Nick drove hard and fast along the coast road to reach Cod Beck in decent time. I checked my seatbelt and looked out, past the steel frame of the oil refinery, past the dirty smoke stacks, to the grim North Sea. Fat seals lay on oil-stained sandbanks.
Last year four teenagers had died along this road when their car ended arse-up in a ditch. A tin can filled with broken bodies; blood mixing with stagnant ditch water. There were still photographs of the dead flapping away on fences.
The local paper had made a big deal about the crash. They called it a tragedy, put a picture of a sour-eyed mother on the front page and mourned the lost potential. Everyone knew the driver – he made a quid dealing drugs to kids on the estate – and I found it curious, how all sins are washed clean with death. It doesn’t really give the living any incentive to maintain an honourable life. The thought of dying didn’t scare me as long as it was quick. A torn aorta, a snapped neck, instant brain death. I didn’t want anything prolonged or disabling.
I wound the window down a little to let the salt air in. The car stunk of grease and vinegar but outside smelt worse, like rotten meat, like death, like the bowels of this place. We had stopped for chips earlier because Nick was hungry, and the leftovers had been chucked on the floor of the car.
‘Shut the window,’ Nick said.
‘I’ll just leave it open a second,’ I replied. ‘If that’s okay?’ It was important to check. He was still ruffled up from a run-in at the chip shop with a guy who’d pushed in the queue. It didn’t amount to much, a bit of trash talk and shoving, a few punches. With Nick, the most mundane components (Whitney Houston on the radio, chips nestled in paper) could nettle him.
I opened the window a crack more and fed cold chips to the wind.
‘Shut the fucking window,’ Nick said.
We had taken the coast road because the shorter route, the one through the moors, was heaving with traffic. Gypsies had hacked off a man’s cock and thrown it, and him, out along the roadside verge where he was picked up by the police, blood running down his legs and delirious with pain.
In the chip shop, I had watched the live-news cross and saw orange cones slowing down cars to a crawl, police walking two abreast along the weedy overgrowth, bagging up crisp packets and cigarette butts, their keen eyes on the lookout for a scrap of meat. There was an odd sort of revelry about it. A media helicopter swooped in lazy circles above the camp and people had brought along picnics and set up tables on the shoulder. They waited for someone to appear inside the camp, but the gypsy community had gone to ground.
We had wasted time, that afternoon, driving round a shabby industrial estate looking for some bloke called Cuzza, and when we found him he looked like the raping type. I stayed in the car, eyes forwards and breath shallow, mindful of the cricket bat lodged under the seat. I wasn’t entirely confident that I could pull it out. I worried that it would get stuck between the rails on the metal adjuster. Or that I would panic and freeze; bat in hand, at the scene of a savage beating. Watching Nick kick away at someone’s ribs, his blood oozing out in a glutinous sphere.
One spring, when I was six years old, I caught a frog in the small pond at the back of our garden and pulled off its legs. After I had wiped my slimy fingers on the grass and nudged the frog parts back into the pond, I was sure that God would strike me dead. Even now, when I prod at this memory I feel my guts tense. I knew I had no heart for proper violence.
Nick was pissed off that we were forced to scratch around for dope. There were crumbs left in the bottom of the box where we kept papers and roaches, but it was lean pickings. I normally scored from Paddy the gypo, who drank in the pub where I worked. We had a quiet agreement. He never paid for his drinks, and each week I would find a generous rectangle of gummy resin in my bag.
Paddy had a glass eye with a picture of a smiling frog in place of a pupil. It could have been disconcerting, but I saw it as a sign. Whereas some people looked out for fine white feathers as proof of angels, to confirm the innate godliness of humankind, I looked for frogs, and I found comfort in their reminder that, essentially, people are rotten.
That dismembered frog had lay heavy on me, with its little crooked legs and the frayed edges along its tubby abdomen. But the face was the worst. It had looked so resigned. I suspected that this frog, when plucked out from the algae that gathered at the side of the pond, had expected nothing more from me. And that led me to wonder – if I could commit this random act, what were other people capable of? What sat just under their skin?
My contrition condensed to guilt, which triggered action. I badgered my parents to plant reeds and grass around the grimy pond. I made a shade umbrella from an old kite skin and built elaborate bridges with rocks and sticks to help the frogs hop in and out of the water.
I caught grasshoppers and pulled worms from the soil. I arranged small mounds of stunned flies around the edges of the pond. The frog population increased, and by spring’s end I would fall asleep to a raucous cacophony. I felt that the frogs and I had come to a peaceful understanding.
