Monday, 5 October 2009

Every Dog Has His Day (with apologies to cat-lovers)

Copyright © 2007

This is a humorous story about a young boy who loved his dog and became a great scientist so that he could realise his life's dream: to communicate with his pet. The story was rejected :( by Interzone. Their loss, your gain.

Professor Denzel Jones was a very intelligent man. You would, of course, guess that from the title ‘Professor’ but even among professors he was quite exceptional. He had gone up to Cambridge at the age of sixteen, and graduated three years later with a double-first in Behavioural Psychology and Electronics: a strange combination, you might think, but Denzel Jones had a plan, more of which later.

After graduation, he gained his PhD not with merely original research but with groundbreaking research into the workings of brain and mind. He shone like the brightest star in the firmament in his post-doctoral research years, soon securing a lectureship, global recognition, and, with even more surprising rapidity, a chair in Psychology at Cambridge. He had never, in fact, considered applying for a professorial post but had been made several offers he could not refuse from the most prestigious universities on both sides of the Atlantic. He chose to remain in the UK to be near his mother who, most importantly of all, had left her cottage near Pontypridd to look after his dog, Oscar, while he was at work.

Needless to say, Denzel had many friends in high places and not a few enemies, all of whom were, if they were honest (and most of them were not), utterly jealous of his enormous intellect and meteoric rise to academic greatness. His best human friend (actually his worst enemy) was Jonathan Bytheway, a man with very little talent, and a poor cricketer. He was clever enough but nothing like genius, except for when it came to making sure he was in the right place at the right time. He had recognised Denzel’s talent early on and had made sure that he was well positioned to be pulled along in Denzel’s wake to whatever starry heights may be beckoning him.

Denzel’s real best and truest friend was Oscar. Oscar was an English Labrador Retriever. He was not the brightest of dogs, neither was he the dimmest. He loved his master even more than he loved food and swimming, and not just because he was a dog and it was his job. He detested Jonathan Bytheway. He thought himself a good judge of character and tried everything in his limited knowledge of inter-species communication to make Denzel see the truth about Jonathan but never succeeded, perhaps because Oscar was not very good at inter-species communication, or because his master was not as clever as everyone thought, or because his master chose to ignore Oscar’s warnings. Knowing Denzel as he did, and taking a certain pride in his own abilities, Oscar could only assume the last case to be true and wonder why…

Ah, yes – the plan!

Now Oscar was not Denzel’s first dog. No. That honour fell to a pit-bull-dachshund-cross named Sausage who had been given to Denzel by his parents on his eighth birthday. Sausage was only five day’s old at that time and had been rescued, along with three brothers and a sister, by Denzel’s father from an old sack with a brick in it that he had witnessed being thrown by an unseen miscreant from a bridge into a river. Fortunately for Sausage, the bag had caught in the branches of a tree that overhung the river. Even more fortunately for Sausage, Denzel’s dad had a soft spot for anything with four legs, especially if it whined and yelped in desperation, and he made an heroic effort to effect a rescue, almost falling into the treacherous waters himself.

Denzel had been given the choice of the litter and, naturally, and taking after his father, he chose the runt. Together, he and his father had hand-reared the litter.  Once the others had been old enough, Denzel’s dad had found good homes for them all and used the few bob he had made from their sale to buy Sausage’s first collar and lead. The collar was a strip of leather ornamented with large metal studs and terminated with a large, heavy buckle – an accessory that, in conjunction with Sausage’s unfortunate shape, proved to be a great source of humour to the people who met Sausage, at least until they felt the sharp ends of his pit-bull teeth.

Denzel had loved Sausage dearly and, in the few short years they were together, had read everything he could about dogs and their behaviour. He was quite fascinated by their relationship.  His deepest longing was to understand the world as Sausage saw it, and to know what on earth was going on inside Sausage’s head. Quite clearly, Sausage was an intelligent beast: Denzel had watched him reasoning out how to get a long stick through a narrow gate; Sausage understood questions like, ‘Are you ’ungry’, and instructions like, ‘Go find your ball’, and (from Denzel’s father), ‘Get off the sofa, you little b****r!’, and a whole host of other things.

On the momentous day that Denzel had heard that he had earned himself a place in the local grammar school (to the astonishment of his entire family, who thought him to be a bit of a dreamer who would never amount to anything other than a miner like his dad), he made up his mind and formulated his plan. He would make the very most of the opportunity that had been given him and learn all he could about animals; one day, he would be the world’s greatest dog expert. He did not then know words like ‘psychology’, and he had never heard of Lorenz or Pavlov: he just wanted to know what made Sausage tick, and why he licked certain parts of his anatomy in preference to others…

Denzel learnt a hard lesson on the day that Sausage was killed. Sausage had been sitting at a window, growling at a cat in the back garden; a cat that seemed to know he was watching, and that flaunted itself in front of him, brushing itself lasciviously against the tree and mewing loudly. Sausage’s response had been a pointless escalation into ferocious barking and covering the window with ejected saliva. The cat, clearly aware of its unimpeachable safety on the other side of the glass, had carried on with its shameless behaviour, working poor Sausage into a frenzy in the process.

Sausage had escaped from the house when Mrs Jones had gone outside to throw some scraps to the birds. The cat had not noticed Sausage (who had decided to be foxy and crept out stealthily) until it was almost too late. The suddenly-spooked moggy had taken off through a hole in the hedge and, expecting Sausage to be unable to follow, had stopped to wind him up some more. Sausage however, due to his unfortunate parentage, found the hole just about big enough to get most of his long, thin body through and his musculature more than adequate to force the hole wide enough for the less well accommodated sections. The startled cat took off with a determined Sausage in hot pursuit. Around the corner they went, and the cat broke its flight briefly to eye up a tree and assess its potential as a sanctuary.

Alas, that was the poor animal’s undoing. Sausage caught the cat’s tail as it attempted to leap into the tree. Sausage sank his teeth as hard as he could into the feline extremity and yanked the beast away from its refuge, swinging around as he pulled, the cat flying out like a hammer-thrower’s hammer, its head crashing at the end of its circuit into the tree trunk. Stunned, the cat dropped to the ground. Thrilled at this sudden and unexpected achievement (this being the only cat among many chased that Sausage had ever succeeded in catching) he let go of the tail and lunged for the kill, sinking his pit-bull teeth into the cat’s throat and shaking it with all his considerable, pit-bull-bequeathed might.

Alas, that distraction was poor Sausage’s undoing. Who should happen around the corner from the opposite direction but the cat’s owner – a young boy on his way home from the playing fields and carrying a cricket bat far too big for him. Smash! went the bat. Yelp! went Sausage. Jonathan Bytheway (for it was he) picked up his dead cat by the tail with his free hand and ran crying homewards, leaving a trail of feline blood behind him, to sob into his mother’s ample bosom. Sausage lay gasping his final gasps, his injuries too great for the vet to have saved him even had he been found alive, thinking his last thoughts of his Denzel, who would never know how he had met his end, and whom he regretted would never know that he had died a real dog, having finally caught and killed a cat.

Denzel’s mother, on coming out to put rubbish into the dustbin, had found Sausage lying dead beneath the tree, wrapped him in a tea-towel, and left him lying on the kitchen table until Denzel returned home from the pit where he had gone to meet his father after work. Together, the three of them had held a simple funeral service, in which Sausage was buried beneath Mr Jones’s favourite gooseberry bush, from whence Denzel at that time believed himself to have come into the world. Denzel cried for three days and mourned for three months. Jonathan Bytheway cleaned and re-oiled his cricket bat and convinced his father to replace his lost cat with a new bicycle.

Now, Mr Jones was a good father and did all he could to help Denzel with his education. It was a struggle for most of the time, what with strikes and all, and the cost of the grammar school’s uniform being exorbitant, and Denzel growing so fast. Even so, he managed to put a bit of money away for Denzel’s future. One day, a couple of years later, the boy came home from his friend Nancy’s house all excited, his eyes wide and full of expectation. ‘Dad,’ he shouted, ‘You’ll never guess. Nancy’s dog’s ’ad puppies and she says I can ’ave one.’

‘That’s nice, Denzel.’

‘Nancy’s mam says they’re only one ’undred pounds. They’re proper pedigree dogs, you see.’

‘One ’undred pounds, boy! ’ow are we expected to find that, then? I work in a coal mine, not the Royal Mint.’

‘But Dad, they’re smashin’, and there’s one I really like. Oh, please, please can I ’ave ’im?’

Mr Jones had not seen Denzel so happy since Sausage’s unfortunate demise and would dearly have loved to buy the dog for him. One hundred pounds was more than he could afford however and would make a sizeable dent in the money he had put away for more important things. ‘We can’t afford it, Denzel. I’m sorry, boy.’ Denzel, good, rational, obedient child that he was, accepted his father’s honest answer and went away to keep his sorrow to himself.

