Captain Cutler by Tom Wigan.
The long car crept slowly towards a green shed, wobbling through pot holes in the sandy track. The shed was wide and hunkered down in the ground. Behind, a forest stretched onto a hill. The trees let off a light, floating steam, damp and misty. Halfway up they shrunk into the brown, heathery ground. The dark hill top, where no trees grew, loomed maternally over the forest. Stretching in front of the shed, was a field, still and quiet. Blades of grass stuck up straight to the sky. The wind was held like a giants breath, waiting for the day when it would be released and blow steadily across the land. Sheep moved slowly, noses down as if attached to a chain leading them through the field.
In front of the low green shed, the track ended and became a gritty turning area. The driver swung the long car round and backed up to the door. He stretched one velvet trousered leg onto the sandy, orange grit and clung to the roof of the car with a boney hand. A grey crop of hair rose from the car as he heaved himself up with a tired grunt, His long tweed coat flapping over his thin body.
On the door of the shed hung a large rusty padlock, its weight dragging heavily with time. He was an old man and was frail. He had a lightweight, floating air about him as if the wind could knock him down with one heavy gust. Walking to the shed door, his body was stooped forward. Long arms hung loosely at his side. Dangling off each arm his thin hands hung like bones covered with no flesh, just a thin layer of skin. He was slow to move. His stalk like legs lifted each long foot in front of him and carefully placed it on the ground before the rest of his body followed. He moved in a parched fashion as if restrained by a freshly starched shirt
At the shed door, he dipped one hand into his pocket and brought out a small key with a frayed string attached. One feeble, dry hand held the padlock as the other began turning the stiff lock. As he scratched away, bits of rust crumbled off and fell onto his brown leather brogans. He flicked them off with a jolt of his foot and proceeded to rattle at the large padlock. More rust crumbled to his foot. As he flicked it off he heard a voice behind him
Walking towards him was a short man in a long Barbour jacket making him look more shrunken than he already was. A gap was between the bottom of his jacket and the top of his green wellington boots. A tuft of corduroy trouser stuck out over his boots and lapped over the side. A huge smile was plastered across his ruddy face. He strolled towards the captain with a merry gait, his round belly protruding in front of him, hands shuffling in the front pockets of his Barbour jacket.
‘Hello Richard,’ exclaimed Captain Cutler. His thin, pale lips stayed in the shape of the last word spoken. With squinting eyes, he gazed onto the stubby man walking towards him.
Richard’s wellington boots scraped on the sandy road as he pumped wholesomely forward. He shuffled his hands in his side pockets, resting them on his paunch until he was just in front of the Captain. The Captain shook the plump, sausage-fingered hand that was thrust in front of him. The shape of his pale, grey lips was renewed with, ‘How nice to see you Richard, you’re looking extremely well.’ His voice was soft and airy, like paper blowing in the wind.
‘As are you Captain,’ Richard squeezed through his wide, red-cheeked smile. ‘The drive down alright?’
‘I made very good time. Stopped at a friend’s house for lunch and did the afternoon stretch in a oner. Although my wrist does tend to ache nowadays after a long drive,’ he clasped his boney wrist with a long flappy hand and looked dreamily through Richard.
‘Well you made it here in one piece. If there’s anything heavy to be carried my son’s on half term. A bit of heavy lifting might be good for him.’
‘I’ll hear nothing of it. I’ll get through this alright. Rather looking forward to seeing what’s found.’
Richard glanced at the shed door, ‘Have you managed to get in yet? I had a look at that lock. It’s a rusty old thing, may need some WD40. We’ve got some at the house if you need.’
‘Oh no, don’t trouble yourself. I’ll give it a rattle, those old locks are built beautifully’
The Captain gazed at his acquaintance with steady eyes, his hands clasped in front of him, the key hanging from them on the frayed piece of string. Richard shuffled his boots on the sandy ground.
‘In that case I’ll leave you to it. Head up to the house when you’re finished’
‘I look forward to it,’ replied the Captain with a thin, pale-lipped smile.
The spacious kitchen had a long table running through the middle. One light hung above it on a white cord. It was a modern room with a clean, slightly clinical look. A large window split into four sections looked out onto a flat, green field stretching into the distance. At the end of the field was the low green shed.
The table was brighter than the rest of the room and Richard sat at the end facing the window. His thick, purple fingers were wrapped around a steaming mug. He cradled it; upper body leaning forward as if protecting his brew from thieves. His Barbour jacket hung on the back of the door like a deflated farmer. A portly woman pottered around him in a flowery apron. She whipped around the room, clattering pots and pans in one corner, chopping vegetables in another and nursing a pan of sizzling onions in between. Her shrill voice followed her around the kitchen as she fluttered from each task.
