Regular Habits

The dog froze, tail standing to attention, nostrils quivering, fur along his back standing on end, like bristles on a scrubbing brush. A low persistent growl slowly erupted from deep down in his throat. “Quiet Rocky,” hissed Joe, and gave him a sharp nudge. The growling stopped and the dog lifted his head to sniff the air, ears pointing straight up. Joe listened too, but all he heard was the dull buzz of traffic from the distant motorway. It reminded him of an old radio not quite on the station.

Joe Kelly was a retired sailor, or so he said, and always wore a seaman’s cap to prove it. His face was weather-beaten, cheeks a reddish hue, but that was not from a life on distant oceans. Joe rarely mentioned that most of the time he worked down in the engine room on the ferry boats across the Irish Sea. He was in his mid-sixties, retired a few years ago and adopted the dog from a refuge for company. Joe had reddish-blonde hair and bushy  eyebrows  above deep blue eyes, He was clean-shaven but didn’t bother with the razor every day. He spoke with a soft brogue, which he exaggerated to remind people of his pure Irish heritage. Rocky on the other hand was a mongrel, a mix that Joe had given up trying to sort out.

There was a slight wind coming towards them across the damp fields, breaking up the thick blanket of mist into long, fuzzy white fingers stretching across the pink early morning sky. The breeze brought with it the sound of a high-pitched voice from the direction of the old abandoned farmhouse, just south of where they were standing, listening. Rocky started pulling on his line, eager to investigate, ears twitching and head up. Joe had no option but to follow the younger and more muscular dog. Rocky made a bee-line straight across the wet fields, jumping through last year’s long grass, ignoring all the pathways. Joe tried to keep up, paying out the line and telling Rocky to calm down – and slow down. The dog didn’t bother, he was on to something, barking with excitement as the cries got louder – “Help! Help!” They were coming from the dirt road below the old farm. Joe couldn’t keep up with Rocky, but daren’t let go of the line. Desperately he grabbed hold of a young pine tree and wrapped his end of the line around it a couple of times. Rocky came to a halt with a jerk.  Frustrated he attacked the line. Puffing out loud, Joe hauled in the line slowly and gradually got Rocky under control. Holding him short, and quiet, Joe lead the way over a small rise to get a better view of the farmhouse.

The cries for help were coming from a woman lying on the steep dirt road leading down from the farm. She slowly raised one arm when she heard footsteps in the loose gravel. “We’re coming” shouted Joe, “you’re safe now.” Rocky started barking again, thinking it was a game. Joe tied him up to a gnarled apple tree in the old orchard below the farm, and hurried along to where the woman was lying on her side next to a heavy red bicycle. Her right leg was caught up in the frame and twisted badly. “Hello”, said Joe, “what have we here?” She groaned, sighing. “Where does it hurt?” asked Joe, noticing the blood on the side of her face, seeping out from under her helmet into her long black hair. The woman didn’t respond. Probably been lying here a while, thought Joe, getting out his phone. “I’ll call an ambulance, you need help.”

Joe felt it took ages for them to answer, and then to understand where he was calling from. It was a bit out of the way, but this dirt road was often used as a short cut by cyclists crossing the fields from the housing estate to the nearby industrial estate. “They’re on their way now love”, said Joe, not knowing whether she heard him but it felt strange not to talk to her. There was really no more he could do but wait. He took off his fleece jacket and laid it over her, and gently lifted her head to slip his rolled up gloves underneath as a pillow. He got some blood on his hands. Bending down to wipe them off on his jeans he noticed a dusty cell phone lying on the ground near the woman. She’d probably been trying to call for help.

Rocky started barking again at the wail of the approaching ambulance. Joe tried to calm him down but when the dog saw the ambulance men in their neon-yellow uniforms he went wild, jumping up and down. He was barking so much that the uniforms said they would call the police if Joe didn’t leave at once and take the “animal” with him. Joe felt rather offended but dragged Rocky away, leaving them to it. It was getting chilly without his jacket, and his jeans were soaking from the wet grass. Joe took the shortest way home but still it took him and Rocky close to twenty minutes, at a brisk trot. The dog was so tired when they got home that he just drank some water and then collapsed on his blanket .

Joe sat down in the hall and pulled off his leather boots, soaking wet after the march across the fields. His socks and feet were wet too, so he decided to warm up with a shower. He removed the phone from his back right-hand pocket and put it on the kitchen table before stepping out of his clinging wet jeans. When he shook them, something heavy clattered onto the floor from the left pocket. It was the young woman’s phone. He must have shoved in his pocket when the ambulance came, and then forgot about it when they told him to clear off!

