For part one, go to Tales for Tim: The Bare Arms weekend #1
My darling Tim
I signed off the last letter about feeling the odd one out. I was feeling alone and sorry for myself and very much out of my depth. And I sat with Jules and I cried about you, about feeling alone, and about being unfit, old, inadequate, afraid, shy, overweight, out of my comfort zone. All my inner demons came out and sat on my shoulder.
But over a glorious shared supper of local food we all started to talk, to learn about each other, to tease and to joke. I also found a fellow petrolhead and talked about motor racing and the joy of classic car racing.
We then went to sit outside the 'pub' – a garden shed with a couple of barrels of rather nice local beer – and I talked about how I had handled the bullets and the tactility, the sound, the smell of it all, the words that had danced in my head. I talked about your synaesthesia and about the amazing conversations we had about words and smells and tastes. The glorious sensory world you lived in. And people listened, joined in, made me feel part of the team. And I realised how wrong I had been. It also made me wonder – how many of us were sitting there thinking that we were the odd one out?
An early night in a pretty room shared with the amazing Kelley, a breakfast of cereal and fruit with fresh local milk that you would have loved, and then back to the classroom. A morning of firearms law, initially so complex that it made my head spin and then it started to fall into place. Civilians can have sporting and hunting rifles and shotguns, as they can't be hidden as easily as handguns, and they have a maximum of three rounds – while they can be lethal, they are not weapons for mass use. Revolvers, pistols, machine guns, and (perhaps not surprisingly) rocket launchers and cannons are more tightly restricted. Weapons for productions and rehearsals are generally real but adapted for blanks and supervised by an armorer.
And then we were handed assault rifles. AR15s. M4s C8s. M16s. Lighter, sharper, looking less like an antique and more like something that means business, but still effectively a bolt-action rifle in a party dress. Why rewrite a 1916 classic.
These are designed to do mass damage – 30 rounds in a magazine and one in the chamber – with an automatic reload fuelled by the exhaust gases from the previous shot. We learned to check the state of the weapon. Safety catch on, remove the magazine, open the bolt and three-point check, and hand it over open. Then ready to go – push the magazine in, a pull to check. It's loaded. Cock it – pull the bolt back and let it go. It's hot, or ready, or cocked, and you have to focus.
Next were the pistols, which are effectively the middle section of an assault rifle. So if the AR15 is a Lee Enfield in a party frock, the Glock is a little black number. Small, sleek, satin black, with the slide at the top that acts as a cocking handle and threatens to take your fingertips when you pull it back and let go if you hold it wrong. Even more so when you fire it. (Sorry, Bags. You told me that almost as often as you told me to take my finger off the trigger. See, I remember it now…)
The Glock is semiautomatic and has no safety catch, as it is designed for rapid fire. Its role is as a primary weapon for the secret services or armed police, and as a secondary weapon for soldiers. Slip the catch (takes practice), load the magazine, pull the slide and let it go to cock the weapon.
Once we were down at the range, we loaded and fired, blanks for the Glock and live shells for the rifle. And I finally got my eye in and hit the target. James Bond has nothing to fear from me, and to be fair the enemy would still get off lightly, but I was so proud of my perforated sheets of paper. And the rifle didn't have the kick of the Lee Enfield, which had left me with an awesome bruise.
Another night chatting in the pub, enjoying the beer and the company. Talking about cars, how writers think in words and dancers think in movement. About the tactility of swimming, feeling the flow of the water. Discussing films. Listening to stories about sets and stages. Enjoying being in a place that was outside of my still very new normal.
And the morning of the last day. What had seemed to stretch far away was suddenly there. We talked about marksmanship and movement. This is all about poise and balance and focusing on breathing. Standing or kneeling or laying in a stable position, with the weapon pointing naturally and without effort, the sight picture correct and movement kept as small as possible. Walking with a weapon needs to be smooth and silent, the head remaining level.
We practiced fast exchanges between a rifle and a pistol. Think John Wick. Aim the rifle, shoot, out of ammunition, turn to the side to check the weapon, down to the hip with the rifle with the left hand and draw the pistol with the right, making it as smooth and fluid. And then loading and firing the pump action shotgun with dummy rounds, bringing out my inner Arnie and leaving me with a grin on my face that disturbed quite a few people…
The whole weekend was a work up to the final scenario, where we had to move through enemy territory and transition between four different guns, three with live rounds. Choregraphed movement has always makes me feel vulnerable and self-conscious. It has been mentioned that I have all the grace of a fairy elephant, and as a child it was suggested that I could trip over a shadow on the ground. It felt like the combination of just before an interview and being picked last for PE. But I did my very best to get inside the mind of my character and the 'mind' of the gun. To move silently and smoothly. To see the jungle and the buildings and the 'bad people' with the guns.
And just before this, the final assault, I leaned over to Jules and said 'For Tim'. Because I wouldn't have dome it if you hadn't persuaded me to.
We began with firing a sniper rifle at a very distant target, and then loading and holstering a semi-automatic and a Glock. Moving and shooting five rounds with the semi-automatic rifle, switching to three rounds with the pistol, and finally picking up an abandoned pump action shotgun and being Rambo. It felt like being inside an impossibly loud computer game. The buzz was incredible. I wouldn't say that I kicked ass but I certainly nudged bottom.
We went through the scenario twice and after the second time I hid in the corner shaking with the adrenaline and weeping silently that I could never tell you about it. But I know that you would have been proud of me. And startled. But mostly proud.
I wondered whether it would make me understand the power of guns and why people feel so empowered by them. But it didn't. It left me with respect for the people who can handle them safely and smoothly, and an understanding of the hours and hours of practice it requires. And respect for the mind of an actor (and of a soldier) that can be fully immersed in the now. I'm not sure how many live rounds I shot, but you will be glad to know that the only blood I saw was when I scraped my finger shifting a piece of scenery.
I am so glad I did this. It gave me the opportunity to meet some amazing and charming professional actors who were very kind and welcoming to this writer and amateur thesp. Thank you to Bags and Al and to all of my fellow Bare Arms students for your patience, humour, talent and encouragement.
And thank you my darling for encouraging me to go. Love you and miss you.
For always, your Suzanne.