One Night Rebellion

For as long as I can remember I’ve had a fascination with America.  I find some of its politics frightening and bordering on the absurd, but as a cultural influence, its had an enormous impact. Most of my favourite movies are American.  Bands, too. And when it comes to writers, I’d say the vast majority of those I can’t live without are from the States.

It was probably crime fiction that got me into the American writers. Starting with Chandler (technically a Brit but who’s counting), Hammett, James M. Cain, through to Ross Macdonald, John D. Macdonald, James Crumley, and up to the present day greats like Lawrence Block, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. It’s difficult to band this disparate group together, but I’d say they write with a dark, existential hardness that is unique to the American psyche. I’ve thought a lot about how to define this, and I think it partly comes from the vastness of the landscape and the themes of alienation, loneliness and desperation that can come from living an isolated life in the often forgotten heart of the American continent.

The images of the American interior, tumbleweed and hot desert air, run-down shacks and ramshackle bars, and the people who live in these places, hard-working but falling through the cracks, holding on to the remnants of the frontier spirit. This is what fascinates me.  I’ve read it in countless books set in opposite ends of the country, from Don Carpenter to the brilliant books of the underclass by Willy Vlautin. And it’s tradition is firmly set in American history, going back to Huckleberry Finn, the whole western genre, Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry, the Beat Generation of Kerouac and Ginsberg and reaching a nadir in the Gonzo journalism of Hunter S.Thompson. I’ve been enthralled and intimidated by these authors, and have always wanted to try and make an attempt to offer a take on the downside of the American dream.  The short story that follows is that effort.

The final push I needed to write this piece came from reading Norman Mailer’s brilliant The Executioner’s Song, one of my books of 2017. The book is based on the gruesome life and death of murderer Gary Gilmore, but at its heart it is an exploration of a man unable to live outside of prison, a highly disturbed, forgotten individual in a Utah town who turns to murder almost out of boredom. The backdrop of small-town America is brilliantly sketched by Mailer and the book discusses through the life of Gilmore some of the themes I’ve tried to sketch out above. The isolating, unstable figure of Gilmore seemed to encapsulate the negatives of rural American towns and set off a ton of thoughts in my head, trying to figure out how I could say something about this subject, one that I had wanted to for a long time.

As tends to happen with me, a couple of songs helped to crystallise these thoughts into something more tangible. I am a sucker for more modern country music, the Americana stuff of the Southern and Midwestern states, and loneliness, grief and pain are pretty much the default themes.  All of which helped me to find the tone and atmosphere I was searching for. I allowed the story to bubble and boil up in my imagination whilst working on my latest novel, and once that behemoth of a first draft was complete, this story came rushing out and was completed in less than a week.

So, here it is. It’s called ‘One Night Rebellion.’ Hope you enjoy it, and as always, any comments are most welcome. As an aside, I have entered this story in Booksie’s online short story competition for 2017/18. One of the finalists is chosen partly based on the number of reads their story chalks up, so if you fancy reading it on Booksie and helping my cause, I’d be grateful. Thanks. Otherwise, read on…

 

ONE NIGHT REBELLION

I clocked off and stepped into the entrails of the evening, following a steady trail of my co-workers as they streamed out to their cars. There were few conversations. Everyone had a purpose, places to be.

As cars started to pile out of the lot, I took a slow step forward and meandered towards my truck. There weren’t many cars left now. Beyond the lot, the red and green glare of the adjacent service station shone like a Christmas tree. The sky was a beautiful salmon pink colour, one of those long sunsets that made you feel small and ineffectual. Although the lot was virtually deserted, less than a mile away traffic sped up and down the interstate, a constant rush, day in, day out. Everyone was in an awful hurry.

I patted my shirt pocket for my cigarettes, then remembered I had chain smoked the last two at break. I was getting into the habit of doing that. Cursing, I vowed to pick some up on the drive home. Maybe get a six-pack, too. A cold beer to finish up the day. That sounded good.

The vehicle next to mine was also a pick-up. It was in a much worse state. I could see rust flaking off the undercarriage. There were dents all over the bodywork and the tyres didn’t look in great shape. A man was leaning against the truck smoking a cigarette. As I got closer he came up off the car and spoke to me.

