by Julie Hayman
The lumpy black dog staggered knock-kneed along the path to where I stood outside the white picket fence.
‘Hello, Boy,’ I said as it approached. It growled, showing no sign of knowing me, lifting its lips and flashing the tips of yellowing canines. Growling made it wobble slightly, giving the impression that it might keel over and die at any moment.
‘Stand down, Boy.’ Nick Chopper came out onto the porch, rolling a cigarette, squinting in my direction. He’d lost twenty pounds, it looked like, and found twenty years, and his hands shook nearly as badly as the dog. Boy kept on growling, his marble eyes peering glassily at me.
The dog obeyed this time, flopping onto its belly on the path. I guessed it would take a long time to haul itself back up.
‘How may I help you?’ Nick asked in an unfriendly way, not moving from the porch.
‘It’s me,’ I said.
‘I can see it’s you,’ he countered. ‘Who the heck are you, ma’am?’
‘Nick, it’s me.’ I took off my sunglasses so he could see.
Nick fixed me a drink. He didn’t have no gin ‘n’ tonic, he said, and he didn’t have no tea neither. He had coffee if I wanted, if I’d started drinking it like ordinary folk, or he had whisky. There was water in the tap – what’d I have?
‘You’ve lost none of your charm,’ I told him. ‘Whisky’s fine.’
It took a while for my eyes to acclimatise to the dark. Nick had a wooden dining table and two ladder-back chairs set before a stone sink. Newspaper was spread out over the table, and something about the size of a tin can – a carburettor? – was in pieces on it, gleaming blackly with oil, a big metal tube sticking out the top looking like it should be attached to something important.
‘What’re you working on?’ I asked Nick, nodding towards it.
He handed me a chipped cup half-filled with whisky.
‘Been trying to get it going again.’
‘Don’t you want to know why I’m here?’ I asked, taking a sip.
‘Nope,’ he said.
Nick brought a packet of crackers out of a cupboard, and a slab of cheese from the fridge.
‘All there is. Help yourself.’
Boy staggered in, caught sight of me, and growled. ‘He doesn’t remember me,’ I said.
The lake looked like tin as we walked alongside it that evening. I held Boy’s lead; he stopped growling as long as I paid him no heed. A bird squealed high in the branches of an alder, and the grass brushed damp around my ankles.
‘I’m cold, Nick,’ I said.
He took off his sweater and gave it to me without so much as glancing over.
‘How long you here for this time?’ he asked. ‘A few months? A few weeks? Until my money runs out?’
The sweater smelled of wood and whisky and car oil. I put it around my shoulders; it was bulky and heavy and dragged me down.
‘I don’t want your money,’ I said.
‘Good thing that there isn’t any. You grown up yet or still throwing tantrums every which way?’
It was his way of telling me he still hurt. In the past a comment like that would’ve riled me.
Something plopped on the surface of the lake, and I watched as concentric circles widened to nothing on the water. I leant over the edge but couldn’t see myself in the winking surface.
‘Do you still come swimming here?’ I asked, linking my arm through Nick’s.
‘Never come this way,’ he said. ‘The water’s not pure anymore.’
‘When I can’t sleep, I sometimes imagine myself back here,’ I said, ‘doing the crawl and doggy-paddle and breast-stroke through the water.’
‘Shouldn’t come back here no more: it’s polluted,’ said Nick, disentangling his arm from mine and reaching across me for Boy’s leash. ‘Waste from manufacturing up the way: toxins killed all the lake life years back.’
He slept as deeply and quietly as he always had, forgetful of me in sleep. I lay against his back, breathing in his salty, sweaty smell, rubbing my cheek against his smooth skin, counting the rivets on his spine. The birds began their tentative chirping outside as light trickled in.
‘What’s this?’ he’d asked, cupping my right breast, stroking and pressing gently, his eyes deep water.
‘Nothing,’ I said, locking my legs behind his back. ‘Nothing at all. You said you didn’t want to know.’
He shuddered as he came like a man in the grip of a fit, a man tumbling over a waterfall, a fish in a keep-net. Then he relaxed, his body a dead weight on mine.
Downstairs, Boy didn’t wake as I put the empty whisky bottle in the sink and the crackers back in the cupboard. I picked up the dismantled carburettor from the table, turned it over in my hands, shook it. It sounded like it was broken inside, and something like black oil came off on my fingers.
‘Won’t get that going again, Nick,’ I thought as I unlocked the front door quietly and stepped outside, putting on my sunglasses.
Julie Hayman is an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at a university in Bath. She has also worked as a dancer, a dog-trainer and as writer-in-residence at a school. Her work has been published in anthologies, magazines and on radio. Her prizes and awards include the PFD Prize Best First Novel Award 2002, the Mslexia short story prize 2015 (2nd place), Aesthetica Short Story Award 2015 (finalist) and the Costa Short Story Award 2017 (Highly Commended).