She was definitely a mongrel. Not big, not small, mostly white, no particular breed, friendly face, flappy ears and a busy tongue. Her fur was neither long nor short, and after walks through South Humberside fields would become home to a lucky dip of vegetation and creepy crawlies. When she raced along the Humber bank she would dart for the muddy flats and come back a sodden black mess, and, when no one was looking, she would sneak up and shake a muddy shower over bare legs and arms. She liked mud. She liked to wade through ditches and run through fields. She liked to sniff; she would sniff anything, and ever since she was small all she had wanted to do was run and explore and play. That’s why the little girl had called her Cloud: that bundle of fun and energy would go wherever the wind took her.
But something had stopped Cloud from running and playing and exploring. Something had taken her friendly face and left her flappy ears flat.
The girl wasn’t so little anymore but she still loved her Cloud and she was worried for her beautiful scruffy pet. Her fur had lost its hidden treasures and the mud on the Humber bank remained smooth and unsullied.
Now, other than a quick trip to the yard to relieve herself, Cloud stayed at her dad's side and watched TV. The girl would try and take her for walks, dangling the lead, speaking in a ridiculously high-pitched voice that tried to be excited. Rejection. The girl felt it keenly and wondered if it was this feeling that made her convinced that her dog was different, that she was somehow not all there, that something was causing this change.
Dad was an avid watcher of twenty four hour news channels. He called it surfing the world wide woe. He liked a bit of woe. Disasters, man-made and natural were his permanent vista, the body count higher and higher, the wars louder and louder, the journalists and presenters younger and younger and ever more desperate for words to describe the misery and fear without sounding like it was just another day in the world wide woe. Most days they failed, so it was rubber-necking reporting that kept the news feeds alive. Dad's neck was rubber. He would watch with his head slightly forward, nodding almost imperceptibly like a man trying to show that he understands. Cloud watched with him, immobile, not nodding at all.
On a hot June Sunday a story had spread from the local to the national and then the international news. Dad had tracked it on four different networks, his fingers manipulating the controller with a smooth, practised grace. As Mum said, if TV control was a trade she wouldn't need two jobs. Mum didn't like Dad very much. The girl did her best to ignore them both but she was watching Cloud watch the TV and trying to think of new ways to entice her outside. Hot June Sundays weren't meant to be spent indoors. Sighing, she switched her attention to the TV. A man had collapsed and died while walking on the Humber Bridge. There hadn’t been an unexplained death for more than six months and this made two in a week. Events in Humberside often spread to a wide audience, the Splash had seen to that.
The pictures on the screen showed the Humber Bridge from the air. The usual statistics and information flashed by at the bottom of the screen: 2,220 metres across. The two towers, the north on land, the south in the water, were 155-metres tall. The great length of the bridge meant that due to the curvature of the earth the towers were perpendicular but not parallel. The city of Hull lay to the east, and carrying on toward the North Sea, just after the estuary bent to the south, the ports of Grimsby and Immingham harboured ships from all over the world.
The camera swept down to the deck, the scene below sliced into fragments by the suspension cables. Traffic moved slowly, the vehicles’ occupants rubber-necking at the wind-battered white tent that marked the point where the man had died.
It had been so long since the deaths had come so close together that it was big news, and its location on the world’s most famous bridge made it all the more so. The Humber Bridge had been a silent back drop to everything Splash-related for seventeen years, long before Cloud was born. Now it framed a death that was the first since she had started to watch with Dad.
The girl moved through to the kitchen and flicked the kettle on and then took two mugs from the cupboard, knowing that Dad would demand a brew.
Through the window she could see the neighbour's dog in the yard next door, the fence between the yards so dilapidated that she could look right through it, which was exactly what the dog was doing. It was a pit bull and mean looking; the girl often felt like it was looking right at her, like it knew her in some way. It spent all of its time outside and she had seen it forcing its way out of the back gate on several occasions. Briefly she wondered where it went; she'd never seen it around the streets of the village. She dismissed the thought, not caring about someone else's dog when her own seemed so lifeless.
She walked back through to the television with two mugs of tea. Dad grunted a thank you. He glanced at the lurid green picture of an alien, its yellow saucer eyes staring out from beneath the Splash Land logo. The theme park was at the end of the village's main street and was the area's main source of income. Sighing again, she pictured her future self in the green and purple uniform of the park attendants. She looked old in the picture.
Dad glanced across at her sigh. 'You're as miserable as this dog,' he said, looking down at Cloud. 'Why don't you take her out, get some sun?'
'She's not bothered,' the girl replied. 'Never is these days.'
'Not good for a dog to be cooped up,' he said knowledgeably, the slight nod of his head firmer on this subject than that of global war and terrorism.
The girl didn't answer, knowing that Dad would soon stop and subside once more into his chair. He shook his head at the dog and the girl and turned back to the TV. Sports news. Hull City were finalising their rebranding as the Splash Landers. Supporters were complaining, protesting, chanting.
