Stealing Wignal by James Roderick Burns

art by Markus Spiske

RIGHT FROM THE start, I knew deep down which mallet would do the job, didn’t I, boy?  That’s right – wag your tail.  I know you can’t answer, least not in words.  Getting on a bit, like me, but we still understand each other.

I remember that morning like a picture in a prayer-book.

She was a lovely looking young lady, and very nice I’m sure.  But she had you, and I didn’t, and that wasn’t right.  Stepping out of the van for a quick recce, I knew right away there was a Wignal-shaped hole that had to be filled.  It hadn’t been long since Barbara – uh, left – and work wasn’t really keeping my mind occupied, my hands properly busy.  There was plenty of it, all right – those two sharpies in the shop could batter me down to my knees with jobs – but it didn’t quite cut the mustard.  Then along you came: bouncing by like a pug-shaped bullet, moist snout, bulgy eyes and tail wound up like a corkscrew.  Six months’ worth of love and Bonios crammed into a darling, miniaturised package.

Back in the van, I looked over my schedule for the week and saw it wouldn’t be any trouble to be here the same time every day, parked up with a sausage roll and Thermos, perhaps a copy of the Mirror in the front window.  Thinking done, I cast an eye over my tools.

They’re funny things, mallets.  Ask any upholsterer.  People think they’re just dumb bits of wood, and because they’re heavy, that they don’t have an intelligence of their own.  But in choosing the right one for the job there’s a certain calculation, and if you don’t do it right – believe me – you can be sure it’ll come back and bite you on the arse.  Take this job, for instance.  For a moment I thought about a wooden mallet, but quickly realised achieving the right sort of blow (good for a few minutes’ sleep, but not really incapacitating) wasn’t at all like smacking home dowels, so I moved along.  Dead-blow hammer?  Clearly not!  A carving mallet?  I didn’t intend to leave any marks, so that was out, too.  Finally my eye reached the end of the rack and things slid sweetly into place.  A rubber mallet; of course.  Heavy enough to deliver the old knock-out-drops, but cushioned, not so hard on the noggin.  I promoted it from the tool rack onto the front seat, covered it up with the paper.

You didn’t know anything at all about it, did you, fella?  Come here – that’s a good lad.  In my lap, you daft geezer!  You were just a pup twelve years ago, and the world was a different place.  By the brick lane that fed all the students into the high school was a row of tall hedges.  Behind them, a high row of flats.  No one ever seemed to come out of the flats, least while I was around.  The school kids kept to their side of the road, swinging bags and punching each other and yelling obscenities.  That first morning, when you and the young lady came along, I thought the pair of you looked like the king and queen of the walk.  She had a long red coat, you were in your nice navy-blue harness.  The two of you trotted by perky as you like, turned the corner by the flats.  I folded my paper and started up the van, but left the mallet where it was.

I do miss Barbara, every now and then.  She was good with you, mostly, I’ll give her that.  Heated your kibbles up with warm water (warm mind, never hot); stirred in leftover veggies and fish-skins and whatnot to liven it up a bit.  You were like a little space-heater on her lap.  I never liked that aspect, though.  Man’s dog should have some independence, a spot of dignity.  Bloody cartoon bones on your blanket.  I saw how you reacted, scrunching it up under your backside so you didn’t have to sit there like some pound-shop Mickey Mouse.  It’s a blessing, really.  What a mess.

Not like your young lady in red.  Everything fell right into place, and you were as good as gold, almost as though we’d practiced it.  She rounded the corner at the far end of the brick row, and I was already getting out of the van.  Wearing my old apron with the deep pocket in the front, I opened the side door, hunched down on my knees and rooted round in the gutter as though I’d dropped something.  As you trotted by I stood up and played the old duffer, asking if she’d be so kind as to stop a minute and help a feller find his favourite tape measure, the nice one his wife bought him for Christmas years ago.   She looped the leash round a bollard and bent over the drain.  One measured tap with the rubber mallet and she was fainting into my arms.  I laid her down between two evergreens, tucked her handbag into her fingers and popped the clasp on your collar.

‘Come on, Wignal,’ I said.  You gave me an odd look, then a grin.  I gave you a bum-bump into the side door and we were away, nice as pie.  I stopped for coffee on the way home and we shared a bacon roll.

Strange – doesn’t seem like a dozen years ago, at all.  I sometimes wonder what happened to her, who she got to jingle along on the end of that leash.  But not very often.  You’re getting heavy now.  Come on, let’s get you up onto the work-bench.  That back leg’s not just weak, I believe; it’s gone gammy.  I’m fed up of swabbing the crust out of your eyes, too.

There you are.  Now sit still while I have a think about mallets.  That’s a good boy, Wignal.  Keep still – have a Bonio.

James Roderick Burns’ work has appeared in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Flash Fiction Magazine and La Piccioletta Barca, as well as a short-fiction chapbook and three poetry collections. His story ‘Trapper’ (Funicular Magazine) was nominated for Pushcart 2020. He lives in Edinburgh and serves as Deputy Registrar General for Scotland.

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