I wake up sweating and panting for breath and for a moment I’m not in my bed, in my house. For a moment I’m back amongst the scent of citrus and pennies and I can see pale blue eyes. Sometimes the smell is citrus and pennies, sometimes it is worse things. The things that I see before I wake up are worse. There are words for those scenes, but no words I want to use. Eventually, every night, I calm down. Eventually, every night, I go back to sleep.
On the day I find the dog I eat soup for lunch, as I do every day. I alternate between cream of chicken soup, cream of tomato soup, and chunky vegetable soup. When I don’t have soup for lunch, it’s because something has gone very wrong. At three o’clock every day I eat a tin of sardines in olive oil- I prefer the brand John West, for no real reason. The name sounds reassuring. Every day I unpeel the tin lid with its ring pull and pick up each headless fish with my bare hands and eat it down in three bites. I do this over the sink, so oil does not drip on my shirt. My mother would not approve of this, but she is not here.
Every day after my soup, I read English poetry in the garden. I have six fat books of English poetry. Poetry from anywhere east of Berlin nauseates me, and so I play it safe. After my sardines, I turn on the television and sit and don’t think until it is time for dinner. After dinner I turn on the computer and I browse the internet, looking for distraction. Once a week I order my shopping to be delivered. I have not left my house and its gardens in years.
I am not an old man, but I feel like an old man. In my country if you are my age and you act this way, people know it’s because of war. I left my country. I used my father’s money to move to a place no one would know me but where I could speak the language: England. I bought a house with a garden deep in the suburbs of London, which was the only city I recognised the name of. The house is simple enough. The back garden has tall wooden fences on all sides and it is there I spend most of my time, when the weather permits. The front garden has a short metal fence at its front and a scrubby lawn. After my soup but before my sardines I am crossing the living room to collect one of the books of English poetry before I retire to the garden, to listen to distant trains and birdsong. English poetry, birdsong, sardines in oil: these are my vices. I glance out of the window and see the dog slumped against my front fence. It looks dead.
I put down the book and swallow several times, and then go to the window. It is definitely a dog, but not definitely dead. I step out of my front door and cross the garden to the front gate and go out and stand over the dog. It is breathing, just, and its eyes are closed. Its fur is matted and I can see the outline of its ribs under the fur like poles in a wet tent, pressing against the skin as if they are about to burst through. On its right front leg are a dozen marks, red and then black at the edges. I know marks like those. Those are the marks made when a cigarette is extinguished slowly on flesh.
I had my own dog, before the war. We were a family, mother and father and Laika and I. Almost every man my age in my country had a dog, and Laika was the most common name. Laika, like the soviet space dog. My Laika was a lithe mutt, brown speckled with white. When I said goodbye to my mother and father and they cried and held me, so proud of my uniform, Laika pressed against my calf and I reached down and touched her face. I don’t know what happened to my Laika. As I turned to leave my father pressed a volume of poetry by his favourite poet into my hand, and said “Be brave my son, be good and be brave.” He was a romantic.
The dog on the pavement is black, the size of a Labrador but with an indistinct face. No collar. She opens mud brown eyes and stares up at me, afraid. I kneel down and put a hand on her neck. Her tail thumps once and I manage not to cry. Aside from the burns on her front leg I can’t see any injuries. She looks starved and scared but she is not dead yet.
“It don’t look too well, Mr Mazur, d’you want me to call the RSPCA?”
I haven’t spoken a word in twelve years. I don’t look her in the eye- if I see a pair of pale blue eyes then the day is ruined for me: I’ll retreat to my bed and lay in the dark until I cry myself to sleep. I can’t risk seeing eyes in case they are blue. The voice is Mrs Donaldson who lives next door. She came to greet me when I first moved in and I explained with my notepad that I couldn’t speak, and had a slight nervous problem and as such could not make eye contact. She waves whenever she sees me in the front garden, taking out my bins. I wave back. I do not know what her face looks like, but she has a plump body. I half turn toward her and shake my head, and point at the dog and then at myself.
“Are you sure, Mr Mazur?” she asks. She has an accent. I don’t know where it is from. I nod, and lean down and scoop the dog into my arms. It whimpers, but does not try to move. I take it into the house and Mrs Donaldson disappears somewhere else. I clean the burns on the dog’s leg and wrap them in a bandage I find under my sink. She lies still until I am done. I pat her head and she wags her tail tentatively.
You can stay here, I think, I can give you food and warmth. I can do that, Laika.
I ordered dog food that night, and dog treats, a collar and a leash and a dog bed and an engraved name tag with my address and LAIKA written on it, and it takes weeks but Laika gets big. I can’t see her ribs anymore. Every morning I come downstairs to let her into the back garden and drink water and try to dispel the blue eyes and the lemons and the pennies and the worse things from my mind. One day, I must have ordered the wrong tin of John West’s salmon. Instead of olive oil to pleasingly loll on my tongue and coat my mouth, a single slice of lemon sits atop the fish when I pull back the lid. I cry on the floor and you come and stand next to me and the tears seep through the cracks in my fingers and you lick them from the back of my hands and then I am hugging, hugging Laika, sat on the floor sobbing.
I want to say, how did her hair smell like citrus, how did it smell so strongly?
I want to say, I’m sorry.
I want to say all sorts of things about duty and responsibility and war but I don’t believe any of them.
The next day we go for a walk, outside of the garden. I don’t know my neighbourhood, but the internet has shown me a map, and the map says there is a park maybe a minutes’ walk from the end of my street. We go, and you run and sniff at bushes. The wounds on your legs are scars now, covered in thick black hair. I sit on a bench and close my eyes and listen to the birds and you come back every few minutes and touch your face to my hands. When we go home I have my sardines, and it is past three o’clock. The sun is almost setting.
We have dinner together and watch a film about racing cars.
That night I dream about the woman with the citrus in her hair. “Be good and be brave my son,” my father said. In the dream I ask her the questions and she answers and I hurt her and I ask the questions again. The cycle repeats, endlessly. Her husband is gagged and bound and crying in the corner of the room. Blood smells like pennies. She smells like citrus. My commander tells me to ask again, to hurt again, to ask again. She is not the only one. It is not the only room where this happens, but I don’t dream about the others. I dream about her, and her husband. I dream about washing my hands in the cold water of the old sink by the wall and making eye contact with the man in the mirror, at his crumpled face, at his pale blue eyes.
I wake up drenched in sweat and it smells of citrus and pennies and something is there, on my bed, and I scream and I lash out with a fist, and the dog, my dog, my Laika, whimpers and retreats to the corner of the room.
I am awake. I am not crying anymore. Laika stares at me and I stare at Laika. I go to the dog and I go to my knees and I take her in my arms and bury my face into her fur.
Ian Green is a writer from Northern Scotland. His short fiction has been performed at Liars’ League London, LitCrawl London, and the Literary Kitchen Festival, and published in several short story anthologies. His story Audiophile was a winner of the BBC Opening Lines competition 2014, broadcast on BBC Radio 4.
The Open Pen Anthology is a collection of short stories old and new, celebrating the first five years of Open Pen magazine. Open Pen is a free short fiction magazine stocked in independent bookshops across the country. Its aim is to give a voice to fiction writers with something to say, willing to take a risk.
Paul Ewen’s Francis Plug declared the collection, “More like a shot of absinthe than a pint of boring lager.”