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'The Boy in the Field' Chapters 9 & 10


spinner image illustration of a boy kneeling down looking at a black dog in a doorway
Illustration by by Nick Matej

 

Nine

Zoe

 

WHEN HER MOTHER announced that the detective was coming back to talk to them, her first thought was that they’d caught the man, but as soon as Hugh Price stepped into the kitchen, she knew they hadn’t. Her mother offered tea, which he refused, and said she’d be upstairs.

“This shouldn’t take long,” he said. “Shall we sit down?”

Her brothers chose their normal places at the table; she chose her mother’s, facing him.

“I wanted to tell you what we’ve learned so far,” he said, “and to check whether you’ve remembered anything else.”

Did it make sense, Zoe wondered, that they would remember more, not less, as the days passed?

He began by repeating what he’d told them on his first visit. Karel had finished his shift at the hospital only to discover that his bike had a flat tire. Typically he went straight home, but that morning he was meeting someone in their town. He decided to hitch. A few dozen cars passed, then a car pulled over. The driver, a man in his thirties, wore a suit. He was on his way to a meeting in Chipping Norton and would be happy to drop Karel off.

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Glancing occasionally at his notes, the detective recounted their conversation. When Karel volunteered that he worked nights at the hospital, the man said he used to work as a night watchman in London. From eight p.m. to eight a.m. he had been alone in a building meant for a hundred people. Every night he was convinced that the world had ended. When his shift finished, he would step into a deserted street. Karel was saying sometimes he felt that way when the man swore—the car was overheating—and swerved into a gateway. He got out to check the boot and reappeared, holding two empty lemonade bottles. Maybe there was a water trough in the field? The man remembered seeing cows there last year.

Who remembers seeing cows? Zoe thought.

“As they stepped into the field,” the detective went on, “some rabbits ran for cover. The man raised a bottle and pretended to shoot. Suddenly Karel was sure there was nothing wrong with the car. He wanted to bolt, but he hoped if he pretended all was well, it would be. The last thing he remembers is saying he’d go and flag down a car. We’re asking everyone to look out for a blue car, with two doors and a bent aerial.”

“Did he say what kind of blue?” Duncan leaned forward, his elbows on the table.

“Sky blue. Or maybe baby blue.”

“There was a baby-blue car.”

She recognized his meditative tone; he was seeing the car in his mind.

“When? Where?” Hugh Price had been sharing his attention between the three of them. Now he focused entirely on Duncan.

“When I went to get help. One of the cars that didn’t stop.”

“Do you remember anything else about it?”

Zoe started to protest—Duncan was only thirteen—but the detective held up his hand.

“It had a wonky radio antenna. The driver braked like he was going to stop. Then he kept going, as if he didn’t like the look of me. There was a dent in the back bumper.”

“Did you see the number plate?”

This was a stretch, even for Duncan, but, surprising her again, he nodded. “Yes, it began DUN, so of course I remembered. I can draw you a picture, if that’s any use.”

“That would be very useful. One more thing. You keep saying ‘he.’ Could you see the driver? Or did you assume it was a man?”

Once again Duncan’s face turned inward, studying his memories. “I could sort of see him through the windscreen. He had brown hair and a white shirt. I felt awful for noticing when I was meant to be getting help.”

“Don’t feel awful. Would you be able to draw the car?”

While Duncan went to fetch his sketchpad, she watched the detective write a series of numbered notes.

“Why don’t you ask the public for help?” said Matthew. “Offer a reward.”

The detective made one more note. “We don’t want to alert the perpetrator. We’ve contacted every garage within a radius of fifty miles about the car.”

“So,” Matthew persisted, “do you think the man would have picked up anybody who was hitching that morning, or did it have to be Karel? Perhaps he’d been watching him. Maybe he sneaked into the hospital car park and sabotaged his bike.”

He’s been thinking about this, Zoe thought.

“Are you interested in police work?” the detective said. “We always need recruits.”

Looking both pleased and flustered, Matthew didn’t seem to notice the detective’s failure to answer his question. “I’m going to university,” he said, “if I pass my exams.”

“We’re not prejudiced against higher education. I studied anthropology.”

“But do you think he might be right?” Zoe urged. “That the man was stalking Karel?”

Hugh Price spread his hands; it was possible, he conceded, but not likely. “No one reported a man hanging around the hospital, and Karel said the car stopped only after it passed him. We haven’t ruled anything out.”

Duncan returned, carrying several sheets of paper. It was hard, he explained, to get the boxy shape of the car right; he couldn’t remember the front bumper. The detective studied the sketches. Then he opened a folder and held out a drawing of a man looking straight at the viewer, wearing a shirt and tie. “Have you seen this man before?”

“Good drawing,” Duncan said. “You can tell his eyes are blue and a little deep set, and he has the kind of hair that never stays neat.”

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“Do you know him? Does he look familiar?”

“I don’t think so,” Zoe said reluctantly. Matthew said the same.

“He looks like the milkman,” Duncan volunteered. “Only older.”

At once she saw that the man in the drawing had the same square face, the same low brow, as the man she sometimes met on summer mornings.