‘I don’t want him staying the night like last time. He can clear his stuff and leave after dinner.’
‘He’s in his seventies Jane. We can’t expect him to set out after dinner.’
‘Well it’s just unneeded stress having him around. I don’t know why you let him keep that stuff here in the first place. He’s always talking of his many friends. Why can’t he stay with one of them?’
‘Jane…Don’t be ridiculous, he’s going to have to stay one night. He’s never much trouble.’
He lifted the mug to his face and took a throaty gulp. Placing it back on the long wooden table, he peered out the window, dipping his head to see under the frame crossing through the middle of the glass. The door of the shed faced away from the house. Captain Cutler’s estate car was parked to the side, gleaming in the evening sun. On the other side of the shed was a rusty oil drum. Wisps of white smoke curled from it and vanished into the sky.
The end of the day was heavy and pressurised, ready to deflate and let the evening creep up, smoothly spread long grey fingers and massage the world to a sleepy stupor.
Through the musky dusk light, the long car appeared at the top of the driveway. Slowly, it wobbled along, collapsing in and out of potholes. Parking at the front of the house, the captain heaved himself out and slowly drifted to the boot of the car. Weakly pushing the chunky door up, he began rustling around inside. He stooped into the boot, bent over as if he might topple in at any moment. After some time, he rose sharply from this position with thin arms wrapped around a large cardboard box. Its contents stuck out from the top, strange objects stacked on top of each other, boxes and shapes jutting out at different angles. He turned stiffly with the box and began moving towards the back of the house. Slowly lifting one foot in front of the other as if weights were attached, he plodded forwards, a wisp of grey hair floating over his gaunt face, his stomach pressed in where the box was and his upper body and head hanging over it. He puffed heavily each step he took. The grey wisp of hair floated out with his breath then landed back over his face. His eyes were directed stiffly ahead of him, his face exhausted and blank as if in a trance.
Richard glanced out of the kitchen window and stood up as he saw the captain swaying with the enormous box. He teetered to one side and regained his balance just as it seemed he was about to topple. Richard put down his mug and walked briskly to the side of the house. The captain was staggering madly with the box clutched to his groin. It dragged his long, gangly arms downwards. His grey face was exhausted and flustered. The wisp of grey hair now hung over it in a long tired strand.
‘Let me help you with that Captain,’ Richard shouted, walking briskly over and taking the box from the old man’s grip.
‘No no Richard don’t trouble yourself,’ he wheezed as the box was taken from his arms. He straightened up and brushed the sleeves of his tweed coat.
‘There’s a few things in there might come in handy. I never use these bits anymore, lets take them to the shed and have a look.’
Richard carried the box to the shed at the back of the house. He peered into it as they walked along. Hammers, screwdrivers, old files, drill bits, greasy oil cans and small boxes full of screws all rested on each other in a jumble of metal.
‘Wow, this looks great!’
‘There’s some good stuff in there’ Captain Cutler proudly agreed as he patted himself down and brushed off his jacket.
Once in the shed at the back of the house, they riffled through the bits and bobs in the box. Richard beamed with gratefulness. Captain Cutler took the thank yous and compliments smoothly, allowing one to roll to him after the other. He soaked them up calmly and commented on each gift that was taken from the box.
Eventually Richard announced that they must be heading in for dinner and led the Captain inside to a warm aroma of roast meat and steamed vegetables.
They sat around the long, wooden table in the middle of the kitchen with plates of food steaming in front of them. The son was opposite the Captain. He watched him intently as he told stories from the war and talked of how the world had changed since he was a boy.
‘And for you,’ he said reaching his hand across the table to the boy, ‘a mini telescope issued to me before going undercover in Germany.’
The boy held the telescope with a shiny smile. He blushed as he looked at it all hard and metallic in his soft young hand. The Captain looked at his plate and glanced at Richard out the corner of his eyes before lifting his head to talk.
‘There’s an awful lot of stuff down there; it’s amazing the things one accumulates during ones life. If its not too much bother I’ll finish the rest tomorrow.’
‘Of course, not a problem,’ replied Richard, knife and fork in hand, you stay the night and finish it off in the morning
‘Oh well, I was going to stay with a friend down the road but if there’s a bed here that would be wonderful’
‘Oh yes, Jane’s made up a bed for you. You stay the night here and finish it off in the morning’
The Captain looked at Jane with watery eyes, ‘Thanks ever so much Jane, you’re terribly kind.’
