Competition Winner

Andrew Broadfoot

I started writing seriously about 10 years ago and began work on a crime novel set in Peterhead while experimenting with short stories. I’ve been a member of the Stirling and Tyne-Esk writers groups. The best bit of feedback I received was: “Well, Andrew, I hated that!”. I attended Napier University’s Creative Writing Masters run by the peerless David Bishop and Sam Kelly. I owe them a huge thank you.

Since then I’ve won The Neil Gunn Short Story and Tyne-Esk Writer of the Year Awards. I am thrilled to have won the Mearns Writers Short Story Competition as it means that somebody else, other than me, enjoyed my story.

I live in Dunbar now.

'Usual Questions'

by Andrew Broadfoot

I could never have saved that sheep from its fall any more than I could have saved my father from his own shotgun and the plummeting thoughts that drove him to use it. I couldn’t have saved either of them, but I felt responsible for both.

The sheep was almost beyond bleating, it’s voice and body trembling in the forked limb of a tree that had cracked and broken, finally hanging precariously over the gully. The sheep must have heard the snapping twigs under my boots because it looked up and searched me with eyes shrieking in a language I heard everywhere, clearer than words.

It nestled painfully in an old oak tree, its trunk split and sharded upwards like a cathedral spike, the remainder dangling like semi peeled skin twenty feet out from the bank. It was a forlorn thing, its foliage stripped by winter and age, and no buds set for Spring. Far below the river flowed white, tumbling across the rocks pooling in places, eddying little swirls with no bottom.

The sheep mewled at me, repeating everything, its language containing all that could be said about the fear and hurt it had felt in the endless hours since the wind whipped, driving over pasture and the lightning flashed and it hurtled away following poor instincts, crashing through the inadequate barbed wire fence I’d built to protect it. It found only a drop halted by the outstretched tree and was now stuck in limbo, the rocks far below, its leg broken and canted way out of line and a night long horror.

I turned away, back towards the house through knee high grass sharp and wet and stinging after the storm. Now the rains had stopped, the sky was blue as you like, Scandinavian blue and calm. The remaining sheep watched me, back on their grazing, chewing, leaving clumps of tangled fleece on the barbs of the fence. The house was old and solid, decorative in some ways, with lumpy wooden bargeboards splattered with the old nests of swallows and martins, but grown a little shabby.

Mum was asleep, dodging thoughts of her leaky heart for the time being. “That’s what you do,” she’d say. “Think about it for a bit, then sleep.” I tiptoed past her to dad’s old shotgun. I’d meant to destroy it, but never did, keeping it oiled instead.

The sheep kept on at me, with its eyes and its mewling but I had to get this thing right. There was no way to get to it and down below was the river and the tourist cottages that seeped wisps of smoke into the blue-eyed sky. It was harmless, couldn’t shoot back, couldn’t fight back at all. But kissing-close or far away, aim is everything. I breathed out slowly.

“Should have stopped at the fence, buddy.”

The dead sheep sagged over the tree. A leg twitched like it wasn’t quite ready to give up climbing, now it was too late. And that was that, the mewling stopped, except in my head.

A man came out of the tourist cottage below and glared up at me, waved whatever he was saying away with a flap of his hand and went inside with an armful of logs and his wife and kids came outside and skipped around in a scene that makes you want home. Someone else’s home.

I’d taken up painting on advice from the counsellor and the humans and sky and bones and brains seemed to dance and the paintings shattered out of me, the colour of dead things, or briefly living things on their way to being dead. I suppose they thought I’d paint it out of myself. They saw the trees I paint budding and blossom red and they saw hope But I just made more suffering. I lost count of the paintings I made like that. The sheep will be the next. I could see it now, the reds and browns the torn barbed wire posts, the seeping red hole the blue and frozen eyes, the tumbling river below. But in my picture, there’d be no gravity, there’s no need in death, the sheep’d tumble upwards, would reach out across the gorge without end.

Mum had followed me out to the sheep. She said, “That’s money for a whole sheep lost now.”

Dad was a tough man, hard to read, full of high spirits and given to long dark spells where there were no words and he slept outside in a sleeping bag with a tin mug and a campfire. Something he couldn’t escape had settled between Dad’s ears. Mum loved him and loved his mind, the way it could tumble and roam and create something new, a thought that hadn’t existed before. But mostly those thoughts had pain attached and settled themselves into his heart waiting to kill him. He’d spent the whole day planting canes for beans and building a chicken coop, then tearing the whole thing up and moving it six inches to the left or right, angled towards and then away from the sun which was mostly faint yellow and far behind white clouds. I’d been following him around, picking up this and that from behind him, handing him the nails he fumbled and dropped in the mud, turning wildly on his heels looking for them. I kept on asking him the usual questions.

