Forgive them their sins if it was sins. Maybe I knew them better than they knew themselves, that Dondo and Peggy. You might think them husband and wife but wrong because they were brother and sister. Like two love birds.
They must have had it in their heads for a long time that the river was their friend and never questioned their right to pick me up from my bed of dead leaves. They fought about who would carry me until he hit her to put manners on her and they set off through the alders our ears full of gurgling water but mostly quiet and full of the heaviness the water left hanging in the air.
Peggy touched me first wrapping the soiled anorak around me keeping me hidden. Poor little bastard poor little mite she said. I smelled her breath sour. What fuckers would leave a wee baby Dondo said.
They’d been out on a prowl along the river looking for things maybe washed down from a village or a farmhouse around the lake. They might find a piece of plastic or a dead dog. Hardly anyone went down among the dogwood and alders and waterfowl skittering around the red and black leaves and the smell of rot.
Dondo took me from her putting me under his coat. Hold the bottle he said and she was drinking while he got me covered. A smell there too. They walked along without a word and passed by lights coming on in the filling station but they did not speak to anyone and got to the house going up the stairs to wash me Peggy using an old towel for a nappy while Dondo went for cigarettes and flagons. I felt warm after the coldness of the river.
Silence after they’d left me to rest on a mattress on the floor. No more water sound or birds staring or branches on the moon.
Only the smell of fried food in the house on the hill and the wind tearing in from the north. The sound of cars and children learning to curse in the gardens.
They went out and came back later drunk and Peggy took me in her arms her tears on my cheeks and I could hear the hammer blows of her heart. They lit a candle and Dondo began to hum the national anthem and they argued about washing me again. You’ll have the little cunt washed away he said. A long time Peggy stayed like that standing with me rocking in her arms me going in and out of sleep and whinging a bit and Dondo snoring on the floor. That fella is a fuckin’ disgrace Peggy said. She was warm maybe like a mother.
The mornings would have grown old by the time they wakened on their mattress on the floor beside mine or I might waken them and they’d curse me. If there was rain on the window they lay on all day drinking.
Me hidden under Dondo’s coat we went out after dark. Deadly, we’re like soldiers he would say. Don’t say anything to no-one Peggy would say. I could see lights above and sometimes feel the wind tug at Dondo’s coat trying to take me away. I didn’t cry hardly at all.
The room. They kept me below the window and I could see light on the wall opposite. Sometimes a cold draught came down from the window.
The months passed making the room colder. We went out less and less and when we did we went to the docks to stroll among the warehouses. I heard creaking galvanised iron but never the sound of a voice. The occasional car passing like a ghost in a hurry to get away from that lonely place. Dondo filled his pockets from the piles of coal and spat and they would try to give me a name. Dean, Brad, Micko, Tommy, how about Tommy she begged but he shouted at her. I would wish for something but did not know what.
They wondered when I would be able to walk and they would not be able to control me then. All night they talked about me while they drank and Dando said leave it on a doorstep but she started to weep and he leaned to give her kiss and they both toppled over on top of me. Jesus, Dondo said. There was a knock at the door but they never heard it.
I spent days playing with the soft toys Peggy brought from the charity people. A Polar bear and a crocodile.
Sometimes when she was drunk she’d forget to feed me and I would want to cry but fear would stop me and I’d stare at the ceiling.
Leaning over me she would try to lure the word Mammy from my lips. I failed Mammy and she tried Mommo. Then Mam. Then she gathered me in her arms and said alright… alright… alright.
My arse went raw. She tried cooking oil but had to steal Sudo cream. The hole must be burnt out of him said Dondo. Will we call him Clint?
The plastic nappies cost too much so she used the towels. They filled up with pee and I thought about the river filling up with snow.
Shortly after the sore arse Dondo fell in love with someone else. They would grunt together on the floor while I lay sucking the dry nipple of my thumb. Her name was Carmel and they would clatter in when Peggy was not there and I would hear the spit of cans and then the slopping mouths and after that the grunts. Sometimes after they had collected their money they would be at the grunting while Peggy sang downstairs. She’d be still singing after the other two were finished.
I’d say Rambo would be a good name Dondo said one night but they argued between Clint and Pius and so I was still him or it coughing in the darkness.
Shut the fuck Dondo would tell his sister and they would shout and he would stamp on the cans and if a knock came to the door they would be silent and stay silent for a long time afterwards in the darkness.
Get her out get her out Peggy screamed at him one night but he shouted her down telling her she was his one love and they stood holding each other with her crying and then passing me between them like something they were thinking of buying. He needs to be changed badly Dondo said handing me to her.
As soon as I was old enough they would take me to the sea Peggy said that’s right Dondo said he’ll be great gas in the waves I’ll teach him to swim you can’t swim she said shut fuckin up he said, give me another can I’ll carry him out into the waves he might be a champion he’ll be worth a fortune so he will he’ll love making the sand castles I’ll put a bonnet on him she said smiling and Dondo belched and she said her piss had come.
The end nearly came with the snow. A headache left me crying most of a Sunday or maybe a Saturday until she came with the medicine, cradling me in her arms with the pain sending shoots of flame into the dark when I closed my eyes. Ssssh she said pouring the burning medicine from a bottle into my mouth.
When Dondo came back he stroked my head saying good little man leaned over and kissed me on the forehead. I slept then with them like mother and father hf’sicle me on the mattress.
Snow fell for days. I could hear them talking about it and she brought me a snowball on a plate.
Look, a bit of the sky.
She placed my fingers in the bundle of soft cloud afraid that it would melt but it stayed long enough for me to feel the sky. Then she tipped the tray of water from the window. I heard the splash and felt a gust of frozen air leap past my face into the room.
The woman, Dondo’s woman Carmel came to me one day when Dondo was gone to buy cans. She had stayed still for a while after he’d gone but then I heard the creak of the stairs and was up in her arms and smelling her perfume all around the room. She must have poured the perfume all over herself to make herself more attractive to Dondo. She was younger than Peggy and her hair fell on my face, her hands groped behind my back to hoist me into the air, her cigarette smoke stung my eyes. When she started to cough the cigarette hopped up and down in her lips.
She was humming as we danced around the room, her knocking against one wall then the other the smoke stabbing my eyes and her singing the same verse over and over again until he burst into the room and curses flew at us him grabbing me and screaming into her face until she was crying and running and stumbling down the stairs and I heard the door slam.
You’re bad news he said to me.
That evening I was not fed. The night came and they fed me spoonfuls of nothingness and when I wakened he was standing over me holding a pillow before he knelt over me to press it on my mouth and nose until there was only a roaring in my ears dying away like wind across the mountains.
They put me in the ground beside the river. They could get on with their days.