Barney Dillon was lifted from his shallow slumber by a strange, moist tickling on his cheek. He awoke all at once, as he always did, to find a little grey rabbit snuffling at his face. The rabbit pulled away quickly, and darted out of the cave. Barney considered giving chase, but by the time he had pulled himself up onto his feet the rabbit was gone.
Barney stretched his long limbs and felt the sinews crackle as sleep deserted his body. There was an autumnal chill in the damp air. It had been raining in the night. Barney knew this because the patter had permeated his dreams.
Those same dreams came to him every night. A dinner party in a penthouse apartment. Glancing out of the window, he took in the sights, the grand old buildings of Mexborough Street. This had been his home once, a lifetime ago. He and Suzanne had been very happy here. Around him were faces he had not seen in years, decades even. He saw his sister Karen and her new husband Gareth, the surly young banker; he saw stocky Tommy Rollins, the kind-hearted gangster; he saw old David Feltcher, the lunatic scientist, always working on some wild scheme or other.
In these dreams of nights long forgotten, Barney was clad in tailored suits, designer shirts, freshly polished shoes. He awoke in tattered rags, barefoot and alone. Always alone.
It was better that way.
Barney emerged slowly, timidly, from his cave. He looked around, at the rolling hills and eternal plains that stretched out to the horizon, severed only by the distant motorway and the railway tracks. The grass at the cave mouth was damp with rain and dew. Today would be a good day to go fishing, he thought; but he had other plans.
Every fourth week, when the moon was dark, Barney would make the long trek to the city he once called home. It had been a place of familiarity then, of comfort and confidence. He had felt that he owned those streets, belonged with those people. Now, after years in the wild, the city was utterly alien to him. The streets were strange; wide plateaus of danger and chaos, full of roaring motor vehicles that would carry him away in their sharp teeth if he did not watch himself. The people were rabid dogs who would tear him apart for sport, laughing all the while.
Barney began the slow, painful walk south. He went to the railway line and, maintaining a safe distance, hidden behind tall grasses and beech trees, followed the tracks towards Linfield.
By the time the sun set, he had nearly reached his destination. The very perimeter of the city felt particularly dangerous to Barney, but he had found various small, sheltered backroads that allowed him a safer access, beyond the prying eyes of strangers. He left the train line and ducked around the Garfield stables, careful to stay downwind of the whinnying horses. Then, he snuck down Ashford Lane- more a dirt track, in truth, framed by fir trees on either side. Beyond those fir trees lined up neatly, he knew, were homes. People lounging around in their warm sitting rooms, gawping at the television, oblivious to the reprehensible hermit that was stealing into their city.
Ashford Lane led onto the busy dual carriageway of Duskfield Road. This was the hardest part of the journey for Barney. As a child, he had often traversed this road with his sister and their father, en route to pick up their mother from work. For Barney, memories of the past were just as perilous as threats of future violence, so he had to bite down hard as he dashed across the road and down an alleyway on the other side.
Whilst Duskfield Road held many hard memories of the past, it also hosted a number of small supermarkets, bakeries, even a butchers. These shops boasted the prize for Barney’s courage in entering the city of his past. He waited.
Hours passed as Barney squatted in the gloomy alleyway. The sky grew as dark as the streetlights would allow, and the traffic on Duskfield Road quietened as the city fell into slumber. Finally, somewhere around four o’clock, he rose from his haunches and stole silently down the alleyway that hemmed in the shops and supermarkets. Back here, he knew, were bins replete with stale bread and biscuits, spoiled pork and beef, tins that had outlived their use by dates and their usefulness. Barney pulled a large holdall, neatly folded, from the inner pocket of his tent-like coat, and filled it as best he could with the goodies that would keep him fed for another moon’s turn. He took dried up cakes and loaves lightly flecked with blue mould. He took packets of old sausages, of greened steaks and whole chickens. He took dented tins of baked beans, of vegetables in brine, of soup and chopped tomatoes and rice pudding. He took bag after bag of dried pasta, of rice, of fractured noodles.
Once his holdall was bulging with food, Barney sneaked back down the alleyway. He cautiously crossed Duskfield Road, traipsed up Ashford Lane, around Garfield stables, and home to his cave, laden with his month’s shopping.
For much of the next four weeks, Barney knew, he would be reliant on his traps to keep him fed, as well as the haul he had liberated from the shops on Duskfield Road. He was adept at snaring rabbits and pheasants, and so seldom truly went hungry. He drank from streams, and had even dug a reservoir of sorts- more a puddle, really, lined with a tarpaulin he had found by the train tracks some years before. His life was almost bucolic in this sense; however, he could never fully escape from the memories, the life which had led him here, into the wilderness beyond Linfield.
Suzanne’s withered hand reaching out for his, and his horrified reaction. He had pulled away from her. He could never forgive himself for that instinctive response. He had known she was ill, known she was wasting away as the cancer devoured her body; so why had he pulled away? Just when his wife, his beloved, his moon and stars and soul- just when she had needed his love and support, he had run. He had pulled his hand away, turned, and fled the hospital, fled the city. She was dead now, he knew- Barney had returned to the hospital the next night, ready to plead with his dying wife to forgive him, but she had already gone. Her final moments had been made even more pitiable by her husband’s pathetic reaction. So, once more, he had run. He had found the cave some miles to the south-west of the city, and had secluded himself.
She did not deserve her lonely death, and so he did deserve a lonely life; a life of complete isolation, on the cusp of death at all times. One bad winter, one heavy storm, and Barney would be free to join her. Until then, however, his entire existence will be a penance for his wife, for his betrayal of her.
The sun was beginning its inexorable rise through the skies as Barney returned home. He tossed the holdall to the back of the cave, lay down on the jagged rocks he called his bed, and fell into a shallow, restless slumber.