At lunchtime the next day, Jane stood sturdily in the alcove of the kitchen window. She chopped carrots on a thick wooden board. Tied round her was a flowery apron spattered with stains. An oily burn mark was melted into it just to the right of her belly. The steel knife clonked down on the board. Outside, the still trees were against a blue sky, resting in the calm. Thin trails of cloud were scattered in frail lines like cotton balls pulled apart. On the field which stretched towards the green shed, the sheep nosed the grass. Silently, they drifted around, heads stooped to the ground, softly skimming the field. To the right of the shed, Jane made out the rusty old oil drum. A thin line of smoke leaked from it. Rising up in a white line, the smoke dispersed into the blueness, diluted by the huge sky.
She shifted her eyes up and down from the chopping board, taking quick glances out the window in between chops. Then something caught her eye. Walking towards the oil drum with a huge object grasped in front of his long, thin body was Captain Cutler. His arms were stretched towards the ground as he cradled the object by his groin. Strenuously lifting one foot in front of the other, he heaved it forwards. On reaching the oil drum, he swayed like a drunkard and quickly balanced the object on the side to prevent him from toppling into the grass. He pushed it over the rim. The smoke thickened and billowed, heavy and grey. He stood by the fire, neck stuck forward and arms loose and long at his sides. He stared as the smoke rose into the air. It multiplied above the flames, rolling into bigger clouds, softly expanding into the fresh sky and transforming into nothingness.
‘I’m just going down to see he’s alright,’ shouted Richard from the porch.
Jane leant over her shoulder and shouted back, ‘Ok, I’m making a soup for lunch, it should be ready in half an hour so don’t be too long.’
She proceeded to chop the cabbage in front of her. Her arm worked in a smooth rocking motion, knife thudding steadily on the board. Out of the window, Richard walked into the field leading to the green shed. He bumbled along, each step quickly following the last. His hands dug deep into the front of his thick wax Barbour jacket. His elbows bobbed gently up and down. A few sheep scattered as he passed. They spread into the field like a handful of spilt flour. As they trotted away, Jane looked up from her board. She saw the Captain turn his head from the oil drum and gaze at the field. He angled his head into the air like a dog sniffing the wind. A few second later, he strode smartly behind the shed, out of sight.
‘Ah, Richard,’ the Captain exclaimed as Richard merrily walked towards him, his heavy Barbour jacket flapping slightly at his knees.
‘I was just finishing up to have a quick break. I’ve lost a bit of stamina over the years. Amazing how quickly one begins to deteriorate. Listen, I’ve burnt an awful lot of cushions and clothes that are past it, that oil drum works fantastically well, and in those boxes are some more things that I thought might come in handy.’
The Captain lifted a long arm towards four cardboard boxes lined up against the outside of the shed. His hand hung off the end of his arm and he pointed with one long, scrawny finger that drooped weakly towards the boxes. To the left of them, the shed door was closed, the rusty lock clasped over the latch.
‘It’s just old bits and bobs, tools and what not, what’s really worth looking after is in this box here.’
He leaned over one of the boxes and released a slow groan as he straightened up with a smaller box in his hand.
‘There are about fifty in there,’ he explained snapping open a rusty clip at the front of the small, pale wooden box. The wisp of grey hair dangled over his eye. It came from the back, near the top of his head where his hairline had retreated. His thin-skinned skull was large and shiny with faded, blue veins lightly scribbled over it.
‘They should still be OK. Don’t seem to have gone mouldy. I was given them by my great uncle on his return from the war. They’re all Cubans.’
‘Gosh! Captain, they look great.’ Richard shone with delight. ‘Thank you very much indeed.’ He picked one out, fingered it and gave it a whiff under his chubby nose. ‘They smell spectacular. Aren’t you going to keep some for yourself?’
‘I’d love to but unfortunately I can’t smoke these anymore. The doctors strictly forbidden me.’
‘Well I’m sorry to hear that. Thank you ever so much Captain I’ll really enjoy them. Come up for lunch when you’re ready. Jane has some soup on the go. Should be done in the next half hour.’
‘Oh, she is sweet. I just have a few more things to throw in the drum. Will be up shortly.’
On entering the house, Captain Cutler met the young son of Richard and Jane in the corridor.
‘Ah, just the person I wanted to see,’ he announced softly. He dug around in his tweed coat pocket, tilting his head to the roof and touching his lower lip with his tongue. Eventually, he pulled his hand out. In it was a glinting fishing reel made of smooth black metal.