At the end of the week, on Saturday morning, Mr Jones came home with a box under his arm and shouted out, ‘Denzel, I’ve got somethin’ yer for you. Come and see, boy!’

The boy left his bedroom, where he had been putting the finishing touches to his geography homework, and tumbled down the stairs to see what his father had for him. He heard a tiny yelp as he came into the kitchen, and he cast around the room to see where it came from. On the table, in exactly the spot where Sausage’s dead body had lain in state, was a box with lots of holes in it that looked like they had been made with a pencil or a screwdriver. From the box came another yelp. Suddenly excited, Denzel hurried to the table. ‘Can I open it?’ he asked his dad; ever the polite boy, he was. His father nodded, and Denzel carefully opened the interlocked flaps of the box to reveal a small, golden puppy. He reached inside to pick up the little dog that licked his fingers, and nipped playfully at them, and peed with excitement on Denzel’s hands as they enclosed him.

‘I done a deal with Nancy’s mam,’ said Mr Jones, ‘She let you ’ave ’im for fifty pounds plus some ’andiwork by me and some errands by you.’

‘Oh yes,’ said Mrs Jones, ‘and what sort of ’andiwork did she ’ave in mind, then?’

‘Just some jobs around the ’ouse – mendin’ a couple of window frames and touchin’ up the paintwork.’

‘As long as that’s all you’re touchin’ up, mind.’

Mr Jones scowled at an uppity Mrs Jones and turned his attention back to the dog. ‘’is name’s a bit of a mouthful, look you,’ he said, passing Denzel the certificate he had pulled from his jacket pocket.

Denzel took the paper and read the name out loud, ‘Prince Kensington of Osaka the Third.’ He paused, then he lifted the puppy above his head and beamed a smile at him. ‘I’ll think I’ll call you Oscar,’ he said. Oscar licked the air and wagged his little tail in approval. Denzel was the happiest boy and Oscar happiest puppy in Pontypridd.

Unfortunately for Denzel, his blissful family existence was not to last much longer. Nancy’s mam (a widow and desperate for love) had been more than his dad (a man, more need not be said) could resist, and Mr Jones left Mrs Jones, Denzel and Oscar to move in with Nancy’s mam. It was at about the same time that Denzel found out about sex: he was disgusted that his dad might be doing it with Nancy’s mam, the idea of his dad’s doing it with his own mother being bad enough. Admittedly, his understanding was a confusion of what the teacher had told the class and what the other boys had told him; although any of the variations on the theme were enough to make him feel sick. Strangely, though, the idea of doing it with Nancy made him go all tingly and, having once had the thought, he went bright red every time he went to see her. He wondered why she went red when he turned up, and if it was for the same reason…

Mr Jones had tried to say sorry to Denzel for letting the family down, and tried to explain that he still loved Denzel and still wanted to help him with his education: he was still Denzel’s dad and Denzel was still his boy, whatever had happened between him and Mrs Jones. Denzel was deeply disappointed with his dad, and had to cope with his mother’s crying every night for a month after the split. Only Oscar had truly been there for him. Oscar had been his rock, licking his face when he felt like crying, lying tight alongside him at night until he had gone to sleep, and making sure they had lots of fun when they went on walks. Oscar was the one who kept him sane and made him laugh. Oscar was his best and truest friend; and Denzel was Oscar’s.

Denzel was unsure what to do about his traitorous dad’s financial contributions to his education. He certainly was not happy about hiding it from his mother, although she knew what was happening anyway, and would have been horrified to think that Denzel had a problem with taking the b******d for every penny he could get. Denzel hatched another plan. He would earn his own upkeep, or as much as he could, anyway. He knew a lot about dogs, and many of the local kids had dogs but none of them were any good at getting their dogs to do as they were told. Denzel opened the Pontypridd School for Dogs, where he kissed Nancy for the very first time, and Oscar learnt something that would later be of great significance.

Now, it must come as no surprise that Denzel kissed Nancy, and that they both enjoyed it so much that they did it a lot thereafter, although they made sure no-one else was watching – apart from Oscar and Nancy’s dog, Wendy, who were not watching anyway, having much more interesting things to do and not minding too much who was watching; the fact that Wendy and Oscar were quite closely related is perhaps an issue best not thought about…

Of much more interest is what Oscar learnt, apart from the things that Wendy taught him. One of the older boys who came to the class had a dog called Saber (that should have been Sabre, of course, but the boy was not good at spelling; in fact, neither was Saber). Anyway, Saber, a mongrel, with several strands of Alsatian to his credit – although he told the other dogs that he was part-wolf (they did not know that there had been no wolves in Wales for centuries, and so they believed him; well, the smaller dogs with smaller brains believed him but bigger dogs like Oscar just smiled and sniffed the nearest bottom by way of distraction). Anyway, Saber told Oscar and all the other dogs in the class about a day many years ago when he had been a young dog about town and had slipped out for a bit of an adventure when no-one was watching. He had been near Oscar’s home when it was Sausage’s home – and what a great dog Sausage was, despite his less than perfect ancestry: no wolf in him, you know – when a cat had shot through the hedge and was followed just as quickly by Sausage. Saber had watched Sausage’s brilliant slaying of the cat, and was about to go over and congratulate him when the boy known as Jonathan Bytheway had turned up and done for Sausage. None of the humans knew what had happened but, from the day that Saber told the story, Jonathan Bytheway lived in fear of dogs who, for no reason he could fathom, all seemed to snarl and growl and snap whenever he went near one. The one exception was Oscar, Denzel’s dog, who, for Denzel’s sake, and in hope of a Greater Opportunity, kept his teeth covered. His only show of disdain was to store up as much gas as he could contain and let it out only when Jonathan Bytheway came around to play with Denzel – and only then if Denzel and his mother were not in the room. He had eventually to pass up even that pleasure because Denzel spent more and more time with Nancy, and less and less time with Jonathan. Oscar awaited his time to avenge Sausage, his honourable predecessor and his master’s first beloved dog.

Time passed by and Denzel became a university student, winning a scholarship for Cambridge. Oscar missed him when he was away but the vacations were so much fun. He and Wendy, and Denzel and Nancy, who eventually also went away to university, spent most of their time together, walking on the hills around Pontypridd, or borrowing Nancy’s mam’s car and driving to Port Talbot to spend the day on the beach. Oscar loved the beach and loved to swim in the sea. He also loved Denzel more and more. He did not know what students did at university but Denzel seemed increasingly able to understand him each time he came home. Denzel, of course, had been learning about Lorenz and Pavlov and lots of other things about animal behaviour.

One day, Denzel and Oscar went out on their own. They walked up to the Old Bridge in Pontypridd and sat on the grass beside the river where Denzel told Oscar about his plan.  ‘I am going to find a way to communicate properly with you, my old friend,’ said Denzel. Oscar cocked his head to one side and stuck his ears out a bit, wondering if Denzel was talking about food or swimming. ‘I’m studyin’, you see. I’m learnin’ lots of things about how our brains work.’

Oscar said, ‘I wish I could warn you about Jonathan Bytheway.’

‘Exactly my problem,’ said Denzel, ‘I know you’re tryin’ to tell me somethin’ but I don’t know what it is. One day, my friend, One day…’

Denzel stroked Oscar’s cheek and blew on his ear. Oscar leapt on him, knocking him to the ground and, planting his big paws firmly on Denzel’s shoulders, and with over-enthusiastic wagging of his long tail, licked Denzel’s face until he thought his tail might fall off. While Denzel dried himself and spat out the residue of his dog’s French kisses, Oscar pranced and jibed and ran in tight turns just for the joy of it and of being with Denzel, who laughed for the joy of being with Oscar.

Now, we have mentioned that Jonathan Bytheway was no genius but clever enough. Well, it turned out he was clever enough to get into Cambridge, just as Denzel had but two years later and without the scholarship. Denzel had been happy that his old pal could join him, and Jonathan was happy to be with a friend. The novelty soon wore off, though, at least as far as Jonathan was concerned. He saw how well Denzel was doing and how big a favourite he was with the faculty, whereas he himself was just a nobody who could not even get into the Fourth XI cricket team. He soon learnt that knowing Denzel opened doors to him. He changed his course after the first term, leaving History in his past and reading Psychology instead, just to get in better with Denzel’s circles. He knew that Denzel was going places and thought he might as well go with him.

