Dane Franklin lived in the far side of the forest close to where the tall, black pines shaved down to the moor as hair shaves down to a skull. He lived in the remains of an old caravan with his sister, Suzanne, who had, over the years, turned more than a little crazy. She’d wander the moors and woods in stone-cold rain and beneath clouds the colour of bruises in wind that ripped like a flail across bracken and heather. Dane, the wrong side of 40, with a nose that had broken more times than his heart, would stumble after her and drag her back to the caravan that served as home to the both of them. It stood on the corner of land belonging to his boss, Max Clifford, close to the dark water of the river, and Max would often wander down from the village with a bottle of cheap cider along with the wages he paid Dane for the odd jobs he did. He was an old friend, maybe Dane’s only friend. ‘Now listen,’ he’d say, usually after the third glass had gone down sweet as a baited hook. ‘You’re going to have to get ‘er put someplace she won’t get into bother, mate. You don’t know the half of what’s going on.’
Dane, seated in a folding deckchair beside an electric heater, would gaze from the bars glowing like two bones in hot moonlight, to his sister laid on the cot; her dirty blonde hair hung over the side, sweeping the floor. ‘I promised my old man on his death bed I’d look out for her no matter what, that was on his deathbed, mate; she wasn’t always this way.’
‘Nobody’s always any way.’
‘I’m just saying she needs me more these days than ever she did.’
‘And what’s it cost you?’
‘Nothing I wasn’t ready to lose.’
Max sipped from the cracked plastic tumbler before him. ‘Lost you Jane, lost you your job when you could have had her someplace safe where she’d be cared for.’
‘A barmaid with a wandering eye and shit work in an abattoir aren’t the things to set your life by, not when there’s family and not when you owe them.’
‘Dane, I’m just saying, you can’t be here all the time, and while you’re not here she wanders. I caught a few lads from town the other day, following her back into the wood. If I hadn’t been there, anything could have happened and, let’s be honest, there’s not a way you’d know. Doesn’t talk at all does she?’
Dane turned and looked over at her. She’d walked eleven miles that day along the course of the river, through brush and thorns so tangled, he wouldn’t have believed a rabbit could pass. She lay sleeping, her breaths coming in frantic gasps as though she was some fresh-born beast testing natal lungs for the first bloody time. She’d been beautiful once, before the fire and, even now, beneath the scars smeared across her bones like thick clay, there was something of that loveliness remaining. ‘She hasn’t spoken a word to me in 12 years.’
The next day beneath a July rain that was hot as tea, Dane worked at repairing a wire fence on the river bank. The oily mud splashed as he drove a fresh post into the earth to replace one older than he was. He became aware of a movement on the far bank and looked up. Three young men stood watching him from beneath hoods. One, the closest to him, wore a baseball cap beneath the hood, and the legs of his track suit bottoms were tucked into his trainers. Another puffed at a cigarette he held away from the rain in a cupped hand. The third carried a child’s fishing rod. ‘Now then,’ the first said, ‘any good fishing round here, mate?’ There was arrogance to the voice, a scorn Dane heard all too clearly. He’d heard it all his life.
‘No fishing round here lads, this is private.’
‘You couldn’t look the other way, bud, just let us cast a few lines in?’
Dane looked across the water at them. The river was the colour of old beer bottles beneath overhanging trees, flowing quickly down from the high moors behind. In spite of the rain it was hot, and he took the cloth cap from his head and wiped his face with it. ‘It’s just as I say, boys, it’s not up to me; it’s private all this.’
‘Private?’ One of the men asked with a laugh.
‘Aye,’ Dane said, confused by their lack of comprehension. ‘Private, as only he what owns it gets to use it.’
The man with the cigarette said. ‘Like your sister, eh?’
Dane stood very still. It felt as though a trap door had just opened beneath his ribs, and that his heart was falling like a bird with a bullet through the wing. The river washed darkly at the clay of the banks. ‘The fuck did you just say?’
The men started laughing. ‘Take it easy Forrest Gump,’ the one with the rod yelled, ‘nobody wants to roll with a mental fucking pork scratching, no-one except you that is.’
‘Fucking hillbilly,’ said the one with the cigarette. ‘Fuck your fishing and fuck you.’
Dane stared down at the quick water. ‘If you were on this side …’
But the boys were already walking back onto the trail headed to the estate at the edge of town. ‘You’d do fuck all, mate.’
The rain eased up and a haze of small flies hovered over the fresh turned mud at his feet and it was a long time before Dane turned back to his work.
The sun was a blaze of gold in the pink misted clouds that washed over the hills. Dane sat on the deckchair in front of the caravan and watched it sink as he smoked a cigarette he’d rolled. He rolled them in the same way his father had and as he watched the sun he thought of the flames that had taken his sister’s house as he’d been passed out on the sofa, drunk on whisky and stoned, and of the two little boys’ asleep upstairs slowly choking to death on the smoke. He thought of the scream that woke him and how Suzanne, home from work early, dashed face first into the blaze too late and the scream of sirens and the last thing she ever said to him, “You killed them.”
She came back close to midnight with her dress torn near enough to rags and her face beaten blue and bloody. She wasn’t crying, just came into the caravan, sat down, and started to comb her hair. He rose from the cot, walked across to her and held her face in his hands close to his. He knew it would be useless to ask sure as he knew who was to blame. He pulled the axe from beneath the bed and headed out into the night, locking the door behind him.
Later, when he returned from the camp the boys had set up in a low field on the far side of the river, he tossed the axe into the river. His jeans were soaked in blood that wasn’t his and there were tooth marks on his knuckles. ‘Suzy, he said, ‘where are you?’
The boys were half asleep and stoned on weed beside a fire that was more cinder than flame when he’d found them. He’d stood behind them and, with the blunt side of the axe head, despatched them one after the other the same way his Dad did the pigs back in the day. They had barely even screamed.
He found her stood in the river, her yellow dress floating on water dark as obsidian, dark as a scrying mirror, the fabric pale in the moonlight like tarnished brass. He climbed down the muddy bank, slipping once or twice and stepped into the chill embrace of the water. ‘I’ve done something mad, Suzy, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry for everything. Sorry for everything I did and didn’t do and everything I am and everything you ended up as, and I’m sorry for the boys, yours and them, and I’m sorry,’ he listened to a distant siren echoing off the crowded hills, ‘I can’t watch you no more. I’m a stupid fucking man, a stupid bloody curse.’ He sighed and glanced at the silver stone of the moon hanging over a dark land. ‘I’m good and bloody sorry.’
He reached for her and leaned her back into the river as though baptising her. The ruined beauty of her face vanished beneath the peaty water. She did not kick or cry out, and he held her there until the first police car burst into the valley in an explosion of light.