THE STRANGE CASE OF THE DOG ON THE UNDERGROUND
Clem’s voice was sugar coated.
‘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.’
Outside, the 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 next number.
‘Hello, hello….’ – a woman’s voice, middle aged and querulous.
‘how row’ she grumbled in her most politically incorrect imitation of a Chinese accent.
‘how-row. Would rike one fwied wice. One Won tan Noodle soup. One……’
‘You complete, 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 calls….’
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.
Sometimes Murray 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 sensibility.
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 self-righteous one-liners.
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 to.
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….’
The bespectacled 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 words….
‘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 fundamentally mean.
‘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 that.’
Carlos managed a manful nod.
‘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.’
Carlos’ body 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 shine.
Nevertheless there 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 emissions.
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 enthusiasm:
‘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 a breath.
‘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 were saying…..’
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.
‘Hello Stranger’ she said languidly.
‘Hello Sis’ 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.’
Clementine was 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?’
Nothing annoyed 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:
‘Gotta keep keepin’ it real Clem. Work hard, play hard, that’s my motto. Gotta break on through to the other side!’
Catherine strode 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’
‘Poppycock. Don’t 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 hen.
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 sister.
‘Kat’ – said Clementine in a quiet voice – ‘How much are you actually drinking at the moment?’
They returned to the front room and again Clementine surveyed her surroundings with a plaintive unease.
‘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!’
While Kat 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.
Kat’s shoulders slumped. She flopped down in the chair, resigned.
‘It’s an 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 Clem?’
‘Twelve fifteen in the morning? Twelve fifteen in the morning!’
Clementine 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?’
Invigorated by having taken up the offensive and smelling the blood of her quarry, Kat went for the kill.
‘Come clean 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.
Suddenly Kat’s 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 little sister.’
‘You’re always so clever Kat, always able to laugh at everyone else. Why don’t you give it a fucking rest?’
The expletive 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 girls.’
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.
These images 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 world.
‘Of course I’ll do it. If only to keep an eye on the outrageous Beelzebub!’
Clementine smiled 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.’
Sweetflo19: I love you. You know that?
Sultan-of-love: Same here.
Swettflo19: 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....
Sultan-of-love: I 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!
Sweetflo19: 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 now!)
Sweetflo19: I can’t wait to see you. Are we still on for tomorrow?
Sultan-of-love: 7.30 on the dot. It’s got great reviews. Though with you around its always difficult to focus on the screen.
Sweetflo19: (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 say?
Sultan-of-love: 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.
Sweetflo19: Oh 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?
Sultan-of-love: 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 dedication.
Sweetflo19: 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!
Sultan-of-love: (tingles with anticipation)
Sweetflo19: But really. I’m desperate to know. Give us the heads up on your mysterious masterpiece!
Sultan-of-love: (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 a day……..
Sweetflo19: 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.
Sultan-of-love: I 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 guess……..
Sweetflo19: Can I tell you something? It is probably like, totally, inappropriate.
Sultan-of-love: Yeah, sure – go ahead.
Sweetflo19: I’m so wet now.
Sultan-of-love: The Sultan is in the house!
When Carlos 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.
He’d exaggerated 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 latest effort.
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
‘Fuckety Fuckety 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?’
A younger, 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 black trousers.
‘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 fashion.
‘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. Sorry. 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 was away.
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.
‘Pull yourself 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 devastated.’
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 the body.
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 like this.’
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 be.
She searched 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 and groaned.
‘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 bearings.
‘Yes. Yes you can. Please. Absolutely’ – she panted.
‘Okay then – do you prefer it on top?’
Kat blushed ever so slightly.
‘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.
‘I…I….well it’s 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.’
Kat paused, 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 in.
At the barrier he said:
‘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.
Kat remained 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.
‘Hello Carlos. 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 more coherent.
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 time.
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.
Supporting the 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 him.
His surroundings 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 childish-recrimination.
‘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 peacefully?’
‘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 there.’
Kat didn’t know what to say. She didn’t think she was very good at comforting people.
‘Andrew always 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 different light.’
‘Well’ mused Kat ‘maybe you could think about having a baby.’
Clementine shot 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.