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Like Rabbits

When my husband unrolled the back door of the brewery’s lorry and hoisted first one cage, then another, onto our driveway, I said nothing. For months now, I have greeted most of his gestures with silence, and I didn’t see why this should be any different. I merely watched from the window with our two boys, Ryan and Jake. Ryan – who, at 14, is three years older than Jake and thinks himself quite the man – smirked as his little brother gave a jump of excitement and rushed to the door. But soon we were both following him out, eager to see what was in those cages.

 

Neil stood, proudly displaying his offering. On the first cage, the name BOBO was painted in scrappy green letters. Inside, a small, dun-coloured rabbit sniffed the air enthusiastically.

 

A thumping noise came from the second cage. Moving closer, I saw a flash of something black and muscled. MUFFIN was painted above this one’s door.

 

Ryan and his father lugged the cages to the back of the house and stacked them on top of one another beneath the overgrown conifers. I didn’t offer to help, despite Neil’s meaningful look in my direction. The wood on those hutches was rough, and when he’d finished I could see Ryan kneading his fingers together behind his back. No doubt he’d got several splinters, but it would have gained me nothing to question him.

 

Neil stood back. ‘They’re both bucks,’ he said. ‘I made sure of that. Don’t want them breeding like rabbits.’ A wink at Ryan. ‘So you just have to decide which one is yours.’

 

Before Jake could speak, Ryan pointed to the top cage. ‘I’ll have the black one.’

 

Neil handed Ryan a packet of small brown pellets that smelled like rancid Marmite. ‘Better get them fed,’ he said, and went back into the house. Tuesday evening was his quiz night, which left me alone with the boys.

 

I’ve always been close to both my sons. Neil sometimes accuses me of favouring Ryan, and perhaps, despite my efforts to be fair, this is true. Ryan is, and always has been, a responsible, intelligent and handsome boy. He’s broad and already as tall as me. Jake is smaller, more prone to illness, extremely shy. He looks to his brother in everything. And I always try to encourage Ryan to protect and care for Jake. Not that I have to remind him. At the age of 2, Jake suffered very badly from whooping cough. It was Ryan who would wake me in the night, saying ‘Mummy, he’s not breathing right.’ I often think that Jake might not have made it, had it not been for his brother’s watchfulness.

 

I put my arm around my eldest son and together we looked at his rabbit. Although he was still hunched at the back of his cage, Muffin was beautifully plump and shiny. Bobo, in contrast, was dull and scrawny and already nibbling pellets from Jake’s outstretched hand. There was no doubt who had the superior animal.

 

 *

 

Neil was ending a call when I walked into the hallway, and I told myself not to ask questions. There had been enough questions, and I didn’t want to think of them any more. I wanted to get on with things, to see my boys grow up happy.

 

So I handed Neil his coat.

 

‘That was a nice thing you did for the boys,’ I said.

 

Neil pushed his arms into his parka and said nothing.

 

‘I suppose it’s me that’ll end up feeding them, but—’

 

‘You don’t have to feed anything you don’t want to, Lisa.’ He glanced at me and I was reminded again of how much weight he’d lost recently. His cheeks were hollow and the skin on his neck was beginning to loosen. A few months ago when his anger with me was at its height, he’d told me he was ill and it was my fault. A specialist, he said, had diagnosed a type of heart defect that was rare and incurable. It wasn’t an immediate threat, but he had to be extra careful now. Any exertion, physical or emotional, could mean trouble. I did not believe him then, and I do not believe him now. But sometimes I wonder if my husband has got something.

 

‘You’ll be asleep before I get back,’ he said, opening the door.

 

 *

 

He hadn’t been gone ten minutes before I heard the scream. It was high-pitched, ragged, and seemed to go straight into my blood. Jake. Jake was screaming.

 

But when I rushed outside, it was Ryan who was bleeding. They were both standing by the cage. Ryan was holding his hand in the air and grimacing, and Jake was running to me now, his screams turning to sobs.

 

‘What’s happened?’ I asked. I cradled Jake to my chest, trying at the same time to get a good look at Ryan’s hand. He was so white I thought he might faint.

