Painting Pictures

I’ve got a new story to share, although the circumstances behind this one are a little different. Since finishing the rewrite of my third novel Gaslight I’ve not done anything in the way of new writing at all. Which was fine to start with, as I needed a break, but the desire to write is always there and sooner or later it becomes a necessity.

But I couldn’t get the spark, so fell back on an exercise of sorts. A lot of my writing ideas have been inspired by music, so I turned to a few old favourites on Spotify and came across an old romantic ballad from the early 90s which I’ve always kind of liked and a friend of mine is mad about. So I thought I’d basically write the story of that song. It didn’t take too much – a few listens and then I wrote it across two or three evenings. The story fulfilled its main purpose, which was to get the creative blood pumping again, and I thought I’d offer it here. It’s very short, not even 2000 words, and I’ve done next to no editing. I want the story to seem fresh, to come off the page as quickly as it went down.

For that reason it’s a little more rough around the edges and as such I won’t be publicising it too much. One for the diehards, as it were. It’s called ‘Painting Pictures’.

PAINTING PICTURES

For once, I was out like a light. The beer and marijuana had done their job. There were no dreams, just an inviting emptiness to wade into. Then a buzzing sound starting way back in the subconscious, growing louder with every heartbeat…

I snapped an eye open. A phone was ringing. I raised onto an elbow, the taste of weed on my tongue. Coming up for 6am. I could make out Elmore sitting on my computer chair, surveying the vast expanse of desert that lay beyond the window. The first flickers of sunlight threw pink tendrils across the horizon. Elmore was stock still, the only movement a faint flicker of his tail against the leather of the seat. Well, it was a great view.

It wasn’t my cell. Either of them. Coverage was spotty out here, and it was too early for work calls. Hardly anyone had my personal number. Those that did would be asleep. Now I was fully awake, I knew it was the phone in the kitchen. I ssat up and swung my legs out of bed. Looked down at my feet. Felt the mild stirrings of an alcohol-induced headache. The phone continued to ring. It wasn’t an emergency. I knew who was calling. The time of night, trying to make a statement, that it was really important. Unlikely. We’d been down this path before. I thought about letting it ring out, get back into bed and doze until the alarm went off. It was tempting, but there was no point. The ploy had worked. I pulled on a T- shirt and headed for the kitchen.

The phone was across from the breakfast nook, next to the fridge. I pulled the phone from its cradle and slid down into the vacant space beside the fridge, facing the screen door. One of its hinges was loose, and it rattled when there was a gust of wind. I stared out at the scrub, the barren patches of dirt beginning to lighten. The whiteness of Clyde’s fence starting to penetrate the darkness. Elmore leapt up onto the counter, narrowly missing the empty beer cans littering its surface. He miaowed softly, then fell silent. As if anticipating something. I knew how he felt. I placed the phone to my ear and waited, twisting the coils of the line around a finger. I could hear traffic. Then a slamming sound. The traffic quitened. Probably in a pay phone. I continued to wait. I could hear her breathing, but remained mute. It had to come from her. If we were going to start this again, it had to come from her.

‘Scottie,’ she said, and a tremor ran up my spine. Took me straight back to the first time she called me that, with my arm across her shoulder, parked up in a secluded spot under a sky full of stars. I closed my eyes and got lost in the memory. She giggled and said my name again. It was a high-pitched giggle, and right away I knew she was in one of her manic periods, riding the wave before the inevitable crash and burn.

‘Ali,’ I said. ‘It’s 6 in the morning.’

‘Well, duh. You know me, Scottie. Early to bed, early to rise.’ That screeching laugh once more. She sounded burnt out, or close to being so. There was another bang at her end. ‘Just a sec,’ she shouted, and her voice went away. The traffic sounds swarmed in, there was some more raised voices, then she came back on the line. ‘Won’t take no for an answer,’ she said. ‘Had to give the guy two bucks. Can find another payphone, am I right?’

I rested my head against the cool fridge. ‘Ali, where are you?’

I heard the striking of a match, then a sharp inhale. Smoking again. That was never a good sign. ‘Where do you think? Sin City, of course. The perfect place for a girl like me, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Vegas? You’re in Las Vegas?’

‘Err, yeah. This place is CRAZY, I’ll tell you that. Yesterday, I saw a man in a cowboy hat ride a horse down the Strip. He was drinking a beer, too. The man that is, not the horse. Haha. That was a good one. I’ll have to remember that. Yow!’

Las Vegas. I thought back to when she left, a scrawled note saying she needed some space, she was letting me down and had to get her head straight. Her closet empty, the vague trace of her perfume lingering. All her meds gone from the bathroom cabinet. No idea where she had gone, not knowing if it was for real this time, or just another stunt to leave me frantic with worry and sick with love, until she came down and came home, and I would always take her back. Knowing I was the only one who could keep her safe and happy. Until it all got too much again.

But I would never have expected her to turn up in Vegas. Can make a mess of the most sensible individual, and Ali was not one of those. The temptations, the drinking, the drugs, the gambling. Add a girl in the throes of an episode and it was a potent brew.

