Holding a Dahlia

I approached this month’s book club with some excitement, as our first choice was a book by one of my favourite writers in a a genre that I regard as my favourite. Funnily enough this book wasn’t my choice, but I’m glad it was chosen, as it gave me a chance to have a little rant about my love for this writer.

I first read James Ellroy many years ago, about the time that the adaptation of his novel LA Confidential was released on film. I was drawn to his writing based on his ability to handle pace and the joy of his dialogue, which is among the finest in the genre in my opinion. Our choice was The Black Dahlia, a magnum opus seeped in obsession and paranoia, based on an infamous case of a murdered woman in the 1940s.

In many ways it has become my favourite Ellroy novel. Whilst I like some of his later work the staccato prose, very alliteration heavy, can be a bit of a turn-off after hundreds of pages. A British author, David Peace, is another that I struggle with for the same reason. This novel has the flavour of his earlier books and is just beautifully written. The theme of obsession outlined above is never more stark than here, and Ellroy’s lifelong pursuit of it is down to the unsolved murder of his mother when he was a child, and to whom the book is dedicated. This haunts the novel throughout and injects the prose with enormous power. The two policeman involved in the case find their personal obsession with the case overspills into their personal lives, and decisions that they make have a direct impact on their relationships and careers. Again, this is classic Ellroy territory but never done better than here.

The plot itself is labyrinthine and far too complicated to go into here, but in most of the great crime novels the plot is almost transcended by the sheer enjoyment and dynamism of the writing. I had the same feeling with this book.

We move to very different territory for our second book, Timothy Conigrave’s memoir Holding The Man, the story of a homosexual man growing up in suburban Melbourne in the 1970s and 80s. This tale is well-known in this country and one of our members went to the same school as Conigrave, so it had a familiarity to most that I wasn’t privy to.

That said, I enjoyed some aspects of the book. I found the overly ‘ocker’ language grating at times, and I found some of Conigrave’s character traits a  little annoying, in particular his promiscuity and willingness to cheat on his partner. He seemed to lead a ‘have your cake and eat it’ lifestyle and his partner John came across as a saintly figure for putting up with it. Indeed, this was probably not an accident, as the depiction of John was very much in that vein throughout, the quiet thoughtful man who stands by his lover stoically.

The novel ends in tragedy as both men end up contracting the HIV virus and the book concludes with John’s death. Despite the inevitability of this I found the conclusion quite moving. There were also some moments where the homophobia of some of their family members was really shocking. They had a tough time being accepted as a couple and even after John’s death Tim was only described as a ‘friend’ in death notices. Whilst this can only evoke anger, it does show how far society has come, even in 20 years or so. Which in the end can only be an uplifting message.

The only other warning I would give is that the book contains graphic sexual content, I would say it is astonishingly frank in places. I admire anyone who is willing to divulge such personal things to the world, I could never do it. I didn’t have a problem with the content but some of our members thought it was a little over the top. I disagree – always tell the truth, and you can’t go far wrong.

In The Doghouse

OK, so I’ve written a short story. My first for quite a while. Here it is…


Scratching at the door woke Hogan from his slumber. He hadn’t fully dropped off, but was drifting in a pleasant hinterland on the cusp of sleep.

Then, the scratches.

His eyes snapped open and he clenched his hands into fists. The ritual had begun. He turned over in bed. Sharon was fast asleep. Again, part of the ritual. She was impervious to the sounds, and this riled him further. He had to deal with it, and she would only get cross with him if he complained. It was their baby, after all.

He got out of bed and put on a pair of slippers. He added a dressing gown, careful not to make a sound. Satisfied, he made for the door.

He opened it to find Rusty lying spread across the doorway, head lying on his paws, looking up at Hogan with infuriating, pleading eyes. Orange light from a lamppost spilled through the landing window and tinged Rusty’s pupils blood red. Like the devil’s eyes, Hogan thought. An all-seeing, all-knowing devil.

The challenge was how to get him downstairs without setting off a fusillade of barking that would wake the entire street. Luckily, their house was at the end of the block and the neighbouring property was currently vacant, so any noise wouldn’t be too intrusive. Even so. This was the next stage of the game, and both knew their roles with precision.

Hogan nudged at Rusty’s belly with a toe. The dog whimpered and rolled onto its back. Hogan drew a sharp breath. Don’t you bark, miserable mutt. He tried again, a little more forcefully this time, and Rusty got to his feet and scuttled down the hallway, tail wagging furiously. Hogan followed, prepared to exert more force to get Rusty downstairs, but this time the dog required no further prompting and was curled up in his bed by the time Hogan reached the living room.

As he always did, Hogan shook his head at the sight of the bed. The Queen could sleep in it and have no complaints. A ‘Premium Dog Lounger’, it was called. Sharon had fallen in love with it after scouring the Internet for hours, dismissing one bed after another for the tiniest flaw. Then, just as he was about to lose his temper, she clapped her hands and pointed at the screen.

‘Oh, it’s perfect,’ she had said.

He peered over her head. ‘At that price? Fuck, I’m surprised it isn’t gold-plated.’

‘Stop swearing. We can afford it.’

She had smiled, and he wanted to please her, just to keep that smile going, one that he had seen so rarely in the last few months. So he said yes. She kissed him then, and one thing led to another, and everything was good.

And at the start, he had enjoyed having Rusty. The long walks in the park broke up the day, and as a puppy, he was well-behaved and easy to house-train. But as the months went by, and Sharon’s grief and hurt grew, she projected all her love and affection onto the dog. Spoiling him. Buying him ridiculous presents, including designer clothes. Designer clothes for an animal. It started with a hideous waterproof jacket in black and yellow halves, which she said made Rusty look ‘smart’. She would walk him in it, showing off to all and sundry. Hogan refused to do the same, telling her it was embarrassing. But the gifts kept on coming. A dog collar with a tartan print, and matching bandanna. A zebra print lead. Last Christmas a pair of plastic reindeer ears turned up in the post. Hogan had spent Christmas Day with a dog dressed up like Rudolph. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Yet, he could understand why she was doing it. Some days he would be hit with a depression so strong he could barely get out of bed. He would lie awake, tears rolling down his face, mourning the loss of their unborn child. They had been trying for a baby ever since marriage, and after nearly a year, Sharon had fallen pregnant. The early stages of the pregnancy had gone without a hitch, and they had been talking of the future, names and schools and all the rest.

