short story competition 2018: Best in the State

WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short storycompetition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Simone De PeakThe newspaper cutting is yellowed and brittle with age. We’d just won “Best Sausage in the State”when I stuck it up inside the shop window.

About 10 years ago that would’ve been.

When I take it down, some stays put beneath the tape. Although the picture’s faded I can still make us out: me, Bobbie and Frank, my apprentice. Frank’s standing on my left with Bobbie, the pup at his feet.

There’s a brown mark across Frank’s chest. Blood, maybe. And, woofta, there’s that punch in my solar plexus again.

The bell on the screen door jingles. I fold the cutting and shove it under the counter.

“Bobbie’s looking poorly,”says old China as he shuffles to the counter.

I nod.

“Picked up after the vet operated,”I say.“But, no, not himself today.”

“Did yer ever find out exactly what happened?”

“Your guess is good as mine, mate,”I reply. “Hit by some car or truck, I reckon.”

“Fancy them leaving the poor beggar for dead. And with that gaping hole in his belly and all.”

I wrap China’s mince and slap the parcel on the counter-top. After he’s gone, I unsheathe a knife, give it a quick sharpen and slice up some sirloin on the butcher’s block.

I recall the first day I saw Bobbie. During the war it was. Ribs stuck out like elbows. Coat dirty grey instead of white, totally matted. His head seemed too heavy for him; bobbed up and down as he limped along the footpath toward the shop. Think Frank might’ve christened him Bobbie. Anyways, the name stuck.

When Frank gave him a sausage I growled.

“Don’t go feedin’ that mutt the profits,”I said.

Frank shrugged. And that mongrel pup wolfed down that sausage. From then on the little beggar would be waiting outside every morning, bang on eight. Out would go Frank and feed him a sausage. I’d scowl and grumble but it fell on deaf ears; Frank was a right sucker for Bobbie’s pleading brown eyes.

“I’ll dock the cost from your wages,”I said.

And what was Frank’s response? Chatted away to Bobbie. Patted him. Scratched his belly. Flamin’ soppy as the dog.

“Hello,”chimes a voice across the counter.

“Oh, didn’t hear you come in, Mrs Steel,”I say, wiping my hands on my apron. “Miles away, I was.”

“Wonder you didn’t hear the bell,” she says, nose wrinkling at the smell of meat and sawdust. “How’s Bobbie?”

“Bit off today,”I explain with a grimace. “Anyways, what can I get for you?”

“Give me half-a-pound of those prize-winning sausages of yours.”

I think of the clipping under the counter and blood pumps into my face.

Mrs Steel stows the sausages in her string bag.

“Hope Bobbie picks up,”she says as she leaves.

The screen door slaps behind her. I take out the cutting again. It splits along the fold. Starts to fall apart. I spread it out on the counter and think back to when it was printed.

As proprietor of the butcher’s shop I got all the accolades for that winning sausage. I puffed up like bread dough; you can see from the photograph how full of myself I got. But it was Frank.

Frank came up with the recipe for that sausage. I told him to keep his trap shut. He looked at me like … like he somehow pitied me.

Worse still, when he got his call up for the army, I actually breathed a sigh of relief.

Even went along to the station and waved him off when he shipped out. Imagine that.

Course, Bobbie pined his heart out. Didn’t eat for days. When he started again the entire town spoiled him rotten with tidbits. But weirdest thing, you know: after Frank left for the war, Bobbie refused to take a single sausage from me. Not a one. Nine years on. Still hasn’t.

Instead of ditching the cutting in the bin I take it out back and bury it among some paraphernalia in a drawer. Then I fetch a sausage, just on the off chance and go outside to check on Bobbie. He’s lying on his old khaki blanket. He looks up with … I dunno … sad eyes.

I kneel down and break the end of the sausage open. Squeeze out a bit of the meat to make it easier for the old fella. And lo and behold, Bobbie sniffs at it. Then instead of laying his head down on his paws like he’s done all those years since Frank left, he cocks his head on one side and licks the sausage meat.

“Good boy,”I say. “Have a bite, mate. Have a bite.”

And blow me down. He gobbles down the whole darn thing. I pat his head. Scratch behind his ear.

“That’s the way, boy,” I say. “Couple more of Frank’s sausages and you’ll be up and about again.”

He looks up at me. Bit fanciful maybe, but his eyes are sort of smiling.

Back inside the shop, my chest feels twice its usual size; has to contain my heart somehow. When young Miss Lawson comes in for her lamb chops, I’m whistling … It’s a Long Way to Tipperary. Miss Lawson purses her lips and does a little shimmy.

“That for the good-looking soldier out the front?”she asks.

“Huh? What soldier?”

“The one outside with Bobbie.”

I fling open the flap in the counter. It bangs against the wall. Two strides and I’ve crossed the shop floor. I practically yank the screen door off its hinges and leap down both steps at once.

I stare up the street toward one end. Spin around and stare up toward the other end. Twice. Three times.

There’s not a single person in sight.

I crouch down alongside Bobbie. Reach out to scratch the back of his head. I gaze back up the street, just on the off chance, but I know Bobbie’s spirit has already left.