He looked at the screen. It was cracked, probably from when she fell. Without the code he couldn’t open it and possibly find someone to call. He left it on the kitchen table next to his own phone and went to have his shower.

It was still only seven o’clock when Joe sat down in the kitchen to eat breakfast. The dog was still snoring and didn’t react when Joe switched on the radio to catch the latest news. After breakfast he retired to his favourite armchair in the living room and must have dropped off too. He woke suddenly when he heard the dog barking from the kitchen, disturbed by a phone ringing. It was the wrong signal for his phone. Joe half-ran into the kitchen and grabbed the other phone. “Hello”, he said, “Joe Kelly here. I found this phone ….” He was interrupted by an animated woman who shouted “Amina, you got her phone, where is she? where is she?” Then another voice took over at the other end, a man with a deep voice and a strong foreign accent. “What are you doing with my daughter’s phone? You’re in big trouble if anything has happened to her.”

Joe tried to explain what had happened, but the man interrupted with questions and then spoke to the woman in a language which sounded as though it came from somewhere in the Middle-East. She started sobbing hysterically in the background. Joe was trying  to explain which hospital the ambulance had probably taken their daughter to when they abruptly hung up. Joe felt a little offended, but then realised that the girl’s parents were probably in a state of shock.

Joe lived in a small, neat wooden house tacked on to the end of a row of large terraced houses, as if an afterthought. It was painted a dark forest green, which suited Joe. There was a kitchen, living room, bathroom on the ground floor, one bedroom up a narrow ladder after a loft conversion. The dog hadn’t mastered the ladder, so his territory was downstairs. He slept mostly in the kitchen or by the front door. The house had a small garden back and front, garden gate opening straight on to widespread open fields, like an ocean with thickets of bushes for islands and woods on the higher ground in the distance.

The night after the accident Joe was sitting in bed reading. He suffered from chronic insomnia, so he had a pile of thick books on his bedside table. It was the only thing that worked, combined with poor light from a weak bedside lamp. Joe had fallen asleep half-lying on several pillows, a book about butterflies resting on his broad belly. For some reason he sat up with a jerk, and the book fell onto the floor with a dull thud. He listened but the only sound to be heard was old Rocky snoring in the kitchen below. Joe groaned and switched off the bedside lamp, punched the pillows into shape and settled down again under the bedclothes. He was half asleep again when he heard a sharp rattle on the narrow loft window. His heart started thumping and he instinctively held his breath. It was dark, middle of the night. Joe groped for his glasses on the bedside table but managed to knock them onto the floor. Down on his knees he slid his hand silently to and fro across the floor. Eventually he found the glasses covered in dust from under the bed. He blew the dust away gently and perched the glasses on the end of his nose.

The small attic window didn’t open but there was a narrow vent on one side to let fresh air in. Joe dragged a chair to the window and climbed up so he could look down on the back garden. It took some minutes for his eyes to adjust to the dark. There were no street lights, only the pale moon hiding behind thin clouds. The garden was just a narrow strip of lawn and a low privet hedge.  Below the window Joe noticed an unfamiliar black shadow. Someone was standing there, all in black except for trousers with three white stripes. Joe recognised the uniform, worn by the young black couriers who delivered goods by moped or motor bike.

“Whadya want?” asked Joe through the vent, using the deepest voice he could muster in the middle of the night.

“The phone!” came back in a whisper. Joe saw a row of gleaming white teeth against black skin, as though recently bleached.

“It’s the middle of the night!” said Joe, irritated at having his sleep disturbed.

“Sharp aren’t you for an oldie. Boss wants to see you. I’m taking you for a little ride”.

Now Joe was wide awake, and curious, so he agreed. Dressing quickly, he climbed backwards down the creaky ladder and slipped out through the back door without waking Rocky. The dog was getting on a bit, so his hearing was not too good any more, even though Joe suspected he played the old soldier when it suited him.

“You got the phone?” said the waiting hoodie.

“Yes, where are we ….”

“Follow me.”

He set off, leading Joe towards a thicket of bushes about fifty yards into the bare muddy field which was usually covered in Alfalfa and Clover. It was slippery after  recent rain. The morning mist hung thick over the ground, which sloped gently towards a narrow brook. Joe looked back towards the house, but it had already disappeared into the mist. Joe kept his eyes on the striped trousers to keep up. The youth was in a hurry, dragging a dark off-road bike from the bushes. He straddled the bike and shouted “Get on!”, turned the key and revved up the engine.