Denzel flew through his finals and achieved his remarkable double-first. Jonathan was relieved that Denzel stayed on to do his PhD, enabling him to continue to practice his parasitism. Denzel began making remarkable discoveries and built the first device that was able to translate signals collected from the optical cortex of a laboratory rat into images displayed on a computer screen – all without harming the animal, of course. For the first time in history, man was able to see the world as seen by another animal. The device became global news within hours of its first demonstration at a conference in Singapore. Denzel became a major celebrity, at least in scientific circles. The only remarkable discovery that Jonathan had ever made was that the dogs in Cambridge were much better disposed towards him than those back in Pontypridd.

Denzel’s mother finally made the move to be with him in Cambridge, having given up all hope of her stupid pig of a husband ever seeing sense, and Oscar was overjoyed to be reunited with his master. Nancy came to visit a couple of times but told Denzel that she had met someone else. Denzel was smitten for a few days but Oscar soon cheered him up.

Oscar got to work on a project of his own. Gradually, over a few months, Jonathan found that all the dogs in Cambridge changed their opinions of him. He tried showering twice a day and using different aftershave but nothing he did had any effect; he even tried not showering for a month but all that did was to make the girls stay away. For some reason that he never traced back to Oscar’s arrival, dogs just seemed to go off him.

Oscar was more than happy to help Denzel with his work. For one thing, it did not hurt at all, for another, it made Denzel very happy, and for yet another, it meant that he got to go to work with Denzel every day. Very soon, the device was producing incredibly clear, real-time images and found a ready market in search and rescue work, where rodents were able to get into spaces impassable to dogs, and in military applications, where dolphins and seals gave good service in the marine environment, and cows in fields became virtually unnoticeable forward observation posts (they were only virtually unnoticeable because, being short-sighted animals, they had to wear contact lenses (bifocal ones, so they could still see their food) which made them blink a lot. The Chinese invented the Bovine Blink-rate Analyser, and the usefulness of the cow as a military device passed into oblivion). The consumer market came up with a SWYDS device that had an electrode-impregnated pilot’s flying helmet for a dog and a pair of what looked like sunglasses for the owner. Soon, ‘See What Your Dog Sees’ was everyone’s favourite game, and was even quite useful when walking home from the pub after dark.

Cambridge University, and the now Professor Denzel Jones, made an awful lot of money through the technology company set up by the University. Jonathan, thanks to his friend, got a high-flying job in the company and also made a lot of money: perhaps received a lot of money would be a better way of putting it. Fortunately, the technology was in such demand that Jonathan’s total incompetence in business made no difference at all to the profits; apart from his vast expenditure on entertaining potential customers at England cricket matches all over the world.

One day, Jonathan Bytheway had a devious thought: why not set up his own company in direct competition? He had free access to the research and development programmes at the university and, provided he was careful about what he stole, and made sure his name was kept out of things, he could make a fortune of his own. Anyway, competition was good for progress… Needless to say, the wicket on which Jonathan Bytheway was now batting was a sticky one – but not for the obvious reason that might come to mind…

Denzel sat down with Oscar one day and started to talk to him. ‘Oscar, old boy. I’m ready to begin the greatest and most important work I’ve ever done.’ Oscar cocked his head to one side, pricked up his ears and wagged his tail. ‘I’m going to begin the fulfilment of my greatest ambition – to find out what goes on inside your mind. The visual device was just the beginning, you see, what I really want to do is to understand how your mind works and communicate with you.’

Oscar flopped his long, pink tongue out of the side of his mouth, and panted. He wanted to tell Denzel that living among the English had affected his accent but all he said was, ‘Arruff!’

Denzel worked long hours into the night for many a month, with Oscar his constant companion and Research Associate. One night, at about two o’clock in the morning, Denzel made his astonishing breakthrough. He suddenly saw in his mind a rabbit running for its life and being followed by a black blob flanked by a golden, carpet-like surface. Down at his feet lay Oscar sleeping in his flying helmet, panting like he was in a greyhound race, and all his legs twitching to match. Denzel closed his eyes to see the image more clearly. He was watching Oscar’s dream! The black spot was Oscar’s nose, and the carpet actually the sides of his snout. The rabbit ran down a hole and the world went suddenly black as Oscar’s head got jammed into the opening. With a yelp, Oscar sat up, and was obviously surprised that he was in a laboratory and not in a field with his head stuck down a hole. He looked around for Denzel and, seeing him, wagged his tail. Denzel felt warm, comfortable feelings of safety sweep over him. ‘Good boy, Oscar,’ he said, and Oscar stood up to lick Denzel’s outstretched hand. Happiness and adoration were Denzel’s next sensations. He reached down and hugged Oscar, thinking, and you’re so very special too. Oscar’s tail wagged more broadly than it have ever done before, and he lay on the floor and rolled onto his back, and wriggled about as though he was the happiest dog that had ever walked the Earth; and, truly, he was, for he was the first dog ever to really know how his master felt about him.

Denzel looked at the clock and, seeing how early it had become, he yawned and said out loud, ‘I think we should go home and get some sleep.’ He stretched, yawned again, and reached across to turn off the equipment. His great fatigue overcame him and he drifted off to sleep for a few minutes. Oscar was very surprised, and not a little shocked, at what he then saw happening between his master and the girl he called Nancy…

Denzel and Oscar lay in the next morning but when they awoke, Denzel could not get ready quick enough. He was overjoyed at the success of his new mind-link machine, and he could barely wait to get to work and explore his new relationship with his best and truest friend. Oscar, had he been able to understand what was going on, would have felt much the same. As it was, he felt much the same anyway.

Denzel was disappointed when, having reached the lab, fitted Oscar with his helmet, switched on the machine, and being just about to don his own helmet, his personal assistant rang with news of an unexpected visit from a highly-respected professor from America. He gave Oscar a doggie-biscuit, made sure he had fresh water in his bowl, and then went off to greet the visitor. Oscar settled down to sleep through the waiting until his master’s return.

Not many minutes had passed before Oscar was awoken by the opening of the lab door. Expecting the return of Denzel, he climbed quickly to his feet, the wagging of his tail beginning as soon as it had enough space in which to swing. The tail drooped and fell motionless as soon as Oscar got a whiff of the visitor’s scent. It was not Denzel, it was Jonathan Bytheway whose figure stepped into view and whose face wore a furtive expression.

‘Hello Oscar,’ said the intruder, ‘Is your master not here?’ Oscar did not bother to reply but turned around three or four times before settling once more in his favourite spot. ‘Hmm, what’s this?’ asked Jonathan Bytheway, picking up the helmet that Denzel had in readiness for his own use. He looked at Oscar and saw that he was wearing a helmet, and wondered. He pulled on the helmet and sat in Denzel’s chair at the controls of the machine, a pointless act since none of the controls meant anything to him; it just seemed to be the right place to sit. He did not notice that his elbow jogged a knob labelled ‘Amplifier’ as, with a startled expression, he turned to face Oscar. His head had been filled with a sense of intense dislike, suspicion and disdain; and for some reason, the intensity of the sensations had just gone up an order of magnitude. Oscar too looked up from where he lay, his own mind playing host to subterfuge, deceit and fraud – not that he knew that he was feeling those things exactly, but he knew he did not like what he felt. Being a reasonably intelligent canine, and having listened very carefully to what Denzel had tried to explain to him, and seeing Jonathan Bytheway wearing Denzel’s hat, Oscar put two and two together and made, well, more than two anyway: Jonathan Bytheway was up to no good! That was good enough for Oscar. He leapt to his feet and lunged in a fit of ferocious barking and slavering that made Jonathan Bytheway fall off the chair. What he could only describe later as a huge surge of primeval something-or-other flooded his mind as Oscar’s teeth approached his throat. As he fell to the ground, he tore off the helmet, and did the only thing he knew that could stop such an impending onslaught: he rolled onto his back, with his knees in the air and apart, his arms bent at the elbows, his wrists bent limply, and, extending his neck, he turned his face away from Oscar. Oscar came to a sudden stop, his teeth around his victim’s throat, applying a threatening and sharply-pointed pressure. Oscar growled deeply from the back of his throat, and Jonathan Bytheway cringed and cowered for all he was worth.

Just at that point, the lab door opened again. Oscar turned away from his quarry and trotted off to greet his master. Jonathan Bytheway rose to his feet, brushing himself off and shaking his head.

‘Hello, Jonathan,’ said Denzel, cheerily, ‘I’ve made an astounding breakthrough! Perhaps I can explain it to you later over dinner?’ He pulled on his helmet as he spoke and, taken a little unawares, turned the knob labelled ‘Amplifier’ until he could once again discern his own thoughts among the mush in his head.

‘Er…,’ said Jonathan Bytheway, suddenly drooling at the mere mention of food, ‘that would be lovely.’ Wiping his mouth, he made his excuses and left in an unusual hurry. The door slammed behind him as he went. Denzel patted Oscar, and Oscar licked Denzel’s hand. A sudden scream from the corridor sent Denzel scampering to find out what was wrong. As he emerged from the lab, he saw Jonathan Bytheway loping off as quickly as he could, and his distraught personal assistant coming back out of her office with a large umbrella wielded over her head.

