It was after midnight when I got home. I paid the taxi driver and looked up at the bedroom window. The curtains were pulled but I could tell that the small lamp on the bedside table was on. My wife would be doing a feed.
It was only when I got out of the taxi that I saw my neighbour Reg, across the street, standing at his front gate. I hadn’t spoken to Reg in months. I lifted my hand, ‘Hi Reg,’ I said.
He motioned to me. I looked back up at our bedroom window then walked across the street to him.
‘What’s up?’ I said.
Bruno was Reg’s golden retriever.
‘I came downstairs for a cigarette. I couldn’t sleep.’
He took a draw on the cigarette and I saw the end light up as he inhaled.
‘It must have been his heart,’ he said. ‘He’s been on medication.’
There was a wheeze when he talked.
‘I need to get him in the boot of the car. I don’t want to try lifting him in the morning.’
I didn’t know what to say.
‘I don’t want Grace to see him. She’s been through enough already.’
Reg stood back as he opened the gate, and we walked together up the slope of the driveway to the house. He opened the car boot and lifted out his fishing gear. I suppose it had been in there all year. He lifted out a two-piece fly rod and a tackle box and carried them in one hand to his garage. I stood with my hands in my pockets waiting. There was a chill and I could see my own breath. I looked across the street. The bedroom light was off.
When Reg hit the garage light switch the long fluorescent tube blinked and then came on almost immediately, and I could see that he was looking for something. From the light of the garage I could see his front garden in a kind of monochrome. The rose bushes were overgrown; there were weeds at the edge of the pink pebbles. Maybe two months previous, from my own living room, I had seen Grace out doing some pruning. She had worn a black headscarf and her skin was stretched over her cheekbones. She was frail. Even from across the street I could see how the treatment had aged her. I hadn’t seen her since.
Reg came out of the garage with black bin-liners and arranged them carefully along the bottom of the boot. When he had finished I followed him into the house. I hadn’t been in the house since last summer. When we walked inside I could smell air freshener.
In the living room, the dog was lying on a throw on the sofa. He looked like he was asleep. He looked much smaller than usual. Then I realised he’d had his coat shorn. It was hard to believe it was the same dog.
Reg had really let the place go. There was long yellow dog hair everywhere. On one of the seats, beside the television, was a pile of old magazines and newspapers. There were ashes and white tissues in the grate and on the hearth.
On one side of the fireplace was a black and white photograph of Grace and Reg on their wedding day; on the other side was a colour photograph of their son at graduation. I couldn’t remember their son’s name.
Reg got on his knees and cradled Bruno’s head and I tried to lift his hind legs. He was still warm. Then Reg said, ‘Wait.’ And he placed the throw over him and we lifted him off the sofa in that manner. We carried him carefully through each doorway to the outside and placed him in the boot of the car. Then Reg bent down and kissed him on the forehead before finally closing the boot. I patted Reg on the shoulder and we both went back inside.
Inside, he led me through the house. In the kitchen he reached up above the grill, opened a cupboard and took out a bottle of Bushmills. Then he nodded towards the sink, ‘Help yourself to a glass.’
As I walked towards the sink I kicked a bowl of dried dog food. It was half empty.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ said Reg.
There were dirty dishes, cups and glasses everywhere. I lifted a glass and rinsed it under the hot tap, running my fingers inside and along the rim to clean it.
‘What age was he?’ I asked.
He answered immediately. ‘Eight,’ he said. He took another drink from the glass and then he said, ‘There’s a formula you know. I sat here working it out before you arrived.’
I could see the numbers and multiplication signs on a piece of paper on the table.
‘In dog years he was sixty-one.’
‘Not a bad innings,’ I said.
Reg looked directly at me, but he didn’t say anything.
I placed my glass on the table on a wicker tablemat and Reg lifted the bottle of Bush and poured freely into the glass. I put the flat of my hand out but he continued pouring. I had been drinking beer all night and I wasn’t ready for the whiskey but I lifted the glass. It tasted earthy. It would take a bit of getting used to. I patted my pockets for my cigarettes, stood up and offered one to Reg.
‘I’m just going to check on Grace.’ he said. ‘I’m not smoking in the house anymore.’
