From the author: A couple of chaps speaking of an evening. And a dog.
‘Cold night for it,’ John said, sitting down beside the kid.
‘Fresh, even for January,’ he said with a nod, hoody done up to his chin and hands in his pockets. He was rigid, arms tucked close to his body, eyes shifting to take John quickly. He was skinny as a junkie, but none of the jitters.
‘Nice for seeing the stars, though,’ John continued, rubbing Bonny’s back as she plonked down. She was solid as a little tank, firm muscle under the short, fuzzed fur. ‘Not often you can see them, light pollution’s got everything tinted orange.’ He pulled out his packet. ‘You mind?’
‘Naw, carry on,’ the kid said, holding a hand up to help shield the lighter flame while John sucked air.
‘Thanks. Shouldn’t smoke, but after a certain point you think: sod it.’ He patted Bonny’s head as he put the lighter in his parka pocket, puffing out a plume of smoke that matched their fogged breaths.
‘It’s not good for you,’ the kid said, shrugging. ‘Or your dog.’
‘S’why I only do it outside, so she’s got plenty of room away from it,’ John said, winking. ‘John, by the way.’
‘Simon.’ John took the offered, frozen, hand on instinct, exchanging a quick shake.
‘You out star spotting?’
‘Just seemed a nice spot,’ Simon said, shrugging again.
‘Precious few of those about,’ John agreed, ashing his cigarette. The embers flicked away on the wind, off into the darkness. ‘The park’s nice enough, like, but there’s folk sleeping rough and you don’t want to be the asshole that wakes them up.’
Simon gave a quiet snort, ‘Aye, got enough troubles if you’re sleeping there.’
‘It’s not like the green spaces are badly kept, Council spends money on ‘em.’
‘Everything’s underfunded, even the parks are mostly volunteers. Just like foodbanks,’ Simon said with a bitter laugh, glancing to Bonny as she woofed. ‘She like folk?’
‘Soft as butter, only gets growly if I’m having a do.’
‘Sometimes I get a bit muddled,’ John said, tapping his temple, ‘Perks of the job, much like this thing.’ He tapped his prosthetic knee, the plastic giving a crisp, clear knock in the night air.
‘Shit, I didn’t realise. Sorry.’
‘No reason you’d know. Probably means my range of motion’s getting better. It’s an upgrade, still breaking in.’
‘Must be a pain in the ass,’ Simon said.
‘More in the stump,’ John said, giving a grin. ‘Got blown to shit in an IED spot, was lucky to keep the other one.’
‘Fucking hell.’ Simon flinched, arms wrapping around his torso. The hoody was well worn, John could see it in the way it hung off his arms, the sink in the shoulders where he’d filled it out previously.
‘I’m still here. Could be worse. Shoes are half price. Didn’t lose the other bits.’
‘Jesus,’ Simon said, a shocked laugh slipping out and bird-like shoulders bouncing.
‘Well, that would’ve been a real pain in the ass.’
‘No wonder you need a dog,’ Simon said. He tugged his hood down, showing close cropped, blonde hair much like Bonny’s fur. His eyes were ringed red in contrast to the green irises.
‘Dogs answer back less than people.’ Bonny nuzzled into him and he scratched her, leaning in to peck the wrinkled skin at her forehead. ‘Doesn’t mind the noise at night either.’
‘Nightmares?’ Simon asked, nodding to the prosthetic.
‘Comes and goes, sometimes it can be ages. Sometimes it’s every night like the news. Not that I watch much of that.’
‘’S always miserable,’ Simon agreed, tapping his thumbs against their concrete seat. ‘You got a spare?’
‘Usually weed, but that’s been hard to get. I miss the burn.’
‘These are menthol, so might not be the same, but sure,’ John said, slipping his packet out and lighting Simon up. He breathed the smoke in, leaning back to blow it up in a straight line. ‘Nice?’
‘Not as good as green, but yeah,’ Simon said, rolling the cigarette up and down between his fingers. It had quietened down, less cars going by as the night progressed, and they sat with the silence for a beat. ‘Why menthol?’
‘Baccy’s cheaper, and you’ll not be working much with a service animal.’
John held his cigarette out, looked it over. ‘Friend smoked ‘em, gave me the taste.’
Simon sucked air through his teeth, ducking his head. ‘Friend still about?’
‘No,’ John said, drawing in smoke, ‘Went off with my leg.’
‘Sorry, man,’ Simon said passing one hand over his face. ‘You guys together?’
‘Same batch. She was an absolute ball buster, you’d never a chance of mucking about with her, but she was good. Thorough.” Bonny woofed, bashing her head into his side in a warning, training kicking in. ‘Gone too soon, as most of ‘em are.’
‘Double whammy,’ Simon said, flicking his ash. The moon had started to move closer, round and shiny as a coin, silver light painting the tarmac in pale layers.
‘Took a lot of coming ‘round to. Waking up lopsided isn’t one of the things they warn you about.’
