I went to the library to see a man about a dog. Fifteen minutes later, another man, a large one in a hoodie, was stomping on my head.
When I’d entered the building, figures were slumped around the reading tables in its foyer. They wore beanie hats bristling with frayed wool strands and coats leaking synthetic fluff from torn seams. One turned a head towards me, showing rheumy eyes and a ragged beard. The morning was brutally cold, and the library’s central heating had induced many of the city’s homeless folk to take refuge inside.
I found him where Robin Beale said he’d be, at a table beyond the Recent Acquisitions rack and beside a window overlooking the quayside, bridges, and river. He was homeless, too. He wore a stained anorak and unraveling sweater, and had a crinkled face and white-dusted hair. Though I was a stranger to him, he reacted as if I was a friend who’d dropped by for a chat. “Oh hello. What’s up?”
“Robin Beale recommended you. You know Robin?”
Despite his friendly tone, his eyes gave out an intense stare that unsettled me. “No. Can’t say I do.”
“Robin consulted you two months ago. Works at a jobs and benefits office and heard about you there from one of the claimants.”
“Sorry. Don’t remember.” Probably it was good he didn’t remember. Though Robin projected a certain warmth and charm, I knew there was much meanness underneath. I hoped I’d never be in a position where I had to face my next-door neighbor across a desk and plead for Universal Credit. “What sort of dog was it?”
“A Labrador called Ginny.”
The face brightened, though the stare didn’t lessen. “Ginny! I remember. Four years old. Lovely dog, but undernourished. Well, she would be with pica. Nasty disorder. How is she?”
I thought of Ginny locked in the shed behind Robin’s semi-detached house, which shared a wall with my own house. During days when I worked from home, and Robin was at the benefits office, I’d hear her keening and yowling. But at least she had flesh again. “Much better. That’s why Robin told me about you.”
“You’ve got a sick dog too?”
“My mother does. I’ve come on her behalf.”
“Do you smoke, er… What’s your name?”
“Tommy. No, I don’t smoke. But I’ve got cigarettes.” That was Robin’s suggestion. Bring something for his nicotine addiction. He’ll be your friend for life.
He’d been reading a newspaper with the library’s name and the day’s date stamped on its front page. He folded it and crammed it into an anorak pocket. Then he stood up and led me through a door, along a passageway, down some stairs, and through another door that brought us into a back alley. The first door bore a sign saying STAFF ONLY, but when I pointed this out, he said, “Don’t worry. They know me here. I’m practically staff.”
The library sported an extravagant glass façade that’d been built in the early noughties, an expenditure the city council would consider unthinkable today. However, the alley we emerged into looked more in keeping with the post-crash, austerity-obsessed 2010s. It had gray concrete walls and no windows. A freezing wind penetrated it from the estuary.
We sheltered behind a dumpster that was parked there. Its lid was partly open, a trash bag protruding from it like a black tongue sticking out of a mouth. I produced the cigarettes, gave him one, and lit it with a lighter I’d bought too for this meeting.
He didn’t seem to understand personal space and stood uncomfortably close, making me inhale his cigarette smoke. “What kind of dog does your mum have? And what’s the problem?”
“He’s a Jack Russell terrier called Toby. And…” I was about to describe the terrible mange that’d removed much of Toby’s fur when two men walked by. Both their heads swung toward us as they passed, as if they were searching every nook of the alley for something.
One man was hefty and had a hood obscuring his face. He shouted, “That’s him! Fuck you, you cunt!” He launched himself at us, fists pummeling.
He struck my new acquaintance on the side of his head and made him reel back against the wall. To hold the man off, I instinctively stuck my arm out straight. By chance, my hand passed between his fists, under his hood, and the base of my palm slammed against something brittle. It snapped. The man cried out, retreated, and wrestled the hood off his head, revealing a plump face, a shaven scalp, a neck laden with rolls of fat. Blood sluiced from his nostrils.
I’d barely processed this when the other man came at me. Small and weaselly, he didn’t look threatening, but he promptly kicked me in the balls. The pain made me double over and topple onto the black asphalt surfacing the alley.
The shaven-headed man in the hoodie shouted, “You’ve broke me fucking nose!” A pair of sizable white running shoes suddenly stamped at my head. My hands flapped above me, trying to hold those shoes off.