‘What’s going on?’ asked Denzel.

‘That disgusting little man!’ spat his personal assistant, ‘He’s like an animal!’

‘What happened, Hermione?’ Denzel asked her, Hermione being her name.

‘He bumped into me in the corridor, and he got down on all fours and he pushed his nose…’ she stopped suddenly, horrified that she very nearly actually gave voice to what had happened. ‘He…’

‘He did what, Hermione?’

She paused, searching for the politest why of putting it that she could. Eventually, she said. ‘He…, he sniffed me. Like a dog!’ Oscar, finding that he understood most of what was going on by virtue of his mind-link with Denzel, immediately approached Hermione and, by way of explanation, demonstrated to Denzel what she meant. ‘Get off me, you disgusting hound!’ she shouted.

‘Oscar! Come away,’ said Denzel to his dog. ‘Sorry,’ he said to Hermione, ‘he’s only saying hello.’

The sound of a loud commotion was heard from the lift lobby at the far end of the corridor. Denzel and Oscar rushed to see what was happening. They burst through the door, to see the university’s vice-chancellor sitting on a chair in the lobby, wiping his face with a handkerchief. Our two heroes, still wearing their helmets, stopped to enquire what had just happened.

‘Has everyone gone quite mad around here?’ the VC asked, eyeing the helmeted man and dog suspiciously, as though they were confirmation of his thesis. Oscar looked up at Denzel, and Denzel looked down at Oscar. Denzel voiced what they both concluded, ‘Yes, this must look pretty silly but we are conducting a rather serious, groundbreaking experiment. Er… What just happened?’

‘That damned buffoon Bytheway just ran out through that door, planted his hands on my lapels, and licked my face all over.’ Oscar could not resist it. He rolled onto his back and wriggled with glee.

‘Where did he go?’ asked Denzel.

‘He ran off down the stairs. What the hell is wrong with him?’

‘He’s, er…, Well I’m not quite sure at the moment.’

As they ran down the stairs together, Oscar pictured for Denzel what had happened between him and Jonathan Bytheway, leaving out the part where Oscar nearly ripped his throat out – rather deviously, he thought to himself, hoping that he had not been tainted with any other undesirable human qualities. In the entrance lobby, they found a bewildered first year student, his papers scattered all over the floor and covered in soil spilt from an overturned planter.

‘What happened here?’ asked Denzel.

‘I was sitting here, reading over an essay I was about to hand in, minding my own business, when this chap ran out of the stairwell and started… well… he actually started… well, humping my leg, you know, like a dog.’ Oscar stuck his nose in the young man’s crotch, and received a slap for his troubles.

‘Never use violence on a dog!’ Denzel stated sternly, as though he were back at the Pontypridd School for Dogs, ‘Which way did he go?’

The young man pointed at a doorway, ‘I pushed him off, he knocked my essay on the floor, collided with the plant pot and ran off that way.’

Denzel and Oscar ran off in hot pursuit. Outside, they saw the deranged Jonathan Bytheway sitting down by a tree with his leg in the air, trying to get his foot behind his ear. ‘What are you doing, Jonathan?’ called out Denzel as he approached.

‘Rowf!’ Bytheway answered, ‘I’ve got an itch and I can’t reach it. You wouldn’t mind giving my ear a rub, would you?’ Just then, Jonathan Bytheway saw Oscar. He leapt to his feet; well, his hands and knees, actually. ‘Keep that vicious brute away from me!’ he shouted, ‘Woo, woo, woo, woo, woo!’ He crouched down, snarling and growling at Oscar with a threatening, wide-eyed stare and teeth all exposed. Oscar, ever the diplomat, yawned and looked away into the distance, sat down and scratched.

Security men had been called to deal with a madman on the loose and were hurrying to the scene. On seeing Jonathan Bytheway, and making a rapid assessment of what they were dealing with, they called for back-up.

Denzel made his own assessment. ‘No!’ he shouted at Jonathan Bytheway, ‘Bad boy! Be quiet!’ Jonathan Bytheway turned to look at Denzel, who was actually surprised at his friend’s response, which was to immediately shrink in stature and begin to waggle his rump as though he were wagging his tail and which, as far as Jonathan Bytheway was concerned, was exactly what he was doing. He avoided Denzel’s stern gaze, and started licking the air in appeasement. He cowered as Denzel approached and then, for the second time that day, rolled onto his back in total submission.

‘You still have it,’ Oscar planted in Denzel’s mind.

‘Yes I do,’ Denzel acknowledged.

The security men cancelled their call for backup and took charge of the crazed dog-man. They led him away to some other men who gave him to some other men who put him in a nice, soft room where he could do himself no harm – except that he almost went into renal failure because he insisted on going outside to answer calls of nature and took quite some time in communicating to his keepers what the problem was.

Later, back in the lab, Oscar and Denzel communed in the most intimate way ever known to man and dog. Oscar showed him Saber and the story he had told about Sausage, the cat, and Jonathan Bytheway, and expressed his opinion that, in the light of the day’s developments, the scores were now even – Sausage was avenged. Anticipating Denzel’s next question, which would have been, ‘What about the poor cat?’ he asked Denzel about his bitch. Denzel explained that that was not a polite way for a human male to talk about his lady friend, and how, in any case, Nancy had gone off with someone else.

Oscar said, ‘That’s no way for an alpha male to behave. You ought to fight for her.’

‘You know,’ said Denzel, scratching the back of Oscar’s ear, ‘I think you’re right. That’s exactly what I’ll do…’

And so Denzel turned to the question that he had wanted to ask for so many years. ‘Why do dogs lick their – you know – their … their dangly bits so much.’

‘Well,’ said Oscar, ‘there are two very good reasons. Firstly, one always likes to make a good impression on new acquaintances and, as you know, that is their first port of call; my front door, if you will. Secondly, well, wouldn’t you, if you could?’

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

An Easy Mistake to Make

Copyright © 2002

An irritable man sees double then sees red, with disastrous consequences.

It was a normal enough morning for Joan and Alan. She rose bright as a daisy and hummed her way through her washing and dressing before heading off downstairs to prepare breakfast. He slithered out of bed and moved slug-like and silent through his fixed, brainless routine. More often than not, even with his brain jarred by the ringing of the alarm, he had still to be coaxed into wakefulness by Joan, or at least wakefulness enough to commence his robotic preparations for the day. She thought him much like their old computer in the study, which would never work properly from a cold start but always needed a ‘warm boot’ to get things going.

He could hear her downstairs in the kitchen as he applied his electric shaver to his stubbled face, or rather he could hear the radio and various items of crockery and stainless steel being laid out. Not that it registered with him. He finished shaving and washed his face with soap and lukewarm water, then rinsed off with cold water straight from the tap. At last, the sap began to rise. He breathed in deeply, drawing the fresh, morning air into his lungs. He noticed that the bathroom window was open, but then Joan always left windows open, and that the air was cool and crisp and full of birdsong. He looked in the mirror and smiled at himself as a wave of consciousness swept across his mind, brushing aside his primordial programming and making room for rational thought to assert itself. He left the bathroom and returned to the bedroom to dress.

‘Breakfast’s ready, dear,’ he heard Joan shout from below as he turned the last loop in his tie then inched the knot up to his neck. He knew it would be; after so many years together, their separate routines had meshed perfectly.

‘Coming,’ he shouted back, then trotted down the stairs to his perfectly ordered daytime existence, hot tea, toast, and homemade marmalade.

‘Postman’s late today,’ Joan observed before kissing him on the brow then handing him his newspaper and continuing, ‘That tie doesn’t really go with that shirt.’

‘Oh?’ he said, turning to the back page, ‘I’ll change it then.’

‘The nice blue one I bought you.’


Joan munched her way through her toast, smiling, and occasionally sniggering, at the dry wit of the D.J. Alan, trying as usual to do more things at a time than a man could cope with, slurped his way through his tea, spread marmalade on his fingers, and knocked over the cereal packet by attempting to use it as a support for the newspaper.

‘What are you doing today?’ she asked, wondering if, just for once, he might have something out of the ordinary to attend to, or if it would be yet another routine day at the office.

‘Mmm?’ he said, turning his face towards her but leaving his eyes on column four of the inside back page. She did not bother repeating herself, the years having taught her that he knew exactly what she had said but that his brain needed time to bring it to his notice. ‘Oh, just the usual,’ he said, finally giving her his attention, ‘although I think we might have a rush-job to despatch. Shouldn’t be too irksome, though.’ He flashed a smile at her. ‘What about you?’ he asked, mostly out of politeness; time had taught him that Monday meant shopping lists and planning housework.

