It’s the late 1960s in the grounds of an English ‘Prep’ school. At the bottom of the playing fields, there is a small wood the grounds-man is shooting rooks. A young man is watching the killing with interest. The suicidal birds return only a few minutes after the last shot, and it is, of course, the lure of the nests which brings them back to the slaughter. In his ingenuity, man designed the rook gun, a specialist weapon, a double-barrelled rifle that uses a heavy bullet fired with a light charge of powder. The bullets do not travel far and have a heavy-hitting power, ideal for shooting upwards in woodland.
Gerry is a kind man who knows the little boy is watching. A bird flies down into the rookery, and just as it lands on the tree, Gerry lifts his double-barrelled Westerly Richards to his shoulder and fires a well-aimed shot. A puff of feathers and the bird is dead. The boy and the keeper watch the bird fall through the oak tree’s bare branches and hit the ground. The twenty-first to die this morning.
“You’re in a spot of bother son, aren’t you?” Gerry talks in the opposite direction to where the spy is hiding. “Come and have a shot, nobody will know.” There is still no reply “Come on, there is no need to worry about the housemaster, and the others will not cross me, you know that.”
He struggles to get out of the thick hedge, and as he frees himself, the groundsman watches the struggle and thinks the damp winter mornings mist has depressed the portrait of the young fellow’s plight even more. He’s tall for his age; he should be six or eight inches shorter. His duffle coat is oversized as are all of his clothes. Grey shorts and shirt, deep blue crew necked jumper, thick grey knee-length socks and thank goodness for the Dunlop wellington boots, scarf and woollen gloves.
Gerry continues to study the boy as he walks over to him, and he wonders at the cruelty of man. God knows he saw enough of it in Germany in the last year of the war. Cities demolished by Bomber Harris’s Lancaster’s, millions gassed in the camps, women raped by Russian soldiers and others prostituting themselves for a G.I’s chocolate bar. The boy’s eyes remind him of the day his tank arrived at the Belsen horror. As he looked upon the camp’s systematic evil, it was the hallow eyes sockets of the children which haunted him. He remembers thinking that the child is strangely similar to animals when suffering pain. One see’s a vacancy with their misery. Looking through the eyes into the child’s soul, you know they are asking why? Although the child suffers more than the animal because human intelligence compounds the torture, making the sufferer unable to understand the actions of those who were supposed to look after and guide them. Food and family happiness is exchanged for rape, scientific experiments, gas, and the oven’s inferno. He knows this boy should not be asking the ‘Why?’ Gerry also knows there is no answer.
A cup of hot soup is poured from the Thermos flask “Here son drink this.” The oxtail taste reminds him of home and his grandmother, who would know what to do about the situation. He feels like crying, although no one can see fear or pain the word ‘courage’ flows through his character as he sips the warming beverage and watches the man who has a reputation of being uncompromising and brusk with pupils. “I did not do it, Mr Coates.” “I know son, let’s get on with our work shall we?” Gerry will talk about the situation in an hour or two; there is no rush.
“Have you used a rook rifle before?”
“No, but I shoot a four-ten and my Airsporter.”
“No, a two-two.”
“Don’t you find the ‘Sporter’ heavy?”
“Possibly, but I’m used to it now, and the heavier calibre is fine for rabbits on the farm.” Gerry wonders at the boy’s articulate speech and is impressed that he uses a shotgun and air rifle.
“You’ll have no problem with this Westerly then?”
“I do not think I will Mr Coates, and it’s about the same as my four ten, double-barrelled and light.”
Gerry pushes the top lever with his thumb, the rifle’s breach is unlocked, and the spent case is ejected by the powerful ejector spring, a live round is dropped into the chamber, and the open gun is given to the boy who rests it on his forearm. Kahrrr! Kahrrr! The cackling sirens announcing the crows approach a hundred or so of the family circle above the wood. A black scout glides down for one final time. The boy’s eye is steady watching the corvid, and his left-hand grips the rifle’d checkered fore-end grip, his right lifts the wooden grip, the lock snaps shut, safety pushed forward, the stock comes into contact with the shooter’s shoulder. Crack! A final Kahrrr follows the gun’s report! The bird falls dead though the tree and hits the ground. Gerry knows it’s no fluke. The boy is a demon with the rifle.
The Westerly is opened, spent case ejected and replaced and the ‘broken’ gun again rests on his forearm. The weathered face of the man changes from dour as a rare smile betrays his delight. The following two hours are a rare pleasure as he watches the boy consistently repeat the exhibition of excellent marksmanship cut short by the dimming of the afternoon light. “That’s it, lad, let’s tie the dead birds to the fence, and we’ll call it a day.” The anticipated disappointment is eased with “When we’re finished we’ll have sandwiches, cake and tea at me cottage if yer like” “Yes please Mr Coates.” The pair clear up the corpse’s and collect the empty brass bullet cases then walk the half-mile to the cottage on the far side of the wood.