Then I heard a thud and a shattering of glass. The man stopped attacking and collapsed on the asphalt beside me. A trash bag also landed on the ground and spewed its contents, including pieces of newly broken bottle. Looking up, I saw my acquaintance standing by the dumpster, its lid now closed flat. I realized he’d heaved out the top bag and thumped it on the man’s head.
The weaselly man lunged at him. He was wearing padded gloves and in one of them something gave a silvery flash. “Watch out!” I bawled. “He’s got a knife!”
My acquaintance grabbed the hand holding the knife. The moment he touched the hand, the man stiffened, dropped the knife, and howled in pain. That encouraged my acquaintance to grasp the other hand. Not only did the man howl again, but his legs buckled, and he fell to his knees.
“Why the aggression?” asked my acquaintance calmly. “What did we do to upset you?”
“You did plenty, you fucking monster!” I turned and saw that the hoodie-man had managed to sit up. By now I had enough presence of mind to whip out my smartphone and snap a photo of his unhooded, bloody face. Then I scrambled to my feet and told him, “Okay, I’m calling the police.”
“No fucking worries,” said the man. “I’m going.” He got up and blundered along the alley, the clobbering he’d received making him zigzag from wall to wall.
I looked the other way. My acquaintance let go of his attacker’s hands and the man sank against the bottom of the dumpster. When he started moving again, it was to tear off the padded gloves he was wearing. I flinched at what I saw next. Neither of his hands had any skin on its back. Rather, there were thick, crusty panels of red. The man convulsed, as if trying to resist a hideous impulse. Then he held both hands to his face and greedily licked at the giant lesions on them.
Moments later, he seemed to recover his wits. He lowered his hands, struggled onto his feet, and picked up his gloves, though he abandoned the knife. His face showed a look of deep self-disgust. Then he fled along the alley in the opposite direction from his friend in the hoodie.
I spluttered, “Who the hell were they?”
“I don’t know.” I’d worked out already that he was bad at reading people and situations, but he seemed shockingly unfazed by the fact that someone had just punched him and someone else tried to stab him.
“They seemed to know you!”
“I’m not great with faces. Not human ones. Maybe if they’d had dogs with them… I could identify them through those.”
A relentless, sick-making throb ascended from my balls. I wondered if I’d ever be able to sit down again. “Oh, for fuck’s sake!”
He stared at me unblinkingly. “So, your mum’s dog, Toby. How can I help?”
The streetlights came on as I was nearing home. I discovered the one by my gate making a fizzing noise and flickering, as if someone was using it to send Morse code messages. I wondered when the council would get around to fixing it. In the current economic climate, probably not for a while.
Wooden fencing separated the strips of grass that Robin Beale and I had as front gardens. Robin’s half of the building looked locked up and empty in the defective, flashing electric light. But it wasn’t wholly devoid of life because a few pigeons were hopping about the front steps and grass and along the fence, enjoying a last hurrah of activity before they retired for the night.
I climbed my steps and tried with numb fingers to fish the door key out of a pocket. Then, to the side, I heard voices, and then a gate scraping back, and then the kerfuffle of a dog barking and pigeons flapping into the air.
I turned around and wasn’t surprised to see Jack, Robin’s boyfriend, with them. The only times Ginny-the-Labrador got taken for a walk were when Jack visited and Robin was suddenly keen to demonstrate what a wonderful, kindhearted dog-lover she was. We greeted each other and had a moan about the malfunctioning streetlight. Then Robin put the end of the dog’s lead in Jack’s hand and asked, “Could you put her in her house, love?” After Jack and Ginny had disappeared around the far end of the building, she leaned against the fence and asked, “You saw him?”
A vague but nauseating ache crept up my body from my balls. “Oh yes. I saw him.”
Tonight, Robin had a silk scarf binding her neck and a floppy wide-brimmed hat pressed over her feathery blonde hair, which made her look like a slightly more mature, and slightly scary, version of Stevie Nicks in her 1970s heyday. “I know it’s hard to believe. I doubted it too. But he is amazing. He does have a power.” She sighed contemptuously. “It’s a shame. He should be making millions. He should have his own TV show, like The Dog Whisperer. But no, he’s pissed away his chances. What a loser.”
