Owl’d lang syne

This was written for the monthly Blog Battle challenge, up to 2000 words, with the prompt word of ‘owl’. This piece is 1400+ words.

As Carter made his way carefully along the rutted track in his ancient, poorly-suspended car, he wondered for the umpteenth time why McGee had invited him to celebrate him to celebrate Hogmanay at his remote mountain cabin.

He knew that McGee spent a lot of time there, now that he’d retired, observing mostly the several species of owls that populated the region and reporting his sightings on birder websites. For his amusement, he would occasionally make a false claim to a sighting of an extremely rare bird and offer entirely misleading directions to twitchers wanting to add to their tally.

It wasn’t as if Carter had anything planned for New year’s Eve. He’d long ago eschewed the fake bonhomie of such gatherings, where total bores got spectacularly inebriated as quickly as possible in hope of being forgiven for any indiscretions perpetrated during the obligatory midnight kissing and hugging. Why people found a date on a calendar portentous of anything was beyond his understanding and the ludicrous slavishness to the commercialisation of such events tended to fill him with despair for the human race.

McGee had rung Carter from the village some miles away from his cabin to propose the catch-up. ‘Come and join me, you miserable hermit. We can reminisce and lie outrageously as we work our way through my collection of wines and single malts. You can stay overnight and we can groan our regrets over our stupidity as we work our way through bacon and eggs and Bloody Marys in the morning.’ Hearing no response, McGee said quietly, ‘Neither of us are going to see many more New Years, Carter.’

Carter agreed, as McGee knew he would, and he said he would come. Before he ended the call, he asked McGee if anyone else would be coming. ‘Oh, you will be surprised at who might be there. There’s any number of desperate women who would leap at the chance to jump the bones of a couple of desiccated old drunks,’ cackled McGee, from which Carter concluded that they would be alone.

Carter and McGee went back to University days, when they were both bright enough to keep passing, despite their dissolute ways and their involvement in student politics. Besides, post-graduate jobs in obscure niches were plentiful. Carter stumbled his way through several serial monogamy relationships but had never settled on any of them and, in the end, had remained single. McGee had married one of Carter’s earlier conquests, Margaret aka the Magnificent Meg.

Carter, although deeply in love, could never convince himself of being worthy of Margaret’s exotic intellect and sensuality, and over time she inevitably agreed and left him. McGee made his move on her with alacrity but with a feigned indifference that seemed to set Margaret’s oft-pursued soul on fire.

They eventually married on two basic grounds; on the practical level, they both needed her considerable inheritance that only became available on her marriage and McGee wanted to mine the irony of the occasion for his next (or, more correctly, his first) novel or play or film script. His sole literary output to that point had been some abysmal but suitably politically correct verses in the student newspaper he edited.

Both Carter and McGee ended up in ‘careers’ in minor red-brick Universities, going through the motions of teaching literary appreciation and ‘creative writing’ to both the uninterested (but needing the credit) and the naively idealistic. They maintained their status as academics and as ’writers’ by having their works published in obscure journals published by their equally untalented peers in an endless round of mutually useful back scratching. Most of McGee’s work was plagiarised from the few students he had that possessed a modicum of talent.

Carter and McGee and the Magnificent Meg initially met regularly in their post-University days. They were refugees who missed what they believed was their siege on middle-class values. They were gregariously loose-lipped as they consumed gourmet repasts with only the best of wines. They exercised their full-fired intellect and half-baked theories on solving the problems of the world to their own satisfaction.

But, ultimately, they became dead-safe. Sated, superannuated, deflated in a wait-for-age handicap. They became drunk on the poison of comfort and began living a well-rehearsed death. And they drifted apart because they had become each other’s unflattering mirrors.

Carter pulled up in front of the neglected cabin, noting the collapsed floor boards on the front veranda. McGee emerged unsteadily and said in ironic avuncular fashion ‘Welcome, old boy.’ As was their habit, there was no handshake or hug, just mutual nods. Everything about McGee had become grey, including his skin.

Inside, a log fire was well ablaze in a handsome stone fireplace. It was obvious there had been no cleaning in recent times, except for a framed picture of the three of them in their younger days. Still, McGee had spared no expense in a store-bought feast that would have left the five thousand unable to take seconds. The wines that matched each course were magical and they finally retired to the high-backed armchairs set in front of the fire. Whisky was produced and served in crystal cut glasses.

‘Take a cup of kindness, old boy’ McGee said as he excused himself and returned a short time later holding a rifle. Carter stared at the rifle in disbelief. ‘McGee, what are you playing at?’ McGee laughed and said ‘This? This is our after-dinner entertainment.’

While he desperately tried to assess McGee’s mental state through the fog of his own drunkenness, Carter decided on diversion as a tactic. ‘Tell me about the owls.’ McGee laughed and said ‘Even someone of your limited knowledge of the real world will know, through literature, that they are believed to be the harbingers of death and that they are despised for their habit of fouling their own nests.’

He paused. ‘I’ve always seen you as an owl, Carter. In fact, the Prime Minister of the Parliament of Owls. Sleepy eyes parading as wisdom, striking in the night but cowardly in the daylight.’ Carter said, seemingly calmly, ‘Well, it’s just as well you like owls.’

‘Oh, Carter, you’re as transparent as a window pane. Do you remember when Margaret left me that time? Of course you do. She came back but when she came to you did you …. comfort her, Carter? Don’t bother, I know you did. She told me. A cross between Boy Scout and opportunist and ….. an owl. Do you know how much that hurt me, old boy? Of course you don’t. But you’re about to pay the price for that perfidy.’

All colour had drained from Carter’s face and the veins in his temples throbbed audibly.

‘McGee, where are you going with this?’

‘I’m going to oblivion but you are going to penitence. You see, I have terminal cancer and I don’t choose to experience the nightmare of chemo and radiation to extend my time by a matter of months. The Magnificent Meg is going to need your … comfort in the years to come and that will be your obligation.’

‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand, I …’

‘Let me spell it out for you, Carter. In a moment, I’m going to hand you the gun and you are going to shoot me through the heart. Then you are going to call the Police and tell them that I got drunk and went mad and started shooting randomly. You tried to wrestle the gun from me and it went off, fatally wounding me. So, I’m about to fire off a few rounds around the room to make it look convincing and then I’m going to give you the gun.’

‘I’m not going to do it!’

‘Oh, yes, you are. I’m asking you to promise you will do it. If you don’t make that promise, I will shoot you now and then turn the gun on myself. I know you, Carter. If you promise me, then you’ll have to do it, like a good little Boy Scout. And at the end of the day, you’re not ready to die. It’s simple. Do you promise?’

Carter wanted to be someone other than who he was. But he wasn’t. And Margaret…?

‘I promise.’

McGee raised the gun. ‘Good man, that’s the spirit. Happy New Year, Carter. Oh, you might want to stick your fingers in your ears. I’m about to set off some fireworks.’

The first shot hit dead centre of the framed photo over the fireplace.

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