THE STRANGE CASE
OF THE DOG ON THE UNDERGROUND
Clem’s voice was
‘It’s a nice
offer. And I am really, really grateful that you made it. But we – that is
Andrew and I – we have to be a little cautious.’
Kat felt the cold
hard casing of the receiver in her hands. She gripped it and squeezed it, and
as she did so she imagined that it became soft and doughy like the plasticine
she had played with as a child. She squeezed the phone until it oozed out
through the gap between her thumb and forefinger.
‘I can do it
Clementine. I’m quite capable of looking after the house for a couple of days.
And I’d look after Beelzebub just fine. I love dogs. And me and him – get on
together like a house on fire.’
‘Well Katy’ her
older sister said with weary seriousness ‘a house on fire is exactly what
worries. I mean, Andrew and I – there are things in that house we have worked
bloody hard for. When you get a place of your own, everything changes. You
look at life in a different way. It’s a new stage in terms of responsibility’
‘You’re only one
bloody year older than me. And I’m not the bloody Unabomber, Clem. I’m not
gonna blow up your house’ - Kat spat bitterly.
But in the moment
she gave vent, she realised simultaneously that her outburst would be her
undoing. Hadn’t someone said once you lost your temper, you lost the
argument? Her sister’s voice became prim and disdaining.
‘Really Kat, there
is no need to get so over emotional.’
clouds loosened and slacked, and it was as though someone had just turned on a
tap, for a stream of hard rain opened up from the skies and rattled against the
ground. In the darkness of the winter’s evening it threw up a cold mist. ‘Oh
shit’ muttered Kat. She hadn’t brought an umbrella.
‘Now you are just
being darn right immature’ – came the disembodied voice on the phone.
‘Not you, not you’
– muttered Kat. Though she sometimes thought her sister liked it when she lost
her temper. She sometimes thought her sister was addicted to self-righteousness
like a crack head to the pipe.
‘Fine, fine. Get
someone else to do it. I was only trying to help.’ – Kat said sullenly.
A thin thread of
lightening tapered across the skyline – Kat saw its light reflected in the black,
translucent plastic of the phone box door.
‘Gotta go then.
People to do, things to see’ – she said. ‘People to do, things to see’ – she
used to say that to Clementine when they were 14 and 15, talking about boys or
clothes, and she wanted to appear experienced and worldly wise. It made her
sister giggle then. Now there was a cursory ‘take care Kat’ tinged with the
slightest sadness, before the phone went dead in her hands.
She took the phone
card out and examined it. Still some time left, Kat deduced. She slotted it
back in, and, simultaneously there occurred a sudden peal of thunder which she
felt shake the phone box and vibrate in her bones. It was satisfying for a
moment, as though she were in a science fiction film and the phone card was a
futuristic technology capable of resonating the skies.
She dialled her
‘Hello, hello….’ –
a woman’s voice, middle aged and querulous.
‘how row’ she
grumbled in her most politically incorrect imitation of a Chinese accent.
rike one fwied wice. One Won tan Noodle soup. One……’
utter bastard. Why are you doing this?’
‘I’ll have the
police trace the call. They can do that you know. They can trace these
The end of the
sentence trailed away in a hysterical high pitched shriek.
‘Puuuuuweeeaaaasseeeee with fwied Duck make sauce extwa hot for PO PO. PO PO
like extwa heat for…….’
Again the phone
went dead, but this time Kat was remarkably cheered. She grinned into the
darkness. Then she frowned. She was trying to tally the amount of crank calls
she had placed to her landlady in the last few months. It was no easy sum,
some of the calls had been made drunk, on the way home from the pub, and from
within the midst of a lulling alcoholic haze. Those calls she couldn’t remember
so well but she had suspected they involved a French accent and a repeated
protestation of undying love.
Mrs Mason, the
landlady in question, owned the terraced house in which Kat rented a room.
After the second year of university Kat had split with her boyfriend Murray.
She had split with Murray on several occasions prior to this. Murray was an
actor (though aren’t we all actors on some metaphysical level, pondered Kat).
Murray was an actor who strove to embody as fully as possible the stereotype of
precious, petulant pre-Madonna so intimately associated with the trade. He
sported a foppish Oscar Wilde style cloak which trailed in his wake and flapped
when he became agitated. He would storm out of restaurants, theatres, galleries
and park picnics, a sudden billow of black cloak, like the departing tail of
some agitated rodent.
would sunbathe on the balcony of his little flat wearing only sun-glasses and a
small towel, his body as pale, lucid and pallid as a newly birthed grub. Kat
could remember that even now; she recalled standing over him sipping hot coffee,
and the way he slid his sunglasses further down his nose so that he could gaze
at her, transmitting his pained disapproval. ‘You are taking my light’ – he
said, mournfully, wistfully, as if he knew that his whole life was to be
underpinned by the tragic inevitability of having one’s ‘light’ pilfered by
those of a greyer and less descript persuasion.
The end game
occurred when Kat, needing money to pay her latest terms residence fees,
suggested that Murray get a job in order to supplement his acting aspirations and
indeed pay Kat something back of the 2360 pounds he owed her. As discussions
with Murray were sometimes liable to do, this one snowballed; all at once he was
screaming at her, a whirlwind of vitriol and cliché – ‘you are holding me back.
You don’t want me to succeed. You just want me for yourself.’
None of this would
have been especially remarkable in terms of the normal course of their
disagreements, but that day Murray went further. Tears of outrage and reprimand
burning in his eyes, he grasped the lapels of his shirt, pulling down hard, and
ripping open the material, exposing his bare chest, in what seemed a rather
effete parody of the Incredible Hulk. Murray stabbed his finger at his chest –
‘I have a heart’ he screeched – ‘I have a heart.’
In the early days
of their relationship such histrionics were not disturbing to Kat, indeed she
was enticed by them. Perhaps it was because she herself was introverted. Not
shy you understand – she wasn’t particularly nervous around people, but at times
it felt difficult for her to find things to say. Murray on the other hand was
an emotional cascade, a never-ending font of deep feeling and precarious
But if, in the
first period of their relationship, this was what attracted Kat, then later it
began to exhaust her, so that by the point in their lives where they had ended
up together, in that particular café, as Murray gesticulated furiously at his
freshly bared chest – ‘I HAVE A HEART!’ - and Kat reclined somewhat into the
large, wheezing bean bag she was seated on; at that point she discovered she had
reached an emotional impasse, a myopic grey which clouded her feeling such that
the only thought which arrived to her head was the muted, unremarkable
realisation –‘you are pointing at the wrong side. That’s your right side. Your
heart’s on the left.’
In the midst of
all this, her landlady Mrs Mason had raised her rent twice. The first was on
the pretext that she and her housemates had damaged the walls, for, in the front
room, there had appeared underneath a newly papered wall a vast blush of damp,
soaking and curling the wall paper, so that now it fell away in tattered furls.
