Table of Contents
Also by Eva Hornung
writing as Eva Sallis
The City of Sealions
The Marsh Birds
Sheherazade through the Looking Glass: The Metamorphosis of the 1001 Nights
Two Banks with No Bridge
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © Eva Hornung, 2009 All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Dog boy : a novel / Eva Hornung.
eISBN : 978-1-101-19000-5
1. Abandoned children--Fiction. 2. Feral dogs--Fiction. 3. Human-animal relationships--Fiction. I. Title.
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
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For Philip Waldron
The first night was the worst.
Romochka sat on the bed as a chill crept into the apartment. All his attention was focused on the apartment door.
The building was buzzing, strange. It was filled with curses and screams, as if all the residents were awake, drunk and angry. People were dragging stuff along the corridors, down the stairs, until their voices faded and the bumps and squeaking wheels receded. He could tell people were leaving. Tromping back and forth to get their things, then gone. None of them sounded like Uncle. Every curse, every stumble and scrape, was followed by nothing. No scrabbling at the door, no turning of the key. No familiar hinges sighing. No stumbling entrance. No hairy-nose-breathing in the gloom—only his own frosty breath. He was the only one there, breathing the gloom in and out.
He had been angry with his uncle for weeks, but this anger vanished as the evening lengthened. His eyes slid to the door. He had not seen his mother for a long time, more than a week, and since then Uncle had taken their possessions away piece by piece. First their clock, then his mother’s wooden shelf that had been her mother’s. Then other important things—the square table they used at breakfast, the two chairs, the television that flickered. But Uncle was never late home except on pension day.
Darkness now filled every corner. Romochka climbed stiffly off the bed and yanked at the electrical cord. Nothing. He scuttled to the electric hotplate that sat on top of the shelf beside the coat rack. He knew it was forbidden but reached up nonetheless and turned both cracked knobs. His heart beat hard in his chest.
No click, no friendly orange eyes on the knobs. No ticking in the metal plates up out of his line of sight. Nothing.
He shuffled over to the heating pipes. A bottle clinked and rolled away from his feet. He stretched out his hand.
The pipes were cold. He snatched his hand back as if scalded.
In the bathroom there was no hot water. The phone was dead.
‘Someone,’ Romochka said crossly to himself, ‘has been a selfish fucked-up bastard.’ He climbed back into the bed and deep under the cooling quilts. He repeated it, as if grown-up speech could bring them back, but his voice faltered: his heart was beating too hard. He put his thumb in his mouth and tried to slip into that thumb trance that had once carried him, wide-eyed, through anything. But he hadn’t sucked his thumb for a while and it had lost its perfect shape.
With the exception of the phone, none of this had happened before.
He warmed up under the quilts. His nose and forehead, poking out of the gap between quilt and pillow, were uncommonly cold. He stared at nothing. Rain fell without sound, making dim striations across the rectangle between the curtains. He fell asleep with the strange notion that the outside was coming inside, and that he had to defend what little warmth he had left. When he opened his eyes in the darkness, he was scared by the unfamiliar rush of cold air onto his eyeballs. The window was brighter than before: the first snow was falling. The swirl and eddy of tiny snowflakes made the stillness in the room awful. Layers of silence cocooned his body: nothing stirred in the bed, in the room, out in the hallway, or anywhere in the building. Silence changed everything. The cupboard loomed, enlarged. The padding on the door gleamed in the odd light cast by the window. His ears moved, tweaking his scalp as he strained to hear something, anything; but the building had died and shut out even noises from outside. He could hear only the gurgle and hum of his own body.
The next morning his uncle still had not returned. He got up, glowering fiercely at nothing and everything, and put on far more clothes than he would normally have needed. Feeling bold, he went to explore outside the apartment. There could be no doubt, were he caught: he was up to no good. He would be beaten and locked in the cupboard.
