Dog Eat Dog

Dog Eat Dog
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Photo: Dariusz Latocha
A short story by Francesca Rhydderch
Not all the puppies were dead. Somewhere in the mess of limbs and tufts of hair a small tail wagged, just once. I pulled it gently until the body that it was attached to slid out and lay at my feet, covered in blood and shuddering in the cold.

I used to bury them, all together if I could. I used to walk around town after dark carrying a bag of decaying fur and bones in one hand and a plastic red spade in the other. I'd surreptitiously dug up and re-laid the frayed edges of the bowling green, the park and the children's playground; even the cricket pitch was pitted with makeshift graves.

I became bolder, braving the harsh glare of daylight. I went up Constitution Hill once, sitting on the tram among tourists who gaped silently at their caravans below, or, if their stomachs could take it, leaned over the edge pointing out sites of interest. Look, our Kylie, there's Macky Dees. After I'd wrapped what was left of the puppies in the soft, forgiving soil, stumbling over the bits of the Lord's Prayer that I could never remember, I drank stewed tea and looked down at the town through the camera obscura. Not that you could see anything that you couldn't see up close down below - washing dripping on a line, self-absorbed toddlers fruitlessly engaged in digging up the shingle beach, seagulls hovering over surfers, ready to drop flat pellets of white and green excrement onto their glinting boards - but up on Consty you could take your time, and look carefully through the unseen camera at everyone and everything without fear of discovery.

That last time, I walked home along the prom under a string of winking fairy lights, damp earth running off the bottom of my spade onto the sea wall. The gulls screeched overhead, huge and angry, before divebombing onto unsuspecting clusters of teenagers. They squealed and threw themselves into each other's arms, nervous and excited. A dark cloak of swallows hung in the sky above the pier.

The man - the dog-handler, I called him - used to hold the puppies under the water in a bin liner and kick and kick and kick until they stopped wriggling and crying, and all that was left of them was a pool of muddy velvet seeping out of the bag. I used to see him from my window late at night, a tenner in his back pocket and a pint waiting for him at The Angel. I wanted to lean out and yell at him to stop - I dreamt once that everyone else all along the terrace opened their windows and did the same, like sheep bleating on a hillside when their lambs are taken away - but I never did. I would wait until he'd gone and then I'd go down and pick through the detritus for signs of life. They were always long dead, though. He'd done his job well enough, and all that was left was for a long roll of water to unfurl onto the beach, lift them up and wash them down the coast, to another beach in another place, for someone else to find and tut over. No one here need ever know.

But I knew. I lived on that ungainly terrace of houses that leaned away from the sea over South Beach. I often sat in the empty studio on the top floor in the evenings, waiting for the sun to dip under the horizon or, more often, watching the clouds rippling in from the south, gathering into a burst of rain over the town and moving away to the mountains in the north. After it got dark I would open the window so I could hear the crunch of shingle, driftwood and broken shells that accompanied each turn of the waves onto the beach.

There were other noises, of course. There were boys racing their cars up and down the harbour, couples making love down by the jetty, the clink-clink of masts in the marina under the new flats, swans honking their way up the river, away from the sea. But there was nothing strange in them. They were all familiar, almost domestic, sounds.

Until the night when I heard a thud and yelp on the pavement below, and saw the dog-handler dragging a litter of mongrels from the head of the slipway down to the sea. It was high tide on a stormy evening, so he didn't have so far to go. If he'd waited a couple of hours, the sea would have been far out to the horizon, and any noise he made carried away on the wind. But he was lazy, he wanted the job over with, and the puppies were already barking in blind panic and scratching the life out of each other in their flimsy bag.

It would be the same each time after that; howls and kicks and silence. The crunch of my feet on shingle sleepwalking their way down to the shallows to inspect the damage. Carrying the dead puppies back up the beach and secreting them behind the jasmine bush in the back yard next to a row of gladioli pointing skywards, accusingly, like bloodied fingers.

But last time it was different. The dog-handler was in a foul mood. He slammed the back door of the landrover, catching a stray head or leg or tail on the way, from the sound of it. He tripped in his haste over the remains of a fire left by a group of students who had been camped out all afternoon, swigging from cans and laughing into the pale sun. He cursed loudly, and tugged the squirming bag behind him over a ridge of sharp rocks down to the shingle.

He embarked on his usual frenzied kicking routine, except this time he didn't seem to be enjoying it much. Through my binoculars I caught the determined expression on his face, although I'm not sure what he was so determined about. Maybe he just wanted to get it over with, or perhaps he was simply intent on getting back at someone, anyone, even if it was only a motley clutch of dogs born a few hours before, for the beatings he'd taken as a child.

Suddenly he looked up towards the jagged silhouette of the castle. He saw the blue light of the police car before he heard the siren, I'm sure of that, because he dropped everything, ran back to his landrover and fled up the back lane before I even heard the car speeding along the prom to the end of the terrace. A few minutes later I saw two policemen talking to a teenager in boarding trousers, threatening to search his rusted Peugeot. They got back into their car slowly, deliberately, and drove off towards the old town, up Custom House Street. The surfer waited until they'd rounded the corner and then waved a two-fingered salute.

I sat, petrified, for I don't know how long, waiting. The dog-handler was long gone, I was pretty sure of that, and I doubted that he'd be back. I could see him now, paying for his round, his mates nodding approval. There's got to be easier ways to make a living, boys, I tell you. Not doing no harm to no one, just minding my own business and helping out a mate, like. Bastards.

Finally, it was quiet out there. The only cars that were parked up were there for the night. The slow procession of people who trailed up and down to take the air at sunset had trickled away with the tide. It was just me now, and my familiar bundle of little corpses.

But this time, the last time, there was a survivor. Surrounded by her dead siblings, she looked up at me with hopeful eyes and wagged her tail. This time I left her brothers and sisters in the shallows to be washed away. I wrapped her in my scarf and carried her in my arms up the beach, skulking towards my front gate.

There was the business of a name, I pondered. What do you call an orphaned dog who should by rights be dead?

She stared up at me like a newborn baby, trusting, safe in my arms.

'I'll look after you, my little one, better than the rest,' I promised her.

For a moment I was nearly happy, on the edge of this godforsaken town that was no place to call home. I had found someone who needed me and I almost felt glad.

The streetlights flickered into life as I crossed the road to my front door. I saw myself in the glass, picked out in the unforgiving cream glow of the imitation Victorian lantern above me. A middle-aged woman with sagging shoulders and drooping breasts crooning over a baby substitute in a dirty shawl. I already sensed something broken in my happiness as I looked at that refracted image. I knew then that it was over.

And I was right. She didn't last the night. She died alone in the kitchen as I slept upstairs wrapped in a soft cocoon of expectation. She barked a few times, maybe, wondering where the others had got to, and then rolled over, comforted by the hissing of the stove and soft hush of a low tide. And then nothing, only the ebb and flow of silence.

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(c) Francesca Rhydderch, 2006









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