The dog was still whining out on Underwood’s yard at first light. Its voice sounded like a two-toned bone flute: a pair of long, unearthly notes, low then high, low then high. Alec Stokes, twelve, was bleary and messed in the head from interrupted sleep. No good way to start the summer. When he looked out the window he couldn’t see the dog, only a beaten-up old caravan, at one look green, at another brown. It had arrived sometime in the night to settle on the nearer part of the yard by the dry-stone wall where Underwood kept a pile of rusted farm machinery. It was more-or-less outside Alec’s window.
It looked to Alec like one of the caravans his father had curled his lip at that time they’d driven out to Grandma G’s in Happisburgh. There’d been three or four of them stopped in a row in the middle of a narrow hedged-in lane. His father had had to drive through a muddy ditch to pass them. A group of men had been huddled about the lead car. Even though it had been a warm day, Alec’s father had made a point of rolling the window up and staring fixedly ahead as he guided the car back onto the bitumen. The men had watched as their car passed. Alec had felt their solid, deliberate stares press on him so hard that he thought he would be crushed.
The caravan in Underwood’s yard was pierced through the roof by a skinny flue from which a stem of smoke wisped up to the dawn. There was no car in sight. There wasn’t even a horse. It was impossible to say just how the caravan might have got there.
At the far end of the yard, which, for its dimensions, the local boys sometimes used as a football pitch, there were two people moving around. As far as Alec could see, the tall one in a blue pullover was a man and the other, who wore sagging dungarees and a pair of oversized wellingtons, was a girl. She had climbed the gate and was swinging it to and fro. The man seemed to be searching for something.
‘Jesus,’ Alec’s father said at breakfast. ‘There’ll be more of them along before dinner. And more of their bloody dogs too. I’m in half a mind to give that Underwood what for. He’s too bloody soft.’
‘Oh, they won’t last, Mike,’ Alec’s mother said. She swallowed down her tea and pursed her lips into a smile. ‘Last lot didn’t. And this lot won’t either.’
Alec couldn’t remember that anyone had ever been camped on Underwood’s yard before.
In the afternoon, Alec saw that the man in the blue pullover had ventured onto the field proper. He was cresting its high point, heading in the direction of Underwood’s farmhouse and looked to have his hands deep in his trouser pockets, as if on his way to apologise for something.
The girl was standing on the caravan’s flimsy stoop. It wobbled as she scratched first at her neck then under the sleeve of her T-shirt. Alec reckoned she wasn’t that much older than him. Flat-chested. Twelve at most. But there was something in her face that made her look like an adult. A teenager at least. It was knotted with something mean, something hard.
It was just then that the dog whined again. It hadn’t made a noise at all during the day and it was only when the girl startled at the sound of it, out of whatever daydream she was in, and turned to look in the door that Alec realised it was inside the caravan. In a moment the girl stepped up and was in. The door slapped shut behind her. She shouted something and the dog’s whine shifted pitch before it fell away altogether.
It was almost sunset when Alec next noticed the girl. He’d been reading on his bed when he heard a noise and looked out the window. The girl was wandering about the yard, still in the dungarees and wellingtons. From time to time she’d pick something up: a twig, a branch that had dropped from the pear tree, a cracked plank. He recognised the legs of his family’s old dining chairs before his mother had picked out the new set from the catalogue. He supposed his father had dumped them over the wall. He turned out the light so the girl wouldn’t see him at the window and watched her carry the load to a spot a few steps short of the caravan’s door. She dropped it then went back for more. When she was done, she arranged some of the things into a pyre and bent into it. The spring had been dry, so the fuel caught easily. The stack exploded into a flame that ballooned out as wide as it was high. It seemed to take the girl by some surprise. She stood and cradled herself away from it until it burned down. Eventually she sat herself on the caravan’s stoop, her knees bunched to her chin. From time to time she fed the fire, as if it was a pet hungry for anything it was given.
Soon after, a tractor came croaking unevenly through the yard gate. It was the same machine Alec had once seen propped up on bricks outside Underwood’s shed, a large number four painted on the wheel arch. The man was driving it. He guided it carefully between the fruit trees before coming to a stop almost at the wall.
The girl was still on the caravan’s stoop, fixed on the fire. She didn’t look up when the man stepped down from the tractor. He was in a white vest that, in the fire’s glow, looked smeared and grimy. The pullover was tied around his waist. He sat, put his hands out to warm them, then began to speak. From the distance of his upstairs bedroom, Alec couldn’t hear what the man was saying. What carried to him was the tone. It was gentle, patient. When the girl responded, her voice was shallow, indistinct. They exchanged whatever was between them, back and forth, before the man rose to argue a point. It was the single syllable words that carried clearest.
