Cian Henderson lived next door to us. We had never exchanged more than informal pleasantries with him, but just from seeing him every day we felt that we knew him; as I am sure he felt he knew us. We knew that he was a stickler about bringing his dustbins in as soon as the rubbish had been collected. We knew that he would get up at five o’clock every morning, come rain or shine, to walk his dog. We knew that he lived alone; that he had never married and didn’t have any children. I suppose he was the oddball of the street. If he were richer, you’d call him eccentric. But, poor as he was, Mr Henderson was known as somewhat of a crackpot.
When you talked to Mr Henderson, he would either lose interest in the conversation and walk away – which everyone thought extremely rude – or you would get locked into talking about one thing and try desperately to break free while he went on and on. One morning, a quick “how are you, Mr Henderson?” left me trapped listening as he berated me about the length of our grass. If we happened to be outside at the same time as him, it was usually quicker and better just to give him a friendly wave and be on our way; not to stop and chat.
We first noticed that something was wrong when his bins were still out late in the evening after they had been emptied.
“I ought to say something,” said Mam, peeking out through the lace curtain in the kitchen. “Give him a taste of his own medicine.” Not too long ago, Mr Henderson had come knocking on our door to moan that our dustbins were still out.
Then, after two days had gone by and the dustbins hadn’t moved, the feeling in our house changed from smugness to concern. Dad accosted the postman one morning to ask if he had seen Mr Henderson lately, and the postman said no. Each neighbour and parishioner that we spoke to also said that they had not seen him, and the worry in their voices was telling. A year or two ago, not seeing Mr Henderson would have been a cause for celebration. But now, a familiar face going missing, even an unpopular one, was cause for concern.
“I think we should go check on him,” I said one night, when the bins had been sitting out for a week. “The worst that can happen is he tells us to sod off.”
Dad nodded. “I’ll go knock on his door.”
“I’ll come with you.”
There was no answer when we knocked on his door, but the dog immediately started barking. Dad and I frowned at each other. The dog being left alone in the house immediately shut down any false hope that we had that Mr Henderson had gone on holiday.
I opened the letterbox and yelled through it. “Mr Henderson? Are you in there?”
No answer; just the dog’s continued, frantic barking.
Dad tried the door, and found it open. “Come on,” he said, jerking his head inside.
The moment we stepped in the house, the smell was overwhelming. It was a stench of dog shit and rancid food, and a house that had been shut up for a long time.
The dog, a crossbreed about the size of a Labrador, came running at the sound of my voice and immediately barreled me to the ground, smothering me in kisses, whining. He was filthy, and smelled like he’d been rolling in his own piss for days. I like dogs as much as the next person, but not when they smell like that. I pushed him aside and tried to engage his super-senses and get him to lead me to Mr Henderson, but no luck. The stupid animal just sat pitifully against my legs and moaned as I scratched his ears, while Dad searched the upstairs of the house. I searched the downstairs as best I could with a large mutt glued to my side.
The good news is that the smell wasn’t Mr Henderson.
The bad news is that there was no sign of Mr Henderson.
We took the dog home and washed him up, and offered him food, but he would not eat. Forty five minutes later, Mam and I were sitting on the floor in the lounge with a cold, wet, miserable, and hungry Labrador between us. Dad was looking through Mr Henderson’s address book, calling everyone who shared the same last name, but no one had seen him. Eventually, we were forced to accept that Mr Henderson had vanished from the face of the earth.
“I don’t understand it,” said Mam, petting the dog’s head. “People don’t just disappear.”
“No,” Dad said, darkly, “they don’t.”
“Dad, do you think that this was the UVF?”
Dad nodded, slowly.
Mam scoffed. “Oh, lay off it. What would the UVF want with Cian Henderson?”
“The same thing they want to achieve by blowing up a school with no one in it. It’s a warning. He’d been running his mouth, and now he’s gone.”
We watched his dog for several days, and kept an eye on his house, too. Although we’d found it unlocked and his keys had been hanging up on a hook by the back door, there was a little part of us that hoped this was all some eccentricity of his; hoped that he would show up at our door acting as if taking off and leaving your dog behind was a perfectly normal thing for a person to do. We called the police and filed a report: a report which, Dad said, they would give no attention. Eventually, when another week had passed; when word had spread through the Bogside that Cian Henderson was missing and no one put forth any information; we were forced to go through his address book again and call his sister in County Armagh. She picked the dog up the next day, and even gave us a little money to reimburse us for what he’d cost us.
We never did find out where Cian Henderson went; and that wasn’t even the worst part.
The worst part was how normal it all felt.