‘You never called,’ I said.

‘I’ve been busy,’ she insisted. ‘You know this city never sleeps.’

‘I was worried. I spoke to your Mom, she said…’

‘Don’t tell me. “’That’s Alison for ya! Always with her head in the clouds, that girl. If her father was here, he’d give her a good clip round the ear!”’

That was actually pretty accurate. Ali can be sharp as glass. ‘She wouldn’t tell me where you’d gone.’

‘Probably cos she doesn’t know. When I disappear, I do it properly.’

She wasn’t thinking how much her words hurt, the lack of empathy for anyone, including herself. This was worn ground, but I knew one thing. She needed to come home.

‘You know better than anyone,’ she was saying. ‘How I get. The damage I cause. I can’t be around you when I get like that. It’s not fair.’ Her voice lowered to a whisper. ‘I’m tired, Scottie. I’m coming to the end of the road. You understand that, don’t you?’

I swallowed hard. ‘You know I do, Ali. But I can’t keep chasing after you, baby. I love you so much, but I – ‘ Fuck. The tears were pricking my eyelids, as predictable as night following day. ‘Please. Get on a plane and come home.’

She laughed. The quiet moment had passed. ‘You know, I’ve got a better idea. I’ve been thinking about Mexico.’

‘What about it?’

‘Silly. About a trailer right by the sea. Crystal blue waters to wake up to every morning. Doesn’t that sound swell?’

My bottom lip was trembling. ‘Ali, not this again.’

‘You always say that! What’s the point in having dreams if we’re not gonna fulfil them? I’d be happier there. More secure. We can drink tequila and look for seashells on the beach.’

‘But it’s impossible – ‘

‘They have gardens in Mexico, don’t they? Plenty of rich gangsters needin’ some landscaping. And I’ve been waitressing, getting loaded up with tips. Some of the old fuckers here think a few dollars and I’ll be dropping my drawers for them. Haha, bunch of fools. We’d have the money. Come on, Scottie. Get in the truck and come save me.’

‘You make it sound so simple.’

‘Cos it is, you numbskull. How’s Elmore?’

He must have heard his name. His ears pricked up and he jumped off the counter, had a big stretch, and shambled to the screen door. Once set, he miaowed loudly and proceeded to wash his front paws.

‘I can hear him,’ Ali said, and her voice cracked. ‘My baby.’

‘Thought I was your baby?’ I replied, and she laughed. I was falling under her spell. This Mexico thing was a silly pipe dream we used to talk about when stoned. Walking away from society and setting up on our own. I imagined laying beside her in the warm white sand, Elmore chasing back the waves and running for cover when the water got too close. I looked around at this place, her pictures off the wall and in the drawer, physical traces gone but her spirit and soul everywhere. Maybe it would be something. A fresh start and all that. That was her power. She could sell me any dream.

I looked over at Elmore. He had finished grooming himself and was staring intently out into the yard. Every night he would sit there at dusk, waiting for her car to pull up in the driveway. That squeal of excitement when she realised he was on guard duty. Opening the screen door and standing with arms open wide as Elmore jumped into them. Smiling at me over the top of his head.

Until she left. And he wouldn’t abandon his post. Sitting there every night until I had to pick him up and carry him away. I had the scratches to prove it. And just like me, as soon as he begun to realise that she wasn’t coming back, the car would backfire coming down the street and his ears would prick up and he knew she was going to weave her spell over him once more. She was good at that. Just as we were starting to get back on our feet.

‘So he’s doin’ good?’ she whispered.

I swallowed. I needed an aspirin. ‘Doing fine. He misses you.’

‘Bring him with you,’ she said breathlessly. ‘Use that mangy old cage in the garage. Fill up the car. Get some gas and get on your way. Drive like you’ve never driven before. Come on, Scottie. Please. I’m begging you.’

‘Hey sister!’ someone shouted in the background. ‘You gonna be in there all mornin’, or what? I got errands to run!’

‘The natives are getting restless,’ she said. ‘You have to come. You must. Think of Mexico, Scottie. Of Mexico, and me. I have to go.’

‘But I don’t even know how to get in touch with you,’ I shouted.

‘I’ll be here. Waiting. It’s now or never, Scottie.’

‘Ali, wait – ‘ But there was a click and she was gone. I slammed the phone back into the cradle. She always did this. That fucking trailer by the sea. I’d heard it countless times before, but yet. Something in her voice. Something with more longing. Knowing that it was her only hope, that if I didn’t go it would be the end. One way or another.

Elmore turned his head and looked at me. I knew it was stupid. But I couldn’t help but see it, the three of us together, as it should be. That beautiful water. I leaned back against the fridge and closed my eyes, thinking that maybe this time it could work, maybe this time it would turn out just the way she planned.

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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.

 

Small Steps

A couple of months ago I wrote a post detailing my desire to get my writing available online and my reasons for doing so. I haven’t posted for a while, and in the interim there has been a couple of developments involving my writing.  I hope that this post won’t come across as too self-indulgent or self-congratulatory, it is just an honest update.  The small steps I have taken are pretty inconsequential anyway, but I find noting them down is a record of how I am navigating the sometimes overwhelming ocean of options for publishing material. And if anything I say helps others on their journeys, then that’s all to the good.