'Why do football fans always sound so stupid?' asked the girl. 'They're always chanting and sounding like thugs.'
'Answered your own question there,' said Dad, nodding a little more.
'They're like kids. The new name will get them loads of money.'
'What does a name matter anyway?'
'One of their players died last year, didn't he?'
Dad nodded and said, 'He was out jogging. I always said it was bad for you.' He tried on a laugh. It didn't fit.
'The jogging killed him?'
The girl looked at Cloud. The dog had not taken its eyes from the screen.
As the week wore on, the sun was taken by the rain. Angry clouds moved in and settled across the sky like a massive grey blanket thrown over the light and stretched till it was so tight that it was difficult to breathe. And the rain. The rain soaked everything, filling and spilling from every surface and angle of building. Windows were sheets of water, the roads were so wet that there was always a layer of water, cars moving through like bullies, splashing pedestrians and each other.
It rained on Wednesday and all day on Thursday. Friday was the heaviest downpour; the sun was not seen once, its grey captor not allowing the tiniest peek through its veil. The girl had been soaked on the way to school, soaked at break and dinner, soaked again on the way home for days in a row and hadn't spent time with her friends for three days because no one wanted to be out in this weather. She was miserable.
And now Cloud wanted a walk. Nine o'clock on a wet Friday night and her stay-at-home dog wanted a walk.
'No,' the girl said again. Cloud, her lead dangling from her mouth, cocked her head to one side and stared with wide brown eyes. Her white scruffy hair framing a too-cute face. 'No,' the girl repeated. She folded her arms, but she couldn't stop looking at the dog.
'It's not fair,' she said. 'I've been trying to get you out for months and you've not been bothered. Not in the slightest.' Cloud cocked her head the other way and wagged her tail, the raggedy stump sweeping manically back and forth across the lino. The girl sighed. 'Come on, Cloud, this isn't fair. It's pissing down. It's more than pissing, it's widdling. I'm not going back out in it.' She turned from the birthday-card face of Cloud and walked through to the living room where Dad was watching the news. A reporter was on the north bank of the Humber discussing rising water levels. People were excited about another flood in Humberside.
'Fancy a film?' she said.
Dad shook his head.
'You wouldn't take a dog out in this would you?'
Dad shook his head.
Noise from the kitchen. The girl glanced to the doorway and saw that Dad had taken a look. Cloud was whining. It was a pitiful sound. The girl's heart ached; she couldn't bear to listen to it. Even through the walls she could see Cloud's beautifully scruffy face pleading. More noise. Scratching now. Dad glanced toward the doorway, then at the girl.
'Take her out for a run. She'll soon want to be back in.'
'Just for ten minutes. A quick run round the playing field.'
The girl's shoulders slumped. She knew that she would have given up eventually; she never could deny Cloud anything.
Shrugging her rain coat on, she moved through to the kitchen, Cloud bouncing with excitement around her legs and making it difficult to walk.
'All right, all right,' said the girl, 'we're going, we're going.'
'Get a towel ready,' Dad called through from the living room. 'Your mum'll go mad if you let her back in dripping wet.'
The girl stamped up the stairs, Cloud at her heels, dashing ahead, circling her. The girl smiled. 'Come on then,' she said as they stumbled back into the kitchen. She left the towel on the work top next to the back door, ready for when they returned. Cloud was beside herself with excitement to be away and the girl struggled to get the lead clipped to her collar. 'Hold still, you silly dog.'
Finally they were out into the rain, Cloud pulling the girl along through the widdling drops. The street was deserted save for an occasional car that smashed through the water. The girl had her hood tight around her face but she was soaked in seconds, the water running off her jacket and covering her legs, the denim of her jeans sticky and heavy. The noise of water was everywhere, falling, running, splashing in drains, on rooftops, through gutters and down drainpipes. It dripped from the streetlights, their yellow glare blurred by the downpour.
Reaching the playing field, she stooped to unclip the lead from the pulling Cloud. Again the dog was so excited that it was difficult to manage, the girl's fingers slipping on the metal clasp. 'You'll have to calm down if you want to get off this lead!' said the girl. And Cloud did. The dog stopped pulling and sat down, waiting patiently for her lead to be removed, almost as if she had understood the girl's words. As she undid the clasp, the girl frowned. 'What's wrong with you?' she said. 'You never do as you're told.'
Cloud looked at her, woofed a little bark that was drowned out by the hammering rain, turned and ran into the wet gloom of a clouded summer's evening. The girl watched her white fur until she had to rub the water from her eyes. Then the dog was gone.
'Evening,' said a man. It was Mr Jones from four doors away. He had an umbrella, long rain coat and wellington boots. The girl, standing at the edge of the playing field to avoid the sodden grass, was jealous. 'Get dragged out did you?' he added.
'Yeah,' she replied.
'Haven't seen you out with Cloud for a while.'
'No, she's been...' the girl began and then stopped. She didn't want to tell Mr Jones that her dog had been inside stuck in front of the TV, that it felt like something was keeping her there. 'She's been a bit poorly.'