“Oddly,” said the detective, “Karel’s older brother is a milkman.”

He sent Matthew to fetch their mother and, when she appeared, asked if he could take their fingerprints, to eliminate any possible confusion. He started with Duncan, then Zoe. She admired the detail that emerged from beneath each finger. These swirling lines would still be the same years from now, when she was thirty, even forty. She stepped back, ceding her place to Matthew, but the detective was putting the ink pad away.

As soon as the door closed, she turned on him. “Why didn’t he take yours?”

“He already has them.” He described how he’d gone back to the field, looking for clues, and found Karel’s St. Christopher and—

“But how could you go without us?”

“Zoe,” Duncan said, “I went. So did you.”

It was true, she thought, they had all gone back. Finding Karel was like nothing else in their lives so far.  

Ten

Duncan

 

DURING HIS BRIEF period as a Boy Scout, he had learned that the compass has thirty-two points. Now he could say with confidence that each person in his family was heading toward a different one. Matthew was spending hours with Rachel, who was pretty and principled, but not kind. Zoe was searching for something; she didn’t seem to know what, or whom. His father was nicer when he was around, but he was around less. His mother, between her cases and her ancient Greek, was always busy. Several afternoons a week he opened the front door and entered an empty house. By mid-October he couldn’t bear it.

He found his father standing on a chair in the sitting room, putting up a new curtain rod.

“We need a dog,” he said. “But after Arthur”—his father moved the bracket fractionally to the left—“ you said you never wanted another dog.” “That was how I felt then. Now I feel differently.”

He remembered every minute of the afternoon he had come home from school to find Arthur in his basket, refusing to go for a walk, or even to eat. He had sat beside him, stroking the smooth curve of his head, until Arthur was sleeping soundly. His father had promised to take him to the vet in the morning if he wasn’t better. “But I bet he will be,” he said. Duncan had gone to bed, reassured, and woken a few hours later in terror. In the kitchen he had known at once that Arthur was gone. He spent the rest of the night sitting beside him, drawing picture after picture. The next morning they had buried him under one of the laburnum trees, wrapped in his blanket.

“Let me get these screws in,” his father said. The drill whirred three times. He got down from the chair, moved it to the other side of the window, and climbed up again. “Should we look for a dachshund?”

“No. That would make me miss Arthur even more.”

On Sunday they drove to the animal rescue. Duncan had imagined it like an orphanage, barred windows, the dogs thin and miserable, the air rancid, but as soon as they came into the clean, bright room, he could tell the animals were well treated. Cats to the left, dogs to the right. Each was in its own pen, behind a grille, with a bed and toys and food and water. Each had a biography:

Charlie Boy likes children over five and regular walks.

Rita has retired from greyhound racing. She needs a large garden and a stable home.

Max gets nervous if people stare at him but is friendly.

Almost all the dogs came over to smile at Duncan; most of them stood on their hind legs. If only he could pat them, but every few yards there were signs about not touching. He walked around the U-shaped corridor, stopping at each pen, and back again. He wanted the lurcher, he wanted the terrier, he wanted the spaniel and the beagle. It would be awful to choose one and leave the others behind.

“We had a spaniel when I was your age,” his father said, bending to gaze into a pen. “Daisy. I taught her to roll over, and to fetch Dad’s slippers. Sometimes she’d meet me after school.”

Duncan knew better than to ask what had happened to her. The same thing happened to all dogs. The spaniel’s coat was brown with white markings, and she wagged her entire body, but in the next enclosure Rita, the greyhound, gazed at him soulfully. I need you. A few feet away, in the next pen, a dog with an odd, crumpled face stood on his hind legs. Choose me, choose me. After circling the room twice, he and his father agreed to return next week.

As they drove home, he asked if his father too, when he opened the front door, could tell if the house was empty.

“Sometimes,” said his father. “But sometimes it turns out I’m wrong. You’re upstairs drawing, or Matthew is listening to music. I remember after Dad died, our house seemed empty for months, even when we were all home. We were just pretending to be ourselves.”

What did that mean? Duncan thought. He pictured his father and Granny wearing masks exactly like their faces, speaking in voices that were almost, but not quite, their own.

***

HE WAS LEAVING THE NEWSAGENTS, his new pencils paid for and in a bag, when he saw the card in the window: a drawing of a dog, black, with large eyes and large paws, nicely done by someone not particularly skilled. Good Dog Free to Good Home. No phone number, but an address Duncan knew, not far away. He wrote the house number on the palm of his hand. As he walked down first one street, then another, he tried not to be hopeful. Who would get rid of a dog if it didn’t have a problem? He wished he could put into words what he was looking for: not size or age or breed (apart from no Alsatians, no dachshunds) but some kind of emanation.

At the sight of the house he checked his palm, hoping he’d got the number wrong. The front garden was thick with weeds. Moss grew between the bricks around the door; pea-green curtains sagged in the windows. Remembering the drawing, Duncan pushed open the gate. The doorbell, when he pressed it, was dead. He knocked twice.

He was bending to move a snail off the path when he heard the latch turn. Two slender feet clad in black socks occupied the threshold. “Hey,” said a voice. A boy, a little older than Matthew, was regarding him with an open gaze.