 

‘It was the rabbit,’ sniffed Jake, lifting his face from my bosom. ‘Ryan tried to pick it up and it went for him.’

 

Blood was dripping down Ryan’s wrist. His eyelids fluttered.

 

‘OK,’ I said, pushing Jake gently to one side and clasping Ryan’s arm. ‘Let’s have a look, sweetie…’

 

There was a gash along the back of his hand and a lot of blood, but I couldn’t see how deep the cut was. Jake was whimpering now. His brother was disturbingly silent. ‘It’s OK,’ I said again, throwing a look at the cages. The doors were closed; there was no sign of Muffin. ‘Come on. Let’s get you inside.’

 

It was only when I lifted the cotton wool out of the disinfectant and pressed it against Ryan’s hand that I realised I was shaking. It may have been this that caused me to put too much pressure on the cut. Whatever it was, Ryan cried out, finally, and I was relieved to hear him make some noise. ‘Jesus, Mum!’ he said, snatching his hand away.

 

We were in the bathroom. Ryan was sitting on the toilet lid, and Jake was hovering in the doorway, babbling.

 

‘He’s mad, that rabbit, I mean, totally crazy, we’ll have to do something…’

 

I took Ryan’s hand back and continued to clean it.

 

‘…he’s like a psycho… can’t Dad have him neutered or something?’ Jake knew all about various native species and their breeding habits. Chris Packham was his hero.

 

‘You can’t cut his balls off,’ said Ryan.

 

‘That’s enough, thank you,’ I said. ‘I think Jake’s got a good point, actually.’

 

‘He’s scared, that’s all,’ said Ryan. ‘It was my fault. I put my hand in the cage too quickly.’

 

Ryan has always been level-headed, and forgiving to the point of self-denial. I smiled at him. ‘It’s lovely that you think that way, but, really, we can’t keep a pet that’s so dangerous—’

 

‘It’s only a rabbit, Mum,’ said Ryan, surveying me with a steady gaze. ‘I can tame it.’ His eyes are dark blue, like his father’s, and lately he’s taken to looking at me in this cool manner, as if he is seeing something new and slightly distasteful before him. I’ve been trying to turn a blind eye to it, but it is becoming increasingly difficult.

 

He pulled his hand away and inspected his wound. It was deeper than I’d thought, and I suggested going to A&E for stitches. But Ryan said it was fine; a bandage would do. I have to admit that it didn’t take much to dissuade me. It was getting late and we were all hungry. Besides, Neil had the car and I didn’t want to disrupt his quiz night.

 

‘We’ll see what your father says about it,’ I said.

 

 *

 

But when Neil came home, it was past midnight, and I was asleep. I was dreaming of Paul, and the weight of my husband’s body on the mattress snapped me awake. I was so angry that he’d woken me – after all, what had I ever had of Paul, apart from dreams? – that I pretended to be asleep, and I said nothing to him about the rabbit until the following morning.

 

He was dressing for work in the half-dark – he always leaves before the boys even get out of bed. I mentioned, casually, that Ryan had been scratched by Muffin, but it was nothing serious. I said I’d bandaged it because Ryan had been shocked and he’d needed extra attention. Neil sighed and said, ‘It’s about time that boy grew up and out of his mother’s pocket.’

 

It was such a dull and wholly expected comment that I didn’t feel the need to reply. It didn’t seem necessary to worry him – after all, he is the one who insists on being extra careful. And, if I’m honest, I was glad that Neil wasn’t a part of that night’s drama. I wanted to keep it between me and the boys. And so, over the breakfast table, I told them I’d decided that if they wanted to hold on to the rabbit, they shouldn’t mention the incident to their father, who would only overreact and get rid of the thing. Instead, they should concentrate on taming Muffin and showing their dad how good they were at looking after animals. That, I said, would really impress him.

