by Neil Campbell

Coquette flame of sunlight lighting on his face, and smoke in a swirl made transcendent by the light. The smile behind the smoke, a smile through the foliage of autumn beard, under a white, leaf covered canopy. Nearby a Mini, wrapped, suffocated by vines. At the back of the caravan, forty-eight and counting bin liners filled with excrement, shimmered over by a billion flies all swirling in the rays of sunlight that slip through the thinning canopy of tall trees. The white dogs sit either side of the sunlight and smoke-projected portrait, loyal, old, simmering, fierce. He takes nothing from the government, gives nothing back, and filters through the youth of the distant town with his supply. Sometimes, when they come, he drags them back and ties them down. A big stick high as his shoulder helps him rise and fall. His bearded face bathes in the sunlight and smoke, contained in a fly-sodden window around which the fat sated spiders huddle in the frames saving their strength for the fly feasts and battles. The window is open an inch and flies swirl around inside, land on the indoor aerial of the vast and leaning and stained TV. The fat fridge hums loud, bass for the dogs and flies, and the dogs roll on the dog-eared carpet, crushing dead fleas that land on the layer of dead fleas from before.

A grown boy comes at night. Baseball bat flashing in the arc of a slashed moon. The slathering dogs jump and then crumble. Blinking from deep induced sleep he sees the bat butt last, crashing across his face. The already buckled body is smashed to a flabby wobble. The dogs wake and sit by the shattered body and nobody comes and they cannot escape through the fixed, open window. They start to chew on the fly-riddled body but then rot themselves in their own excrement. Crows come in through the gap in the window and shatter through the sunlight in a wing play of black before pecking holes in the dogs’ eyes. Maggots open out all over like broken bread. The grown boy shakes into his wife’s hair and their boy sweats and sits up and sleeps and sweats into a nervous decline. Vines grow around the caravan, the smell keeps even the animals away soon and the rest of the decimated stead becomes carrion for the insects that eat away at it all so that eventually the whole frame begins to buckle in on itself, and the image of the hunchback’s face remains only in nightmares for the living and later, much later, when, all is lost under a tonnage of concrete, decrepitude is buried deep beneath a tarmac whizzed over, and the grown boy’s secrets and the secrets of his family infest them and they can’t lose the images, so they destroy themselves in ways too subtle and insidious for them to understand, so that they too are all buried in the vines and trail like broken caravans on an old road flanked by dead trees and flies.

The dogs were jumping out from taut leads and slavering like hounds in the dark, going crazy at the sound of the boy’s screams, and the hunchback propped on his stick pushed the back of the boy’s head and fought through his own pain to get there and then lit a cigarette and bathed in the smoke as the dogs still barked and pawed and scratched some more at the boy’s back and the boy whimpered in the dark, until the bare bulb lit the scene for the quiet country lane where the hunchback watched people on Sundays and saw how they didn’t see him, and instead looked high into the trees for the birds or pointed to the hillsides of marvelled-at kestrels in the sky, and well they would notice him now, nobody would forget this would they? But they wouldn’t forget because they never knew and only the haunted left living knew and even before the A69 and the caravan sank into the flora and fungi and parts of it crumbled and slid down the bank into the burn and got washed at intervals towards a sea it would never quite reach, just scraping in bits past dead otters and floating fish so that the past unspoken was lost save for the echoes of screaming in the remaining trees, and the sunlight came and went no longer lingering around the image of the smoke-wreathed face of the hunchback in the caravan.

Neil Campbell is from Manchester. His debut novel Sky Hooks is out now. He has been included three times in Best British Short Stories (2012, 2015, 2016). He has two collections of short stories, Broken Doll and Pictures From Hopper, published by Salt, and two poetry collections, Birdsand Bugsworth Diary, published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, who have also published his short fiction chapbook, Ekphrasis. Stories have appeared in The Lonely Crowd and Litro. A collection of flash fiction, Fog Lane, was published in April 2017.

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