What made this suspicious, to Kat’s mind at least, was that this wall, when
the four of them had moved in almost a year before, was the only one to have
been papered over; clearly a sham disguise for the already overwrought and water
sodden concrete. ‘I’m sorry dear’ the landlady had said when they finally
managed to contact her by phone – ‘I am sorry but I am running a business, not a
charity’ – a phrase which made her at once, in Kat’s opinion, a parody of
herself, that is a parody of a selfish money guzzling succubus who was capable
of doing her tenants over while simultaneously espousing annoyingly glib and
The rent was
raised again, this time on the pretext that the garden had been ruined (it was a
jungle of thickets and weeds when they had moved in) It was then that the other
housemates had departed, forfeiting their deposits of course, which is perhaps
what Mrs Mason had in mind from the start. But Kat clung on, limpet like, not
because she liked living in the dank, spare, oppressive house, but because she
felt she had nowhere else to go. Her relationship with Murray had fallen
through, and though she had managed to snag a pass in her political-geography
degree only a few months before, she had no idea about what use she could put it
And so she had
lingered, living a student life though no longer a student, cooking up pot
noodles in the battered microwave, going to the pub with the odd friend who was
still around, snatching the occasional and surreptitious shag from a more than
willing stranger in order to stave off the time when she would have to return
home to that cold house where, wrapped in covers and couched on the ash stained
sofa, she’d get absorbed in shitty TV or merely find herself staring at that
welt of ever expanding wet on the wall. Kat had been massaging the truth
somewhat when she had told her sister she wanted to come over and take care of
house while Clementine and her ‘partner’ were on holiday because she ‘only
wanted to help.’ Kat had badly wanted to take refuge from the here and now.
‘You Fucker’ – he
breathed the words.
The muscles on
Carlos’ face had seized generating a rictus grimace of horror and disbelief.
Though he was a beautiful man, with dusky tawny hair and soft features, now
there was something abhorrent, something repellent, in his aspect, as he gazed
down on the envelope he just peeled open. His features were white and livid,
and he had the bearing of a trapped animal, at once both terrified and enraged.
‘You….you….absolute Fucker’ – he whispered, as his eyes bulged and he registered
the full horror of what the envelope had contained.
The man in front
of him was not perturbed by this display in the slightest. He merely rubbed
the bridge of his nose, and remained, staring at Carlos evenly from above the
rim of his glasses.
‘Carlos we have
been through this. We’ve done a lot of work. I want you to remember your
breathing exercises for this is the time when you must use them. A five a four a
three a two….a five a four a three a two……a five a four a three a two….’
gentleman in the chair repeated the numbers as a mantra, while Carlos pressed
his back against the wall, arch, his feline eyes gleaming fear and resentment.
Though his petrified gaze never leaving the envelope, Carlos tried to utter the
‘A five a four a
three a….a…..OH GOD PLEASE. PLEASE TAKE IT AWAY!!!!’
The plea came out
in a strangulated sob. The psychiatrists gaze never left Carlos’ face, but he
slid his hand across the table and turned the photo on its back so that the
image was no longer visible. Whereupon Carlos’ tortured expression melted into
teary grief, and he slid down the side of the wall onto his bottom, and now he
was gazing up at his psychiatrist with the wide-eyed, winsome recrimination of a
child who has just discovered that a trusted parent has done something
‘Now you know’ –
the psychiatrist purred by way of compromise – ‘now you know Carlos, we all have
to confront our fears. It might not feel nice or even acceptable but in the
long run it is important. You do want to lead a fuller life don’t you?’
Carlos gazed out
at him from under sleek, furled eye-lashes which were all the more pronounced
having been lacquered with tears.
‘You have really
been making progress Carlos, in these last few weeks. I think we have both felt
Carlos managed a
‘So then what I am
going to do is walk to the back of the room and turn the photo round so that you
can see it.’
seized, and he gulped, the muscles of his throat undulating in terror.
‘It’s okay Carlos’
– the psychiatrist said raising his arm in a pacifying gesture – ‘it’s okay,
I’ll be all the way over here and you will hardly be able to see it.’
Again Carlos had
the aspect of a child; his arms wrapped around his knees, rocking back and
forth, bracing himself for some potential impact.
Very slowly the
psychiatrist turned the photo round and Carlos gritted his teeth. It wasn’t
true. His stomach broiled, and the saliva in his mouth attained the acidic
taste of fear and betrayal, for Carlos could indeed make out the dread image on
the photo the psychiatrist now raised, hovering like the sword of Damocles,
looming over his whimpering form. Carlos wanted to look away and at the same
time he couldn’t - he found himself fixated on the features of that horrific
image: the long, insidious snout, the black, deadened eyes, the panting leer,
and the hair…the mass of furling, sickening white hair. Carlos thought he even
knew what type of dog it was – it was a species known as a poodle, and that was
a fact which once known could never be unknown. Carlos heard a wheezing rasping
sound, and it took him a while to identify his own belaboured breathing.
‘Okay Carlos, its
going back. You’ve done excellently. Real progress made today.’
The shrink slid
the photo back into the envelope and sat down, studious and watchful, as
gradually Carlos’ breathing returned to normal, and the young man was able to
slide himself up the wall into an upright position once more, though his eyes
remained wide and distrustful as if he suspected his interlocutor might at any
moment unleash the dread image once more.
‘Very good’ – the
psychiatrist commented soothingly – ‘I’m afraid our time today has run out but
I hope to see you at the same time, next week Carlos. I think we have made
something of a breakthrough.’
The Freudian gave
Carlos an uncharacteristically playful wink which Carlos responded to with a
beleaguered nod before making a shaky exit. His body was humming with
adrenaline, and a murmur of excitement now, for it was true what his
psychiatrist said - they had indeed made a breakthrough. Carlos had confronted
the evil image and survived intact.
And even though
the initial shock on seeing the photo had prompted him to say some rather
regrettable things to the shrink, Carlos reposed a great deal of faith in
therapists of all colours. In his time he had been healed by homoeopathists,
manipulated by chiropodists, and had his ‘bio-field’ encouraged by
electromagneticists: he’d had his chi channelled, his auras elevated and his
energies enhanced; he’d been plucked, prodded, poked, pinned and pressed, all
for the purposes of purification.
For Carlos had
always suspected that his life was somehow askew, somewhat off course; it hadn’t
so far delivered to him the things he deserved, and nor had he been able to
realise the full extent of his talent. With the right level of professional
help, the appropriate degree of tweaking, he was certain he would be able to
was that one blight which hung across his life with all the crepuscular menace
of a perpetual nightmare. Those…creatures. Carlos didn’t live in a
civilisation; he lived in some grotesque hinterland where those creatures were
allowed every autonomy; to shit, bite, rut; to gambol over the streets spreading
disease and germs, contaminating everything and everyone with their befouling
They even polluted
his memories. His earliest reminiscence was of himself as a toddler, playing on
soft dappled rug in a room raised in a gentle glow. It was probably Christmas
or something because he had the memory of soft twinkling lights and the most
delicious anticipation, a tingling from within. The happiness of a child,
untrammelled and unconditional. When the dog padded into the room had he
reached out in a kind of curious joy? Delighted to see this strange and exotic
creature enter the orbit of his world?
The rest was a bit
of a blur. Somehow the thing had outmanoeuvred him, clambering on top of him,
mounting him. A buzz of confusion, and then an overwhelming fear, and a sense
that the whole world was sliding out of focus, blurring through tears. He
remembered its fetid breath on his neck, and it licking his face. He was
pinned, unable to avoid getting lacquered in canine saliva. He remembered the
sharp violence of his throaty infant screams. And he remembered his father
coming into the room, summoned by the noise, and how his father had stood there
for a few seconds blinking, regarding his tear stained son underneath the dog,
before he began to heave and shake with laughter.
