George curls his body more tightly, trying to keep out the bitter cold. Without a pillow his neck is causing him agony, but he knows that to lie more comfortably on his back will expose more of his body to the sub-zero temperature. Morning must be approaching, he tells himself, because he can just make out the timber lining about a metre and a half above him. What he would give to be home in his own bed, with Lily snoring beside him! Instead, he slowly recalls the events of the evening before, and the way Lily had hustled him out and slammed the front door behind him. He had stood staring at the door for a few moments before the porch light had been snapped off. She had meant it, obviously.
He is very tired, and dozes off once more.
Something is tugging at his coat. He ignores it for a few moments, but eventually lifts his head to see what is going on. It is daylight, and he remembers that he is in the cubby-house in the park, not three hundred metres from his house. It had been the only place he could think of last night, a little the worse for wear from wine and harassment from Lily.
It is a large wooden cubby-house. The floor is that rubbery stuff they put in playgrounds these days, and it is the relative cushioning and insulation that drew him here. At the round entrance to the cubby-house, a small dog is intent on dragging him out into the playground. ‘Get off,’ George mutters ineffectually, kicking out in an effort to discourage the dog. Beside the dog is a small boy, kneeling, staring at George impassively.
‘Hello,’ says the boy. He looks exactly like one of the characters from George’s childhood comics, the small boy who gets into all sorts of trouble with his dog. He has lots of unruly hair, gingerish, and freckles. The dog is the same colour as the boy’s hair, and keeps tugging at the hem of his coat, leaning back on its haunches and uttering a continuous low growl.
‘Can you stop your dog doing that?’ George asks.
‘He’s not my dog.’
George kicks out again, but of course that has no effect. ‘Well, make him stop it anyway.’
‘What are you doing here?’ the boy asks. ‘Are you a tramp?’ He has no expression on his face, and he is staring intently at George.
‘No. Look, get him to stop it.’
‘He’s not mine. What are you here for?’
‘Where’s your fire, then?’ The boy lays his hand on the dog’s shoulder, and the dog stops tugging and turns his head to lick the boy’s hand.
‘I don’t have a fire.’
‘Does your Mummy know you’re here?’
George is loosing patience. ‘I don’t have a Mummy. Well, I do, but she’s got nothing to do with it.’
‘Ah,’ says the boy, as though suddenly understanding. ‘It’s your wife, is it?’
George is taken aback, and can’t think what to say.
‘Has she been beating you?’
Where do they pick up this sort of thing? George wonders. ‘No, she has not been beating me. I wanted a night out, that’s all.’
‘Why are you still dressed? Don’t you have any pyjamas?’
‘No. Now take your dog and leave me alone.’
‘There’s a sign,’ the boy says, looking over his shoulder as though to indicate where the sign is. ‘It says children only to utilise the recreational equipment.’
George is exasperated. He tries to sit up, but he is so stiff with cold that he rolls back to the ground. He feels like an idiot. The boy watches him, the dog beside him crouching again, prepared to attack.
‘Piss off,’ George hisses, and is instantly ashamed of himself.
The boy is not impressed. ‘You mustn’t say that,’ he tells George, shaking both his head and one finger raised in admonishment.
George rolls once more and crawls through the entrance, and the boy and the dog move quickly away, standing together just out of his reach.
George needs to urinate, and he stands looking around him. Though he lives opposite the park, he has no idea where a public toilet might be: he has never before needed one just here.
The boy looks at him cautiously. ‘Are you going home now?’
Without thinking, George lets it slip out: ‘Can’t,’ he says tiredly.
The boy’s eyes light up; he was right, he thinks. ‘The wife?’
There is a little pause while George runs his fingers through his hair and looks about him. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘The wife.’
The boy is suddenly shy as a solution comes to him. ‘You could come home with me,’ he suggests. ‘We’re having sausages for breakfast, and my Mummy never beats people.’
George looks at the boy. My God, he thinks; If only it was that easy.