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31 Oct

It Wasn’t a Black Dog,
It Was Never a Black Dog

by Anika Carpenter 

Hedgehogs are noisy eaters. Janet had two in her garden. She named them Horace and Mable after the children she never had. Sat on the iron bench in her favourite spot, under a lampshade moon, Janet thought she heard their usual scuffling and crunching. But it was October, the noises weren’t made by hedgehogs. Unknowingly, Janet smiled, let herself be comforted by the rustling sounds, and to be warmed by the blanket wrapped around her. Her favourite, the one that Alan had bought her as a fiftieth-anniversary present. Knitted from mohair, the same brown-grey as a hedgehog’s fur. She pulled it tight smiling at the thought of the two spiky creatures filling their bellies.

‘Hello my beauties,’ she said gently. ‘You hunting slugs for me, Mable, you good girl.’ She wasn’t prepared for a response, for the sound of a familiar rasping tongue.

‘You silly cow. Talking as much shit as ever.’ The lavender bush shook. Branches of the rosemary snapped like old bones. The voice drew nearer. ‘Missed me?’ Janet knew better than to scream. Her neighbour’s idea of help was very different from hers.

Before she saw him, she smelled him; old chip fat and cigar smoke. A smell that reminded her she could be hollowed out, and filled with crawling, itching thoughts. What had come for her was not a man but a sparrow the size of a man, of a conviction. Its eyes were watery and almost crusted shut. Its beak looked leathery. Earwigs and wolf spiders crawled in and out of greasy feathers and it dragged itself along, not with claws but a pair of hands, child’s hands gleaming white-pink in the moonlight. Delicate and clean as the mohair blanket.

Every cell in Janet’s body turned pale and brittle. She fumbled for the words Alan would have whispered to her, ‘Keep the authority in your voice, girl, that’s all you need do.’ She tried, she always tried, even when her throat felt as though she’d been forced to swallow unswept leaves, again. ‘Get out, you’re not welcome here.’ The bird laughed, a mean back-of-the-throat laugh that only a person expert at ridiculing a child’s proudest efforts could make. ‘Silly bitch, I’m going nowhere.’ Hand over smooth hand, it moved closer, reaching out pretty fingers with nails sharp as whittling knives. Piss trickled down Janet’s thighs and soaked into her pyjamas. The crisp autumn air bit into her arms and everything benevolent was snatched from her.

The sparrow fingered a corner of soft wool. ‘Look at this ol’ rag! This your comfort blanket, crone?’ It wasn’t the blanket that was comforting it was the scents sheltering in the fibres; last year’s bonfires and Alan’s cologne. “Please,” she managed, “leave me alone, for once.” The bird shuddered disdainfully drew its head into its body and coughed a faecal sack up into one of its tiny hands. Then, with arse-smacking triumph, it slapped it down onto the blanket and crushed it into the soft wool, obliterating all trace of the past. As it admired its handy work, it clenched and unclenched its fist, the way her first husband did when he was trying to keep his patience with her. Janet turned her face as inconspicuously as she could towards the house, toward the door she’d pulled tightly shut to keep in precious heat.

‘You won’t make it, not on your corn-ridden feet. Even if you did, you couldn’t get it open in time. Why don’t you ever fix anything? Oiling hinges, not fucking brain surgery, is it Janet?’ When the bird spoke something wet and pink foamed at the corner of its mouth and fell in glistening lumps like raw, chewed flesh. Janet’s own flesh felt heavy, mawkish as bread dough worked hard and easily sullied. Sudden pain in her right ankle confirmed the bird had a hold of her. It cocked its head at the unswept paving slabs, the rusting bench, the pool of piss at Janet’s feet. ‘How about you stay out here with me tonight. The air will be vicious cold. Freezing to death would be better than all this, no?. Wouldn’t it be nice for the neighbours to get shot of you and your nighttime ramblings?. They might have someone move in who can actually look after the garden. Someone who doesn’t sit out at midnight babbling on at hedgehogs. Imagine that Janet, someone with a little decorum.’

Janet looked around at the flowerbeds littered with fallen leaves, the clematis vines tumbling over the arms of the bench, roses not yet deadheaded, soil spilling from upturned plant pots. It all smelled so good. This, she reminded herself, was a place for singing and feasting. She straightened up, snatched back her blanket and threw it over the bird, the way you might throw a tea towel over the cage of a budgerigar singing too loudly, too late in the day.

‘I will not have you stay here!’ Janet yelled as the bird screeched and clawed at her with fingers that were turning grey and forming scales. Using what strength she had, with both arms, she squeezed and pushed down on the bundled creature like someone trying to get all of the air out of a camping mattress. The more the bird struggled, the harder Janet squeezed, and as she did it shrunk. When it got small enough to pass for an everyday garden visitor, Janet brought her fists down on it, over and over and over again, until it was still and bloody.

The rusty hinges sighed contentedly when Janet went back into the house. The hallway’s wooden floorboards creaked, ‘yep, yep, yep,’ as she walked towards the bathroom where she’d run a bath scented with wood chips and Acqua di Parma in which she would soak herself and her blanket.