Shoot It by Alisdair L R I Hodgson
Everyone is constrained by the little things. I imagine walking down this street – not just any street, but the city centre high street – with a plastic carrier bag swinging by my side. Nobody looks twice. I mean, not unless I start spinning the bag around screaming bomb!, but that’s another story about dangerous devices. No – I am one of them. I fit in perfectly with my plastic bag, like every other evening shopper. Maybe it’s a five-pence supermarket bag with the logo on, or maybe it’s a heavy-duty one that the colours are scraping off, with warped sides from the Argos catalogue of items I’ve put it through. Bag for life? Right. Anything to get that extra twenty pence out your pocket. Granted, the choicest choice is cotton or hemp, something canvas that’s sustainable and doesn’t kill every shape and size of animal where it winds up.
A bag is fine, acceptable, comfortable; no issues there. But what about something bigger? I can see myself walking down the high street with something distinctly different, let’s say a pole, in hand. An eight-foot aluminium pole, held straight up in the air. Now I get looks and second looks, photos, text messages, knitted brows and comments shielded behind hands. Would I be better if I held it straight out, jousting with the street at large? Maybe. But I wouldn’t get away with it. There would be a social price to pay. What if I take it down a notch instead – keep the metal pole, sure, but give it an inch diameter and three feet of length. What the French might be inclined to call a baton. What do the French not call a baton? As if by the divine magic of imaginary pole manipulation, we’re back in Cosyville, cruising down easy street, mostly unnoticed by everybody and their devices.
The police are herding the high street, but I’m not one of them. Never mind the militant stare, the black and white, the cap, the epaulettes – I’m not. But I do have the aluminium baton – the inch-by-three-feet pole: aircraft grade, swivel head mechanism, slip noose on either end. This ought to attract some attention – and it does – but the real show is further up the road. That’s what draws the crowd, that’s where the phones are aimed. For a brief time, the public consciousness has centred. This is where I go to work.
“Are you who we’re waiting for?” a senior female officer asks on approach, as I disengage the safety of the shop-lit pavement and brim the horde.
“Someone has to be,” I reply, navigating a crowd that thickens by the step. The mob are too distracted to observe my authority, awaiting a miracle on the other side.
A younger officer matches my pace, demonstrating the desperate need to explain himself. The female, his superior, stands back, allowing junior more than his length of tether so he can learn not to care the hard way. “We tried the vets. They were closed. I – We have never dealt with anything quite like this before.”
I want to give him a reassuring pat and tell him that everything will be okay. But everyone in the town centre knows it won’t. Instead, I wave him down and he stops, lost, dissolving into my peripheries.
The police – teams of two at either end of the crowd – are here for civilian control and traffic diversion as much as anything else. They’re not here to deal with the situation, only contain it. Like Orwell and his elephant, I am who they call when things get out of hand and no-one else can do what must be done.
The thing is stranded in the centre of a large circle of people spanning wider than a school fight but not quite a circus ring. It has been reported as male, but how anyone can know that beats me: the infected genitals swell, chewing gum-pink, puckered and unrecognisable. Not that they will be on display. In times of terror, mammals protect their weakest points.
I part the crowd, breaking an imperceptible barrier, entering the arena. Now I am noticed. Now my baton becomes the eight-foot weapon, the unavoidable centre of attention. Every detail is amplified as the limelight vies between myself and the creature I’m here to contain. To some, I am the hero of this piece, to others a necessary evil. To the group of students at my back, I am the villain. Girls and boys and everything in-between, sporting tunnelled ears, pierced noses, twirled moustaches and top knots. They spit and screech obscenities, starting arguments in the crowd. I would have thought them natural allies, but instead it’s the old guard coming to my defence, men in flat caps waggling rubber-ended walking sticks, telling them to show a little respect and common decency. They’re only making this harder for everyone.
But nobody looks away.
A woman pulls her infant back with one hand, filming the occasion with the other, inspecting every grim detail through the safety of a well-trained lens. Even the kids who, I could swear, when I was younger used to be possessed of a natural urge to get up close and personal with things, are watching the beast on their screens. These are creatures of spectacle, drawn to the bombastic – unable, in their superiority, to escape that particular piece of primal coding. Unable to look away from the flash, the crash. Prone to ridiculing what doesn’t conform.
The road has been temporarily closed and he’s sitting lopsided, isolated on his own new intersection, a lucky back paw thumping the damp tarmac, communicating danger in something more fundamental than Morse code. His eyes and mouth are engorged, housed in mucus and barely open, looking like he’s been stung by a bee or seized by a violent bout of conjunctivitis. To him, this is no spectacle. The fear and madness are right through his bones, symbiotic, supplying each other in profusion. The matted, white-flecked fur on his chest heaves laboured breaths – deep in, quick out – and the tumours peek out from beneath, black and crusty. At this point, he’s not even a danger to a car bonnet – if he ever was. Maybe a danger to rush hour and shopping and a trip to McDonald’s. He’s brought an entire city street to a standstill for little more than not yet being dead.
So often the smaller ones do the most damage, because we don’t see them coming.
A woman with no teeth is navigating the scene, selling snacks from a tray, and the crowd is consuming everything from protein bars to steaming cartons of takeaway. One man is six inches deep in a meaty footlong, and I would swear a little girl down the front is clutching a bag of microwave popcorn. When I was a child, I couldn’t even watch Watership Down to the end without stopping to hug the pets, but now … they’re bold and unflinching, mouths cast ajar and big doughy blank faces just staring out from within. Desensitised from their beginning. I suppose, if you look at everything through a screen, nothing is real.
Someone shouts “shoot it”. With what? Another camera? That’s the global influence for you: dirty tricks and US tactics. The quick fix.
I approach sidelong, as though I’m not interested in the animal but something parallel. He’s edgy, erratic, like he knows he shouldn’t be here, wherever he thinks he is. How he got here is anyone’s guess. I’m sure his friends are all dying painfully in an idyllic country field right now, somewhere green and peaceful amongst the hills. This is a celebrity he never asked for.
The noose eases over his head, catching below the ears, and he thrashes just once as it tightens, knowing the game is up. Silence draws in, holds, then exhales, dissolving into coffee shop chatter.
I walk him out, the crowd parting in a flash-lit blue and white sea. Migrating through the teeming mass, I lead the furry eyesore to my van, his march to the end, past shops and eateries with eager faces and camera eyes lining their windows. The sky opens in our wake.
I glance back, aware of the need for haste now that I’ve become a worthy equivalent of the bag-swinging bombster. A man stands alone in the beast’s spot, head tilted back like a dancer, arms wide, eyes shut (not screwed, but peacefully, openly shut), unconstrained, letting the rain wash something away – and the crowd with it. If everyone wasn’t running for cover – police into their vans, shoppers into their shops – perhaps he would be their next attraction. But I suspect not. He might be ridiculed, but he will not be remembered. They won’t close the street for him.
He is soaking up the sensation, the area’s aura, before it is gone.
Nobody sees him but the animal and me.