James Lawless

Night Watch

James Lawless

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The navy uniform, like a cop’s, is baggy on him, too big at the shoulders, too wide and short at the legs. The Pole refuses to wear the cap, even when doing his rounds of the disused paper mills. The two dogs he leaves tethered snarling with teeth grimaced. They look half starved; one can see the bones protruding through their haunches. So he ventures alone into the spooky warehouse, behind the beam of his torch, ears pricked for the slightest sound. A bat startles him as it flies out, its wings blending with the starless night.

      There were hares and rabbits aplenty to be glimpsed in the daytime running through the overgrown fields, a field day he often thought for the dogs if they were unleashed. But it was just a passing, bleary-eyed view of his daylight surroundings he was afforded as he would head away after his night shift.

      Something scurried behind the machinery of the old printing press. Report in every hour on the phone, he was told; if you didn’t, they rang you just at the point when you’d like to nod off. ‘Is everything all right? No prowlers?’

      It was fine for the first few days, the first week in fact. It was summer after all, the sun rising to greet him most times coming off the shift. Who could go to bed when brightness was beckoning at the window of a manky little bedsit on Usher’s Quay, when the others who shared a floor space were away on day work, coming and going at normal, regulated hours? Hardly ever sees them; hardly sees anyone, except for the Croatian, a muscular guy with tattooed arms who told him about the night watchman job on the outskirts of the city which he had quit, having gone on to better unspecified things.

      The Pole cycles off for a swim some mornings on a squeaky second hand bike, the mile or two to the coast; useful that, the sea so accessible unlike Krakow where he had to be satisfied with the swimming pool in Park Jordana, except for the time of course when he and Hanna had interrailed to the Adriatic coast. He swims partly to cleanse himself from that old uniform (there is no shower in the bedsit), flea-infested maybe from the dogs. He imagines it as the apparel of a corpse or of some old fellow that he has to shake off every day. Like Benny perhaps? To swim, to feel invigorated. Yes. He becomes unhinged after the first week. No sleep, except for the odd doze snatched in the sunshine on a park bench or grassy space, but short-lived as it is marred by the noise of traffic. All those cars everywhere heightening his irritability and nervousness with the worry about Benny. That’s why he took the job outside the city, so Benny wouldn’t find him. The daytime was safe enough. Benny was a night person who shacked up in daylight like those warehouse bats. 

      The dogs are snarling, straining at their leashes, looking more vicious with each passing hour. Back in Poland they advised him not to come in August; he came in June, but still the No Vacancy signs were all over the place. Blacks and Latvians and Czechs and Lithuanians already had filled the more lucrative positions. He would love to be home now on mainland Europe or on some Mediterranean beach maybe, smoking pot with Hanna. God, how long is it since he had a good belly laugh, instead of this endless vigil, this darkness. He has to get the money to pay off Benny. But he knows he’ll never make enough, not at this job, to satisfy him. It went against the grain to take on this type of work, against all his instincts. He was not a night person. He was being turned upside down, left hanging like an antipodean underneath his world. And dogs. They never mentioned there would be dogs. The fields outside are a sea of blackness; the only light, the bare tungsten bulb from the smelly prefab hut, his sentry box, too small even to stretch out in, not that he would want to do so with all the grime and cigarette butts strewing the floor. He wasn’t used to country ways, although Hanna came from a farm; he was used to street lamps; never experienced before such an all-enveloping darkness. Eerie: the solitariness, the remoteness, could play tricks on the mind. Three a.m., the toughest time. The phone rings. He lifts the receiver.

      ‘Forgot?’

      ‘No. I was just about to.’

      ‘No problems?’

      ‘No.’

      ‘You sound hesitant. You weren’t sleeping?’

      ‘No.’

      ‘We can’t have sleeping on the job. We must be vigilant. That machinery is valuable, you know?’

      ‘I know.’

      ‘People could melt it down, get a good price. Did you bring the dogs on your rounds?’

      ‘Of course.’

It’s the day watchman who brings the food for the dogs. The Pole looked back once as they tore into the chunks of steak; it filled him with terror; made him recoil as if it were his own flesh they were devouring. The day watchman is a national, a middle-aged guy with a paunch; the uniform fits him perfectly. He hardly recks the Pole, and mutters comments about bloody immigrants as he clears the dottle of his pipe and spreads his Daily Mirror on the bench.

Another sound out there. A movement. No voice. The trepidation. Could it be them? Could it be Benny and his cronies? Could they have found him? Why did he get involved? He was only a couple of days in the country when he met Benny. Benny was down on the quays in the Anchor bar, where a lot of the Polish Diaspora hung out, in his crombie, flashing money about, buying everyone drinks. 