But thoughts of
the past would, for the time being, have to be filed away, for it was the
present that opened up in front of Carlos now and a wide leafy street of a
salubrious central London neighbourhood which held the offices of the crème de
la crème, the best doctors, lawyers and therapists money could buy.
Nevertheless even it was not immune to the presence of dogs, and Carlos
performed a quick cursory scan, before he stepped out and with a brisk pace made
the three hundred yards to the underground stop before skipping quickly down the
steps and into its subterranean charcoal aroma and solace. For there were no
dogs on the underground. It was almost unknown except for the odd dodgy busker
and they were easy to spot.
Once on the tube
Carlos’ mind settled and he became relaxed and even happy. He smiled
gracefully at the old man opposite him. He felt a sudden rush of benevolence.
People weren’t so bad really. He noticed the lady next to him. Ten or fifteen
years older than he, she was what you might call a handsome woman, thin as a
board with a somewhat androgynous looking face and a full roman nose. And yet
there was something pleasant about her appearance; the crinkles around her eyes
gave the impression of shy warmth as she blinked out at the other passengers
before returning to her book, which was called, Carlos noted, ‘Networking- the
Art of Making Friends.’
He bestowed on her
a hesitant but ardent expression. He caught the exact moment when she realised
she was being watched; the slight flush of awareness which tinged her cheeks,
succeeded by a momentary indecision, before she eventually found the courage to
look up and meet his gaze. He at once looked away, his own sublime features
conveying a timid modesty, before eventually he turned to her once more and
smiled. She seemed perplexed and uncertain, and somehow he knew her heart beat
had increased its tempo.
‘It changed my
life you know’ – he said, softly, confidentially.
‘Your book. The
Art of Making Friends. It’s just….’ – he frowned, searching for the words which
might adequately frame his intensity of feeling – ‘It’s just so deliciously
wonderful. It makes you look at things in a whole new light. It really…’
He gave up,
throwing his hands up in a gesture of helplessness, and he smiled at her, at
himself, at the sheer folly of trying to find words to describe such an
exquisite and life-changing experience. And now she too was nodding and
smiling, and as his words trailed away, she picked up the thread with
‘Oh Yes. Oh yes,
it is marvellous, really. I mean, I’ve found it very helpful in my work.’
‘Really?’ – Carlos
beamed. ‘How so?’
‘Oh well my job…I
work for Morgan and Francis – have you heard of them? They’re a legal firm.
Anyway my job is nothing to write home about, not all that bad, not all that
good. I’m a secretary you see, though I’m also involved with the training of
some of the probationers – the graduates who are doing training contracts, so
it’s not all typing out receipts and dictation.’
She paused, taking
‘I’m sorry I’m
going completely off the point’ – she said, and now the back of her ears
reddened, and she shifted in her seat anxiously.
‘No, no please,
not at all – please go on’ – Carlos said, keen, almost imperative. ‘Please, you
She looked at him
for a few moments and smiled hesitantly but at the same time her whole face lit
up raised in a gentle golden glow. She was flushed with happiness and Carlos
felt absurdly touched.
‘Well I was just
saying….’ – she continued ‘in my job you are on your own a lot of the time and I
guess, well, you get lost in your own little world. I mean, you know, even when
you are dealing with people – you are not really dealing with them – you are
just copying down what they are saying or organising meetings or whatever. So
there isn’t much really real human contact. And after a while you kinda get…cut
off. But reading this book has been a real help. I mean, it’s taught me to
make more of an effort. Just the other day I went over and talked to two of my
bosses in the coffee area. Now these guys – some of them earn near a million
every year. I should know because I handle the wage slips. And I tell you they
always look so serious and foreboding. Or at least they always did. But once I
went over to them, to talk to them, to actually talk to them – they were like
teddy bears. Completely! So nice and kind. You wouldn’t believe it! And that
just goes to show…you just can’t judge people, and they always surprise you.’
For a few moments
Carlos said nothing but his eyes were fully focussed on her, as though he were
drinking in her image. She shuffled her feet and shifted her position a little
more. Then he said:
‘I hardly ever do
this. But I was wondering if you might want to get a cup of coffee one
afternoon. I mean if you want.’
‘Yes’ – she
answered shyly. ‘I’d like that very much.’ Again she gazed at the floor, but
again he could see his words had made her glow with pleasure. And again he felt
touched. She took out a neat note pad from her handbag and scrawled a name and
number, and handed it to him. Their fingertips touched for the briefest of
moments and they smiled.
When he left the
tube station he was still pleased by the encounter. He slid her purse out from
his right pocket and flicked through it. He was even more pleased to see that
it contained more than one hundred and fifty pounds, along with several credit
cards. He deposited her travel card and blood donors card in a bin on the
corner before discarding the purse itself.
Kat opened her
sleep caked eyes, which were at once pierced by a shrill light, and she blinked
furiously until the contours and shapes of the things around her began to come
into focus. ‘Shit’ – she thought – ‘I’ve done it again.’ She was curled up on
the weary old sofa in the front room, having fallen asleep there the night
before. The TV was still on only there was no picture - only a muted, dark
flicker registered on the screen, and by her on the carpet were arrayed a series
of beer bottles, stood like stone figurines, the empty relics of the previous
evening’s groggy antics.
She forced herself
into a sitting position while the sensation of stiff limbs creaked and snarled
within. She heaved herself to her feet and wandered to the pokey, grease kissed
kitchen in order to boil some water for coffee. The unearthed contents of a
half- finished donner kebab were smeared lewdly across the small square of space
next to the sink.
The whole place,
the whole situation, was ‘skank’ - as Kat’s younger teenage self might have
described it. She remembered the gaggle of girls she’d gone around with at
school; the affections they adopted, the worldly wise cynicism they all fought
desperately to cultivate, and nothing concentrated it more effectively than the
one word ‘Skank’. ‘Skank’ – the word so redolent of contempt that it was
almost palpable, you could almost taste it when you spat it, a combination of
bile and lofty disinterest. Most of the boys were ‘skank’, school was certainly
‘skank’ , the teachers were uniformly ‘skank’ to a man (or woman), but most of
all the suburb where they lived was pure, unadulterated ‘skank’ because it was
grey and unexciting and there was little to do.
They’d longed to
get away. To university in some cases while others tailored their escapes in
other ways, the first job at 16 which would give them enough money for a car, or
- glory of glories - a place of their own. But they were, all of them, bound
to one another by their restlessness, by their fantasies of the future. For
that, it felt like they would be friends forever. Strange really. It was little
more than three years and Kat hardly heard from any of them, the odd forwarded
email here or she’d catch a stray status update on Facebook, but none of them
bothered to initiate any genuine personal correspondences, not any more.
