away in his hour of need.'

Deiniol had spent the first week unable to face the world; just after assembly, the headmaster Bob Thomas had phoned twice in quick succession, and it was only in the vain hope that it was his beloved Llinos begging for forgiveness that he had nervously picked up the receiver. Promising to phone as soon as he was well enough to return to school, Deiniol with his apologies extended to the Choir, returned to his bed. Unhindered by mountain ranges, the gossip resonated from one valley to the next, along the coast one way and back the other in a matter of minutes. Gwilym had deserted his bacon slicer in disbelief after several unsuccessful calls to his brother, squeezing his potbelly behind the wheel of his four by four and heading inland to Deiniol's modest bungalow.

Two, perhaps it was three hours had past before Mrs Leighton- Davies at number thirty-one saw Deiniol Evans wrapped in a blanket being led like a released hostage from the side door of Awelon. The bonus of her bay front window and the discretion afforded to her by her slightly parted net curtains, not to mention her free-to-roam cordless telephone, enabled Mrs Leighton-Davies to update the entire town on the latest on Deiniol Evans as it occurred.

Barely four hours into the flight, Chris had listened in to a variety of conversations, but had not felt confident or indeed had the chance to partake in any himself. He had taken, at first extremely briefly, glances through the windows and was shocked when he saw tiny islands and what looked like lumps of ice sticking out of the glistening sea, five, perhaps six miles below. Chris found the time change very confusing; he had been on a school trip to Lille in France once and had to move his watch an hour forward. At Atlanta after flying for eight and a half hours it would be three o'clock in the afternoon, yet they had taken off at Manchester at midday. Once down at Atlanta, Chris needed to go through immigration, reclaim his luggage, book in at the desk for his flight to Los Angles and wait around for five hours.

According to Auntie Eirwen, Llinos was at last able to come out as the slut that had been latent in her ever since school; her family originated from Bethesda where generations of the female members had gained a reputation of being unable to keep their knickers on. Deiniol was twelve years older than Llinos and had shown little interest in girls before stunning the family by walking up the garden path hand in hand with Llinos one Sunday afternoon. The resultant pregnancy and the potential shame was what made Deiniol's parents reluctantly welcome Llinos into the fold.

Moss the dog had adapted quite quickly to his new life and enjoyed his new freedom to wander in the vast open spaces of the Gwydir Forest; Dafydd Logs, however, did not hold with 'treating a bloody dog like a spoilt child' and quickly banished Moss to the outhouse, with its cold concrete floor. Dafydd proved to be a man of simple tastes; Deiniol Evans would have probably countered, 'With no taste at all.' He liked good plain cooking, his plate piled high, plenty of potatoes and none of this 'liberated woman shite that those fuckin lesbos rattle on about on Channel Four.' Dafydd was up early each morning just like his old man before him, out all weathers to put bread on the table. A few logs sold on the quiet here and there, to pay for the Guinness and a few flutters at the bookies, a couple of legovers at the weekend, what more could a man want?

For the first few weeks Llinos, had her opinion been sought, though in truth it was not, would have agreed with Dafydd's philosophy, after all you knew where you where with a man like Dafydd (even if it was back in the dark ages). Deiniol Evans did not know where he was; his sister-in-law certainly wished it was not with her and Gwilym. Never the entertainer of the pack at the best of times, Deiniol's self pity, some might say self-obsession, was getting beyond a joke - although, thought Gwilym, there had never been much to laugh at. Then of course there was Deiniol's personal hygiene issues; Gwilym had done his best and presented Deiniol with an assortment of Listermint in a variety of plaque-dissolving flavours, but they remained unopened, next to his dried out toothbrush. Sometimes after a nightcap at the Golf Club Gwilym could get a bit frisky under the sheets, but with his brothers snoring and intermittent flatulence from the neighbouring bedroom he no longer felt in the mood. Deiniol Evan's first meeting with his son Chris since all the fuss had started was not gushing with emotion and affection; both felt a little uncomfortable about the situation. Deiniol asked Chris if he had heard any good choirs at college, Chris asked him how school was going, but neither of them mentioned Mam, Dafydd Logs or even Moss the dog. Gwilym worried about his latest 'two for the price of one,' and Eirwen asked Chris if he had met any nice girls, and could he persuade his father to move back home, not that he was not welcome mind, but after all he needed to face up to life and move on. Besides, she and 'Gwil' were planning a little holiday. It was under the cover of darkness that Gwilym unpacked the boot of his shiny Shogun; 'handy for the cash and carry,' he had winked at Chris as he carried another box of groceries into Awelon. Deiniol had shuffled in the minute his brother had extinguished the headlights, where he remained glued to his armchair muttering 'arglwyd' between sighs of despair. Chris could not help wondering what all the fuss was about, as Dad had ignored Mam for as long as he could remember.