After posting my novella ‘Momentum’ on Amazon I received an extraordinarily kind email from the organiser of my old book club in Melbourne.  Without my knowledge, he had talked with the rest of the group and decided to make my novella one of the two choices to talk about for their December meeting.  This meant a great deal for me and I am super grateful for their support, but it still filled me with some trepidation. The thought of fifteen friends sitting around dissecting my work was a scary one, even though I would be asleep on the other side of the world whilst they were having their meeting.  I’m happy to report that most of the feedback I received was positive, although of course the opinions of friends have to be taken with a pinch of salt as they tend to err on the side of praise to avoid upset.  Best of all was that a couple of members purchased the novella from Amazon rather than go through this blog, which means for the first time in my life I have made financial gain from my writing.  The royalty payments for an Amazon sale are frankly a pittance, but I still feel proud.  As the title of this post suggests, it’s a tiny step but worth commemorating, I think.

More exciting was the fallout from a novella competition I entered on the website Booksie, which is basically a portal to upload and critique work.  It was a lucky accident that ‘Momentum’ fulfilled the criteria for the competition, which was run by a small American publishing company.  I didn’t win, but shortly after the competition closed I was contacted by someone from the publisher saying how much they enjoyed my work and inviting me to contribute a short story for the next volume of their literary journal, due out in 2017.  I sent them my story ‘In The Doghouse’, and I’m very pleased to say that it has been accepted for the volume.  So I will see a piece of my writing in print for the very first time in the next year.  Which I am very excited about.  I’m receiving no payment for it but the exposure will be invaluable and now no-one can ever take the achievement away from me.  I have really taken more of a commitment to writing this year and to see it pay off, even in only this small way, is really rewarding.  I guess it’s like any other job – work hard and take it seriously and it really can happen.

So, a nice finish to the writing year for me.  I’ve been more prolific this year than in probably a decade or more, and I think this is down to pushing through when creative thoughts are hard to come by, rather than admitting defeat.  It makes an enormous difference.

Dress Rehearsal

OK, time for another tale. A simple story this one, but I hope it resonates in some way. As always, all comments welcome. Here we go…

DRESS REHEARSAL

Christian first saw the cat as he stepped into the garden, carrying a cup of coffee. The sky was turning light grey as dawn approached, tentative smudges of pink appearing from behind the clouds. He sat at the patio table, lifted the cup to his lips and blew on the liquid before taking a sip. Over the rim of the mug, his eyes wandered to the back fence. There, partly camouflaged in the gloom, lay the cat. From this distance all he could see were flashes of white fur as it washed a front paw.

He had never had a pet growing up. Being one of four siblings had been more than enough for his mother, who saw animals as an unnecessary burden on the household. There had been a stage when he had pined for a dog after seeing Lassie for the first time, but despite constant begging, his pleas had fallen upon deaf ears. ‘I have more than enough trouble looking after you lot,’ his mother would say, and that would be that. She had probably been right, for after a while, the yearning faded as he moved onto the next craze. A bike, most likely.

When the cup was half empty, Christian saw the cat had moved closer. As the light improved he could see more of its features – a mainly black body with white patches on the face and belly, and the purest white whiskers. Judging from its size, the cat was a fully grown adult. It took a couple more steps and rubbed against the leg of the table, looking up at Christian with big green eyes.

‘What do you want?’ he murmured. The cat twined itself around the table leg, long tail stiff in the morning air. It had no collar or identification that he could see. Probably one of the neighbours cats, lost on its early stroll.

Ignoring the cat, Christian sat back and watched the sun rise over the rooftops. It was his favourite part of the day. He had been working nights for years, running a hotel reception through the small hours, and always looked forward to his solitary coffee before retiring to bed. There was something almost reckless about going to sleep when the rest of the world were starting their day. As if he was living an alternative life, one of a select few toiling while everyone was asleep. The pay was good, too, which helped. He had never imagined going on this long, but the routine was fine, and allowed moments of peace to savour, moments like this, without intrusion.

Apart from the cat, of course.

Artificial light spilled from an upstairs window, which meant Ellie was up. Christian sighed and picked up his cup, now deathly tired. He slid the patio door open and stepped inside, taking a last look at the day as he did so. The cat was nowhere to be seen.

Ellie had never imagined her relationship going like this. Currently, her time with Christian consisted of a few minutes every morning and evening, when both were at opposite ends of their day – her winding down, him getting up. They had weekends, shifts permitting, on occasion. But even then it took a while for his bodyclock to adjust, so she often spent time with friends whilst he slept. Even when he was up and about there was a vague slurriness about him. Poor concentration. Unable to get really invested in a conversation. It affected their sex life, too. She looked back in envy on those heady weekends in the early days, when they barely left the bedroom. That was the honeymoon period, she knew that. It never lasted for anyone. But she still missed it. Missed him, more than anything.