 

 *

 

After the boys had left for school, I brushed my hair without catching my own eye in the mirror, and put a load of washing on. Neil’s work shirts always stink of beer and I find that I can hardly bear to touch them, these days. Lately I’ve taken to snipping small holes in the collars and cuffs with my sharp scissors so that I have an excuse to drop the shirts in the rubbish.

 

It was Wednesday, my day off. Usually, on these days, it’s all I can do not to search for my phone. When he found out about Paul, Neil confiscated it, and sold all our computers. He may have binned the phone, but I’d be surprised. Neil doesn’t throw away valuable things. He might hide them (but where? I can only think he’s buried the thing somewhere in the garden, charger and all), but he would never destroy them.

 

At least, I tell myself, Paul isn’t one of the doctors. When I first started working as a receptionist at the local surgery, that’s exactly what Neil would joke about. Watch out for those doctors. Always wanting to examine you. Putting you at ease with their bedside manners. Fatal. He suggested I wear longer skirts and keep my glasses on at all times. Sometimes he would call in to the surgery unannounced, saying he just wanted to get a look at me. But I knew, even then, that he was checking I hadn’t changed my outfit in the toilet.

 

I didn’t cut Neil’s shirts. But I didn’t hunt for my phone, either. Instead I went to see Muffin, taking a baby carrot as bait, and wearing a pair of Neil’s thick leather gloves.

 

It was one of the first days of autumn and the morning air came cold through my blouse. The grass was still damp and the starlings were making their unholy racket. I felt the chill through my thin pumps. Soon it would be time for bulbs. Every year, since Ryan was born, we’ve planted rows of tulips and crocuses together. My heart sank as I realised that this year, Ryan would probably feel himself too big to help me, and no doubt his brother would soon follow suit.

 

Beneath the shade of the trees, I could see Bobo in his hutch. His teeth gripped the water bottle and he guzzled some liquid, making the chicken-wire door shake. His bowl of food was empty. There was no sign of Muffin. His bowl was still overflowing with pellets, which meant that Ryan must have filled it earlier.

 

I swelled with pride for my boy: he’d managed to go back and feed the creature, despite yesterday’s attack.

 

With one leather-gloved finger, I tapped the top cage. ‘Muffin,’ I called, my voice strange and slight in the unpeopled garden. ‘Come on now. Come and see what I’ve got for you.’

 

I stood there for a long time, waiting for the rabbit to appear. Below, Bobo took another drink. ‘Muffin,’ I said, ‘where are you?’

 

A black shape moved at the back of the cage, then was gone.

 

‘I saw that,’ I said. ‘Don’t make me come after you, now.’

 

There was a muffled thump from inside the boxed-in compartment that I already thought of as Muffin’s private ‘house’.

 

I stuck the carrot through the wire and wiggled it a bit. ‘If you come out, there’s something waiting for you. Something nice and tasty.’

 

By this time, Bobo was scrabbling at his wire with his claws. It made a terrible noise, tinny and raw.

 

‘If you don’t come soon, I’ll give it to Bobo.’

 

I waited. Slowly, Muffin hopped into view. He was smaller than I’d remembered, and completely black apart from the ring of white around his dark iris. His nose and whiskers pulsed invitingly.

 

I wiggled the carrot again, and he lifted his head.

 

‘Come on now. We can be friends,’ I said, moving closer, ‘can’t we?’

 

The rabbit’s ears shivered.

 

‘Ryan says you’re scared. There’s no need to be scared of me.’

 

His ears shivered again, as if blown by a long, loving breath. Then he came to the wire, clenched the carrot between his teeth, and retreated.

 

 *

 

As I walked back to the house I glowed in triumph: Muffin had come to me. Then a noise made my spine straighten. It sounded like the muffled ting! of my phone. Holding my breath, I stopped and listened. It couldn’t be. The battery would have died weeks ago. But there it was again. Ting! In my elation, I found a spade and dug into the earth beneath our biggest rose bush, still wearing Neil’s gloves. The dirt there looked more freshly disturbed than the rest of the flowerbed. I worked up quite a sweat, but discovered only worms, stones, the dried husks of bulbs. I leant on the spade and tried to hear the sound again, but there was nothing.