“Who’s this then Gerry?” Asks a pregnant wife.
“He’s the young fellow who comes from Coventry sweetheart.”
“Oh, how sad for you, never mind. I’ll make a nice cheese ‘en ham sandwich, would you like mustard pickle or chutney they’re both homemade.”
“I cannot make my mind up, could I have chutney on one half and pickle on the other?”
“Could you eat two sandwiches?”
“You bet Mrs Coates.”
“Two it’ll be then, Gerry pour our guest some tea and Coventry remove that duffel, get them boots off, sit by AGA get your sen warm.” The way she talks is like the workers on his families farm, shortened words and country dialect. Coventry knows the bread will be fresh-baked and that he’s safe, very safe, in the company of Mrs Coates.
Gerry fills a white mug and without asking puts in three heaped teaspoons of sugar. The brew is fresh, dark and robust. “Is that ok for yer?”
“Yes, thank-you Mr Coates” The day is getting better for Coventry, and when a massive piece of fruit cake is put in front of him there’s a feeling inside he’d forgotten. “Well, then old chap do you want to talk about your predicament?” “I did not do it, Mr Coates and I would never have walked out of the common room if I’d have known what was going to happen.” Gerry Coates looks at the boy seeing the pain of the injustice in his vast and sad eyes and the anger in his clenched fists. And more memories of the war enter the veterans head. The ‘why me’ wide eyes of his friend as he lay dying in Gerry’s arms. And then standing by as the Jewish skeletons used their last atoms of strength to beat the Kapos to death. Unbelievably, the staved wrecks spared the German guards: not so, the Jewish traitors slaughtered without compassion.
The fountain pen ink spots were a deliberate act of vandalism. One of the boys had flicked his fountain pen and left his mark on many of the school walls. Within a month, everyone had been questioned by the staff. The questioning turned to interrogation as senior prefects were tasked with using a more robust method to discover the guilty child. Although the bullying prefects’ suspicions were beginning to fall upon a naturally nervous and intelligent boy in the third year stream, all was to no avail. The pressure was on, and Head boy David Ross (a publicans son) had made his mind up to break the boy. Constant questions, bullying and covert threats came to a head yesterday evening when every pupil was summoned into the common room. The housemaster looked around and said: “You will all stand here until the vandal leaves the room” Two hours passed before Coventry was persuaded by David Ross and most of the others to leave the room.
That was a Friday night one month ago. Mr Hemming, the House Master, decided the punishment should be severe and instructed that no pupil should talk to the boy for the rest of the term. It is fair to say the staff and the majority of the pupils believed the sentence excessive. The judge had set the tariff there was no turning back or place of appeal.
Gerry Coates’ war was a long one, he served for the duration. Many said he is fortunate and a few continue to believe him to be a lucky talisman. The ex-sergeant major does not see it this way, his turmoil is that he did survive and the small wound inflicted on D-Day was of no comparison to how the conflict had hardened his heart. As he watches the young man talk to his wife, he sees the future. Watching the boy speak and giggle with his wife as they wash the dishes in the Belfast sink, Gerry realises that if Coventry is not helped in this war of attrition, this terrible loneliness and cruelty will become a scar on his heart. Laughter and trust of adults could be lost. He rises from his chair by the warm cream coloured AGA and walks over to his late mother’s old oak dresser. He opens the right-hand draw and takes out a small box.
“Time to walk you back to the school old chap.” Coventry senses a softness in the Sergeant’s voice even though it’s a parade ground bark. Mrs Coates helps him with his wellington’s and duffel and gives him a hug and embarrassing kiss. In truth, it’s the best feeling he’ll ever remember. The walk back is misty, and Gerry chooses to go through the wood and the pair walk by the slaughtered crows and across the playing fields. The keeper rings the bell at the main door to the school; the housemaster opens the door.
“I’ve bought the lad back.” He says and then “You should be ashamed of yer sen Hemming.” Gerry looks at the boy and gives him the box: “It’s for you lad, you keep it, it’s well deserved. You seen me give it to him Hemming so no more lies or you’ll be dealing with me: I’ll be watching you and that bastard Ross – mek no mistake.” The housemaster says nothing: knowing he’ll not cross the boundary set by Cotes.
Later in the dorm, Coventry opens the four by two and one half inch box. Hanging from a crimson ribbon, a bronze cross on which the words ‘For Valour’ are engraved.