It wasn’t as if she was unhappy, as such. He worked hard and was good at his job, and she was proud of him for that. They hadn’t stood still since living together, and with combined salaries and a bit of help from family, now had a place of their own. She loved the feeling of security this gave her, like they were proper adults now. They’d made sacrifices to get where they were, and she was OK with that. But since then, they had got into a holding pattern. The days and months accumulated and she felt their load on her back, weighing her down.

These thoughts were nagging at her as she stood at the kitchen sink, hands deep in soapy water. Christian had left half an hour earlier, taking a few bites of dinner (or was it breakfast? She could never work that out) before heading off. They had had the perfunctory chat, the how was your day stuff, and that would be all for another twenty-four hours. She finished the washing up and dried her hands on a tea towel. The evening was warm and she stepped into the garden for her daily cigarette, placing packet and lighter on the patio table. She lit up and blew smoke, folding her arms across her chest. She looked down, and in front of her was a cat.

She smiled and crouched down. The cat leaned forward and nuzzled her open palm. She scratched behind its ears and the cat began to purr, its white whiskers glinting in the last of the sun.

‘You’re a cute one, aren’t you?’ Ellie whispered. The cats purr increased in volume. She continued to scratch, noticing as Christian had that there was no collar. It didn’t seem to be a stray, with a sleek coat and no noticeable scars or marks. Curious.

She stood up and finished her cigarette, the cat rubbing itself up against her legs. ‘Sorry pal,’ she said. ‘Gotta go.’

As she opened the patio door the cat shot past her into the kitchen. It ran round the tiles a couple of times, then sat in front of the fridge.

‘Hey,’ she said, a little annoyed but smiling, ‘what are you doing? Hungry, I take it.’

She opened the fridge and took out a few slices of roast beef. Why not, she thought. What harm can it do?

Mind made up, she took a plate and placed the food down by the fridge. The cat set upon the meat with a calm intent. She watched him, laughing. Before moving in with Christian her family owned a cat, but it had been hit by a car when only a kitten. The memory of that moment, being told as a nine year old that her beloved Theo had gone to kitty heaven, had stayed with her forever. The tears. The makeshift grave they had built in the garden. Her Mum had vowed not to get another cat, beset by guilt for the pain its death had caused, and in the end, the sorrow dwindled. She never forgot, though.

The plate was clean in minutes. The cat licked its mouth and whiskers and sat with a nonchalant ease.

‘All good?’ Ellie said. ‘Had your fill?’ She took the cat into her arms and opened the back door. ‘Come on, out you go.’ She put the cat down and shut the door quickly before it could get past her again.

She watched TV for an hour or so, then decided on a cup of tea before bed. The cat was sitting at the back door when she passed. She stopped and stared. ‘Don’t look at me like that,’ she muttered. The cat placed its front paws on the glass and stretched, as if this movement would somehow force its way inside. Ellie shook her head. As the kettle boiled, faint meows could be heard over the noise. She couldn’t help but grin, her mind flooded with memories of Theo, what a companion he had been. Her first real friend.

The meows stopped as she approached the back door. Her hand hovered on the handle. Just for now, she thought. It’ll be fine.

She opened the door and the cat came in. It explored the kitchen, then strolled through to the lounge, jumping up onto the couch, digging claws into the fabric. Ellie shooed him off (she had decided it was a he) and, unfazed, he found his way upstairs. She followed, smiling. He found their bedroom of his own accord and sat in the corner beside her dressing table, as if waiting for something. She placed her tea down and took a blanket from the linen closet, spreading it out on the carpet. She patted the material and the cat walked over, sniffed the blanket and lay down, curling up. Ellie sat for a while stroking its chest and tail, awash with a happiness she hadn’t felt for a long time. It wasn’t her cat, but in those brief moments, she had already made a connection. And if it was a stray, then maybe…

Getting ahead of yourself a bit, she thought as she brushed her teeth. We’ll probably get a knock at the door tomorrow, wondering where he is. Best not to get too attached.

She got into bed and before turning out the light, looked at the cat again. Fast asleep, a paw over its face. She suddenly thought of Christian. What would he say? She could talk him round, she knew that. If it came down to it. Whatever happened, it was something different. And for now, that was good.

It had been one of those interminable nights where the hours dragged by like treacle. Usually, Christian stayed to supervise the changeover to the day shift, but today the duty manager had been punctual and he had gotten away on time. A small mercy, and his first real break of the night.

He opened the door and saw the cat sitting at the bottom of the stairs, bathed in the warm glow of the lounge lamp. He blinked once, twice, wondering if this was a sleep-deprived hallucination. The cat moved forward and rubbed against his leg, shattering the illusion. What the fuck was going on?

He heard footsteps on the landing, then Ellie came into the kitchen, tying a dressing gown round her waist.

‘I thought I heard you,’ she said. ‘How was your night?’

He poured milk into his cup. The cat had moved into the kitchen and sat by the fridge door.

‘Oh, you know. Pretty quiet.’ He debated saying something about the cat, but wanted to hear it from her first. ‘You’re up early.’

