Ramon bites his lip as he agonises over a perfunctory hand job. We’re sitting in a swan boat chained to the pier in The Cabecera Park. You’d think he was trying to hand start a motorboat the way he’s going at it. I’ve whispered instructions into his ear. I’ve closed my eyes and thought of Jorge. The fibreglass boats are making a scandalous racket. One day they’ll break loose and escape this godforsaken place. The red graffiti on the wall says the park is for ‘good clean living.’ Happy families cruising the lake by day are unaware of these night-time happenings. The boats provide perfect cover from sporadic police patrols and rampaging neo-nazi gangs. There’s a nocturnal hook-up group for roller-skaters who rut anonymously against the bark of the jacarandas.
A solo nightwalker with a halogen headlamp casts a pale, green light over the lake. It catches the eyeshine of an animal in the long grass – a squirrel or a city fox. Hunting is illegal inside city limits, but his rifle cocks nonetheless and Ramon flinches as a shot rings out. The bullet hits its mark. The hunter circles the lake towards his kill. Ramon’s doe eyes study me for reassurance in the darkness.
‘It’s okay,’ I say. ‘You’re safe.’
He recoils from my touch and ponders the green glow. After a single, decisive nod, he delves back at my zipper opening. His hands have absorbed the cold from the fibreglass swan and the interlude has made me aware of the chafe. I push him away.
‘Don’t worry. You’ll get your money.’
The boat lists in the water and unsteadies his footing.
He rubs his hands together, offers a blowjob upgrade. I study his full lips. He can’t be a day over nineteen – a string of disappointments sit ahead of him like ducks in a row. He’s a beautiful boy with large maroon eyes that contain wonder.
The nightwalker whoops at having found his prey. There have been rumours in the press of a destitute homeless man decimating local fauna. I’m teasing a twenty from my wallet when a knife presses against my throat.
‘Give me the wallet or I’ll cut you, faggot,’ Ramon hisses.
This isn’t my first assault so I know the drill. Hand it over, no questions asked. With luck he’ll surrender my cards to spare a morning of lengthy calls and waiting in municipal buildings for replacements. A warm trickle of blood runs down my neck.
‘Your kind make me sick,’ he says.
My back seizes from the discomfort of the plastic seats. They remove the cushions at night because of thieves. Ramon looms over me like a victorious boarder. There’s nothing to do, but close my eyes and pray for clemency. The boats knock together like tumblers in a sink as he disembarks. A lightheadedness takes hold when I stand. My back aches. I’m at one with the vessel, swaying in the cool night breeze. To any casual onlooker I’m just an eccentric 70-year-old with sciatica alighting from a swan boat at 3am. After a cursory search of the bins I chalk it all up to experience and return home.
Freddy’s tail thwacks the wooden chair legs while I cancel the cards. He’s ready for his morning walk. He’s a lean greyhound with an insatiable energy that requires constant alleviation. His big wet eyes get me every single time.
‘Oh, all right,’ I say, grabbing his lead from the coat hooks.
We pass through the atrium at Abastos where I issue a respectful nod to police officers in blue polyester trousers. There is also a school here where kids normally fuss over Freddy and he rolls over to let them have their way with him, but today he moves with swift purpose. There’s a long stretch to the Parque del Oeste – along the interminable Avenida del Cid lined with sun-bleached Spanish flags. It’s my fault Freddy is almost caught short. We’re late this morning, but at least credit cards have been cancelled, new ones issued (not for the first time). The phone operator was young and courteous – she probably saw my date of birth and took great pity on a dithering old fool with a misplaced wallet.
When I unclip Freddy, he sprints the final fifty metres.
Some teens blast reggaeton from a huge Bluetooth speaker, as Freddy’s doing his business in the designated area, his little body trembling with effort. I allow him his privacy and ponder the mounted F86 sabre bound for the sun like a silver Icarus. Afterwards Freddy darts among the trees where he gets up to no good.
My fellow retirees are playing dominoes on the terrace and drinking carajillos.
‘We were about to check the obituaries,’ Paco says. At 84, the sole survivor of a childless, loveless marriage and the group elder, he’s acutely aware of mortality. His Great Dane has a beautiful brindle coat and plum-sized testicles that provide limitless amusement for young park goers.
Paco places the double-six bone.
