BY RAHIEM WHISGARY
Andrew paused, looked down at his burgundy boots, took a draught from his cigarette and looked back up. There, in the distance, he could see the tawny-coloured rope: motionless, lying in wait, coiled in a single malevolent loop. It was set above a pine-wood decking, reachable only by a ten-step flight of stairs. Beneath the noose was the trap door, the outline of which became increasingly apparent as Andrew strolled steadily closer.
He stopped in front of the scaffold. At that proximity, it went well above his head. With admiration, he gently ran his hand along one of the four stilts, whose base was buried in the ground. The wood felt hard and sleek beneath his palm. He stepped back, crushed the end of his cigarette underfoot and gazed upwards, marvelling at his gift to the village: its first gallows.
A thrill slithered up his body. The structure, though oafishly sturdy, was beguiling. He stepped around a rectangular slab of morning sunlight that fell under the base, to stand underneath the scaffold; its quiet stoicism, its newness and its (yet untested) potential to kill produced in him a beastliness, which far surpassed his incorrigible aggression.
He wanted to dominate it, as one desires to dominate a temptress, but fought the temptation: from the inside pocket of his overcoat he withdrew an ebony cigarette case, which was as black as his slicked-back hair.
But the ritual – clicking the case open, so that the clink of the silver clasp unhooking is small, but audible; rolling the soft, thickly stuffed, cigarette between his thumb and forefinger; pinning the end of it between his lips, squeezing ever-so-gently so as to not damage it; and then, after a quick strike of a match, lifting the flaming faggot to the tip of the cigarette; and, finally, inhaling the acrid, mind-numbing, eye-rolling smoke – did nothing to stifle his burgeoning excitement.
He strolled through the underside to the back-end of the scaffold.
Sunlight, filtering through the latticework of bare branches behind him, cast pretty, irregular-shaped shadows on the flight of stairs, and it was these shaded stairs that he stopped to admire.
So consumed was he by the gallows that his attention failed to be swayed by the loudening gallops, and the rattles and groans of the approaching cart. It wasn’t until the cart stopped dead beside him that he realised he was no longer alone.
Andrew turned to face the driver and greeted him with a cursory nod.
‘Grim, but gorgeous, isn’t it,’ the man started, ‘and we have you to thank, Mr Harkin.’
The man’s bald head was red from sun damage – why, Andrew thought, did he not have a hat? Though the horses had stopped, the man’s hands – pudgy and brown as ditchwater – did not release their grip on the reins.
Andrew’s voice, when it came, was patronisingly crisp: ‘I don’t believe we’ve met.’
‘The name is Allwood, sir,’ the man answered, relaxing his posture. ‘It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. There is much talk of you in the village.’
‘Yes, I suppose there would be.’
Andrew tilted his head downward, and his forehead shadowed his eyes so that, to the man, it seemed his mood had suddenly turned introspective – the man could not know that, inside, Andrew seethed with barely contained anger, for his, Andrew’s, attention had quite suddenly been caught by a trail of ants making its way towards the main lintel of the staircase.
With his rage hidden in balled, pocketed fists, Andrew placed the toe of his boot carefully and deliberately across the trail. For a few seconds, he watched as the remaining ants scrambled around his boot in confusion, and fear. Then going along the length of the trail, he tread down on the creatures again and again, all the while spitting a litany of incoherent curses, each of his stomps growing in both carelessness and relish.
He stopped abruptly. A cloud of florid dust hovered around his ankles. His excitement dissipated quickly, probably as a result of the mundaneness of the carcasses, which looked like spilled drops of ink. With vague alarm, he remembered the man’s presence; the man, Andrew thought, would certainly be perplexed at his display.
After withdrawing a cigarette for himself and – with a forced smile – offering one to the man (which he declined), Andrew said, as he struck a match: ‘The bloody critters,’ gesturing to the squashed ants, ‘causing havoc already. Before you know it, they’d have burrowed through the wood.’
