Authors: Simon Ings
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General
I pushed the car into Park, got out and walked round the front of the car, rummaging through my trouser pockets for the garage keys. Standing there, knowing that the Xedos, at the flick of a button, could roll down and emboss me on the garage door, gave me the usual cheap thrill. I unlocked the door and swung it up on its weights.
The stench of dog shit assaulted me immediately. My first thought was, I must have locked Boots inside. But there was no sound. The door trundled and clanged to a stop. I stood aside, removing my shadow, letting the car's headlamps light up the interior.
It took me a moment to make sense of it.
Boots was nailed to the wall.
They had crucified him St Andrew-style. His legs, splayed and stretched, made a rough X. His chest was impossibly expanded, the two halves stretched apart by the unnatural extension of his forepaws. The skin over the ribs was tight like a drum. The belly, its contents drawn up under the ribcage, was tiny and concave, like the pictures I had seen of starvation victims.
The left eye was tight shut, the eye muscles puckered and creased. The lip on that side was drawn up in a snarl so extreme, it looked as though his cheek had been cut away. Flecks of blood on the teeth sparkled in the headlights.
The top two bolts were driven between the bones of Boots's forelegs, just below the paws. The paws hung limp, at right angles; it looked, comically, as though Boots was waving. Congealed blood hid the bolt heads.
His back legs had been more difficult to fix. The bolts were only part-way into the wall, and the tissue through which they'd been shot was broken and shapeless.
I got back in the car. I shifted into neutral and feathered the brake, edging into the garage. Once I was parked I engaged the handbrake, turned off the headlights, and pressed the lever that unlocked the bonnet. I left the engine idling, so the exhaust would cover the smell. I had left a crawl-space of a couple of feet between the front bumper and the rear wall, where Boots was fastened. I edged along it and felt under the bonnet for the bonnet release. I got the bonnet up and manoeuvred the rod into place to hold it upright.
I kept a tool chest in the corner of the garage. I emptied it out one-handed and found the tire-iron absurdly small, it was more like a tin-opener - fishing about in the bottom. I edged back to where Boots was hanging and wedged the iron under the first bolt. But I was one-handed and clumsy and the lip slid off the head. A bone cracked.
The kitchen door grated open.
I dropped the tire iron and came out from behind the bonnet.
Eva poked her head around the garage door. 'Have you seen Boots?' she called, over the purr of the engine.
'He's not in the house.'
'He must be,' I said.
'Well he's not in here.'
She hesitated at the door, all little-girl-lost. 'What are you doing?' She wrinkled her nose. 'Trying to gas yourself?'
'Well don't stand over the exhaust pipe,' I said.
She stepped round the side of the car.
'The car's filthy, you'll get your dress messed up.'
'What are you doing anyway?'
'I think a spark plug needs replacing.'
'How can you see to work?'
'What's the matter with the light?'
She reached for the switch.
'I don't need it,' I snapped.
'Oh well break your neck in the dark then,' she said. 'Miserable sod.'
I waited until I heard the kitchen door slam shut.
Boots's leg was shattered, splinters of bone sticking through the skin. I bent the leg away from the wall: it made a wet, clicking sound. If I wasn't careful I'd prise the leg away and leave the paw bolted to the wall.
With my good hand I fixed the tire iron under the bolt again and worked it more gently. It began grinding in its socket. Another minute and the thread disintegrated. After that I managed to jiggle the bolt out by hand. I looked for somewhere to wipe the blood off my fingers. There was an old pair of jeans I used for painting in a bag behind the toolbox. I was just fishing them out when the kitchen door opened again.
I heard Eva scuffing about in the basement area, and a rustling as she pulled aside the undergrowth of overgrown budleia and honeysuckle. 'Oh Boots.'
The other bolts were loose. They'd used too powerful a gun, because the cement had pulverised around the metal. Once that first, difficult bolt was free, Boots was pretty much just hooked there. I got him down, clumsily enough, trying to keep his blood off my clothes. When he fell his muzzle came open and a black pool ran out of his mouth. I knelt down and felt inside. His tongue was missing.