Not that she was
resentful - she, herself, was just as much to blame, had been just as lax as the
rest of them, for somewhere along the line she’d morphed into the type of girl
she once regarded with a genuine, lip curling contempt, the girl who found
herself in an increasingly long term relationship with a guy (Murray) and then
allowed the other layers of her social life to simply peel away. She tutted to
herself in the thin gloom of the cramped kitchen, before flicking on the radio
as a means to chase away the brooding melancholy - and she experienced an
instantaneous and pleasurable shrill of recognition when she heard the gentle
rise and falling lilt of the singer Dido:
‘I drank too much
last night, got bills to pay, my head just feels in pain, I missed the bus and
there’ll be hell to pay…I’m late for work again’
It was comforting,
sometimes, the way someone you didn’t know and would probably never meet, could
manage to encapsulate your mood so perfectly. Dido was singing about Kat’s
life. Well almost. A certain degree of creative license was necessary here,
after all Kat didn’t actually have work today, but the ‘drank too much last
night, got bills to pay’ was right on the money. It crossed Kat’s mind that the
way to alleviate her hang-over might be to take another bottle of beer from the
fridge – oooopppps probably not for the best. She had a fleeting image of
herself in bag-lady garb, collapsed in some street corner, staring up at the
passing besuited business men with a manic gleam in her eye, unleashing a
drunken verbal tirade – ‘GIVEMESOMEFECKINGMONEYYEFECKINGBASTARD’
The image made her
smile and then at once the smile on her face died. She was suddenly aware of
her own complacency for surely we, all of us, are closer to the alcoholic or
homeless version of ourselves then we might ever know. In her hung-over
condition and not for the first time, did Kat suddenly sense that the formal
structures of the reality which surrounded her were far more precarious and less
permanent then she believed. It was as though the scales fell from her eyes, or
the veil of the everyday was for a moment lifted and in that short space of
time, she glimpsed a behind the scenes realm which was bereft, deadened and
mortal, a place where no light penetrated, and which nothing in the vocabulary
of her life might allow her to adequately describe. It was more of an
intuition, a dark blot in the corner of her vision, a shadow somewhere left of
centre. But whatever it was, she sometimes had the preternatural and almost
hallucinatory awareness, it was drawing closer.
The sound of the
buzzer jolted Kat’s thoughts from their inevitable tilt into darkness, and her
expression at once assumed a quizzical frown. For Kat was very much a member of
the Groucho Marx club; if any guests were prepared to visit her sullen corner of
suburbia, she could be sure, in advance, that they weren’t the kind of people
she would want as guests.
She crept up to
the curtains and squinted, mole-like, through the gap. Her sister was stood,
just outside the door, a tap- tap taping her feet, a default posture of
irritation she assumed without even being fully aware. Kat thought to herself –
‘she has only just arrived and already she is running late for something else.’
Kat took her time
getting to the door.
she said languidly.
Clementine shifted from the one foot to the other, a habit she had developed
early on in their childhood, and all of a sudden Kat was assailed with fondness
for her awkward, sometimes pretentious but good-natured older sister.
Clementine glanced to either side with an apprehension and wariness. Kat was
amused. For her sister, who had recently bought a semi-detached in a relatively
pleasant leafy corner of outer-London, the claustrophic urbanism of Kat’s area –
the terrace houses packed tight together overseen by several grey, monolithic
tower blocks; for Clem these things represented a genuine threat and menace.
She hustled her sister into the hallway and directed her into the front room.
She heard Clementine draw breath. ‘Shit’, Kat thought, ‘I forgot about the
beers and the mess.’
stood at the entrance to the living room surveying the scene of devastation with
the look of mournful disbelief a citizen might give upon returning to ancient
Rome only to have discovered the city had been laid waste by barbarian hordes.
‘How can you live
like this Katherine?’
Kat more intently than having her sister pronounce her full name, for that
became a coded by-word for disapproval and moral approbation. Still, Kat just
smiled her sunny smile, beaming at her sister with angelic benevolence:
keepin’ it real Clem. Work hard, play hard, that’s my motto. Gotta break on
through to the other side!’
into the room, and swept up several of the bottles with a decisive clutter.
‘Well let’s see if
we can’t get things into a bit of law and order. Jez Kat, when you wake up
to….to this, doesn’t it feel a little depressing?'
It had felt a
little depressing. It did feel depressing.
‘No actually Clem,
I quite like the place. It has a certain raffish charm. For me a little bit of
chaos is symptomatic of freedom. I don’t like to live my life according to a
series of rigid, grey routines’
try to bedazzle me with all that intellectual free-thinking.’ Clementine
straightened again and pushed out her chest with all the dignity of an empress
Kat couldn’t help
but smile at the quaint, affected vocabulary which was both absurd and sweetly
innocent. And again, she had a moment of intense affection for the older girl.
Kat went over and started picking up the remaining bottles. There were more of
them than she had realised. What was that expression? ‘One is too many, a
thousand is never enough.’ She brought the bottles into the kitchen joining her
‘Kat’ – said
Clementine in a quiet voice – ‘How much are you actually drinking at the
They returned to
the front room and again Clementine surveyed her surroundings with a plaintive
‘I’m just living
life to the full Clem. You know. Carpe diem. Seize the day and all that.’
Her sister stared
at her incredulously.
‘You are actually
proud about drinking this much. You think it’s a good thing?’
Kat picked up the
last remaining bottle behind her sister.
‘No of course I
don’t think it is a good thing’ – she said seriously. ‘And I am certainly not
proud of it!’
emphasised this, she was stood behind Clementine, bringing the empty bottle to
her throat, tilting it back before miming the gestures of a happy drunk,
tottering and cross-eyed.
‘I can see you,
you know! I can see you in the mirror’ – snapped an indignant Clementine.
slumped. She flopped down in the chair, resigned.
unexpected treat to have you turn up on my doorstep at…..’ – she glanced quickly
at the clock – ‘at twelve fifteen in the morning. So what can I do for you
‘Twelve fifteen in
the morning? Twelve fifteen in the morning!’
bristled and breathed out, before rearranging her coat, and brushing dust from
the lapels. She did not meet Kat’s eye.
‘I was in the
neighbourhood and I thought I’d drop in on my little sister. No law against
that is there?’
having taken up the offensive and smelling the blood of her quarry, Kat went for
Clementine. You are never in this neighbourhood. You want something.’
Her older sister
shifted from one foot to the other, and this time her restlessness was not only
the product of her disdain for her surroundings.
eyes lit with a malicious and knowing glee.
‘Your plans for
the long weekend. You and Andrew’s little jaunt to the canaries. Your
arrangements have fallen through. Whoever you had coming to look after the
place has left you in the lurch. And now you have had to fall back on option
B. Or should I say option Z. The worst case scenario. Your disappointing
‘You’re always so
clever Kat, always able to laugh at everyone else. Why don’t you give it a
jolted Kat. Her sister almost never swore. Clementine was stood with her back
to her. Kat heard herself speak in a softer, more chaste tone:
‘Look Clem, I
didn’t mean to laugh at you, it’s just that...’
Her sister turned
to look at her. She gave a wistful smile.
‘It’s okay. You
were right in the first place. I should come by more often, and not just for
when….when I, you know, want something. But Kat, I didn’t know who else to talk
to. We are leaving tomorrow morning. Andrew’s friend from work, Georgious, had
promised to look after the place and feed Beelzebub, and stuff. But he’s down
with the flu. He rang us last night.’
Clem’s eyes shone,
and for a moment Kat was certain she was about to cry. A sudden memory came to
her, from when they were both small. As children Clementine was the prim, older
girl, and she would invariably control the format of the games they would play.
Given that she was a little younger Kat always acquiesced, for it was like an
unstated rule which they were both aware of though neither of them had ever put
it into words.