There is somebody out there. Is it animal or human scurrying through the bushes? He feels like an object on display in the lighted window. Moths, large, threatening, showing their undersides, strike against the glass. He turns off the light: black greeting black. One of the Alsatians outside growls. He shines his torch. It’s the grey fellow with the white streak; they must have names, these dogs. The other dog, the brown fellow, whines gently as if in a dream. Animals don’t dream, do they? It’s cold: that predawn rawness. He turns on the light, feels the bulb blaring down on him like a surgical strobe.

      The phone rings.

      He witnesses his body in the reflection of glass involuntarily jerking from the impact of the ring. He had missed the hour. Four a.m.

      ‘Everything all right?’

      ‘Yes.’

      ‘You didn’t doze?’

      ‘No.’

      ‘No problems?’

      ‘No. Well...’

      ‘Well what?’

      He half regrets the hesitation.

      ‘Speak up.’

      ‘There was something moving out in the field.’

      ‘Bring the dogs.’

      The command is curt.

      ‘What?’

      ‘Investigate. Report back.’

      ‘I think it’s gone. I think it was only the wind.’

      ‘Check the warehouses. The machinery, make sure it’s intact. We don’t want complaints.’

      The guy at control hangs up. The Pole doesn’t know his name either. Why had he told him there was something moving?

A noise again. Had he dozed? There is definitely somebody out there. Or maybe it is the wind shaking the rattly shutter in the north warehouse. He looks towards the dogs. What can they tell him? They’re restless all the time. As a small child he went to pat a dog on the Blonia Common in Krakow. He had wandered off in the summer grass away from his mother who was sitting on the picnic rug deep in conversation with somebody he can’t recall, his aunt maybe or some neighbour. The dog was unleashed, his owner standing in the distance with the leash dangling in his hand, as the dog gambolled trying to catch insects from the air. He drew near the dog who was sniffing around less frenetically now. He was the same height as the dog’s head, he remembers, as he patted the silky mane. But the dog snarled and turned on him and knocked him to the ground. The animal, he is convinced now, would have ravished him were it not for the screams of his mother forcing the eventual intervention of the dog’s owner. 

Benny said it was a cinch, what the Pole had to do. A cinch? Very easy, Benny said, the little job to make the big bucks, the likes of which would take the Pole years to earn in Krakow. Just one delivery to a house in a city street. ‘They will take the package from you and give you another in return,’ Benny said. ‘No questions asked.’

      The street where Benny dropped him in a rundown area near the city centre was really a lane of flatlets and artisan dwellings without frontage. The Pole knocked with his fist four times as instructed on the paint-peeled door of 14B. The door half opened, releasing a fusty smell and a veiny arm reached out for the brown papered package. ‘A moment.’ The door closed. He waited. He heard movement inside. Then there was silence.

      He knocked on the door again. No response. He walked down the lane and climbed over a low wall to bring him round the back. He looked through a curtainless window at the bare boards of an empty room.

      What was he to do? He couldn’t return empty-handed to Benny who was waiting for him in his big car with the tinted glass. Instead the Pole panicked and fled, flitting through the labyrinth of darkening streets, until he found the river.

The phone rings.

      ‘Yes.’

      No voice. No answer this time, just breathing. ‘Who is it? Is that control?’ He looks at his watch. ‘It’s not the hour yet.’ The phone clicks off.

      The sound of a car engine. Four thirty a.m.

      He stands outside the hut and watches the headlights advance. He is weary but sharp enough now with adrenalin flowing. The engine sound grows louder, making the brown Alsatian growl from his slumber. The grey one barks. The Pole can hear the engine idling now, coming to a halt. Car lights are quenched. A door opens and bangs shut. He moves towards the dogs and, stooping down to their head level, unties their leashes.


James Lawless


James Lawless’ poetry and prose have won many awards, including the Scintilla Welsh Open Poetry Competition, the WOW award, a Biscuit International Prize for short stories, the Cecil Day Lewis Award and a Hennessey award nomination for emerging fiction. His work has appeared in the first Fish anthology and two of his stories were shortlisted for the Willesden (2007) and Bridport prizes (2014).He is the author of the well-received novels Peeling Oranges, For Love of Anna, The Avenue, Finding Penelope Knowing Women and American Doll, a poetic meditation Noise & Sound Reflections, a book of children’s stories The Adventures of Jo Jo, a poetry collection Rus in Urbe,and a study of modern poetryClearing the Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World for which he received an arts bursary. His books have been translated into several languages. Born in Dublin, he divides his time between West Cork and County Kildare. You can read more about the author at www.jameslawless.net