Short Stories

September 15, 2010      

The Sniper and I by Matthew Haigh

I

I turn up at the apartment. “Don’t try to be too original, whatever you do,” said the shadowy voice on the telephone. “You may write of lighthouses, or the parasitic invasion of love. Stick to those and you will go far in this business.”

I set down my bag, admiring the cream coloured sky beyond the tall windows. One of these I open so as to stick my head into the cool April air.

A knock on the door. A man with an equine face introduces himself as Dmitri, says he is from Slovakia. Breezes in, swinging a battered leather case at his side.

I discover something new – a message scrawled across the wall in foot high letters:

EXISTENTIALISM IS THE ONLY WAY, CUNTS.

II

The medicine cabinet is crammed with dusty bottles with labels such as: Perpetual Happiness, Total Confidence, Genuine Interest in the Problems of Others, Dreams Fulfilled, and so on. Medications long expired.

A group of girls outside break open a fire hydrant, releasing a noxious vapour. They’re flat on their backs, out cold for hours.

The voice of my school friend crackles from the free-swinging telephone. “I’m blameless. I had a twisted childhood. Does this musketeer hat make me look quirky, or desperate?”

How typical it would be if he were to fall into nihilism, to fall and fall.

III

To make himself feel at home, Dmitri tacks up a circus poster. He tells me he loves the circus. And milk.

Dmitri is a trained sniper. Each day he sits at the window, one eye glued to a rifle sight. When I ask if he’d like to come away from the window or play hide and seek, he says, “No. I am sniper. I shoot …” and mimes a shooting gesture. He is, however, thankful when I take him glasses of cold milk.

I sit writing a sestina, not trying to be too original. I try instead to be enthused by the parasitic invasion of love; lighthouses; the act of tracing a lover’s name in dust…

Dmitri is nodding along to the music on his headphones. Now and again he chews the sleeves of his jumper. Must be nerve-wracking, being a sniper.

The more attention I pay to the floor, the more I notice the chalk outlines like those used to mark bodies at crime scenes. Except that these outlines are for all the life choices I murdered. Like that time I forced myself to go to a party for gender politics and folk music enthusiasts, for fear of missing some brilliant moment that never came.

“…of course I believe in equal rights,” I said, “but you seem more concerned with revenge. Is the degradation of a male on television any more acceptable than that of a female?”

Somebody somewhere played a bum note on a ukulele.

IV

Dmitri is a “sniper of the people”; meaning people are his target. He takes aim at morning commuters, afternoon shoppers, disgruntled postmen … Such an albatross of threat hanging over them will keep them on their toes, he says.

I tell him I’m going out to the bakery. “It is safe to cross the road, right? Don’t want a kneecap blown off,” I joke.

“Is perfectly safe,” Dmitri says. “If I shoot you it will be in your head.”

He has a codename: Nanny. Whether he was issued with it or invented it himself is unclear. Sometimes he takes a break to have a sip of milk and whittle circus ornaments. The floor is strewn with wooden trapeze artists, clowns, dancing bears, lion tamers and big tops.

Mornings are for thinking. I consider this huge apartment gifted to me, my chest home to a nervous brass band.

I drift through it and the truth slams into me with the weight of a cartoon anvil: I do not know what to do with so much freedom.

An aeroplane writes a message in the sky:

All living things must find the notion for which they would live or die. The alternative: apathy.

V

We sit on the sofa in our pyjamas, the sniper and I, watching Saturday morning cartoons. In this single hour of intimacy afforded us, I do not wish to do anything else.

I open a can of Assorted Flavour Doctors: coffee, liquorice, and placebo. “They’re so good for you,” I say, offering one to Dmitri. I ask: “What’s it like, being a sniper?” He explains, through his broken English, that the best thing about the job is the time it affords.

Time, in which the smaller things gain sharper focus “like crystallized butterflies.”

At night I lay on the sofa under a thin blanket. Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space plays on TV, the volume down low. Only drifting anonymously through a strange town is comforting in the same way that black and white film is comforting.

