Dad never liked Mum’s dog, but he only killed it by accident. He hit it with the car in our driveway, just as we got back home from football practice. He was telling me about the Dutch team in the ’74 World Cup, when he shouted, “Jesus, fuck!” and the car bumped over something. He got out and bent down next to the front tyre on his side of the car. When I got out to look he said, “Jesus Billy, no, stay over there. You don’t want to see this. Will you fetch a box from the garage?”
When I came back he’d lit a cigarette and was standing next to the car, looking up and down the street. “I don’t think anyone saw,” he said, taking the box. He knelt down again, and, looking over his shoulder, I could see the back legs of mum’s white poodle, sticking out from under the tyre.
It hadn’t been a very nice dog. It would pee on the carpet when it was scared, and it barked at everyone except Mum. She used to take it everywhere, but the noise drove everyone mad, so she’d leave it in the back garden when she went out. When me and Dad were at football, she’d go to visit Auntie Sally down the road, so the dog must have got out while we were all gone.
“Let the brake off and roll the car back a foot will you?” Dad said.
I’d driven the car before, sitting on his knees so he could do the pedals. Only around the industrial estate on a Sunday, but I knew how to do it. The driveway was sloped, so I didn’t even have to start it. I just pulled the stick up with both hands until I could push the button in, then dropped it down as the car rolled backwards, and then pulled it back up with a crunch. I got out, and Dad stood up with the box. He’d folded the cardboard flaps down, but one of the ears was poking out the side.
“Your ma doesn’t need to know,” he said, cigarette in his mouth. “She’d only be upset.”
She’d be coming back to put dinner on soon though, so Dad put the box in the back of the car, and put the car in the garage, while I practiced keepy-ups in the drive.
“I didn’t even see it,” he said. “It just ran out. Bloody dog.” He was just unlocking the front door when Mum came through the garden gate.
“God you’re a mess,” she said to me as she went inside. “You’ll get straight in the bath!”
Dad stopped hiding the cigarette behind his back, stubbed it out on the bottom of his shoe and threw the butt towards the street.
“Come on, let’s get cleaned up,” he said. “We’ll do something with the body later.”
Mum worried about the dog all evening when she couldn’t find it. She wanted us to go around the neighbourhood looking for it, but Dad said it was always getting out, it always came back, and she shouldn’t worry. She went on her own though, but came back ten minutes later to see if the dog had come home while she was gone. She kept doing that, going out and coming back, but was never away long enough for Dad to take the car anywhere, so we just watched telly. At 10 o’clock mum told me to go to bed.
Dad stopped me as I was going up the stairs and said, “Sleep with your clothes on.”
Mum was still calling for the dog in the back garden when I fell asleep.
I woke with a hand over my mouth and a light in my face.
“Quiet now,” Dad said, and he took his hand away.
I pushed off the duvet, found my shoes and followed him down the stairs by torchlight. Dad opened the garage doors and we both got in the car. He took off the handbrake, the car rolled down the drive and onto the street. Then he started it and we drove back up the hill, past the house and turned left.
“Gave your ma a double brandy to steady her nerves, “he said. “Always knocks her out.”
He turned left again, and stopped the car by a house with a builder’s skip outside. He got out, grabbed something from the skip and put it on the back seat. Twisting round in my seat I saw an empty, wooden box.
“Saw this crate the other day,” he said, getting back in. “Thought we might find a use for it.”
It was still warm, and we drove with the windows down. I’d never seen the streets so empty. We stopped next to the park. It was darker here, with tall trees blocking the streetlights. Dad took the wooden crate and left it next to the tall, iron railings of the park. Then he opened the boot of the car and handed me the torch to shine inside. He picked up the cardboard box with the dog in it, then hooked his finger around the handle of a petrol can and picked that up too. With his hands full he couldn’t shut the boot, so he went to hand me the box.
“Ah, no,” he said. “Maybe you’d better carry the petrol.”
He gave me that, balanced the box on his leg and shut the boot. We went over to the railing and put everything down. Dad turned the crate on its side, so he could stand on it.
“Hang on to the torch,” he said, and then picked me up under my armpits and swung me over the fence.
I dropped down the other side, and he passed me the petrol can, then the box with the dog in it. He pulled himself up onto the top of the railings, swung his leg over and dropped down the other side, getting his coat caught on the spikes at the top.
“Getting a bit too old for that,” he said, reaching back through the railing to lift the crate up and over the fence after us. “This way,” he said, taking the torch back and putting the petrol can in the crate. I picked up the cardboard box.
We followed a path until we got to a bandstand, then headed across the grass. There were no streetlights and everything was dark. When we heard a screech, Dad swung the torch round and lit up a fox, standing, looking straight at us. It watched us for a few seconds with glowing eyes, then walked away.
“Cocky aren’t they?” Dad said. “That’s why we can’t just dump the body in a bin. They’d be at it straight away.”
We walked downhill until we got to the big pond. There were trees on one side of it, and a stone edge all the way round.
“Maybe it wasn’t such a bad dog,” Dad said, putting the crate down and taking the petrol can out of it. “Your ma was fond of it anyway, so we’ll give it a bit of a send-off”.