Then one night, she had awoken with a cramping pain in her stomach. Over the next few hours, she thrashed about in the sheets, gripping Hogan’s hand so hard her nails left crescent-shaped marks in his palms. Eventually, they both fell into a restless sleep.

He woke up to a scene he would never forget. Sharon was gone. He sat up and heard crying, retching sounds coming from the bathroom. Sharon was sitting on the toilet bowl, sobbing. Her nightgown was stained red. He went to her and she buried her head to his chest, screaming. He managed to lift her to a standing position, the horror of what had happened starting to take hold. He lifted the toilet bowl and there were smudges of blood on the porcelain, the water a red syrupy colour. Their baby, gone. He saw finger smudges on the toilet handle and realised she had flushed the remains down the toilet.

Remains. Their baby, reduced to a few marks of blood. Gorge rose in his throat and he swallowed it down. Sharon continued to cry. And as she cried, a small, unexpected well of resentment flowered in his chest. That she had flushed their child away like a common turd. He went to her, knowing that it wasn’t her fault, that she was going through hell. They cleaned up and phoned the hospital. Cried a flood of tears. But for Hogan, that resentment was always there, a little ember that glowed with every passing breath.

Sharon was off to work early the next morning, after fussing over Rusty during breakfast. Hogan hated how the dog had encroached onto their meal times. This was especially prevalent at dinner, as Sharon insisted on feeding him morsels of food from her plate, carving off a slice of chicken and tossing it to the floor. It was like a medieval banquet, the decorum she showed. His protests, and there were many, fell on deaf ears.

Whilst Sharon was off to cut hair and exchange gossip, Hogan made a cup of coffee and took it through to his office. He worked from home as a freelance writer for financial publications. The pay was surprisingly lucrative and he enjoyed the solitude. Until now, that was. Despite Rusty’s arrival in the household being Sharon’s idea, somehow the roles had been reversed and he spent more time looking after him than she did. Still, it was good that she was back at work. He hoped she would start to come to terms with the loss of the baby and they could get back some of the happiness that had been lost.

Thankfully, the dog was asleep on his bed, and Hogan fell into his work. He wrote for an hour, then went for more coffee. As the kettle boiled, a tick tack of paws sounded on the lino, and there he was, barking and fizzing in and out of Hogan’s legs. Hogan sighed. It was time for the morning walk.

It had been raining overnight and the park was likely to be muddy, so Hogan changed into wellington boots and reached for his parka, which hung on a hook by the back door. He felt the inside pocket for the familiar shape of his cigarettes. He had only been smoking again for three months, after a two year abstention. Ever since the baby, in fact. Sharon knew nothing, and he was happy to keep it that way. She would only be in his ear about it, but well, some battles you lose, others you win. He never smoked in the house, but had come to relish his morning cigarette. There had to be one pleasure from having a dog.

He picked the least garish lead and hooked it to Rusty’s collar, and they were on their way. The cloud was low and ominous. The park lay beyond the row of houses in their block, and as Hogan passed the neighbours, he saw a figure in the upstairs window, polishing. A pile of boxes were stacked against the glass. So, new neighbours. As he made to leave the figure caught his eye. He waved at the man, but received no response.

As they neared the park Rusty grew excited and pulled hard on the leash. Hogan unhooked him and Rusty bounded away across the field, barking with great gusto. He ran past the football pitch and stopped to sniff at a row of bushes before returning to Hogan, who retrieved a ball from his pocket and threw it in a long arc down the field. Rusty set off after it, and Hogan reached for his cigarettes.

As he shook one out of the packet he saw Rusty charging towards another dog, barking loudly. There was a blur of white and brown fur as the pair sized each other up. In the distance, a woman was striding towards them. Hogan did the same.

The dogs were sniffing each other as he approached. Rusty towered over his companion and gave the dog a playful nip on the backside. This set off a crescendo of barks. By now the woman had reached the pair and had separated her dog, putting him back on the leash. Hogan jogged the last few paces to meet them.

‘Come on Rusty,’ he said, and for once the dog obeyed, exposing his collar for Hogan to attach the leash. Rusty panted and was quiet.

‘Sorry about that,’ he said, looking up at the woman. ‘He can get a little playful sometimes.’

She was fussing over her dog, who lay whimpering at her feet. There was a small tuft of white fur on the ground.

‘I wouldn’t call it playful,’ she replied, shaking her head. ‘He didn’t have to bite him.’

Hogan shrugged his shoulders. They’re dogs, for fuck’s sake. That’s what they do. He repeated his apology.

The woman stared at him for a moment. ‘I guess there’s no harm done. Is there, Kevin?’

Hogan put a hand to his mouth to stifle a grin. Kevin. People gave their dogs such stupid names.

‘He’s a cute dog,’ he said. ‘Havenese, isn’t it?’

She smiled. ‘You know your dogs. Yes, that’s right.’

Hogan had spent hours looking over Sharon’s shoulder as she searched online for the perfect pet. He could probably recite a hundred dog breeds.

‘And yours, if I’m not mistaken, is a Rhodesian Ridgeback. Am I right?’

‘That you are. His names Rusty. And I’m Mike.’ He offered his hand.

She took it. Her fingernails rested lightly on his palm.

‘Jessica. People call me Jess. Nice to meet you.’

‘So, are you a local? Its just, Rusty seems to have met most of the wildlife around these parts.’