‘This,’ he said holding the reel out to the boy, ‘is an old reel given to me by my grandfather. It has never been used and is actually worth a bit of money. They are beautifully made these old ones you see. The mechanism will last many lifetimes.’
The boy held the reel in his soft palm. He wound it round clumsily and lifted his little head towards the Captain. ‘Thank you,’ he squeaked before trotting into the kitchen and holding it out proudly for his mother to see.
‘Wow! Look at that darling. Now, did you say thank you to Captain Cutler?’
The Captain slid round the kitchen door with one long stride. Both hands were clasped behind his back and a wide smile was stretched over his thin face.
‘He’s been exceptionally grateful.’
He stood with his feet together looking down on the boy. His abdomen stuck out a little and his shoulders sloped down behind him.
‘I was just telling him, that reel is very well made and actually worth a bit of money, so look after it. Save it for a rainy day.
‘Thank you Captain,’ said Jane quietly. ‘He’ll be over the moon with it.’
She stirred the soup. Her chunky, red arm rotated smoothly in a well-practised manner.
‘Now, let me give you a bowl of soup.’
The Captain remained standing with heels together and toes slightly apart.
‘Thank you Jane, it smells delicious.’
They sat round the table gently spooning soup into mouths, occasionally breaking bread rolls open with their hands. Birds twittered outside. The trees nodded happily in a slow breeze.
‘How are you getting on down there?’ Richard asked raising his eyebrows above a spoon full of soup.
‘Oh rather well. Although things become a bit slow at my age. I may be taking be a little longer than expected but I’ll make sure to finish by tonight.’
‘Well no rush,’ replied Richard easily. ‘And if you need a hand carrying anything I’m not too busy this afternoon. I could come down in an hour or two.’
‘Oh, no. Please don’t trouble yourself. I will just work away at it.’
The Captain was slumped in his chair, his back bent and arms stuck out on the table where they could reach his food.
‘Rather fun going through all of ones old stuff,’ he smiled briefly then got back to buttering a roll on his plate.
As evening settled in, the air turned grey and faded. Trees became black shapes against the pale sky. Sheep were balls of white shifting in the field. Slowly, darkness sprinkled its dust, transforming the world to its other existence.
The orchard had a low stone wall around it. In parts it had toppled over and never been repaired. A few apple trees grew in the thick grass. In a vegetable patch, fenced off from the rest of the orchard, Richard thwacked his wooden handled spade into the moist soil. He repeated the motion of lifting it high, stretching one arm above his head and booting it deep into the earth. A straight line of turned soil was behind him. He plugged on, red in the face and stripped to his blue chequered shirt. His Barbour jacket hung hopelessly on a fence post.
He whacked his last few spades into the ground and stood upright to look at his work. A patch of unturned soil was left which he would finish tomorrow. He grabbed his jacket from the post, clipped the orchard gate shut and headed for the house.
Jane heard the door slam and the clomp of her husbands boots.
‘Rich, he’s still here,’ she shouted from the kitchen. ‘It’s almost pitch black, how’s he still here?’ She added.
‘He’ll be gone soon darling, I’m sure he’s just finishing up.’
Richard walked into the kitchen in thick woolen socks, his cheeks and nose red from the freshness of outdoors. Smells of roasting meat filled the kitchen. The windows were dark. In them glowed a reflection of the single yellow light that hung above the table.
Jane whirled from the alcove at the window. With a steel knife, she swept chopped veg off a board into the huge pot sitting on the stove.
‘I just don’t want it to turn out like last time,’ she said looking into her pot.
‘He’ll be gone tonight Jane. I’m sure he’s just finishing up.’
Richard was reading his book by a small crackling fire in the sitting room.
‘Richard,’ Jane shouted from the kitchen, ‘dinner.’
He placed his book face down on the arm of the sofa and dawdled over to the kitchen window. Cupping both hands onto the glass, he peered into the darkness. Large flames flickered from the oil drum, lashing a meter into the air. He watched as they danced and swished around. A circle of faded orange light glowed around the fire. Into the rim of faint light, the figure of Captain Cutler appeared. He trudged towards the flames clasping another huge box. He plodded forward, tipped the box into the fire and stepped back to admire the flames. He stood there, strange and tall in the flickering light, watching with his head tilted slightly up. The flames got bigger. They whooshed up into the night, naughtily flicking and prancing around.
‘Jane, darling I better go and see he’s alright. Can you put that in the stove? I’ll have it later.’
