Nothing to Declare, a short story by John Boyne
12 Stories of Christmas - Day 8: An old resentments boil over when two brothers from the same litter meet again by chance
I was sitting on the ground outside the Clocktower EzyMart waiting for Officer Kane to return when, to my great surprise, I noticed my brother Gringo defecating on the pavement next to me. It took a few moments for me to be certain that it was in fact him – it had been years, after all, since we’d last seen each other – but his scent was unmistakable and as four million Australians and countless overseas viewers are aware, I have an unparalleled sense of smell.
“Gringo,” I said as he brought his business to an end and proceeded to scrape his hind paws across the gravel. “It is you, isn’t it?”
He said nothing at first, choosing instead to walk over and sniff my bottom. I rose out of politeness to give him easier access.
“Yes,” he conceded, turning back around to face me, those beady eyes of his looking me up and down. He hadn’t changed much. A little older, of course, but then none of us are as we were. A line from Philip Roth came to mind about old age, that it isn’t a battle, it’s a massacre. Officer Kane adores Philip Roth and often reads aloud to me from his books. He also enjoys Margaret Atwood, but only her so-called speculative fiction and I don’t care for that. “And you’re Davenport, aren’t you?” said Gringo. “Well, well, well.”
“What a coincidence that we should run into each other like this,” I said cheerfully. “And what brings you to The Rocks on this fine sunny day?”
He nodded in the direction of the EzyMart. “Just waiting,” he said. “Roger’s inside. He’ll be back out in a few minutes.”
“Roger,” I replied, wondering how to phrase this tactfully. “He’s your . . . ”
“I like to think of him as my friend,” said Gringo with quiet dignity.
“Yes, of course.”
“Roger enjoys pornographic magazines, you see, and his particular favourite, Asian Housewife Slutz, comes out on the second Tuesday of every month. We’re always here first thing to collect it.” He laughed and shook his head, dribbling a little, and then licked a bird poo that had recently been deposited on the street. “Of course I’ll get no sense out of him for the rest of the day now. I’m not racist, Davenport, but sometimes I wish those Slutz would simply stay in their Asian Houses where they belong and not come to Australia at all. I don’t think they’re good for Roger.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say to this. Officer Kane never indulges in such base behaviour and even if he did – which he doesn’t – I would never recount it in public. He’s far too civilised for that sort of thing; he likes foreign-language cinema and rarely watches television except when our own programme is on and then he just laughs and scratches me under the chin while shaking his head a bit, as if he can’t quite understand how his life has come to this. He wanted to be a dancer, you see, but he just didn’t have the ankles for it.
“And you’re well?” I asked. “Your health is good?”
“Tip-top,” said Gringo, his chin held high. “I was wormed last week, as it happens, so I feel like a new dog. And you?”
“Can’t complain,” I told him. “Of course I’m very active so that helps.”
“I suppose you’re busy all day long, aren’t you?” he replied, a hint of resentment in his tone.
“A good portion of it, yes.”
“Lucky you. Roger and I, we don’t do an awful lot. We tend to sit around most of the day smoking pot and watching superhero movies.”
“You smoke pot?” I asked, immediately sitting down on my hindquarters and looking around for someone to report him to. A police officer was walking by on the other side of the street but he ignored my barking. Useless bunch. A customs officer would have reacted instantly.
“Well, second-hand smoker,” said Gringo. “Although I don’t mind getting my freak on occasionally.”
“But it’s illegal,” I growled. “And it’s incumbent upon all of us to keep illicit substances off the streets of Sydney. After all, thousands of men, women and dogs dedicate their lives to protecting Australia’s border on a daily basis.”
“Oh calm down,” said Gringo. “And stop being such a buzz kill. You might have to play by the rules but I don’t.”
“Well, if you’d graduated –”
“Please,” he said, silencing me with a wave of his paw. “Let’s not get into all of that right now. It’s a long time ago and I don’t care to relive it. Anyway, some of Roger’s weed is purely for medicinal purposes. He’s not able to work due to a disability, you see. He can’t even make it much further than down to the pub most nights.”
“He’s a drinker then?” I asked, appalled. (Officer Kane favours vitamin-enhanced, fruit-based beverages.)
“He enjoys the odd schooner, yes. The worst of it is that he wakes me up when he comes home late. But listen to me going on! I’m sure you don’t want to hear about my problems. What brings you down to this neck of the woods anyway? I thought you lived at the airport?”
“I do,” I said. “But there’s some work being carried out on our kennels, an upgrade of sorts, so Officer Kane brought me to stay with him in his flat for a couple of weeks. It’s very nice. He’s extremely cultured. He listens to Michael Bublé and takes bubble-baths.”
Gringo’s eyes lit up. “Officer Kane is here?” he asked, looking around and letting out an involuntary bark.
“Yes he’s just inside. In the EzyMart.”
