S.P. Hannaway’s first story appeared in Litro Online in 2014. Since then his work has featured in journals such as Dream Catcher, Gravel, Brittle Star, Lighthouse and The Incubator. He’s studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths. He’s worked as an actor and lives in London.
In the Garden, A Stranger
Suddenly, it hits him.
He knows where he’s going to dig. He knows where he’s going to make the hole, the size of it, the distance down. He’ll dig it by the wall. It’s sheltered there – in the shadow of the yew.
He starts to dig. The spade feels heavy. It’s new. It shines a little in the dark. It sings out as it slices through the clay, as it strikes a stone.
And he stops. Waits.
–You know the dead sleep.
A half smile crumples his face. He’s undiscovered. Then he throws the soil to one side. He pats each lump down, each knot of earth. He wants to make the surface flat again, like before. The approach, the way to the hole, he has to make it smooth. He thrusts the spade again, into the lumpen earth, levers it up, spills it out. He looks down. How far to go? He gets down on all fours and peers into the hole. Then he drops a hand into the cavity. It’s uneven. Cold. The roots are severed.
He’s excited now. He’s on edge. He’s up on his feet again. They’re bare and dirty. He looks about, gathers the spade. He turns and slopes towards the house, along the gravel path – the way it pricks his feet, he likes it. When he reaches the back door, he stops. He blinks. It’s open slightly. It stirs a little. And there’s no light in the kitchen window. He doesn’t remember it dark. The door was closed. Fastened. The light was on. It gleamed. And all this time passing. He was in the garden with the spade. He was digging, tamping. Did he think it all up?
Out through the door comes Jonno. Out again. Down into the garden. He’s put his father’s coat on against the freeze. It hangs loosely on his bones, scratches against his neck. It swallows up his hands. He angles down the path with the bucket. It’s heavy – it’s nearly full. And he struggles a bit half way. The stones dig into his feet. He stalls. Sways. He doesn’t want to spill it.
–Bucket, he whispers.
And he grips the handle tight.
–You’re meant to be my friend!
He steadies himself and he’s off again. Not far to go. He’s nearly there. At the bottom of the garden, he stops. He dips a wary finger into the bucket. The liquid’s hot – the steam circles his hand – it’s hot, but it won’t scald.
–Clever Jonno, he mutters. Clever.
And he pours the bubbling milk into the hole. It gushes to the top, the brim – a pool of swirling white. A poured moon. He throws the bucket against the wall. He’s nervous now. He takes a step away, another, to make room for the stranger.
–Come out! he urges.
It’s both a whisper and a shout.
–Come out! Let me see your face.
Jonno knows he’s there because he’s brought him to the garden. He’s put him there. And he’s prepared the milk for him, the supper. He’s served it up.
–Come on. Take the milk. It’ll help you sleep.
Jonno waits. His eyes flit in their sockets. He looks for the stranger’s hiding place. Is it behind the ivy on the wall? Is it among the branches of the tree? He listens for a sound. A sign. And he can hear the faint hum of what? Electric? A wire trembling up above. He can hear the bark of a distant fox. The snap of a dying leaf. And nothing stirs in the garden. He looks up. And nothing moves in the sky.
He trips back to the house. Closes the door. The latch, he fastens it tight. Clicks the lights off. Every room he makes dark. And from the upstairs back window, he watches. The milk, he can see it’s less now than before. He can see it sinking, slowly. Sucked. The ground is feeding.
Jonno’s flustered. Tearful.
There’s no milk for the stranger now. There’s nothing left. And then something changes in the garden. There’s something else. Jonno sees it, he senses it. Is it a shadow moving by the wall? A creature in the night?
Jonno raps the bucket with his rod. Once. Twice. It’s his signal. Then he listens. He can hear something rooting around in the corner. And then the stranger appears. He looks uncertain. He cowers as he emerges from his hideout.
Jonno’s given him a name.
–Come here! Come quick!
But the stranger lingers.
–I’ve prepared it. It’s ready.
The stranger turns his head to look behind, wants to hide again. He’s naked. There are no clothes to fit him – Jonno couldn’t find any in the house.
And Jonno empties the bucket, fills the hole with milk – he’s put plastic down so the ground can’t drink it. And the smell – it’s sticky and sweet, it froths – it fills the night air. He sees it hit the stranger’s nostrils, the way he sniffs. He can hear the rumble in his innards.
And then the stranger makes for it. He scrambles towards the feeder. He looks awkward. He looks like he’s forgotten how to move, how his limbs work. But he gets there. And he’s panting. Jonno looks down at him. He wants to love him. But he makes him wait a little longer. Makes him want it more. He puts his stick on the stranger’s neck, steers his head closer to the hole, to the milk – so it’s just above it – his nose filling up with steam, his mouth open. He holds him there.
The seconds pass.