‘Well,’ she said, competing again with his newspaper for his attention, ‘it’s such a lovely day that I thought I might go for a drive. Pop over to see Naomi for an hour, then pop into town.’

‘That’s nice,’ he commented from behind the centrefold, chewing on his third slice of toast, almost surprised at her break from routine, ‘Give her my love and ask her when she’s coming over to see her poor old Dad.’

‘Oh Alan, you know how busy she is with the children. You can’t expect her to keep on dragging them over here–’

‘And having them trample all over my flower beds because she’s too old to do that sort of thing herself now.’ He smiled wryly. Joan merely smiled, although not with her eyes.

They finished their breakfast in accustomed silence save for the banter emanating from the radio.

‘Well, best be off,’ said Alan, pulling on his jacket before rinsing the marmalade from his sticky fingers. They walked together through the hall to the front door. Alan took Joan in his arms and hugged her, then kissed her on the cheek. ‘Still no post, then,’ he said, and in the same breath, ‘Love you. See you later.’

Joan watched him drive the Range Rover into the morning traffic. ‘He never did change his tie,’ she said to herself, then quietly closed the door on him.

By the time Alan had fought his way through the traffic to work he was alert and irritated and ready for an argument. Everyone knew this would be the case and avoided anything that might cause one until at least after morning coffee. His secretary brought in the coffee and biscuits with the morning post then returned to her desk in the outer office to organise his phone calls and fit meetings into his diary. He slurped his coffee too loudly for her liking so she made sure the communicating door was firmly closed.

After forty minutes of sorting his mail into things to do now, things to delegate, things that could wait, and bin-fodder, the phone rang. It was the foreman from the workshop.

‘The rush-job’s finished, Alan. I’ve arranged for it to go by rail. Can you spare someone to take it to the station?’

‘Thanks, Joe. I’ll take it myself. Don’t want this one in the wrong hands.’

He left his desk, explained to his secretary what was happening, then wandered through the offices and down onto the factory floor. He noticed how everyone was always busy whenever he passed but he remained unconvinced by the deception. His father had had the sense to put him through the firm’s apprenticeship scheme so that he would have a full grasp of the way things worked by the time he came to take over. He certainly had a full grasp of how the men worked – mostly when they were watched – but, unlike his father had been, he was satisfied as long as they did the work that was required of them. The men knew that he knew, and his tolerance of their easy-going approach to work was rewarded by their tolerance of the frequent rush-jobs endemic to a specialist company such as this – provided, of course, that the overtime was paid at a satisfactory level. Actually, he enjoyed a lot of respect from the men. He did know the job, as newcomers who tried to pull the wool over his eyes soon found out. Leaving newcomers to find out for themselves was a favourite sport of the old hands.

He arrived at the foreman’s office and, out of politeness, knocked before entering. ‘Morning, Joe,’ he offered.

‘Hello, Alan,’ the foreman replied, rising from his chair then walking over to the bench on the other side of the room. ‘She’s over here in this case – a real beauty. I had to do this one myself; daren’t leave it to anyone else.’

‘She certainly is,’ Alan replied, admiring the craftsmanship, ‘and that’s as nice a piece of restoration as I’ve ever seen,’ he added with an appreciative whistle, genuinely impressed. ‘You certainly know your stuff, Joe.’ Joe responded with appropriately deferential pride in a job well done, before closing and locking the aluminium case.

Alan took the case out to his car and carefully laid and locked it in the space in front of the tailgate. He climbed into the driver’s seat, fired up the engine, turned on the radio then rejoined the busy traffic for his next dose of irritation and flaring anger.

The Collingwood Hotel stood next to the railway station. It had a large car park in comparison to the station’s and always there were spaces near the back. The parcel depot opened onto the hotel’s car park so, given the nature of his task, it was natural enough to park there rather than to try to get into the station’s. If the hotel’s car park attendant could be bothered to accost him he thought he could easily come up with a satisfactory explanation for his ignoring the ‘Patrons Only’ sign at the gate.

He reversed into his chosen space and switched off the engine. The programme on the radio was no more than a couple of minutes off finishing, so he sat listening in the car whilst gazing sightlessly across the car park and onto the outside world beyond it.

A man carrying a small suitcase emerged from the station and stopped to look around. Alan heard a woman call out. His attention caught, he looked towards the sound. At first, he could not believe what he saw. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. He had not been mistaken, and what he had seen struck him like a sledgehammer. When the woman had called out, the man with the suitcase had turned, seen her waving and smiling, and then walked briskly towards her. He had dropped his suitcase and clutched her tightly to him, kissing her passionately. Alan opened the door and stepped out beside the car so as to get a better view. The man was a total stranger to him, the woman, whom the stranger had enfolded, his own wife.

He went weak at the knees and had to sit down again. He rested his head against the steering wheel, his mind reeling at this unexpected disclosure of Joan’s unfaithfulness. He tried to swallow the huge lump in his throat and felt himself choking. He looked up again and saw Joan and her lover walking hand-in-hand towards the hotel’s entrance, laughing and smiling and flirting as they went.

Alan punched the steering wheel, making his hand bleed. Not knowing what else to do, he sprang from the car and followed the lovers at a distance. They turned into the hotel and he paused at the door as they approached reception. Satisfied that they would not see him, he slipped inside and took cover behind a large pillar from where he could hear them talking.

‘I know it hasn’t been long but I’ve really missed you,’ Joan said, smiling radiantly into her lover’s face. Alan wondered how long this had been going on.

‘Yes, but I’m here now,’ the stranger replied, sliding his hand over the back of her skirt.

Alan almost passed out.

‘I’ve really been looking forward to this. You know how down I’ve been at home, wondering what to do,’ Joan said.

Alan could barely restrain himself from running over and demanding an explanation, pleading for another chance, punching the stranger’s lights out, protesting his love to Joan.

‘I know, but we’ll have it all out in the open soon,’ the stranger said.

Alan began to cry softly. ‘Oh no!’ he thought, ‘she’s leaving me!’

The clerk came to the desk and registered the ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’ who stood before him. Alan could not believe that they had used the name ‘Smith’. The clerk gave the couple a key, directed them to room 2-7 on the second floor, and wished them a pleasant stay.

‘Pleasant?’ thought Alan, ‘I don’t think “Pleasant” is what they have in mind.’

The couple made their way to the lift and pressed the call button. Alan almost gave himself away as they chatted whilst waiting. The man turned and by chance cast a glance over the foyer and towards the pillar around which Alan was peering. Alan jerked back out of sight. No-one said anything so he felt confident he had not been noticed. He heard the lift chime on its arrival, the door slide open, and the voices become muffled then silenced as the door closed again. He stepped into the open and saw that the foyer was empty. On impulse, he headed for the stairs and climbed them, stifling the sobs of his broken heart as he went.

As he expected, they had left the lift by the time he reached the second floor. He heard them chatting around the corner. He stood silently, straining to hear their talk, willing his heart to cease its drum-beat against his ribcage and so avoid giving away his presence. He heard a key turn in a lock, a door open and close, and the resulting silence of the corridor now empty of all but himself. He crept along the corridor, seemingly stepping on every loose and creaking floorboard as he went. Outside the door to room 2-7 Alan paused to regain his senses, what was left of them. Placing one hand on each doorpost, he carefully leant forward and pressed his ear against the door.

‘It’ll be quite a shock for him,’ he heard the stranger say.

‘Yes,’ Joan replied, ‘but it’s so exciting!’ She giggled then stopped. ‘Oh! That’s nice…’ he heard her say in a soft, luxuriating tone.

Incensed by what he had heard, Alan backed away from the door and took off down the corridor as if in flight from the Devil himself. He clattered down the stairs, panting heavily and calling out, ‘No!’ repeatedly as he went. He slipped on the marble of the foyer and went sprawling across the floor crashing into and toppling a planter. The clerk, disturbed by the noise, rushed out of his small office to see a middle-aged man clambering to his feet and running ungainly out through the revolving door, leaving it spinning in his wake. Once outside, Alan stopped and caught his breath in a series of wracking sobs and rasping gasps. Passers-by eyed him curiously and cautiously.