She ran a hand through her hair, nodded. ‘Moved only yesterday, as it happens. We live in the block over there. Saw the park and knew it would be perfect for Kevin.’

He followed the direction of her finger. ‘Ah, so we must be neighbours, then. I live in the house on the corner. Welcome to the neighbourhood.’

She smiled. ‘Thank you. It’s convenient for my husband’s job. Close to the airport, he said. You won’t see much of him. He’s away on business a lot. The high flying world of corporate law.’ She recited the words in a monotone drawl, like a prepared script.

The man in the window, Hogan thought. He nodded. ‘Right. I’m the opposite, as it happens. I work from home. Freelance, you know.’

Kevin got to his feet and looked up at Jess with pleading eyes. ‘Oh ok,’ she said. ‘Well I’m the dutiful housewife, so I’m at home most of the time too. Anyway, I think this one has probably had enough for one morning. I’d better be getting back.’

‘Sure,’ Hogan said. ‘I think Rusty could use a bit more of a run. You know, to work off some of the aggression.’

‘I’m sure that’s a good idea,’ Jess said, tightening her grip on Kevin’s leash. ‘It was nice to meet you, Mike.’ She moved past him. He caught a whiff of perfume.

‘Likewise,’ he said.

She strode off over the field, brown hair flashing gold in the midday sun.

Hogan realised he was still holding the cigarette, and now lit it. He let Rusty off the leash and continued to smoke.

He worked solidly through the afternoon, stopping at four to take Rusty for his afternoon walk. He thought Jess and Kevin might be out there again, but they weren’t. He got home just as Sharon walked through the door, carrying a couple of shopping bags.

‘I saw this in the pet store,’ she exclaimed, laying her handbag on the kitchen table, ‘and I just couldn’t resist. How have you been, my darling?’

He would have replied but knew she was talking to Rusty, who had jumped up in anticipation of her return. She pulled out what looked like an upside down umbrella, with a plastic hood.

‘A dogbrella, they call it. You hold it like this, then he won’t get wet when going for a walk. Isn’t it great?’

‘You can’t be serious. An umbrella, for a fucking dog?’

Sharon screwed up her face. ‘Is it really necessary to swear?’

He placed his hands on the table. ‘In this case, yes. This sort of stuff is a complete waste of money. I’ll look like an utter fool, carting that thing around with me.’

‘That’s right, make it about you, as usual.’

His anger rose a few notches. ‘Well I’m the one who has to walk the bloody thing every day. All you do is spoil him with pointless gifts that we can’t afford and he doesn’t even need! I’m getting sick of it, quite frankly.’

Tears welled up in her eyes. ‘Why are you being so unkind? You know how much he means to me.’

‘Sharon, he’s a dog. You treat him like a child. In case you’ve forgotten, he isn’t one.’

Her voice lowered to a whisper. ‘You bastard. Of all the hurtful things you could say.’

He closed his eyes. ‘Look, I’m sorry, alright? But, and I hate to say it, you can’t get over what happened by doing this.’

‘Is that really what you think I’m doing?’

He shrugged his shoulders. ‘You know what, Sharon? I really don’t know. You won’t talk to me about any of it, so I’ve had to draw my own conclusions. I know you’re grieving. I am too. But this isn’t the way, and it won’t help.’

She started to cry. He made to go to her, but the venom in her eyes stopped him short. ‘I’ll never forgive you for saying that. Never. Make your own dinner.’ She stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

Hogan kicked the umbrella across the kitchen. Nicely done, Mike. All the subtlety of a sledgehammer. But deep down, he knew he was right. He turned and saw Rusty’s eyes on him, and his hatred for the dog ratcheted up even further.

‘What are you fucking staring at?’ he shouted, and went back to his office.

Sharon didn’t come out for the rest of the evening. He ate a meal of microwaved leftovers, then tried to talk to her. He knocked on the bedroom door and was met with silence. He twisted the handle. Locked. He stood there for a long time, apologising over and over, but in the end gave up. It was the spare room for tonight. Maybe for every night. Things were falling apart.

As he pulled bedding from the airing cupboard, he remembered his cigarettes in the parka downstairs. He decided he needed one.

Rusty was gone when he reached the kitchen. No doubt tucked up in bed, enjoying a better night’s sleep then he was going to get. Just as well. He couldn’t face looking at him again tonight.

The air was cool as he stepped out onto the porch and lit up. The smoke curled up towards the upstairs window but the curtains were drawn. He stepped further into the garden, turned and looked up at the bedroom. No signs of life. As he did so his eyes lingered on the adjacent window. The curtains were drawn here too, but the light was on and two silhouettes could be seen behind them. He recognised the outlines of Jess and her husband. He was pointing a finger at her. Hogan thought he could hear raised voices. The figure of her husband moved towards her and there was a mingling of their shadows. Then both disappeared from view.

He took a final drag on the cigarette and pitched the butt over the fence. He went to bed and slept poorly.

For the next few days Hogan saw little of Sharon. They were in a battle of prolonged silences and resentment, and fighting for the right to sleep in the bedroom. Some evenings she would lock the door, others stay out late and take the spare room when she returned. Leaving him to wake in a large empty bed, starting the day with a hollow in his heart. Their conversations were nothing more than perfunctory, the barest of glances as they passed on the stairs or in the hallway. In many ways, he wished she would shout at him again. At least show she cared. This perpetual silent treatment was far more suffocating.

In the end Hogan set up camp in the office and ate, slept and worked there. His only breaks were to feed or walk Rusty. Thankfully there had been no more presents since his outburst over the umbrella. Every time he saw it some of the old rage came flooding back. Without the dog, they had a chance. His presence was ruining everything.

On their walks, he wondered about Jess. What the deal was with her husband. A guy who for all intents and purposes was never there. He thought she must be lonely, and realised that he knew how that felt. Since Rusty had arrived, loneliness had seeped into his being and was spreading.

