Neither Neil nor his father enjoys walking the dog, but they do it because it makes Neil’s mother happy. They take it up to the playing fields and even though it’s a short walk from Neil’s house to the fields, all the while the dog’s choking itself on the lead, pulling them forwards, keening and slavering.
Neil’s father sets the dog free as soon as his boots touch grass and off it goes like a meteor.
‘Go on,’ Neil’s father says to the dog. ‘Get.’
Sometimes the dog will run so fast that it hurts itself. Neil will be watching it hurtle along in wide arcs and across the frozen mist he’ll hear the dog yelping because it’s run itself sore and can’t slow down. The dog is getting on in years.
When it loses itself in the thickets at the edge of the field, Neil’s father will use a dog whistle on it. Neil can’t hear the noise the whistle makes, just the air from his father’s mouth passing through it. When Neil’s father uses the dog whistle on the dog it explodes out of the wet bushes within moments.
Neil’s father gets annoyed when the dog gets lost in the thickets and he has to use the dog whistle on it. Neil can tell this because whenever that happens, the dog gets put back on its lead and taken home. By that time the dog looks like it’s smiling but only because it’s out of breath. It doesn’t understand that what’s happening to it is a punishment for being irresponsible and getting lost.
‘Good walk?’ Neil’s mother will ask when they get home.
Neil’s father says, ‘Fine,’ slipping off his muddy shoes and breathing visible breath.
They rarely talk when they’re out on the playing fields, Neil and his father. They speak through the dog. Telling it to come back before it goes into the thicket, shouting at it for wolfing down steaming piles of its own turds. It’s always a small surprise when they come home and Neil hears his father’s voice prepared for a person rather than a dog.
It’s not every night that the dog gets lost in the thicket. Maybe six times out of ten. More often than not. Neil’s mother says the dog is cursed because of how long it lives. It lives on through all the years of Neil and his father walking it in the evening, right up until Neil gets old enough to feel that walking the dog with his father is just about the last thing he’s interested in doing with his nights.
Neil spends time alone in his bedroom and he doesn’t even think of his father walking the dog and blowing the dog whistle and shouting at the dog for eating its own faeces. He fills his time up with other things. His father doesn’t push the issue. He knows boys Neil’s age have other concerns. He remembers being that specific age himself.
The dog smiles all the time, because it’s always out of breath. Something about its heart. It’s too small or too big, Neil’s not sure. But anyway, it makes the dog smile and pant every moment of the day. It even smiles when sleeping. It almost certainly smiles when it’s on its own, deep in the labyrinth of hedges and ravines that flank the playing field, but Neil doesn’t know if it still gets itself lost in there. He doesn’t even know if his father still owns the dog whistle, never mind whether or not he has to use it on the dog.
Neil’s just biding his time. He only has to wait two more years before he can move away. Twenty-four short months until the September of his eighteenth year, the start of the academic term. There’s really no point in getting too invested in his parents or the dog and what its face looks like as it courses though unknown warrens and burrows.
‘I mean,’ says Neil’s mother, ‘he’s not like some of them kids you hear about. He’s not bad as such. So sullen though.’
‘Let’s just be grateful he’s not shooting up in his bedroom,’ says his father.
He’s not shooting up. Not at all. What he’s become interested in is model armies. Working Sunday afternoons in the DIY superstore on the far side of the playing field and using his wages from there to buy whole battalions of these 1:32 scale soldiers. They come in packs and each individual soldier is putty coloured and has to be painted in minute, period-correct detail. He starts with the Napoleonic Wars Russian Army Tirailleurs. That’s the first set he buys and smuggles home under his sweaty anorak.
When you take an interest in these model armies one of the first really unfair but also really compelling things you realise about them is that the models and the paints come separate. Two separate financial transactions.
Neil paints the Tirailleurs’ trousers white and their jackets a deep blue. If you lined them up in order of completion, you would see the battalion’s appearance steadily improve, until you came to the final, glorious subject. He’s the one that convinces Neil that model armies are something for him.
‘What on earth do you get up to up there?’ Neil’s mother wonders to him as he passes her in the kitchen.
‘Oh,’ he says. ‘This and that.’
See, the other unfair and compelling realisation Neil comes to as he steadily descends into being really, really interested and invested in model armies is the inherent seediness the hobby carries. It’s not clear where it comes from, the seediness. It should be an innocent pastime, but it isn’t. He recognises the same feeling in the faces of the other customers in Carlsbad’s Hobby and Craft Emporium.
He buys and paints army after army. The 1900 North African Arab Warriors, the third Swiss Regiment Ifantry Voltigeur 1809. There are specific areas of his bedroom where each army holds sway. The ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ seventeenth Lancers commands the whole top of his wardrobe, whereas the area below the windowsill falls to the British Camel Corps, 1882. On the days he goes to school he double checks his bedroom door is firmly closed. He suspects that if the dog got in, it would be unable to control itself and would devour hundreds.