From the guy’s unconventional take on things like acceptable levels of eye contact and acceptable encroachment on personal space, I’d assumed he had a neurodevelopmental condition. At school, I’d known kids like him who’d be identified now as having autism spectrum disorders. I remembered those kids because they were the only ones who got bullied more than I did. Being subjected to a lifetime of incomprehension and ostracism possibly explained why he hadn’t become the new Cesar Millan and, indeed, why he was homeless. Not because, as Robin believed, he was a lazy waster.
But I didn’t argue. “I’m bringing the dog to him tomorrow. How should I pay him?”
Robin cackled. “That’s the beauty of it. You don’t pay him. Not money. Just throw him some cigarettes. Or booze. Get him a bottle of Frosty Jack’s superstrong cider. That’s what I did.” She looked pleased with herself. “You spend far less with him than you do at the vet.”
I assumed Robin had checked out a few veterinarians and then turned to the library’s down-and-out miracle man because she didn’t want to pay their prices. I assumed, too, she’d told Jack, probably the one who’d persuaded her to get Ginny treated, that she had taken her to a vet.
Then her expression changed. It became troubled. Her eyes lowered and, from under long spidery eyelashes, studied the top of one of the fence posts. “Look at that,” she muttered.
“Oh. Filthy buggers.”
“Filthy buggers,” she repeated, voice weirdly distant. “Spending all their time…shitting.”
A little spooked by her mood swing, I bade her good night and went up the steps to my door. As I closed it, I saw she hadn’t moved. She remained at the fence, one moment in brightness from the fitful streetlight, the next moment in shadow. Then she raised a hand and stuck a gloved fingertip into her mouth.
I didn’t dwell on Robin’s strange behavior because I already had strange behavior to consider. I transferred the photo I’d taken of the hoodie-man from my smartphone to my laptop so I could study it on a larger screen. Something about the man’s right eye caught my attention and I zoomed in. The white of his eye wasn’t white but a disturbing pinkish-red. Worse, a small tumor-like mass protruded from behind his lower eyelid. I understood why he kept a hood pulled over his face.
I recalled seeing an eye in a similar condition. Not long ago, I’d taken Toby, my mother’s terrier, to a veterinarian in a futile attempt to get his mange cured. In the waiting room, a man had been sitting with his dog. One eye was pinkish red and deformed at the bottom…
The eye of the dog, not the man.
Trying to be less cheap than my next-door neighbor, I purchased from a charity shop a sweater and anorak in better nick than the ones he’d been wearing. However, when I presented these to him, with a carton of cigarettes and half a dozen cans of 9% proof Carlsberg Special Brew, I still felt like an exploitative bastard, no better than Robin.
If I thought myself undeserving of gratitude, he at least obliged me. He didn’t show any. He took the bags from me without acknowledgement or interest and set them on the park bench beside him.
But he reacted when I introduced him to Toby. He leaned forward and said, “Hello, how are you? How are you feeling?” Toby immediately advanced. A quilted dog jacket enclosed his body. I didn’t think it wise to make him wear that, considering how much of him was furless, raw, and sore, but my mother had insisted. Her baby wasn’t going out into a cold winter’s day unprotected.
He removed the jacket and inspected the ugly, scabbed areas that covered Toby like tracts of mold on an old bread loaf. “Poor little beggar,” he said. “That must hurt.” Then he lowered himself from the bench and kneeled facing the dog who, seemingly unintimidated, returned his stare.
A minute passed with them silently gazing at each other. I began to feel uncomfortable. Then he said, “Lavender.”
That startled me, but then I realized he probably smelled my mother’s flat from Toby. More silence ensued. Now completely ill at ease, I muttered, “I’ll leave you two to it.” I tied the end of the dog’s lead around one of the bench’s iron armrests and started walking away.
He said, “Can’t breathe.”
I stopped and looked back. “I’m sorry?”
He turned his head towards me but didn’t reply. His eyes had a disconcerting blankness. Then he looked towards Toby again. What unnerved me was that Toby’s head turned towards me when his did and turned back again when his did too. It was as if they were synchronized.