 

As I showered, I thought of Paul. Or rather, I thought of Paul’s words on my phone. I couldn’t think of his body – although I tried – because we’d never met. I’d seen pictures of him, of course, but they were so few, and I had looked at them so often, that it was difficult, now, to make them come alive in my imagination.

 

The site on which Paul and I met was called CREATED: Creative People, Connected. I wasn’t sure if I was a creative person but I knew I wanted to be connected. Share your hopes, your dreams, your life the banner said. After I’d been using the site for a while I realised it should have read ‘lives’, because this is what CREATED enabled you to do: live as many lives as you could take.

 

In his avatar Paul looked solid if a little startled, as if someone had taken the picture without his permission. He was wearing a wax jacket and plaid shirt, his cheeks were rosy. His profile said he loved the outdoors, in all its guises.

 

It wasn’t long before we were sending daily emails, which later become four or five texts a day. I’d hesitate to call anything we sent to each other pornographic. But we had reached the stage of texting photos of body parts. Or, at least, I had. Nothing too outrageous. Your lips, Paul would text, and I would fire off a photo of me kissing the screen. Yes. Such beauty, would come the reply. I hardly know where to begin with such beauty. And then: Your tongue. Or: Your skin. Any part of it. And on it would go, Paul issuing his demands and my body responding, gratefully. I took my phone everywhere. It nestled in my pocket, ready to go ting!. I’d spend hours longing for that joyful little sound. Ting! Here it comes, life itself. Ting! Here he is, revealing himself to you, slowly, in paragraphs. Ting! Open sesame.

           

 *

 

For the rest of the week, I watched my sons tend to their rabbits. Ryan, always patient, would don the gloves whilst Jake held Muffin’s door open. Quickly, Ryan would fill his rabbit’s bowl; Jake would close the door, leaving Ryan standing there, trying to coax Muffin out of his hiding place. I said nothing about my triumph with the rabbit. I told myself that I didn’t want to encourage Ryan to go too far, too quickly. I also had an idea that, one day soon, both boys would come home from school to find Muffin in my arms, contentedly letting himself be stroked. I would run my hand firmly along his sleek back, his ears would shiver, and the boys would gasp in wonder.

 

I looked forward to Wednesday, when I would be alone with Muffin again.

 

 *

 

Most nights I don’t sleep well. I keep listening for that ting!, replaying Paul’s words in my wakeful brain; and when I rise, he is with me still, like a hangover.

 

But, I tell myself, this is better than nothing.

 

One night, not long after my triumph, I stole downstairs after lying awake for hours. I couldn’t find Neil’s gloves, and I didn’t want to wake anyone by searching for them, so I just pulled my coat over my pyjamas and went out into the garden. The moon was full and I could see my way across the lawn to the conifers. Everything smelled different at this hour. Fresher. A low grunt made me jump – hedgehogs in the privet. Stifling a laugh at my own nervousness, I stood by the cages, waiting for Muffin. There was a whiff of wood and dirty straw, something warm and fetid coming from the hutch. I thought about whispering into the dark, sharing all my secrets with the rabbit. If he’d moved towards me, I might have done that. I might have pressed my lips to the wire. But he didn’t. And so I opened the cage and offered him my naked hand. I heard – but didn’t see – Muffin hop out of his house. There was the tiniest tickle on my outstretched fingers. It took me a moment to realise that the rabbit’s whiskers were flickering on my skin.

 

Suddenly, it came to me. Rabbits dig. Perhaps Muffin could help me. Perhaps that old feeling of breathless anticipation could be possible again. Perhaps I could rise in the morning and there would be hope for new words from Paul.

 

‘Muffin,’ I hissed, bending towards him. ‘Where has he buried my phone?’

 

Muffin’s face was close to mine. His wet eyes shone in the darkness.

 

I stood for a long time, breathing with the rabbit.

 

 *

 

The next day, the idea seemed only faintly ridiculous. Whilst I knew that rabbits weren’t like dogs – you couldn’t train them to track and unearth lost or hidden things – I felt that, in some indescribable way, Muffin knew something of my life.