Joe hesitated but did as he was told, throwing his leg over the seat. The lad let in the clutch. and they were off, while Joe was still groping for something to hold on to. There was no pathway to follow. He drove straight across the bumpy field, engine whining as they skidded through the swirling mist, back wheel digging into the wet soil and throwing up clods of earth. The noise of the bike echoed across the fields, probably waking a good few of Joe’s neighbours. The lad didn’t seem to bother.

After a scary fifteen minutes the driver dropped Joe off in the lane outside the abandoned farmhouse and disappeared quickly into the, back wheel spraying gravel from the dirt road. It was a place well-known to Joe from his walks with Rocky, and close to where he had found the girl. Still it was different in the dark, difficult to get his bearings. A few minutes later he heard footsteps approaching along the  lane. Another slim youth appeared through the mist, dressed in the familiar black hoodie and striped track suit trousers.

“Got the phone?”

“Yes, here” said Joe, pointing to his pocket.

“Follow me!”

”Where to, what’s happening?” asked Joe

“Take it easy old man, you’re safe here.”

Without further ado the youth turned and walked back from where he came with long strides. Joe followed close behind, almost running to keep up. The guide slipped through an old green wooden gate sagging on its rusty hinges, and made for a narrow overgrown path behind the farmhouse. The path took them to a group of low, wooden outhouses facing the fields.

“Wait here”, said the guide, and melted into the darkness.

Abandoned Farmhouse by Day
Abandoned Farmhouse by Day

Joe was still breathing heavily after the ride over the fields, and feeling a little lost without Rocky. It was quiet, except for the occasional sound of flapping wings and familiar cooing of pigeons. Of course, Joe realised he was standing by the sheds where somebody kept a large flock of pigeons and a few hens. An occasional whiff of the special acrid odour of fowl confirmed Joe’s suspicions. Joe had often seen the pigeons from a distance, across the fields where hungry goshawks floated lazily in the sky. Piles of white feathers in the woods revealed where the hawks took their meals, culling the flock of pigeons.

New footsteps approached, interrupting Joe’s thoughts. Two men appeared.

“Hello Joe!” said one of them with a strong foreign accent, extending his hand,  “good to meet you.” A smallish, unassuming man in his fifties, he was dressed simply in jeans, trainers and a yellow football sweater under a black leather jacket. Joe hesitated and then shook his hand briefly. The other man said nothing. He was younger, thin, all in black, looking around nervously. Joe was aware of several other figures in the shadows but turned back to face the man who seemed to be in charge.

“Like to thank you for helping my daughter, Joe”, said the boss.

“How is she?” asked Joe.

“Still in hospital but she’ll be home again soon.”

“Good to hear.”

“You have her phone?”

Joe tapped his breast pocket, waited a moment and then slowly hauled it out. The man held out his hand again, eyes narrowing. Joe handed it over.

“You opened it?”

“Don’t have the code, do I? Just answered when it rang, twice.”

“Good for you. Like to give you something. A reward. What d’you want most Joe? Money? New TV?”

“Not necessary,” said Joe, eager to get away now that he had got rid of the phone. “Helped her because she needed help, that’s all.”

“Must be something you want!”

Joe hesitated, realising that it could be seen as insulting to refuse.

“Left my sweater and gloves behind. Like to get those back.”

“ OK. You’ll hear from us” said the man, suddenly turning away and quickly disappearing into the shadows.

Behind him in the lane Joe heard the motor bike revving up, a sign that he was to leave.

“Get on” said the driver.

“I’d rather walk” said Joe.

“Past your bedtime. Sit up!”

Thinking it best not to argue, Joe climbed up and off they shot across the fields in a cloud of exhaust fumes.

Joe’s heart was still racing when he closed the back door behind him, glad to hear the sound of the bike fading in the distance.  He sat down in his favourite armchair, truth to say his only armchair, waiting for the thumping in his chest to get back to normal. It took a while. From the kitchen he could hear the dog snoring, oblivious to the night’s adventure. Eventually Joe climbed back up to bed and fell into a not very restful sleep. Later that morning the whining of the dog at the back door woke Joe. Their normal morning walk was overdue.