‘She’ll stay with us,’ he said. ‘I won’t let them take her.’
He had an accent that Alec couldn’t pick. It curled on the vowels and bit the end off each solid consonant. He supposed the man was talking about the dog. Whatever he’d meant, it hadn’t been enough to reassure the girl.
‘They will,’ she insisted, almost at a shout. ‘They’ll come again.’
‘Then we’ll go,’ said the man.
‘Again,’ said the girl.
She stood and kicked at the fire so hard that its embers erupted like a small volcano. The effect in the night was beautiful. The girl walked away into the darkness, deep into the yard. The man called out after her. Low, was what it sounded like. What sort of name was that? Whatever it was, calling it didn’t make her come back in.
Alec went downstairs. His father was in the armchair. His mother had stretched her legs out on the sofa, still in the skin-coloured stockings she wore every day. She pointed her toes up then down, up then down. He didn’t think he’d ever seen her bare feet. They were both laughing at a television programme, a comedy. Love Thy Neighbour. Alec laughed along with them.
That night when Alec was in bed, the seasick flicker of candles glowed through the caravan’s small window. It made a pattern on Alec’s bedroom ceiling. The voices of the man and the girl carried through the caravan’s tin walls. They weren’t just talking, but singing. But not quite singing either. Their hum and drone carried right up through Alec’s window; he felt their vibration right up to his throat, seizing him like magic. That must have been what they were doing. Magic. It was for the dog, he guessed. But no matter what they did, the animal still wouldn’t shut up.
Some days later, Alec was in town under the stilts of the market cross. Lynnie Thatcher was on Paul Harvey’s lap, her knees tight, her hands pressed together between her thighs. Ian Breen was winding up a rod. Mouse, who was Paul’s little brother, was picking the scab on his knee. Alec told them what he knew, which, even with the caravan pitched so close to his room, wasn’t much more than what the others had already worked out. Every morning the man either crossed the field on foot, or shook the tractor into life and drove it along King’s Road, taking the long way around to job on Underwood’s wheat field. He spent the entire day there, only returning at nightfall. He never showed his face in town. And the girl? She never strayed much further than the dog’s whine would let her. It was as if it had her on a rope.
‘Fucking Pikeys,’ said Paul Harvey.
‘Better watch out she doesn’t come and rob your house, Alec,’ said Lynnie Thatcher.
They all laughed in agreement and Alec felt small. What Paul Harvey said on the cross was law. He was its boss.
‘They pray,’ Alec said. He tried to make it sound like a dramatic secret. ‘They light candles at night and they pray.’
There. No one had known that.
When Alec left for home, Mouse followed him. He didn’t like Mouse so much, but couldn’t shake him. Paul wouldn’t have had it.
‘Bet you a quid the old man gives it to her,’ Mouse said when they were halfway down the lane.
The boy ran a few steps ahead and thrust out his pelvis, laughing with his hand in the air as if he was riding a rodeo horse.
‘So the old man’s not there, right?’
‘Just the girl?’
‘With the dog?’
‘Yeah. With the dog.’
When they got to Alec’s house, Mouse went to the wall and climbed over it. Alec held back, close to the house. Mouse made straight for the caravan.
‘Hey, Pikey,’ he called from the stoop.
‘Jesus,’ Alec hissed at him over the wall. ‘Leave off would you, Mouse?’
Mouse looked across to him and cut a grim smile, then stepped up to the door and banged at it with his open hand. The caravan wobbled and waved. It sounded like an animal. From inside, the dog gave out a weird aching bark. Mouse stepped back, then lifted his head and answered it with a howl. Oooooo. The dog made its noise again. It was strange and tortured. Over and over again Mouse slapped the door, howling each time, forming it into a word: ‘Pikeeey-oooo. Pikeeey-oooo.’
Alec ducked down behind the hedge and covered his ears. He only uncovered them again when he felt the nudge of a foot in his thigh. It was Mouse, laughing.
‘Get up, you gutless prick,’ he said. ‘She’s not home.’
The gang came one night in Paul Harvey’s car. Alec heard it screaming up King’s Road from town, scoring the tarmac with rubber as it passed the yard. It came again the next night, blasting the Pistols out of the stereo. When Alec heard it, he looked out of his window. The car had stopped on the verge, its headlights trained on the caravan. There were three people sitting on the bonnet. One of them was Paul for sure. And there was Lynnie. There was another one in the driver’s seat that Alec couldn’t see so well. Whoever it was gunned the engine so hard that it swamped the music. It sounded as if the air was ripping in two.
