They finished flipping distractedly through old copies of 2000 a.d., out behind the neglected concrete garages where weeds and rust reined, and headed out towards the farm. The three boys, Jones, Hill, and Mathews, were nearly twelve and had the unmapped tundra of a Saturday morning before them. On the way to the farm they had to navigate the new estate that had been grafted onto the side of their small town. During the construction of this estate the boys had fooled about in the half-built houses, throwing eggs at the bare brick walls, and pissing on the exposed breeze-block floors. They swung on the clutched tendrils of a weeping willow until that old bloke in number 37 shouted at them to clear off.
Jones stole a bottle of milk and they passed it around to be swigged at as they talked about jetpacks and battles with oversized insects on distant planets. The estate was a geometric wilderness of flat-packed uniformity; gardens ironed into a cartoon smoothness, windows washed into eye-aching brightness, cars Sunday-polished and primed on neatly gravelled driveways. And then they reached the last house on the estate, with its abundant pear tree hanging over the wood-slatted fence. They each snatched a plump pear and sunk adolescent teeth into the soft meat, juice dribbling down over a Captain Zap t-shirt.
They weren’t intending on going to the farm; they had something to investigate that had recently appeared out that way. They crossed a dishevelled meadow where skinny dandelions had been flattened by the wind and the occasional feather of a magpie was tangled in the fingers of flowering grasses. They went under the Victorian railway viaduct and heard their voices batted back by the arched brick ceiling above them; bats or undefinable birds flashed darkly in the contained lukewarm air. Out on the other side the fields lay spread out like a chess board; hedgerows buzzing with tiny intricate lives.
There was a hidden pool down in an overgrown corner that they sometimes visited; spending sun-smeared afternoons laying siege to toads and frogs that they’d then encage in blurred tupperware boxes to be later freed or, if their luck was out, to be thrown down onto passing trains from the footbridge. But today they didn’t fancy frogging, instead they wanted to see how their sheepdog was getting on. Mathews had, a few weeks earlier, come upon the body of a black and white dog down in an overlooked fold of this field: its mouth froth-throttled around the root of a plant. Mathews had then told the other two and they’d spent an hour or so examing the canine corpse; poking at it inexpertly with tapering twigs. Its eyes were clots of curdled milk and the paw pads were like the rich underbellies of luxuriant mushrooms.
Every day over the weeks that followed they came out to see the dog; to measure the progress of its decomposition. After a week or so the stomach had split open to reveal a complicated landscape of dogtubes and twisting earthworms. Its lips had receded up over the yellowing fangs. Day by day they recorded its decay; and today when they got to it they found just a cluster of bleached dogbones reclining on a colourless smear of trodden down grass. It would be their last visit; the dog had lost its charm.They kicked the bones about and stamped down on the clenched ribcage. After, they walked back towards the park, throwing stones at the advertising hoardings, trying to hit the magnified eyes.
They discussed what would happen to them when they’d be put under the earth; the maggots rotating in their vacant skulls, snails painstakingly trailing over their underground bones. Mathews told them about a bloke who’d been buried alive, who’d known that that might happen so he’d had a phone installed in his coffin. They all ruled out cremation because of a scene in that James Bond film where Bond is strapped into a cask and fed into the flames, alive.
There were, of course, less cars on the roads in those days but they counted they ones they saw; Austin Rovers and Allegros mostly. Now and then an long-snouted Princess. They walked past the cemetary and on over the canal. The canal was carpeted in yellow and green weeds, and here and there a moorhen sluggishly glided after stranded waterboatmen. Jones had once seen a water rat down here, nosing sleekly through the accumulated detritus; the drowned chickens and plastic sacks of household slurry. Once they got to the park they looked up at the sculpted iron gateway with its complicated flowers corkscrewing around obscure symbols. Hill talked about how he’d seen his mam and his dad at it the previous Wednesday night:
“They thought they’d locked the door and that me and Diane were well asleep. But I got up for a drink and I could see them: dad was on top of mam and he was saying all this stuff and she was shouting something back. It was like they was having a scrap or something. Without their clothes on and all. His arse going up and down like the clappers and me mam still shouting stuff”
They pondered over this information and then continued on up into the park; the sky-shielding trees shading their scuffling progress. They snook into the leisure centre without paying; ducking under the counter so that the short-sighted, military-looking man who acted as the guard wouldn’t see them. They called him PC 4 and a half. They sat about on the uncomfortable seats watching the swimming lessons down in the big pool, the thick tang of cholorine irritating their noses. They then watched overweight couples in brand new tracksuits thrashing about sweatily on the badminton courts; the shuttlecock’s sedate trajectory contradicting the ugly manoeuvrings of the racket-wielders. In the cafeteria they tried to secretly budge the vending machine but were unable to dislodge a packet of cheese and onion crisps that clung to its retracted spring. They shared a can of 7-up and hung around pouring salt over the table top until the cross-eyed woman who did the serving came over and told them to leave.
Back outside the sun had slowed everything down to a satisfied dullness; women were sitting on benches reading flimsy magazines next to dozing prams and seagulls tore half-heartedly at a brace of bin bags next to the turnstile. They played around at the water fountain, spitting mouthfuls of tepid liquid at eachother, leaving drench marks on the parched concrete ground. The bowling green had been recently relayed after somebody had carved “Jock Rules!” into it with a spade one night. As they walked past they shoutingly called one another “Jock” hoping that the man who looked after the green would hear them, but nobody seemed to notice or care.
They walked up into the woods where the oak trees closed ranks and the sky was strangled into distant fragments; empty bottles of supermarket cider glinting on the floor amongst the pine cones and condoms. They beat a way through the thickening ferns and brambles until they could see a sort of clearing up ahead. As they approached they began to make out two people lying on the sheltered earth; a man with his jeans dragged down to below his exposed hips clamped between the obscenely white thighs of a hidden woman. They stared in silence as the man rythmically pistoned himself into the splayed lady. The couple’s faces were frozen in fleeting ecstacy. After they couple had reinserted themselves into their clothes and disappeared back down the hill the boys approached the spot where they’d had their sport. They found 75 pence in loose change and a used bus ticket.
None of them spoke as they left the scene, repositioning their feet over the trampled bracken. Jones digested with hollowness the fact that it had been his father there in that clearing, with that woman. Mathews tried to trail his stunned mind around the certainty that the woman on her back was his elder sister. And Hill who knew it was Jones’ father and Mathews’ sister tried to think of other boys he could talk to about this. Other friends he’d now have to make in order to share this story.