One day, however,
they were playing in the back of the garden, working on an intricate dolls house
which Clementine had them build from toilet paper and card board boxes. Kat had
wanted to watch cartoons – particularly ‘She-Ra-Princess of Power’, which was
her favourite at the time, but Clem had informed her, in a tone which conveyed
the weary exhaustion of one who has to repeat themselves slowly, that ‘She-Ra-
Princess of Power’ was only for ‘little girls’ and that they were now ‘big
Kat accepted this
with her typical credulity, for she did indeed want to be ‘a big girl’ but after
they had remained at the square of dry grit toward the back of the garden for
some time, and the sun had beaten down upon them causing a little patch of skin
at the back of Kat’s neck to tingle and peel; after her arms were slick with
sweat, and the back of her legs were aching with the strain of squatting, Kat’s
thoughts suddenly returned to ‘She-Rah-Princess of Power’ and the nice quenching
glass of lemonade that she could have while watching it on television ensconced
in the shady space of the living room sofa. She suddenly stopped.
‘This is boring.
‘m goin’ in.’
Her sister looked
up at her, and there was something in her eyes, an alteration, a flicker of
helpless surprise, only Kat turned on her heel and pretended not to see it
because, for a moment, she had the conviction that her sister was going to cry,
and that would be more unbearable than any argument they might have. She
turned away and padded back into the house, aware of the shrill and slippery
unease which wriggled in her stomach and her all too conscious effort to
suppress and ignore it.
arrived to the mind of the adult Kat fleetingly and semi-consciously, and as she
stood there looking at her sister, she was reminded of Clem’s younger self, the
small and all too serious little girl who could never quite get a handle on the
‘Of course I’ll do
it. If only to keep an eye on the outrageous Beelzebub!’
warmly. And then she frowned her seriousness.
‘Of course I will
have to give you a schedule. Explain what needs to be done. When the bins
have to be taken out, when Beeze needs to be fed, and you know it isn’t ideal to
drink too much, because I expect the place to be kept in good condition.’
love you. You know that?
sometimes when I think about you my tummy gets all squirly. Only it’s like….
the most delicious upset stomach. And when I think about what would have
happened if I hadn’t been at Kings Cross the other day, if I hadn’t been at that
cafe and if we hadn’t come across each other, then for a few seconds I get,
like, the most terrible feeling. Like when you go close to the edge of cliff
(have you ever done that?) and you just experience this rush of dizziness.
There is a name for it – like vertigo or something. I feel like that when I
think about not having met you that day. Exactly like that. It’s like
falling. I guess you think I’m being all girly....
don’t think that at all!!!! I think you are in contact with your feelings. And
how rare is that! Most people aren’t!!! Most people are just these people who
go around and they go to their shitty little jobs and buy their shitty little
things – a new extension for the garden, a Ford friggin’ Mondeo!!! All trinkets
so they can kinda lord it over the neighbours. Just a load of shiny junk to
help them forget the fact that they are dead inside and have literally no
emotional core. They’re just these cold dead people and they can’t even see
it. But you, you are so….not….like that!
Ahhhhhhhhhh. You are so sweet. You are my Sultan….. my love Sultan. And you
make me feel so sweet all over. Especially inside. (I wish you were inside
can’t wait to see you. Are we still on for tomorrow?
7.30 on the dot. It’s got great reviews. Though with you around its always
difficult to focus on the screen.
(blushes). But can’t you come and pick me up straight after work? Maybe we
could go for a walk before it starts? Have a coffee or something. What do you
Would love to. But I’m working on my book and I’ve got to put in full days.
Going to the cinema with you is my reward.
you! You are so mysterious, aren’t you? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you
outside the cinema or your flat. And what about this book? When are you going
to tell me what it’s about?
He-he. Maybe I should give you a taster. After all, you should always tell the
person about the book before you put their name on the first page as a
No.NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO WAAAAAAAAAAAY!!!!!! YAAAAAAAAY!!!!!! I can’t believe this!
You, mister, are gonna get major league lucky after that flick. Maybe even
during the film if you know what I mean!
(tingles with anticipation)
really. I’m desperate to know. Give us the heads up on your mysterious
(red with embarrassment) I don’t think it’s a master piece. Just a small thing
I’ve put together. I told you I’ve done some work as a psychiatrist. But what
I didn’t tell you was why I stopped. It got so much. The stories you’d get in
Awwwwwwww…. poor baby. But I bet there aren’t many men in their twenties who
are so brilliantly clever like you and who so wanted to help people like you.
failed. And that’s the truth. That’s why I am writing this book. I guess by
writing this book I hope to reach out to all those people I couldn’t save. I
Sweetflo19: Can I
tell you something? It is probably like, totally, inappropriate.
Yeah, sure – go ahead.
so wet now.
The Sultan is in the house!
finished tapping out his goodbyes, he leaned back in his immaculate leather,
smooth swivel-luxury recliner, which had cost the best part of half a thousand
pounds and he stretched out his arms toward the ceiling, fully unfurling his
long sleek fingers and feeling the tension in their tips buzz momentarily before
dissipating in a pleasant throb.
For a few moments
he regarded those smooth, elongated fingers with a languid pleasure for they
were as proportioned and perfect as the rest of him, and he had the sensation
which comes from an utter physical well-being; the awareness that you are young
and lithe, and that every molecule in your body is in tune with your brain, and
will hum and vibrate in accordance with your every whim and direction. Carlos
was more than a person. He was a work of art.
He was satisfied
too with the turn of the conversation. He was satisfied choosing his words in
order to make sweetflo19 happy. After all, Florence was a young, sweet girl –
intelligent, vibrant, inquisitive and attractive. And like many women, extremely
generous. That came from having a maternal nature. Already Florence had paid
for the majority of their restaurant visits, and had even been kind enough to
finance him a sum while he was working on his book. Only someone as radiantly
good and uncorrupted as she, who could see through the paper thin bullshit of
the urban rat race, could really appreciate the kind of work he was doing.
somewhat, he realised that. There were no firms who had offered to publish his
book. And, in actual fact, he hadn’t actually written it yet. There were a few
scraps of paper hastily discarded, the scarred remnants of his earliest literary
effusions, a never-ending series of ‘page 1’ which were crinkled and torn with a
varying degree of violence depending on how frustrated he had become with the
But that wasn’t
everything. It didn’t matter that the book hadn’t yet been written, or that
several publishers had sent the same generic and insipid rejection note to his
various proposals. Van Gogh didn’t sell a single painting in his life-time,
and now everybody knew his name. Carlos liked Van Gogh. For he too was
someone who had done what he needed in order to get by. For much of his life
the Dutch master had flitted through the gaps in the world, living in the
strange shadowy hinterland between normality and the routine of the everyday on
the one side, and utter loss - abject destitution, on the other. Van Gogh, like
Carlos, had tried a couple of jobs, and like Carlos had been forced from them by
people infinitely inferior to himself.
But there were
differences too, Carlos thought, as he gazed into the liquid clarity of the
mirror, entranced by the sublime, ethereal figure who gazed back. He moved his
hand to his ear, running his finger along its contours, its smooth, voluptuous
shape, like a marble shell, and he winced with a faint distaste at the strange,
alien and paradoxical notion of doing himself harm.