‘You’re Gus, right?’ he said. He blew out a long stream of smoke. He had a large gap in his face where his middle teeth should have been. The teeth that remained were yellow, turning to brown in patches.

I shrugged. ‘Yeah. That’s me.’

The man nodded, then shook out a cigarette and offered it to me. I took it and bent forward to accept his light. There was a powerful odour coming off him, more than the sweat of a hard day’s graft. It made me want to throw up.

‘Heard a lot about you.’

I couldn’t think what. I didn’t even know where he’d seen me before. Must have been a new employee. The turnover was huge at that place. But I wasn’t a high flyer. There was no reason he should have picked me out. I forced a smile. ‘That’s nice.’

He returned the favour, showing more of those horrible teeth. ‘Hey listen, you want to grab a beer?’ He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘We can go in my car, if you want. She’s not much but she knows how to run.’

I didn’t think about it much. ‘OK, sure.’

He flicked the cigarette butt to the floor and ground it under his foot. ‘Gotta make a quick stop at mine first. You cool with that?’

‘Sure.’

He walked to the other side of the truck. I looked over my shoulder at my car. Fuck it. Would still be there in the morning. And sure as night followed day, I would be there too.

‘Good man,’ he was saying. He smiled over the top of the truck at me. ‘My name’s Corey,’ by the way. Pleasure.’

‘Likewise,’ I said, and got into the truck.

‘So, how long have you been working at that place?’ Corey asked. He lit another cigarette. I wasn’t offered one this time.

I shrugged. ‘Long enough.’ Truth of it, I was struggling to remember. I had only planned on it being a short-term thing, whilst I looked for something better. The days had kind of melted into one from then on. It was years, I knew that much. And since Charlene had given up work, there wasn’t any chance of a way out.

Charlene. ‘Hey, I’ve got to make a phone call, OK?’

Corey nodded. He cracked the window and a hot blast of air buffeted my face. We were heading away from the interstate, into the desert. towards the foothills. I flipped open my cell and stared at the screen. Battery running low. I scrolled to Charlene’s name. My fingers hovered over the call button. I stared at the mountains hovering in the distance. Then made the call.

It rang for an age. As I was about to hang up, she answered. ‘Hello?’ As if she didn’t know who it was.

‘Hi. It’s me.’

She didn’t respond. I just listened to her breathing, slow and ragged. She’d probably fallen asleep in front of the TV again, plate of cookies resting on her belly.

‘I’m going to be late,’ I said. ‘A couple of the night shift failed to show, so they asked if I’d stay on. I’ll be home soon, I’m sure.’

‘Fine,’ she replied. I started to respond, but she was already gone. Corey was staring at me as I placed the cell back in my pocket.

‘Nicely done,’ he said, and grinned. Like we were kindred spirits. I wanted to wring his scrawny little neck. Instead he leaned forward and switched on the radio. An old, miserable country song was playing. But at least I didn’t have to talk. I turned to the window and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains, the road turning from tarmac to dirt track, wondering where the hell we were fucking going.

After ten minutes of driving we came upon a small adobe building set back from the road. There was no driveway to speak of, just a more worn patch of dirt that we pulled into. A child’s tricycle lay overturned in front of the porch, its red wheels spinning in the wind. I got out and wished I had a cap with me. The heat was dry and stifling, even at dusk. Corey walked to the porch, opened the screen door and went inside without inviting me in. He disappeared into the back of the house as I stepped through into a long corridor, rooms branching off left and right. I could hear voices in the nearest room to the left, so went in there.

It was only the TV, turned up far too loud. A woman lay on the couch, taking turns flipping through a magazine and looking up at the screen. An ashtray by her elbow was full of roach butts, and she had one on the go. The room reeked of marijuana smoke. I coughed politely.

‘Hi,’ I said.