He took the cardboard box from me, and handed me the torch to hold. He tore the flaps off the top of the box and pushed them into the crate. Then he tipped the dog out of the box into the crate, and ripped up the rest of the cardboard, which went on top of the dog.
“This is what the Vikings used to do when the chief died,” he said, unscrewing the can and sloshing petrol into the crate.
The crate wobbled a bit as he lowered it into the pond, but it still floated. He stood up and took his cigarettes and lighter out of his coat. He lit one, took a long puff on it and blew out the smoke.
“May the road rise up to meet you,” he said, and threw the cigarette into the crate.
Nothing happened. He lit another one and tried again, but the crate still didn’t catch fire. It had floated away from the side a little, so he had to kneel on the stone wall and lean over to pull it back in. He splashed some more petrol into it, and then shook the can. It sounded almost empty, so he tipped the rest all over the sides of the crate. He pushed it back onto the water at arm’s length, and then with one hand on the edge of the pond he reached out with his lighter. When he sparked it, the whole crate burst into flames, and dad pulled his arm back so quickly his other hand slipped, and he went into the pond up to his shoulder.
“Jesus!” he said laughing. “Now we’re cooking.”
The whole pond was lit up by the flames. He sat cross-legged on the grass and tested his lighter. It still worked, so he lit another cigarette, and I sat down next to him. The crate floated further away, the sparks from the fire drifting up into the sky.
“See, this way,” he said, “we burn the evidence, and then it sinks.” The fire fizzed and popped as we watched it.
The smoke was black, and smelt bad, but it was blowing away from us, and the breeze was pushing the crate across the pond, until it got stuck in some weeds. The flames were twisting around, taller than me, and reaching up into the branches of the tree above it. The thinnest branches glowed red, and then fell off into the water, but then the fire started to spread across the branches and into the rest of the tree. The leaves started to burn and drift into the air.
“Jesus,” Dad said. He shone the torch into my face and then started laughing. “Have you ever seen anything like that?”
The tree was all flames now, and burning so fast it roared as it reached into the trees next to it. I could feel my cheeks getting warm.
“The dog’s gone,” Dad said, pointing the torch at where the crate had been.
The burning tree groaned, as the top of it split away and crashed to the ground, throwing sparks everywhere. It was like a bonfire.
“Oi!” we heard someone shout. “Who’s there?”
Straight away, Dad switched off the torch, and held me still. I couldn’t tell where the voice had come from.
“Run!” Dad said, and he scrambled onto his feet and took off, away from the pond.
I followed him, but once I was away from the fire I couldn’t see a thing. I tripped, skidded onto my hands and knees and pulled myself up again. “Keep up!” I heard Dad shout ahead of me, but I kept stumbling and getting spun around. I thought I’d reach the bandstand, or hit one of the paths, but I never did. When I saw streetlights up ahead, I ran towards them, and found the fence. The street on the other side was much brighter than where we’d parked. I ran beside the railings, looking for Dad or the car.
I couldn’t see a way out, until I found a bike chained to the other side of the railings. I pulled the frame tight to the iron bars and used it to climb to the top of the fence. With my hands and feet in between the spikes, I twisted myself around to climb down the other side. I got one foot onto the saddle, and was lowering myself down when the bike slipped over. I lost my grip, fell to the pavement and stumbled backwards into the road, just as the headlights of a car swerved towards me and stopped.
“Get in!” Dad shouted, and I did.
As we pulled away, I saw torchlight moving around the park, looking for us. Dad drove fast for a couple of streets, and then slowed down.
“You okay?” he said, reaching over and pulling my head around so he could see my face. “No bumps or bruises?” He was out of breath. “Jesus, I haven’t had to run that fast in years,” he said. “I should cut down on the fags.”
He didn’t say much else. We drove home a different way to when we left, so we were heading uphill to the house. Dad drove the car just fast enough so that when he turned into our driveway, he turned off the engine and lights, and the car still rolled all the way into the garage. I wondered if it had taken a lot of practice to be able to do it. He popped his door open, put a foot out of the car, and then looked back at me.
“Let’s not worry your ma with any of this, eh?” he said, with his hand on my shoulder. Then he ruffled my hair, and got out.
Click here to read James Burke on the origin of the story.
Image: “Father & Son Bonfire” by IrishFireside, licensed under under CC 2.0.
In the original idea for this story two friends accidentally kill a dog, and then decide they have to destroy the evidence. They start a bonfire at night in the park, and it runs out of control. As soon as I started writing it though, the father jumped straight into the story and took over the role of the friend. His motivations remained much the same as the child he replaced though. He avoids responsibility and loves showing off. He’s so accustomed to lying that it never occurs to him that he could tell the truth about the accident to his wife, and he only shares the truth with his son because it makes him complicit. His son is a sponge though, and while his father is a source of adventure I think he starts to realise how far he can trust him in a pinch. Maybe he’ll even have something to say for himself one day.
- Mum’s Dog - September 3, 2021
- The Diversion - November 21, 2020