But I shrugged this off. He was harmless and Toby was tethered securely. I resumed walking and passed through a children’s play area where half the swings and slides were rusted and broken. When I glanced back, he was still kneeling, but had reached over and his hands were exploring the places on Toby blitzed by mange. He was speaking, but I couldn’t make out his words.
I came to a section of the park that’d been converted into allotments. For several minutes I gazed over a fence at the patchwork of plots. They’d been cultivated a few months earlier but were covered now in frost-whitened grass and weeds. They contained locked wooden sheds, empty buckets and pots, and a lonely-looking scarecrow who didn’t seem much worse dressed than my acquaintance at the bench.
I decided this was a waste of time. Conceivably, the guy might have helped Ginny get over her eating disorder just by being kind to her. She hadn’t experienced much kindness living in Robin’s shed. But my mother’s dog had mange, a physical thing caused by ticks and bacteria. A vet had removed the ticks but somehow the bacteria lingered and caused more damage. No mystical laying on of hands would solve that.
When I walked back, he was sitting on the bench again and helping himself to a can of Special Brew. Coming closer, I noticed how another can, already empty, had rolled to the bench’s end. Toby had his quilted jacket on again and lounged contentedly on the ground. If nothing else, this outing had given him a break from my mother’s fussing and fretting.
“Finished?” I asked.
He’d regained his usual, implacable stare, but his crumpled face looked even more tired than before. Also, he spoke hoarsely. “I’ve finished for now. Hope I’ve helped. If he’s still feeling badly, bring him back to me, um…”
“Yes, Tommy.” He took another slug from the can. Then he asked, “Your mother. She does love Toby, doesn’t she?” I fancied I heard a concerned note in his suddenly raspy voice.
“Oh, she loves him all right. She loves him like…” I suppressed a sour chuckle. “…like a son.”
I took Toby into the flat I hated.
What made me hate it? Well, there was the reek of lavender, emanating from her countless urns of potpourri. And the sweltering heat caused by her turning up the radiators too high. And the plants in various stages of ill-health and decay because she kept watering the things to death. And the nautical chintz, the ornamental seagulls, sailors, mermaids, lighthouses, and beach huts, which were souvenirs of holidays she’d spent in various shit British seaside resorts. She refused to travel abroad because she couldn’t leave behind her babies.
Most of all, I hated the galleries of framed photographs. The older ones showed a boy at different ages clad unhappily in woolen cardigans, patterned shirts and ties, short trousers, ankle socks and sandals, looking like a child of the 1950s rather than the decade he really belonged to—the 1980s. The newer ones showed dogs. I recalled their names: Johnny, Tony, Donny, finally Toby.
She tilted forward from the armchair where she spent most of her time. “Oh, To-by!” she drooled. “To-by Wo-by Do-by! Come to mummy, little Toby!”
Toby approached her, tail nervously wagging, and she scooped him up and hugged him. And kept hugging him. She didn’t seem to notice when Toby started squirming.
I asked, “Is that a good idea?”
“What?” Then she went again, “Little To-by Wo-by Do-by…”
“Hugging him like that. Considering how sore his skin must be.”
She glowered. “It’s okay for me to hug him. I know him and what’s good for him and what’s not. And just now he needs love.” Then she demanded, “This specialist you took him to. Do you think he’ll help?”
“It’s difficult to say. I get the impression he’s more like…a dog therapist. He might make Toby feel more settled. But what he’s suffering from is a physical ailment…”
My voice trailed away. Toby had managed to free his head from her thick, smothering arms and he looked back at me. He transmitted an anguish that made me feel so bad I had to avert my gaze.
I found myself looking instead at a cabinet with another set of photographs. One was a portrait of a fourteen-year-old boy in a collar and tightly knotted tie, his hair parted sharply on one side. He seemed as miserable as Toby did now. At least, I reflected, this was one of the boy’s last photos. There was comfort in knowing he’d rebelled soon afterwards.
He’d become an unrepentant, late-1980s, north-of-England goth. The flat contained no pictures of him then.
My mother noticed me studying the photo. “I wish,” she said, “you’d go back to that side parting. Your hair’s a mess nowadays.”
Under her arms, Toby whimpered.