“Hey.” He set the snail down among the weeds. “I saw your notice in the newsagents, about the ‘good dog.’”

Something changed in the boy’s expression; had the dog already gone? “I don’t mean to be rude,” he said, “but is this okay with your mum and dad? Not everyone likes dogs.”

“It’s definitely okay.” He explained about Arthur and the failed visit to the animal rescue. “Why don’t you want your dog anymore?”

“I’m going to London. I can’t take care of Lily as well as myself. She needs company, regular walks.”

Lily, thought Duncan.

The boy opened the door wide and led the way down a corridor. In the kitchen a black dog, bigger than Arthur, smaller than Leo, was sitting on a tattered red rug, her front paws, not especially large, neatly together. Duncan knelt down a couple of yards away and held out his hand. Her coat was sleek, like that of a black Labrador, but her ears were pricked, like those of a corgi, only smaller. She studied him for a few seconds. Then she stood up and walked toward him, taking him in with her dark eyes. She was not a puppy but still young. She sniffed his hand, sat down, and held up her right paw. The invitation was clear. He felt the rough pads, the prick of nails. Lily emanated.

“She likes you,” said the boy. “And you seem to like her.”

“How old is she?” He squeezed her paw gently and released it.

“I don’t know. She’s an orphan. One night last Christmas I came home and she was curled up on the doorstep, shivering. She was so small she’d squeezed under the garden gate. I brought her in and fed her, and in the morning I went up and down the street, asking if anyone had lost a puppy. I put up notices. No one responded, so I decided she’d claimed me. Now she’s claiming you.”

He squatted down beside Duncan. Lily pressed her head against his knee. “I’d keep you if I could,” he said. Her dark eyes understood and forgave. “Will you let me visit her?”

“Whenever you like. When can I take her?”

“Now. I’ll walk with you to carry her basket. That way I’ll know where you live.”

Within a few minutes the boy had gathered up Lily’s basket, her biscuits and tins of food, and a small stuffed bear. He put Lily on a lead and handed it to Duncan. The three of them walked together, Lily in the middle, separating to let other pedestrians pass. The boy asked about Arthur, about the rest of his family.

“They sound nice,” he said. “I bet you’ll be coming to London one of these days. Maybe we can share Lily.”

They passed a pillar box in which Lily showed no interest. Then a deeply fascinating lamppost. Duncan asked why the boy was going to London.

“I want to be an actor. My parents don’t think I’m good-looking enough, or funny enough, or anything enough. I didn’t want to leave Lily with them. They think she’s just a dog.”

So that was why they had left so quickly: to avoid the parents. “Here we are,” he said. “I’ll write down my address and phone number.”

He watched the boy take in the tightly pruned rosebushes, the clean windows, the front door painted ultramarine, not navy, last year. He set the basket on the pavement and knelt to talk to Lily one more time. Duncan turned away to give them privacy. On a page of his English notebook he wrote down his name, his address, his phone number, and underneath, Lily’s new human. “Owner” seemed presumptuous. He tore out the page and, when the boy stood up, handed it to him.

“I don’t know your name,” he said.

“Gordon Enright, but I may change it for the stage. She has supper around six, half a tin. She likes three walks a day and lots of conversation.”

On the last sentence Gordon’s voice broke. Before Duncan could promise to take good care of Lily, he was running down the street. She started after him and, at the end of her lead, stopped. They both stood, waiting, until Gordon was out of sight.

“I’m sorry,” Duncan said. “Come on, Lily.”

The hall smelled of potatoes baking and onions frying, two things she didn’t eat but that, nonetheless, he hoped, would make her feel welcome. He bent down beside her. “We’re going to meet my parents. Don’t judge them by their first reactions. They loved Arthur, and they’ll love you.”

Still on the lead, keeping close to his side, Lily followed him into the kitchen. For once his parents were both present: his father chopping parsley, his mother stirring something. At the sound of footsteps, they turned toward the door.

“What’s that?” said his mother.

“This is Lily, our new dog.” At the sound of her name, Lily sat down in her tidy fashion and studied his parents.

“But where on earth did you get her?” said his father. “We were going back to the animal rescue.”

“From her owner, Gordon. He can’t keep her anymore.”

How could he pick up a strange dog? Did he even know what kind she was? What injections she’d had? What if she was rabid? Or vicious? During this inquisition, Lily eyed his parents calmly. Gradually they stopped hurling questions and approached. When she offered first his mother, then his father, a paw, Duncan knew she would prevail. He unclipped the lead, and she went to say hello to Zoe, who had been watching from the doorway. His sister succumbed immediately. Then Lily walked around the edge of the kitchen, stopping to examine the radiator and the ficus tree.

Could she smell Arthur? His biology teacher claimed that smells were how animals wrote letters. He imagined what Arthur might have written: Dear future dog, these are good humans though supper is sometimes a little late. His mother filled a bowl with water, his father moved a stool to make room for her basket, and he opened one of the tins Gordon had given him.

NEXT: CHAPTERS 11 & 12

 

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