Jane rested her elbows in the alcove and stuck her chin in her hands. On seeing her husband’s torchlight, she made a tunnel with her hands and peered through the window. The torchlight swept across the field. She could just make out her husband plodding along behind the yellow beam.
As Richard got closer, the light began to climb the shed wall a little then drop back to the field as he swung his arm. The beam jolted around as he walked. She could also see the Captain standing by the fire with his head tilted up, admiring the flickering flames that licked away at darkness. As the torch began lighting the shed wall more frequently, the Captain turned his head towards the field. He took three long strides away from the fire and was swallowed by the darkness.
‘That you Richard?’ The Captain frowned into the night as the torchlight wobbled its way towards him.
‘Hi,’ Replied Richard as he stomped forwards. ‘I came to check everything was alright.’
‘Well, I’m getting there.’ Captain Cutler stood by the shed door with padlock in hand and his mouth hanging slightly open.
‘Well I hope you’re not straining yourself too much Captain. I’d find this a struggle myself.’
‘Well, I’ll just keep working away. Another few hours and I should be done.’
‘Captain, you can’t lumber round here in the dark’
‘Oh no. I’ve just a few things to get in the fire and a few bits and bobs to sort out. This is a great torch. I was given it in the army. It’s brighter than most and the bulb seems to last forever.’
He flicked his torch on and shone it into the rustling pine trees.
‘It’s great for spotting birds.‘
‘Gosh, it is strong Captain…Lets have a look in here and see how much is to be done. Richard stepped forward. His head bumped into the Captain’s arm, which stuck out across the shed doorway. He looked up and his whole view was taken up by the captain’s face. Sparkles of sweat glistened on his forehead. The firelight lit his skin in flashes of orange. His eyes were wide, the pupils dilated.
‘Oh no Richard! It will only depress you’
A slither of light came from beneath the door and for the first time Richard had ever seen, the latch was loose and the door a few millimetres open.
Richard stopped, a little startled with the arm in his face. A grey strand of hair hung over the Captain’s eye and a reptilian smile shone over his face in the flickering fire light.
Richard smiled weakly and stepped back from the tweed-sleeved arm.
‘Oh, I forgot to mention!’ The Captain skipped over to the wall where more boxes had been lined up.
‘This,’ he said rummaging in a box with his back facing Richard and both knees bent either side of him, ‘is an old dagger I was given by a tribesman in the heart of the Republic of Congo.’
He stood up holding a machete like dagger with a large, oily blade and thick wooden handle. ‘It might come in handy when you’re in the woods.’
‘God, look at that,’ said Richard as he reached his hand out to fondle his latest gift. He held it by the handle and swung it around a bit. ‘Goodness, it’s very well made, sturdy as hell. Thank you Captain, you’re spoiling me.’
‘Oh not at all. It would only be sitting in a shed somewhere if you weren’t here to take it.’
‘Well thanks all the same. Now, I wont have you scrambling around down here in the dark. Come up to the house and finish this in the morning.’
‘Are you sure it’s not a bother Richard? I can drive down the road and stay with a friend. I have a very dear friend not far from here. He’s always willing to put me up for the night.
‘Don’t be silly. You must be exhausted. Come on up to the house, We’ll get you fed, watered and rested.
‘You are kind,’ the Captain said airily with a distant look on his pale face. He clipped the padlock around the latch and turned round to Richard, eyes glinting in the dancing light. ‘Better safe than sorry.’
After a late dinner Richard dozed in his bed. He lay in a heap with bed covers collapsed on top of him. The large room was lit by a lamp glowing weakly on Jane’s bedside table. She stood brushing her teeth in a small sink attached to the wall of the bedroom. She held one arm against the sink and gently brushed with the other. Her head hung over the sink and a mess of hair covered her face. After a final splash, water gurgled down the plug and she floated to the bed in her white nightgown. She lifted the heavy covers and climbed in, sweeping up her trailing nightie behind her. ‘We’ve got to get rid of him tomorrow,’ she whispered.
‘I know darling, I’ll deal with it,’ mumbled Richard into his pillow.
‘He was meant to be gone today. How on earth has he got so much to do down there?’
‘He’s old Jane. He’s slow. We can’t push him along. He’s in his seventies.’
‘Why won’t he let you help? You could have had it done in a day.’
‘I don’t know Jane, it’s his own private stuff, he may not want people rummaging through his belongings. We’ll have to leave him to get on with it. He’ll be finished tomorrow, I’m sure. Now lets go to sleep.’ Richard shifted his head and tucked a hand under his pillow. Jane’s bedside lamp glowed orange and warm. She took a sip from a small glass of water and flicked off the light. Darkness fell over the room like a dropped blanket.
