Six times a year Roy would make one of his short voyages. The two dogs would round up the sheep on one island of the archipelago, then they’d all set off bobbing towards the next.
As each year grew lonelier, since only dogs and sheep were in his life, Roy grew ever more reckless and drunken. Until one day, with a slight misstep, he slipped silently beneath the waves. The sheep remained bobbing above, oblivious upon the froth, the two dogs howled into the night.
Heather awoke in the cellar, the alarm clock ringing on top of the defunct refrigeration unit. She sat up stretching, fully dressed in a grey tracksuit, and from the floor came a plaintive whine.
“Beaaasst,” she yawned, and a large black and gold Alsatian appeared beside her, nuzzling elbows and licking hands.
She climbed the stairs to the bar area, nursing a coffee and lighting candles. She listened to the throbbing city behind the boarded-up windows. She paused and was still. For three years she had been living with Beast in the closed down Hermit’s Hearth Inn, her only human contact being Aziz at the 24hr Express and the occasional stray soul of the night. Humanity seemed a roaring ocean, her soul a sheltered cove. She embraced this moment of tranquil solitude… then she put down her cup and retrieved three darts from behind the till.
She passed a good hour throwing darts, lost in a ritual of dexterity. Then as the noises from outside became more drunken, she began to sing, songs from childhood, pop songs from the radio, old songs from folk nights no more. The melodies flowed, her voice hoarse but sweet. Sometimes it seemed to her that the slurred yells outside were joining her in chorus, and she would stop to listen, reassuring herself of her anonymity.
Later, when the city fitfully slept, a sudden scrabbling noise came from the fire escape. Beast prowled towards it snarling. There came a piercing creak, a squeal of nails, and the dog burst into ferocious barking. Heather grabbed a baseball bat from above the bar and stood watching as a sheet of plywood peeled away from the wooden slats. Torchlight forced its way into the dim interior and a head peeped in. Through the cacophony of howling a deep voice called out.
“Hey, who’s in there? This is the property of Roy Cormack.”
Heather whistled the dog silent.
“That’s my dad!” she yelled, “who are you?”
“You’re Heather? I’m Seb Spencer, the solicitor, executor of your father’s will, I’ve been looking for you… I’m sorry, hadn’t you heard?”
The invite was sent to ten addresses.
Four were sent to veterans of the Rotten Skulls Motorcycle Club, two to ex-wives who tore them up on sight, three landed on the doormats of the dead, and the last one to that nice solicitor who had helped so much with arrangements.
The small slip of paper within the envelope read in dexterous calligraphy:
You are solemnly invited to the wake in absentia of
Roy “The Boy” Cormack.
To be held at:
Hermit’s Hearth Inn,
From 7pm, Wednesday 22nd
Below the text was Roy’s youthful face, his awkward smile frozen beneath his wild scraggy hair.
Skarp lay on his bunk, there was a clang from a distant gate, rhythmic clunking, then whizzing and clicks as the lights shut down. Skarp could not sleep, he was thinking about the invitation.
That near-forgotten face unfolding from his cousin’s hand in the visiting room. Roy the fucking Boy, the innocent air of that monster, that beautiful devious bastard! Skarp suddenly found himself smiling, memories flooded in, and schemes bubbled, he was jubilant. I won’t make the wake, he thought, but I’ll be there for the burning. Softly he began to croon.
“We are the Rotten Skulls
Thieves, thugs and ne’er do wells
Cheat the lads and charm the girls
The whole world is our hotel
We are the Rotten Skulls
Thieves, thugs and ne’er do wells
Beat the lads and take the girls
Evil bastards straight from hell”
Sally’s ribs protruded along her flank, there was a deep mournful look in her eyes, she was struck by fits of whimpering. For six days she had starved in that tight cage on the boat with her brother, watching him claw wildly at the wire, shredding himself in his frenzy. They were maddened by hunger, as they sniffed each other, tormented by cannibalistic urges. They howled into the night as the sheep lay and awaited death, bobbing helplessly upon the froth.
When someone finally picked them up, the infection had already set in, a sickly yellow swum in her brother’s eyes. It was clear that his days were few.
Sally was crushed by these terrible losses, her brother, her sheep, but above all else, her dear master. Her love for her master lay deep within her loyal heart. She had been a player in an ancient game, and he had been the master, conducting them with his whistles and waves. But he was gone, and her life lost all meaning. After the vet had done what was necessary, Sally was taken in by an elderly man who lived on the coast, some ten miles from Roy’s isolated island. He was kindly enough, but nothing could stir the broken collie from her grief.