Deiniol Evans had only been back at Awelon for three, perhaps it was four weeks when he crashed his beloved Rover into the back of a queuing postman. With his emotions strained tight like an over stressed guitar string which was about to snap, Deiniol had wept like a small child as he watched his beloved car, bought with the contents of Mam's Post Office book, being winched up onto a transporter, its radiator hissing and spitting like an abused gander. Having promised brother Gwilym he would return to school the following week, Deiniol was now stuck without transport. It was whilst sitting huddled in the back of Uncle Gwilym's old Land Rover, the one he used for his shooting trips through the winter and his fishing trips during the summer and which Gwilym had driven over for his brother to use at least until the insurance company paid up and attacked Deiniol's no claims bonus in retaliation, that Chris noticed Uncle Gwil's fishing and shooting paraphernalia. Gwilym sat pink-faced in the front passenger seat whilst shouting disaster-avoiding instructions as his white-knuckled brother wrestled with the steering wheel between bearing-grinding attempts to select the wrong gear. After the twenty mile journey, though more competent at keeping the offroader on the road, Deiniol did not feel he had the ability needed to turn the cantankerous brute around within the confines of brother Gwilym's driveway. Gwilym, who himself was close to hyper-ventilating and was keen to get out and exit his role as instructor, waddled up his steep driveway to the safety of his double-glazed front room. Exhausted from the anticipation of pending disaster, Deiniol, with a feeling of intense relief, finally switched off the rattling diesel engine after grazing its army green paint on a protruding wrought iron gate hinge at the top of the driveway to Awelon. While Deiniol rushed for the kitchen and the first of what proved to be many panads, Chris stayed behind to try and persuade the obstinate ignition key out of its lock, his father's nerves having proved too frayed for such a technical bit of cajoling. After some simultaneous steering wheel wagging with his left arm and key turning with his right, Chris finally slid out of the driver's seat, the bunch of keys firmly clasped in his hand. Having locked both doors it was when Chris went round to check the tailgate that his curiosity got the better of him. Amongst brown canvas shoulder bags complete with green mesh external pockets, leather cartridge belts of considerable length and crumpled waxed jackets, lain diagonally across the boot floor was Uncle Gwil's Browning automatic twelve-bore shotgun.

During a late night, Chris, lubricated with a couple of pints of Stella, plucked up the courage to tell his father that in the circumstances he had decided to stay home until the summer and perhaps, if the powers that be sanctioned it, he would resume his studies and restart his first year over again in the autumn. Chris's father was both mortified and secretly overjoyed. Uncle Gwilym had a quiet word with one of his fellow grocers Emlyn Watkins, who ran the Eight 'til Late just off the town square. After a brief and informal chat amongst the wheeled steel cages of tinned peaches and kitchen paper towels in the stockroom, Chris returned home with a red sweat shirt with 'Eight 'til Late, happy to help' emblazoned across the front and a list of his forthcoming shifts scribbled on a length of blank till role.

On his first day Chris was mortified when Bethan the shift supervisor handed him a red peaked cap to match his sweatshirt. When he realised, however, that the peak obscured and thus lowered his line of vision, Chris welcomed the hat as a tool to hide behind. It was on his third day of swiping cards, hunting for bar codes and holding twenty pound notes up to the light to verify their authenticity that his new found confidence suddenly ebbed away. Though Llinos knew that her son had returned home to lend support to his pathetic father, she was unaware that he had become the latest disaffected teenager to join the team of part-time minimum wage earners at the Eight 'til Late. When their eyes met as she squeezed a large Kingsmill to test for freshness, Llinos replaced her chrome mesh basket in the stack by the foyer and left the shop.

Though Deiniol Evans had returned to work there was no doubt he was a broken man. Without the constant nagging of Llinos his self-neglect had flourished unabated. Unable to cope with the sympathetic hands on his shoulders as he left Chapel, with offers of, 'Anything, anything at all just let me know,' and of course the whispered asides of gossip and exaggeration, Deiniol felt like a widower without the closure a funeral would have provided.

Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months; Christmas had been two days of contrived jollity at Uncle Gwilym's. With spring fast approaching, Chris began to feel increasingly trapped, not just by his father, who frankly wallowed in self pity and did little to help himself, but by his entire situation, the monotony of, 'Would you like cash back,' the politics of the aspiring supervisors desperate for rank and the perceived respect which such status would provide, made Chris long for an escape route. During the previous summer, for over two weeks the Evans family had been unexpectedly disrupted in their rigid routines by the arrival of Glendine (née Evans) from Southern California. Glendine was a first cousin to Deiniol and Gwilym; her father, their Uncle Gwyndaf had sailed the Atlantic a newly trained carpenter fifty years earlier to seek a new life. Eventually, after marrying a girl from Las Vegas, Uncle Gwyndaf had settled to a profitable trade framing timber buildings. With her dear father recently deceased, Glendine, his only child, had taken it upon herself to discover her late father's Welsh roots, and burst loudly into her cousins' otherwise quiet lives. Cousin Glendine had wept at the graves of the grandparents she had never met, wept at the emotive songs performed in her honour by cousin Deiniol's ever-obliging Choir, bought most of the contents of Sian Parry's Gift Shop and, according to Gwilym's Eirwen, had enough carved slate in her luggage to tile a chapel roof, not to mention break the weighing scales at terminal three. Uncle Gwilym had proved the more proactive cousin when it came to the cultural exchange across the pond, and had regular chats on the phone updating cousin Glendine on life in the land of her roots. Glendine was shocked at the 'between you and me' news of cousin Deiniol's failed marriage and his pending nervous breakdown. When, as a result, she phoned Chris and his father and offered two flights to California, Deiniol Evans was speechless, and when he did speak it was to say, 'Thank you but no, the boy will come mind.' Though as the date grew closer Chris became more and more nervous; in many ways he could not wait to go, he just wished that bloody woodsman had not fucked up his father's life the year before.

When the latex-gloved finger of Chris's right hand squeezed the trigger of his Uncle Gwilym's Browning automatic, the yellow flash and jerk of the stock as it rebounded into his right shoulder shook Chris; his ears rang with echoes of shock as Dafydd Logs fell to his knees on the step of the woodshed. Roosting pigeons clattered out of nearby trees and Moss the dog barked hysterically from the confines of his pen. Chris threw the gun into the wet bracken and ran down the steep track, stumbling with fear and shock in his uncle's oversized Wellington boots.

A sudden, alarmingly deep tremor of turbulence shook the plane as it soared over the Smokey Mountains, causing two or three overhead luggage lockers to burst open and Chris to jump panting and sweating from a deep sleep.

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