Suddenly, the Rage gripped him. He took off once more and raced towards his car. He opened the tailgate then, with grim determination, unlocked the aluminium case. He looked dispassionately on its contents. He began frantically to search through the clutter and rubbish in the car until he found three carelessly discarded unspent cartridges that were left over from Saturday’s pheasant shoot; his own gun was the same calibre as the knocked-down shotgun in the aluminium case. ‘I’ll swing for them!’ he declared to himself as he assembled the gun. ‘I’ll kill her for this!’ he said, as he inserted a cartridge into the left-hand bore, and, ‘I’ll kill him!’ as he repeated the action for the right-hand bore. ‘How could she, after all I’ve given her?’ He put the third cartridge into his jacket pocket…

He left the car, neglecting to close the tailgate, and stormed off resolutely towards the hotel entrance. At the hotel, he set the door spinning once more. The clerk looked up from his desk and saw the middle-aged man re-enter the building. His face looked like thunder and he carried a shotgun broken across his forearm! Alan strode across the foyer towards the stairs, past the cleaners who attended to the spilt contents of the shattered planter.

‘Excuse me, sir,’ said the clerk, hardly daring to attract the attention of the armed man. Alan paid him no heed but marched determinedly upstairs. The clerk reached for the phone and dialled three digits.

On the second floor, Alan encountered a Room Service attendant pushing a serving trolley. The man, on seeing the shotgun and the grim look on Alan’s face, halted in his tracks and turned ashen white. ‘Back off!’ Alan shouted at him as he snapped the gun shut. The man retreated, dragging his trolley.

Outside room 2-7, Alan flicked off the safety catch and held the gun by the stock in his left hand. With his right he hammered on the door, shouting, ‘Come out here and face me like a man, you bloody coward!’

He heard Joan’s terrified scream from within.

He hammered again, and shouted, ‘Get out here now, or I’ll kick the door in!’

Inside the room, the stranger reached for the phone and did his best to raise reception but the clerk was already fully engaged in telling his own observations to the police and passing on those of the Room Service attendant who had fled to safety down the back stairs.

Alan stood back from the door and kicked as hard as he could just below the lock. The door shuddered. He kicked again and heard the satisfying crack of splintering timber. One more kick and the frame gave way. The door slammed back against the wall of the small passage just inside the room, then ricocheted back into Alan’s charging advance. He barged through unflinching at the door’s revenge and levelled the gun before him. After two steps, he stood in the open room. Ahead of him, he saw Joan on the bed, screaming, the blankets drawn up around her. He swung left and saw the man, naked, the telephone receiver in his hand.

‘What the hell, d’you think you’re playing at!’ the stranger shouted at Alan.

‘Me?’ Alan shouted back, ‘I’m not playing at anything!’

The scene turned red before him. He put the gun to his shoulder and levelled the double muzzle at the stranger, who shrank back in terror against the wall, pointlessly closing his eyes against the expected blast. A deafening crack reverberated inside the small room, and the stranger’s face disintegrated.

Joan screamed as her lover’s body collapsed against the wall and slid jerking to the floor, ‘Oh John! Oh John! Oh John! Oh John!’ she shouted, her eyes agog at the bloody, shredded mess before her.

‘John?’ Alan shouted in utter disbelief, ‘John Smith? How utterly crass can you be?’ He rounded on Joan and barked into her face, interposing himself between her and the corpse, ensuring that he had her full attention, ‘And you! How could you do this after all these years, coming here and bringing him with you?’

Startled, she blubbered and squealed, ‘Oh no! Please don’t hurt me! Please don’t hurt me!’

‘I asked you a question,’ he shouted.

‘I just needed to know,’ she blurted back, ‘I didn’t think it would do any harm…I was curious, that’s all. I wanted to know if we had a future–’

‘What? You didn’t think it would do any harm?’ he shouted and, stamping his feet, his arms and the gun flailing around, ‘All this is just for curiosity? And what about our future, you stupid cow? Did you stop to consider that?’

She sat on the bed a terrified, gibbering wreck before him, and wept uncontrollably.

Suddenly still, he declared, ‘Well, I guess we have no future now!’ He poked the gun into the blankets until the muzzle came up against her belly, then discharged the second barrel. She fell silent instantly and cracked her head against the old, iron bedstead as she recoiled from the blast, robbing herself of her few remaining seconds of conscious existence.

For a moment, time stood still. Alan looked at Joan’s lifeless form and turned cold and numb. Smoke swirled from the two barrels to form nebulous blue sheets suspended in the still air. He fumbled distractedly in his pocket for the third cartridge, intending to use it on himself, but the shotgun slipped from his fingers and rattled to the floor. He stepped back, wide-eyed and with panic beginning to rise. He heard running footsteps in the corridor.

The panic took over and he began his flight. He ran away from the sound towards the window. He threw up the sash and climbed out onto the fire escape. He clattered down the metal stairs, barely keeping his feet on their slippery, damp surface. As he went, he heard the retching of his unknown pursuer above. He ran for all he was worth through the hotel garden, and cleared the low fence at the end in a single bound. He burst into the car park and made a beeline for his car. From the corner of his eye he glimpsed the flashing blue light of a squad car parked outside the hotel entrance; the air was filled with the noise of a second that arrived just as he climbed into his car.

He fired up the engine and floored the accelerator. Fortunately for him, the two parking spaces in front of him were now clear and he shot through them and the wooden fence beyond, then over the footpath and onto the road, scattering surprised pedestrians in every direction and strewing rubbish from the still-open tailgate. He sped through the town wreaking havoc upon stationary and moving cars alike. Eventually he calmed down and drove more temperately to the far-flung corner of the car park at a large out-of-town shopping mall. He left the car, walked to the bus-stop and waited, stupefied, in the shelter.

By the time he reached home, he had begun to realise what he had done. He had walked zombie-like along the road between the bus-stop and the house, making pathetic little whimpering noises, interspersed with, ‘Oh Joan, my lovely Joan,’ as he plodded on. At the front door, he lifted a trembling hand to the lock and steadied it with his free hand so that he could insert the key. Once inside, he pushed the door closed, leant back against it, and slid down it as the dam that held back his tears finally gave way under the strain. He sobbed and howled and called for Joan. Blackness descended on his soul as the day descended through dusk towards night. Eventually, he crawled to the lounge where he stumbled to his feet using the furniture for support. He shuffled forlornly to the drinks cabinet, still crying as he went. He took a glass and poured four fingers of Scotch. He gulped on it and paused to sob. Again he gulped, and the amber liquid breathed its soothing warmth into his body.

Their mantelpiece had a photograph on each end, one of him, one of Joan. He went for Joan’s picture but reached out clumsily for it, knocking it to the floor and smashing the glass into myriad fragments. He fell into the nearest armchair and broke his heart again. He gulped once more. His head began to reel. The extremes of emotion that he had endured that day conspired with the drink and soon he was asleep and snoring loudly.

He woke an hour later, his head throbbing. He refilled his glass and sat down again. It was night by now but the darkness cocooned him, making him feel strangely remote from the deeds done in daylight. He half heard a car draw up on the gravel outside, and the slamming of a single car door. He lifted his swimming head and tried his best to steady the room and focus his thoughts. He heard a key in the door and then the irritating squeak of the hinge that he had been meaning to oil for several weeks. ‘It must be Naomi,’ he thought, ‘Whatever am I going to tell her?’

A hand pushed open the lounge door and reached inside for the light switch. The door continued to swing, revealing fully the owner of the hand.

‘Oh my God!’ shouted Alan.

‘I’m sorry, dear; I didn’t mean to startle you. Why were you sitting in the dark? Oh, you’ve been drinking, and rather heavily, by the looks of things.’

Alan sat forward on the edge of the chair. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes. He opened them again and focussed on the woman before him. Horrified, he was momentarily speechless, then he blurted out, ‘Joan! But I thought you–’

‘You’ll never guess what arrived in the post today, dear,’ she said, far too excited to pay attention to the sudden and deathly pallor of his face or the consternation in his speech. She slipped back into the hallway to remove and hang up her coat.

‘But you’re–’

She continued her excited babble as she walked back into the lounge, ‘It appears that when my mother gave me up for adoption she also gave up a twin – an identical twin!’ she clapped her hands in ecstasy. ‘Can you believe it?’ she asked, barely looking at him.

‘But you’re–’

‘I have a twin sister! An identical twin sister! A letter came from her today. She found out about me from her adoptive mother and traced me. She sent me a photograph.’ She rummaged in her handbag for the letter, took the photograph from the envelope and thrust it in front of his disbelieving face. He took it from her tentatively. She returned to her babble, ‘We’re so alike, don’t you think? Look, she even has the same hairstyle and the same shade of lipstick. Isn’t that amazing?’

‘Then…it wasn’t…you?’

‘What? No, of course not, it’s her, my identical twin sister! Anyway, she said in the letter that she was coming to town today – today, dear, can you believe that? Her husband – his name’s John, oh, and hers is Jenny – her husband is catching a train from London after a meeting he has to attend. They’re staying at the Collingwood. John and Jenny Smith – isn’t that rather lovely? Anyway, they hope we’ll make contact and meet them tomorrow but they quite understand if we feel awkward about it.’ She paused for breath. Finally, she saw the blackness in his face. ‘Are you all right, dear?’ she asked him, ‘Is there something wrong?’

