Jeff darted from street to street, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, confused, sometimes frightened, sometimes absurdly absent. He stopped to catch his breath, then marched, watchful, down an unfamiliar stretch of road while trying to get his bearings. He was thirsty, his lips were cracked; he was so hot he sometimes panted. It was quiet here now, and in this residential quarter of town he sensed an atmosphere of ease, an air of sun-baked lassitude. It calmed him, but he was still lost.
He was now on a narrow lane bordered on both sides by the back yards of houses. He kept to the middle of this lane, keeping as much distance as it was possible to keep between himself and the rickety low pickets, for fear of unseen enemies leaping out and viciously breaking the hush. He thought he heard the gentle purr of a car pulling out behind him but when he followed the noise with his acutely searching ears they led his eyes downward to the manhole cover he had just walked over.
Beneath it he could hear the steady rush of water, rolling itself over and over like the waves of an ocean. Over and over it went; he listened obediently as it turned, and turned, and turned; he listened intently, relaxed, relaxing, nothing but the sound of…
“Can I help you sonny?” A voice calmly broke his floor-faced reverie. Jeff started a little. The voice came from a friendly looking old man in a ragged check shirt and jeans that were a little too large for him. So large they flapped below the knee and drew Jeff’s now trusting – now defensive – glare. He looked the old man up and down, considered his options, thought about pulling on those flares for a minute or two, then with a determined shake of the head he cantered away, looking back for fear of being followed. He disappeared around a corner.
Moments later a real car, smart and funereal looking, passed down that same quiet lane and stopped by the old man, who had gone back to tending his garden. A man and woman stepped out and approached the back gate, uncomfortably.
“Can I help you sir, ma’am?” The old man asked, secateurs in hand, ignoring again the hedge he was trying to trim. He eyed them with a little more suspicion and attention than he did Jeff. The woman looked dressed up, ready for a night out, in an elegant black dress with gleaming, unwieldy heels; but she also looked tired, as though that night were already over, had come and gone in a blink of an eye, a clap of a hand. The man – well, he was certainly dressed impressively; costumed would be a better term, he was costumed like an impresario. A vast sail of white velvet for a shirt, the shiniest and largest of gold-plated buckles on the tightest butterscotch of a belt, shoes so smoothly polished they’d bring tears of joy to the meanest of drill sergeants.
“We’re looking for my boyfriend,” the woman hastily explained, “We thought he may have come by here, I thought I saw him…”
“Young man, tired looking, about thirty?” The old man interrupted.
“Yes!” She exclaimed.
“That’s him.” Concurred the impresario, “you saw him?”
The old man narrowed his eyes a little and took in the strangeness of their combined appearance.
“You’ll find him if you turn into that corner down there. It’s a dead end and he went in about a minute ago.”
“Thank you. Thank you.” The man and woman gushed, with more than a shade of guilt-ridden gratitude; the former scrambled round to the driver side of the car while the latter tottered in beside him.
“Is he ok, your friend?” The old man asked, bending to speak through the open passenger window. “He looked a little confused? Does he need an ambulance? I can call one if you need me to?”
“No, no, he’s fine.” The woman called back. “He’s had a long night, that’s all. We all have.” And she burst into tears. The man of velvet rested a hand on her shoulder while he turned the ignition with the other, but she brushed it off angrily. The old man tried not to listen but cocked his best ear in their direction.
“You’re supposed to be professional; I can sue you for this!” She wailed.
“He should have stayed. Why didn’t you keep him there? You should have stayed with him, or run after him.” He retorted.
“In these shoes? In this dress? I’m so tired; it’s been hours. Jeff must be exhausted.”
“He was only supposed to sit, roll over, and beg for a biscuit; that’s what I told him to do, that’s what I tell all of them to do. I never told him to run away, did you hear me tell him to run away?”
“No but you burst that balloon near his head when he was still…still under and you frightened him off.”
“That wasn’t part of MY act. That was some kid in the front row playing with a balloon…”
The loose tarmac crunched as they drew away, and the old man listened to their quarrelling voices until the car swung around the corner and vanished. He stood there waiting, unable to return now to the sheer, comparative drudgery of hedge trimming. Seconds later a fresh commotion could be heard emanating from around that tantalising corner.
The woman’s voice: “Jeff will you please come here…”
The impresario’s voice: “Jeff I want you to listen to me. Are you listening to me? I want you to relax, you can hear only my voice now…”
“Please come here Jeff, come away from there, that’s somebody’s garden…”
“Jeff I’m going to count to three and tap your head and when I do…Ow! Dammit he bit me.”
“Good. Now for god’s sake will you break the stupid spell?”
“It’s not a spell, it’s a trance. Look at me, my finger’s bleeding!”
“Well you shouldn’t reach out to the top of his head; he’ll think you’re going to hurt him. You’re supposed to keep your hand below his jawline.”
The old man’s wife stepped out from the kitchen and set down a tray of juice on the wicker table by the back door. “Everything ok Robbie dear?” She asked.
He half-turned to face her, determined not to miss a single word from the fray, and silently beckoned her over. “What is it?” She whispered.
His eyes still on the corner, he leant toward her neck and whispered back: “We have got to get the dog warden out here Elsa, I mean it – we got to call him right now.”