‘Did she put you through your paces last night, Fernando?’ Jorge asks.
Jorge has wonderful sea-blue eyes and a pencil moustache. As the sole source of my longing, he knows full well I’m no Lothario. Ironically, his wife’s poodle is the great love of Freddy’s life.
‘What happened to your neck?’ Mario asks, placing a winning deuce-five.
Paco and Jorge groan.
Mario’s a retired detective. Jorge mocks his effete domino distribution and love for puppies. He carries a photo of his wife and two well-adjusted, adult children in his wallet, indubitable proof of his virility. Mario moves the bones about the metal tabletop with his fingers spread wide, his palms hovering like a conjurer of magic. His dog is a calendar-cute little dachshund in a Julius K-9 harness.
‘I cut myself shaving,’ I say, showing my tremulous hands.
‘I had a cousin die like that,’ Paco says. ‘Nicked himself then it went septic.’
‘Got to look good for the ladies,’ Jorge says. ‘Am I right?’
I don’t respond – a strategy that enhances my lady-killer reputation.
The waitress arrives with my carajillo. Paco moves the dominoes in the boneyard while Jorge compares my wound to the curved shape of a woman’s fingernail. ‘A real wildcat,’ he calls this imaginary lady.
‘You want to be careful with AIDS,’ Paco says. ‘People are dropping like flies.’
‘Christ, Paco,’ Jorge says. ‘That was over thirty years ago.’
Paco’s brow furrows with confusion. We share narrow-eyed looks over our dominoes.
Jorge wins the next hand before the game barely gets started. Paco wins the following after a fluky three-double starting hand. Mario wins again provoking a sore-loser outburst of epic proportions from Jorge. His diatribes are homophobic and oddly graphic. Freddy is mounting an affectionate shih tzu with a pink-ribboned ponytail while Mario removes the photo from his wallet to name each family member – Carmen, Mario, Sergi. We know the names so well, we say them with him.
I sip my carajillo and savour its brandy hit.
Jorge’s rants come after a specific incident that took place just last Friday. Mario had taken a fierce ribbing from Jorge for a diamanté ear stud he has since removed. Paco had slinked off and to load our carajillos with extra brandy for his saint’s day. Freddy had been mounting new arrivals left right and centre and outraged owners were shooting me filthy looks. I made the decision to leave and was halfway along the path when Jorge grabbed my arm. He told me he was worried about Paco. He thought Paco was losing his mind. Without warning, Jorge moved closer than he’d ever been before and the warm firmness of his erection pressed against my thigh. His eyes moved towards it in a panic. He licked his coffee-stained lips. Leafless branches clacked like wooden swords above us. He spat onto the floor and detached Freddy’s bucking loins from his wife’s poodle.
I steal glances should Jorge make any eye contact, any recognition of what happened, but he gives away nothing. Not even when our hands brush as we pick our dominoes from the bone yard.
The shih tzu’s owner darts towards the mating dogs – a red-faced man in his sixties wearing an olive-coloured Belstaff jacket and matching flat cap.
‘Fufi,’ he screams. ‘Not my Fufi.’
Fufi is a picture of perfect compliance. Freddy’s too far along to halt. A pack of F86 sabre fighters could descend on the Parque del Oeste, weapons hot, cross-hairs trained on their randy target and Freddy would barely react. The teens are filming with their mobile phones, the reggaeton has mercifully stopped. Fufi’s owner tries to separate the dogs, but they are caught in an embarrassing copulatory tie. It’s my duty to protect Freddy – dog owners can get violent. I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to him. We stand in awkward silence as the two dogs move in circles looking for escape. Jorge’s voice is followed by a burst of laughter. The dogs separate and the man stuffs Fufi under his arm and makes a beeline for the exit. It could have been worse – I’ve been verbally abused before, spat at. The park attracts a broad range of dog walkers. Fufi is not the first dog Freddy has disgraced. People are starting to talk. He’s developing a reputation. The boys want me to get him fixed, but I will not suppress his natural urges. I return to the table where the final dregs of my carajillo burn my throat.
‘Freddy’s his owner’s dog,’ Jorge says.
‘He suffers from involuntary erections,’ I say. ‘Terrible ailment I’m told.’
