2020 DG Comp: SECOND

Printing Over the Pictures

By Valerie Bowes


I’ve always loved writing. When I was no longer needed to drive a truck laden with plumbing materials around the building sites of London, I was free to put my words down on paper, instead of doing it in my head while negotiating traffic. Since then, I’ve had over 200 stories and articles published in magazines and anthologies, seen two of my plays performed on the amateur stage and reached the longlist or above in competitions. 2017 saw the publication of my first book, Battle For Love, a romance set in Napoleonic times. Unfortunately, the publisher folded so I’m still looking for one willing to take on my 4 other historical novels…


Something zipped past his ear. He ducked instinctively, his eyes snapping shut, his heart pounding a warning. His hands hovered, ready to shut out the blast that gave a second’s fraudulent silence before the thunder rolled over the bleak and battered landscape, flattening all before it.

The homely bumble of a bee foraging in the hedgerow and the abrupt clockwork trill of a peevish wren brought his eyes open, slowly, as if he wasn’t sure he would see the blanket of wheat, its green blades splashed with poppies as scarlet as Chelsea Pensioners, the yellow spires of charlock and the purple of poisonous corncockle. But it spread out before his eyes, uninterrupted by deep craters of mud and foul, stagnant water, and roofed by a clear and cloudless sky. High above him hung the bright ball of the sun, bathing his skin in golden light.

No storm. No darkness. No thundering guns. This wasn’t there.

The hedgerow scents, drawn heavenwards by the afternoon, teased his nose with honey and warm wood. Another insect streaked past but he was ready for it this time. Even if its path had collided with his, it would not have burst his head wide open to allow blood and brains to seep into the already reddened mud.

He gazed around at the quiet, gentle field, rubbing an ear of wheat between his fingers to release the flour that would become bread. How little it took, to turn a patch of earth from something that gave life to something that sucked it from you. For a moment, the light went out of the day again. The glowing greens and golds dulled into shades of brown and khaki. The leafy hedgerow loud with hidden birds went silent. It shrivelled, distorted, and grew a skeleton of barbs with a figure, crucified, hanging from the wire.

He’d had the means to help. Had it in his shaking hands. All he had to do was bring it to his shoulder and pull the trigger. Arthur wouldn’t have hesitated. Why had it been Arthur hanging there in no-man’s-land, not him?

Barren mud and shellholes morphed seamlessly back into the ripeness of summer as something moved. He saw the undergrowth quiver not far from his foot. Some small creature, no doubt, living its life, oblivious of the destructive power that could be unleashed at a moment’s notice. He moved along the field-edge, glancing casually down at the place where he had seen the movement.

And the eyes looked back.

Round and amber in a triangular russet mask edged with white and black and streaked with red, they were glazed with fear and exhaustion. Ears flattened even tighter to the skull as he stopped and stared, seeing the tangle of stout bramble shudder as the fox tugged unavailingly at the clutching thorns.

He’d never seen one so close before and stooped, peering. The fox froze, as if by stillness it could make this not to be. A slick of saliva dribbled into the green, tinged with blood from desperate gnawing. Teeth showed white and pointed in the panting mouth. Only a young one, then. But Arthur had been young. So had he.

He straightened. It was none of his business. It would get itself free eventually. If it didn’t, it was only vermin. What did it matter if it was trapped there until it died of thirst and exhaustion? He’d seen what happened when one got into a hen-run. The slaughter was indiscriminate and senseless. It didn’t deserve to live. 

He moved away a few steps. On the edge of his vision, Arthur hung, arms outspread, head hanging like the Jesus on the cross in the tiny village church. If he helped this time, as he hadn’t then, would Arthur go away and leave him in peace?

It would have been so easy if he’d had a gun now, but he had nothing. He bent to rummage in the hedgerow for a heavystone or piece of wood. The fox jerked, frantic at his nearness. Maybe it sensed what kind of mercy he had in mind. He went on searching, hoping the fear would give it added impetus and absolve him of the need to do anything. Why couldn’t it free itself? Surely it must thread its way through brambles every day?

Then, as he reached for a likely weapon, something scored a deep scratch in his hand. He withdrew it with an oath, to suck the soreness. Then he saw the glint where the rust had been rubbed from the wire. The barbs were deeply snarled in the fox’s ruff. He knelt to trace the strand. If he could pull it free…

Brambles were one thing, dirty wire barbs another. His hand stung already and he thought briefly of sepsis. Why should he risk further injury? Why should he risk it for a bloody fox, for Christ’s sake?

Because it was a life. A life as precious to the fox as the lives of all those young men had been to them. Possessed of sudden purpose, he wriggled out of his jacket and cast it to shroud the fox’s head. The softness of the fur astounded him. He buried his fingers in it, feeling for the barbs, pulling them free with one hand while he held the jacket tight with the other.

Like waiting to go over the top, when you were so keyed up for action you were like to burst, time didn’t portion itself into the regularity of a ticking clock. It seemed to take forever and then, with the suddenness of a shrilling whistle, it was done. He pulled the jacket away from the animal, expecting it to run. But it crouched there, its eyes fixed on his.

He moved back, bundling the tweed to his chest.

“Go on, then,” he said. “Don’t waste it. I couldn’t save him, see?”

The fox moved a tentative paw. Then it was gone, racing flat and fast into the safety of the concealing wheat and the man walked on with a new steadiness in his step, carrying the memory of the soft fur in his fingers and with the first dimming brushstrokes laid over the pictures in his head.