I could see that, although he was impressed, he didn’t want to make his excitement too obvious. But anyone could see his tail twirling around like a windmill in the middle of a hurricane. I’ve had officer-envy from most of the Detector Dog Programme over the years and I always enjoy it. Officer Kane smells amazing, he’s always throwing his balls around for me to retrieve them, and is never shy with treats. Why wouldn’t others be envious?
“You’ve been together a long time then, I suppose, the two of you?”
“Almost five years now,” I said. “I had another handler at first, Officer Creed, but he had a stroke one afternoon while I was giving the luggage of a Californian student the once-over and I never saw him again after that. I don’t even know whether he’s alive or dead, no one ever told me. Afterwards I was assigned to Officer Kane because his own dog, Margot Fonteyn, had passed away.”
“Margot Fonteyn,” repeated Gringo, giggling and rolling his eyes.
“Yes, I know,” I said, laughing too. “Imagine calling that out at carousel four. Davenport’s a much stronger name. More masculine.”
“And yet you’re a bitch.”
“I am,” I admitted. “But I’m rather a butch bitch, don’t you think? Those drug-importing cokeheads certainly think so. I imagine they have pictures of my face pinned to dartboards in their prison cells!”
“Well, let’s hope they’re a good shot,” said Gringo and it saddened me to realise how bitter he still was after all these years. I would have quite cheerfully rolled around on the ground with him for a few minutes, nibbling his ears and licking his testicles if he’d allowed it, but I had the impression that such frolics were out of the question.
“I’ve seen you on television,” he said finally, glancing around and lowering his voice, as if this was a secret. As if I was not incredibly famous and the envy of animals from Uluru to Brisbane to Melbourne to Perth.
“Oh yes? “ I said. “And are you a fan?”
“Of the show? Not particularly. I always feel that they could get the whole thing over and done with in about eight minutes if they put their minds to it. But instead they just keep repeating the same scenes over and over as if the audience might have forgotten what’s already happened. But Roger loves it. He sits there and screams racial taunts at the Chinese and the Indians carrying suitcases full of food with them, as if there are no grocery stores in Australia. And he has this peculiar obsession that everyone is hiding pellets of heroin wrapped in condoms in their lower intestines.”
“Well, that’s actually quite common,” I replied. “You’d be surprised how many people think they can get away with it.”
“Nothing surprises me any more, Davenport,” said Gringo. “But I’d prefer not to have to watch a bunch of halfwits on television every night, especially when Rolf’s Animal Hospital is on the other side.”
“Not any more it’s not,” I said.
“Well, Home & Away then. Or one of the CSIs. No, I can’t be bothered with your show, but yes, I’ve seen you on it. You take it all very seriously, don’t you?”
“Of course. Last week I caught an English couple as they came through customs. They were acting very suspiciously and I looked up at Officer Kane, hoping he’d let me go over and have a sniff, and when he did it only took me a few seconds before I was sitting on my hindquarters, my nose in the boy’s crotch. He tried to shoo me away, of course, but I wasn’t going anywhere until Officer Kane came over.”
“And what happened?” he asked.
“Cocaine. Amphetamines. Heroin. A little of everything. Some in his socks, some in his underpants. The girl had even squirrelled some away in the pointy bits of her bra.”
“And what was the haul?”
I leaned forward and grinned. “A street value of more than a quarter of a million dollars!”
“Wow,” said Gringo, sitting back in awe. “Just . . . wow.” And then, before I could expand on my story, he was off chasing a butterfly and only came back when he couldn’t catch him. A total lack of attention. Typical.
“That is a lot of money,” he said, as if nothing had happened.
“And it was reflected in the treats I received later,” I told him proudly. “Also, only yesterday I discovered a stash of marijuana in a Samsonite suitcase on the luggage carousel and as no one came forward to claim it, federal police have taken it away to begin further investigations. I can’t wait to find out what happened when that episode airs.”
“You’re so fancy,” said Gringo in a tone that suggested sarcasm.
“Well, it’s not as glamorous as it looks,” I replied. “Although there is a certain satisfaction to knowing that I’m doing all I can to keep the young people of Australia clean and sober.”
“Blah blah blah,” said Gringo, lying face down on the ground now as an elderly lady passed by and reached down to inform him that he was a good boy, yes he was, a good, good boy.
“Oh don’t be like that,” I said.
“You think you’re something special, don’t you?” he asked, snarling at me now, which made the lady scamper off in fright. “Just because you’re on television.” Had his paws been able to make inverted comma signs in the air, they would have done so.
“I don’t think anything of the sort, Gringo,” I protested. “Look, it’s not my fault that I graduated and you – ”
“Flunked out,” he said. “That’s what you were going to say, wasn’t it? That I flunked out.”
“Well, yes,” I said, shrugging. (Dogs can’t actually shrug so we make a manoeuvre known as shrigging instead; it’s extremely similar to a human shrug although completely different at the same time.) “That’s exactly what I was going to say if you hadn’t interrupted me. I mean, there’s no point in pretending otherwise, is there? Being accepted into the Detector Dog Programme, after all, is like gaining access to the gates of heaven: many are called but few are chosen.”