Jorge reveals nothing as he mixes the dominoes. He misses things because of his hearing aid. He often has to study mouths for the shapes of the words.
‘Could be an inflamed prostate,’ Paco says. ‘You should get him looked at.’
‘It’s his commitment to wholesale mischief that’s worrying,’ Mario says.
Freddy darts across the park to terrorise a squirrel.
He was an excitable rescue due to mellow in his twilight years. They usually neuter the poor sods, but I’d been given an in before his operation took place. The artful staff at the pound gave me reassurances, but instead of seen-but-not-heard companionship during retirement it’s all semen-stained upholstery and widespread destruction of footwear. Credit where credit’s due he’s keeping me in shape. I’ve lost 5 kilos and my cholesterol levels are at an all-time low. Plus he listens to my stories of heartbreak with a non-judgemental silence.
I don’t pull a single decent starting hand from the boneyard.
Freddy bounces around the soft-play area knocking over giggling toddlers. Their mothers stare daggers at us. Time to call it a day. It occurs to me I have no way to pay. I invent a story about a forgotten wallet. They wave me away. I fight Freddy as we head to the gates. I hope for another encounter with Jorge that I know won’t happen.
We take the long way back for daily exercise. Freddy’s always after treats but his diet is stricter than mine. A couple of shirtless, precision-shaved teens stop at the lights in a black Audi with a spoiler. The windows tremble from the bass of the onboard sound system. Freddy is so overcome with excitement I have to yank his lead as they zip away. He goes after a delivery van moving in the other direction. He attacks his own reflection in the impeccably clean windows of a car dealership. I ice my elbows after these eventful days. We stop for his daily chew time on the final stretch, occupy a table at Don Tinos where I sip a beer and people watch. It’s the one time I can rely on Freddy not to be a nuisance. It takes him half an hour to break down his bacon twist, but no sooner than he does, he’s growling at a passing biker who gives him a wide berth. Freddy’s eyes follow the biker until he’s out of sight with his teeth bared. I can’t imagine the terrible things done to him, but I’m sure it was leather-clad motorcyclists that did it.
Back inside our apartment block we play fight. Freddy clamps my hand between his teeth while I make a grab for his tail. Doña Tello has caught us twice on the floor of the elevator lift, twice rolled her eyes. The slow hours between Don Tinos and lunch are when I’m most grateful for Freddy’s companionship.
I’m dozing on the couch, half-watching a CNN piece about Syria when Mario calls. He knows a knife wound when he sees one. My missing wallet set alarm bells ringing. He wheedles it from me minus necessary omissions – Freddy escaped, I was mugged during the subsequent search.
‘You know Cabecera is a cesspit at night,’ he says in admonishment.
Mario’s finding it hard to let go. He sees a purposeless future before him: his wife shuttling dishes to and from the kitchen, his sons embarking on doomed financial and romantic adventures. Carmen makes him sit to piss. He wants a taste of his old life. His pleas are echoey from the pantry where he keeps his medicinal brandy.
‘Letting me help you will help me,’ he says. ‘It’s cyclical.’
Carmen is my unwitting saviour, summoning Mario to realign a spice rack. I tell Mario I’ll think about it.
On the telly, men in balaclavas lead a thin-wristed boy to the edge of a building. Distant mountains glimmer in the heat. The boy offers paltry resistance. The camera focuses on the blooming acne on his cheeks, the beginnings of a moustache on his upper lip. I change the channel before his fate becomes real.
Freddy succumbs to drowsiness after his chicken livers. The vitamin A keeps his coat healthy. He’s flat out when my urges take hold. The trigger varies from Gillette adverts to subtle but smooth Asturian reality TV voiceovers. Today it’s the tousled white hair and refined features of a retirement home dreamboat with an uncanny resemblance to Jorge.
‘Good times,’ he croons at the end of the advert. ‘Are the real meaning of life.’
I freshen up and head to Bar Boo-Boo.
At Bar Boo-Boo hanging your trousers behind the bar for 30 minutes gets you a free drink, so it’s jammed with smooth-legged boys looking for fun. A young man will sit on your lap in exchange for a mojito. The owner Yogi prowls the darkened nooks and crannies, flashing a torch at horny punters with busy hands. Anything beyond the pale is to be taken off site. There are no glory holes in toilet cubicles, no sex swings or orgies, but things get wild from time to time. Yogi’s done this long enough to know what he can and can’t get away with.