Then one day, as she lay listlessly upon her rug, an intriguing scent rolled in on the draught. She heard a knock and the old man creaking down the corridor. Upon the door opening, a heady mix of odours entered the house. She could smell a dog, a thrilling dog, a male, but what was even more enticing was the scent of the female human. Sally lay almost still, her tail slightly wagging. She could hear the pair step into the house, and the waft of delectable musk floated with them. Then like a vision of a god of dogs, a great black and golden Alsatian strolled proudly into the lounge. Just behind him stepped a tall woman, her soft smile framed by wild scraggy hair.
“Heya girl, I’ve come to take you home.”
After the funeral, Heather settled into her dad’s last home, a farmhouse on a barren isle in the Firth of Clyde. The grey skies writhed above as she strolled out across the moorland with the two dogs, digging peat and inspecting the mouldering barns. At the cove she would stop to stare at the moored boat of her father, knocking softly against the jetty.
In the evening, once the peat-burner was billowing warmth throughout the house, she would climb up into the attic space. A few lit candles would reveal piles of papers and magazines, the traces of her father’s life, the archive of the rise and fall of Roy “The Boy” Cormack. She would dive into it, sorting letters from publications, documents from photos.
Amongst the annotated motorcycle magazines, gun catalogues, books on Norse mythology, and neo-nazi zines, there were dozens of exercise books filled with wild scrawling. The contents appeared to be journal entries, undated and barely punctuated. Deciphering the crude text, Heather uncovered tales of fights and romances, crimes and celebrations, it was the illicit story of a young hoodlum from Lea Park council estate. She was taken off guard by a boast about slicing a rival’s face with a Stanley knife, but it turned out to be one of many episodes of bloodshed. Soon she recognised a host of recurring characters in the violent drama, most notably the towering figure of Skarp, the undisputed leader of their motorcycle gang, the Rotten Skulls. He describes Skarp as a “brick shithouse on wheels”, going into detail about his fierce nature and mighty prowess with chain and knife. Skarp led the gang of youths deeper into darker deeds, until they were operating a protection racket in Portsmouth and running heroin across county lines. At night they would plague the South Coast, knocking off pubs in sleepy villages, and arcade halls in decrepit seaside towns.
A new name started appearing frequently in the text, Malak. Malak is a fucking fool if he thinks the Skulls will put up with this shit… Malaks scumbags down our street again We chased the bastards off. Then came that page in calm, straight rows, the same hand, but with unusual clarity.
We waited outside the balti Skarp Gunnar Harry and Me in balaclavas and carrying steel it was snowing and cold as a nuns tits Malaks gorilla was hanging on the door smoking a lardy the rest of the bastards were inside eating curry We waited for a good hour until they made for the door Malak was out front swaggering like a prick just as he stepped out the place that mad bastard Skarp shot forward like fucking lighting on the sheet ice right up to the door shining Little Death in his hand He shoved the knife into the neck of the fat goon and swinging out His foot kicked the door shut leaving everyone stuck inside but that rotten cunt Malak and the dying goon We stormed behind that crazy fucker and with knives and boots and fucking screams of Death We spread that bastard Malak all across the fucking pavement Skarp leaned on the door laughing like a fucking Devil those cunts inside could do nothing but stand there and watch the show We left quick but not til we saw Malaks brains run in the gutter
For Sally life had begun once again, ranging across the rugged terrain with her small pack, sniffing the fragrant winds. She led the way, mighty Beast followed, surveying the meadows. She was thrilled by the Alsatian, but she adored her new master, the tall quiet female, who strolled steadily behind, humming soothing melodies.
One day they came upon a few stray sheep, Sally immediately shot forth to round them up, but glancing back she saw that her pack had not moved. Confused, she observed her master waving and calling her, it seemed this pair did not care about sheep. At night Sally curled up in her old bed, Beast lay upon the sofa, with the human if she slept downstairs. Her master was restless, always rustling about the cottage long into the night.
Then one day Sally caught an unusual scent near the shore, it seemed to be drifting from a nearby island. Beast could smell it too, and they growled softly together, it was the faint smell of a human male, mature but powerful. Her master stood staring out at sea. For three days they smelt the same faint odour from the shore, and when they whined their master patted their heads and whispered:
“I know, I know.”
Upon his release, Skarp tracked down the solicitor Seb Spencer, ambushing him outside his office. A quick crush of Seb’s hand got him blabbing the whereabouts of Roy’s hidey-hole. Skarp had been moving ever since. He knew Seb wouldn’t shop him in, but soon his parole would be broken. He ditched the solicitor’s Audi on the dunes, and forcing the doors of a boat shed, found a dingy with an outboard motor. Cutting over the dark waters with the light of the torch dancing on the eddies, he checked the compass and worked the tiller.