Then, one morning, he did see her. Sharon had left without walking Rusty, so he had his breakfast and then faced the inevitable. The clouds above were almost black but he thought they could make it before the heavens opened. He took an umbrella with him – the human kind. Dogs? Well, they could make do.

Rusty was in an energetic mood and tired out quickly. Hogan smoked his cigarette and as he extinguished the butt a drop of rain fell on the back of his hand. He tethered Rusty to the leash as the rain grew in strength, and as he looked up Jess and Kevin were coming towards him. She was wearing jeans and wellington boots. Kevin was free of clothing.

The rain was coming down harder now, and Hogan struggled to erect his umbrella whilst keeping hold of Rusty. Once he did so, Jess and Kevin were upon them. She put up the hood of her jacket for protection.

‘Hi,’ he shouted. The wind was getting up now, and in the distance, a clap of thunder. ‘How are you?’

She chewed on a fingernail. ‘What?’ she replied. ‘Oh yes, I’m fine.’

‘Here, come under the umbrella. You’ll get soaked.’

She hesitated, then joined him under the canopy. The dogs remained out in the storm. She shook off the hood and rubbed her hair. Hogan noticed a dark area of skin on the left side of her face, just above the jawline. It was disguised with make-up, but was definitely a bruise. A bad one.

‘Come on, let’s get inside. Before the dogs go wild.’

They set off across the field. Halfway home a gust of wind blew the umbrella inside out, and for a minute they were buffeted by the rain.

As they reached the corner of the estate, the rain began to ease. Hogan looked at her.

‘Do you fancy coming in for a coffee?’ he asked. ‘Dry off a bit?’

She nodded. ‘Sure. That’d be nice.’

Inside, Rusty took the opportunity to shake himself dry, sending a spray of water across the kitchen, Hogan taking the brunt of it. This set Jess off laughing, and Hogan joined in. He couldn’t remember the last time he had really laughed. It had been a long while.

Once the kettle was on he went to change and to find Jess a towel. On his return he found she had put the dogs outside, who were now bounding around the garden like old friends.

He passed her the towel. ‘Here, get yourself dry. I’ll make the coffee.’

She wiped her face and hair with the towel as he spooned coffee into mugs. With her skin now dry, he could see the bruise with much greater clarity. He thought of the argument he had seen in the upstairs window. But that was two and two making five. It was probably perfectly innocent.

He passed her a mug and they sat down.

‘So,’ he said, ‘ how have you been? I haven’t seen you for a while.’

‘No,’ she said, adding sugar to her cup. ‘Not lately.’

He couldn’t stop staring at the bruise. ‘Fair enough. How are you settling in? Does your husband like it?’

She blew on her coffee, put it to her lips. ‘I wouldn’t know. He’s hardly been here. And now he’s gone again. Your guess is as good as mine.’ Again, that staccato delivery.

‘Yeah, I haven’t seen my wife much lately either. Having a few problems at the moment.’ He had no idea why he had said that, and regretted it.

She eyed him over the top of her mug. ‘Yeah, well. That’s married life for you. It hasn’t planned out the way I thought it would.’

Outside, the dogs were barking.

‘I’m sorry to hear that. Well, if you ever need a chat, feel free to drop round. My wife could probably give you better advice, but um, she’s not in a hospitable mood right now.’

A tear formed on Jess’s cheek. She rubbed it away. ‘Thanks,’ she said, and her bottom lip began to wobble.

‘Hey, he said, ‘it can’t be that bad,’ and that set her off into racking sobs. He crouched beside her chair, bewildered. She raised her face and threw her arms round his neck. He patted her back as tears fell onto his sodden shirt.

They stayed that way for a long time. She kept her arms round his neck and now he could feel her breasts pushing against his chest. He adjusted his body and her arms came free. He got up and found a box of tissues. She took a few and wiped her nose and mouth.

‘You know, if you hated my coffee that much all you had to do was say so.’

She coughed out a laugh. ‘I’m sorry. Just been a tough few days, you know?’

‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘I do.’

She stood up and faced him. ‘I’d better go.’

‘Sure. I meant what I said, by the way. Offers always open.’

‘I know you did. Thank you.’ She hugged him again, then drew back and looked at him, their faces inches apart. She placed her hands on the side of his face and kissed him. Hogan was too startled to speak. She walked to the door and opened it. Kevin came dutifully to her. She waved once, and was gone. Hogan ran a hand over his lips. When he took them away, they were shaking.

He sat at the table for a long time. He could feel the imprint of her kiss on his lips. He was mostly shocked by it, but a small part of him was thrilled. I have to talk to Sharon, he thought. No more games. We need to sort this out before it all falls to pieces.

It was dark when Sharon returned home. The kitchen was clean and Rusty had settled down for the night. He was nursing a small whisky when her key scratched in the lock. He knew she would run to the bedroom, so followed her up the stairs. He managed to get a foot in the door before she had a chance to close it. She pushed vainly, but his strength was greater. The door opened wide. She was sitting on the bed, looking down at her hands.

‘Sorry to do that,’ he said. ‘But we can’t keep avoiding each other like this. You have to talk to me.’

She looked up. Tears were forming at the corners of her eyes.

‘We don’t have to do anything. Please leave.’

‘Not until we’ve had this out. Come on, Sharon. I’m in limbo, here.’

She shook her head. ‘I can’t do this. The way I feel at the moment, I can barely look at you.’

‘I’ve apologised for what I said. What more can I do?’

‘I don’t know. That’s kind of the problem.’

He closed his eyes. ‘Look, we can try again. For another baby, I mean. There’s no reason we can’t have a healthy child.’

‘Easy for you to say. You don’t have a clue what I went through. I think about it every single day. Dream about it, about him. And when I look at you, it makes it worse. Seeing that anger etched on your face, like it’s my fault. It’s like a dagger to my heart.’