The doorman, Ranger Smith, lets me in and I scan for my assailant. He’d be a fool to return. Older drinkers line the bar while the trouserless gyrate on the LED dancefloor. The Mohican waves me over and pats a vacant stool. His building-sized photo at sunset appeared in Barrio del Carmen for the Millennium, earning him small-time fame. Nowadays his mohawk is thinning, his tattoos are blurred splodges and his Mohican outfit hangs from his hips like a pelt from a carcass. Yogi pours me a Miss Ross Special.
‘Fernando, you filthy bitch,’ the Mohican says. ‘Tell me about last night.’
The Mohican draws his own conclusions from my silence. He did a spell in the police dungeons in the 70s where torture was rife. It left him with a gammy leg and the burning embers of resentment.
‘What I wouldn’t give to stare into those big brown eyes,’ he sighs.
‘You’ve had your fun over the years,’ I say.
He lights a cigarette even though it’s been forbidden for over a decade.
‘That’s your second warning,’ Yogi shouts over from his laptop. ‘Put it out.’
‘Only if you play Fernando,’ he says. ‘In honour of my friend here.’
The Mohican stubs his cigarette out. Yogi taps the keyboard and the song starts.
‘Tell me about the Cabecera Park,’ I say.
The Mohican is a fount of knowledge on the local scene. He leans back with his elbows on the bar and sighs. ‘Is this an interrogation?’ He smirks.
‘Things got violent last night.’
The dancefloor lights reveal his prominent Adam’s apple, crooked nose and legion of glossy scars across his throat and face. He calls them his war wounds.
‘You’re no stranger to violence,’ I say.
He leans in, his face serious. ‘Broken nose from a confused husband whose cum I swallowed. The Guardia Civil broke my fingers as they dragged me from a squat. It was tough after dad kicked me out.’
His eyes track a new arrival crossing the dancefloor with a daiquiri.
‘He took my wallet,’ I whisper. ‘Put a knife to my throat.’
The Mohican splutters on his mojito. ‘Do 30 years of that then we’ll talk.’
He downs his drink, wipes his face and uses the bar to propel himself across the dancefloor, his movements are awkward, but surprisingly quick despite the bad leg. He grabs the new arrival’s hair and dry humps him to the slow beat of Fernando.
If I had to do the same again, I would, my friend, Fernando.
The daiquiri smashes on the multicoloured floor.
Yogi and Ranger Smith drag the Mohican to the exit in a bodylock.
A Dominican with wonderful cheekbones in tight Charlie Brown underpants politely requests a caipirinha. I tell him I’m not in the mood and call it a night.
Despite my misgivings Mario proves relentless in his pursuit of adventure. We’re hardly a crack team, but Mario has guaranteed fun. A midnight group dog walk is our ruse. As soon as he opens the boot, Freddy launches himself at the other dogs inside, separated from passengers by the stretchy Juntu Pet Barrier.
‘He’d better not screw my wife’s poodle,’ Jorge snaps.
‘The wife’s got to get it somewhere,’ Mario says.
Jorge either doesn’t hear or pretends not to and Paco’s staring from the window with the awe of a toddler. A sunset warps the colour and shape of the buildings.
‘We should roll up the windows for maximum clandestinity,’ Mario says.
‘Death trap,’ Paco states. ‘We’re dicing with death in these seat belts as it is.’
There’s a yelp from the boot.
Nausea grips the pit of my stomach. Chances of finding my assailant are minimal, but there’s a reason why I keep a separate daytime park for walkies. The first rollerskater flashing past in electric-blue hot pants and a drawstring bag gives me palpitations.
‘This used to be a family place,’ Jorge complains. His eyes track the skater until the shadows swallow him up. Night falls almost without warning.
The dogs are traumatised when Mario releases them.
‘That dog is a menace,’ Jorge says.
‘He’s got a lot of love to give,’ I respond.
Freddy leaps at another skater whizzing past.
‘He’ll break his neck the way he’s going,’ Paco says.
‘Easy pickings for muggers,’ Mario says.
‘The odds of finding him are slim,’ I say.
‘You’d be surprised,’ Mario says. ‘Humans are creatures of habit.’