He lifted his face slowly, his body swaying from the effects of the drink. ‘I think,’ he swallowed hard, ‘I’ve already met them…’ he replied, in doom-laden tone.

Picking up on his mood, she lowered herself in trepidation into the other armchair, sensing that he had something awful to tell her. ‘Really? When? How?’ she asked.

‘I…I had to take a parcel to the station. I…I bumped into them there.’

‘My, that must have seemed strange.’ Then her eyes sparkled, ‘I bet you thought you’d caught me with another man!’ she said in a suggestive tone.

Alan hung his head low and spoke so quietly that Joan had to strain to hear him, ‘That’s…exactly what I thought.’ Then he told her, falteringly, and amidst many tears, what had happened.

‘You did what?’ she shouted, standing to her feet, suddenly angry. ‘If this is some sort of joke I don’t think it a very funny one – not very funny at all!’

‘It’s not a joke,’ he said, looking at her with big, moist, puppy-dog eyes that begged for forgiveness, ‘It’s true. I killed them.’

She flopped, incredulous, back into her armchair, ‘I can’t believe it! Are you telling me,’ she asked, ‘that you’ve killed the sister I did not know I had before I’ve even had the chance to meet her?’ She broke down, her suddenly grief-stricken face in her hands, and wept. ‘Alan, Alan, what have you done? Do you honestly believe I would engage in a sordid affair?’

‘It was an easy mistake to make,’ he petitioned, ‘she looked so like you. When I saw you – her – with him at the hotel where we spent our wedding night something just snapped. I did it because I love you so, so much, my darling…’ He found himself suddenly speechless. He slid off the chair and shuffled on his knees across the floor towards her, holding out his arms. ‘Please forgive me,’ he groaned through his sobbing.

‘Stay away from me!’ she yelled, and pushed at him with both her hands so that he fell sidelong and hit his head on the fireplace. He climbed groggily back to his knees and wiped blood from his brow with the back of his hand. She sighed heavily then fetched a box of tissues from the lower shelf of the coffee table and knelt before him. She began, with no apparent emotion, to mop up the blood oozing from the gash on his head.

He placed loose fists tremblingly against her hips, unable to touch her with open palms, expecting her rebuff. Slowly, fearfully, he slipped his arms around her waist until he was crushing her to himself and weeping desperately into her shoulder. ‘What am I going to do?’ he kept asking, ‘What am I going to do?’

She held him in her arms, and rocked him gently as she had used to rock Naomi when she had been hurt as a child.

Joan heard a car draw up on the gravel. A few seconds later, the doorbell rang. In stunned silence, she rose to her feet, leaving Alan in a crumpled heap on the floor, howling in anguish. She went to the door and opened it to find herself confronted with several armed policemen.

‘I think you’d better come in,’ she said, and she walked back towards the lounge and her doubly empty life…

Monday, 9 February 2009

The Naked Man?

Copyright © 2002

Here is one of my early stories, which explores the status of a human clone from three different points of view.

‘Why am I not human?  That’s all I want to know,’ said the naked man strapped to a black leather couch beneath a spotlight in an otherwise dark room.

‘It depends how you define human,’ said a voice from the darkness.

‘You’re as human as any identical twin,’ said a second voice.

‘Well, that’s not quite the same, is it?’ said a third.

‘Well, yes it is,’ said the second, ‘Identical twins have identical genetic material, and he has the same genetic material as the donor.’

‘Accepted,’ said the third, ‘but that’s not the only criterion in deciding the issue–’

‘Of course it is, you stupid fool!  If someone digs up his body fifty years from now they’ll identify human remains, just as they would with any other corpse.’

‘Excuse me–’ said the naked man on the couch, pointlessly because he was completely ignored.

‘Precisely,’ said the third, ‘Remains!  But what has left for there to be something remaining?’

‘Oh I get it!  You mean “Does he have a soul?”’

‘Not quite.  If we define “soul” as personality, character, disposition, and all of those human relational qualities–’

‘You mean psychology?’

‘Mmm…well, yes.  All those things that make us individuals, distinct individuals, unique, if you like, beyond the obvious physical differences–’

‘Then he has a soul,’ said the first voice, breaking his silence.

‘Well,’ said the third, ‘again, it’s not quite that simple.  Even dogs have a “psychology”, their own distinctive personalities–’

‘So now he’s no better than a dog?’ asked the first.

‘Excuse me–’ said the naked man on the couch.

‘Oh come on!’ said the second voice, ‘He’s clearly better than a dog!  He has consciousness, a value-system; he’s capable of rational thought, of love, of fear…of art!’

‘Yes, Professor, I must admit he has made a striking contribution to art, quite amazing, in fact, but that’s not what I’m getting at,’ the third voice resumed.

‘Well, what are you getting at, Bishop?  Just tell me in simple English, will you?’

‘OK,’ said the Bishop, ‘You do agree that these, er, psychological characteristics in themselves do not confer humanity on this being–’

‘Oh, you’re ready to admit he’s a being, then,’ said the first voice.

‘Of course, Judge.  He is, therefore he has being.  What is at question is his humanity.’

‘Excuse me–’ said the naked man on the couch.

The Bishop continued, ‘The existence of his soul I find a somewhat complex riddle, I freely admit, if it is cast only in terms of “psychological” attributes.  No.  The question – the much simpler question – is, “Does he have a spirit by which he is able to commune with God?”’

‘But why,’ rejoined the Professor, ‘should that in particular make him human when everything else about him proclaims his humanity for all to hear?  How do we know that any of us have spirits?  I find the concept to be quite unnecessary to my existence.  I have never “communed with God”, as you put it.  In fact, I don’t believe there’s a god to commune with.  Am I therefore not human?  Even though I came into this world by natural means?’

‘Your humanity, Professor, is beyond question.  You have been created in the image of God and so possess a spirit even though you do not recognise it.  It is just not enlivened towards God.  The point is that it could be.’

‘So your argument, then,’ said the Judge ‘is that he did not come about by natural means and therefore was not created in the image of God.’

‘Quite so.  And so does not have a spirit, and what we might describe as his soul cannot therefore be saved.’

‘Nor, presumably, burn in hell!’ said the professor.  ‘I find your view somewhat uncomfortable.  If you are wrong, you give him no opportunity of salvation, whatever that may mean.’

‘And you, if you are wrong, would deny that possibility to the whole of mankind,’ replied the Bishop.

‘Whereas you only deny it to poor devils like our friend here,’ said the Judge.

‘Well, if I am right, I only deny what has never been granted – and it was not I who introduced the term “devil”.’

The three men fell silent.  The Judge stood and walked into the periphery of the illuminated area and addressed the naked captive, ‘Do you believe you have a spirit?  Have you ever communed with God?’

The naked man studied on his questioner before replying, ‘I don’t know.  I’ve never considered it.  No-one has discussed these issues with me before.  What would it be like?’

The Judge turned away and addressed the Bishop, ‘Look at his art, man, it is so vital, so full of energy.  It communicates so clearly the human condition.  Surely that is evidence of spirit?’

‘Ah, a simple confusion, my friend.  What he, in fact, appeals to, what he touches so wonderfully well, I grant you – in fact I believe I have never seen the like – are the human senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell – all rooted in the flesh, our vehicle for communing with the natural world.  Why, even dolphins show pleasure in their frolicking, and even my dog delights in running after rabbits and doing his tricks for me.  Not evidence for the spirit, though.’

‘So how do you know that dolphins don’t have spirits, then?’ jibed the Professor.

‘Only mankind was made in the image of God.  Ah yes, everything else was made good but only man was made god-like.’

‘Oh, I see – dogma!’

The Bishop addressed the naked man, ‘You asked the Judge a question.  The Bible teaches that God has “set eternity in the hearts of men”.  His intention in doing so is that they might yearn for something beyond this world and so seek him and find him.  Have you experienced anything of that longing?’

‘That’s a preposterous question,’ cried the Professor, drawing attention once more away from the object of their argument, ‘How many people can say that.  I’ve never “experienced anything of that longing” as you put it.’

‘Really?  Can you honestly say you have never had the sense that you are seeking something?’

The Professor thought for a while.  ‘I have sought meaning and purpose but I have sought it in science!  It does not prove I have a spirit!’

‘And have you found meaning and purpose, or just more questions?’

The Professor responded, ‘I have found meaning enough.  Of course there are more questions.  My purpose is found in the pursuit of the answers to those questions.’

‘Which leads only to even more questions, I believe.’  The Bishop turned in his chair, hidden in the darkness.  ‘And you, Judge, have you the sense of seeking and striving after something?’