He felt his own tears coming now. ‘Sharon, please. I’m so sorry. All I want to do is support you. Look after you. I’ve never blamed you. Never.’

She stood up. ‘Then why do I not believe you? And seeing the way you treat Rusty, I wonder how good a father you would have made.’

‘Rusty’s a dog! Not a child. It’s not the same thing. And I’m the one who walks and feeds him every day. I think I’m doing a pretty good job.’

She walked to the closet and began rummaging through her clothes. ‘Well, you’re going to get some more practise. I think it’s best if I move out for a while.’

The colour drained from his face. ‘You don’t need to do that.’

Her face softened slightly. ‘Look, I need some time to myself. To think about everything. I’m not sure if we can get past this. I’ll be back to see Rusty. Check that you are looking after him properly.’ She threw a suitcase onto the bed and started throwing clothes into it. ‘I’ve made up my mind. You think this is easy for me, it isn’t. Leaving Rusty behind breaks my heart.’

He made to say something, but she raised a hand. ‘I know I’m asking a lot, but can you leave me in peace? Right now, I just want to be out of here.’

Utterly defeated, Hogan left the room. He downed the remaining whisky and poured another. When that was finished he heard Sharon on the stairs.

He met her at the door. She was crying, but stepped into his arms for a hug. It was their first physical contact in weeks.

She pulled away and called for Rusty. ‘Oh darling,’ she said, ruffling his ears. ‘Mummy’s going away for a little while. But I love you very much, and I’ll see you soon, OK?’

Rusty barked once, then turned to Hogan and growled.

‘Bye, Mike,’ she said, and before he could reply, she was gone.

The hole inside him had grown, and he knew of only one way to fill it. He demolished the rest of the whisky bottle and passed out on the office couch, tears drying on his face.

In the following days Hogan became something of a recluse. He threw himself into his work by day and drank himself to sleep at night.
Rusty didn’t help. He was pining for Sharon and being difficult. Hogan confined their walks to no further than the end of the road and back. He corresponded with clients via email, ignored his phone and retreated from public view.

The only person he spoke to was Sharon. It was a Friday when she turned up at last. Hogan was in the kitchen, clock-watching. He found he did that a lot in the evenings, listening out for her arrival. He missed her, that much he knew. And Rusty definitely did.

‘Hi,’ she said. Rusty shot out of the living room at a rate of knots, covering her face with licks and slobber. Hogan took a breath and followed.

‘Hi,’ he replied. She had done something to her hair, made it darker. It reminded him of Jess. ‘Someone’s pleased to see you.’

‘And me him. I’ve been lost without him, haven’t I? Eh?’

Hogan gritted his teeth. ‘So,’ he said as she extracted herself from Rusty and walked behind him to the kitchen, ‘how have you been? Where have you been staying?’

He watched her remove her coat. She didn’t sit in her usual chair, instead taking the one nearest the door. Rusty came in and lay at her feet.

‘At Mum’s, for now. But you know what she can be like. Driving me up the wall as usual.’

Hogan smiled and nodded. Typical mother-in-law.

‘And how are you? Looks like you’ve forgotten how to use a razor in my absence.’

He ran a hand over his face. ‘Yeah, well. Not a lot. Working. That’s it, really.’

She stroked Rusty. ‘Well, this one looks as good as new. Maybe there is hope for you after all.’ She smiled, some kindness behind her eyes.

‘So do you,’ he said. ‘Look good, I mean. Loving the hair.’

‘Oh, this. Just a little experiment. Points for noticing, though. Thank you. I’d say the same about you, but…’

‘Yeah, yeah. I get the message.’ They were both smiling now, and Hogan realised how much he missed this. The gentle banter, the affection.

‘Listen,’ she was saying. ‘Can I ask a favour? I’ve taken a few days off and booked a cottage in the country. Got a great deal on Airbnb. Very dog-friendly. Would you mind if I take Rusty with me? I need some peace and quiet to think, and would love his company. Do you mind?’

A few days without Rusty. He felt lighter already. ‘Of course. No problem. Don’t forget to take his umbrella with you.’

She sneered. ‘Don’t spoil it, Mike. You always push it too far.’

This was the problem – he always knew what he could say, what the limits of the banter were. Now she took offence at the slightest thing.

She drank a quick cup of coffee and gathered up Rusty’s things. She insisted on taking his bed and toys, and her car boot was full by the time they had finished. She slammed the boot shut and opened the passenger door for Rusty. He bounded in, circled a couple of times, then curled up in the footwell.

‘He’ll be OK in there, it’s not far. We’ll be at Mum’s tonight and get an early start in the morning.’

‘Fair enough. Sharon -‘

She put a hand up to stop him. ‘Not now, Mike. Please. Give us this time away, and when I get back, we’ll talk again. Sit down and figure something out.’

He nodded. ‘I miss you, you know.’

Tears filled her eyes. ‘Oh, Mike. I miss you, too. Even with that awful beard.’

He laughed. ‘I promise it will be gone before you get back. Scout’s honour.’

‘That’s good. Look after yourself, Mike.’

‘Take care. Safe travels.’

She nodded. He waited in the drive until the car was out of sight, a nagging feeling in the base of his stomach that she had driven out of his life forever.

Hogan couldn’t remember the last time he had had a weekend to himself. Probably in the bachelor days, and as the weekend progressed he reverted to those old habits – getting up late, eating a vast array of junk food, drinking too much and generally not caring about any of it. He missed Sharon terribly, but the absence of Rusty did not make the heart grow fonder. It wasn’t the dog’s fault, but Hogan saw in this time off how much of a hold Rusty had over their lives, particularly Sharon’s. He knew that she would never agree with him on this, but he hoped that on her trip she would realise that her attitude towards Rusty was unreasonable, and having a detrimental effect on their relationship. The balance had shifted too far one way. Surely she had to see that?

