I didn’t know how the dog was going to kill me, exactly. Drag me in front of a bus? Knock me over backwards and smash my skull? Rip me apart with his huge teeth? Poison my bloodstream with rabies-infected drool?
We were headed for the park, because my biological father – which is all he was – had said the German Shepherd had to be walked. Had to learn to behave and had to get exercise. The previous owners hadn’t known that, and Kaiser was a teenage brat with enough attitude to send a juvenile remand center into lock-down.
A car turned into the street, approaching slowly over the potholes to save the suspension, and I squeezed back against a wall. I mean, the street was that narrow, with high concrete walls and sheet iron gates.
At the last minute Kaiser jumped out of the vehicle’s path. Pity, that. Then he tried to chase it, wrenching my arm.I moved off, dragging the dog as he danced backwards, watching the car disappear.
How had this happened? I was an ordinary Australian kid, who lived in a suburb where the roads were wide and smooth, there were lawns and gardens and footpaths. That was a week ago.
Now I was walking in a street like a prison exercise yard.
A donkey cart passed us, Kaiser tried to chase it, and when I didn’t let him, he went crazy, spinning on the end of the leash. I clamped my teeth hard as he spun in a blur of black and gold, barking like a truck crash, and the hard surfaces slammed the sound into my ears until they throbbed with pain.
Why had I picked fights with my mother’s new boyfriend? So Harry was a pig. Weren’t all her boyfriends? I could’ve ignored him, couldn’t I? No. I hadn’t. So he’s mad with me and he says, ‘It’s me or Connor!’
Well, she chose the boyfriend, didn’t she? ‘You’re going to go and live with your father,’ she said. ‘It’s time Andy took some responsibility for you!’
And I’m in shock, and it’s almost like, Who in the world is Andy? Because I’ve never even seen a photo of him, never had any contact at all. And it’s like, ‘Pack your life into one suitcase, we’re going to the airport.’ Nearly.
Oh, and, by the way, where does Andy live?
You are kidding? Central Asia?
She was not kidding.
It still seemed like science fiction to me that I could get in a plane – or two planes – and a few hours later walk off the plane into a totally different civilization. One I desperately wanted out of first chance I got.
How long before my mother ditched the boyfriend? How long before I could go home?
And what was Andy thinking, buying me a dog?
My target that morning was a park at the top of the street. Not much of a park, but better than the street. It was long and narrow with paths and a few flower beds and trees but mostly scruffy grass. As we got closer, I could hear a loud, snarling whine, and my ears pricked up like the dog’s. I knew that sound!
A kid had a radio controlled car, bright red, burning along the paths, turning, and then screaming back the way it’d come. I stopped to watch. He was pretty good with it. I forgot about the dog. The RC car was finally something familiar from the world I’d left.
I was standing on the grass beside the path, the car was leaping towards me, wheels bouncing on the rough concrete, and Kaiser shot out of the blocks like Usain Bolt. His huge jaws seized the speeding car and crunched through the red plastic while the engine screamed and the wheels spun in a blur.
I snatched the car from his jaws as the kid cut the engine, and we stood facing each other in the shock and sudden silence.
The kid was Central Asian, mid-teens like me, expensive clothes. The way he balanced on his feet and the set of his shoulders told me he could handle himself in a fight.
The only local word I knew was Rakhmat – thank you. It didn’t seem quite the right thing to say in the circumstances.
He walked over to me and I silently held out the mangled car. He looked at it, and looked at me, and the dog.
‘Wow,’ he said. ‘He’s fast, isn’t he?’
‘I’ve never seen anything like that.’
I shook my head, slow and serious and sad. You bet I hadn’t, either. ‘Look, I’m really sorry. I’ll replace the body. If you tell me where I can buy one.’
‘Oh, there’s a shop in the new mall.’ He was fingering the holes in the plastic like he was sort of awed.
Kaiser, having saved our lives from a dangerous monster, was sitting beside me with a big, drunken grin.
I said, ‘Okay. Maybe I can get in there and buy a new body …’
He shook his head and laughed. ‘Don’t worry about it. My father is happy to buy parts for my cars. Where are you from?’
‘Oh, really? I’m Zuwail, by the way.’
‘Where do you go to school, Connor?’
‘Khan Sharif International School.’
‘Oh! I attend Princes College. We play football against your school.’
Kaiser was on his feet again, whining and dancing around, bored with waiting.
‘I better go. I really am sorry about the car.’
He laughed again and held out his hand. ‘Connor! I said don’t worry! I will see you again, okay? I’m here often after school. Just hold the dog close next time!’
I shook his hand. Even teenage boys are a bit formal in Gulistan, apparently.
I dragged Kaiser away, through the park and back down our street, between the high garden walls and metal gates. It didn’t seem quite so much like a prison exercise yard now.
I’d met a neighbour kid my own age, who pretty clearly might become a friend.