Chris Cottom won the 2021 Retreat West Flash Fiction Prize. He’s had stories placed third in a Cranked Anvil competition; shortlisted or longlisted thirty times; published by Retreat West, Cranked Anvil, and Streetcake, and broadcast on BBC Radio Leeds. Previous convictions include Harrods handbag seller and Christmas hamper packer. In the early 1970s he lived next door to JRR Tolkien.
You take your piggy bank to the toyshop and ask for a hammer. You know you have enough: your pocket money for most of 1964, the ten-shilling notes from Christmas, the sixpences for walking next-door’s spaniel. The shopkeeper smashes Piggy and counts your five pounds, his assistant climbs the shiny wooden ladder to the top shelf, and at last it’s yours. Assembled, it’s one yard long and four pounds heavy, your Johnny Seven OMA. One Man Army, seven guns in one. It’s the cricket term at school and you miss the cut for the second eleven, despite getting this year’s Wisden for your birthday, but you tell everyone you’d rather be the scorer anyway, sitting in the pavilion. You have to make up the scores for a few balls, because you’re too busy deciding where you’d set up the Bipod-Mounted Repeating Rifle of your Johnny Seven. Get it right and you can cover the other side’s every fielder from Square Leg to Backward Point. And both umpires. You become a prefect, wear long trousers and sit at the Headmaster’s table every lunchtime, eating Spam and semolina as part of a hand-picked cadre of personal bodyguards. You yearn to stow the Automatic Pistol of your Johnny Seven inside your blazer, but the Head is a Quaker and, in a hail of enemy fire, would doubtless elect to go down unprotesting. You go to Big School and endure double physics and cross-country and so much homework that you’d have been better off a hundred years earlier, forced up a chimney in return for a ladle of gruel. But then you wouldn’t have the Anti-Tank Rocket Launcher of your Johnny Seven to blow up the carriage of your wicked overseer, so you’re probably better off with feet per second per second and pubeless indignity in un-curtained showers. After Parents’ Evening you decide to try harder with quadratic equations and cosines and tangents and gerunds and subjunctives and talking to girls. You’re hopeful of getting a girlfriend on holiday in Normandy to try some French kissing with. You don’t get one, but you tell Baxter at school in September that you did. All the girls were French and you couldn’t speak a word to them, but you’ll try harder with French vocab now because there’ll be girls there again next year, although Baxter says you should get your parents to try St Tropez where women wear topless swimsuits. There’s no need to tell him that you had plenty of fun this year exploring wartime fortifications and determining where to aim the Anti-Bunker Missile of your Johnny Seven. You celebrate the sixteenth birthday of your girlfriend Annette snogging on the couch in front of The Generation Game. After the ten-month torment of top-half-only, you risk a fingertip under the top of her tights, and for once she doesn’t snatch it away, maybe because she’s now legally old enough to get married. A week later, Annette finishes with you and starts going out with Kevin McGrath, an acne-scarred Upper Sixth pillock who’s already passed his driving test and even sometimes drives to school in his mother’s Safari Beige Hillman Imp. It’s just begging for an Armour-Piercing Shell from your Johnny Seven. Girlfriend-less on a wet Saturday, you pay a child’s fare for the bus into town, buy ten Benson & Hedges and a box of Bryant & May from the tobacconist, and shoplift a copy of Men Only from the newsagent. After smoking two cigarettes on the return bus you get off halfway to puke into a litterbin, and start walking the remaining three miles in the rain. You chuck your sodden but unopened compendium of airbrushed lovelies into a hedge just as someone toots you from a Safari Beige Hillman Imp, and Annette waves as she and Kevin speed past. You wish you had the Grenade Launcher from your Johnny Seven. That’d teach the bastard, and of course you’d rescue Annette from the inferno seconds before the Imp explodes, her clothes torn titillatingly into rags which only just protect her modesty. You take a year out before university and do six months as Assistant Photocopying Officer in a local engineering firm, enabling you to progress from a moped, a Honda 50 in Elephant Grey, to a Ford Anglia, eleven years old and Seafoam Blue. By now, Kevin is flashing around town in a red Triumph Spitfire, open-topped in all weathers, with Annette in a head scarf ever-present in the passenger seat. You Interrail around Europe with Baxter, who you now call Brian, and pick up a brace of braless late-hippy frauleins at Le Gare du Nord who accompany you south for a fortnight’s grape-picking outside Bordeaux. Brian gets the pretty one, but yours lets you do it with her and at last you’re a man. You don’t tell her that it was almost as satisfying as pulling back the lever of the Tommy Gun on your Johnny Seven, pressing its release button and hearing that explosive rat-a-tat-tat. She wouldn’t understand. Because she’s a girl, and also a German. As you count the days to retirement you get your son Johnny to fetch your Johnny Seven from the attic. As he struggles down the ladder, he tells you that boys don’t play with this sort of thing anymore, they’re not really PC, and his wife would have a blue fit if you so much as showed it to their kids. He checks his phone and says there’s someone on eBay asking eight hundred for a boxed one, collection only, from Clacton. You say you wouldn’t let a child anywhere near a weapon of this calibre, and he can put his phone away because you’re not selling yours, not for eight hundred, not for eight thousand, not now, not ever. You’re planning one last mission, you and your Johnny Seven OMA. On your last day in the office.