Sunday brought with it torrential rain with didn’t let up all day. Hogan worked for a while, then spent a long couple of hours sitting in the kitchen, drinking whisky and thinking long thoughts. The weather had brought on a feeling of restlessness, and he needed to snap out of it.

He carried his glass through to the lounge and switched the TV on. The rain continued to come down and he was glad to be ensconced inside. He found some football on one of the sports channels and settled down to watch.

The whisky bottle was half empty when there was a knock at the door. It was late, and Hogan was tempted to ignore it. The knocking continued with greater urgency. Sighing, he got up to answer it.

Jess stood before him and she looked an awful sight. She was soaking wet, mascara running down her cheeks. Her face was a mess, with an ugly bruise on her temple and swelling around her top lip. Her eyes were red and bloodshot. She was wearing only a thin summer dress with a cardigan over the top. Goosebumps were visible on her arms.

‘Jesus Christ,’ was all he could say. ‘What the fuck happened?’

Without answering she stepped past him into the hallway, dripping onto the carpet. Her teeth were beginning to chatter.

‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘Come upstairs and you can take a shower. Look at you, you’re freezing.’

She followed him without saying a word. He pointed her towards the bathroom while he found a fresh towel in the airing cupboard. He thought she would need clean clothes, so found an old blouse and pair of jeans of Sharon’s. Probably a bit too small, but would do the job. He added them to the towel and entered the bathroom. Jess was sitting on the toilet, head in her hands.

‘Here,’ he said. She looked up. The bruise looked worse under the harsh artificial light, already beginning to turn purple.

‘Go ahead. Take as long as you need. I’ll be downstairs.’

As he reached the door he heard her whisper thanks. He turned and smiled, then left her to it.

He made them both a whisky as the shower started to run. He thought of her bruise. The vision of them arguing in the upstairs window. It was pretty obvious how she had been injured. The realisation made Hogan’s stomach crawl.

The shower finally subsided as he stepped to the back door to smoke an impromptu cigarette. It was still raining so he stood inside and blew the smoke out. As he neared the butt, there was a sound behind him. Jess stood, eyes lowered to the floor, clutching a hessian bag to her chest. He dropped the cigarette to the patio and ground it out.

‘I made you a drink,’ he said, gesturing to the glass of whisky. ‘Thought you could use one.’

She nodded, still grasping the bag. ‘My wet clothes,’ she whispered, placing the bag by the kitchen door.

‘Leave them there, that’s fine. Come and sit down. I know, we can sit in the lounge. More comfortable in there.’

He led her through. He took his usual seat and switched the TV off. She took the couch, sitting with knees pressed together and whisky glass clenched in both hands.

She looked a little better after the shower. Her face was scrubbed free of make up and colour was returning to her cheeks. She wouldn’t look him in the eye, though. He could see that she was still scared out of her wits.

‘Jess, what happened?’ he asked. Silence. ‘OK, OK, I understand if you don’t want to tell me. Although I think you might need to go to the hospital, that lip could need stitches. I can run you down there, no problem.’

She slowly shook her head. ‘No hospital. I’ll be fine.’

‘You don’t look very fine.’

This time she did raise her head. ‘I said no hospital.’ She drained her glass. ‘Another one of these wouldn’t go amiss, though.’

He made to say something but thought better off it. When he returned she snatched the glass and drank half of it in one swallow. After, the silence resumed.

Finally he said, ‘Well, if you don’t want to tell me why you’re here, mind if I put the telly back on?’

She sighed. ‘I’m sure you’ve drawn your own conclusions.’

‘Maybe I have. They aren’t ones I want to believe, though.’

She coughed. ‘Well, sometimes the worst scenario is the correct one.’

He took a deep breath. ‘So your husband did this? Am I right?’

She laughed. ‘If I told you I walked into the door, would you believe me?’


She placed her hands palms up. ‘Well if you won’t believe that, then yeah, sure. Andrew did this to me.’

‘Jesus Christ.’

‘Why? Maybe I didn’t cook his steak the way he likes it. He’s very particular about his food.’ Her eyes filled with tears. ‘Or I could have left a towel on the floor in the bathroom. There could be any number of reasons.’

Hogan grinded his teeth. The fucking coward.

‘Although tonight was worse than usual. I can tell when he’s going to kick off, you know. His nostrils get all puffy, like a bull’s. And the eyes. I dream about those eyes sometimes. The pupils get so wide it almost looks like they are black.’

Devil eyes, Hogan thought.

‘So anyway, I was in the kitchen when he came up behind me and put his hand on my neck. I was so scared I peed myself a little bit. I tried to turn around but he slammed my head forward. I caught my mouth on the side of a cupboard, hence this.’ She pointed to her lip. ‘He picked me up and hit me a couple of times. Usually he goes for a less obvious area. The belly, most often. I must have passed out for a bit. When I came to, he was standing over me, showering me with abuse. Then he went upstairs. When I could stand I staggered to the door and basically fell out into the rain. A few minutes later he came down, stepped over me and drove off. I lay there for a while, thankful it was over. For now at least. And now I’m here.’ She took a deep breath and wiped her eyes. ‘You need to know any more, or is that enough?’

Hogan swallowed, but found his throat was bone dry. He took a long swallow of whisky. ‘God, Jess. I’m so sorry.’

‘Yeah. Me too.’ She shook her empty glass again. He came back with the bottle this time.

‘You have to go to the police,’ he said. ‘Fucking hell, the guy needs to be locked up.’

‘Oh, most of the time he’s the perfect husband. He’ll turn up in a day or two, all apologetic, and for a while he’ll treat me like a queen.’ She shrugged.

‘Besides, where would I go? My parents are both dead, my sister lives in New Zealand. I don’t have anybody else.’

‘Fucking hell, look at your face! Look what he’s done to you.’

‘Bruises tend to heal.’