‘Perhaps when I was younger I had.  I felt I was seeking something then.  Now I’m content that life has no meaning.  One might just as well enjoy one’s self.  One is a long time dead, after all.’

The Bishop smiled a wry smile then turned his attention back to the naked man, ‘And you, my friend, what about you?’

The naked man frowned and thought before responding, ‘No.  I have always been happy until recently.  Life has been delightful.  I have known love and joy and pleasure.  I have found meaning, if ever I sought it, in my art, in my family, and my friends before them.  Even fear has only directed me towards self-preservation and the defence of my family.  Except–’

‘You see,’ said the Bishop, cutting him off short, ‘No longing, no yearning, no sense that there must be something more.  I believe he has no spirit and is therefore not human.’

‘So what about identical twins then, Bishop? What do they have?  Half a spirit each?  What does half a spirit amount to?  Half an idea that there must be something more?  Half a longing for the eternal?’  The Professor’s tone verged on the derisory.

‘No, my dear Professor.  The division of the blastoma is a rare, but natural, process.  The human spirit, however, is elemental.  God grants each foetus a spirit of its own.’

‘And In Vitro Fertilisation?  What’s natural about that?  Are all IVF babies non-human too?’

‘No.  You have merely borrowed a natural process, or else assisted it – at great cost, I might add.  Each foetus formed is a life in the making.  Otherwise I could not complain about the children you leave to die in the Petri dish.’

‘And so is each of the millions of sperm that is wasted because of the one that found the egg – and each egg that is unfertilised and gets flushed down the toilet, but you don’t complain about all the unmarried women who, by your standards, are not allowed to mate so that their eggs can get fertilised and live.’

‘But Professor,’ the Bishop replied reproachfully, ‘an unfertilised egg is not a life in the making.  It is but half of what is needed.  Each sperm is only half of what is needed.  An egg or sperm left on its own cannot become a human being.  There is no paradox in this, I assure you.  Such unsound reasoning does not do you credit.  Sophistry would be a better word for it!’

‘Pah!  Poppycock!  When does God impart spirit?  Presumably, in the case of identical twins, after the dividing of the blastoma?  How do you know if spirit is present in the Petri dish?’

‘God most likely gives both twins’ spirits before and in anticipation of division, and in the Petri dish at fertilisation.’

‘God must waste a lot of spirits on foetuses that don’t make it!’

‘Please,’ said the naked man, raising his voice before the Bishop could respond, ‘would you just cover me up!’

The Judge, still standing near the couch, responded, ‘Sorry, old boy, I didn’t realise it was cold.’

‘I’m not cold!’ the naked man shouted, ‘I’m…I’m…embarrassed!  This is very undignified, you know, lying here butt-naked in full gaze of you three and God knows how many cameras!’

‘Ah, so you understand the concept of an all-knowing God?’ the Bishop asked.

‘All I understand at the moment,’ said the naked man, ‘is that I’m strapped to this damned couch with my private parts exposed for all to see, and I’m damn well uncomfortable with it.’ The Professor asked for a towel, only to be told by the Judge that there was no such thing in a room like this.  The Bishop slipped off his jacket and used it to cover the naked man from knees to navel. ‘Thank you.’

‘You’re welcome.’

The Professor resumed the discourse, addressing the Bishop with, ‘So you are convinced that he is not one of God’s creatures, then?’

‘Well, in answer to that, who made him?’

‘A scientist – but, I suppose, using materials that you believe were created by God.’

‘The building in which we find ourselves is not a creation of God, yet comprises materials he provided.’

The Judge rejoined the conversation, ‘I see a weakness in your argument here, Bishop.  This building was made by man using materials supplied by God and the ingenuity God gave man to extract them from the raw, to refine them, and to shape them.  What’s the difference?  Hasn’t the scientist done just the same?’

‘Yes, and no,’ the Bishop replied.  ‘Yes, the scientist has used his God-given ingenuity to create from God-given material.  No, he has not created that which only God can create – a human spirit!’

‘But you say God made us in his image.  Isn’t creation of man by man a reflection of that image?  Shouldn’t he be willing to cooperate with us?’

‘He made us to be like him, for his pleasure, not to supplant him.’

‘As far as I’m concerned,’ the Professor said, gesturing towards the couch, ‘this human being can do everything I can do, some things better, some worse, and he is indistinguishable in nature from… from my own son.  It’s abhorrent that we treat him like a caged animal.’

The Bishop replied with genuine sadness in his voice, ‘I agree that our treatment of him is abhorrent.  He does, after all, have feelings.  I would not wish to treat a dumb animal in this way, let alone one which has full faculties of perception, at least on a temporal plane.’

‘As far as I’m concerned,’ said the Judge, ‘he should never have been brought into existence.  These experiments are quite illegal and were so at the time of his conception, or inception, or whatever the term should be.  He should not be here – and neither should we.’

‘But I am and you are,’ came the plaintiff repost from the couch.

The three men whose humanity was not in question now stood by the couch and looked deep into the eyes of their captive.  The Judge spoke up, ‘You said, “Except–”.  What did you mean?’  The naked man shook his head, not understanding.  ‘You were talking about your search for meaning and purpose, or rather your lack of it.  You were about to say something else.  “Except–” you said.  Except what?’

Confusion filled the eyes of the naked man, who swallowed hard.  His observers watched his Adam’s Apple (although the Bishop may have disputed the term) slide up and down on the front of his throat.  ‘When my father-donor died – at the exact moment that he died – it was as though something that had been the tiniest of seeds within me suddenly grew to enormous proportion, so much so that it stunned me.  I thought at first that it was grief or shock but it wasn’t.  I have never actually felt any sadness at all for his death.  To me, it’s as though he never died, more like he was drawn into me, like he became part of me.’  He paused, struggling with the concept that he had just expressed.  ‘No, that’s not it,’ he said, ‘much more like…like…like I became part of him.  It was an overwhelming experience.  Now I have a sense that he’s with me…that he is me…that I am he.  I feel absolutely full where I never before knew I had been empty.  And yet, there’s a vague purposelessness pervading it all that I’ve never known before.  Perhaps that’s the eternity thing, or maybe it’s just grief after all…’  As his words tailed off, he looked intently at the Bishop.  ‘Pray for me?’  The Bishop shook his head and walked away into the darkness.

The three sat in silence for some time musing on the naked man’s revelation.  The Judge thought it to be an overwhelming experience of grief, the Professor, much the same but with the psychological jargon to dress the theory more elegantly, and the Bishop, that it was the most convincing evidence for the existence of the human spirit that he had ever encountered…

‘What will happen to my family?’ the naked man asked.

The Judge furnished the reply, ‘You know the law on these matters.  When they are found they will be processed duly in accordance with that law.  Your wife’s status, of course, is not in question, she being the progeny of natural gametes.  Your children’s status is… well, somewhat difficult.  You’re the first one to have escaped detection for long enough to reach maturity, to marry and reproduce – a testimony, perhaps, to the skill of your creator–’ he glanced towards the Bishop and added, ‘small “c”.’

‘Will they be…impounded, like me?’

‘Most likely.’

‘And…and…’ he could not bring himself to ask the question.

‘Most likely.’

‘Do you have any idea where they are?’

‘At the moment, no.  But we will find them, of that there is no doubt.’

The naked man suddenly wailed with such anguish that he broke the hearts of his observers, and tears streaked down his temples and pooled on the soft leather of the couch.  The Bishop knelt beside the couch and grasped the naked man’s hand. 

The naked man, at last, fell silent.  The Bishop, still beside him, whispered in his ear.  The others watched the scene and saw the naked man nodding in response to questions posed sotto voce by the Bishop, who, to the surprise of the others, removed the crucifix from around his neck and pressed it into the palm of the naked man.  The naked man, with an almost serene expression, gazed endlessly past the spotlights at the place where the ceiling would have been, and clasped the crucifix in both hands against his chest.

‘It’s time,’ the Judge said, and he left the room.  He returned a few minutes later and shook his head in response to the Professor’s pleading look.  The Professor took up his station opposite the Bishop, and the Judge his at the foot of the couch, from where he made his pronouncement.

‘At the order of the High Court and in accordance with the Human Cloning Act 2054 you will now be euthanized by lethal injection, this means of termination having been selected as the most humane.  You will feel no pain.’

The lights went out.  The three heard the naked man’s breathing quicken and intensify until it rasped in his throat. Then they heard the hum of the motor on the syringe pump beneath the couch.  The naked man’s taut muscles relaxed and his breathing slowed to a gentle stop.

The lights came on and the Judge and Professor left the room.  The Bishop, who lingered for a while in silence before the naked man, now at peace, retrieved only his jacket and followed the others.