I’m taking the short cut through the park when I see him under the stand of poplars. He is staring into the bushes, a dog leash minus its dog looped around his left wrist. I stroll across, swishing leaves with the toes of my boots, loud enough for him to hear. I don’t like creeping up on people.
He doesn’t stir.
‘Lost your dog?’ I say.
At first I wonder if he’s hard of hearing, but very slowly, he rotates his head until he’s looking me in the eye. Just as slowly, he curves his mouth into a smile that stretches his lips into a thin line. Without answering the question, he turns away and resumes his examination of the undergrowth.
He’s there the following afternoon, the afternoon after. I try other conversational starters: squirrels, the weather, the way the council refuses to clean out the pond. He ignores me with great politeness. I stand beside him, hands shoved into my pockets, and concentrate on the same spot. It’s just a bush: regular size, glossy leaves, no berries, no spider webs, nothing scurrying beneath. By the end of the week I can’t stand it any longer.
‘I don’t get it,’ I say.
He smiles his leisurely smile, raises his left hand and holds out the dog leash. He nods encouragingly, so I take it. He closes his eyes. Just when I think he’s going to stay that way forever, he opens them and takes a step backwards. Then he turns around and strides away, picking up speed and disappearing into the trees. The dog leash is warm from his touch. I clutch it tightly, and stare into the bush. Children shout in the play area. Ducks quack on the pond. Magpies cackle above. Little by little, the tide of sound goes out. It gets dark. It gets light again.
It might be hours, it might be days. A man appears beside me.
‘Lost your dog?’ he says.
I turn and smile, very slowly. He doesn’t understand, not yet. He will.
“What Goes On In The Bushes” first appeared in Cabinet of Heed, 2019.
IMAGE: Bill Traylor, Man and Large Dog, (On reverse: Man and Woman) c. 1939-1942. Folk Art. Poster paint and pencil on cardboard. Collection of Jerry and Susan Lauren. Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution
ROSIE GARLAND writes long and short fiction, poetry and sings with post-punk band The March Violets. Her work appears in The Guardian, Under the Radar, Spelk, Interpreter’s House, New Flash Fiction Review, The Rialto, Ellipsis, Butcher’s Dog, Mslexia, The North and elsewhere. New poetry collection ‘What Girls do the Dark’ (Nine Arches Press) is out now. Her latest novel The Night Brother was described by The Times as “a delight...with shades of Angela Carter.” In 2019, Val McDermid named her one of the UK’s most compelling LGBT+ writers. She lives in Manchester, UK.
Photo Credit: Rachel Saunders