It was the roar of the engine that got the dog howling. When it warbled and moaned, Paul led the group into a whoop of victory. That’s what they’d come to hear. He picked up a full tube of beer and hurled it in the direction of the van, but his aim was off and the can flew at a low parabola, skimming off the dirt before it pinged off the hub of one of the van’s wheels. It didn’t even burst open. But it was enough to draw the man out to the door. He opened it and stood in the glare of the car’s headlights, holding out his arms as if he was on a stage.
‘Fuck off, all of you! I’ll fucking kill you if you come here again!’
The lads jeered. Someone stepped out of the car. It was Mouse. He picked up a stone from the ground and tossed it at the van with all his might. It connected with the window. The glass buckled before it shattered. A terrible shriek went up. The dog and the girl at once.
The man jumped off from the top step in full flight and Paul hustled the lads into the car. He pushed Mouse in through an open window and in a moment, the music still ripping, they tore back out onto the road and zipped away. The man was alone in the yard. He yelled after them, but this time Alec couldn’t make out what he was saying.
In the morning, Underwood’s car was stopped out on the verge. The girl was standing on the top step of the caravan again, the door shut behind her, her arms crossed over her chest. Underwood was at the foot of the steps in his coveralls, talking to her.
‘Nothing,’ the girl said. She turned her head aside to say it. She wouldn’t look at him. ‘Nothing happened. Just leave us alone.’
The broken window had been covered over with cardboard. When Underwood came closer to the girl, to the door of the van, she held her hand out.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Go away. We don’t need you.’
‘It’s a bit of sport,’ Alec’s mother said later. ‘The boys just needed to let off some steam. It’s not as if they hurt anyone.’
At the cross, everyone’s mouths were overflowing with the truths they’d heard. The man and the girl had something to hide. Maybe the girl wasn’t even his daughter. Maybe they were on the run. Everyone was certain that there was something about the dog that wasn’t right. They were hiding it. Probably doing strange things to it. Saying prayers. Chanting. Doing magic. Alec Stokes had said so. Black magic.
Alec’s father said that Underwood didn’t care what they did in the caravan. It was their own business. It had nothing to do with him. The man worked hard. He pulled his weight. At the end of summer, the crop would come in good and thick. That’s all that mattered. Alec’s father thought Underwood was too soft.
At the cross, everyone asked: have you gone to do the Pikeys yet? If you hadn’t, then what was wrong with you? Every night someone came to throw something at them. The dog became the thing. There was glory for you if you were the one who got the dog.
It was after midsummer night when Mouse brought the cricket bat with him from the cross and pushed Alec through the gate into the yard. Alec stumbled over a ditch the way he’d seen prisoners of war being treated on television. It excused him from what might happen next. Once they were in, Mouse swung the bat around as if it was a broadsword. Alec ducked to get out of its way.
‘Pikey-oooo,’ Mouse yelled out. ‘Go on,’ he urged. He nudged Alec in the shoulder as if they were best friends.
Alec wanted to go inside. He wanted to be home. It scared him to be so close to the caravan without the cushion of the wall, of his room. He wished the man and the girl would just pack it up and go away.
‘Pikey-oooo,’ Mouse called again.
Alec tried to make himself sound as much like Mouse as he could, but the word came out weak and wobbly. ‘Pikey-oooo.’
‘Pikeeey-ooooooo,’ Mouse called. He did it at the top of his voice.
Again, Alec followed. This time it was stronger.
‘Pikeeey-oooooooooo,’ they howled together.
When the dog responded, Mouse clapped Alec on the shoulder and laughed, then breathed into his ear: ‘Do it again. Keep going. But don’t move. Stay right here.’
All at once Mouse took off across the yard toward the wall. He lowered himself into a crouch. He bore the bat as if it was a rifle. He slipped into the wall’s long night-time shadow.
Alec swallowed hard. He’d lost Mouse in the darkness. This time when he opened his mouth the word came out full-throated, a thrill tightened his stomach: ‘Pikeeey-ooooooo.’
The dog howled its answer again. There, that was it. It was working. Alec gave a little laugh of triumph.
Just then, Mouse reappeared. He was at the side of the van, solid still in one moment and in the next shifting into a blur. He lifted the bat and swung it hard into the tin. It made a sick noise, as if a machine had suddenly been stopped by a monkey wrench. The van shunted forward on its wheels. The exhilaration Alec had felt just a moment before dropped into his groin and his balls tightened in fear.
‘Pikeeeey-ooooooo,’ he called from the pit of it.
Mouse pummelled the van again and again. Dints and fractures opened up in its skin.