He never gave me an answer. He finished staking the beans and building the coop, told me to take care of the chickens when they came. I said I would. Right away a bunch of rooks settled on the coop roof and flew cackling about the beans. He went inside and fetched his shotgun, but I’d already shooed them away and scattered them with stones. He sat down away from me and put the gun in his mouth. He took it out again and looked at me. He asked me one last time: “You’ll take care of your mother, promise me.”

I promised him and he pulled the trigger and the whole back of his head came away like a rock had landed in a dirty red puddle.

Bits fell off Mum’s mind and kept on falling off her, but she carried on hauling what’s left around the old farm. She carried on when she left her own house at sixteen and married my dad when she was seventeen and carried on when my little sister was born and died in the same year. She carried on when Dad got posted here and there, in Germany and Cyprus and Gibraltar and eventually in Northern Ireland where he finally fired his gun and they gave him a medal and he gave it back and he quit after they put him on trial for it. She carried on when I enlisted and spent my life in places where the sand got into everything. Mum told me she wants to be buried here, she wants a wooden cross not a stone. And flowers, lots of flowers. She looked at me with her grey face and told me she liked colour.

Christy came over now and again, asking how long I’m back for, when I’m going away again.

“Christy,” I’d say.

“I’ve got something for you,” she’d say back and chuck a hired DVD at me.

“Any good?”

“Watch it, you’ll find out.”

But she’d obviously been crawling the pubs and her breath smelled of beer and cigarettes and she wanted to kiss and touch like we were those people who already knew each other’s bodies intimately and didn’t need to take it easy. The DVD was playing in the background and the flickering light and soundtrack threw a bullet-laden headache over the whole room. I was supposed to crave this, there was a time I did, but I wasn’t operating on lust but on the memory of lust and even that was faded and distant.

She asked me again when I’m going back.

I can only shrug, it’s not up to me.

She said maybe we should get married, she’d be company for mum when I was away. Maybe they’d not send me back if I had a wife to take care of. She never did ask me what it was like over there. Maybe she thought I’d tell her.

She mopped herself up with my underpants and fixed her gaze on the movie which was reaching its climax. I pulled my jeans back on but couldn’t get into it. The heroes were wise-cracking at death and dodging bullets like they could see them in slow motion, so I packed it in and went outside into the night. I felt an urge to howl at the unblinking moon, but it passed same as everything else.

I was still dreaming the same dream that had me scrabbling around in the filth picking up bloody parts. Sometimes they were Corporal Watson’s, sometimes a suicide bomber’s or his victims, sometimes whichever kid that was just standing there being curious. They get mixed up, the dreams and the body parts and I can’t seem to get them straight, sort them into the right categories. Attach them into place. Dad appeared sometimes and tried to help. He’d call me by my proper name and pat me on the shoulder, but his skull bits got mixed up with the all the others and we’d all looking at each other like someone had stolen them and the guilty was among us.

Hendry and Fiddes would show up out of the blue, either because they were bored or they reckoned careless schooldays would return if only we smoked enough weed and drank enough beer. We drove down to Tyninghame beach and built a fire from the driftwood and broken packing crates that washed up amongst the seaglass. They remembered school better than I did, and the months after school. What I remember is jumbled and not in the right sequence, but they could conjure up the brio and adventurous spirits we shared. They had each other to help remember and their memories were bright and focused and resplendent with the details of such and such. In amongst the tales and the hot sparking fire they asked me all those usual questions.

Yep, was my first answer

I didn’t count, was my second.

Ripe beef tomatoes smashed with a rock.

You don’t always. You just shovel what you’ve got into the bag, give it a name and send it home.

I can’t say why I joined in, maybe this was the nearest to normal I could hope for. It had memories, they brought them back for me. But then Hendry’s kidding had been a rite of passage, a big country boy’s attempt being an Alpha Male, the kind with the Bro punch that was always harder than it should have been. “Hey, just kiddin’. Can’t you take a joke?”

It wasn’t just the flickering firelight that told me he wanted to carry on where he left off. See if he still had it over the skinny kid with the dad that blew his own brains out. That light in a man’s eyes is unmistakeable. But so is the doubt in them. You don’t know if they’ll laugh it off or piano wire your throat to the nearest tree, saw off your limbs with a sharpened stone and roast them on the fire. You just don’t know, so I made it more certain for him. “You go certain of what you’ll do and what you won’t. You come back without any wonts.”