‘Yes, they’re pests indeed, sir.’
‘That’s what this will control,’ Andrew said, tapping his hand on a beam of the scaffold and exhaling a draught of smoke, ‘the pests in your village.’
‘That’s right, sir. But, thankfully, all the crime in the village has thus far been petty. We’ve never had a need for gallows.’
Andrew rested his shoulder against the beam and crossed his ankles. Though his face was hazed by cigarette smoke, his voice came out clearly: ‘The crime rate in a village, Mr Allwood, is proportional to that village’s expansion. Don’t you agree?’
Andrew stopped, inhaled and continued: ‘And has the village in which, I assume, you’ve lived all your life, Mr Allwood, not expanded tremendously over the past few years? I believe that it has. Very soon, there will be a need for gallows.’
The man stared at the contraption with bovine stillness. ‘I suppose so, sir.’ He then paused, pondered and clambered from the cart. He dusted himself off and, with lowered eyes, turned to face Andrew. ‘Pardon my lack of knowledge and my impertinence, sir, but why would a visitor to a village fund the building of that village’s gallows? Isn’t such an endeavour the responsibility of middle government?’
Andrew stepped towards the man. ‘I had not expected to have the motivations of my charity questioned, Mr Allwood,’ he said, without a trace of vituperation. ‘But you’re right: It is the responsibility of middle government.’
Andrew knew full well that he hadn’t answered the man’s question.
While, usually, he had neither the inclination nor patience to engage with those less fortunate than himself, this man had a dumb conviviality that, to him, was endearing. He decided to humour the bovine further: ‘Let me ask you this, Mr Allwood: Has middle government been able to keep up with the growth of the need for services in your village? I assume that, as much as it has tried, it has not been altogether successful.’
The man nodded slowly, but respectfully, and Andrew approached him as he spoke.
‘You see, Mr Allwood, for a country to run successfully, it requires its citizens to give it, where possible, a helping hand and to show some initiative. I, as I presume you do too, simply wish to be useful to my country.’
He stopped beside the man and patted his shoulder.
‘Very well, sir,’ the man said. ‘It is a most magnanimous gift. But why make a gift of gallows, sir?’
‘What better way to assist one’s country than to help it rid itself of its murderers, its criminals – the dead-weights?’ answered Andrew, smugly.
‘I better get on, sir.’
‘Very well, Mr Allwood, it was lovely conversing with you. Please, do not feel ashamed at, what I think to be, quite prudent questions.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘Before you leave,’ Andrew said, once the man had seated himself upon the cart, ‘what – if I may ask – is it that you’re transporting?’
‘Yes, sir. They’ll make fine stew, and finer coats.’
‘Off to slaughter then?’
For a second, Andrew fell silent, and then, with the spontaneity of an inebriate, he stepped in front of the horse, blocking the man’s exit. Though his dark, slanted eyes betrayed his capriciousness, his voice was steady: ‘Perhaps it might do well to test this contraption on one of your ill-fated rabbits, Mr Allwood.’
‘And it would do me good to see the gallows in working order before I leave the village.’
‘Very well, sir.’
At the man’s acquiescence, Andrew wiped his sweaty palms along the sides of his trousers.
‘Now, Mr Allwood,’ he instructed, ‘select one please.’
His eyes locked on the man with serpentine alertness.
‘Any one, sir?’ the man asked, lifting the covering.
Walking to the back of the cart, Andrew’s tread was so deliberate, yet so light, that when he spoke, the man jumped to find him right at his shoulder.
‘The biggest one. Give me the biggest one.’
The man wiped a blob of spittle from the back of his ear.
‘For the weight, you see.’
With the rabbit in his hand, the man fumbled with the lock of the cage, clearly perturbed by Andrew’s proximity.
‘Give it to me.’ Andrew ordered softly.
The fur felt decadent, filtering out between his fingers. But it was the rabbit’s heartbeat punching against Andrew’s hand that caused his gaze to drift upwards, his jaw to slacken – just a tad – and his fingers to dig into its body, as if testing, deciding, whether or not to squeeze it to bursting point.
