It was Saturday afternoon, a cold and miserable October day. There was nothing on the telly, so Will took Spot for a walk down by the river.
Spot was a scruffy little mongrel, golden brown in colour, with not a single dark blemish on his entire body. Will couldn’t exactly remember why he’d called him Spot in the first place, but it hardly mattered now and at least it was a conversation piece, on those rare occasions when they encountered strangers.
Mum had repeatedly told Will, ever since he was old enough to understand, that he wasn’t to talk to strangers, not ever, but Will needed to talk to somebody and conversation was in pretty short supply around the house since Dad had died.
Mum did her best, obviously, but she spent a lot of time these days staring at the television with a tall glass of gin in her hand and a lot on her mind and Will could understand only too well why she didn’t have much to say for herself. She’d lost the love of her life way too early and she didn’t have the first idea how to make things work without him.
Will was thirteen years old and sometimes he felt around a hundred. He was an only child and he’d never thought much about it, never had any need for brothers and sisters, at least not until recently, when it was far too late. He supposed the only option was to get on with things. It was what Dad would have wanted. But it was hard not to look at the empty chair where his dad used to sit and not feel a corresponding emptiness inside him.
When he felt particularly low, Will came here to the riverbank, with its endless stretches of ragged grass and the flat gunmetal grey of the water. The water was always that colour, come rain or shine, and the place just seemed to suit his mood.
Today Spot was doing his usual routine of running excitedly ahead, bounding about like he was made of India rubber. He was short-sighted and, after a bit, there would come that moment when he realised that he was on his own. He’d slow uncertainly, start going around in circles and then he’d come belting back, anxiety written all over him, until he located Will and reassured, would go racing off again, grinning with stupid pleasure, his tongue lolling from his mouth. Will envied the dog’s enthusiasm. He couldn’t remember when he’d last felt like that about anything.
Oh, he did all the same stuff he used to. He listened to the same music on his iPod, watched the same TV programmes, played the same computer games and hung out with the same mates at school . . . but now it all seemed so . . . pointless. Why bother with any of it when your life could just be taken from you at any minute?
That was what had happened to his dad. He’d been coming home from a night shift at the steelworks on his battered old bicycle and some bloke in a Vauxhall Astra, who’d downed a couple of pints too many, had come roaring around a bend in the road at seventy miles an hour.
End of story. Finito.
People had told Will that he’d get over it in time, but it had been more than a year now and he was still dragging himself out of bed in the morning, feeling that he’d much rather stay right where he was, with the covers up over his head. And now, here it was, a Saturday afternoon, once an excuse to have fun, and he felt just plain miserable.
He trudged along the riverbank, his hands deep in the pockets of his jacket. Every so often, he stopped to look at the ramshackle old boats, mouldering quietly at the ends of their mooring ropes, but he did that only to break the monotony of walking. And after a bit, he walked to break the monotony of looking.
‘For God’s sake, snap out of it,’ he muttered to himself. It had become a familiar mantra over the past few months but it had no effect. If he heard himself, he clearly took no notice.
Will lifted his head at the sound of a bark. Spot had encountered a stranger approaching along the riverbank and was doing his usual ritual of pressing his flank against the man’s leg, wagging his stumpy tail and looking hopefully up in the expectation of a pat or a kind word. But the man who stood looking down at the dog didn’t seem all that friendly.
As Will drew closer he could see that the stranger was an odd-looking bloke, tall and thin, with long greying hair that hung to his shoulders. He was probably in his fifties, Will thought, though it was hard to be sure. The man was wearing a heavy black overcoat that hung almost to his ankles and his shoulders were humped and misshapen, as though he suffered from some kind of deformity. His hands were rammed deep in the pockets of his coat and he watched Will’s approach with blank, grey eyes. There was no expression on his face whatsoever.
‘I’m sorry about Spot,’ ventured Will, pointing to the dog. ‘Sometimes he’s a bit too friendly.’
It was Will’s regular opening ploy. Most people would come straight back with the question, ‘Why’s he called Spot?’ and the conversation would follow. But the tall man didn’t say anything; he just stood there, looking down at Will, as though waiting for him to say something else. Eventually, perturbed by the silence, Will did exactly that.
‘It’s . . . clearing up a bit,’ he said. ‘The weather . . .’
The man looked slowly around as if to verify this statement. He must have decided that it was accurate, because he grunted as if in agreement and then went back to his staring. There was an intense quality about the man’s eyes that made Will feel distinctly uncomfortable. It was as though he could see right through him into the secrets that were locked deep within.
‘It er . . . it might rain this afternoon,’ said Will. It was a stupid thing to say and he knew it, but he had suddenly become aware that this place was very remote and there would be nobody in earshot if he should need to call for help. He had his phone in his pocket, but he could easily be dead before he had dialled those three all-important digits. Memories flashed unbidden through his mind; newsreaders on TV announcing their grim statistics. The alarm was raised when the boy failed to return from his walk . . .
Will glanced over his shoulder, back to the bridge where he had descended the steps to the riverbank, and he saw that it was a lot further away than he had imagined. He decided it really was time to make a move.
‘Come on, Spot,’ he said and began to walk on by.
‘Will Booth,’ said the man, and Will stopped in his tracks. ‘Thirteen years old, currently attending St. Brendan’s High School.’ The man had a slow, lazy drawl of a voice that had almost a sing-song quality to it. He continued to stare at Will as he went on. ‘Mother, Gillian Booth, forty six years old, housewife and occasional gin-fiend.’ He paused for a moment and then carried on. ‘Dog: Spot, six years old, no known occupation, prone to being over-friendly.’ Spot gazed up at the man in evident adoration, drops of saliva raining from his pink tongue.
Will turned back to look at the man.
‘How did you . . .?’ he began, but the man lifted a hand to still him. He was looking up towards the sky now and he seemed to be concentrating.
‘Your dad says hi,’ he said. And smiled.