The message was pretty much unmistakable. How many more of these, I wondered, before they ran over my head?
I cast around for the tongue in the dark. Maybe it was somewhere in that puddle of brown slurry at my feet. Either that or we were going to find it under the pillow come bedtime. Or floating in the milk carton at breakfast. Or -
The exhaust fumes were making me nauseous so I slid into the driver's seat and turned off the engine. I took the keys with me as I climbed out. I went round the back of the car and opened the boot. I lifted out the plastic liner Eva had laid there to catch crumbs and spillages. Flakes of dried icing dusted my trousers.
I carried the liner round to the front of the car, laid it out and rolled Boots onto it. I wrapped him up and dragged him round to the boot. I needed both hands to get him into the car. I tried not to rub the liner across my stitched palm, got my arms round him at last, and manhandled him into the boot.
'Are you going to help me or not?'
I slammed the boot shut so hard the car bounced.
'He's not in the house,' she said.
'Did we leave a door unlocked?'
I put my hands in my pockets in case she saw blood stains. I stood side on to her, and glanced down my shirt front. It was too dark to see anything. 'Then how can he have gone?'
I followed her back into the house along the leaf-sodden path to the kitchen door. In the light from the kitchen window I saw my shirt was clean.
In the house, there was nothing out of place. No sign, beyond the missing dog, that they had been here. I couldn't resist looking under the pillows in the bedroom - God knows what Eva made of that - but there was nothing there.
I wondered how I was going to explain the holes in the garage wall. I said, 'Did you see him when you went back for the present, this afternoon?'
I left him in the kitchen.'
'Did you see him?'
She thought about it. 'No.'
'But you left the door open when you went back.'
'No I didn't.'
'You did. I saw you.'
She thought about it. 'I went upstairs for the PlayStation. It was still in the bedroom.'
'Well,' I said, 'there you are, then.'
'Well wouldn't you have seen him?'
'I don't know,' I said.
She swallowed. 'Oh, Adam...' She reached out to touch my arm. I stepped away, conscious suddenly of the smell sticking to me; something gluey between the second and third fingers of my left hand. I shoved my hands back in my pockets. 'I'd better get moving,' I said, and headed down the stairs to the kitchen. She followed me down. 'Where are you off to?'
'Well if he's not in the house I'd better go look for him, hadn't I?'
'I'll come with you.'
'Wait in the house. He hasn't been fed - he'll probably be back before I am.'
'Where are you going to go?'
'I'll just drive around a while, see if I can see him.'
It needed two hands to open the kitchen door.
'Adam,' she said, 'wait.'
'Your hand's bleeding again.'
'It doesn't matter,' I said. I gave the bottom of the door a kick and it came open.
'Let me drive.'
'For God's sake,' I shouted, 'let me do something.'
Her smile was so gentle, something dropped inside me. 'Thanks,' she said, softly. 'If you're sure.'
I smiled back at her, because it was what she wanted, and went back to the car.
My hand felt like there was a wasps' nest under my skin. It was so swollen, the palm so blackened, I couldn't bear to look at it. I drove one-handed down Hemingford Road, then swung a left and tried heading south, but the traffic was so heavy I lost my temper and turned again too early, losing myself in the mewses and plazas that fill the junction of Liverpool Road and Upper Street. When at last I found a way through, I found myself on Islington Green, heading towards the Angel. I remembered the canal and braked sharply for the left turn down Duncan Street. The driver behind nearly rear-ended me. As he overtook, we wound down our windows and he called me a cunt. 'Leather interior,' I sneered back. It was nice not having Eva in the car.