The next day the Captain was re-lighting his oil-drum fire at 8:30 AM. Having just woken up, Jane wandered into the kitchen in her wafting nightgown. She walked to the alcove and looked sleepily out the window. Morning was soaking up the last of darkness. It had rained in the night; the world was freshly washed. Trees were still and from their finger like branches dripped shining droplets of water. The sun rose proudly, powerfully into the sky. She sighed and looked out across the field. A wet patch of glistening condensation clung to the window, blocking her view of the green shed. She wiped it away with the sleeve of her nightgown and there he was, bent over the oil drum, a few puffs of smoke rising into the clear morning.
Later in the day, as Jane prepared lunch she occasionally glanced out the window and saw him staggering with strange objects and armfuls of fabric. Every now and then after tipping something in, he would stop and look at the flames licking up, lashing and flicking. She watched him as he stood there as if in a peculiar trance, his head pointed up to the top of the flames, arms hanging as if weights hung off each hand.
‘I’m going to get down there and try to quicken him up. He’ll have to speed up a bit.’ Richard slammed the door and trudged down to the green shed. Sheep dispersed as he crossed the field briskly. He walked round the shed and saw the long estate car parked as if sleeping in the mid day sun. The air was silent apart from a few twittering birds. The hill behind the shed loomed heavily over the fields, pine trees steaming healthily. As he came closer to the shed door he saw that it was open a crack and the rusty old padlock lay on the ground. He glanced at the oil drum that burned with a lonely stream of smoke rising into the sky.
Lightening his footsteps, he walked daintily to the shed door. He could see the stone floor covered in dust as he walked towards it. When he got within arms reach he gently leant out and pushed open the creaking wooden door. He stood in the doorway and gaped into the shed. Sunlight streamed through the single window in an arrow like beam. Dust swirled in the sunlight; it rolled and whirled around, brought to life by the draught from the opened door. He took a step in and stood there watching the dust and looking at the bare stone floor. The shed was empty, a single light bulb hung from a white wire attached to the roof.
Richard turned sharply and was met by the tall figure of Captain Cutler. He stood in the doorway, blocking the outside light. Richard gulped and looked at him with the eyes of a startled rabbit. ‘Hello Captain,’ he squeezed a tight smile between his chubby, red cheeks.
The Captain peered into the room, his mouth slightly open, his eyes excited and moist. ‘Rather spooky seeing it empty like this after so many years.’ He stood there looking over Richard’s head into the empty shed.
‘Quite,’ said Richard slipping past the Captain’s thin body and out into the open air. The Captain turned with a weird smile on his weak lips.
‘Well Richard, I shall finally be out of your way. Amazing the amount of stuff that was in there. Any one would think I was some sort of hoarder.’
Richard laughed quickly, ‘Well I’m glad it is all out of the way. It’ll be good for Jane and I to have some more storage space.’
‘Yes,’ said the Captain. ‘I am incredibly grateful for you letting me keep so much stuff down here.’
‘Oh not a problem at all.’
‘I’m meeting a friend for a late lunch about an hour’s drive away so must be getting on. You are kind for having me. It has been wonderful to see you both.’ He looked up towards the house with nose in the air. ‘I better come up to the house and say goodbye to Jane.’
‘Oh don’t worry about that. You get on your way. I will say your goodbyes for you.’
‘Well, please do thank her very much for everything. It’s been wonderful.’
‘I will make sure to Captain.’
Captain Cutler stuck out a long arm. His hand drooped as he held it out to be shook. ‘Lovely to see you again Richard. Thanks ever so much.’
‘And you captain, safe journey.’
He climbed slowly into his car grinning at Richard halfway through the manoeuvre. Richard watched as the car crept down the sandy track bobbing in and out of potholes. He let out a deep long breath filling his cheeks with air and began walking back to the house, leaving the oil drum smoking sleepily by the shed.
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I liked the title immediately. It made me think of pirates. The tale is packed with atmosphere and eerie description. Liked many of the “noir-like” phrases. Like a thriller.
But yes as everyone has said it needs a heavy prune. Maybe the writer should re-write it again in 100 words and then build up on it? Or do a poem version? Even a screenplay. Try different disciplines.
I felt Captain Cutler was a well written, engrossing, all-round solid effort.