‘I’ll come with you. For support. Please, Jess. You can’t go on like this.’

She held out the glass for more whisky. ‘Right now, this is all I want.’ She looked at him full on, now. ‘But thank you, Mike. Really. Just telling you this, has been a big help. I won’t forget it.’

They sat drinking for a long time, both in their own silences. Hogan tried to get her to go the police but she was adamant. As the night wore on, she was becoming drunk. They both were. When the bottle finally ran out, she rose on unsteady legs. ‘Better get home,’ she mumbled.

‘You’ve got to be kidding. Go back there? What if he comes back?’

‘Oh, he won’t come back. He never does. Needs a couple of days to get over the guilt.’

‘At least stay here tonight then,’ he pleaded. ‘Take the spare room. Please.’

She frowned, then took a step forward and stumbled towards him. ‘Maybe that’s a good idea.’ She fell into him. He bent down and picked her up. She was lighter than air. As he carried her she smiled up at him, the bruise big and angry and red. I’ll get you, cunt. He thought. If the police won’t, I will.

In the spare room he lowered her to a standing position and turned on the bedside light. She stood, feet bare, a slack-jawed, glassy smile on her face.

‘You’re a sweet man,’ she slurred.

‘So I’ve been told,’ he replied. ‘Now, if you need anything, I’m next door. Any time of the night, you just knock, you hear?’

She nodded, smiling. Under the light, even with the bruising, she looked beautiful.

She opened her arms. He hugged her gently, then drew back and kissed her on the forehead. She smiled up at him.

‘Goodnight,’ he said. At the door, he turned to look. From behind, in his drunkenness, she was the split of Sharon. He closed his eyes and shut the door behind him.

He fell into a restless and agitated sleep. There were dreams, fleeting images that passed through his brain in a flash and were gone. He woke cocooned in the sheets, head facing the wall. His tongue was dry and the beginnings of a headache were gnawing at the base of his skull. The light in the room was grey and murky, suggesting that dawn was not far away. Hogan closed his eyes, willing himself back to sleep.

There was a shuffling sound behind him. He rolled over. Jess was standing at the foot of the bed, wearing the blouse and jeans.

‘Jess, you startled me. Is everything all right?’ He groped for the bedside lamp.

‘Please don’t turn on the light,’ she said. Her voice carried no inflection at all.

‘I couldn’t sleep. Turning things over and over in my head.’

He sat up. Her bruises were starkly visible, even at this light. ‘There are some sleeping pills in the bathroom. I’ll get you one.’

She shook her head. ‘No. That’s not what I want.’ With her eyes on him, she began unbuttoning her jeans. She rolled them down her legs, then kicked them away.

She was naked underneath.

What took Hogan’s breath away was the state of her legs. There were bruises everywhere, spreading from feet to upper thigh. His eyes followed the trail upward, unable to comprehend the devastation that had been caused. A dark triangle of hair protruded beneath the tails of her shirt.

He blinked back tears and swallowed. ‘God, Jess. I’m so sorry. I -‘

‘Please don’t say any more,’ she said. ‘Will you just hold me?’

She took a step closer to the bed.

‘Jess, I can’t. I’m a married man, and I can’t. You must leave. I’m sorry.’

‘Stop apologising.’ Another step. ‘I can’t get through this night alone.’

He didn’t know what to say to that. He looked at her legs again. What she must have gone through. By now she was close enough to touch.

‘No-one needs to know. And I just want to sleep, nothing else. I promise.’

Before he could reply she pulled back the duvet and climbed in. He shifted over to accommodate her, keeping her back to him. She snuggled into his back and threw an arm over him.

‘There. This is OK, isn’t it.’

He could feel her breasts pushing into his back. Wearing Sharon’s shirt, in his bed. But not Sharon.

‘Yes, it’s OK. Now go to sleep.’

He stared at the wall for a long time. Jess’s breathing was steady, and after a while turned deeper as she drifted into sleep, her body pressed against his.

Hogan must have nodded off, for when his eyes came open he was flat on his back. Jess had a leg curled over his. It was almost light now, and he could make out the injuries that marked her flesh. Fucking barbaric, was what it was. No matter what, he would try to get her away from Andrew. She deserved at least that.

He shifted a little and she murmured. Despite all his good intentions, he began to grow hard. It had been so long since he had been this close to Sharon. To anyone. He had forgotten how much he missed it.

Suddenly Jess’s eyes snapped open. She looked down at him. Without a word, she swung her other leg over until she straddled him. He made to speak but she put a finger to his lips. She unbuttoned the blouse slowly, then tossed it to the floor. There was a criss cross of scars all over her chest, some tough white scar tissue, others fresher wounds, still raw and shocking.

She reached under his shorts and took him in hand. Before a thought could enter his head, he was inside her. She shuddered and sat back. He went to pump his hips but she clenched and he was forced to stop. She went slow to start with, still never making a sound, then speeded up. She gritted her teeth when she came, and he followed soon after. Then she collapsed against his chest, and was asleep before he could catch his breath.

When he awoke for the final time the room was flooded in daylight. Jess stood by the side of the bed, pulling on her jeans, standing in an oblong of white that shone through the curtains. He raised onto an elbow and cleared his throat.

Jess looked over her shoulder at him. Her hair glowed a warm brown. He thought of her scars again and his throat went tight. A woman who was almost broken, the last fluttering sparks of hope nearly extinguished.

‘I’m going away,’ she said dreamily. ‘Somewhere he won’t be able to get to me. Let this be the last memory we have of one another.’

‘Jess, you aren’t making any sense.’

She was oblivious to his voice. ‘You know, I slept better than I have in months, with you. I liked it. I could get used to it. An endless sleep. Never having to think ever again.’

He swung his legs out of bed. ‘Oh, don’t get up,’ she said. ‘I’m going to go and say goodbye to Kevin. Can’t leave without that.’

