A short story by EDIE JEFFERYS. Illustration by NATHALIE HOLLIS
At 6am, Paul opened his eyes and instantly met The Dog’s gaze. Every morning when he woke up The Dog was staring at him. It was always on his side of the bed, always sitting on the same patch of carpet, always staring at him with an expression of snide pleasure. The Dog smelt of ponds. It smelt like the kind of ponds that you were told to avoid as a child because they probably had poisonous algae in them or something. It was exactly like the filthy, stagnant water it smelt of: unmoving and disgusting. Paul didn’t like The Dog.
It had turned up one day and never left. It was a small mongrel terrier with fur the colour of dirt. It never looked clean and Paul liked it when things were clean. The Dog had slowly turned the patch of cream carpet by Paul’s bed to a stained shade of beige. The carpet smelt of ponds too.
The Dog never looked away first. It was a silent observer. Sighing, Paul sat up and attempted to get out of bed. The Dog’s Carpet Patch was positioned in just the place where Paul had once kept his slippers. Before The Dog, Paul had to simply swing his legs out of bed and stand up, his feet landing neatly in the symmetrically-positioned suede slippers he bought last year. Now, Paul had to shimmy along the edge of the bed, past The Carpet Patch, and take his slippers out of the zipped bag he stored under the bedframe. He didn’t trust The Dog. He didn’t want his slippers to smell of ponds. Paul was scared of what might happen if The Dog got hold of his slippers. The thought made him nauseous.
Paul stumbled sleepily towards the shower. The Dog followed. Just as Paul was reaching the bathroom door, The Dog sped up and ran in before it could be shut out. Paul used to try running to the bathroom but The Dog always beat him. Once in the bathroom, The Dog wouldn’t leave. Paul had tried to pick it up before but the smell and texture of its fur made Paul gag. He’d thought about kicking it once but that would upset his wife. She was sensitive and she really liked The Dog. Paul could tell that The Dog knew this. It was really quite smart and this annoyed Paul more than anything.
When The Dog had originally appeared, it was Paul’s wife that said they should keep it. Paul’s wife had told him it would be good for them to have a dog, and that she couldn’t bear to take it to the rescue centre. ‘Do you know what they do to animals there?’ she’d said. ‘They put them to sleep if there’s no space in the kennels. It’s just awful.’ Paul said he already knew what they did there and he didn’t care if that was what happened to The Dog. Paul’s wife said that Paul was a terrible person for saying that. She said she really liked The Dog. She said they should let it stay. Paul disagreed. Paul came home from work that evening and The Dog was sitting in his armchair. It’s not Paul’s armchair anymore. The Armchair is now the same stained colour as the Carpet Patch. It smells of ponds.
Paul turned on the shower and undressed. He placed his pyjamas and slippers on top of the bathroom cabinet so that The Dog couldn’t reach them. He didn’t look at The Dog, but he knew it was sitting by the door, watching him. He got into the shower and began to wash himself, deliberately facing the wall. He never looked at The Dog when he was naked. He couldn’t be sure, but he felt sure it was looking at his penis.
After his shower, Paul shaved, cleansed, toned, moisturised and applied expensive aftershave. The Dog remained a muddied stain in the reflection of the bathroom mirror. Paul wanted to wipe the mirror clean of The Dog-shaped blemish, but had to remind himself that he cleaned the mirrors three times yesterday and no amount of polish would rid the mirror of this imperfection. The Dog was a permanent stain on Paul’s peripheral vision. Paul liked it when things were clean and neat and ordered. The presence of The Dog made Paul feel dirty even after his bathroom routine. It made Paul’s head hurt.
In the bedroom, The Dog returned to The Carpet Patch. From here, it watched as Paul carefully removed his neatly pressed clothes from the wardrobe and dressed. Paul avoided looking at The Dog. Sometimes he could sense it mocking his clothes. It was almost as if The Dog took pleasure in drawing attention to his own matted, pond-smelling exterior. The Dog’s appearance made Paul wince. If it wasn’t for The Argument, Paul would still keep a padlock on his wardrobe door. Paul didn’t want anyone to touch any of his things, least of all The Dog.
‘Oh, look at Henry watch you get dressed’, cooed Paul’s wife from the bed, ‘It’s adorable’. She proceeded to make encouraging noises at The Dog, beckoning him towards her. It remained on The Carpet Patch and never took its eyes off Paul. Paul’s wife gave up and strode clumsily into the bathroom. The one thing that Paul and The Dog had in common was an indifference to Paul’s wife.
Paul went to the kitchen and picked up the muesli packet. The Dog sat in The Armchair and watched. Paul was hungry, but The Dog’s stare was making him feel ill. He imagined the texture of the wet muesli to be exactly like The Dog’s fur. He gagged. Paul put the muesli back in the cupboard. The Dog scratched its neck and a fresh waft of pond smell assaulted Paul’s nostrils. He gagged again. Paul was sure he saw The Dog smile.