She raised a hand, then went back to her magazine, blinking with bloodshot eyes as she turned the pages. Jeopardy was on TV, but she wasn’t paying any attention to the questions. I had a feeling she might struggle to find the answers. I heard a yell and looked beyond the room to see two small boys in the back yard. One of them had a model aeroplane and was running around the tiny garden with it. His brother was jumping for the plane, trying to get his turn, and failing. He yelled, loud enough to be heard through the glass of the back door. The boy with the plane laughed and pushed him away. He sat down on the grass and began to cry. I turned my attention back to his mother. She was oblivious.

Corey came back in. He’d changed into a fresh shirt but hadn’t managed to rid himself of that stink. He carried a six-pack of Schlitz under one arm. ‘Shall we?’ he said, and we left the room and headed back to the truck.

We drove away, Corey spinning the tyres, shrouding the house in a cloud of dust. He laughed and popped the tab on a beer, taking two long swallows, then threw me the six pack. I took a can and did the same, feeling the cold beer hit my throat. I already felt settled, relaxed. Corey was drinking like a fish, the first can already gone and out the window of the truck. I drained mine shortly after. He handed me another and I opened it and placed the can between my legs. I hadn’t done that for years. I had a flash of a memory, Charlene and I headed to the drive-thru when we first started dating. Planning to watch a movie but getting too distracted by each other. Getting a buzz on from slow beers, when we had the invincibility of youth and whole world stretched out ahead of us like a delicious promise. It made me crestfallen, to think of it. And how different it was now. How much I dreaded going home. I took a long drink, trying to drown the memories in booze. Dusk had fallen and the lights of the truck bobbed and weaved as we headed back to the highway.

‘Hey,’ Corey said. He lit a cigarette. Without asking, I took one when he replaced the pack on the dashboard. He frowned at me. ‘Gus. You have anything against tits?’

‘Excuse me?’

He grinned. ‘You know, tits.’ He took both hands of the wheel and made that awful grabbing gesture. ‘You into ’em or what?’

I looked at him, face in shadow in the gathering dark. ‘Sure,’ I said. As far as I could remember. ‘Who isn’t?’

Corey smiled, the cigarette glowing red as he inhaled. ‘Exactly, my man.’ We went past a sign for the interstate, one mile away. ‘That’s what I figured.’

‘Why do you ask?’

‘Why do you think?’ He shook his head as we approached the turn-off. ‘What else is there to do in this town?’

I didn’t have an answer to that.

We took the first exit off the interstate. Corey took a few turns as we headed deeper into the rougher end of town. I just had time to finish my beer before we pulled into the sparsely lit car park of the Chameleon Club. From somewhere near the entrance I heard the sound of breaking glass, and beyond that, the low thumping bass of music. An empty takeway carton blew in front of me as we got out of the car and headed for the club. The neon chameleon sign had the reptile outlined in garish green, with its flicking tongue blood red. A big guy in an ill-fitting suit and white shirt stepped out to greet us.

‘Corey,’ the doorman said. ‘Must be Friday, seeing as you’re here.’ His massive frame dwarfed Corey, who was grinning up at him.

‘I like to be regular,’ Corey replied.

‘Brought a friend along,’ the bouncer said, holding the door open for us. The noise level went up a notch. That’s new.’

‘Gotta keep you guys in business somehow.’

The doorman looked me up and down. ‘Well, you know the drill. Keep your hands to yourself, don’t have too much to drink, and we’ll get along fine. You got that?’

I nodded. ‘Yessir.’

‘You know me,’ Corey said, laughing nervously. ‘Always on my best behaviour.’

‘OK,’ the doorman said, turning away. ‘Enjoy your evening.’

We made our way inside. The noise was deafening. Corey went directly to the bar, which ran in a C shape to the right of the club. In back, under a blue glitterball, a girl went through the motions of dancing, clutching the pole and throwing her head back as men grouped around tables looked on with gaping eyes. To the left of the stage was a velvet red curtain which presumably led to the private area. As I took stock the curtains parted and a woman wearing not very much escorted a man back to the bar. Up close I could see she was barely out of her teens. She whispered something to a barman and a glass of clear liquid appeared in front of her. She drank it in one swallow and before she had time to turn round a man had settled in beside her. After a few seconds of conversation they disappeared behind the curtain. On stage, the girl had finished her performance and there was cursory applause as she exited the stage. The glitterball continued to spin forlornly. I felt a twist in my gut and closed my eyes. I opened them to find Corey gesturing at me from the bar.

