The Puppet

Written by Rachel Hubbard

Photograph by Nathan Anderson

Photograph by Nathan Anderson

It was October and the clouds threatened snow even though the air was not yet cool enough to sustain the delicacy of the snowflakes for, as they fell, they would fade into raindrops or land silently on the wet pavements and melt into oblivion. It was, however, cold enough for Michael to don a scarf; a necessary part of his dark, austere uniform as he dressed himself that morning, standing in front of the bedroom window and surveying the dreich weather he would soon endeavour to bear for the eight long hours that his shift lasted.

His tea was cold by the time he was ready to leave and he suspected Kate’s was too, though she still had another blissful half an hour of peace until the alarm would wake her. He leant over her sleeping body with romantic delicacy and kissed her soft warm cheek as gently as he could before carrying his shoes and tip-toeing from the room. He had wanted to stay for longer, to wake her up with his lips against her skin and climb back under the warm covers and feel their legs intertwine as she reached around his middle, sighed and whispered something lovely in his ear. But instead he pulled the front door shut with a definitive clunk behind him.

Outside the weather was worse than he’d feared. It was trying to snow but could only manage a pitiful sleet that wasn’t quite heavy enough to need an umbrella. So Michael walked with his head down and tried not to get it in his eyes. Normally, rain would run off his high-vis waterproof overcoat with ease but this sludge trickled down the collar and collected in the crinkles like cold, week-old soup. Michael hated the overcoat: underneath he wore a tie and collared shirt, a black pull-over and two proud silver stripes on each sleeve which indicated his progression from Constable to Sergeant. All of it invisible beneath that damned coat. The coat that made him look bulkier and louder than he was. Michael hated the coat and he hated the weather too.

Not even out of sight of his bedroom window he began to shiver and, with a grunt, he turned back to fetch the hat that he ought to have taken with him in the first place. In the few minutes it took for him to return to his front door he became convinced that this was God’s way of giving him the day off; that he should be so tempted to go back to bed on returning to the flat that he would just have to lie down and go to sleep. But his morals wouldn’t allow it and so he stole a look from the bedroom door and disappeared once again into the abyss.

He had remembered, this time, to Velcro his radio control to the outside of his jacket. It gave him some comfort to hear the muffled voices of his comrades as he began the very lonely walk to where there was “summit amiss”. 

It was mid-morning by the time he climbed the steep ascent of Gordon Hill. On a sunny day, he would relish the moment that he approached the top and was briefly blinded by the hot and powerful sun, but today all that welcomed him was a low cloud that hung densely over the dull, grey buildings of the village like a thick smog that was impenetrable and suffocating. Feeling wholly uninspired, he decided to take a moment to sit on the bench that over looked the East side of the village. This stretch of countryside was largely unpopulated with only a cluster of farm houses nestled in the valley and sometimes Michael would count the hundreds of sheep that aimlessly roved the opposite hillside.

With his head bowed against the wind, he progressed round the side of the large oak tree with the intention of settling on the bench now only a few feet away from him but when a slow creaking sound caught his attention he looked up and stopped dead in his tracks, air catching in his throat as he tried to gasp.

In front of him was a large branch of the tree which stretched out like a withered arm to the horizon ahead. From this branch was tied a rope. This rope was pulled taught by the body of a man, not much older than Michael. He was shocked by their similarity in age. It was as if the man was mocking him, asking him if he was really, really happy or if it was all an illusion. Or perhaps the man was foreshadowing something – wait until you get to twenty-two then life is simply unbearable. Michael felt a shiver run like an icy rain drop down his spine.

In training they had seen hangings before and they’d been taught the procedure to follow should they ever be in the unlikely situation of stumbling across one. Finding himself now in this position, there wasn’t one single part of the talk that Michael remembered. His mind had gone blank.

All he could do was stare helplessly at the man’s purpled face and bulging eyes, then his limp body that swayed ghoulishly in the breeze, and his hands and feet which hung lifeless and heavy. He wore an old blue jumper that had food stains dribbled down the front and his hair was ruffled and only one of his shoes had the laces tied. Michael blinked several times but at each moment that his eyes were shut, a part of him was scared that the figure might move as if it were all a joke. As if it was something he’d laugh about in the future with his friends and remember with humorous hindsight. It wasn’t a joke. But Michael would certainly remember this day with painful accuracy. The sensation of eyes, watching from behind, crept up his spine until he had to turn around suddenly. No one was there. Silly Michael...

The man! He turned back but found himself even more disturbed to find the figure still there, silently hanging. The poor soul’s eyes were fixed on the ground, out of focus as if in a daze. His pupils were dilated and Michael assumed he’d been on drugs. Perhaps it was an accident?

The hair on Michael’s arms prickled. He was unsure if it was because of the wind which seemed to have dropped a few degrees, or if it was because of the dead body which danced in the gusts before him like a puppet on a single string, head bowed in defeat, not wanting to address the audience but without a will to fight his master as legs moved slowly and wearily above the darkened village.

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