“And from our litter it was always going to be you, wasn’t it?” he said. “You knew exactly what you were doing from the start. Always pooing in the grass, rolling over and playing dead, purring like a cat whenever anyone played with your ears.”
“I have nothing in common with a cat,” I said, raising myself up to my full height now, mortally offended. “You’ll take that back, Gringo!”
“I apologise,” he said quickly, aware that he’d gone too far. “That was beneath me.”
“All right,” I said, sitting down again, mollified. “Still, you were an excellent fetcher. Better than I ever was. You would have made a fine addition to the service if you hadn’t run into those glass doors that afternoon and damaged your nose.”
“The doors were supposed to open automatically,” he insisted. “They always had before.”
“But they were broken! There was a sign on them that said as much.”
He gave a deep sigh and we said nothing for a few moments. The truth is, I don’t really believe in guilt, so I haven’t spent the last five years berating myself for the fact that I graduated from Sniffer School and Gringo didn’t. After all, we were very different types from the start. I took to training like a duck to water while all he ever wanted to do was roll around in the mud and chase after sticks like some kind of mongrel. If it hadn’t been the glass doors it would have been something else. He was never going to make it on to Nothing to Declare.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t blame you,” he said finally. “It’s just that sometimes I look at your life, a television star undertaking work of real importance, and then I look at my own, stuck in a grotty bedsit with a man who almost never plays with me and would never even think of turning me over to scratch my belly. I bet you get a lot of belly-scratching, don’t you?”
“Well,” I said, not wishing to make matters worse. “Not as much as you might think.”
“Yes,” I admitted. “I am. But it’s not my favourite thing. I quite like having my ears played with though.”
“Oh yes, I like that too,” said Gringo, brightening up.
“Rebecca, The First Mrs DeWinter, loved that,” I said, referring to our mother, a show dog of impeccable pedigree.
“So did Whippet,” said Gringo, referring to our father, a local stud who had been named for the best-looking lifeguard on Bondi Rescue. “And what of our brothers and sisters, do you ever run into any of them?”
“No,” I said. “But then I’m rarely off-site. I’m either at the luggage carousels, shooting an episode, or stuck in some photographic studio getting head shots done for the next season’s PR drive. How about you?”
“No,” said Gringo. “I’m afraid I don’t get out for walks very often.”
“Roger,” he admitted, lowering his head, and I knew that he felt conflicted complaining about his master when a dog’s natural instincts are for unconditional devotion and fidelity. “That’s why I look forward to Asian Housewife Slutz day every month. The Clocktower EzyMart is the only shop that stocks them and we live a good thirty minutes away. It’s a once-a-month opportunity for a really good walk.”
“I feel terrible for you,” I said. “If there’s anything that I can ever do – ”
“You could turn back time and get the engineers to fix those glass doors before I ran into them? Oh, ignore me, it wasn’t your fault, after all. By the way, your coat is stunning.”
“Thank you,” I said. “There’s a wonderful little Indonesian woman who arrives every Sunday afternoon to groom me.”
“I bet you get a lot of sex,” he said.
“No, I’m neutered so no one’s interested. How about you? Have you been fixed?”
“I wish,” he said. “I’m a slave to my sexual appetites. And as I don’t get out much, there’s no one for me to hump. I’ve been having a rather intense relationship with one of Roger’s sofa cushions for a year or so but, to be honest, it’s getting rather stale. There’s no challenge there, you know? It just lies on the floor and lets me do whatever I want to it. And it gives nothing back.”
“I can’t say I really understand,” I admitted. “It’s just a part of life that I know very little about.”
“You’re better off out of it. I remember one day when – ”
Before he could finish his sentence, Officer Kane emerged from the EzyMart and kneeled down to untie me from the tree. Gringo watched and then sat up on his hind legs as his face broke into a smile. It was only then that I realised what was different about us. I was on a leash, my destiny in the hands of my master, and he wasn’t.
“You don’t have a lead?” I asked as an obese middle-aged man wearing an Iron Man T-shirt two sizes too small for him came out of the shop too, carrying a six-pack of beer, an enormous bag of crisps and a suspicious brown paper bag that he clutched close to his chest. He whistled as he began to walk in the opposite direction and Gringo jumped up, ready to follow.
“Oh no,” he said. “I’m free as a bird. I suppose there’s an upside to not being a superstar like you, Davenport. I escaped all those sorts of shackles.”
“Gringo, come on you ’effin’ galah!” roared the Roger individual from down the street, only he didn’t say “effin”.
“Got to go,” said Gringo, bursting into a run. “Good to see you, Davenport! Hope our paths cross again!”
I stayed rooted to the spot, feeling an unexpected surge of envy as I watched him disappear, and only when Officer Kane gave a little tug on my lead did I turn around and follow him. I’m very well-trained, after all. I do what I’m told.
John Boyne’s latest work is Beneath The Earth. johnboyne.com Jane Webster teaches illustration at Kingston University; janewebsterillustration.com