Degrees Of Control
Those stuffed and mounted foxes in reception set the tone, staring at us glitter-eyed and sharp-toothed as we checked in. More of them clustered at the dark end of the bar, shadowy between the log-pile and a stack of hooked and pointed fire-irons, watchful as we hunted through the menu for something not too overwhelming to eat.
We’ve always had problems with foxes here, the owner’s beautiful daughter told us, smiling patiently over her order pad at what must’ve seemed our problems with the language and shaking back her long red hair. You’ll see trophies like these everywhere, especially in houses as many centuries old as this one. It’s a tradition, the easiest way to keep the numbers down. My father’s shot a good many.
Neat brass plates recorded the details of every kill, several of them very recent: a place, a date, the name of the shooter responsible for pulling the trigger.
Gravel crunching underfoot, that’s what woke us, that and our room flooded with light from a full moon so low you could reach up and touch it the way children pat balloons above their heads. One of the waitresses from dinner, a shy blonde girl who’d spoken in dialect, walking alone across the car park towards the narrow lane that led nowhere but the nearest village a couple of miles away and an occasional farm-track half-buried in forest. Above the trees, a pair of hunting owls calling to each other as they quartered the night’s killing ground. She didn’t look up, just paused, lit a cigarette, then disappeared around the curve of the drive. Did she know the fox would be there at the top of the sloping lawn, attent and motionless, a silhouette against the moon?
Roadside shrines aren’t uncommon, but this simple stone cross, its base carved with a list of names too weathered for a stranger to read, seemed out of place beside a road where grass grew through the tarmac. Someone looked after it, though. Its horseshoe of trees and bushes had been trimmed, the grass recently cut, albeit with a scythe, to judge from its length and the steepness of the bank. In a quiet moment, we asked at the hotel. During the war, the owner’s wife told us, the manor, even more isolated then, had been used by resistance fighters as a safe house. After one raid, there’d been reprisals. Someone had talked. Everyone who worked in the house or on the estate, including the family, had been taken out into the lane and shot, one by one, like dogs.
We’d heard him barking way back, but kept going anyway, until suddenly, there he was in front of us, a big, long-coated German Shepherd black as the hubs of Hell. Head down, eyes focused, waiting in the middle of the track to see which fork we’d choose, his growls said he bossed them both and wasn’t about to let us by. Someone from the cottage will call him in, we thought, noticing smoke drifting from the chimney, but no one did and images of heavy sticks, or even shotguns, just in case, began to seem attractive. They have rabies in this country, ran through our minds, until, in the end, our nerve failed, the dog won and we skulked off the way we’d come hoping he wasn’t following along behind.
2 of 3:
A slate-grey summer afternoon, overcast, muggy, definitely not the weather for the heavy coat and scarf the foreign-looking young man over there on Platform 4 is wearing. The concourse is busy with people moving on, hurried, blurred, sweaty with the sticky heat of their own anxieties. Everybody’s luggage but theirs, which they know they packed, makes them nervous.
There are armed police everywhere, flak-jacketed, murmuring into head-sets, trigger fingers stretched out straight, where all of us can see them, along the bodies of their weapons, the way they do it in the movies. They don’t like the look of the young man on Platform 4, their eyes tell you so as they converge towards where he’s standing, too close to the edge.
Space starts to open up around him. You’d think he’d have cottoned on by now and either made his move or somehow demonstrated innocence of everything except being here alive on this particular jumpy afternoon. But he does neither, just stands there, still and attentive to himself as the inter-city powers into view.
Will he go for it? Is any day a good day for dying when you’re young? Is he wired to self-destruct before the guns edge close enough to take him out with a couple of well-aimed bullets to the head? He does nothing. Ignores it all at the platform’s edge. Silent as the grave. Until the loco’s almost close enough to touch and then he jumps.
3 of 3:
Bare-chested workmen with dirty faces
taking a long lunch break by the fountain,
a bunch of sick-looking cats twining round
their boots and mewing for scraps, some ragged
pigeons, one lop-sided, hopping, a leg
missing, strutting about like councillors
on re-election day, are the only
signs of life. The tiny square’s deserted
otherwise, houses all safety-netted,
exoskeletoned in complicated
scaffolding, with warning signs to keep out
passers-by. Its future’s already cut
and dried for profit, the hoardings say so:
Versace, Vuitton, Rolex and the rest.
We only two now. Children no more here.
All leave. One go Canada, one U. K.
Daughter, she marry long time, husband
work in some new places always, we no
see since lotta years. Maybe no see ‘gen.
She call us sometime on Mamma’s birthday,
that all. First, we think stay mus’ be okay
for us, like neighbours. Old, so why we want
move far ‘way our city to other place
we not know? So we say no, le’s stay here.
We live here all years, we die here why not?
Then one day lan’lord he come with notice,
tell put up rent too ver’ high for us pay
if we no get out, so what we can do?
BIO: KEN HEAD lives in MOTIVATION:
KEN HEAD lives in
Degrees Of Control grew out of time spent in a sixteenth-century manor house set deep in a forested region of
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