However, I agree with the consensus here in the comment section, that the usage of adjectives is a little excessive. There were moments where I’d just wanted the main narrative to move along quicker instead of another description of how, for example Richard’s wife had an apron which was flowery, and had stains on it and an oily burn mark to the right of her belly etc. But, despite this minor gripe, I felt the quality of writing when painting a picture of the landscape, the characters and general setting of each scene was at-times excellent. By the end of the story, without any overt explanation, I felt I had developed my own understanding of the personality types and motivations of The Captain, Richard and his (slightly two faced) wife.
It didn’t bother me that there wasn’t a clear conclusion or Hollywood type finish, because I felt to a certain extent the biggest charm was what the story did with your imagination. Towards the end where it was night time and the Captain was stood near the fire as Richard approached him, I felt tension like maybe something bad was going to happen but it never did and I was fine with that.
In this respect, I actually found Captain Cutler reminiscent of one of the author’s earlier pieces entitled ‘End of the Track’ where once again you had a protagonist with a suggested dark undertone. You suspect something bad may occur but you are required to stick around and keep reading for more layers to be unravelled and the truth to be revealed (or not). For all we know, the captain may go on to his ‘friends’ house afterwards and turn out to be an axe murderer. Each characters story clearly doesn’t end here but this particular piece of writing focuses solely on a moment in time and the events and interactions which occur.
So as you can probably tell, I enjoyed reading Captain Cutler. I did at times find the descriptions and analogies somewhat longwinded but I feel this is something the author can easily remedy. As someone noted in the comment section, less is often more and it may simply be a case of reading the story back, omitting a few lines and keeping the best and most necessary parts. I’d also suggest maybe having an idea towards the start of writing, how is it all going to end? And what’s the best way to make things interesting/rewarding for the readers.
I agree with RWM that it takes courage to tell a tale where so little happens. At first I wondered what all this was about but there is a growing sense of unease and building suspense. The last third had me gripped. Quite David Lynch, – ‘reptilian smile’. I dig.
My main advice would be (as any fashionista would say): less is more, darling! As everyone else has said, too many adjectives and adverbs. Also, I think you over-indulge in description, and it ends up by weighing the story down (although some of them are truly lovely descriptions, perhaps you just need to be more brutal?). “He lifted his face to his mug and took a throaty gulp. Placing it back on the long wooden table, he peered out the window, dipping his head to see under the frame crossing through the middle of the glass. The door of the shed faced away from the house. Captain Cutler’s estate car was parked to the side, gleaming in the evening sun.” It’s clear that you have such a detailed image of the scene in your mind’s eye, but you’re insisting on the scene’s realness to the reader too forcefully, and it ends up by feeling laboured and the effect is geographical. You also do this through unnecessary repetition – about the Barbour jacket, the peculiar trance of the Captain, the apron, and the scenery. I think most new writers make these mistakes , and if you left this story for a couple of months you might even see this yourself. Ma would say leave it for a year before you go back to it.
It’s the age old problem of trying to make up for the discrepancy between words and images – and no amount of words will bridge the gap. In fact, quite often, less words create a far more realistic picture. You do this perfectly with Captain Cutler’s characterisation, where Richard goes to take the box that the Captain is carrying: “ ‘No no Richard, don’t trouble yourself,’ he wheezed as the box was taken from his arms.” This immediately shows us how the Captain plays the weak old man for his benefit, not only with the box, where his wheezing and polite refusal comes a little belatedly, but he clearly relies on this trump card to outstay his welcome – which Richard’s wife seems to see straight through. In fact, your characterisation of Captain Cutler reminds me a little of one of Dickens’ characters in Bleak House called Grandfather Smallweed. (Although grandfather Smallweed isn’t sinister, he’s just an old prat).
There are some other really good descriptions too which allude or imply a lot without you having laboured to say a lot, one of which is when Richard “grabbed his jacket from the post, clipped the orchard gate shut and headed for the house”. This is such a simple, flowing sentence, and you can hear the clipping of the orchard gate without having drawn attention to it, plus you’ve got Richard’s jacket in there, making it unnecessary to make repeat references to the Barbour jacket.
I would recommend doing what I’m doing right now – looking at other written work of young writers and critiquing it, as you can see more clearly what you are doing right and wrong yourself. I’m finding this quite enlightening about my own writing to be honest. There were lots more little bits that I liked about your story but I think it’s more helpful to write my criticisms. My favourite thing was your characterisation of Captain Cutler himself.
Keep it up Tom, I hope all these comments are helpful.
A great piece, but I have to agree with the above comments in that it is too heavy on the adjectives. Let the nouns and verbs do the taking, often this can be more effective. Too many adjectives distract the reader from the story.