‘Is the rope long enough, sir?’ the man interrupted. ‘Why don’t you have another cigarette and I’ll set it up,’ he said, gesturing to take the rabbit from Andrew.
‘No. No, it’s alright, Mr Allwood. Why don’t you just sit there and watch?’
The man was thankful that the gallows was constructed at the village’s periphery: Two grown men hanging a rabbit were bound to look queer, and perhaps a bit needlessly cruel.
Once upon the stand, Andrew wound down the rope so that the noose lay coiled on the decking. He pinned the rabbit between his feet, pressing his leathered ankles into its flanks, and pulled at the knot, reducing the size of the loop. He then scooped the rabbit up and slithered the noose over its twitching ears and whiskers.
The creature wriggled against his grip, but, once again, Andrew dug his fingers into its underside, which caused it to cease moving. Its fur moistened with Andrew’s sweat.
‘See now, Mr Allwood,’ Andrew said, as he tightened the noose; ‘see how it’s quivering, as if it’s aware of what is to come.’ His speech slowed. ‘Do you think it knows?’
‘I don’t think it does, sir. It’s its natural dastardly state, you see.’
Andrew mused over this for a second – just a second – before placing the snared rabbit upon the trapdoor. His walk to the lever seemed strange, as if the joints in his legs had weakened suddenly; yet, as he stood staring at the twitching creature, with his right hand poised on the lever, he was stoic and alert. ‘Mr Allwood,’ he said, quite tremulously, ‘look now.’ Andrew’s line of vision darted between the rabbit and the man, striking back and forth, not wanting to miss a moment’s action.
And then he pulled the lever.
The ground opened up and, quite banally, the rabbit fell through the hole.
‘Damn.’ Andrew cursed. He ran across the base of the scaffold to stare at the rodent struggling against the pull of the rope. ‘Alas, Mr Allwood,’ he said breathlessly, as he peered down, ‘it seems its weight is insufficient.’
He straightened up, adjusted the waistband of his pants and reached for his cigarette case. ‘Cut it down and bring it up here,’ he ordered.
He bit down on the end of his cigarette.
From his throat, there came a small, but distinct, growl.
Andrew waited at the top of the stairs, grabbed the rabbit from the man and perfunctorily broke its neck. The man’s shock, though inchoate, was enough to make him turn from Andrew.
‘Let us test it properly now.’
Andrew first drew the noose then the trapdoor back into position. ‘Come now.’
A few moments of silence passed before Andrew, rather languidly, revealed a fine ivory blade in his right hand.
‘Touch me, Mr Allwood. Feel my pulse’ Andrew pointed the knife-point to his throat. ‘Right here.’
The man placed his fingertips to Andrew’s skin.
‘Is life not a wondrous phenomenon, Mr Allwood? Is it not utterly wondrous?’ Andrew reached for the man’s hand and squeezed it in his own, comforting the man in his confusion.
Abruptly, he pulled away and ran his fingers along the blade. ‘Is it not wondrous how something once as alive as you and I, is now turned into something so utilitarian, Mr Allwood?
‘Do you suppose that we’re similarly able to change ourselves into something useful? And if so, if we’re able, Mr Allwood, would that change be temporary, or would its consequences be as drastic for us as it was this for creature who, among other things, is now a blade?’
Without giving the man a chance to respond, Andrew, with a sweaty grip around the man’s wrist, led him, stumblingly, on to the trap door.
As he fumbled quite violently with the knot, sweat dripped from his brow, watering out the smouldering cigarette between his lips. From his hand and wrists, sweat plopped onto the man’s face as he adjusted the noose around the man’s neck.
‘It’s only,’ he whispered, stepped back and took a deep breath. ‘It’s only a test.’
‘I show you this blade, Mr Allwood, to assure you that I will cut you down.’ He walked over to the lever and turned to face the man. ‘I will cut you down.’