‘This place is great, isn’t it?’ he said, sliding a bottle of Bud down the bar to me. I took a sip. There was an accompanying shot of whisky with fingerprints on the glass. Corey held his up in a toast and we drank. I shuddered getting it down. The knot in my stomach ratcheted tighter.

‘And the women!’ Corey said, ogling a blonde as she worked a table close by. ‘More tail than you could shake a stick at.’ He showed me the hole in his face again. ‘So, you wanna get a little private action?’

I was about to shake my head when the blonde poked her face in. She was wearing enormous heels and a short dress that left nothing to the imagination. She was even younger. The thought of her dancing for a leering idiot like Corey sent bile to my throat.

‘Either of you fine young men interested in a little dance?’ she drawled. Her accent was fake and embarrassing.

‘I could be tempted, sugar lips,’ Corey said. ‘You gonna make it worth my while?’

She did an exaggarated twirl. Her dress was so short I noticed a vaccination scar on her inner thigh. Corey was eyeing her small breasts. ‘You like what you see?’ she said.

Corey reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of notes. ‘You betcha, darling. How about it?’

She smiled and took his hand. ‘You’re my type of guy,’ she said, and led him away. He grinned as he brushed past me. I turned back to the bar and stared straight ahead, waiting for the disgust and self-loathing to subside. When it didn’t, I picked up my Bud and drained it in one. Corey had left his drinks behind, so I had them too. Then I turned and walked out.

The alcohol had gone straight to my head. But I needed more. Enough to forget. There was a liquor store on the next corner, where I bought a fifth of Four Roses. Outside, I unscrewed the cap and drank until I started to cough. I stumbled crossing the street, but kept going, and kept drinking. The bottle was half empty went I careered into a shop doorway and stood, trying to catch my breath. I took out my phone and stared at the lit up screen. Battery at 12%. Still enough life to call Charlene. But I knew I couldn’t.

I managed to walk another block before it all hit me at once and I slumped down in an alleyway next to the bank. The world was starting to spin, big time. Perhaps lying flat would make it stop. I did and it had no effect. I looked up at the stars, willing it to go away, thinking that there had to be more than this, that this couldn’t be all that life had to offer. I imagined Charlene asleep, a wide space in the bed where I was supposed to be. A woman whose bed I shared but whose life I no longer did.

I shuffled onto my side and vomited, a steady stream that was all liquid and singed my throat. I watched it trickle into a storm drain. Then I passed out.

I woke up with an axe splitting my forehead. The sunlight hurt my eyes as I checked my watch and groaned. Only an hour until the next shift started. I inspected myself and found that miraculously I hadn’t benn sick on my clothes. Standing up took guts. It took everything I had. I wished for a pair of sunglasses to shield my eyes from the penetrating sun. My mouth was dry, my body crying out to be rehydrated. Sharp pain hit my kidneys with every breath. Putting one foot in front of the other was difficult, but I made it to the mouth of the alleyway. Somehow, I was only a ten minute walk from work. Wherever I went I felt its pull, a job that meant nothing yet took forty hours a week from my life. Nuts for Donuts was en-route. I had time. I stepped into the day and got out of there.

‘Jesus, Gus,’ Brenda said when I reached the counter. ‘Rough night?’

I just nodded. I didn’t feel up to conversation.

‘What can I get you? You could do with an aspirin, if you ask me.’ She tittered and tapped her pencil on the pad in front of her.

‘Coffee. Black. That’s all. I’m going to use the bathroom, OK?’

Brenda frowned. ‘Sure, Gus. I’ll bring it to your usual booth.’

In the bathroom I took a leak, then drank long and hard from the cold tap. I splashed my face and inspected it in the mirror above the sink. Dark lines around my eyes. Little scratches on my forehead from sleeping on the rough ground. Angry purple veins prominent across the bridge of my nose. A middle aged man, drunk in a cheap bathroom. For an act of rebellion, it didn’t seem like much. Felt like a drag, to be truthful. A weight around my neck that wasn’t heavy enough to pull me down, but was always present. And had been for a long time.