For a pub trick, Paddy would ease out his frog-printed glass eye, place it on a beer coaster and rasp that he had his eye on me. I would smile and try to ignore the soft empty socket collapsing onto his beer-red cheek. Recently he had told me he was the charm, a seventh son of a seventh son, and so had the gift of foretelling the future. He told me trouble was looking for me. He told me that I should leave and that my future lay elsewhere, but I preferred existing in this half- light, in these cottonwool days.
I did the lunchtime shift, Monday to Friday, and every Saturday evening when the publican normally had some sort of entertainment booked for the regulars. A Neil Diamond lookalike, a fading comedian.
I once tried to sleep with the lead singer of a 1970s cover band. I found a benevolent monotony in this progression of everyday ritual. The froth on a head of beer, the swipe of damp cloth across sticky tables, a cylinder of coasters piled at the edge of the bar. I had a job. I earned a crust. I had neatly sidestepped all expectations of greatness, but now Paddy’s words had burrowed their way in and I was seeing the world through them.
By the time we pulled into the car park at the top of Cod Beck and locked up it was late afternoon. Nick kept a steady clip that left no room for rambling. In summer, we would take our time and walk along the deer tracks, follow the cloven dents that wound through the cypress trees. We were pretty good at picking their size and gait. Once we saw drag marks on a lone set of tracks and found our way to a large buck drinking from the shallows.
But today we were pressed for light. It was the backend of the year with clouds pulled tight and short days. I stumbled after Nick, along the gravel path that circled the edge of the reservoir. It ended at a grassy clearing just by the water’s edge. There was plenty of kindling to build a wooden tepee. I pushed in pine needles, dried leaves, twisted strands of today’s paper that I had taken from the pub and scratched the tip of a match to it. Nick rolled two fat spliffs and threw one to me.
I took a deep pull and let the dope stroke my edges. I eased myself down on the grass and lay, peaceful as a dove, content as a cat.
It was just skirting dusk when the frogs started up. Nick and I were sharing the last spliff. With our bodies wedged between the buttress roots of an oak, we could see the water dip down to meet the canola fields that bookended the gypsy camp. They had claimed a scraped-back patch of earth at the foot of the moors, beneath the power lines. If you could ignore the power lines, it looked like an abandoned pioneer settlement, the caravans forming a defensive perimeter, insulating the gypsies against outsiders. They had circled their wagons.
I stood up, joined my hands behind my head and cracked my spine. I could hear the distant whup whup of the helicopter leaving the camp and could see a train of car lights lurching along the moor road. The picnickers had long since packed away their tables and chairs. There was no sign of life from the gypsy camp and really, among all the hullabaloo and commotion, there was little sympathy for the victim. He was a gorger, found sleeping with a gypo’s wife and there would be no legal recrimination. Everyone knew the gypsies looked after their own.
I began to drag the fire, to weaken the last of the flames, when I heard a muted rummaging, a quiet shuffle through leaf debris at the side of the path.
‘Oh! Look! Nick, look!’
A hedgehog shambled towards us. It picked its way along the path, pushed its snout into mounds of fallen leaves. Nick rubbed out the joint on the oak’s root and threw it on the ground. I brushed ash and char off the leathered bark and picked up the butt.
‘We had a hedgehog that lived in our garden.’ I lowered my voice.
Hedgehogs are shy and I didn’t want to scare this one.
My hedgehog appeared in the garden during the frog spring. At night I would hear it huffle and click and the frogs would get loud as well. I always thought it was because they were having supper together. I would imagine the hedgehog rolling around in the grass, harpooning the crickets and beetles on the tips of his spines. Then he would rock up to the pond and the frogs would be so surprised, a hedgehog with a meat platter. They would line up, take turns putting their little frog mouths over a quill and slurping up a speared bug. Nick spat at my feet. He looked at me but didn’t speak. My teeth pulled at the inside of my cheeks and a nervy wind fidgeted across the water. It caught the reeds along the edge and prompted the frog song to rise in a loony crescendo. I listened for meaning in their asthmatic grunts and wheezes, their bronchial heaving and croaks, when they stopped with an abrupt silence. Nick stood up, walked over to the hedgehog and stomped on its head, over and over until it was a jellied slop, and then kicked the body onto the embers where the spines hissed and popped.
I chewed on a nail quick; I wasn’t sure how I had got here. The yeasty smell of beer on my clothes. My pockets full of cigarette butts. Everything pared back to the essentials. I looked across the water to the camp. The police were finishing up, stacking traffic cones and cramming full bags of rubbish into the boot of their cars. They were never going to find that cock.
The animals were getting ready for winter. Come dusk you would see them, foraging in the hedgerows and padding along the country roads, fuelling themselves on food scraps to increase their chances of survival.
Even the gentle hedgehog, while preferring insects, will feed on carrion if cornered by hunger.
Original illustration by Guy Shield.