Richard Meinhertzhagen, the famous soldier naturalist, said that if men do not hunt and kill animals frequently, a rage will build up inside them that will lead, inevitably, to the desire to hunt and kill other men.
Jeb had the face in the focus ring of the telephoto lens. It was a turnip face, red and blotchy with excitement and unbalanced diet. Weather had beaten it over the years, made the skin coarse and tough, drawn lines against the eyes; not of laughter, but of wincing into wind and rain, of squinting into light. The hunt follower’s tight mouth was loosened by laughter now, like that of an ill-disciplined child falling on presents. As it turned towards him, filling the frame, the spittle on the lips was crystal clear in the cross hatching.
“What the fuck are you playing at?”
The voice was harsh and angry, and because his own face was pressed so tightly against the view finder Jeb did not associate it with the face that he was watching. He drew in the sleeve of the telephoto, trying to keep the face in focus, but the man was striding across the mud so quickly that he became a blur of green and brown.
“Hey! You with the camera!”
Jeb lowered the camera, a small fist of alarm suddenly hammering against his ribs. The man was only a pace away, already reaching out with hooked fingers.
“Give us that you fucker!”
Jeb stepped back, shocked, defenceless. The mud sucked at his boots. The man slipped too, rolled sideways, like a small boat under a puff of wind. Jeb felt the hard bar of the stile jolt against his hip, and putting one hand out to steady himself, rolled backwards over the way he had come, like a hurdler re-played in reverse. He held the camera high in his other hand as his feet slipped and slithered to find a grip on the grass verge.
The man was at the stile, grabbing for his arm, preparing to haul himself over. He was already breathing hard.
“Hold still you bastard.”
“It’s all right!” Jeb said hastily, as if that might make it so.
He stepped back into the track, holding the camera away.
“Just give us the fucking camera.” The man pressed forward.
“No fucking way man. I’ve got a right to take pictures. This is a public right of way.
Jeb and the man looked at each other. Then Jeb turned and ran for it. Let the old bugger catch him if he could.
Jeb ran as fast as he could, holding the camera tight against his chest. He ran uphill. The track led between banked hedges. Water coursed down as if it were a stream, puddling where cattle and tractor tyres had rutted it. His heart beat against his chest like tiny ineffectual fists. He clutched the camera, as if he were being towed along behind it.
The hunt follower was not running. He had turned back towards the road. He knew where the track went. He was going to get the four by four. Even at a brisk walk he could feel the effort tightening his chest. The doctor had warned him not to get overexcited.
Jeb did not look back. The open gate on the skyline where the track spilled out onto the hillside danced before him like the image in a hand held camera. He could hear the sound of feet behind him. They pounded the ground like the pulses pounding in his ears. They were gaining on him. He thought there must be a mob of them, all joining in the chase. He dared not look round. He gasped for breath, ran as fast as he could.
The drumming grew louder, closer. He worked the memory card out of the camera with his free hand and let the SLR fall to the ground. He could get another. The insurance would cover it anyway. But the pictures were special. Isn’t that what a journalist would do? He asked himself. Sacrifice the camera, but keep the pictures.
But the drumming kept on, almost level with him, almost above him. A shadow fell on the side of his face. He glanced across, veering towards the far side of the track. A horseman, looking straight ahead galloped past on the other side of the hedge. Others followed. He saw their tall bodies rise as they jumped the last fence before the open hillside. He stopped running and threw himself down onto his knees, looking back. The track was empty behind him. He looked ahead again. The horsemen were scattering across the hillside, veering away. None of them had taken any notice of him.
He laughed and shook his head, and tried to slow his breathing. Silly bugger, he thought, running from the horsemen. They probably hadn’t even seen him. The tension drained from him. It had been an irrational fear of course. What was there to be afraid of? What was the fat old man likely to have done? It was because he was not used to violence. Not like that, face to face.
He remembered his grandfather, who had lived through the war, saying that people had lost the ability to cope with violence because they were not used to it anymore. That was why they feared it so much. They had no experience by which to judge the degree of threat. The media had not helped. The sanitised violence of the screen exaggerated to compensate for their detachment from it. A single harsh word spoken face to face seemed more threatening than the hacked limbs and spurting blood of a movie battle scene. He nodded at the wisdom of his rationale. A wave of sympathy for the hunt follower washed over him. You could hardly blame him for being upset, what with hunt saboteurs and animal rights activists. Those guys had no sense of proportion. How was he to know that Jeb was a portrait photographer, and just naturally curious about faces? He hadn’t even known there was a hunt on. He’d just been out walking, following the public right of way.
Jeb took a deep breath. His hands were still shaking. Sunlight slanted down through the bare branches of the hedge and sparkled on a fallen leaf by his foot, bronzed with rotting, lacquered with dew. It was like a small curved brooch that someone might have dropped. Goodwill settled on him like the warmth of the spring sunshine.
He turned and walked back to where the camera lay in the mud. His legs were as wobbly as a new born lamb’s. The camera looked up at him, solid, unperturbed. He bent to retrieve it. Then he saw the four by four, rocking slowly from side to side as it crawled up the track like a shiny black beetle.