Because Neil’s getting so old and outwardly presents as a bastion of youthful responsibility, his mother and father decide there’s really nothing stopping them from having a long weekend away and leaving Neil at home to look after the house and the dog.
‘We trust you pet,’ his mother tells him. ‘And we’ll be sure to leave a list of phone numbers on the bunker. Just in case.’
‘Aye,’ says his father. ‘And mind, it’s only two nights.’
Neil spends the long weekend deep in the world of his bedroom. He buys two extra armies as a special treat, closing his eyes as he queues at the tills, picturing himself lying on his stomach on the floor, using his finest, most delicate paintbrush to colour bronze the buttons on the jacket of a Mounted German Uhlan.
‘Aah,’ he says, out loud.
His only interference the whole weekend is the daft old dog. It wakes up in the night, wanting out into the garden to piss. It whines to get into Neil’s room, then whines to get out again. He doesn’t bother walking it on the Saturday, reasoning that it’s too old to even need the exercise, but by Sunday it’s going stir crazy.
The dog doesn’t pull on the lead anymore. It doesn’t have the strength. It seems content to plod along beside Neil as they make their way to the playing field. Even when Neil sets it free, it only manages a canter.
‘Go on,’ Neil says, as he unhooks the dog from its lead. ‘Get.’
He walks the perimeter of the playing field once, his head up his arse. There are soldiers all over the field, soldiers crawling on their bellies, soldiers hiding in the trees. They all look to him for command. Onwards, he roars.
The air is thick with war, but Neil knows he is safe. The dog stops to burrow its nose into a pile of biological matter. As a younger beast it would have proceeded to flip itself over and rub its shoulders into whatever mound of foul-smelling waste it came across, but now in its dotage it can’t summon the energy.
To get in to the playing field you have to have crossed the grounds of the primary school that Neil attended when he was primary-school-aged. You have to walk over the faded hopscotch markings and past the rope obstacle course that wasn’t there when Neil attended. He enjoyed going there, it was comfortable. You were small. The chairs and tables were small and the urinals were small.
These playing fields were part of the school too, but were reserved for special events like sports days and community fetes. Neil placed third in the three-legged race when he was eight years old. His partner was Jenny Grubb. You were not allowed to choose your partner. Jenny Grubb was his best friend and worst enemy and subject of his feverish, erectionish nightmares.
The dog waddles across a patch of grass that is significant to Neil. When Neil attended this primary school, for a while the big fad among his classmates was a game called the Kissing Game. All the boys would run after all the girls, trying to corner them and, once cornered, kiss them. All the girls wanted to be caught and did not want to be caught at the same time. All the boys wanted to catch a girl and at the same time each was completely grossed out at the prospect. It was complicated, but made complete sense if you were part of it.
This is the patch of grass where Neil caught Jenny Grubb. He was on her tail. She was swerving and bobbing and turning mid-jog to look at him and show him her tongue. Neil was fast though, small and lithe. She stumbled, on this patch of grass, and he saw his opportunity. The field was squirrelly with children chasing each other. He threw out his hand.
The hood of her coat trailed out behind her. Her best coat.
He threw out his hand, and grasped.
His fingers closed around the flapping plastic of Jenny Grubb’s hood and formed a fist. The hood separated from the body of her coat and she kept running and he stood still, holding and looking at the hood. She was twenty feet away before she realise Neil was no longer following. She turned.
That was her best coat. She wasn’t Neil’s friend anymore.
All Neil sees on that significant spot of grass is a WWI Scottish Highlander grappling with a 9th New York Union Zouave. His fantasies are not historically accurate, which is the whole point of them.
The Zouavre gets the best of the Highlander and he looks up to Neil for his orders. Neil points his thumb to the ground. Finish him. The Zouavre nods and completes his grisly task.
Neil steps over them, his hands in his anorak’s pockets, and looks around the field. He sees the dog disappear into the thicket.
‘Fuck,’ he hisses, and starts to run.
It’s so overgrown at the edge of the field that he can’t see anything among the trees. The dog’s gone. ‘Benji,’ he shouts. ‘Benji!’
Benji is the dog’s name. It’s had that name forever, apart from the day they bought it from the breeder’s home. The breeder had called it Runt. Benji was the name of the dog in 1987’s Benji the Hunted, the VHS of which was a family favourite right through Neil’s childhood.
A Dervish Warrior manifests at Neil’s side. Don’t want to step on any toes, he says, but have you considered using the old whistle on the mutt?
Great idea Muhammad. Just fantastic thinking.
The dog whistle hisses when he blows it. Any second Benji will explode from the undergrowth, just like Neil remembers him doing. Any second now.
Maybe another quick blast? suggests the Dervish.