Brenda shoved the coffee in front of me as I sat down. ‘Sure I can’t get you anything else?’

I nodded. I was incapable of food at this juncture.

‘All right, then.’ She hovered by the table. ‘Charlene was in here yesterday morning. How’s she doin’?

‘She’s fine,’ I said. I could tell Brenda was keen to say something more, but a sharp glare put paid to that. She forced a smile and left me to it. The coffee was hot and strong, burning my insides as I drank it down. I finished the cup and left a couple of bills under the saucer. I didn’t leave a tip. It was even hotter outside. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day. I staggered the last few blocks to work and punched in two minutes before my shift was due to start. Almost like clockwork.

The truck was where I’d left it when I clocked off. As it should be. The shift had passed without incident. I got some strange looks and was avoided by just about everyone. Which made it a normal day. I didn’t see Corey. He’d probably called in sick. Whatever. I didn’t want to be around him, anyway. I got in the truck and crawled home as slow as I could, the hangover fully kicked in now, and it was punishing. Sweat poured down my forehead as I finally pulled in at home and parked up. I sat in the truck and smoked a cigarette. There wouldn’t be any row. That would mean she cared. More likely silence, or worse still, pretending it had never happened. I smoked the butt all the way down to the nub, then went inside.

She wasn’t in the lounge or kitchen. Dirty dishes were piled up in the sink. I found a beer in the fridge and twisted off the cap. Took a swallow and grimaced. Then slowly climbed the stairs.

Charlene was in bed, facing away from me as I sat down and placed a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t turn around or do anything. I whispered her name. Still nothing. I looked over and saw that her eyes were closed. I didn’t think she was asleep. I said her name louder, and again there was no reaction. So I gave up. As I stood up a tear escaped from beneath her eyelids. Or maybe it was a trick of the light. I killed the lights and went back downstairs.

I took the beer out to the porch. The view was spectacular of the desert plain and the grand swirl of the mountains. We had fallen in love with it on our first viewing of the house, just after we were married. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d enjoyed it together.

I thought back over the night’s events, thinking of that girl bathed in blue, dancing with the world’s weight on her young shoulders, already wondering where it had all gone wrong, how her life had been snatched away before it had even started. And it brought back another memory, one I’d long forgotten. Charlene and I, in the early months as a married couple, in the honeymoon period. Driving back from a weekend in Austin. Somewhere just before the Texas border, she spotted a bar doing karaoke. She urged me to pull over.

‘Sounds like fun, huh?’ she said. Late afternoon sun flashed through her sunglasses, her teeth bright white as she smiled. ‘Whaddya think?’

‘Sure,’ I replied. ‘If you want to.’ I never said no to her, back then. It was a time when I would have done anything.

She clapped her palms together, then leant across and kissed me. ‘Let’s do it, then.’

The air-conditioning in the bar was a godsend. We ordered beers as Charlene flipped through the songbook. ‘Here’s a good one,’ she said.

‘I don’t think you’ll have much time to wait,’ I said. It was still early, and the bar was deserted.

‘Well, wish me luck.’

‘Knock em’ dead,’ I said, and moved to a nearby table, clambering onto a stool. For an empty bar, the stage was big and imposing. Charlene grabbed a microphone, and as the lyrics began to scroll across the screen, started to sing.

It doesn’t matter what the song was. It’s a personal thing I’d like to keep to myself. But she was amazing. For its duration I stared at her, transfixed. She kept her eyes on me too, smiling, making me feel like the luckiest man this side of the Gulf of Mexico. How she revelled in the spotlight. When the song ended, rapturous applause broke out. I turned and saw to my astonishment that the bar had filled up whilst she sang, and they were on their feet. I put my fingers to my mouth and whistled. Charlene did a theatrical curtsey and laughed, and all eyes were on her as she jumped off the stage and strode to my side. I put an arm around her and she kissed me, her eyes shining bright. She pulled back and held her hands either side of my face.

‘You and me,’ she said. ‘Always you and me.’

And we smiled and laughed and held each other tight as the applause thundered in our ears.