At first he did not connect it with the man, but something in the steady, deliberate progress that it made through the mud released the fear in him again. It yawed and rolled, slipped sideways, and righted itself, the bright eyes of the headlamp glasses seeming to shift from side to side like the eyes of a hunting animal.
He froze, his hand on the fallen camera, watching. The vehicle came on, slowly, determinedly, the moaning of the engine like the warning growl of a disturbed dog. He imagined that he could see the squat black shape of the driver behind the wheel.
He snatched up the camera and ran again, the tiny fist hammering once more at the back of his throat. He was already near the end of the track. It spilled out onto the hillside in a tangle of wheel ruts, gathered itself and turned right, following the fence that separated the fields from the rough grazing above. He turned with it, following its line, as if he might go faster over the beaten surface than over open ground. A barn stood against the fence, stonework bright in the sunshine, the open doorway a black oblong. He plunged inside, sensing that the vehicle had not yet cleared the turn. The man would see nothing but the open hillside when he turned that corner, Jeb told himself. It would be as if he had vanished.
The barn was tiny, windowless save for three slits high up in the back wall that glowed like vertical neon lights. Arrow slits, he told himself. Sunlight streamed in through the doorway and ran across the gravel floor, splashed against the metal spikes of some unrecognisable farm implement that leaned against the wall. Jeb threw himself down in the far corner, curling into the shadows like a kicked dog beneath a table.
From where he lay he could hear the growl of the Mitsubishi engine choke into silence. He could see the oblong of brightness that the sun flung down through the open door. Onto that oblong fell the shadow of a man. Jeb watched as it moved towards him. Then the hunt follower was standing looking down at him. The man carried a heavy stick, cut from the branch of a thorn tree, its grey bark pustuled with the raised stumps where thorns had been removed.
“Take it.” Jeb said in a small voice, pushing the camera across the rough stone floor.
“Too late for that son.” The man said.
He swung the stick down, a one handed blow that fell across Jeb’s shoulder. Jeb could not believe that wood could feel so hard. He cried out. The blow had been half hearted, but the cry encouraged the man, and he struck again, this time towards the head. Jeb ducked and shielded himself with his arm. He could feel the skin on his forearm tearing, even through his coat. The man grasped the stave with both hands and swung again, reversing the movement and catching Jeb across the chest.
Then he swung again and again, remembering all that he had read of the Nazis and the Japanese in his father’s war, drawing strength from each impact as it travelled back up the shaft of wood, from Jeb’s body into his own.
He caught the head, a sharp jarring sensation, like hitting an oversized cricket ball, and blood splashed up against the grey stone of the wall. That made him pause, and he stood, looking on, breathing heavily, feeling his heart pounding. He thought of what the doctor had said and stepped back.
Jeb felt as if he were on fire, as if he rolled in flames. He could smell blood, taste it. The cessation of the blows made him glance up. He saw the man swaying, pale faced, breathing hard, above him, hefting the stick, preparing to strike again.
And then Jeb found in himself that rage and hatred of which Meinhertzhagen had written, and the hunt follower was no longer a man, but some vile horrifying insect that had taken him by surprise, and without reason or thought, he uncurled and flung himself forward in a blind fury of loathing and fear.
The movement caught the man by surprise, knocked him off balance and the two of them careered backwards across the floor. The man gave a gasp, like air coming out of a bag, and a sharp curved tine of the piece of machinery burst out through his chest, glistening with blood, missing Jeb’s face by inches.
They stood motionless, locked together, unbalanced, but held up by the spikes onto which the man had been driven. The man looked down, moving like someone trying to extricate himself from a sleeping partner whom he did not wish to disturb. Jeb let go his grip, and pulled away. The man was standing at an impossible angle, his legs bent beneath him, his weight pushing him down further onto the spikes. A second tip nuzzled through the tweed of his waistcoat like the snout of a small rodent. He reached one hand behind him, feeling for the upright metal frame, trying to hold himself still. His eyes reminded Jeb of a bird he had found once, half disembowelled but still alive.
The man was still holding the stick. Jeb took it from him. The pain had abated, but the rage had not. He grinned, and saw fear rush into the man’s eyes as he swung the knotted stick as hard as he could against his chest.
The sun was bright, and a blackbird sang like a stream. Jeb closed his eyes and let the warmth play on his face. There was the faintest breeze, as soft as fingers against his cheek. He had never felt so light, so clear, and free. He felt as if, were it not for his heavy boots, he might drift off, like a spider borne on gossamer, flashing in the sunlight over the fields. He had never known such a feeling of peace; such a gentle, warm feeling of goodwill towards the world. It was all so beautiful, he thought, that he did not know whether to laugh or cry.
The Rage was read by Martin Lamb at the Liars’ League “Fight & Flight” event on Tuesday 8 April.
Brindley Hallam Dennis has been writing short stories for about ten years. He has won a couple of local short story competitions and appeared in several magazines and anthologies. He writes poetry under the name Mike Smith, but has been doing so for much longer!