Neil gives the dog thirty whole seconds and then he can’t wait any longer. He nods to the Dervish and fights his way into the bushes.
The Dervish salutes. Bravest commander I ever fought under.
In between the trees and bushes and hedges and brambles Neil keeps his cool. He would never ask his men to do something he wasn’t prepared to do himself. The ground slopes away beneath him as he struggles through the greenery and he steps into a seam of wetness and is on his back, sliding.
The undergrowth deposits him into the bottom of a narrow ravine. A tiny burns gurgles along beneath him. Harsh rocks burrow into his spine and all the sections of his brain meld and mix among each other. He puts out his hand and feels grass and mulch.
He says, ‘Christ Benji.’
He must have knocked the tyre swing as he fell, because it’s gyrating above him.
He says, ‘Christ.’
There was a day when he didn’t go to the primary school anymore where everyone at high school was talking about how someone’s big brother was able to get all some drink. The plan was to smuggle the drink down to the ravine and drink the drink and swing on the tyre swing. Everyone who was anyone was going.
Neil wasn’t going to go. If he went, he wouldn’t enjoy himself. He was going to stay at home and watch a horror film on television.
The water on his jeans makes it feel likes he’s pissed himself. There’s a rancid whining coming upstream.
He wasn’t going to go, but found himself tying up his trainers and telling his mother there was an event on up at the school. He wasn’t going to go, but found himself hurrying over the playing field, hearing the roars of his classmates down in the ravine.
Neil gets up and staggers. Soaked through. To the bone. Follows the whine, slipping on shining stones, following the whine.
Taking the proper path down to the ravine, hearing his classmates roars. How best to enter? To make a grand entrance, announce himself, or slip among them and join conversations casually? Hey guys, it’s me, Neil. Hello guys! What’s happening? It’s your old friend Neil.
You know? Neil?
The sound’s coming from Benji, that much he’s sure about. It’s the same whine it uses to beg for hardened curls of grated cheese.
His classmates were gathered around in a circle. They were chanting and stamping their feet. Neil hung back, watching them from high up on the path.
He rounds a bend in the ravine and then there’s Benji. It’s on the bank of the stream, heckles raised, teeth showing, whining. An animal’s advancing towards it, away from Neil. A cat? But huge.
It didn’t take long for a gap to form in the ring of classmates that Neil could see through. There was something on the floor between them all. A mush of arms and legs. The tyre swing was swinging. The bottle was getting passed around, grabbed and stolen and passed around.
The wildcat saunters towards Benji. It’s as tall as Neil’s thigh, with golden fur and ears like an owl’s. Benji’s vibrating like a can on a washing machine. He’s snarling and slavering but it’s all bluster. Neil can tell.
The mush of arms and legs separated and then came together again. The classmates were singing. Neil could see a bare arse and girl’s shoes, in the air, rhythmically jerking. Hey guys, it’s Neil. You know? Your old friend Neil. From school. Where’s that famous drink at?
There’s a dark smear of earth beneath Benji’s trunk from where he’s releasing urine in fear. The wildcat make itself low. Ravenous animal fury seeps from the arse-in-the-air shape it makes of itself. Neil licks his lips and puts his hand in his pocket. The trees above the ravine are full of artillery, commandoes, omdurmen. Go on sir! they’re shouting. Show that beast what for.
And then the arms and legs on top moved away and Neil saw that it was Jenny Grubb on the ground. She was laughing and wiping the hair from her face and asking with her hand for someone to pass her the bottle of booze. She sat in front of Neil in Biology. They hadn’t exchanged more than a handful of words in the years since he severed the hood from her coat. She sat herself up and accepted the bottle and Neil watched from the path. They were all clapping for Jenny and the boy whose identity Neil couldn’t determine. His face was hot and he could tell from the pressure in his jeans that he was hard.
Dog and cat are a foot apart. Dog’s leaking all liquid from its body from all exits. Cat’s arse is wriggling in the air, winding up for the pounce. Neil’s hand finds the cold metal tube in his pocket.
He had slipped away before the crowd could notice him. He’d stolen across the playing field and back home. He’d said, ‘Fine,’ when his mother asked how the thing at the school had gone. The next day he took charge of his first army. The Napoleonic Wars Russian Army Tirailleurs. Up all night painting his men in increasingly minute and complex detail. Up all night arranging them in the historically accurate formation on his bedroom carpet. Lying on his front, legs in the air, sending them to war. Getting good enough to give each individual soldier an expression, a personality.
Go on sir, they say. Give that beast what’s coming to it.
He puts the whistle in his mouth. His lip pangs from the cold.
He can hear the whistle.
Daniel Shand lives, works and studies in Edinburgh. His short stories were most recently published in the city’s ‘Edinburgh Review’. He is currently trying to trick someone into putting out his first novel.