Everyone has a comfort zone. Everyone steps outside their comfort zone sometimes. Well, I've just been so far outside of my comfort zone that I think I ended up approaching it from the other side. I've come back from one of the most demanding and exhilarating weekends of my life, a firearms for theatricals course with the incredibly patient and proficient people at Bare Arms. I am bruised and exhausted and amazed. But… the hardest thing was not being able to report it all to Tim. So my friend Carrie suggested that I write it as if I was telling him. And call it Tales for Tim.
My darling Tim
You remember that night I called Jules to see how he was, and ended up sitting on the stairs talking through a sticky plot point in his latest screenplay for an hour. And he told me about the crazy drama firearms training course he was going on. And I said it sounded fun. And he said that there was a spare place on it. And I decided that it was too scary and too expensive, and you persuaded me to go for it. You said it would be good for me, an amazing experience, and a chance to spend an entire weekend with Jules. Well. I've just come back from it. Amazed and dazed and bruised and exhausted and still giddy on adrenaline two days later.
After Thursday working in Manchester and a drive down to Dorset via every single set of roadworks in the entire UK I emerged blinking into the night, at Monkton Wyld Court, once a Victorian rectory for a country vicar and his brood of many children and now a sustainable living centre. And accommodation location for 7 actors, an am-dram actor-cum-writer, Ben, an ex-Army officer, and Al, an RAF officer. I'm not sure that the nice people who were there to volunteer in the grounds or attend a shamanic course in the village hall quite knew what had hit them.
Friday started with theory. Well actually, Friday started with the indignity of being the only person who couldn't fit into a Bare Arms boiler suit after being told that they fitted everyone, but we will park that one there. Suffice to say at that point I wanted to go home. But I didn't. I knew you would be cross with me if I did.
So – Friday started with theory. How guns work. What the parts of a gun are (leaving me with 'Naming of Parts' by Henry Reed dancing in my head). What is (and isn't) a bullet. What makes up a shell, and how it fires. And the science and engineering part of me loved it. And then the writer part took over – while the others went for a coffee, I felt the weight and coolness of the shells and noted how they warmed up in my hand. Looked at the colours of the copper bullet jacket and the brass shell case. Smelled the whiff of cordite, tasted the tang of copper on my fingers, bitter like the smell of pennies. Heard the sound the shells made as they rolled together in my hand. What would your synesthetic brain make of the sounds and the words?
Next – the Lee-Enfield. Or to give it its full name, the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield bolt-action, magazine-fed, repeating rifle. This appeared on our desks, bigger and heavier that certainly I expected. The guns were World War I vintage, and the wood was smooth with handling, pitted with use. The shell – I keep on wanting to call it a bullet, and I know it's wrong – was large, heavy, pointed. Designed to do damage. We practiced loading and unloading, hearing the satisfying click as the bullets – no – shells pushed down from the clip into the magazine, making ready, the feeling as the bolt pulled up, back, forward, down, chambering the shell, making the gun hot, ready to fire. The reassurance of the safety catch. And all of this with dummies, but we knew that next it would be for real.
We learned how to be safe around guns. How dangerous even blank firing guns are. How to recognise the state of a gun and make it safe. Safety catch on, magazine off, shell ejected from the chamber. Three point check. And yes I know you know all of this, but let me show off a little my newly-learned skills.
Finally, we headed down into the range, a road tunnel left derelict after the building of a bypass and now made into The Tunnel shooting centre. Surreally, the road's centre markings still run down the middle of the 100 m shooting range. And then we got busy. Learning how to hold the guns. Where to tuck them into our shoulders. Aiming standing, kneeling, lying prone, always with the gun ready. Surrounded by actors from their 20s upwards, martial arts experts, dancers (both ballet and pole), lithe and fit, I felt every bit of my 50-year-old size 18 body protesting – however fit I am as a runner, my flexibility and lack of upper body strength was slowing me down. And yes – I can hear you – I just haven't lifted enough boxes of books lately.
And then we were handed shells. The target was an orange sheet with a German soldier of dubious vintage, with a pointy hat, a bayonet and a dodgy moustache. I loaded with slightly shaky hands, made the gun ready, and lay down on the floor in an approximation of the position I had been shown. Wedged the rifle into my shoulder and squinted down the sights, completely wrongly, as it turned out later. Slipped the safety catch and squeezed the trigger as gently as I could. I felt the shot deep in my gut and the recoil hard into my shoulder, enough to bruise. Heard it through the heavy ear defenders. Smelled the cordite and tasted the rusty tang of blood where I had bitten my lip. Four shots prone. Two shots kneeling, two shots standing. Ben patiently talking us through it. Shell cases falling to the ground with a metallic tinkle. And my status as a pacifist is confirmed. I missed every time. As I said to the proper actors, I'm just there to make them look good. But I have now handled and fired a gun for the first time in my life.
And there were some tears in the quiet. For feeling the odd one out. For missing the target. But most of all for not being able to call you and tell you what I had done.
Love you for always and miss you for ever
Part 2 is here