General Fiction posted September 16, 2020


Exceptional
This work has reached the exceptional level
A short story

Russian Roulette

by tfawcus


Major Fletcher lurched from side to side as he pedalled up the driveway between the avenue of gnarled oak trees leading to Winton House. A florid man at the best of times, his face glistened from exertion, its redness demonic against his sleek, black hair and the fluttering wings of his gown.

     He slowed as he approached the grand sweep of the main entrance. The house was flanked by two beds of roses with thorns like sharks' teeth. His jaw was set with concentration as he steered his trusty boneshaker onto the narrow path between the bay window and the rosebed. With commendable precision, he applied his brakes until the bicycle reached the delicate point of balance that enabled him to topple it against the side of the building. He then leant forward and, using the leverage of the window ledge, pressed down and gingerly swung his gammy leg clear of the saddle.

     Wilson and Fielding crouched below the sill, eagerly anticipating Fletch's arrival, an event holding the promise of disaster. Like most eleven-year-old boys, they were optimists. As far as they knew, the bicycle had only once fallen the wrong way, resulting in a tirade of invective that had both stunned and delighted them. However, their hopes of a repeat performance were not fulfilled and, with the sounding of the warning bell, they slunk off to their classroom with all the enthusiasm of two toads about to be kissed.

     The boys regarded Major Fletcher as a good egg. He was scrupulously fair, and he had a war wound. This naturally invested him with hero status. They particularly enjoyed his afternoon lessons. For reasons not fully understood, he was mellower and easier to divert with red herrings. Wartime reminiscences, if they could be finessed, were infinitely more interesting than the intricacies of English grammar.

     They had scarcely seated themselves at the sounding of the second bell when the major swept in and hopped onto the dais at the front of the room, steadying himself against the lectern. The topic today was personal pronouns. He stood with his thumbs in the lapels of a well-patched tweed jacket and surveyed the rows of expectant faces.

     Wilson had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach when he was called to the front of the classroom. Naturally assuming he'd been seen spying at the window, he approached with caution. However, when Fletch's hand came out towards him, it was not to deliver the expected clip over the ear, but to produce a stick of chalk with a flourish from behind it. Holding the chalk vertically in front of Wilson's nose, he said, "What have we here?"

     "A piece of chalk, sir."

     "Yes--but what else?"

     "The letter 'I'?" Wilson ventured uncertainly.

     "Clever boy! A personal pronoun. Now, is it a subject or an object?"

     A voice from the back of the room chirped, "It looks like an object to me, sir."

     "Very perceptive, Evans, but, grammatically, what's the difference?"

     Fielding waved his hand in the air, bouncing up and down in his seat. He had found his opportunity. "Please, sir. I (subject) can see a bulge in your pocket. Can you show us (object) what it is?"

     "Not yet, boy. There's more work to be done first."

     The boys squirmed with impatience. Fletch had promised the week before that he'd bring his service revolver into class to show them. Fielding was sure about the contents of the pocket. Fletch always made good on his promises.

     Towards the end of the lesson, Fletch brought the boys together at the front of the class and sat them down. He drew the revolver from his pocket slowly for dramatic effect, eased the hammer back and spun the empty chamber before pointing the gun towards the window and squeezing the trigger. There was a satisfying click.

     "Cor! A six-shooter, like in the Wild West," Wilson said.

     "Not quite. That would more than likely have been a Colt. Does anyone know what this one is?"

     Evans stared him in the eye. "An Enfield No 2, sir. My dad had one like that, but he'd never have brought it into a classroom to show a bunch of kids. They're dangerous things, sir. Not to be fooled about with."

     All eyes swivelled towards the boy. His classmates knew he'd stepped over the line. Pupils didn't tell teachers what they could or could not do, and there was an expectant hush while they waited to see how Fletch would respond.

     "Quite right, young man. I couldn't have put it better myself." Fletch brushed an imaginary speck of dust from the muzzle and slid the gun back into his pocket. With it went his plans to spin a yarn of derring-do, confronting a group of Germans in a tight spot, with him in the starring role. A situation he'd never been in, as Evans seemed to know. Heroes don't dramatize war or their part in it.

     The remaining minutes were given over to a half-hearted lesson on safe weapon handling and, when the bell sounded, Fletch gathered up his books, together with the remnants of his self-respect, and limped out of the room.

     After he'd left, the boys clustered around Evans. "Spoilsport!" Wilson hissed, giving him a push.

     However, Fielding saw a tell-tale glistening in Evans's eye and tugged at Wilson's sleeve. "Come on. Leave him alone."

 
#

     Major Fletcher lingered in the staffroom marking books after lessons were over. He chose a seat by the window and spent a good deal of his time flipping his red biro between his fingers and gazing out over the orchard, lost in thought. After a while, two younger members of staff came in, chatting and laughing.

     "Hello, Major. You're working late, aren't you? James and I are off to The Crooked Billet for a pint and a bite to eat. Care to join us?"

     "Thanks, Chris. That's not a bad idea. Anything to get away from this place for a while."

     The two younger men exchanged glances. They hadn't really expected to be taken up on the offer. The major was usually stand-offish. A bit of a loner. However, they took it in their stride, and they all set off down the lane towards Fordham village. Normally, it would have been a fifteen-minute walk, but the lads dawdled along the way, diplomatically keeping pace with the major and stopping a couple of times to admire the soft light cast by the setting sun.

     One pint turned into three or four and, before long, the major cast off his dark mood and started to regale the two lads with the wartime reminiscences he'd intended to share with his class. They proved to be a responsive audience, especially when the major began ordering and paying for whiskey chasers.

     The journey back to Winton House was punctuated by snatches of bawdy song and inane laughter as Chris and James supported the major's erratic progress. The night air gradually began to have a sobering effect and, by the time they reached their destination, they were shivering with cold.

     "How about a mug of cocoa in the kitchen before we turn in?" Chris suggested.

     He skipped on ahead to put the kettle on, while James helped the major down the stone steps into the basement. By this time, the major's maudlin mood had returned. He took his revolver out of his pocket and laid it down on the scrubbed pine table.

     "I say, old chap. Best put that away, don't you think?" James said as he reached forward, but Fletch pushed his hand away.

     "Did you ever hear of Russian Roulette? A favourite game among Russian officers towards the end of the First World War when their world was falling apart. Rather than being dishonoured before their colleagues, they'd load the gun with one bullet, spin the chamber, and hold it to their head. Like this." He picked up the revolver, spun the chamber and held it to his temple.

     The two lads were aghast. A grin spread over the major's face as he squeezed the trigger. There was a click. He laughed insanely. "You didn't really think it was loaded, did you?"

     He spun the chamber once more and, pointing at the kitchen sink, fired again. There was an ear-splitting explosion. The sink split in two.

 
#

     It was later put about that Fletcher was a two-bit conman who'd never been in the army. Chris told me that, when the police came, there was a look of sublime peace on the poor man's face, as if a great weight had been lifted from him.

     Naturally, having heard the story, I checked the records. I discovered that a Major Keith Fletcher had been awarded the DSO after a disastrous assault during the Battle of Anzio, in which all but one of the men under his command were killed. He had been wounded while dragging that man to safety and was taken to a casualty clearing station. The solitary survivor, Captain Evans, was less fortunate. He was blown to pieces two days later, leading another abortive assault.

     Fletcher and Evans are common names, of course.



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2020

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