‘Where are you going to go?’ His voice was shaky, fear creeping into it.

‘Just away. You’ll remember me, won’t you?’

He was about to reply when a car door slammed outside. He went to the window and pushed the curtain aside. His heart dropped to the base of his stomach.

‘Fuck,’ he shouted. ‘Fuck.’ There was a bark, a sound he knew only too well.

He turned to find the room empty. He threw on some jeans and tore downstairs to find Jess at the back door, completely oblivious to what was going on.

Behind him, he heard the car boot slam.

Jess opened the door and drifted to the back gate. There, she turned and waved. The sunlight shone through her.

He gazed after her, then heard the key turn in the lock. He suddenly spied the hessian bag in the corner of the kitchen, and just had time to hide it under the sofa in his office before Rusty sped past, barking and wagging his tail twenty to the dozen.

He stuck his head round the door as Sharon made her way inside, suitcase trailing behind her. Her cheeks were red, and she looked refreshed. She smiled at him.

‘Got you out of bed, have we?’

He looked down at his bare chest, thinking that only hours previously, Jess’s head had laid there.

‘Well, I wasn’t expecting you back so soon.’

‘Relax, I’m teasing.’

‘So, how was the trip? Seeing as it was cut short?’

‘Very good, thanks. I think we both enjoyed it.’ On cue, Rusty poked his head round the kitchen door, then disappeared again. ‘I think he’s hungry,’ Sharon said.

They walked though and she filled his bowl with biscuits. Rusty ate a few and set off again, out the kitchen and down the hall.

‘He’s in an excitable mood,’ Hogan said.

Sharon nodded. ‘Just been cooped up in the car all morning. He’ll tire himself out before too long.’

He made coffee and they sat at the table. ‘So, what have you been doing with yourself? Please tell me you got outside at least.’

Just sleeping with the neighbour, he thought. Nothing much. Although his mind was replaying Jess’s last words over and over. There was something wrong. Her tone, the defeat etched on her face. Like she was ready to give up.

He mumbled something and to his surprise, Sharon reached across and put her hand over his.

‘It’s good to be back,’ she said. ‘I’ve done a lot of thinking while I was away. It was why I came back early, I wanted to see you. To start putting things right. I -‘

At that moment Rusty came in and flopped at Sharon’s feet. Saliva dripped from his mouth and and he was making awful retching sounds.

Sharon’s face went pale. ‘Rusty? Baby, what is it?’

Rusty rubbed his head against the floor, pawing furiously at his mouth. He rolled over, stood up again, and tried to vomit.

‘Mike. What’s happening? What’s wrong, sweetheart?’

Mike stood up. ‘I think he’s choking. Look at him, he can’t breathe.’

Sharon was crying. ‘Oh baby,’ she screamed. ‘What do we do?’

‘Get him to the vets. Go and start the car. I’ll carry him.’

Sharon shot off down the hall. Rusty was thrashing wildly now, and bucked in Hogan’s arms as he lifted him, scratching and drawing blood. They ran out and into the car. Sharon gunned the engine and they were away.

‘Do something, Mike,’ she wailed. ‘The Heimlich manoeuvre. Anything.’

‘How do you do the Heimlich on a dog?’ he shouted.

‘I don’t know,’ she wailed. ‘Just try.’

Hogan looked down at Rusty, who lay flat in the footwell. He reached down and prised the dog’s jaws apart. He couldn’t see anything. He took Rusty onto his lap and placed two fingers on the base of his throat. He felt something there and pushed his fingers forward. There was little movement but a bit of pressure was released.

The car screeched to a halt. They had made a ten minute journey in three minutes. Sharon was in the vet’s before he could get the passenger door open. Rusty was in a bad way now, the life was drifting out of him.

‘Bring him through,’ Sharon shouted. They went through a crowded waiting room and placed Rusty on a high table. The vet was ready, pulling on plastic gloves.

‘So, who is this?’ the vet said.

‘Rusty. Please help him.’

Sharon burst into tears and put her face on Hogan’s shoulder. He watched as the vet administered a sedative to Rusty, working quickly. ‘Now,’ the vet said, ‘this will help me find out the problem.’ He repeated Hogan’s finger trick, pushing forward beneath Rusty’s jaw. ‘Yes, here we are.’ The vet moved his fingers, then opened Rusty’s mouth and searched inside. He caught on something, and extracted his hand, holding a blue piece of cloth, sodden with bile and saliva.

Rusty coughed, once, then once again. Sharon clapped her hands.

Even Hogan felt a sense of relief.

‘Oh thank you, Doctor. Thank you.’ Sharon rushed to Rusty, who was breathing slowly.

‘Please,’ the vet said, removing his glasses and wiping them. ‘Give Rusty some time to rest. I will need to examine his mouth again. Just to check for abrasions and so on.’

‘That’s fine,’ Hogan said. ‘Thanks, doc.’

‘You’re very welcome. I’m just glad we got to him in time. It was a close run thing, for a minute.’

Sharon turned her eyes to the blue cloth. ‘So,’ she said. ‘What was it that he choked on?’

The vet held up the offending item with a gloved hand, and shook it open. ‘Ha ha,’ he said, his face reddening. ‘It looks like a pair of ladies underwear. Well, dog’s will eat anything!’

Sharon leaned forward and peered at the underwear. Suddenly it clicked, and Hogan felt all the strength go out of his legs.

Sharon frowned as she studied the garment further. Then she turned to him, eyes hot pools of anger. ‘Well, they certainly aren’t mine,’ she said.

The hessian bag. Her clothes from last night. Hogan closed his eyes. He thought of Jess, backlit by the sun as she had left that morning, and he ran her words over in his mind again. Then the realisation hit, and he almost sank to the floor. No, she was never coming back. Her life was over.

And now, he thought, so is mine. He opened his eyes as Sharon shouted his name, and saw Rusty looking at him. He could swear that the dog was smiling.