Three nights later Joe was woken again by the dog growling at the bottom of the ladder. Outside it was still pitch black. He rolled out of bed, grabbed his glasses from the top drawer and, half crawling, inched his way to the narrow window. The dog quietened down when he heard Joe get out of bed.  Joe was about to stand up when he heard a stone hit the glass. It was him again, the bike boy. Joe was beginning to regret he’d got mixed up with that crowd at all. He climbed down the ladder, moving heavily, and stepped into his slippers parked at the bottom . Rocky ran to the back door, growling, with Joe close behind. A well-aimed kick quietened the dog, who yelped and retired to his bed in the kitchen. Joe peered through the curtains and saw a familiar figure standing there: the biker.  Opening the door a few inches, Joe regretted not puting on his dressing gown. The night air was damp and raw.

“What do you want at this hour?” whispered Joe.

”Boss wants to see you” came the answer in a low voice from the shadows.

“What for?”

“Got something for you. All I know.”

Realising he would get nothing more out of the lad, Joe told him to wait while he got dressed, then closed the door. This time he put on his heavy boots and a warm jacket for the ride across the fields. Before leaving he glanced into the kitchen. The dog was already snoring.

This time the lad waited for Joe to climb on the bike before starting the engine. Joe pulled his cap down tight over his ears and jumped up, less scared now he knew what to expect. He grabbed hold of the boy’s jacket, but the shiny material was slippery so Joe had to slide his arms around his chest and hold tight. It felt almost too intimate, but with the jacket billowing in Joe’s face this was no time for niceties.

The boss was waiting near their meeting place, the pigeon sheds. They shook hands and the man handed over a carrier bag.

“Your sweater and gloves were gone, but we fixed new ones for you Joe. Hope you like them. Least we could do for you.”

“Thank you, very thoughtful” said Joe, rather surprised at all the cloak and dagger stuff for an old fleece sweater and pair of worn gloves. “How is your daughter faring?”

“Much better. Sends her thanks to you.”

After that there was nothing left to say. Joe decided it was time to leave. “I’d better….”

“Wait” said the boss, “we want to do something for you Joe, a proper reward. You got any problems? I have people who can help, you know!”

Without thinking, and eager to get away, Joe blurted out: ”The big  problem we’ve got where I live is dealers who sell drugs to our kids. They live in the area too they do, but nobody dares touch ‘em. Too scared.”

The boss nodded slowly, “Yeah, same problems all over these days. Got three kids myself. Have to keep an eye on them.”

“Live among us they do”, said Joe, warming up to his favourite subject. “Neighbours are unhappy about it, traffic all hours, lot of strangers in the area. Gives the area a bad name too.”

“Bad people, big trouble! Sorry I can’t help. You take care of yourself Joe” said the man, and turned away abruptly to end the meeting.

On the ride home Joe got to thinking it had not been a good idea to mention the local drug dealers, a large family who lived near the main road. Could be dangerous. Neighbours talked about the noise,   expensive Audis with blacked-out windows arriving at all hours,  engines running and dark bearded men at the wheel, waiting. Nobody dared complain.

Joe knew the family by sight, but had never spoken to them. On his daily walks with Rocky he  often walked along the road past their house and studied the cars and their crews. He sometimes made a mental note of their plates, hoping he would one day pluck up courage to call the police. He never did. The weekend after his second meeting with the boss, Joe noticed a new car outside the  house: an exclusive silver BMW. Several times after that he saw the youngest brother in the family behind the wheel.  “Business must be good,” thought Joe to himself.  Once time he walked up to the parked car and bent down to look in through the driver’s window. He was curious. Suddenly he felt the dog stiffen, letting out a low growl. Joe stood up and took a step backwards.

“Hands off old man. Envious eh? Nothing you can afford” said a man’s voice, laughing. It was the young dealer. Joe turned away quickly but the dog was reluctant to back down and kept looking back. Joe had to pull hard on the leash to drag Rocky away. Most days Joe saw the new BMW outside the dealer’s house, parked as though on display in a car showroom.

A week later the silver BMW stopped outside an out of town shopping centre a few miles away. The passenger door opened and a young woman in a tight dress and heels was struggling to get out. The driver turned, watching her with a grin.

A black Audi with tinted windows glided up alongside the BMW, the passenger window slid down and a semi-automatic sprayed the BMW and driver with a shower of bullets. The woman screamed and ran for the nearest cover, stumbling and losing her shoes on the way. The Audi is off while the sound of the gunshots is still echoing between the tall buildings. The victim is slumped over the wheel, dead before any help can arrive. Inside the shop, the passenger is on her knees, screaming until she spews.

That evening the local TV news reported on the drive-by shooting, attributing it to an ongoing feud amongst local drug gangs. When Joe sees the car, the silver BMW, he feels physically sick. His first thought was that it was his fault. He had complained about the local drug dealer to the boss, but this was not what he wanted. He switched off the TV and all the lights. Shivering in the dark he started thinking about revenge shootings, and what would happen if it got out that he had put them up to it.