I enjoyed the sense of danger in the writing which was weaved in through the language and metaphors. This sentence I found effective and original: ‘The end of the day was heavy and pressurised, ready to deflate and let the evening creep up, smoothly spread long grey fingers and massage the world to a sleepy stupor.’
I also liked the minor character, the little boy, and felt that he was particularly sympathetic because of his obvious vulnerability.
I did, however, find it a tough read. At times it is overly descriptive and sluggish, and the short staccato sentences left me wanting more fluidity and connection. Finally, I’m not sure the dialogue added much which wasn’t already there.
Tom, there’s a lot good in here. I love the first paragraph. You are very good at scenery. I especially love ‘the wind was held like a giants breath, waiting for the day when it would be released and blow steadily across the land.’ Nature often carries this sense of suspense I find and you’ve observed it well.
Criticisms are obviously too many adjectives. Perhaps go through with an ink pen, scratch out every single adjective and then start again, allowing yourself only one per paragraph. Keep in most adverbs.
A good sentence where I get the drift is “His stalk like legs lifted each long foot in front of him and carefully placed it on the ground before the rest of the body followed.”
I very much like the lifting of the foot and placing it on the ground before the rest of the body follows… and this all brings to mind the way a stalk treads. However you don’t need to say ‘long’ foot as well as ‘stalk-like’ legs. If the legs are stalk-like the foot would be long. Take a page from Agatha Christie’s writing. She describes a “house at the end of a long drive”. Implicit is that it is a large house because usually houses at the end of long drives are large. The long drive is a hint. The way he moves is stalk-like. So you could say “stalk-like he lifted each foot…”
When you think Hemingway admits to writing one sentence 37 times!
The problem in constructing a single sentence may adequately explain why most of my short stories I’m still publishing – and I started them twenty or more years ago.
Keep up the good work though, Tom. As I repeat, there’s a lot here that’s good and more to come.
I like the suggestion of menace in this story: the spade booting deep into the earth, the reptilian smile, the light in the shed doorway blocked by Captain Cutler etc. Even the wind is holding its breath. Its strength lies not so much in what happens, but what could have happened – and in the sense of relief that it hasn’t – exemplified by Richard’s “deep long breath” in the final scene.
The writer’s talent comes across in the descriptions of the land and the night and the movement of the wind and things that don’t involve people, although an oil drum smoking sleepily (final sentence) doesn’t work for me due to the word sleep in connection with smoke. I have two criticisms of the piece. 1) the nouns are smothered by adjectives and 2) nothing happens. Try cutting every adjective, or rather question their relevance – do we want to know about the old guy’s wispy grey hair and the Barbour jacket, etc, etc over and over again? Verbs and nouns are powerful on their own. Adjectives weaken them. Dylan Thomas gets away with it because his adjectives are unexpected and original in their place. One final bitch – the dialogue is dull. Having cut the head off Tom’s aspirations as a writer, I say, “Don’t give up. You have it in your blood. Be brave. Experiment with words.” The cat sat on the mat is good. The fluffy, auburn haired, green eyed cat sat, or rather stretched lazily, on wispy grey haired grumpy old Granny’s worn red Estonian gypsy mat is not Geddit?
I’m replying to my Dad’s critique of this piece as I know his style and approach and have heard these comments before. He is a writer and film critic and his first book (End of Something Nice) is epic. I’d like to say I don’t agree with him here but that would miss the point; he has a good point about adjectives and it might be a good idea for Tom to try cutting out all the adjectives.
But I think the main point is that he (Angus WM, aka my Dad) just doesn’t get it. He talks about “Marmite films” which people either love or hate and this is obviously a Marmite article that will not “resonate” (to use an annoying newly adapted word) with it. I’m not sure he hates this piece but he doesn’t seem to get it. Katie Hughes does and so do I. In fact I love it. Here’s why:
Katie sums it up well with her phrase, “the suggestion of menace”. Even though nothing much is happening I felt a growing sense of unease as Captain Cutler goes into the shed and burns his stuff. Was there a mummified body in there? Would he drop down dead? Was he hiding something? Would the wife lose control and stab him with a kitchen knife? Would he ever go? What was he burning? I found that suggestion of violence as scary, if not more so, than old fashioned description. My imagination was working overtime.
I also think it takes a certain courage to tell a story where so little happens. There is an expectation to not tell a story unless it has a strong beginning, middle and end. What’s the point of this story? You might ask. I can’t answer that but I can say that I’ve read it several times and I really like it, and can’t wait to get my hands on more stuff by Tom Wigan. My advice to him is simply to keep writing.