 

As I was readying myself to get out of bed, Neil appeared.

 

‘How’s Ryan getting on with Colonel Woundwort?’ he asked.

 

‘Good,’ I said.

 

‘Has the beast let him pick him up yet?’

 

‘I’m not sure.’

 

‘Because it’s pointless, isn’t it, keeping a rabbit that won’t be touched.’ He sat on the end of the bed and began pulling on his jumper. ‘Maybe we should just get rid of it.’

 

A quiet, but completely involuntary, grunt of pain came from my throat. I could not allow Neil to take this from me, too.

 

‘How’s your heart?’ I asked, by way of retaliation.

 

He stopped, his head halfway through the neck of his jumper like a shy turtle’s. Then he regained his composure. ‘You know how it is. We just have to be careful, that’s all.’

 

I knew that an appeal on the boys’ behalf was my only hope. Neil would never listen to my pleas. So I said, ‘Ryan loves that rabbit. He’s so good with it. He’s been trying to tame it all week…’

 

‘I know someone who’ll take it off our hands. If we decide that’s the best thing.’

 

I sat up. ‘Who?’

 

He stood and checked his reflection in the mirror. ‘Guy named Vince. He’s a professional.’

 

‘A professional what?’

 

He sighed. ‘I’m sure it won’t come to that,’ he said, looking at his watch. ‘Keep an eye on it, though, yeah? We don’t want any more accidents.’

 

 *

 

As he was leaving for school, I caught Ryan’s arm. ‘How’s it going with Muffin?’ I asked.

 

He shrugged. ‘Most of the time he just ignores me.’

 

‘Your dad mentioned something about someone who could take him.’

 

Jake, who was still eating his toast, looked up. ‘Take him where?’

 

I’d worked out my lines in advance. ‘You can keep Bobo. There’s no question of that. It’s just Muffin. Because he’s a bit… temperamental, isn’t he?’

 

‘But I love Muffin, too!’ said Jake.

 

Ryan and I exchanged a glance.

 

‘I know, sweetie. But Dad says there’s no point in keeping a pet that won’t be touched.’

 

Jake’s mouth screwed down at the corners. ‘Pets aren’t just for touching! That’s not the point!’

 

As I’d known he would, Ryan stepped up to the challenge. He stood squarely before me and announced, ‘I’ll tell Dad I’m going to tame him. He’s only a rabbit.’ His dark blue eyes rested on mine and, although his look was still one of cool appraisal, my blood warmed.

 

‘You do that,’ I said.

       

 *

    

That afternoon, as soon as the boys got home from school, they went straight to the cages at the bottom of the garden. From the window, I watched as they worked together, fetching the feed, unhooking the water bottles and refilling them from the butt. Jake opened Muffin’s cage for Ryan and I smiled. Muffin had come to me, and he would do so again. There was nothing Neil could do about it.

 

But instead of quickly filling the rabbit’s bowl then retreating, Ryan kept his hand in the cage. Immediately, I jumped up and opened the back door, ready to stop him. I managed, however, to take a breath and tell myself to wait a moment; Ryan would withdraw his hand soon; Muffin would make no move towards him. Then I saw, discarded on the grass, Neil’s gloves.

 

My son had his unprotected hand in that cage.

 

As I sprinted across the lawn, the screaming began. Loud enough to wake the dead, is how Neil might have described it. And it wasn’t Jake who was screaming this time. It was Ryan.

 

When I reached the cage, my son was still screaming. There was blood in globs on the straw and down Ryan’s hand and arm. The cage door hung open and I could see the dark shadow of the rabbit inside. I slammed it shut, then turned to Ryan. I’d started to say, ‘It’s all right, I’m here, it’s all right,’ when I saw that the top of his middle finger was missing.

 

My stomach lurched but I took hold of myself and put my arms around my boy. ‘Where is it?’ I asked, knowing from tales at the surgery that if you could get the finger to the hospital quickly enough they could sew it back on.