Ellie shrugged. ‘Couldn’t sleep, I guess.’ She lapsed into silence.

He nodded, stirred his coffee. ‘OK, I’ll bite,’ he said. ‘What’s the cat doing here?’

She bent down and stroked the cat’s ears. ‘He was hanging around in the garden last night, making a racket. I took pity on him. And uh, he ended up sleeping here. Upstairs. Didn’t you?’

The cat’s mouth curled upward, as if smiling.

Christian shook his head. ‘He’s not our cat, you realise.’

‘Well, we don’t know who he belongs to. There’s no collar or anything.’

‘I know that. I saw him out there yesterday morning. He was hiding by the fence when I got home from the hotel.’

A smile played on Ellie’s lips. ‘Right. So you’ve seen him. He must like it here, if he’s been back.’

Christian pointed at the cat. ‘Look at the size of him, Elle. Not a kitten. He must have got lost, somehow. We need to get him back to his owners.’

She knew he was right. It was the correct thing to do. But she couldn’t find it in her to agree.

Before she could respond, Christian picked up the cat and strode to the back door. ‘Sorry, big fella,’ he said. ‘Out you go.’

The cat growled and thrashed in his arms. There was a shout, and the cat jumped to the floor and ran through to the lounge. Christian stood, blood welling from a scratch on his index finger.

‘Little bastard,’ he said. ‘The fucker scratched me.’

She didn’t mean to, but couldn’t help it. Ellie laughed.

‘Glad you find it funny,’ Christian said, sucking on his finger. ‘Good job I’ve had a tetanus jab.’

‘It’s what cat’s do,’ she replied. ‘You shouldn’t have scared him like that.’

Christian took a deep breath. ‘Whatever,’ he said. ‘I’m going to bed. I don’t want the cat to be here when I wake up.’

Ellie stepped in front of him, grabbed at the lapels of his jacket. ‘I’m sorry, OK? I shouldn’t have laughed. But he’s adorable, really. I know you’ll grow to love him.’

‘Elle. He isn’t ours. Whoever owns him is probably frantic with worry right now.’

‘But don’t you think it would be fun? Having a pet of our own? We can both look after him. It’ll be great.’

Christian looked over her shoulder. The cat raised a paw as if in salute. He rolled his eyes.

‘Look,’ he said. ‘You need to find out who the cat belongs to. Ask the neighbours. Put some posters up, or an ad in the paper. If we don’t get any response, then we’ll go from there. But I’m leaving it to you. I don’t want to deal with any of it.’

Ellie smiled and clapped her hands. ‘I will,’ she said. She leant in and kissed him. ‘I love you, you know.’

He smiled. ‘You too,’ he said. ‘Now, I need sleep before I drop. I’ll see you tonight.’ He got his coffee and made for the stairs. The cat watched him all the way.

‘But I don’t love you,’ he said, feeling the pain in his injured finger. ‘Little terror.’

Ellie watched him go. Not yet, she thought. But you will.

For the next few weeks, Ellie was in a state of mild anxiety. She had taken Christian’s advice and made an effort to locate the cat’s owners. She doorknocked all the neighbours, secretly hoping that no-one knew anything, and feeling a small flutter of pleasure every time she received a quizzical look. Posters went up on every lamppost, a picture of the cat with her contact details below. From then on she jumped a little every time her phone rang, wondering if this would be the call. She posted a message on Facebook and spent her working hours with a tab open on her computer, constantly flicking to check her feed for any news.

But as the days went by her worry started to dissipate. Surely by now they would have heard something. The cat had made himself comfortable in the house, although he avoided Christian like the plague. The feeling was mutual there. Christian made little effort in making the cat feel welcome. He fed him only under duress, and rarely showed any affection towards him. Ellie was exasperated. She had come to see the cat as being the next step on their journey together, almost a dress rehearsal for more important things. They had never really talked of children, having been engrossed with working hard and saving for the house. But that bridge had been crossed, and she felt the natural progression of their relationship would end with a kid. That was a little way down the line, but having a cat was the opportunity to get out of the rut they found themselves in, to think about something other than work and money and pensions and the sensible stuff.

Trouble was, Christian had never expressed his feelings with any certainty. She had assumed that his thoughts were the same as hers – he had never come out and said he didn’t want to have kids. Maybe all he needed was a gentle push to come round to the idea. Get used to having something to care for. First, he needed to accept the cat. She was still working on it.

Once the posters had weathered and Facebook moved on to the next big story, she pestered Christian to take the cat to the vet. He grumbled and mumbled but eventually reneged. So they drove out one Saturday morning, and returned knowing the cat had a clean bill of health. He had been neutered and microchipped and generally well cared for. A middle-aged male in excellent condition. When they got home Ellie let him from his basket and he curled up triumphantly on the sofa. Christian skulked off upstairs, muttering under his breath. Whatever happened, he was theirs now. She called him Monty, and life went on.