He straightened in
the mirror, and adjusted his tie. A single lock of hair fell teasingly from his
head. He would ride the tubes today in order to supplement his income. It was
more convenient in the rush-hour, when it came to relieving people of their
money, but sometimes, when there were less people around you could strike up a
conversation, and access someone’s finances that way. That was how Carlos
preferred it. He did not like ugliness in general; he did not like it in things
or people, for he was a firm believer in Oscar Wilde’s epigram – ‘it is better
to be beautiful than good.’ His distaste for the ugly even extended to the
realm of the linguistic, for words like ‘thief’, ‘robber’, ‘mugger’ and
‘pick-pocket’ were harsh sounding, grating on the ear. They were, for sure,
ugly words which had only a superficial correspondence to what he did.
For what he did
involved grace and precision and smoothness. He had to bewitch the person to
whom he spoke, he had to enrapture them, deftly infiltrating their mind with his
charm, while at the same time accessing their pockets with his fingers. And
this was not theft in the everyday and crushingly banal sense of the word, for
what Carlos achieved was a form of elevation, that is, he raised the person up,
and left them glowing with pleasure and esteem – the lingering after effects of
his own beautified moment. No, this was not simple theft, for he had provided
something valuable, something precious.
He would ride the
underground today. And later in the evening he would take Florence out to the
pictures. The cinema was near the tube station in a big shopping centre, and it
was one of the few places genuinely beloved by Carlos. Everything about it was
sparkling and pristine. He liked the restaurants which were raised on a plateau
just beneath the vast dome of the shopping centre’s roof, for these provided a
delicious combination of modern American style dinners with bright neon signs
and a luminous decor, while only a few footsteps away you would find a rustic,
old fashioned Italian restaurant, replete with wooden, weathered tables and
sausages hanging from the beams on the ceiling, or bottles of wine stacked in
triangles on the heavy mahogany bar.
And of course, the
thing which topped it all was the sheer safety of the place. It was not only
clean. More importantly there was never a dog in sight
Fuck. Shit shit shit.’
The elderly lady
opposite shot Kat a rueful expression.
Kat raised her
eyes to the heavens.
‘Oh please God why
aren’t we moving?’
besuited man to her right folded his paper, and looked at her.
‘There is no point
in worrying. This kinda thing happens on the underground all the time. There
is always a fault in the signal box or some such thing going on. But I assure
you we will be moving soon.’
Kat fixed him with
a demented stare.
‘A fault on the
signal box? A fault on the signal box?’ – she asked incredulously? ‘It that
really what you people think is going on here?’
The man looked
taken aback. Apprehensive. He brushed his fingers across perfectly ironed
‘Well of course.
What else could it be?’
‘It’s me’ – Kat
said simply. ‘Whenever I have to be anywhere which is important, like a funeral
or a wedding, the tube is always delayed. Case in point. My sister’s going on
holiday today. I was supposed to be there thirty minutes ago to pick up the
keys. Housesitting you see. But im not. Because I am here. Stuck in this
tunnel. You see? They know!’
The old lady
stroked her chin. The besuited man frowned his scepticism. Kat, in a rueful
aside, as though addressing only herself said:
‘I suppose this is
what life is really. You start in the beginning speeding away. And then at
some point you get stuck in a rut. Just gradually getting older.’
She was pleased
with this philosophical flourish, and she looked up at the other passengers
expectantly, hoping they would show some sort of appreciation. Just then the
tube suddenly jerked into life, and the initial rattle quickly graduated into a
speedy hurtle through the smog encrusted tunnel.
‘You see.’ – said
the besuited man smugly ‘there really was nothing sinister here. Just a signal
problem or something like. As I said.’
Kat regarded him
intently for a few moments, and then her eye slanted in a sinister and knowing
‘Ahhhhh but that’s
exactly what they want you to think!’
When Kat got out
of the station she started running. Once she turned into her sister’s street,
the pressure on her lungs was formidable, and she was taking short, jerky gasps
of air which stabbed at her insides, harsh and sharp. And as soon as she turned
the corner she could see the silhouette of her sister in the middle distance,
stood in the garden, hands on hips, in an accentuated posture of disapproval and
apprehension. She came staggering up the drive-way.
Christ. So. Sorry’ – she panted.
‘It’s hit and miss
whether we make it to the plane. I wanted you to know that Kat.’ – Clementine
pronounced grimly, before turning on her heel and heaving a large suitcase into
the open boot of the taxi.
‘All good to go!’
- came the cheery voice of the driver.
‘As good as we’ll
ever be’ Andrew returned with a frayed cheerfulness of his own. He glanced at
Kat and gave her a smile.
‘See ya around
pussy cat!’ – he said.
‘Have a good one’
– Kat replied with a smile. Clementine turned and came walking back. Kat got
ready for another barrage of criticism. But her sister pulled her into a brief
hug. She pressed the keys into Kats hands.
‘Take care of
yourself. And thank you.’
And then the taxi
Kat went into the
house. She stood at the door and looked out onto the street. It was a bright
sunny day. The street was wide and long, and all the houses seemed to have
large front gardens. Some way down there were a couple of kids riding on bikes,
round and round in circles, like a dog chasing its tale. Suddenly she broke
into a smile. Beelzebub! She turned into the house, closing the door quietly
behind her, kicked off her shoes and went into the front room. Beelzebub was
sat on his haunches like a sentinel, and his large jowls hung heavy from the
sides of his mouth, and he affixed Kat with his large stoical eyes. She ran up
to him, put her hands around his large, solemn face and nuzzled his cheek with
hers, before pulling away in a slight disgust, and wiping a slick trail of
slobber from the side of cheek. She stood up. She stretched her arms out and
twirled around twice. Beelzebub regarded her with those large doleful eyes.
He’d seen it all before, in his time. She ruffled his head, and tentatively, he
began to lick her hand. He was a good natured dog.
She went to the
kitchen and opened the fridge. There was a bottle of white. She poured herself
a glass and, as its coolness settled in her stomach, she felt a shrill frisson
of pleasure. Supping her wine, she took a quick tour of the house. There were,
of course, some things which didn’t tally with her own tastes. The picture in
the hallway of the ballerina in the white dress was a little fluffy and frilly
for her liking. Clementine had always been a bit of a girl’s girl when they
were growing up and Kat had inclined more toward the tom boy way of life getting
into skirmishes with other children, and ending up with her knees scraped on the
ground, or her clothes smeared with the green residue which came from constantly
climbing trees. ‘You’re not one of those lesbians are you?’ - a 15 year old
Clementine had asked once with a genuine consternation, her expression carrying
worry and distaste in equal proportion. And Kat hadn’t known what to say. She
knew she wasn’t gay, that was clear to her, but yet there was something
profoundly different about her, she had never quite been on the same page as
other people, and she had to turn away from Clementine and her question because
the tears burnt in her eyes, and she realised on some level that even her family
saw how profoundly different, how in some way alien, she was.
Kat stood with her
glass of wine, smiling to herself. At her age now she felt that ‘different’
was often a good thing. ‘Here’s to being different’ she said and raised the
glass of wine in a gesture to herself, knocking it back in a very un-lady like
gulp. She went into the kitchen and sorted out a bowl of pedigree chum for
Beelzebub and some water too. The dog wandered over and she noticed how stiff
he walked now, how heavy. He took a couple of tentative mouthfuls of the meaty
chunks, before turning away from the bowl with disinterest. He lapped at the
water a couple of times and then turned to look at her, and it might have been
the wine, but his eyes seemed to contain the most profound and humane sadness,
as though he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. He turned back to
the meat and took a few more mournful mouthfuls, as though it was a duty he
would not shirk, and then he rolled over on his side, and lay blinking out at
her with his philosopher’s eyes.