One evening a fortnight later, I sat in my living room nursing a tumbler of whisky while listening to Foreigner belt out “Waiting for a Girl Like You” beyond the dividing wall of my house and Robin Beale’s. I’d known Robin would play The Very Best of Foreigner tonight. When I got home, the curtains in her downstairs window were glowing with candlelight. This meant, behind the curtains, she was treating Jack to dinner, to a romantic, candlelit night in. I wondered if Jack thought Robin was being ironic when she played those soft rock, fingernails-on-chalkboard power ballads. Or did he realize she seriously liked them?
I couldn’t help smarting with injustice and jealousy. Robin was a bully. She didn’t deserve Jack, who was fifteen years her junior, good-hearted, and gorgeous.
Meanwhile, something else bothered me. My mother swore that Toby’s hairless patches had gotten less raw and crusty. She even claimed a fuzz had appeared in parts of the afflicted areas—the fur beginning to grow back. I refused to believe this. It violated the laws of biology. Physically ailing creatures weren’t healed by having somebody touch them and will them to improve. Especially not when the somebody touching them was a piece of human flotsam and jetsam who hung out all day in the city library.
Then I remembered the business with the two men in the alleyway. On a whim, I lifted my smartphone, googled ‘red eye’, and found articles about allergies, irritations caused by contact lenses, and a 2005 movie directed by Wes Craven.
By now “Girl Like You” had given way to “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
I googled ‘red eye in dogs’ and was about to read the results when, on the other side of the wall, Jack yelled in horror.
For a few seconds, I sat stupefied. Then he yelled again, and there was a clatter as a piece of furniture fell over. I bounded up from my chair, spilling whisky down my trousers, and made for the front door. My intention was to run around into Robin’s front garden and bang on her door but, when I arrived outside, I realized how dark it was. Several nights ago, the defective streetlight next to the house had packed in completely. A mantle of clouds hid the moon and stars. I still clutched my smartphone, so I switched on its torch. Simultaneously, across the top of the fence, I heard Robin’s door open.
I turned. The torch beam showed Jack as he tottered down Robin’s front steps, approached the fence, and collided with it. “Oh God,” he moaned, “she’s disgusting.”
For an instant, I felt opportunistic. I wanted to reach over, touch him, caress him, offer comfort, even though I had no idea what was happening. But before I could react, his head tipped back, then pitched forward, and expelled a spray of vomit that sailed over the fence, landing in a foul streak on my grass. He didn’t pause to apologize or even wipe the remnants of sick from his chin. Instead, he lurched to Robin’s gate, scrabbled at it until it opened, and disappeared along the street.
My torchlight still shone into the other property. I saw Robin appear in the doorway, wearing a long diaphanous dress, her body’s outline visible amid the fabric thanks to the hallway light behind her. She descended the steps but, unlike Jack, stopped a little way short of the fence. For a moment neither of us spoke and the only sound was Foreigner caterwauling in the background.
Then I croaked, “What’s going on, Robin?”
“Oh, nothing worth worrying about.” Her hands fumbled against the lower part of her dress, below a waist belt, as if she was adjusting an undergarment. “Just a misunderstanding.”
I directed the torchlight into her face and saw how her mouth was haloed by a thick brown smear. It contrasted grotesquely with the makeup she’d immaculately applied elsewhere. This suggested the trouble between her and Jack, whatever it was, had happened during the dessert course of their meal, while they were eating chocolate ice cream or chocolate gateau.
But then, noticing a disagreeable smell in the night air, I realized the mess on her face wasn’t chocolate.
He looked up from the library newspaper and said, “Hello, Toby.”
“My name’s Tommy. Toby’s a dog.”
“Oh… Right. How is Toby? Mange, wasn’t it? Is he feeling better now?”
“Never mind Toby.” I unzipped the bag that hung from my shoulder, removed a sheaf of A4-sized printouts, and flung one on top of his newspaper. “Look at this, please.” It was a close-up of the hoodie-man’s diseased eye, taken from the photo in the alleyway. Although the page had come out of a black-and-white printer, the discoloration and tumor-like growth were plain to see. “Remember him?”
“Can’t say I do. I’m not great with faces. Or eyes…”
“The alley behind this building. Remember?”
“Ah, yes. They attacked us.”
