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AN Grace

Small Saviors

Each autumn, as September rolled into October, and hawthorn berries flashed for the birds, Dougie Ross held his breath and waited. On his belly. On his knees. Sometimes cross-legged. The waiting game was the climax of a year spent waiting, a year when seasons came by and went as he ran down the clock.

Winter brought people and festivities, and by god he hated the cold that shuffled in alongside it. Almost as much as he hated the traditions. Those things that felt so real to him in the moment, and then almost became imagined as they passed. There were the stiff handshakes with distant relatives who were no more familiar to him than the Aga Khan. There were gifts to be proffered and accepted. There were precarious tightropes to be walked. Sometimes, a guttural scream was held in check only by good manners and great expectations. Had he really once spent two hours listening to his aunt Maeve spew forth on decimalisation? Well, he could just about cope with that. It was the probing questions designed to appear otherwise that he dreaded these days. How are you Dougie? They would say, leaving the question hanging in the air as they glanced towards his mother or his father for answers that would be given later in hushed tones. And how’s Helen?

Spring was no-man's-land. The inbetween. The void. At least it brought life: bluebells hidden underground like nuclear deterrents, ready to spread shock and awe in ancient woodlands. Green socks beetles who would emerge and march to a predestined tune. The red kite in full feather, viewing the world from above as he sometimes thought he might like to. As he clocked in and clocked out, these small saviors kept him afloat. On his days off, he would head out to hunt for penny buns. Flask. Sandwiches. Binoculars. Seeing him return, flush with colour, his mother and father would have told you he was renewed by Presbyterian vigour. He was stepping closer to God. Yes, it was the small church he attended begrudgingly again each Sunday, a habit that had lapsed when he and Helen had moved into the new house in the city.

The hardest time was summer. No one wanted to be a porter at the hospital in summertime. After a few hours the sweat would be dripping right down his arse crack, and his balls would stick to his legs and have to be furtively adjusted throughout the day. He'd long gotten used to the smells of the wards, but everything was amplified with the heat—the stink, passions, small tempers. Olfactory cataclysm Mr Hughes called it, sitting in his grubby air-conditioned office in the basement like the general of a failed state. The porters called it the madness. People often seemed surprised that crime shot up in summer, even in this quiet corner, but Dougie understood, Dougie knew. In time the heat would dissipate, in fact some welcome years it barely arrived. Regardless, the days would begin to close and the morning air would snap and tickle in a way it hadn't just a few weeks earlier.

He was lying in a wooded copse, holding his breath and waiting, close to the bottom of the valley. His long dark hair was tucked tightly under a beanie, and the collar of his green jacket was up over the nape of his neck, holding off the light morning rain that caught the low sun and transformed it into something almost magical. Dougie Ross had never been a thinker, except perhaps when he was waiting. From the time he'd turned fourteen, he'd taken a stag each year. Nineteen in all. He couldn't tell you why, but he could tell you how. He could spend hours telling you how to build a hide. How to run from the wind. How to strip down a Steyr Mannlicher like you were on the front at El Alamein. The same way his father had taught him, and his father and so on from the beginning of time. He thought about Helen, that he should make more of a point to ask her how she was since they'd moved back in with his parents. They seemed to speak mostly with their eyes these days, in glances and stares and raised eyebrows. Someone had once told him the human face can form over ten thousand expressions, and he believed this. He looked through the binoculars again, drawing them down the side of the valley, stopping momentarily on every piece of brush and irregularity. Something moved, and his body fell still enough to welcome creatures great and small should they be so foolish. He watched. It was a pine marten, larking in the long grass. He waited. Again. Directly in his eyeline now. Two hundred yards in the distance the young stag lumbered into view wearing a coat to die for. Dougie Ross felt a pang of jealousy: this beast who roamed the wild, day in day out, solitary and made of tree trunks and wild heather. The stag was rooting around in the soil for something edible, tree shoots or sedges perhaps. Dougie Ross felt his heart start to race, and he wondered why on those missing child reports, they always made a point of how the bedroom is left the same years later. It sometimes seemed like that was the only thing the reporter was interested in—a freak show of '80s posters and schoolbooks and mothballed clothes. He wondered what you were meant to do if the child wasn't missing. The stag stopped suddenly, exhalations dancing from its nostrils in the cold air. Dougie froze and sighted the Steyr. Don't aim for the head. Hard as a brick shithouse. Aim for the heart. He pulled the trigger. The stag sniffed the air quizzically, and ambled off into the thick bushes to forage for better fare. Dougie Ross smiled. Got ya, wee fucker

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