She stroked his
belly. As a pup he had liked that, and it had always made him wriggle and
stretch, but now he just lay back, and when she offered him her hand, he licked
it half-heartedly. She ruffled his head once more and then went and ran
herself a bath.
When Kat woke up
the next day, she found herself in the front room. Her head was heavy and she
cursed herself for the two bottles of wine she’d knocked back. Beelzebub was in
the far corner of the room, curled in the shadows, and yet she could see how the
little light there was became concentrated and refracted in those large maudlin
eyes which were now unflinchingly focused on her. ‘Don’t you judge me’, she
muttered – ‘like you’ve never had one too many of those doggy treats.’ His
stare was glassy and unwavering and she felt something roll deep in her stomach,
for at the same time he was looking in her direction but she suddenly realised
he was looking at nothing at all. His eyes had ceased to see. His stillness
was the stillness of the room, of the furniture, of the emptiness, and she knew
he was stone dead.
A lump formed in
her throat. Her emotions were always more flammable after a drink. And so the
full tragedy of the situation swept across her tsunami like, overwhelming her
barriers and sweeping away her defences as she felt tears tickle her skin. The
strange thing of it was that she wasn’t even a great dog fan. Though she had
been fond of Beelzebub. He’d given her a diversion, someone to stroke and play
with, when Clementine and Andrew were harping on about the net worth of their
property and how it was ahead of inflation. Beelzebub was simple like that,
like dogs often were, proffering an unconditional loyalty, a never-ending desire
to lick your hand or nuzzle against your side. Beelzebub had been a gentle
creature only now that gentleness, his quintessence, the vapours of Beelzebub
which had made of him a living dog, had disappeared, gone forever. All that
remained was the shell.
together’ – Kat thought, and sniffed hard, prolonging the sound, interrupting
the stillness which had settled in the room like a dead weight. Her stomach
lurched again with clammy sickened presentiment – ‘Oh God. Clem. She will be
Kat stood up; her
head span and the stale gorge of the previous night’s alcohol rose in her mouth,
but she blotted this out and focussed on the next few hours. She could not let
her sister return to….this - which meant that she, Kat, would have to sort out
She went to the
kitchen and had a bracing glass of water from the tap, took a couple of aspirin
and splashed her face down, smoothing her hair. It was a beautiful hot languid
summer’s day. Beyond the window she could see their garden; the flowers
arrayed bright and tidy just like Clem liked them, and at the far edge the shed
which Andrew had had installed in order to do DIY but which she knew for a fact
he never used. And then the image of that bright orderly garden receded, and
her own features hove into view, the shape and contours of her reflection, the
dark shadows under the eyes, and the somewhat gaunt cheek bones; all of this was
accentuated in the liquid smoothness of the windows surface, and a lyric of a
Tracey Chapman song drifted across her head – ‘his body’s too young for looking
She would start a
fresh. Today was a new day. First things first. Beelzebub. A member of the
google.com generation, Kat’s first impulse was to boot up Andrew’s computer and
go on line. ‘Dead Dog’, she typed. After a few searches and some images she
could have done without seeing, Kat was armed with a greater understanding. No,
you could not do the traditional thing and bury your dog in the back garden.
In this situation one had to bring the body of the pet to a vet. She did a
search for local vets and here Kat gritted her teeth, for the closest vets was
some-way from this area, requiring a car, which she did not have, or
necessitating several stops on the underground. Kat slumped in her seat. But
she wasn’t to be defeated before she had started. The underground it would
around the house eventually finding an old but large robust suitcase. She
brought it downstairs and placed it, flat on the floor, with its top open, next
to Beelzebub. And then she heaved the cadaver of the dog into the case.
Beelzebub had been a big dog, and she had to grip the folds of his fatty skin
hard between her fingers. She winced. ‘Sorry Beelzebub’ she said. After a
great deal of pushing and prodding she was able to zip up the case, though its
contents bulged out against the surface of its worn fabric.
She dragged the
case along the street and it made a scrapping sound. ‘Sorry Beelzebub’ she said
again, under her breath. The sun beat down, the case was so heavy, and within
minutes Kat was sweating profusely. Her arms ached and snarled, and when she
went into the entrance of the underground station people bustled past her but
nobody bothered to help her as she dragged her case down the stairs. She
hoisted Beelzebub through the open doors of the tube and slumped into her
seat. Her head hummed.
Exiting was even
more wrought. Again she was dragging the suitcase along the ground and it was
when she went up a second set of stairs that she felt her muscles loosen and
slack, and she stopped, leaving the hefty case perched on the precipice between
two stairs. She looked up to the small saucer of light at the top of the stairs
‘Can I give you a
hand with that?’
He was smiling,
and he looked at the same time amused and concerned. His eyes were golden brown
and something in them seemed to dance. For a second Kat had to find her
‘Yes. Yes you
can. Please. Absolutely’ – she panted.
‘Okay then – do
you prefer it on top?’
Kat blushed ever
‘I think I am okay
where I am’ she said with a reproving grin.
‘I’m sorry – that
came out very differently from the way it was supposed to. Happens sometimes to
me. Brain doing one thing. Mouth doing the other.’
He hung his head
in shame, and then gradually raised those beautiful eyes, finding her gaze
again, playful but tentative. And Kat found herself smiling. Helped by the
fact that he was absolutely gorgeous of course.
He took the front
of the suitcase and lifted. He frowned in surprise.
‘My God – what
have you got in here?’
Kat’s mouth was
suddenly dry and she was aware of the prolonged throb of her heart beat.
just. My sister’s a DJ see. And I’ve got the short end of the stick. Have to
bring her decks and equipment to a gig, help set up and stuff.’
savouring the lie, tasting it with her tongue.
‘She’s the one in
the family with all the talent. Always has been’ – Kat began to embellish with
gusto now – ‘and there’s little old me, left to the donkey work, made to saddle
this lot around with me.’
‘I am sure that’s
not true’ – purred the young man. ‘I’m sure she doesn’t have all the talent.
And I’m certain she doesn’t have all the looks. OH my god – that was pure
cheese. Again brain, mouth – complete and utter network melt down.’
‘No its fine’ said
Kat feeling the back of her ears redden with illicit pleasure. She looked into
his eyes, and again she felt the deep throb of her pulse, and now she smiled,
secretive, sensuous, and for a few seconds they locked eyes drinking one another
At the barrier he
‘I’ll go through
and you try and we’ll haul it over those gates over there.’
‘Thank you so much
for this’ Kat said breathlessly – ‘I really appreciate it.’
He swiped his
oyster card and came to meet her at the gates. With all her strength Kat managed
to raise the suitcase to a height where he could take it, and they manoeuvred it
over the metal gates.
‘I don’t know how
I’ll ever be able to thank you’ – Kat said girlishly.
He smiled at her,
as though those words were all the thanks he would ever need. Then he took the
suitcase, turned on his heel, and ran out of the station.
rooted to the spot. She had seen him flee with the case but for a few moments
her mind simply couldn’t rationalise the situation. She stood there stupefied.
‘He’s taken the case…. He’s actually gone and nicked the case’ – she whispered
to herself quizzically.
