It’s the dog, I reckon. Called me back to the streets, standing there, bow-legged with its mad eye; half pirate, half Sikes. And so I return: the streets are the same but the old crew has long gone, the Old Man strung up like a string of old sausages. Ironic turn of phrase there, considering.
I bin off and got an education.
You can call it that, if you like. Where I went they taught me to read and to write, and they gave me the lash when I got a spelling wrong, but that was nothing compared to what Sikes’d given me if he could see me there, working hard. Honest hard, he’d a called it, like the worst of them. And when I got out, I come here to say one last goodbye, and there he is, the dog, just sitting outside of some bawdy house like he’s lord of the manor, and I know I’m stuck here forever. Then some ruffian comes out and sees me eyeing the pooch and shouts, ‘What the fuck you lookin at?’
As if I’d be scared of a voice.
I’m carrying Sike’s old stick. Yes, that one. The one he did in the girl with, an’ hid afore they caught him and he ended up on the wrong end of a rope. I found it lying in a corner of Fagin’s yard, weeks after they took him. Cleaned it up, kept it hidden. The damage he done with that stick, the threat of it five times greater, ‘cept maybe he went and killed you with the thing. Nice piece of blackthorn.
‘It’s my dog,’ I tell the ruffian, my voice cold and hard, and he’s about to stand up to me but then he pauses; maybe it’s the hat I wear, maybe it’s the blackthorn stick I’m swinging nice and pretty, but he pauses, then mutters something about how he didn’t recognise me. I’ve grown a bit and filled out too, three square meals and all that, so maybe that’s true. I ignore him and he goes inside, and I squat down to pet the pooch, ‘Hello Bullseye,’ I whisper, ‘It’s me, your old pal Dodger, come back to claim you.’ I can see the scars Sikes left on him as I rake in my pocket for the old collar, the one I kept to myself these last two years. As I fasten it round his neck a woman comes out of the door where the ruffian went into, she’s best part of forty, grey and worn out and tired. An old whore.
She says, ‘You come back then?’
‘I’m back,’ is all I say.
‘You thinking of staying, Dodge?’ She doesn’t sound too pleased at the prospect. ‘Things‘ve changed since you went away.’
I look at her, ‘I’ve come for the dog. He’s mine by rights.’
‘You aint got no rights boy,’ she says, and she’s accurate enough.
‘I was planning on going,’ I tell her, ‘but I just don’t belong anywhere else.’
‘You even look like him now,’ she says.
She sighs. Turns away from me and starts clearing up the rubbish that’s piled in the corner of the yard, singing an old song about London and the Thames to keep herself company, and after a minute or two of me watching this performance I say, ‘Leave it out, ma.’
She looks at me strange, like I’ve broken into her dream. ‘Go on then,’ she says. ‘Claim your rights. There’s a whole city out there needs robbin.’ She spits on the floor, ‘Take the friggin dog with you too, see if I care.’
‘I got nowhere else,’ I tell her. ‘I thought I did, but I was wrong.’
She looks at me cold, ‘When you’re dead, when you meet up with old Sikes down in that fiery pit, tell him from me, she was better than him, she was always better than him. And she’s up there somewhere. With the angels.’
‘Whores don’t go to ‘eaven, ma. You should know that.’
I can see tears in her eyes. Who’d of thought you could upset an old tart like that? So I tap the head of the blackthorn against a wall and just say to her, like it’s nothing, ‘Well, got to be off. Come on boy.’
He raises a battered ear,
He snuffles, then stands up and trots along after me through the stinkin alleys and cobbled streets.