Simon chewed a fingernail on his free hand, tugging at the drawstring on his top. It was tatty – scraggly like it had been chewed before.
‘You glad you did?’ he asked eventually.
‘Wake up to it.’
‘Yeah,’ John said, flicking his filter away and lighting another cigarette. ‘Better than all of me going up. Coming back in evac beats in a bag. It’s a pretty grim jigsaw, putting someone back together.’
‘Wouldn’t have been your problem,’ Simon said and John hummed his agreement, Bonny’s head landing in his side again, insistent. He leant in and gave her another nuzzle, fur warm and smelling of her medicated shampoo.
‘No, but I couldn’t have spoken at her funeral if I’d gone skywards. She was terrible at speeches: if we’d been the other way around, she’d have made a mess of the service.’
‘You had that planned out?’
‘Nature of the business, you get a plan down. Bad shit happens if you don’t: families fight over bodies, money goes where it shouldn’t.’
‘Harsh,’ Simon said, wincing. ‘We just got told to nominate someone for the insurance.’
‘Do a will?’
‘Nah. Should’ve, but I never got a round to it.’
‘I’ve no one to leave it to anyway. Mum’s got my sister to look after her, and I’ve no kids to take care of.’
‘I’d hope not, what age are you?’
‘Sod off, with that baby face?’
‘Who do you leave it to when there’s no one about?’
‘Friends. The dogs home.’ Bonny was closer, in at his ribs now, licking up by his ear. It was the same as when he was having a bad dream.
Not the full horror shows that came with flashbacks. They were images of Donna laughing at him in the vehicle, sunshine bright and relentless on the road. The thunderous roar of explosives. The hot spray of blood and chunks that signalled his friend’s death. The phantom itch of a limb gone. Those earned licks on his face, Bonny dragging him back into the now with a sandpaper tongue and her insistent headbutting.
‘The dogs home?’ Simon’s question brought John back, drawing his focus.
‘Or the donkey sanctuary, whatever you prefer. If you want to write one. It’s a hassle if you don’t though, problems for the folk you leave behind.’ There were blue lights flashing past somewhere, the muted blip of sirens clipping through the night air.
‘Can’t be that bad.’
‘Getting documentation through without a will’s a hassle. And expensive. Two grand on top of your funeral fees, that’s eight hundred for the digging, four for the plot. Not that the diggers get paid that - the Council pockets the profit.’
‘You’d think they’d be cheap,’ Simon said, chewing one of his sleeve cuffs, the material staining dark with spit. ‘Too poor to die, damn.’
‘A lot of folk are, that’s why they tell you to get insurance.’
‘Should just go for cremation.’
‘They charge for that, too.’
‘Jesus.’ Simon shook his head, gnawing the material between his incisors, ‘No rest even if you’re thrown to the wind.’
‘In my experience getting scattered’s a bit brutal.’
Simon flinched like he’d been slapped, opening his mouth then shutting it again, giving a little nod. ‘Can I have another?’
‘Sure, crack at.’ John set the packet between them.
Simon lit up, exhaling smoke with a big sigh, ‘One of my pals, he smoked these fancy ones where you crush the filter and it gives you a different flavour. His favourite was strawberry, like hookah. He could never get that out where we were though, he had to settle for menthol.’
‘A man of taste,’ John said.
‘He used to bitch something chronic about it, said it was like smoking After Eights.’
John laughed, shaking his head, ‘Sweet tooth I take it?’
‘Yeah, always on the hunt for something. Lollies, chocolate, man had hollow legs.’
‘Snap. Well, half.’
‘God you’re grim,’ Simon said, letting his arm fall into his lap.
‘Gallows humour, dog doesn’t complain,’ John said.
‘Only ‘cause she can’t,’ Simon said.
‘Probably. Heaven knows what she’d say. What else did your pal like?’
‘Biscuits. We’d have to stash them: tuck them under seat covers or tell the cooks to only give him one serving. Not that it worked, he could charm ‘em like a proper wide boy: batting his lashes and saying how he missed home.’
John snorted, half choking on his smoke.
‘Sounds like he had the routine down,’ he said once the coughing had stopped.
‘Had since we were kids; always the charmer. He was good at handling civilians ‘cause of it. First one sent out if there was trouble.’
‘On a night out or on the job?’
‘Both, no stopping the mouth on Paul. I was better at keeping an eye on the lads, but he could bring the birds from the trees. Or the angry boyfriend away from the idiot necking his girlfriend. Not something I’m blessed with,’ Simon said, swallowing loudly in the stillness, ‘That’s why I had Paul.’
‘Good to have a friend like that.’
‘It was,’ Simon said, his voice pitched higher, wiping a hand across his eyes as he gave a shuddering breath, ‘He was brilliant.’
‘What happened?’ John asked, starting a fresh cigarette and setting the lighter beside the crumpled pack.