Fuck it was
heavy. Fuck this thing was heavy. Carlos was not happy with the situation; he
had made a snap decision, which he knew might explode in his face like a
hand-grenade. But there were a couple of things to his advantage. A man
running with a suitcase in hand automatically looked like someone running for a
bus, or for a train, desperate to make it to the airport for a last minute
flight. In addition he dressed so immaculately that people rarely assumed the
worst of him. Nevertheless it was not yet plain-sailing. He was about 300
metres from his flat, but he hadn’t had the chance to scan the street for any
potential canines. And the suitcase was really heavy. It would be worth it.
He was a skilled professional and he realised that specialised musical equipment
would always find a good price – all one needed to do was place an advert in the
back pages of some obsolete magazine for enthusiasts. He groaned. The
suitcase was really bloody heavy.
The street was
clear though. When he finally got to his building he let himself in and
disappeared into the shadows. At once a feeling of well-being claimed him. It
was off-set only by a new awareness of the texture of the suitcase, old and
dusty, it had transferred some of its stagnant aroma to him, and he shivered as
though warding off some supernatural omen. He rested the suitcase on the ground
and smoothed down his clothes, brushing away the dust.
What have we here? Going on holiday are we?’
His eyes narrowed
and the edges of his lips curled in bitter distaste, but when he turned to meet
Mrs Athelby’s wizened old face, his own was at once transformed; beaming
benevolently, he looked out at her, pleased and enthusiastic for the simple fact
of another’s company.
‘If only I was!’
– he shook his head ruefully, and then fixed her with a saucy stare.
‘But you and I
both know, Mrs Athelby – there’s no rest for the wicked!’
‘Oh you!’ – the
old lady giggled and swatted at some imaginary point in the air.
He waited a few
moments to make sure he was rid of the demented old bat, and then he returned to
the task at hand. There were no lifts in his building and his arms were
hurting. He didn’t have the gumption or the desire to haul the case up seven
flights. But a solution presented itself. He would hoist the case onto the
banister, pushing it upwards, ahead of himself, using the hand rail as support.
‘1,2,3’ – He
heaved the case onto the metal banister, wincing, for he anticipated the sound
of shattering from within. Electronic equipment was fragile for it had moving
parts, and if the case was set down too violently, the whole debacle would have
been for nothing.
‘So far, so good’
– He was behind and underneath the massive case, pushing it, sliding it upwards
like a man rolling a boulder up a hill.
On the third
flight of stairs Carlos noticed the way in which the contents of the case bulged
out against its fabric. Something wasn’t right. He had the semi-conscious
awareness that the shape was a little odd for electronic equipment but he was
engrossed in his task and couldn’t translate his apprehension into something
On the fourth
level, a stale smell started to pervade his nostrils. It seemed to infiltrate
him like bad breath for there was something both unsettling and familiar in its
vague putrescence. He was suddenly certain that whatever was in the case
wasn’t what she had claimed. The realisation provoked a shudder of incandescent
rage, passing across him with all the resonance of a dark angel, causing his
finger tips to tingle, and his vision to haze momentarily. He blinked his eyes
in outrage and disbelief. You couldn’t trust anyone these days. She had
looked pretty and clean but underneath they were all stinky and grotesque and
manipulators and liars. He stopped on the stair, with his arms pushed forward
and upwards, and he regarded the case suspended above him. He had the sudden
impulse to just leave it were it was, or to let it go, allowing it to crash
backwards down the stairs. The good for nothing bitch! She’d wasted his
And then his anger
and frustration was vanished by a single thought. Maybe it wasn’t electrical
equipment in there. But maybe it was something far more valuable.
Significantly cheered he continued in his endeavour, pushing the case with
vigour now, having been galvanized by a new enthusiasm.
He started to
imagine all the things it could be. Drugs from an illicit heist. Or antiques
which had been smuggled into the country - that would go some way to explaining
the sour odour. He felt a tingling in his stomach; the shrill, liquorish
anticipation a child has on Christmas night, and he was suddenly awash with
benevolence; he realised now just how cute that girl had been, how much he was
looking forward to taking Florence out that evening and even the thought of the
interfering, inquisitive Mrs Althelby failed to arouse the hate-filled contempt
it normally would. She was, Carlos reflected, really rather harmless in the
scheme of things. It wasn’t her fault that she was old.
And then, just
like that child in the run up to Christmas day, Carlos had the rather naughty
impulse to sneak a peek at his presents in advance; surely, he purred to
himself, a quick look wouldn’t hurt.
case slanted above him with the one hand, he used the other to pull back the
zip. It came quicker than he had intended whizzing from one side to the next,
and he realised he had pulled it too far, but by then it was already too late.
There came a
sudden blast of stench which made him bridle. Something inside him uncoupled,
and though he didn’t want to, he was compelled to raise his eyes, peering into
the darkness of the suitcase’s interior. Inside, two eyes gazed back, shrouded
in dark and malevolence.
Carlos could only
emit the one monosyllabic sound, as whatever it was in the case slid towards
were annihilated by the sudden rush of his blood, as he recognised the eyes,
the ears and that dread snout; as he recognised the hound whose image had been
pursuing him his whole life, and now propelled itself from the suitcase,
spilling onto Carlos in a furore of dog hair and malevolence.
The shrill high
pitched sound which Carlos produced was neither human nor animal, but more the
sound of a failing electronic system.
It was on him.
Why - why this horrific, hallucinogenic nightmare visited upon him? Carlos emitted
one more mournful ‘Eeiiikkk’ before the blackness rushed in and he collapsed in
a merciful faint.
Clem was crying
quietly. Kat went over and put her hand on her shoulder.
She looked at up at her younger sister whose tear stained eyes filled momentarily with a
‘And are you
absolutely sure you did everything right? Fed him and everything?’
‘I am certain’ –
said Kat firmly. ‘He was just old Clem. Very old and tired.’
Her sister gulped
and nodded, and now there was a plea in her eyes.
‘Did he go
‘Yes Clem. ‘ – she
sat down at put her arms around her sister. ‘He simply curled up in his
favourite spot over there and went to sleep. It was very peaceful and he
wouldn’t have felt a thing. ‘
‘I wish I had been
Kat didn’t know
what to say. She didn’t think she was very good at comforting people.
said he was a baby substitute. I don’t think Andrew ever loved Beeze the way I
did. For some people a dog is just a dog. But some people see them in a whole
‘Well’ mused Kat
‘maybe you could think about having a baby.’
her a look. How could she think about those things now?
Kat stuttered, for
she had not wanted to upset her sister.
‘Well you could
ermmmmmm you could call the sprog Beezelbub. You know in his honour.’
The words had come
out before she had even put her brain into gear.
Clem looked at her
blinking in astonishment, and then she burst into incredulous laughter, her tear
stained eyes shining.
‘You couldn’t call
a kid Beezelbub. Can you image how that would be for the poor little sod?
Their first day at school? They’d get bullied Kat.’
Outside they heard
the sound of laughter, a child’s laughter, and both girls had the same thought.
Clem thought about a baby growing inside her and it filled her with wonder, and
it was something she wanted more than anything else. Kat wondered whether it
was true if you played certain music to the baby while it was in the womb, it might
turn out to be another Beethoven. They sat on the sofa, lost in their thoughts
for a few moments, their fingertips touching.
Tony Mckenna is a journalist and cultural commentator who has written
for The Huffington Post, NewStatesman, New Internationalist, The
United Nations and ABC Australia among others.