I heard his weight on the stairs as I patted every pocket for my lighter. When I found the lighter I stepped outside on to the patio. The intruder light came on and lit up the scene. There were cigarette butts everywhere. The table and chairs were there. One of the aluminium chairs was pulled out, away from the table; the other chair leaned against it. And there was a commode sitting right there on the patio. I lifted the second chair out, but it was wet, and a green slime had formed on the aluminium. I thought maybe I should go inside, get some newspapers and lay them down on it, but I also got a feeling that I shouldn’t. I sat on Reg’s seat and lit a cigarette.
As I sat there smoking the intruder light went out and I looked up at the sky. It was a clear night with no moon but you could see the stars. I looked for the plough. When I found it I looked around and, when my eyes adjusted, I saw all the little stars, millions of them, and I remembered last summer. We had only just moved in and Reg had called at the door to introduce himself. He had caught two sea trout: a cock and a hen. The male fish was around four pounds, the female a pound lighter. He had asked me if I wanted a cut. I had said yes.
He’d brought me over a generous cut from each fish. My wife, Anna, said she couldn’t eat them after having just seen them whole. I wrapped them in tinfoil and cooked them in the oven with just a little olive oil, salt and pepper. They didn’t taste like farmed fish. These fish, you could taste the river in them.
Anna had said we should invite Reg and Grace over for a drink. They both came over with wine and beer. And, when the sun moved behind our house, we all carried our drinks across the street to Reg and Grace’s. I remembered Grace carrying her sandals in one hand and a wine glass in the other. We had sat on their patio, with Bruno under the table. They got the sun right until it slipped below the horizon. I envied them that back garden.
They were both older than us by twenty years but there was a bond. Grace really hit it off with Anna. They had the same sense of humour. I think in many ways they were very similar – they had a lot in common. I remembered overhearing them talking about gardening. It wasn’t anything I was interested in, but I remember Grace saying fish blood and bone meal was the best thing for plants. The blood and guts of fish: that’s probably why it caught my attention. She talked about cuttings, and how she could take a cutting from a geranium and grow a new plant. After that night Grace brought Anna over a big red geranium in a hanging basket. It had flowered all of that summer.
Reg had said he would take me fly-fishing. He had brought me over a cork-handled beginner’s rod, showed me how to cast. I had been practising with the rod; casting from my patio until I could land the fly on my compost bin. The fishing season had come and gone — I had paid £120 for a licence — and I hadn’t got to fish.
Reg stepped outside. The intruder light came back on. ‘She’s sleeping,’ he said.
I stood, offered him a cigarette and he accepted. He stood there in a white short-sleeved shirt, but he didn’t seem to notice the cold.
‘How’s Anna?’ he asked.
‘She’s good,’ I said. ‘Anna’s good.’
‘And the baby?’ he asked.
‘The baby’s good,’ I said.
‘A good sleeper?’
I nodded. The truth is I didn’t know if the baby was a good sleeper or not, I was sleeping in the spare room. I felt like Anna and I were drifting apart since the baby had come along. Things weren’t the way they used to be.
‘My son left before you moved in,’ said Reg. ‘He’s an accountant, lives in Australia now. I’ve a sister over there as well.’
He drained the glass.
‘I might visit when things settle down here.’
He went back inside for the bottle, and when he came back outside, he asked, ‘Have you changed a nappy yet?’
‘I never changed a single nappy.’ said Reg. ‘Grace did it all.’ Then he drained the glass, looked up at the sky and said, ‘It’s my turn now.’
I lifted the glass, but I didn’t drink from it. ‘Reg, I gotta go,’ I said.
I offered him my hand. He shook it. ‘Tell Anna I said hello’, he said, ‘and say hi to the baby.’
Then he walked me through the house. On the front porch he hugged me, and he didn’t let go. ‘I’m sorry about the fishing,’ he said.
PETER JORDAN is this year’s winner of the Bare Fiction prize. In addition, he came second in this year’s Fish Flash Competition. He has received various awards, including a literary bursary from The Lisa Richards Agency, while taking an MA in Creative Writing. Three Arts Council grants followed. His work has appeared in numerous literary magazines and journals, including Flash: The International Short Story Magazine, The Pygmy Giant, Flash500, Thresholds, Litro, The Incubator, The Honest Ulsterman, Dogzplot, Spelk and The Avatar Review. Nine of his stories are in anthologies. He has taken time out from a PhD in Belfast’s Seamus Heaney Centre to complete the edits on his short story collection, Untouchable, which will be published this summer by Kingston University Press. You will find him on twitter @pm_jordan