The air was cold and silent. He checked the communal kitchen and was astonished to find that the stove, the sink and all the fridges were gone, leaving a very dirty empty room. Even the inbuilt kitchen furniture was gone, and pipes stuck out here and there from the wall. Muck and dust hung over the old wallpaper that had been behind the benches and stove.
The toilet was still there, so he used it. It wouldn’t flush. There was no toilet paper and nothing at all in the cupboard behind the toilet. The communal bathroom looked almost normal, except that it was dry and its usual humid air had gone stale, leaving only a smell of mould.
He was all alone.
He wandered back to the apartment. Its ordinariness was now scary. Only the cold air gave away the desolation of the rest of the building. His adventurous mood faded and he turned this way and that with rising terror. He raced suddenly to the cupboard, wriggled in and closed the doors, just as though he had been caught, roundly slapped and thrown in. He began to sob as he had many times before, and his ears really did burn with heat and pain. He sobbed harder, then, and rocked back and forth until he fell asleep.
Over the next two days Romochka ate everything he could find in the food cupboard and didn’t bother to clean up. He ate the half packet of biscuits first. Then he crunched through a cabbage, raw potatoes, cereal, rice and macaroni. He got a stomach ache and lay down. When he felt better, he managed to open the two tins of mackerel and ate them. He ate a box of sugar cubes and even tried to chew through a raw onion. There were two jars he couldn’t open, one of preserved plums, the other cucumbers. He thought of smashing them but was too cautious. His mother had told him:
You die if you eat food out of smashed glass.
He raided every forbidden space. There was little of interest and nothing edible in any of them. He pulled clothes out of boxes and hauled everything out from under the bed. His mother’s dresses were pretty but flimsy, and one tore as he tugged them from their hangers. He held her peacock dress to his face for a while, breathing in. Then he laid them all gently to one side and went on rummaging. His mother had a little brown coat with fur cuffs, waist and collar.
, she said often,
that you don’t need anything on your legs.
It was not to be found. He gave up. He put on so many of his own clothes that he found it hard when he had to wrestle them down to go to the toilet. He tugged the mattress off the bed and threw everything warm onto it, then spent most of his time in the pile he had made. He was in big trouble if Uncle came back. He wanted Uncle to come back just to show him what happens if you don’t come home on time.
After three and a half cold days and three long, unlit, icy nights he decided he had to leave. There was no particular reason he could see for his uncle and the phone, electricity and heating to leave and not come back, except that his mother had suddenly not come back—and, more recently, the furniture had left and not come back. In his short life his uncle and the phone had in general been less reliable than his mother, the heating and the furniture.
His stomach churned with apprehension as he moved aimlessly around the apartment. Going out to the street alone was forbidden.
If you ever set foot outside, both Uncle and I will kill you, first me, then him.
But there was no food.
He procrastinated. He explored the other floors. It no longer surprised him that the building was eerily still and dark. He climbed to level four and knocked half-heartedly at Mrs Schiller’s, knowing that she wasn’t there. The door was unlocked. He pulled it open and walked into her apartment. It was still a shock, even though he had guessed there would be changes. Her big two-room apartment was empty and strewn with rubbish. A harsh light spread over everything from the undressed windows. Outside, treetops with a few golden leaves tossed in silence in the wind. He stomped back to his place.
For a moment he hesitated as he stood in the doorway. The apartment had an insistent homeliness, a pull on him that made him walk in as if things were completely normal. He sat down on the ripped sofa bed and looked around for his mother, ignoring the gaps where the television, table and bookshelf were supposed to be. He walked out, turned, and walked in once more but the strange effect had died away.
His stomach rumbled. He grabbed his red bucket and put a black velvet ribbon that had belonged to his mother in it. He ran down the three flights of stairs, past the burnt apartment on level one and down the main stairs. The buzzer that released the lock didn’t work, but there was a thin white line between the door and the jamb. He threw his full weight against the door and it swung outwards, letting in blinding light.