Christian’s problem with Monty was that he was always there. It seemed that every moment, whenever he turned around, those eyes would be upon him, staring. Gone was the peace and quiet he always loved when returning home from a shift – Monty had an endless appetite and would be sitting by the fridge, waiting for his breakfast. On the odd nights they had to themselves Monty would nestle on Ellie’s lap while they watched a movie, and she would spend more time stroking the cat than concentrating on the film. Bedtime was worse. Monty’s basket lay in the corner of the bedroom, and sometimes, he spent the night there. Christian would often awake to find Monty’s slumbering form wedged in a small patch of duvet by his side, forming a barrier between himself and Ellie. On the odd occasion when they wanted some private time, having to remove Monty from the room took all the passion out of it. The damn cat was encroaching on all aspects of his life.

It was ridiculous, being jealous of a cat. But he had stopped arguing with Ellie over his presence. She nurtured and pampered and praised Monty. Sometimes Christian walked in on her whispering to him and stood in the doorway unnoticed, listening. Her voice was kind as she spoke, and he started to see how good she was at caring for him. And this gradually softened his feelings towards Monty, too. As the months passed he saw her mothering nature start to blossom, and he was not intimidated by it. He’d had fleeting thoughts of being a father but they had always been impossible pipe-dreams. Worrying that he would never be grown-up enough to take on the responsibility of a child. But looking at Ellie now, maybe it was time to discuss it seriously. He knew a baby would make her happy, and that was all he ever wanted.

Then, Monty went missing. Although he went outside regularly, he always stayed within the confines of the garden. One morning, Christian came home to find Ellie already up and dressed, smoking a cigarette on the patio. In a breathless rush she explained that Monty hadn’t come in last night. He expressed the usual platitudes, it was natural for cats to stay out all hours, but this did nothing to calm her. Christian felt a rush then, seeing her scared and worried like this, and a pang of unease settled within him, too.

Ellie phoned work and asked to come in late, and they set about searching for Monty. They scoured the garden and surrounding parkland, calling his name in frantic voices. After an hour or two Christian wanted to stop, in desperate need of sleep, but Ellie insisted they keep looking. In the end he had to nearly drag her home, promising that he would continue the hunt before leaving that evening. After she finally left he fell into bed and had jumbled dreams, ending up oversleeping by half an hour. He did a quick sweep of the garden before jumping in the car and speeding to the hotel. The unease had multiplied and spread. It was time to admit it – maybe he did miss Monty’s presence after all.

By shift’s end Christian could barely keep his eyes open. He hated taking the car to work, and could feel his eyelids drooping as he headed for home. Thoughts of Monty flickered in his brain and he promised to have another quick search before bed, despite his fatigue.

He drove on autopilot, barely registering the road or the traffic. A fine trail of mist wound through the halo of the streetlights and he slowed the car as the visibility worsened. As the car turned into the driveway, there was a thud beneath the front right tyre. Christian’s heart leapt into his mouth. He slammed on the brakes and the force sent his head into the steering wheel, activating the horn. He frantically removed the seatbelt and got out of the car. In the gloom he could just make out artificial light spilling from the front door.

Then, a meow. One he would recognise anywhere. He took a deep breath.

Ellie stood in the hallway, cradling Monty in her arms, tears streaming down her face. ‘Oh Monty,’ she said, over and over. ‘We were so worried. Where have you been?’ She scratched under his ears. When Christian reached them he could see Monty’s eyes were enormously wide, the hair sticking up on his back.

‘Jesus Christ,’ he said, a tremor in his voice. ‘I thought I’d run him over. There was a sound under the car. I couldn’t see anything, in the fog. Fucking hell.’

‘We really thought you’d gone,’ Ellie said to Monty. ‘Don’t ever run off like that again.’ She only now seemed to notice the terror etched on his face. ‘Oh, look at him. You frightened him half to death.’

‘He frightened me and all. Silly thing.’

Ellie sniffed. ‘Well, best get him inside. Been out in the cold for God knows how long, haven’t you?’ She moved her arms so Monty lay against her shoulder. She smiled at Christian.

‘I’m so glad that he’s home,’ she said. ‘Thank you for finding him.’

‘More by luck than judgement.’ He followed her inside. She placed Monty down and he stood stock still, fear prevalent in his eyes.

‘He looks so scared,’ she said, chewing on a fingernail.

‘In shock, I guess. Don’t blame him.’

‘But he’ll be all right, though?’

Christian nodded. ‘Sure. Once he’s back in a normal routine, he’ll be fine.’

She gathered Monty into her arms again. ‘See? You’ll be fine very soon. We missed you very much, didn’t we?’

Christian smiled. ‘Course we did.’ And a growing part of him really did mean it.

The near-miss had a lasting effect on Monty. The decline was glacial and gradual, like a rock slowly eroded by the elements. Two portions of food a day became one. He took extra, plodding steps to negotiate the stairs, often pausing for breath at the halfway point. Sleep formed most of his day, going hours without leaving the comfort of his basket. The changes took place over weeks and months, and it was only if you put them all together that it was noticeable. Old age was coming on in a fast march.