Paul laced up his shoes, put on his coat and took his car keys off their labelled hook. He looked in the hall mirror and caught The Dog’s eye in the reflection. Paul closed his eyes and squinted, hard. When he opened his eyes The Dog was still there.
Paul opened the front door, stepped outside and slammed the door behind him. He breathed a sigh of relief. Work, although sometimes tedious, was logical and followed a process. Predictable. He liked this. Work was something that Paul could tolerate, even enjoy. Paul’s wife was never at work, and neither was The Dog. Paul liked this especially.
Paul sat carefully in the driver’s seat, smoothing his suit trousers. The interior of his car was spotless. Paul could still smell The Dog, but the strength of the pond smell was fading into the scent of the ‘new pine’ car freshener Paul had carefully chosen. Paul always felt like the smell of The Dog was clinging to his skin and the thought made him nauseous, claustrophobic. He awkwardly tugged at his collar and tried to steady his breathing. He twisted the uncomfortable gold band on his ring finger. Paul focussed on the smell of ‘new pine’. He felt better.
Turning on the ignition, Paul carefully adjusted his seatbelt, flattening it against his chest. There were no kinks in the seatbelt. Today was going to be tolerable, Paul knew that much. He checked the clock on the dashboard – it was 6:40am. He was right on schedule and this pleased him.
Paul gripped the leather steering wheel and slipped the car into reverse gear. Lifting the clutch, the car began to roll steadily backwards off the drive. Paul turned to his left mirror, his right mirror, and then to his rear-view mirror. He slammed on the breaks. Reflected in the centre of the mirror was The Dog.
The Dog was sat calmly, unmoving in the middle of the road, directly behind Paul’s car. The Dog stared at Paul. Paul stared at The Dog. Paul’s mouth went dry.
Paul didn’t know how The Dog had managed to leave the house. He had shut the door behind him, he was sure of it. Paul looked back at the front door; it remained closed, locked, uninviting. Paul twisted back to the mirror and met The Dog’s gaze immediately. He could taste the pond smell in his mouth. The ‘new pine’ car freshener, as if on cue, fell from the air conditioning grill on which it was tied and lay crooked in the foot-well of the car. Paul began to sweat.
The Dog remained in the centre of the road. Paul’s cul-de-sac was still, windless. For a time, nothing stirred. Paul willed The Dog to move, to leave him alone, to let him leave the drive and the cul-de-sac and the pond smell and go to work and follow his schedule. Paul’s schedule was very important and he was now running late because of The Dog. Paul broke away from its gaze and was surprised to find his fists clenched around the steering wheel. His knuckles were white and his fingers throbbed. He looked back in the mirror. The Dog was still there. It was still looking directly at Paul.
The front door of the house banged open and Paul’s wife appeared on the steps. She was wearing a dressing gown and no make-up. She looked old. ‘What’s Henry doing out here?!,’ she said. ‘Did you let him out Paul?’ she said.
The Dog continued to stare at Paul and Paul continued to stare at The Dog. Neither of them acknowledged Paul’s wife.
‘PAUL’ she said. She was now standing next to his car, slamming her palm on the window. She gestured at him to open the door but Paul continued to stare at The Dog.
‘HENRY’ she said. She gestured at The Dog but it didn’t move. It continued to stare at Paul.
Paul’s wife was angry. Her face twisted and scrunched like tin foil. She looked brittle and strong all at the same time. It reminded Paul of The Argument.
‘Paul you’re going to have to come back inside,’ she hissed, ‘He only listens to you, Paul, God knows why’. Paul continued to stare at The Dog. The Dog continued to stare at Paul.
Paul didn’t look at his wife and he didn’t stop looking at The Dog. Paul felt his foot lift away from the break. The car began to roll gradually backwards.
‘Paul what are you DOING?!’
Paul’s wife was screaming at him now but Paul barely heard her. He felt like he was underwater and that everything around him was blurred and muffled except for The Dog. The Dog alone was clear and proud and smiling and beckoning the car towards him. The car picked up speed.
‘PAUL!!’ She was hitting the window with force now, gesturing manically.
‘PAUL!!’ She ran to The Dog and tried to pick it up but it bared its teeth and remained in exactly the same place. It continued to lock eyes with Paul and the car continued to roll backwards.
Paul felt his foot press on the accelerator.
He heard the thud. He felt the car rise and then fall. He felt his knuckles loosen, his chest relax, his heart slow. He looked in the mirror and he could no longer see The Dog.
Paul stopped the car a little way down the road. He leant over, picked up the ‘new pine’ car freshener and carefully replaced it. He undid his top button and relaxed into the driver’s seat. He opened the car window and breathed in the crisp morning air. His body felt light and young.
Paul glanced back in his rear-view mirror. Paul’s wife was standing in the neighbour’s flowerbed. She was quiet, hollow-looking. She was staring at Paul without really looking at him. There was a crowd of neighbours around his wife now, and in the centre of them was a smudged impression on the road.
Paul smiled and drove to work.