Finally the girl came out. Alec was in her line of sight. She looked confused. She didn’t know what to attend to first: the battering or the boy howling at her from the gate? She chose Alec. She slammed the door behind her then leapt off the step and bolted at him.
Alec opened his mouth to protest, to say something that would ward her off, but then he saw that Mouse was at the door of the van. He understood now that Mouse had used him as a decoy. Mouse swung the bat one more time, this time the door caved in.
‘Oooo,’ called the dog.
‘Ooooooo,’ called Mouse.
The girl looked back to the caravan. Mouse laughed and stepped up to the door. The girl had realised her mistake. She turned and charged at Mouse. But by then he was already half inside. He’d seen what he’d needed to see and by the time the girl was even halfway back to him he had already pulled his head out again. The girl stretched and lunged to tackle him to the ground. But Mouse was too quick. He ducked, and the girl fell, her shoulder crumpling into the tin wall. Again the van shuddered. Batless now, Mouse made for the wall. His movements were smart and fluid and he stepped up onto the old engine block and leapt up and over. He was gone.
The girl lifted herself. Her face was boiling and weeping all at once and Alec set himself to stand off against her.
‘Oooo,’ he howled. ‘Oooooooooooooooooooooooo.’
He’d thought it might stop her. That he’d appear to her as the wolf from the barrows, the spirit of the place, to howl her fate at her. But the girl was the one with the stronger resolve. She came at him faster still. Alec went to water. He turned to run. But a moment later he lifted, weightless. The girl had tackled him square in the back. He felt the press of her knuckles and nails. He was flying, twisted backwards, the air pushed from his lungs. Then, a sting, like an arrow over his eye. He’d landed hard on the gate.
He tried to recover, to let his rage vent, but the girl pushed him over again, her face streaming and red, her mouth reaching for words that she couldn’t find. She let a noise fall out with a spray of spit, then turned away. The trickle of blood from Alec’s forehead was wet and warm.
The next day, Alec went to the cross, his forehead stitched and plastered shut. Everyone reached out to touch it and to admire his story. Ian did and Lynnie did and Mouse did. And Paul too. Alec hadn’t told his mother and father the truth of what had happened. Only the bare facts of having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’d been a fight with the lads, he’d said. Just some roughhousing that went a bit far. It thrilled him, though, to think that he had right on his side. The injury deserved retribution. The girl wasn’t to be pitied at all. She was as mean and as cruel as she looked. And Mouse said he’d seen the dog with his own eyes: ‘They hide it in blankets, but I saw it. I saw its eye. Red and evil. I tell you it’s a fucking monster.’
And they believed it. They all believed it.
‘We’ll get them,’ they said. ‘Yeah, we’ll fucking get them.’
Alec knew at the first rumble in his bones that they’d done it. The joints in his knees ground together and the reception on the transistor radio in his room fizzed and bent. He hadn’t wanted to look, but now that they’d done it, he couldn’t resist the spectacle. He turned to his window just in time to see the caravan being swallowed by a great mouth of flame. A tree of black smoke crowned out into the sky, turning in and over itself. All about it, the rain evaporated in a dome, and the out-of-season dullness was transformed into an unearthly tropical bloom.
They’d not wasted a moment, Paul and Ian and Lynnie and Mouse, or whichever of them had gone ahead and thrown the Molotovs. It had only been ten minutes since Alec had put the telephone down on the call to Mouse to say that neither the man nor the girl were in the caravan. That it was safe for them to come. The man had left early, as usual, and the girl, as had been her habit for a week already, had wandered off down King’s Road in the direction of the ford. He imagined she’d grown sick of the dog, had learned to ignore its neediness. It was never less than an hour before she came back. Alec had made the call while his mother was in the bath. The dog had been quiet.
The smell of it came now. It was god-awful toxic, even through the closed window. Alec supposed that they must have used it all, everything they’d collected: the gasoline, the turpentine, even the bottle of methylated spirits Alec had swiped from his father’s garden shed when Mouse had come asking for things. Everyone had had to give something.
When the tin roof fell in, it was a kind of relief. It meant that the dog would have perished already. It meant that the man and girl would have to leave. They’d have to find somewhere else to live. The van burned so bright that the sky turned to black.
Alec heard his mother’s thumping run along the hallway. He saw her come out of the house in her dressing gown, fumbling to unravel the garden hose and drag it out as far as it would go. But it barely made it to the wall. The water piped out in a weak, useless stream.
The fire was burning still when the panda car turned up. Two officers got out, a man and a woman. The woman turned up her collar against the rain and walked out into a corner of the yard. The girl was there, huddled against the wall. Alec hadn’t seen her come back. The other officer came around to Alec’s yard, where he stood with Alec’s mother, his hands on his hips. They stared at the flames together.