 

Ryan just shook his head. He’d stopped screaming but was taking huge panicked gulps of air. Sweat stood proud of his nose and chin.

 

‘Breathe,’ I said, ‘just breathe.’ He took a deep, shaky breath. ‘Where’s the rest of your finger, Ryan? Where is it?’

 

I was looking in the cage but could see only blood.

 

All this time, Jake stood, trembling and pale. I thought he was about to go down, so I told him to sit on the grass before he fell, and then I slotted Neil’s gloves onto my hands. I opened the cage and reached in.

 

‘What have you done with my son’s finger?’ I bellowed, searching in the bloodied straw. ‘Where is it?’

 

Muffin shuffled into view and fixed me with his blank eye.

 

‘Mum, shut the cage!’ cried Jake.

 

I stared at the rabbit. The rabbit stared at me. I put my hand in again and parted the straw, throwing it over my shoulder until there was none left. Muffin stayed exactly where he was.

 

Then there was a loud thump behind me. Ryan had fainted. On the grass, Jake sobbed.

       

 *

    

A man named Vince came. I watched from the window as he leant his bicycle against the privet hedge and removed the clips from his soft tweed trousers. In his bicycle basket was a small Jack Russell who appeared to be asleep.

 

I told the boys to stay inside. Ryan’s hand was bandaged and he was wearing one of those plastic finger protectors. The doctor who’d stitched him up said he could probably get it reconstructed when it had healed. It would mean physio and a bit of effort on Ryan’s part, but it would get better. And – blimey – what a story he’d have to tell! He’d whistled as he’d said that.

 

Ryan kept tapping his rigid finger on things: the wall, the table, his chair, the side of his own head. It was driving Neil crazy. But since the accident, they had grown closer. Neil had even suggested that Ryan join him for his quiz night. The boys know nothing about Neil’s supposed heart defect, but it was as if father and son were both wounded, now.

 

Ryan stood behind me, tapping the doorframe. ‘Who’s that?’ he asked.

 

‘I think he’s come for Muffin,’ I answered.

 

None of us had fed Muffin since the day of the accident. That’s what we called it. Not an attack, but an accident.

 

‘Good riddance,’ said Ryan, and he stumped up to his bedroom.

 

Jake appeared at my side. ‘Is he going to take Muffin away?’ he asked.

 

‘I think so,’ I said.

 

And before I could stop him, he was out of the door and jogging across the back lawn to where the men stood beneath the conifers.

 

I followed.

 

Vince was rolling up his sleeves and handing Neil his watch.

 

‘Go back inside,’ Neil said to Jake.

 

‘What are you doing?’ asked Jake, his face pink.

 

Placing his hands on his knees, Vince stooped down and peered at my boy. ‘We’re getting shot of this troublesome bunny,’ he said, patting Jake on the shoulder. His voice was soft, his breath slightly laboured; his eyes were cloudy. ‘No need to worry, son. He’ll be taken care of.’

 

‘Are you going to tame him?’ Jake asked.

 

Vince shot a look at my husband, and then he said, ‘In a way.’

 

We all stood back as Vince opened the lock on Muffin’s cage. In his hand, he had something that looked like a chubby stick of liquorice.

 

He put his hand in the cage, just as I had done. It was a small hand, red and chafed, but it looked sturdy, unshakable. In his fist, the treat hung loosely.

 

‘Come on, then, Muffin my boy. Let’s see you.’

 

As Muffin hopped forward, Vince nodded to Neil, who held open a brown hessian sack that he’d produced from somewhere. Vince grabbed the rabbit by the neck and wrenched it into the open air. This all happened quicker than a breath.

 

Vince stood with Muffin dangling from his hand. The rabbit’s long ears were pinned back and its legs were floppy with fear. Even its beautiful black fur seemed to have lost its lustre.

 

‘Let me look at him.’

 

I hadn’t noticed that Ryan had joined us until he spoke. There was something detached and measured in his voice that made him sound like his father.

 

Vince lifted the rabbit higher and Ryan stepped forward with a determined grin, as if he were going to examine the creature.