The girl nodded.
They stood in silence for a long minute.
'How's Mr Tricks?' said the girl.
'He's fine. Still not learnt any tricks though.' He winked at the girl, who smiled in return. He sighed and looked out from under his umbrella. 'Not a good night for this. I was going for a drink in the Pipe before Mr Tricks started his whining. My missus wouldn't let me go till I walked him.'
'Yeah, my dad's the same.'
'How is he?'
'Still the same.'
'Shame.' The girl nodded. Mr Jones turned his kindly old face towards her and stepped closer, bringing his umbrella over the girl's head. 'It'll get better,' he said. 'We never know what's around the corner.'
She smiled up at him, rubbing the rain from her face. 'Thanks Mr Jones.'
Another minute passed, this time more comfortably. 'They're taking their time,' said the old man. 'Can't see a thing in this.'
'What was that noise?' said the girl, looking behind her. The fences and gates of the terrace's back yards bordered the field and she was sure she heard scratching.
'What?' Mr Jones turned around. 'I didn't hear anything.'
The girl strained to listen through the sound of the rain on the umbrella. 'There!' she said. 'I heard it again.' They both listened.
The jingle of metal on metal came closer. 'That'll be your Cloud's collar.'
A white-furred dog came into view. The girl squinted at the shape as it came close. It wasn't Cloud.
It was a poodle. It darted past them before they could think to try and stop it.
'Wasn't that Mrs Wimble's poodle?' said the girl.
'I think so. Can't see her coming out in this.' Mr Jones looked at the running poodle until it disappeared. He turned to look at the fences. 'I heard it that time.'
Suddenly there was great swell of scratching, a clamour greater even than the hammering rain. The gates were rattling as if something was behind each of them, scratching and pushing against the wood.
The girl grabbed at Mr Jones's arm and he covered her hand with his own. 'Don't worry,' he said. 'It's just the dogs. Weather must have spooked them.'
'Can they get out?' said the girl.
'No, course not; they're just dogs.' They watched the closest gate as it rattled, the dog behind hitting it harder and harder.
'What's wrong with them?' said the girl.
'I don't know. Maybe we should go.'
'What about Cloud and Mr Tricks?'
They both turned from the gates and scanned the rain. Nothing.
'We should go,' Mr Jones repeated.
'Wait,' said the girl. She was staring at the closest gate again. 'Look!'
The gate was still, silent. All of the gates were silent, the sound of the rain dominating again.
Then, click. The sound of a gate latch lifting and the gate suddenly loose, not held. A black paw appeared and pulled the gate open, slowly at first, as if it was getting in the way of its own efforts, then faster, as if it were learning. Mr Jones and the girl stood and stared, stupefied. A Rottweiler, huge and dark, its fur soaking wet, making the muscles beneath its skin appear to move with a life of their own as it stepped out into the field. With barely a glance at the two people, it moved to the other gates, pushing them open as their own latches were raised. Within seconds there were dozens of dogs in the field, all of them looking to the Rottweiler as if awaiting orders.
Suddenly they moved, all of them at once responding as one to an unheard command, and they sprinted to the field's exit. Mr Jones and the girl flinched as they ran past, but none of them paid them any attention. The canine stream was gone in seconds.
'No barking,' said Mr Jones.
'None of them were barking. Dozens of dogs together and not one bark.' The two of them looked back to the row of open gates.
'Should we tell their owners?' said the girl.
'See if we can find our dogs first.'
Cloud ran and ran. She ran with Mr Tricks, joining with the rest of the dogs as they streamed from the playing field. She ran gleefully, uncontrollably, deliriously. Had she understood time she would have realised she was out of the village in seconds, but she didn't so she just ran. She ran like she couldn't stop, all the way to the house with the front garden filled with possibilities, the house with the links to whatever was happening on the north bank and under the river. The house that just might have what they needed to escape.
She ran like it was her last night on Earth.
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this story there is more to read about Humberside, the Splash and Splash Land in the novel 'Suspended' - and look out for Mr tricks and Mrs Wimble's poodle.
Suspended by Alistair Wilkinson:
James, Barbara and Tilda need something new in their lives, something exciting, and the June
of 2007 promised much. But dealing with new kitchens, conspiracy theories of aliens and monsters and a missing Tilda wasn’t what they had in mind. The three of them, along with a motley crew of local
workers, are going to have the time of their lives. But odd dogs, hidden scientists and an angry plumber are threatening to ruin their summer.
And stop them from saving the world.
Reviews for Suspended by Alistair Wilkinson:
"Excellent read, I could not put it down."
"I found this a very quirky thriller full of dead-pan humour."
"A truly gripping read! This is a well crafted and challenging novel by an exciting new author."
"meticulous descriptions and subtle underlying humour"
"Unputdownable. Literally. I was at work and couldn't get out of my seat to unlock the shop at 9am because the finale of the book was just too damn exciting. Didn't feel even a smidgen of guilt about the queue of impatient customers outside, because it was totally worth it."