 

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Playing With Fire

Although I would consider myself a reasonably political animal, I have been reluctant to write too much of that sort of content on this blog. I’m a writer, first and foremost, and want my work to stand up on its own without my personal thoughts on certain subjects to seep in and jeopardise the relationship between the reader and the material. Any novel should be judged on its merits, the strength of its characters, and how their actions can be justified no matter how abhorrent. Knowing too much about the authors personal convictions blurs the lines in my opinion, which is why I’ve tried to avoid writing too much of my beliefs here. Let the story do the work, basically.

But this week has thrown up the most tumultuous and politically significant election result in my lifetime. Unless you’ve been living in a cave you will know what I’m talking about so there is no need to repeat it here. But all I will say is this. You might be nervous, worried, even frightened by the new American president. I am, a little. The world is taking a giant step into the unknown which is always scary, and some of the pre-election rhetoric has stoked very unpleasant discourse from certain fringe quarters who feel their ugly ideas now have mainstream attraction. To those who have fear, I say channel that fear. Be creative. Write. Paint. Be energetic. Art and literature are the best ways to express discontent and can never be silenced. Form your ideas, present them, respectfully. Attack prejudice through word and action. Shine a beacon into the dark corners and expose them to the light. Be funny. Popular culture is built on the creative elements of society, it’s up to us to provide the narrative.

So, with that in mind, I’ve decided to make my second novel Playing with Fire available to read. I wrote the novel in 2005 and after a fruitless search for a publisher, I consigned it to history. In the last year or two I’ve fiddled with the manuscript on a number of occasions, and I documented those struggles in an earlier post. Over the last few weeks I’ve revisited it and made some substantial cuts, removed a lot of clunky exposition, and given it a general tidy-up. I probably spent 50 hours at least on this, and I found it hard. Trying to keep the tone and atmosphere of the work consistent was a challenge. I wrote the novel in my mid-twenties, and my narrative voice has changed since then (matured, hopefully). Keeping the spirit of my decade-old self alive was the aim, whilst paring the story back to its roots. Even now, the novel runs to about 135,000 word, which is pretty hefty. I regard it with fondness and a certain disbelief that I managed to write it at all. It’s not perfect by any means, but it represents in some way the man that I was. It was the happiest time of my life creatively, the words flowed like wine and took the book in directions I never would have envisaged. For that I’m grateful, and kind of proud.

Enough of the rambling. Link to the novel is below. As always, any feedback is welcome.

playing-with-fire-final-final-draft-for-publication

Momentum

So, late last year I wrote a couple of blog posts about a novella I had been working on. I talked about my feelings after finishing the first draft, then wrote a post about the re-write and the struggles I was having with condensing the manuscript down, plus some problems with story development. In the end, I did what I have done with a lot of my work – put the story in the too-difficult pile and moved on to something shorter. Usually I do this with some regret, but this fades as another tale swims into view.

However this one wouldn’t let me go. I’ve been thinking about it, on and off, ever since. I knew that there was something there that I liked, and the characters deserved some more of my attention. So over the last few weeks I’ve gone back to it and done a final re-write, and now, with a deep breath, I’m going to put it out there. I feel nervous about doing so, as the style and tone of the piece is really unlike anything I’ve ever done before. The subject matter is dark and uncompromising, and on re-read this atmosphere is the main thing I like about the story. I’ve pared back some more of the dialogue and tightened up some slightly loose character issues, and I think it’s about ready.

A disclaimer before we start. At the risk of sounding like a TV voiceover warning, this story does contain some fruity language, explicit sex scenes and graphic violence in places. If this is likely to offend, probably best to avoid. There are things about this story that worry me, but that isn’t one of them. To paraphrase Kingsley Amis, if you’re not pissing anybody off what’s the point in writing? And he was a genius, so it must be true.

One last thing – this story is very loosely based on the Hold Steady song The Party Pit. A band whose music continues to inspire. Plus, they rock.

Link to the story is below. Please comment if you’d like to.

Anyway, it’s called ‘Momentum.’ Let’s go, for there’s a tale to be told…

MOMENTUM FINAL DRAFT

In The Doghouse

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

IN THE DOGHOUSE

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?’

‘No.’

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.