Alighting upon the rocky shore, Skarp checked his map and then stole over the hinterland. As he crested the spine of the island he looked down and saw squatting there the gloomy shadow of Roy’s last home. The windows glowed orange. He paused and surveyed the terrain, he had not been expecting the place to be occupied, he must bide his time. Returning to the stolen boat he softly rowed north, finding a small islet of slippery rock near the shore. Skarp hauled the boat out of the water and bedded down beneath the stars.
He had not seen the stars clearly for eight years, he was overwhelmed by their crystalline magnificence. As the waves lapped and the icy night rolled over, many hours passed before he rested.
Skarp awoke to the sound of the seabirds bickering. He took a quick glance at his surroundings, then slid down the rocky slope into the ice-cold water and swam towards the shore. Skarp concealed himself by lying flat behind the treeless ridge, several hundred metres from the farmhouse, then out stepped a young woman, wrapped in a thick coat.
“Interesting,” he whispered.
Then that great Alsatian followed.
“Not so good”, and rolling down from his hiding place, he retreated to the sea.
The next time he saw her she was a lot closer. He was hidden on his rocky base, and she was strolling along the shore with those two dogs. As the wind lifted her long wild hair, he caught a glimpse of that sharp jawline and wide mouth and saw Roy right there. It could only be his girl, Heather.
For three days he lay hidden and indecisive, if it had been anyone else, he would have killed and burned them along with the house. It didn’t matter what deeds it took, that house must burn and all the evidence it contained. But Heather, the only daughter of Roy “The Boy” Cormack, what could be done with her? It’s true, he thought, Roy was a treacherous bastard, but death has him now. To end his bloodline seemed too heinous, even for Skarp, but that house must burn.
He saw her daily, taking the same walk along the shore, did she know he was there? Did the two dogs know? In his inertia his thoughts gave way to fantasy, he pictured himself on a Triumph chopper riding up the winding roads of a mountainous land, and there riding pinion, clinging to his leathers, sat Heather. Heather, the only child of Roy “The Boy” Cormack, his warrior blood coursing through her veins. Suddenly, he made his decision. He would go tonight, kill the dogs and burn the house. Heather, he would take.
It was a cloudy night and so dark that even Skarp found it hard to find his way. Reaching the house he stopped and listened, only the whistling wind could be heard. He thought of her lying inside, unawares. Skarp gently slid his picks into the lock, and dull clunks and scrapes answered his movements. With the faintest creaking the door opened, and he crossed the threshold.
A searing light blinded him. Howls erupted.
Before he could think, three piercing shards of pain befell him. One in his cheek, one in his neck and the last one in his eye. Wild agony sprung from the wounds, his hands leapt to his face, hitting the end of a small object lodged there, driving the spike into the bone of his socket.
After the initial white shock, a red fury rose within Skarp, and roaring like a demon he plunged forward, towards that irksome light. Then he was ravaged by another shocking trauma, tearing into his leg, peeling away flesh. His momentum pulled him forward and down, crashing headlong onto the stone floor. The light of the torch reflected off the metal rim of the animal trap, the teeth of which were cutting deep into his calf.
A dull crash resounded in his skull, and then a second came, accompanied by deep, purple agony. As the third strike bounced off his head the mad chorus of barking subsided, the light faded, and all was darkness.
Skarp awoke to gnawing pain. In a dank barn he lay, bound by heavy rope, his wriggles vexing his injuries. Turning his head he caught sight of Heather, sitting in the doorway and tending to a small fire. She was humming some sad tune of the past. Noticing that he had awoken she stood, wielding the baseball bat still sprayed with his blood.
“You told my dad you would rather burn to death than spend your life in prison.”
She paused and looked at him writhing on the pile of pallets.
“He loved you, you know, you were big brother, leader, hero, father all rolled into one. When he was young, I mean, before he screwed you over. I didn’t love you though, when I read about you. I saw only the vile thug who turned my dad into a monster… So, is it true? Would you really rather burn to death than spend your life inside?”
Skarp grinned, sighed, then lay down his head. Heather bent down and retrieved a burning brand from the fire. She began to hum again, a familiar tune, and drawing near, held the brand to the pile. As the flames began to climb the pyre, she started to sing.
“We are the Rotten Skulls
Thieves, thugs and ne’er do wells
Kill the lads and rape the girls
When we die, it’s straight to hell”
The morning after they had defeated their foe, Sally heard her master return through the back door, carrying the stench of burnt wood and meat. After the initial sensory assault receded, the collie discerned a new underlying scent, a subtle corruption of her master’s heart. Sally’s old master had possessed the same note, though in him it had been aged resinous. The sudden likeness between old and new was overwhelming, she jumped up and greeted her master with passion.
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