‘We both got out, got our badges,’ Simon said, sniffing, ‘We’d been on two tours, were fed up of the fucking sand.’
‘The dust,’ John nodded, ‘Still tipping it out of my boot now, not been back since evac.’
‘We figured it wouldn’t be too hard to train up again, you know? We’re both young. Get in at a garage, work under someone ‘til we could set up our own. Or put money down to buy in.’
John nodded, briefly leaning his weight into the warm dog beside him. There was the crunch of car tyres nearby, the dull hum of an engine dying. A pair of doors thumped closed.
‘Wasn’t like that, though,’ Simon continued, folding in on himself, shoulders hunched up around his ears. ‘Doesn’t clear out of your head that quick.’
‘Sticks around like the dust.’ John flicked his filter, sending ash scattering.
‘I got somewhere, through a mate of my cousin. It’s a bus garage rather than a proper one, but it’s money.’
‘A wage’s a wage.’
‘Paul didn’t. I tried to get him in at my gig, but there wasn’t space. I was only in on a favour.’
‘Universal credit takes months,’ Simon said, teeth visible around the filter in his mouth, ‘Time you’ve got it you’re in a worse state than you started.’
‘Paul get like that?’
‘I told him to come live with me. I’m in my sister’s spare room. Hardly first time we’d top and tailed it. He could have studied. Gotten a grant for that, they throw all sorts at you if you’re living away from home.’
‘Was he home?’
‘Sort of. His mum died while we were off and his dad was in with this new bird, new place. Nice enough like, she was pretty tidy, but nearly the same age as us.’
‘Eesh,’ John said, ducking his head.
‘He started to get stuck on stuff from when we were out. Bad dreams. So he’d do weed, try and mellow out. Then he’d sleep in and miss appointments, that just wasn’t him. Meant he’s fighting with his dad, ‘cause they need money coming in. Whole lot just started to go sideways.’
‘Life does, sometimes,’ John said, flicking his filter and watching it fall away. He lit another.
‘He got credit to do him till the Universal stuff came in, they offer a loan, but it’s hardly enough to get to interviews. Started not wanting to come out ‘cause he couldn’t pay his way. Like we bloody cared.’
‘Favours,’ John said, nodding along.
‘Then he just went dark. No messages back, nothing on socials. That’s got a taste to it, you know?’
‘Yeah,’ John said, fingers drumming on his prosthetic. Bonny woofed into the crook of his shoulder, licking at his neck. There was a crackle of static off behind them, the sound of footsteps.
‘Found out he took a tarmac swan dive, ended up in a bag anyway.’ Simon started to cry, tears dropping away with the ash. ‘Wonder if the Council charged full rate, since he was flatpack.’
John put an arm around his shoulder, tugging him closer, ‘Nothing you could have done,’ he said, throat sore and tight like when he’d been shouting in his sleep.
‘He was my best mate, I could ‘ve,’ Simon cried, cigarette dropped as he grabbed hold of John, face buried in John’s coat.
‘Not if he wouldn’t talk, if he couldn’t recognise help. There’s nothing you could do to fix that. It’s just wiring gone wrong.’ Bonny had started to bark, up on her feet and pointed behind them, lead taut.
‘I miss him so much,’ Simon said, shaking, ‘I keep going to call him and he’s not here.’
‘Course you do - he’s your mate,’ John said, rubbing his arm up and down Simon’s back, keeping tight hold of him, ‘You’ll do him no good sat here, though.’
‘I just wanted to see what it was like,’ Simon said, a shaky, desolate laugh escaping, ‘Why it was better than my sister’s spare room.’
‘It’s not. Unless her decorating’s really bloody awful,’ John said, letting him pull back but keeping a grip on his shoulder. ‘We should go back over the other side. There’s nothing of Paul’s here.’
Simon gave a small nod, wiping at his face with the hoody sleeves, looking over his shoulder. ‘Oh, shit.’
‘They’ve been there a bit, it’s no problem,’ John said, ‘Can you stand up?’
Simon nodded, turning on his hip to loop an arm around the railing division, pulling himself up. He offered a hand and John took it, pushing against the ledge with his solid leg. Two police officers were stood a little way back from the railings, their car sat on the road.
‘You go first, then you can take this one,’ John said, lifting Bonny up by her harness. She looked at him sadly, those eyes usually reserved for vet visits. Simon swung a leg over the rails, tipping onto the walkway and taking the dog. John brought himself over in turn.
‘Thanks,’ Simon said, kneeling to pet Bonny once John was secure on both feet.
‘No bother. You’re lucky she’s in a good mood. Hates being lifted normally.’
‘Now you tell me,’ Simon said, standing.
‘Shall we go have a word?’ John asked, nodding to the police coming towards them.
‘They’ll probably want to take you to hospital. I can come along, if you want?’
‘That’d be good,’ Simon said, nodding, ‘I don’t have a dog to keep an eye on me.’
‘Can soon fix that.’