The Grand Union Canal runs underground through Islington, directly beneath the road I was driving down. At the end of the street, where the tunnel ends, a small copse of mature trees hides the emerging water. I dog-legged right and drove slowly, trying to see into the cutting. There were lights down there houseboats, moored along the towpath from the mouth of the tunnel all the way down to the next bridge. So that was out. After that the road veered right, away from the water. There wasn't any other traffic just then so I whipped as fast as I could through a four-point turn and drove back the other way, and over the canal. I took the first right turn, hoping this road would follow the line of the water. The Georgian facades moving past me were smart enough but the road might have been a dirt track, the way it felt under my wheels, all patched and pitted, with speed bumps every few yards. I gritted my teeth, kept to a steady 25mph, and tried not to hear Boots thumping about in the back. I reached the junction, looked right, and there was a pub, the Narrowboat, built on the corner of the bridge and the cutting. So that was out.
I dog-legged left again and then I really lost it: every street I tried turned out to be a dead end until I reached Rheidol Terrace, by which time it felt like I was miles off course. I drove down it anyway until it suddenly opened out, roads leading off every place, and a church rose up ahead of me, and I finally admitted defeat. I turned immediately right, more out of panic than anything else, and found myself in the middle of a council estate. The road disappeared into the darkness, straight and uniform as a scene from an arcade game. Every few yards it narrowed into pedestrian crossings, but the only people I saw were gathered around a phone-box on one of those paved dead spaces the designers call squares. I should have turned around, but I was mesmerised by the road and the simple shapes of the buildings. There were climbing frames and swings in front of each block; and lawns, if you could call them that. Someone had gone mad on the landscaping: there wasn't a flat foot of grass anywhere. The darkness ahead of me grew. The estate ended. I couldn't make out what lay beyond. Belatedly, it dawned on me: that unlit strip, where the road finished, could only be the canal. The kerbs branched off here and there like cilia into parking bays. The ground rose slightly and the road ended at last in a small turning circle. I found an empty bay and parked. The road, barred to vehicles by metal posts, ended here. But the pavements met and continued over the canal on a concrete footbridge. About eight feet upstream, a square metal duct carried power cables over the water on a separate bridge, topped by a cruel metal railing. The gap between the footbridge and the duct was in shadow: neither the lights from the factory opposite nor the estate's streetlights penetrated that strip of water. I looked around, wondering how easily I would be observed. The kids were still lingering near the telephone box, lit brutally by the fluorescent light coming from the all-night store on one side of the square: they were too far away to matter. I opened the boot. The in-built light came on. The plastic was smeared brown in places where Boots had shifted about in his wrapper, but nothing had leaked. I gathered him up, cast around quickly and, unobserved, carried him onto the bridge.
I balanced him on the rail a moment as I tried to get my bad hand out the way, but he tipped off anyway. He plummeted into the water, leaving behind, as his epitaph, the scent of honey. The wrapper came undone immediately. It unwrapped, a grey, shapeless bloom. Trapped air kept it bobbing on the surface as, caught by the small, sluggish current of the water, it disappeared under the footbridge.
I should have tied him up.
I crossed the bridge and waited for Boots to emerge. The wrapper came first, the old plastic glistening, smeared by streetlights. Then Boots. His legs were sticking up out of the water. I should have weighted him down.
The left front paw hung at a drunken angle, where I'd broken it with the tire iron. His head was bent back under the water, and the collar looked like a strangler's cord around his neck. The collar.
I'd forgotten the collar.
All this cloak-and-dagger business and I'd forgotten the one thing that really mattered - the collar had a brass disc clipped to it, and engraved on the disc, the word BOOTS. And our phone number. I had to remove the collar. I had to get Boots back.
Downstream there was a large play area, landscaped into terraces. A winding path connected the bays one for swings, one for a Wendy house, one for a frame; others I couldn't make out. There were no lights, and I couldn't see the steps. They were so shallow and needless, I couldn't predict where they'd be. Twice I stumbled.
The fence separating the playground from the towpath was only just above waist-height. There were trees growing near the fence so scaling it wasn't a problem.
Boots wasn't much further downstream than when I'd left him, but he'd moved further into the middle. I cast round for something - a stick, anything - to pull him into the bank. I tried breaking a branch off a tree. The bark cracked easily enough, but the green wood within tore wetly and wouldn't give. I tried twisting the branch and got a mouthful of leaves. It was too heavy to twist with one hand anyway - in my hurry I'd snapped off about a third of the tree.