The Gun Seller
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For my father
I am indebted to the writer and broadcaster Stephen Fry for his comments; to Kim Harris and Sarah Williams for their overpowering good taste and intelligence; to my literary agent Anthony Goff, who has been unstinting in his support and encouragement; to my theatrical agent Lorraine Hamilton, for not minding that I also have a literary agent, and to my wife Jo, for things that would fill a longer book than this.
I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die;
P S. STEWART
Imagine that you have to break someone’s arm.
Right or left, doesn’t matter. The point is that you have to break it, because if you don’t… well, that doesn’t matter either. Let’s just say bad things will happen if you don’t.
Now, my question goes like this: do you break the arm quickly - snap, whoops, sorry, here let me help you with that improvised splint - or do you drag the whole business out for a good eight minutes, every now and then increasing the pressure in the tiniest of increments, until the pain becomes pink and green and hot and cold and altogether howlingly unbearable?
Well exactly. Of course. The right thing to do, the only thing to do, is to get it over with as quickly as possible. Break the arm, ply the brandy, be a good citizen. There can be no other answer.
Unless unless unless.
What if you were to hate the person on the other end of thearm? I mean really,reallyhate them.
This was a thing I now had to consider.
I say now, meaning then, meaning the moment I am describing; the moment fractionally, oh so bloody fractionally, before my wrist reached the back of my neck and my left humerus broke into at least two, very possibly more, floppily joined-together pieces.
The arm we’ve been discussing, you see, is mine. It’s not an abstract, philosopher’s arm. The bone, the skin, the hairs, the small white scar on the point of the elbow, won from the corner of a storage heater at GateshillPrimary School - they all belong to me. And now is the moment when I must consider the possibility that the man standing behind me, gripping my wrist and driving it up my spine with an almost sexual degree of care, hates me. I mean, really,reallyhates me.
He is taking for ever.
His name was Rayner. First name unknown. By me, at any rate, and therefore, presumably, by you too.
I suppose someone, somewhere, must have known his first name - must have baptised him with it, called him down to breakfast with it, taught him how to spell it - and someone else must have shouted it across a bar with an offer of a drink, or murmured it during sex, or written it in a box on a life insurance application form. I know they must have done all these things. Just hard to picture, that’s all.
Rayner, I estimated, was ten years older than me. Which was fine. Nothing wrong with that. I have good, warm, non arm-breaking relationships with plenty of people who are ten years older than me. People who are ten years older than me are, by and large, admirable. But Rayner was also three inches taller than me, four stones heavier, and at least eight however-you-measure-violence units more violent. He was uglier than a car park, with a big, hairless skull that dipped and bulged like a balloon full of spanners, and his flattened, fighter’s nose, apparently drawn on his face by someone using their left hand, or perhaps even their left foot, spread out in a meandering, lopsided delta under the rough slab of his forehead.
And God Almighty, what a forehead. Bricks, knives, bottles and reasoned arguments had, in their time, bounced harmlessly off this massive frontal plane, leaving only the feeblest indentations between its deep, widely-spaced pores. They were, I think, the deepest and most widely-spaced pores I have ever seen in human skin, so that I found myself thinking back to the council putting-green in Dalbeattie, at the end of the long, dry summer of ‘76.
Moving now to the side elevation, we find that Rayner’s ears had, long ago, been bitten off and spat back on to the side of his head, because the left one was definitely upside down, or inside out, or something that made you stare at it for a long time before thinking ‘oh, it’s an ear’.
And on top of all this, in case you hadn’t got the message, Rayner wore a black leather jacket over a black polo-neck. But of course you would have got the message. Rayner could have swathed himself in shimmering silk and put an orchid behind each ear, and nervous passers-by would still have paid him money first and wondered afterwards whether they had owed him any.
As it happened, I didn’t owe him money. Rayner belonged to that select group of people to whom I didn’t owe anything at all, and if things had been going a little better between us, I might have suggested that he and his fellows have a special tie struck, to signify membership. A motif of crossed paths, perhaps.
But, as I said, things weren’t going well between us.
A one-armed combat instructor called Cliff (yes, I know - he taught unarmed combat, and he only had one arm - very occasionally life is like that) once told me that pain was a thing you did to yourself. Other people did things to you - they hit you, or stabbed you, or tried to break your arm - butpain was of your own making. Therefore, said Cliff, who had spent a fortnight inJapan and so felt entitled to unload dogshit of this sort on his eager charges, it was always within your power to stop your own pain. Cliff was killed in a pub brawl three months later by a fifty-five-year-old widow, so I don’t suppose I’ll ever have a chance to set him straight.
Pain is an event. It happens to you, and you deal with it in whatever way you can.
The only thing in my favour was that, so far, I hadn’t made any noise.
Nothing to do with bravery, you understand, I simply hadn’t got round to it. Up until this moment, Rayner and I had been pinging off the walls and furniture in a sweatily male silence, with only the occasional grunt to show that we were both still concentrating. But now, with not much more than five seconds to go before I passed out or the bone finally gave way - now was the ideal moment to introduce a new element. And sound was all I could think of.
So I inhaled deeply through my nose, straightened up to get as close as I could to his face, held the breath for a moment, and then let out what Japanese martial artists refer to as a kiai - you’d probably call it a very loud noise, and that wouldn’t be so far off - a scream of such blinding, shocking, what-the-fuck-was-that intensity, that I frightened myself quite badly.