And the stranger drinks. He laps it up. And it splashes his face, runs down his chin. He splutters – he wants it all. He digs his elbows into the ground to get closer, legs bunched in behind him. And Jonno keeps the pressure on from above. He jabs him with the rod to keep him down. He digs it into him, through the hair on the nape of his neck. The hair sticks out, like wire, like sharp spines, and then it runs down the curve of his back to his buttocks. Jonno can see the ribs jut against the skin on either side, the haunches splay apart. He can see the pulse in the stranger’s neck, the blood pumping, the wild racing through him.
He taps him on the side of the head – it’s all it takes – the stranger flinches, backs away.
Jonno wants to learn now, wants to find out.
–Tell me what it’s like. Where you go. Tell me!
The stranger doesn’t answer, doesn’t move. He looks down. His eyes are hidden, near the ground. And Jonno watches him stall, waits for him.
Jonno taps him again on the top of the head, harder, where it hurts. And the stranger gets down lower, makes himself small – as if he’d like to make a hole, bury himself. Jonno steps in, gets closer. He grips the rod tighter. He wants an answer, wants to hear.
–McGovern, speak! Tell me what happens, what it’s like. After.
Jonno shuffles his feet. He bows his head.
–Speak to me! Tell me what you remember.
–Tell me what to do. How to think.
But the stranger shrinks away. He’s silent. He doesn’t budge. He’s too afraid.
–Just a word.
Jonno’s hunched over now, stooped. His eyes retreat, stop looking. They seem to lose their colour – ice blue, now a speckled black. And his mouth hangs open – a gaping hole. He wants to turn, escape, back to the house. But he stops. He lifts a dirty foot and kicks the stranger over. He yells at him.
–Get away! You’re nothing to me.
In the upper room, Jonno paces, to and fro, back and forth. It helps him think, helps him remember – and in the garden, a stranger. The hollow sound of shoes on the floorboards, the heavy sweep of his father’s coat, it soothes him. He has a flashlight, and he holds it tight like he did the spade. The pencil of light cuts through the room, arcs the floor as he walks. Sometimes, he stops. He waits for a sign. A word. Then he rummages in his pocket. He knows it’s there – his possession – the photo. He pulls it out. Shines the light on it. And the black and white dots make a face. It’s his father’s face. He stares at it, tries to remember it, the way it moved. He wants it to come to life, wants it to speak. How well he knows – that look away, the longing. The mouth and the half smile. The hair like wire, poking out. The wildness in his eyes. He bundles it into his pocket where it belongs – a keepsake.
In the garden, the stranger turns from the house. He creeps back to his shelter. He waits for stillness. And it comes. He can close his eyes now – he can lift his spirit up, release it – he can climb through the branches of the yew, he can clamber free.
And it’s a different world out there, outside the garden. It’s another life. There are endless lowlands and wide open fields. The cloudless sky, it’s vast, it drops down to meet him – he can reach out to it, he can touch it. And it’s night and day together. Time … it stops – it happens all at once. And his body’s different. He can find a way to move and cover ground. He can race across the land and the rivers, he can run through the trees. He’s weightless. He can leap over hedgerows. He can slide through meadows, wet grasses, thick weeds. He can scarper up the mountain slopes to where the moon sits. He can jump from a rock, like a hare. Or he can teeter on the edge, in the light.
Jonno doesn’t know what to do. There’s a stand-off in the garden. A deadlock. He gave the signal – the rap, rap, with his rod. He bid the stranger come, he bid him sup. The stranger appeared from the dark, started out. He lumbered towards the milk. But then, half way, he stopped. And now he won’t move, he won’t budge – his head bowed to the ground. And the rain comes. The rain comes down in the garden. It’s cold. It hits the stranger, startling him. He moves. He lifts his face up. He sniffs at the dampness in the air, the wet. Then he opens his mouth and takes it in, his tongue lapping up the raindrops. And Jonno watches, lost, his coat heavier, wetter. He shouts, he bawls at him.
He raises his stick. It’s a threat. A plea.
–Come! Come to me!
The stranger licks his lips. He looks over at him, his eyes not seeing. And then he makes a noise, a low sound, like a whisper.
It sounds like his name.
It feels like recognition.
–Jonno, let me go. Let me pass.
But Jonno’s mute.
–I don’t belong here. Not now.
And Jonno drops his head. The rain dribbles down his face. He can’t go back. He can’t make him stay. He mumbles something.
–You have to?
The stranger turns away, he finds his feet. He makes for the bottom of the garden. It’s muddy now but he gets there. He starts to scale the wall, clamber towards the top, towards the yew. Jonno sees the change in him, the way he moves. He rushes after. He reaches out to stop him, hold him. The hair, the wiry growth on the stranger’s back, it’s barbed, it cuts into Jonno’s hand. The blood trickles down. And the stranger, his father, he’s gone.
Jonno looks up at the sky. The stars are not where they were.