Soon after, the tractor announced its arrival at the end of the yard that bordered with Underwood’s field. Underwood was driving. The man was standing on the wheel arch, and as soon as they were close enough, he leapt off it at full flight. Even before he reached the yard the man called something out. It was a name. But it wasn’t the girl’s name. It wasn’t Low.
‘All-eece,’ he howled. ‘All-eece.’
When the girl heard the man’s voice, she unbuckled herself from the policewoman’s attempt to coax her up. She ran to him. The man embraced her.
Underwood climbed the wall into the yard. He took off his towelling hat, shook his bald head and wiped the rain from it. The tractor, still running, gave out an apoplectic chatter.
By the time the Fire Service pump arrived, all the way from Swaffham according to its livery, a crowd, or what passed for a crowd in Woolbury, maybe a classroom’s worth of people, had gathered on King’s Road. Mouse was there. So were Paul and Lynnie and Ian. Alec did not come out to join them. By then there was nothing to see. The shell of the van had burned completely away. Only its oxidised chassis remained.
While the firemen hosed down the ashes, the man sat on a nearby stack of bricks. He held his dirty hands to his face. The girl clung to him. Underwood was crouched beside him. Every now and then the man took his hands away from his face and stared into them.
Later, the two police officers, in their raincoats and gloves, wandered about the yard, inspecting the steaming ruins of the van. The policeman picked up bits and pieces, broken glass and blackened tin that fell into slimy black flakes in his hands. They put plastic tape up around the site.
It was only when the yard was clear, the man and the girl and Underwood and the crowd all gone, only the woman constable who’d held onto the girl remaining to keep watch, that Alec’s mother came to his room.
‘They asked about you,’ she said, with an unusual softness. ‘Do you know anything about this, Alec? I told them you’d been up here all morning. Hadn’t left your bed. They’ll want to be speaking to you though.’
‘No,’ Alec said. ‘I don’t know anything.’
The house was steaming and meaty ahead of teatime and it was properly dark outside when the doorbell chimed. The porch light came on and Alec heard his mother’s voice through the floor, warbling something, then her footfall up the stairs. She cricked open his door. He’d been waiting for it.
‘They’re here,’ she said, gravely. ‘Now tell them what you know.’
He’d expected them to take him away in handcuffs, the way he’d seen it on The Sweeney. But when they sat down, the same two officers who’d been there in the yard in the afternoon, tired-looking now, the woman rubbing at her eye, they looked more like visitors who’d come in for a rest on their long journey. Alec wondered who was standing guard in the yard. They each took a cup of tea. The woman rested hers on the table beside her folders and papers and sat in the armchair. The man remained on his feet. He cradled the saucer in one hand and with the other lifted the cup to his mouth. The tea was steaming hot but he swallowed it down in one gulp. The woman began to ask gentle questions: ‘Do you know what happened, Alec? With the fire? We just want to know if you saw anything? If you heard anything?’
The policeman took notes. Alec denied knowing anything except what he’d seen from his room. From time to time the policeman looked impatiently at Alec’s mother, then to the door. He wanted to get his colleague’s attention. It was clear he wanted to leave. They were wasting their time. They weren’t interested in what Alec knew. Not really. A caravan had burned down. A dog had died. Who cared?
Once she’d seen the police out the door, Alec’s mother let her hand rest on Alec’s head with what felt to him like sympathy. He felt an unusual dread rise. There was something she wasn’t saying. Something she knew.
Alec went back up to his room. He lay on his bed and fiddled with the transistor radio through stations, snatching fragments of songs. He landed on the pirate station that came and went. It played music he’d never heard before.
Later, he heard the crunch of a key in the front door and his father’s unmistakable footfall in the hallway: heavy, even when he was trying for lightness. He’d been at a university conference in Brighton and wasn’t due back for days yet. Alec came out of his room and leaned over the banister to hear what they were saying.
‘They hid her,’ his mother said, half-whispering. ‘They let her burn in there.’
Her? They meant the dog?
But no. It wasn’t a dog, after all, was it? He knew it already without having to hear it. Hadn’t he known it all along? All-eece. She wasn’t a dog at all.
‘Retarded,’ said his mother. ‘Misshapen. They hid her out of shame. She barely knew how to move. Just a little girl.’
In Alec’s room, the radio was playing an old Elvis Presley song. He went back in and looked out through the window. It was dark. There was no moon. Then the song was over and the radio announcer said that the news would be next. Alec fell onto his bed and buried his face in the pillow, weeping. He didn’t want anyone to hear him. No one would ever hear him.
‘More rain tomorrow,’ said the announcer, brightly.