That night he slept poorly, tossing and turning. It was hardly light when he gave up trying to sleep. Outside it was overcast. He decided to take an early walk with Rocky, getting out before anyone was up and about. The dog was reluctant to go out that early so Joe had to bribe him. Joe stayed away from the houses, preferring the open fields. On their way home, he took a short cut leading to the main road, which he thought would be quiet this early in the morning. He was wrong. A blue and white police van was parked a couple of blocks away from the dealer’s house. In the other direction he saw a couple of dark figures leaning on the parapet of a pedestrian bridge over the main road, with a good view of the house. Joe couldn’t make up his mind to go on or turn back. What decided him was the sight of a number of black cars parked outside the house, blocking the road, attended by a large group of dark, young men. Joe beat a quick retreat, with the dog at his heels.

The morning after the fatal shooting a steady stream of mourners was ferried to the house to pay their respects to the grieving family. Young women in black, old men in unfamiliar dark suits and their wives in long black coats and smartly dressed young men. Others,  obviously  told  they were expected to attend, were rounded up by bouncers. The police van had been replaced by an overweight civvy policeman in a sloppily parked oldish red car. He spent most of his time playing games on his cell phone and eating, while waiting for the relief that never came. The family and assembled mourners sat together in the garden on hastily gathered white plastic garden chairs, one shift at a time. This went on for several days.

A memorial to the dead man was built under a gazebo-like tent in the front garden, with portraits of  the deceased, candles, flowers and messages of sympathy. It was protected during all-night vigils by a group of younger men. This was not appreciated by neighbours, who kept their distance unless their presence was demanded. An  atmosphere of fear and insecurity spread during the invasion, which went on for four weeks. After the funeral things calmed down, got back to normal. The memorial was cleared away, the black cars were nowhere to be seen and the drug dealers kept their window blinds and heads down.

Joe did the same now that it was all over. At last he could relax. He did change his daily routine, preferring  long walks with the dog early morning and late evening across the fields. Usually they left home by six in the morning, before the mist lifted. Their new regular daily walking habits were comforting, giving a feeling of safety and normality after recent events. Now they could relax, it was all over Joe told himself. Rocky liked routines too, following the same trail every day across the fields: sniffing his way along the edge of the thicket with thorny bushes, running across the open field with last year’s stubble, where he could roll over and scratch his back, striding through the long grass along the collapsed chain-link fence which followed the narrow brook, trotting over one of the wooden bridges and then up into the woods, circling round the abandoned farmhouse and then back nhome over the football field. Morning and evening skies were beautiful, it was quiet and the rolling mist over the fields provided good some protection. In fact, Joe enjoyed being out alone, except for the dog and the occasional deer and hare. Sometimes he heard the toiling engine of an off-road bike in the distance, but drug deliveries seemed to have dried up.

One such morning, about three weeks after the funeral, Joe was standing by the edge of the field which sloped up to the abandoned farmhouse. As usual Rocky was having fun rolling in last years’ dried grass, and sniffing at the small piles of soil which dotted the field. The voles were busy digging their tunnels through the heavy clay. Soon it would be time for breakfast. In the distance Joe heard the characteristic sound of an off-road bike, but he couldn’t tell if it was going or coming. The sound was smothered by the thick blanket of mist which still hung over the fields, waiting to be dissolved by the morning sun. Joe called in Rocky, who was on a long line, afraid the dog might take off across the narrow dirt road to the short grass on the other side – the football field – to roll around and scratch his back. The bike came closer, noisy. Joe shortened up the line, wrapping it around his hand a couple of times. Rocky resigned to sitting at Joe’s feet. “Good dog” said Joe, trying to keep him calm. The dog was not a friend of noisy motor bikes. A familiar dark blue motor bike came into view along the dirt pathway, bursting through the mist. Joe had just turned to look at the rider and his mate when a burst of shots rang out. He rolled backwards into the ditch by the side of the path. Rocky barked and then yelped as he was pulled down by the line, trapped under Joe’s heavy body. The motor cycle didn’t even slow down, disappearing quickly into the mist,

Nobody heard the shots above the sound of the motor bike. The fields fell silent again. Another dog walker found Joe in the ditch some time later, attracted by Rocky’s howling. It was too late. At his funeral, somebody remarked that Joe had fallen victim of his own regular habits.

Nobody was ever caught for the shootings.





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