THE GUN

Image-empty-state.png

It had been a hard struggle. The war had come to them at last, and as part of the martial strategy, the commanders had decided that a large cannon should be positioned on top of a hill facing the sea. When the enemy sailed in, they would not expect a salvo fired from the headland. So Sarah and fifty other women were detailed to drag the cannon to the top of the hill.

It took weeks. The cannon had been mounted on a lorry and left at the bottom of the hill. There were just ropes, chains, winches and muscles. Several of the women died: some of exhaustion, some from accidents. Sometimes they would get the cannon up a few feet and it would roll back down. Sarah thought ruefully that it was like living the myth of Sisyphus.

Eventually they managed to haul it to the top, and Sarah suggested that they should construct a level base. She lost a finger when it was trapped beneath a flagstone: a stanchion had been removed too early. Never mind. It was a small price to pay for victory. Better than losing a hand or an eye.

They readied the gun. It had to be able to swing round and to tilt. It needed greasing, and all they had was the last of the cooking oil. They rubbed it into the base so that the action was as smooth as silk. Sarah was the look-out, and one day she saw a small flotilla of boats sail into the sound, like a covey of birds. The women followed the procedures they had been taught, and then it was over: the gun had been fired.

Two of the women fainted, either from shock or from relief. Sarah dealt with her feelings in the usual way, by irony and word-play: “fainting in coils”, she remarked to herself. The ships in the sound were sinking, and the cries of the drowning men were pitiful to hear. But the women had had no choice.

Sarah turned away from the sea and looked inland. She was astonished to see hundreds of soldiers approaching the hill. With a flash she realised that the women had been the victims of a ruse. The little boats had been a decoy, to draw their attention away from the real threat. And here it came: striding across the barren soil, crushing the few remaining plants, pistol cocked, mouth agape, hungry for victory. Sarah shouted to the others to swing the gun inland, and they fired it again and again. The gun became dry with repeated action, and they oiled it with their blood.

Eventually the cries lessened and the smoke began to clear. Cautiously, the women descended the hill. The few soldiers that were still alive were speedily dispatched. Sarah and the others made a pile of things that might be useful: weapons, scraps of food, shirts that might be used for bandages, boots, hip-flasks. The vultures were already circling as they left the escarpment.

They had won the battle, but not the war. Sarah began to feel ambivalent about what they had done. Swinging the gun around had felt inventive, but it had brought death to the pretty boys and strong men. Who would father their children now? Sarah knew then that a fight to the death had more implications than she had realised. And there would be other battles and other men. She shouldered some of her booty and marched away with the women. Victory was more bitter than she had expected.