We move against a current of dog walkers leaving the park. Freddy’s ears stand to attention at a rustling bush. He pulls the lead until I let him guide us off the floodlit path.
‘It’ll be a ferret or a snake,’ Jorge says. ‘Just let him go after it.’
Moonlight illuminates the black slate of the lake and the curved outline of the swan boat necks. Mario shines the flashlight at the tall grass. Freddy’s barks leave a ghostly fog on the cool night air. He tugs the lead so hard my knuckles move under the skin like marbles. Jorge grabs Freddy’s collar and unclips him. Freddy cuts a path through the long grass while I stretch the feeling back into my fingers.
‘You used to be able to see the stars,’ Jorge says.
‘The lights from the city make it difficult for us to see things,’ I say.
‘There’s someone out there,’ Paco shouts.
A pale green light shines among the trees.
‘No,’ I shout, but it’s too late.
A shot rings out and Freddy yelps. My heart thuds in my ears. I wade into the grass without any thoughts for my safety. Mario’s torchlight cuts through the darkness as he pursues the shooter. Freddy is wheezing like punctured bellows. Blood bubbles through a dark, wet hole in his chest. They burst and spill over his shiny coat, ooze through my fingers as I try to staunch his wound. He licks my salty palm with his tongue. I whisper a calming shush. There’s nothing I can do to help. His eye widens to reveal the white surrounding his iris. He blinks almost as if in disbelief. His breathing’s like a spray paint rattle. His bowels and bladder open up involuntarily. Jorge makes a sound of disgust and steps back. Freddy’s eye closes and his tongue lays limp in his mouth. His final breath emerges on the cool, night air and vanishes. I choke back a sob. It’s Freddy’s stillness that upsets me, the lack of energy. No more mischief in the park, no more apologies to strangers, no more play fights in the lift. I remove my jacket to wrap his body and gather him into my arms.
Mario returns out-of-breath – the shooter has melted into the side streets.
Jorge gathers the slack of his lead.
They stare at me open-mouthed while Paco cowers behind his Great Dane.
‘We should call the police,’ Mario says. ‘This needs to be reported.’
‘It won’t bring Freddy back,’ I say, my voice emotionless as if someone else has spoken.
‘I want to go home,’ Paco whimpers. ‘I’m cold and hungry.’
‘Take Paco home,’ I say.
‘I’ll stay,’ Jorge says. ‘Let me stay with you.’
‘No.’ My sharpness makes him flinch. ‘I’d rather be alone.’
Jorge opens his mouth to say something else, but Mario stops him.
I lift Freddy and walk towards the lake. Mario, Paco and Jorge make their way to the park gates where they linger in the entrance. Mario shouts a promise to call. I have to stop twice to adjust Freddy in my arms on my way to the lake. The rustling bushes pause in what I imagine is a mark of respect. There’s a strong sense of community among the skaters. I lay Freddy on the floor. It doesn’t take me long to find a couple of big rocks, which I zip into the jacket alongside him. Tonight I’ll be the eccentric old-timer lowering a dead animal into the lake. If the neo-nazis turn up asking questions I’ll clock one of them in the jaw and to hell with the consequences. I look for them instinctively, but instead find the faces of the nocturnal hook-up group, emerging from the bushes with beard burn and wet lips, moving tentatively in their skates. They watch as I lower Freddy into the water. The lake bubbles and swallows him with a single gulp. The swan boats collide with their sad funeral percussion. The skaters bow their heads in silence.
When the water levels out, Freddy has gone.
I rub warmth into my arms and ponder the cold, lonely walk home. It takes a moment to stand from a kneeling position. My knees feel as if they might give out and send me plunging into the lake after him, but two skaters approach to steady me as I rise. I thank them and wave away further help. The blood on my hands is black in the moonlight. The skaters remain either side as I walk back up the path towards the gates. When I look back at the lake, a defiant swan boat breaks loose from its chains. It draws two circles on the surface of the lake and glides away, its movements dictated solely by the wind.
Sean Arnett grew up in Coventry and now lives in Valencia, Spain with his wife. A graduate from Sheffield Hallam University he is currently finshing his MA in Creative Writing from the University of Lancaster. He generally writes short fiction although he is currently working on a novel about superheroes. Young Boys is his first published story.
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