“They attacked you. I wonder why.” I threw another printed image onto the table. This showed a similarly sick eye, but a canine one. “He suffers from cherry eye. It’s common in young dogs. Involves disruption of the nictitating membrane, the third eyelid that dogs and some other animals have. But in the first picture it’s affecting a human.”
Then I threw down a picture of a dog’s paw that’d lost part of its fur. A lesion occupied the place where the fur had been. “This dog suffers from lick granuloma. A disorder where dogs have a compulsion to lick their lower limbs to the point where they get swelling, bleeding, eczema, and open wounds. Strangely enough, the other guy in the alleyway had lesions on both hands. Which I remember him licking.”
I had a final picture, of a dog nosing through some turds while they festered on the ground. “Pica. That’s what Ginny the Labrador had. Ginny’s owner, my neighbor Robin Beale, brought her to you for treatment. Animals afflicted with pica feel compelled to eat things with no nutritional value like soil, sand, dust, even feces. You managed to cure Ginny. However, I’m pretty sure last night I saw Robin Beale eating her own shit.”
I pulled over a chair, sat down across the table from him, and met and held his stare. “This miraculous power you have with dogs. I think there’s a downside.”
Eventually, he looked away from me. “It wasn’t a problem before.” The usual, bland, friendly tone was gone from his voice, and he sounded sorrowful. “Not when the people bringing their sick dogs were the same as me.”
“What do you mean, the same?”
“Homeless people. Living on the streets. When you don’t have a roof over you and have hardly any money, but you do have a dog… Well, you love that dog. He or she’s your best friend. Sometimes your only friend. And you’d never dream of causing your dog harm. It was easy then. You see, when I cure a dog, my theory is the disease goes somewhere. Back to whatever was responsible for it, to the worms, bugs, microbes. But that’s okay. Nobody notices them suffering.”
“I don’t understand.”
He struggled to speak. “Now I get other people coming to me… Better off people with houses and money. Materialistic people. And they don’t realize it, but often it’s them that’ve caused their dog’s problems… Not treating them like friends, but like possessions. Neglecting and mistreating them. Giving them anxiety and loneliness… And, as I said, when I make the sickness leave a dog, it goes somewhere. Back to the cause…”
His voice gave way to a sob. Only then did it occur to me that he looked smarter today, because he was wearing the sweater and anorak I’d bought him. For an absurd moment, I felt proud of him. Then I wondered if my mother had felt similar pride when she’d dressed me up like Little Lord Fauntleroy.
That reminded me. “I brought my mother’s dog to you.”
“But there shouldn’t be anything to worry about.” He looked at me, his damp eyes hopeful. “You told me she loves him. Doesn’t she?”
I considered it. “Like a son.”
I tried ringing my mother on the steps outside the library’s grand glass entrance. When she didn’t answer, panic possessed me. I ran to the nearest taxi rank.
She didn’t respond to the bell at her building door nor, inside, at her flat door, so I used the spare keys her landlord had given me in case of emergencies.
I’d barely ventured over the threshold when something accosted me. I managed to find the switch for the hallway and the sudden light revealed Toby muzzling around my ankles, tail wagging madly, eyes bright in a way I hadn’t seen before. The blight on his body had lost its horrible lividness. Indeed, the stricken areas seemed smaller, as if the fur had started to regrow at their edges and forced the baldness into retreat.
Then I looked along the hallway. A clump of brown-dyed hair lay near the door to the living room. I lifted the clump and saw how one end of it was clotted with red globs, like bits of raw minced meat, and speckled with pink flakes. At the same time, I heard a sound in the living room. It had a pathetic, yowling quality that reminded me of Ginny-the-Labrador pining in Robin’s shed.
But I knew who was really making the sound. I entered the living room. “Mother?”
The cloying smell of lavender had been displaced by a new smell of something diseased and rotten.
She was in her armchair. Whereas her girth had always filled the chair before, she looked shrunken in it today. “Tommy,” she said through her tears. “It’s you. My baby. My baby!”
I went to her and let her enclose me in her arms and press her wet, weeping face against mine. And later, when her embrace finally loosened and I was able to withdraw my head, I felt the fetid, mushy layer that remained of her scalp detach itself and stick to my skin.