 

The rabbit writhed and Vince shook it so hard that I flinched. ‘Not so impressive now, eh?’ he said.

 

Ryan moved his face close to Muffin’s so they were eye to eye. Instinctively I reached out to stop him, but Neil said, ‘Let him look.’

 

Then Ryan reached into his pocket. At first I thought he had some kind of light that he meant to shine in Muffin’s eyes; I suppose I was still thinking of him examining the rabbit. Before I’d even realised he was holding my sharp scissors, Neil had caught Ryan’s arm and stopped it in mid-air. What followed was a confusion of shouting and struggling, my husband trying to prise the blades from my son without cutting either Ryan or himself, Vince coming to his aide by locking his arms around Ryan’s shoulders, still with Muffin clenched in a fist, and me screaming at them both to let my boy go.

 

What Jake was doing at that point, I have no idea.

 

I only know that, in the chaos, Muffin managed to escape. From the corner of my eye, I saw a black shape somersault through the air, flop onto the grass, instantly rearrange its limbs, and dart away.

 

By the time Muffin’s tail was disappearing into the privet, Neil, Ryan and Vince had managed to disentangle themselves from one another. We all stood gaping as Jake punched a fist in the air and squealed, ‘Run, Muffin, run!’

 

Ryan tried to bolt after the rabbit but Neil held him back, saying, ‘Leave it to the expert.’

 

Jake, meanwhile, was dashing around the lawn, laughing and chanting, ‘Free at last! Free at last!’ Vince’s dog, who must have been woken by the noise, had begun to howl.

 

Ignoring them both, Vince picked his way across the grass and crouched by the hedge. Jake stopped and looked at me, a wild smile still on his face. ‘Free at last,’ he shouted again, and although I wanted to punch the air, too, I merely nodded, quickly, and smiled back at him.

 

‘When did you last cut this hedge back?’ asked Vince, clawing at the dense bush. ‘I can’t see a damn thing under here.’

 

‘He’s going to make it!’ said Jake, coming to my side. I put an arm around him and whispered, ‘Let’s hope so.’

 

Neil and Ryan began to scour the garden for Muffin, Neil joining Vince on his hands and knees by the hedge, reaching into the darkness beneath, and Ryan looking around the flower beds. As Ryan kicked over the dirt surrounding the rose bushes, I called out, ‘He’s gone. You’ll never find him.’

 

Then the dog leapt from the basket and rushed to the far end of the privet. He stood there, his whole body stiff with excitement, and began to bark.

 

We all watched as Vince dragged Muffin out by his ears.

 

 *

 

That night, I went out into the garden again and stood by Muffin’s deserted cage. Inside the house, my husband and two sons – one with some of his finger ingested by a rabbit – were sleeping. I stood very still, straining to hear that hopeful ting!, but no sound came. Somewhere beneath the earth, my phone, with Paul’s number on it and all his messages, the words that had felt like the only living things in my life over the past year or so, was buried.

 

I leant against the chicken wire and smelled the dirty straw, the blood and the food. After Muffin had been found, Neil and Ryan had held the hessian bag open and Vince had dropped the creature in and tied the top with a few swift movements. Then my husband gave him back his watch and shook his hand, and Vince cycled away, the bag swinging from his handlebars. Neil had turned to Ryan and patted him on the back. Neither of them looked my way as they went inside the house.

 

As we stood together in the garden and watched them go, Jake held my hand very tightly. When he asked me what the man was going to do with Muffin, I couldn’t tell him what I knew to be true: Vince would break the rabbit’s neck, skin it, quarter it, and feed it to his dog.

 

Now I looked at the far end of the privet and cursed that stupid creature. He hadn’t gone far enough; he’d merely reached what he’d thought was a safe place and stayed there, frozen, hoping for the best. He’d hidden, when he should have kept on running.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is a fiction writer who has published three novels, the most recent of which is Mother Island (Chatto & Windus). Her short stories have been published in various magazines including The New Welsh Review, We Love This Book and Notes from the Underground, and have been broadcast on BBC Radio 3.


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