The biggest change was that Monty now refused to leave the house. After the car accident, the fear in his eyes never really went away. To start with they just ignored it, hoping that as time passed he would go outside of his own accord. They waited and waited, but no joy. Christian would try to coax him out, crouched by the back door holding a biscuit. Monty would come, sniff the biscuit, and retreat. Once he became aware of the ruse, he sat with an air of disdain for the whole idea. Sometimes Christian got angry and almost threw Monty out of the back door, only to find him whirl past in a flash of fur to the sanctuary of the kitchen.

Next, Ellie suggested they install a cat flap. Monty gave this idea similarly short shrift. First time, he approached the flap and pushed a paw at it, watching the pendulum swing to and fro. Christian stood behind him and nudged with his foot. Monty hissed, something he did rarely, and sped off. Ellie had a try, going outside and placing her hand through the flap. Again, ignored. It was no use. They went back to watching, placating, falling back into that familiar pattern of silence. They had to make a decision. In the end he sat Ellie down and they talked it through. The next day, Monty was off to the vets.

The dam had broken. Ellie didn’t think she could stop crying. From the back seat, Monty made mournful cries of his own.

‘One day,’ Ellie cried, her eyes brimming over. ‘One day left.’

Christian couldn’t bring himself to talk. His stomach had a hollow, scooped-out feeling. He swallowed and nodded.

‘I mean,’ Ellie said, wiping her nose with a tissue, ‘there was a part of me that knew something was wrong. He hasn’t been himself since – ‘

She hesitated. There was no need to say it. They both knew.

‘Anyway,’ she continued. ‘You just don’t expect it, do you? Even though…’ She burst into fresh tears.

Spots of rain hit the windshield. Christian turned on the wipers. It all was so definite, so matter-of-fact. In less than a day, they would take Monty back to the vets to be put down. Kidney failure, they said. He felt that they were doing something illegal, snuffing out the life of an animal he had grown fond of. Monty’s judge, jury and executioner. He could name that hollow feeling now – it was loss, plain and simple. After all his initial doubts and fights with Ellie, they had settled into looking after Monty, had given him their affection and a whole mountain of food. And they had shared it together. It was a horrible cliché, but Monty had brought them closer. He knew that now. As the rain increased a small but subtle change came over him. He leaned back and took a deep breath.

‘Well, aren’t you going to say something?’ Ellie said. ‘You’ve been quiet all the way home.’

He put on a weak smile. ‘Sorry. Was thinking about something. I still can’t quite believe it, you know. And part of me thinks maybe we should have done it there and then. I can’t stand the thought of waiting until tomorrow.’

Ellie turned her head around. Monty had fallen silent. ‘Every moment is precious,’ she said firmly.

Christian nodded. ‘I guess.’ He had worked himself up to speak his mind, but somehow the moment had passed. The remainder of the journey passed in silence.

As did most of the night. Oddly, Monty had a renewed sense of energy, and spent part of the evening leaping from one to another as they lay on the sofa, allowing himself to be patted and preened. Ellie couldn’t imagine another evening without having him around, and the thought bought tears to her eyes over and over. She noticed that Christian seemed nervous, jumpy. She knew he felt some guilt for his role in the accident, even though she had reassured him that he wasn’t at fault. There was something else though. Something pent-up. He just had that look.

Monty eventually retired to his basket and they went to bed. Over the years the basket had moved and now lay at the foot of the stairs. Ellie turned out the lights and gave Monty a final stroke.

Upstairs, Christian was in bed reading when she got in beside him. He placed the book flat on its spine and turned to her. She had a sudden flutter in her stomach.

‘I can’t believe how much this has affected me,’ he said, twisting his fingers together. ‘I mean, I never even liked him to start with. But he kind of grows on you.’

‘You always were a slow learner,’ she said, and smiled. ‘We can always get another cat, you know. If you wanted to.’

He took a deep breath. ‘I guess so. But, um, I was thinking, maybe we should move on from a cat. To a baby.’

Even though she was half lying down, all the strength went from Ellie’s legs.

‘Because,’ Christian was saying, ‘I’ve enjoyed it, having him. I know I didn’t at first. You’re right, I probably am slow. But I think we can do it. You and me. Sure, it’d be a struggle to start with. I’d have to change shifts at work, but I’ve been meaning to do that for months anyway. I’m sick of dealing with the crazies. And, seeing you with Monty, I know he’s only a cat, but it brings out something in you. And – ‘

She stopped his mouth with a kiss. Her heart was thumping, a warm glow spreading through her veins. She had much to say, but couldn’t find the words.

She placed a hand on either side of his face. ‘You really mean it?’

He nodded. ‘I think so. At least I’m beginning to. That’s a start, isn’t it?’

She laughed. ‘It is. After tomorrow, we’ve a lot to discuss.’

He fell asleep quickly after that. She remained awake, sorrow in her heart for Monty, but with a quickening state of promise and excitement. Look what you’ve done, Monty, she thought. You really have changed our lives.

Christian woke first and for an instant, the events of the previous day were forgotten. Then everything swam back in, little hits of hurt mixed up with thoughts of the future. The subject had been breached, and he already felt a weight lifted from his shoulders. The why’s and wherefore’s, all that was to come. But the journey had begun.