Dmitri slumps forward in his chair, the rifle gripped between his legs. What do I make of these dreams in which I roll with him through oceanic cornfields and fly coloured kites beneath water? Dreams which, in retrospect as I awake, seem more like poorly-wrapped gifts.

VI

I have bought a tape machine and a pile of motivational tapes. At first the voice on the cassette spouts the type of sentiments I would expect:

The beauty of your life is a matter of perception. With this in mind, every day can be a Saturday morning.

Gradually the sentiments change:

The snow is a prowling galaxy shuffling up to the window of winter’s dreaming house.

Memory is an antique wardrobe stacked with blankets.

Over by the window Dmitri has been crafting a jewellery box in the shape of a grand piano. He has pasted gold leaf over the box and carved ornate legs from cardboard. There is a full set of keys made out of lollipop sticks. He tells me he made it for a girl in the street below. She has bubblegum pink hair and green hoop earrings.

I peer out the window. The group of girls, now an army, choke and hurl makeup bombs at each other; flashes of hot pink and powder blue, through which the lights from other apartment windows twinkle like miniature power plants.

I pat him on the back. “How’s the sniping going?”

“This old lady outside supermarket … I try to take out her eye, but miss.”

“Dmitri, your English is coming along beautifully.”

VII

Perhaps I am in love with Dmitri; it would explain the dreams.

I have spent so long telling people how I will never write of the parasitic invasion of love, that to do so now, under these new conditions, would suggest I was embittered all along. So I maintain the facade of happy solitude, embracing the resulting loneliness.

There is coffee boiling. I am eating an almond croissant from the bakery. Beyond the window the town is scenery from a German folktale.

To have this moment swell, to become all of time, for it to always be now… Must we endure time between these moments, I wonder; intervals in which sickly wax castles are constructed? Must there be hours?

I think of the thirty mix-tapes stashed in my bag, not a single one of them handed out. Letters I never posted…

VIII

Dmitri is dead. A tulip of blood blossoms beneath his jumper.

The parting words I imagined so succinctly have been cut down by a stray bullet. One of the postmen, perhaps, fed up of being shot at.

Had there been any last words, I might have told him of how we rolled in those cornfields, how we swam with those kites.

The voice of Roy Orbison floats from a radio somewhere across the street:

Only in dreams, in beautiful dreams…

Dmitri, Dmitri… His death is a baroque city in which it has rained for years.

My attention is caught by the poster on the wall, the assortment of hand-whittled ornaments. I imagine a circus-themed funeral where mourners hurl rubber balls at a target and the coffin plunges into a dunking pool, Dmitri’s lifeless corpse flopping out to applause.

EPILOGUE

Fuck originality. I write a love sestina to Dmitri. I tuck his hand-crafted piano under my arm and leave the apartment.

The corridor is littered with monstrously tall men in sharp suits. The men possess the thick, tanned necks of oxen, the shoulders of Greek statues. Each man has his head stuck inside something – a hole in the wall, a lemonade jug, etc.

“This is because I wrote that love sestina, isn’t it,” I say.

Outside, the street is a warzone. Sandbags topped with barbed wire cordon off either end. Broken glass and scattered limbs are illuminated by red whirring sirens. In place of the girls, I see an assortment of mannequins. Some are about to toss grenades, others hunkered down behind smashed cars, fingers jammed in their ears. I pass one with bubblegum pink hair and green hoop earrings. Her eyes cast around for any reflective surface.

An unsteady hand has scrawled a legend in blue eyeliner across a pillar box:

What have we done to ourselves?

Crystallized butterflies drift between piles of wreckage. Smoke snuffs out the sky.

Am I to walk through that foggy curtain now, appearing as somebody else on the other side? Every door we pass through is such an opportunity, I tell myself. Every day can be a Saturday morning.

The piano fits my palm perfectly.

About the author:

Matthew Haigh is a charity worker from Cardiff, with tales of suave ghosts, asexualism and bird police either floating around online and in print, or forthcoming. He enjoys making Cactuar men from green felt, and has a strong dislike for love poetry. As such, this is his love poem.

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