“Are you ever not eating?” asks Nancy, slouching against the slimy brick wall. There’s nothing stopping her from staying inside with Rebecca and the other giggling dance girls, but she seems to enjoy his company. In her frilly skirt and four-inch platform heels, she towers over him. “I swear to god, every time I see you you’re stuffing your face. How the hell d’you not get fat?”
He shrugs, and pops another peanut into his mouth. Soldier’s rule: eat when you can, because you never know when your next meal’s going to be. His pantry in the Stainsby Road flat is stocked with cheap canned goods lasting weeks at a time – soups, peas, beans, tinned meats, anything the roaches can’t spoil – but he’s still burning though food about as fast as he can swallow it. He spends half his time snacking on bar nuts every shift, and crams sandwiches into his mouth during breaks. Porky doesn’t give a damn as long as he’s ready on his feet when someone tries to run out on their bill or gets leery with the girls. Even with the steady supply of tinned foods (and fresh market produce with the new shillings he’s earning), Craig still misses the meals they cooked on open fires between missions, the hearty stews sticking to your ribs that keep you going for hours.
“Anyone giving you grief in there?” he asks.
“No more than usual,” says Nancy, and takes a deep pull of his pipe when he hands it over. Becca’s tinkling laugh echoes from indoors. Nancy coughs and splutters, then grins. “Couple of guys at the bar are getting pretty rowdy. Might get you to throw ‘em out soon.” She thinks for a moment. “Not yet, though. They’re still tipping well.”
“Well, let me know when they dry up.”
He’s spent his first couple of shifts terrified that long-buried training and instinct would take over when patrons started causing trouble. The guys coming to Porky’s are sorry losers, helpless drunks; he could knock them over with a well-placed glare. But his reflexes are faster than the rest of him – what if he lashes out too hard and kills one?
(Why would it matter? Who’d cry about a dead drunk bleeding out in a grimy street gutter, how would the world be worse off, why does he even care –)
But he stopped worrying after his first couple of nights on the job. A few of the troublemakers bring clubs, some knuckledusters, others bring knives, but hardly any of them bother with anything bigger. Most of them barely even know how to throw a punch properly. He takes it easy. Grabs the guys Porky points him at and gently roughs them up a bit, then they pay up and go on their way. No danger. Nothing unpredictable. Nothing to blow his calm for more than a second or two at a time.
It’s so damn boring.
The hours roll by. He goes to work, he goes to the waterfront, he goes to the pub, he goes shopping; in between he walks the back streets to keep himself moving and keeps a sharp eye out for anyone who follows. He’s walking a fine line: too much routine makes him easy to track, but every new place he visits is a brand new chance for someone to remember his face. So he sticks to trodden paths, slips from shadow to shadow in the back alleys, and stays out of sight.
Life goes stale; he almost welcomes the monotony. Porky’s is probably the grimiest little music hall in East London, but it keeps him busy and pays his bills. It also keeps his skills sharp, stops them leaching away like wispy morning mist. He has no old friends, no remaining family; no life skills that don’t involve killing people. Besides, even if he weren’t in hiding, he’s not sure he could hold down a job where he never got to hit anyone.
(You have some friends) whispers the sing-song voice in the back of his head. But he’s not thinking about that. He’s not thinking about any of it. The Sergeant doesn’t have any friends. Not really. He has allies. He has Mission Assists. That’s all.
Here’s the worst part, worse than the nightmares, the guilt, the god-awful confusion and the gaping holes in his memory, worse than any of it: a part of him still misses the war. Misses the danger, the excitement, the challenge; the thrill of no-holds-barred survive-or-die fighting against people who want to kill you; misses having a place where he belonged. He knows now that half the crap his senior officers told him was a lie, but he still misses the feeling of being special. Being important. Being valued. Working for something bigger than himself. Getting shit done.
He doesn’t think about that, either.
The dreams keep coming back, night after night. If he thought about it closely, he might think it served him right.
* * *
Rusty starts scratching at the door mid-afternoon, whining and ears pinned back.
Craig’s almost at the end of a chapter. Ollie’s recommendation. Light reading, apparently. The girl in it is a total idiot. Way too trusting, for a start. She’s currently chatting to a caterpillar who’s smoking on a mushroom. Her own fault. She followed an overdressed rabbit down a hole (in a dress, even – how stupid). Her choice. What did you think was going to happen, lady? Really weird. It’s a silly book.
He turns the next page.
Rusty trots over to snuffle at Craig’s knee, then trots back to the door, pawing at the wood.
‘‘You want out?’’
A mournful wuffle.
He barely opens the front door before Rusty dashes down the steps and sprints off down the pavement towards the park, barking ecstatically.
‘‘Hey! HEY! Wait up!’’
He turns into the railed clearing to find Rusty against a tree, leg cocked and a blissful look on his face.
Oh. Fine, okay.
Business finished, Rusty ambles over to the shallow pool to lap at the water. Suddenly he utters a whiny howl, ears pricked in excitement. Craig looks up. A pack of five animals, dark against the bushes, have appeared out of the undergrowth near the pool. Strays? Wild mutts? Craig makes out a flea-ridden coat here, a half-gnawed ear there. Every pack member shares the same intelligent wary stance.
Rusty meets them halfway. They snuffle at each other, exchanging short barks. Rusty bows his forelegs. One pack member sniffs at him while he lolls in the grass, ending the exchange with an eager yip. The pack slides off, disappearing back into the scrubby bushes. The last one pauses, glancing back with her scarred eye. Then she too is gone.
Rusty rolls up, astonished. After a few stunned barks, he starts to follow after them, then looks back. He lopes over to Craig and starts circling around him. Craig frowns down at him.
What’s he doing…
He’s trying to herd me after them. Get me to follow too.
Craig swallows hard, kneels down to scratch behind Rusty’s scruffy ears. ‘‘No, no. I – I have to go back. You…uh…’’ He rises, moves back by the tree, and waits.
Rusty comes close. He circles Craig three times before pausing. Snuffles at his hand. Whines.
The rosy pink sky has deepened to a bruised purple dusk. Darkness seeping into the hollows between the trees. The shadows lengthen. Rusty lifts his head for another wild howl. Blinks hopefully up at him.
Rusty licks at his fingers then, alive with instinct, he bounds off, nose down, tail thrumming furiously, tracing the pack. The soft bush shadows take him.
Craig stays by the tree. His chest throbs, anguish a heavy lead weight deep in his heart. He reaches up and find wetness on his cheeks. Swallows down the grief clawing at his throat. The stray had never been his dog, never a pet to call his own. No master. No kennel. No leash. That dog belonged to his own canine self, and to the wild lonesome road.
He bows his head, then shivers in the gathering dusk. The early evening is alive with small insects and birdsong. The hushed silence is broken.
© 2017 Tom Burton