Crows by David Micklem
I do their garden once a fortnight. Three hours, but I charge for four. They can afford it.
Once I’ve done the lawn, I collect the cuttings and put them on the compost behind the shed. I can take my time back there, roll a smoke, plan what’s next. There’s some fruit trees I’ll need to prune in a few weeks, when there’s no chance of a frost. I take my time sweeping the last of the blossom from the tennis court. They had it done maybe eight years ago, a new surface, tarmac, but I doubt they’ve been down there more than half a dozen times. There’s moss creeping slowly across the court from the end nearest the trees.
It’s one of those days. Damp and flat grey, like all the colour’s been sucked out of it. Not a breath of wind. I lean on the broom and look back towards the house. Both cars were in the drive and I can see lights on, upstairs, and in the sitting room. I tend to just come and go through the side gate and I’m pretty sure they haven’t seen me this morning.
I roll a smoke and light it. I’m being paid for this, I think.
I’ve never been upstairs, but I imagine her sat at one of those dressing tables with a mirror, checking her reflection. I noticed that she has glitter above her eyes and her lips are always bright red, like she’s just put it on. Just shy of seventy, I reckon. Turned some heads, back in the day, I’ll bet.
He’s older, but still in decent shape. I’m sure he could do the garden himself, but they’ve got money, and he seems busy. Golf club, he says. Often. Like it’s a doing word, not a place.
Concorde pilot, apparently. Retired early. The planes, and him.
I see him at the French doors, and I drop the fag and finish sweeping. I hear the door handle spring back and he’s clapping and waving his arms. I’m walking towards the wheelbarrow and I point at my chest to see whether it’s me he wants. But he’s striding towards one of the beds I dug before Easter. His voice carries across the garden. He’s angry and I can see his face is red. He stops at the edge of the lawn and claps his hands again.
A pair of crows are pecking at where I put the runner beans in. I usually wait a few more weeks and then use the bamboo canes from the shed to build a frame. It’s the slugs and snails that I get worked up about. Half a glass of beer at the end of each row stops them from eating the young leaves.
He’s clapping, his arms a blur, and now I’m wondering whether he’s even seen me.
The grass isn’t that wet or I wouldn’t have got the first cut done, but he hasn’t got the right footwear. He’s just wearing a shirt and chinos, slippers on his feet.
He turns back to the house and I fill the wheelbarrow with the sweepings. I hear the doors shut and I think he’s gone in, but he’s back on the patio, a shotgun in his hands. I can see he’s loading a cartridge. He walks towards me and drops one of them. He bends to pick it up, gets it in the barrel, and snaps it back against the stock. I put the wheelbarrow down and lean against the shed, thinking it’s best to keep back. I didn’t know he had a gun.
A mate of mine took me on a shoot, once. They needed someone to flush the pheasants, a beater. I was given a stick with a flag on one end. We walked in a long line through the bracken, disturbing the birds. There was probably half a dozen of them lined up, all wearing tweed jackets and flat caps. Guns, they’re called.
He doesn’t look right, in his light blue shirt, and beige trousers, the weapon under his arm. But he means business, striding across the patio in his slippers. I step back under the eaves of the shed, just in case.
He lifts the gun to his shoulder, and stumbles. One hand reaches for the ground and the other is on the grip. I hear it go off and he’s on his knees.
The crows explode in a rubbery flap. The gunshot echoes back off the ridge and the birds wheel low over the copse in the field behind the garden. A dog barks inside the house.
It looks like he’s bent over and then I see there is blood, pink and red on the grey stones. He’s hunched and it’s just a body, limp and lifeless, one side of his head missing.
He’s still kneeling on the paving stones, a hand on the gun, blood pooling around his knees. I’m worried it might go off again, that the safety’s off, and I make my way across the freshly cut grass, gingerly. There is moss here and I’ll need to rake that out before it spreads further down the garden.
I approach from behind, my eyes on the barrels of the gun. There is propellant in the air; sharp, acrid. He’s leaning his weight on the butt, his hand loosely on the trigger plate. I can’t look at the mess of the side of his head. Bending down, I release his grip and take the shotgun in both hands.
I straighten and turn to the French windows. My knees crack. I hear his body fall forward, but I keep my eyes on his wife.
It looks she’s going to scream, but she doesn’t make a sound. I’m holding the gun low, at my waist, the barrel pointing in her direction. Her hands are above her head, her face twisted. Like she’s pleading.
“Crows,” I say.
David Micklem is a writer and theatre producer. He is preoccupied with stories and storytelling; of all lengths and various forms. As a writer, a reader and an audience member, he craves narratives and the way these help us make sense of the world. His short story The Broken Heart was published in January 2021 in STORGY Magazine and Crows was shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize 2021. He lives in Brixton in South London.