Ellie stirred as he got out of bed. Her eyes looked puffy from crying.

‘I’m going to make a coffee. Do you want one?’

She nodded. There was a calmness between them now, a certainty that comes with resolution. ‘Please. I’m going to jump in the shower.’

Christian headed downstairs. Monty stretched and yawned, arching his back as he did so. Christian put the kettle on and opened the blinds. Warm sunlight streamed through the window. It was going to be a beautiful day.

Monty sat at the fridge like he always did. Christian filled his bowl with food. The condemned cat having his last supper. As he turned back to the fridge to get the milk a sob overcame him and he silently wept, leaning on the door for support. He could feel the sun on his neck. Monty would never feel that sun again.

Christian made the coffee as Monty finished his meal. The cat licked his lips, washed his whiskers and moved from the kitchen. Christian watched, sipping his coffee. A minute later he was bounding up the stairs, calling Ellie’s name. He could hear the hairdryer going in the bathroom.

‘Hey, Elle. You’re not going to believe this.’

She stuck her head round the bathroom door, rubbing her hair with a towel.

‘What?’

‘You’d better come see.’

‘If this is one of your jokes – ‘

‘It isn’t. Come quick.’

He took the stairs two at a time, skidding to a halt by the back door. Ellie was close behind.

‘So, what is it? My hair isn’t dry – ‘

Christian pointed. ‘Take a look.’

Ellie looked beyond him and her breath caught. Her bottom lip started to wobble.

‘Oh my God,’ she said.

Christian smiled. Monty was standing with his front paws through the cat flap. His head rested on the flap, back legs still inside the house. He turned and looked at them, face backlit by the sun, eyes dark whirlpools.

‘Go on, go on,’ Christian whispered. Beside him, Ellie made no sound, tears glistening on her cheeks, unable to take a breath.

Monty held their gaze interminably. Christian stared back, willing him on with every ounce of his being. Finally, finally, Monty turned, lifted his front paws, and leapt forward. His bottom hit the flap as it swung behind him, the noise reverberating inside the house.

‘Yes,’ Ellie cried, a torrent of tears and laughter exploding from within. ‘Oh, Monty. You little star.’

Christian wiped his eyes. He put his arm around Ellie and she placed her head on his shoulder. They were going to be OK. He looked at her and smiled. Outside, Monty had found a patch of sunlight by the patio chairs. They watched as he lay on his back, paws in the air, basking in the warmth one final time.

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.

Brevity

One of the mediums of writing that seems to be going through a decline at the moment is the short story. I rarely read them these days, mostly due to their scarce nature. I’m sure in days gone by the library would be full of short story collections by emerging authors, and reading them was an excellent way to discover new talent.
Of course some of the old masters know a thing or two about writing a good short story – Stephen King is a passionate advocate of the shorter form and publishes a collection every few years, and going further back in time, I got into both Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler through their short stories. It’s rare to find a stand-alone collection from one author around anymore. Most short stories end up in anthologies, particularly in the crime and horror genre. I have read some superb anthologies over the years which are great places to delve into material from authors old and new, but my feeling is that writers of the modern era don’t have the volume of short stories available to release collections of their own.
The reasons behind this are probably numerous. I tend to believe that after writing a full-length novel an author tends to produce something shorter in the interim. Perhaps these musings are little more than practise, to keep the writing eye and brain ticking over before returning to something more substantial. There could well be some snobbery towards the shorter form from some. But I think the main reason could well be that simply, short stories require an awful amount of craft and discipline to create.
I’ve had a few ideas scribbled in a notebook for a while that are waiting to be developed. There is no plan for these, no idea of length and so on, I just make a note to jot down any semblance of an idea that comes into my head. At the library the other day I stumbled across a short story collection that looked interesting. It was called Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers. Much like I used to with cigarettes when I smoked, I devoured the book in an evening and it lit a fire within me. The stories in it are so polished and amazingly confident for a debut collection. The overarching themes of loneliness and solitude linked together by a humble cigarette is a clever idea and Evers pulls it off in some style. It reminded me of how the short story can breath life into an otherwise mediocre day, how so many intoxicating ideas can be swept up into a few pages and give the reader a shot of pleasure in the time it takes to smoke the aforementioned cigarette.
So I had a look back in my notebook and one of the ideas started to take on more shape, and I’m now in the process of writing my first short story in many a year. And in my writings I’ve gained utmost respect for the medium – it is so difficult to write in concise, clear language where every word counts. I’ve always had a tendency to over explain things when I write, and I think many writers do. It’s probably fear that drives this, fear that an extra sentence is needed to explain what you mean otherwise the point is lost. In a short story there is no room for waffle. Everything has to be cut back to the bone. It requires an almost pathological discipline, particularly to discard ultimately unnecessary writing no matter its quality. The best short stories are surely those that get up to speed quickly and never let up their pace.
So, maybe this difficulty puts a lot of writers off. I’m glad to be tackling the format again, it’s a challenge I’m enjoying. To write with a view to brevity and clarity can only help me improve.