Mum’s breath grew more wheezy, the leak in her heart audible in her throat, clattering around her chest. She was asleep but kicking out and scratching at the terrible itches that occurred in the places the blood supply wasn’t quite reaching. She must have walked fifty miles in her sleep but she never could get to places.

She’d have helped me if she could, out there in the heat, rows and rows of graves, each bank of sand a hiding place for a gunman or a kid with a sewn in payload. But she wasn’t there and I was glad of it as we crawled behind one another between grave markers, the tension mounting with each one. Men carrying on no longer able to imagine getting to the end, unable to stop, going on was the only thing their bodies could do. And it was our bodies that carried us forward, our minds ripped us to shreds as certainly as any device that turned you into chunks and blew you on the hot breeze to Kingdom Come.

Christy told the world she was going to be my wife. Finally, she told me and mum while we sat on the Belhaven beach watching the tide come in around the Bridge to Nowhere. I watched her talking to mum while the water rose around me and the water engulfed both ends of the bridge turning it into a strange island.

“So when’s this happening?” mum said.

“Before he goes back,” Christy said. The sun was setting behind the Law and Christy’s skin shone with a wet and orange glow. “We’ll make a go of it, you’ll see,” she said. “I don’t mind him being away, and I can live on the farm and help you out.”

I started to pack up our stuff, putting all the dirties into a black bag and carting it off to the bins. Mum followed, laid a hand on my shoulder.

“Is this good news?” she said, panting. Her eyes were dark and hollow, the phlegm a living thing in her throat. I’d have to paint her before too long. They’d cut away at her chest and stitched it back up. But a major pump like the heart doesn’t just wear out without causing other damage. There were bits of her that were ruined and the ruin stared out at me, hopeful that I could change something.

“It’s your whole life.”

“She wants me.”

“Mine too.”

“She wants to help.”

“Help who? With what?

“Mum, I can’t do this.”

I ducked back under the rising water. Already it was salty and opening my eyes stung. I shut them tight and didn’t breath stayed there not breathing, feeling the tide rushing in, carrying everything before it.

The sheep stank. Its stink screaming itself to high-heaven. Mum and me stood on the edge of the ravine our eyes and noses streaming, mum acting limber so she could help, show me she could manage when I’m not around. She had on big Hunter wellies and a long A-shaped dress with a crimped neckline and washed out colour.

Neither of us want the ruined sheep to fall into the river below and clog up its clean flow with a stinky carcass, so we’d got no choice but to haul it away. I reversed the truck as close to the edge as I dared and mum said she could drive forward well enough to do the job. I saw her drive once and bit down on my reply. I hitched ropes to the truck, tied one around me, pulled it tight and led the other two down with me to the derelict oak below. There was greenery to grab, but I couldn’t trust the roots to hold and mostly they were gorse and prickly as hell. The sheep oozed quietly surrounded by a thicket of snarling flies which made its fleece riffle and individuals that spotted me crawled into my eyes and ears and anything soft and easy. I had to place my feet either side of the body and squat on it to loop the ropes all the way around front legs then back. Juices squeezed out under the pressure and seeped beneath my clothes. I couldn’t find anything to hang onto so I hung onto the fleece, dug my fingers into its yielding plasticity and waved to mum. We jerked as the ropes grew taught, and juddered then tore into the air and up the cliff, meat and fleece bumping themselves against the dusty sides.

“Why’re you going back?” mum said.

“They say I’m cleared,” I told her.

“It’s not up to them,” she said.

Mum drove the truck to the bare earth patch we did all our burning, dragging the sheep along. I untied it, took off everything except boxers and set the fire, flinging in all the wooden stuff we’d dumped over the years and my stinking clothes. The flames are higher and I flung on the rotting and fallen branches of trees, taking the chainsaw from out the back of the truck and making them just small enough to lift. Soon the flames were twice my height and I was sweating and half burned and mum was watching me like I was some savage around his campfire, eyeing up the military tats, giving me a look like they stank worse than the corpse we were incinerating. But mostly I caught her wondering what kind of machine caused the ragged spine length rent up my back, what it took to heal a wound like that.

“That girl knows your worth.”


“What you’re worth to her dead.”


“She asked around, maybe asked the right people.”

We stood close beside each other, me listening to mum’s rasping breath. We watched the sheep burning, the centre of all things, the white skull revealed in the red heat of the coals, long tongues of flame licking through the empty eye sockets.

“I swore I’d take care of you mum.”

We turned and left the sheep in the peace of its embers, slowly walking, halting now and then for mum to catch her breath, past the unfinished chicken coop and into the house where I’d returned the shotgun and mum could sit, the question on her face, waiting for me to answer.