A short story about a dog and featuring a Vanessa Carlton song.
When she falls asleep in the furniture showroom she sleeps like a hog. She’s wedged between two untraversable rolls of carpet; their textures the same as the Kerry Blue Terrier she gropes in the park sometimes. One carpet is maroon, the other fawn, and she feels held and nuzzled, like a popcorn kernel between a flap of gum and a half-erupted wisdom tooth. She wakes to a finger booping her on the nose and a child staring at her, its nose wet. She crawls out of the cavity into the halogen light.
She didn’t mean to fall asleep here; she’d come to the showroom in search of a lampshade. She can’t much see the point of lampshades – why does a lamp need a hat? It’s like when you see a drawing of the sun with sunglasses on. Who’s keeping the umbrella dry? Who’s dusting the vacuum cleaner? Her mother said she needed one. ‘You need a lampshade,’ she said. ‘It’s unseemly, the way you’re living,’ she said.
All the lampshades were terminally ugly, she’d thought. She picked up one that looked like the eggshell-coloured cone she once saw the Kerry Blue wearing. ‘It’s to keep his teeth away from his balls,’ the dog’s owner said. ‘What balls?’ she said. ‘Right enough,’ he said. She’d held the narrower end of lampshade to her eyes like a telescope and turned the world into an evolving disc. The fatigue of being in the furniture shop was insurmountable. Then she saw the carpets. They were in rows and columns: upright sentinels and horizontal Swiss rolls. She’d stroked their curly hides and shorn bellies. She could feel them loving her, so when nobody was around she squeezed her way between two. She settled herself into incubating vacuum at the centre of the storage rack. She slept.
The next morning, she has coffee with Miles. Miles orders a piece of carrot cake, takes a bite, returns to the counter and asks for a refund. She can’t even be embarrassed: Miles’s dad is dead, which makes him not accountable for all sorts of things. Sometimes when they go the cinema, she lets him put his tongue in her ear; she doesn’t say anything when he shoplifts.
‘You look amazing,’ he says, now.
‘Oh, thanks,’ she says. She prides herself on being good at accepting compliments, but nobody ever praises her for being good at accepting compliments.
‘Did you get the silk pillowcases I was talking about?’
‘The silk pillowcases – I sent you a link, remember? They’re incredible. If you haven’t got one, do. They stop your hair looking frizzy and they reduce the appearance of wrinkles around your eyes.’
‘I didn’t get one.’
‘Well, do. Do get one.’
The first night of the wake she arrived with a mid-priced bottle of red wine. Miles’s mother took it from her with a look of confusion, and she felt like an idiot: this wasn’t a housewarming. She was wearing a cardigan with thick faux fur around the collar and one of Miles’ sisters assumed it was real – ‘Bit gross, the fur industry, isn’t it.’ Everyone else was drinking whiskey or coffee, and she stood with her glass of merlot in the corner like a marchioness. Eventually she wandered into the front room, to spend some time with Miles’s father. He’d been on the transplant list for a long time, waiting for a liver, although actually he died in half a bus crash. He was the only person sitting on the top deck of the 8A into the city centre, when a tree fell on top of it. The bottom deck of the bus was fine; everyone on the bottom deck was fine.
‘So,’ Miles says. The waiter arrives and presses the £3.20 carrot cake refund into his hand. He sets it on the table. ‘So,’ he says. ‘Why do you look so good?’
‘I slept brilliantly yesterday.’
‘I’m not sure,’ she smiles. ‘Everything just came together.’
When she had finished her merlot, in the quiet company of Miles’s father’s body, she returned to the kitchen, in search of a more tonally appropriate drink. Miles’s father was standing by the counter, cutting the crusts off of green grape and cream cheese sandwiches. She screamed – just a small scream, but still a bigger scream than anyone else in the room was doing. Miles, his sisters, his mother, his cousins and aunts, his assorted colleagues and miscellaneous family friends; they all turned to look at her. Miles’s father had an identical twin brother. Nobody had thought to tell her.
After seeing Miles, she goes to the chemist’s. She wafts along the aisles like a daddy long legs, then buys a pink battery-powered toothbrush that looks like a sex toy, even though she already has a toothbrush. She worries that the cashier might think she doesn’t have a toothbrush at home, so she says, ‘My old toothbrush is getting a bit worn.’ The cashier is a bit kitten-y. She leaves the chemist’s.
The furniture showroom sits at the far end of the car park like a titan. It’s all-year-round sale banner curtseys in the breeze. She goes in.
No, thank you, she thinks to the overhead sign showing the way to light fittings and features. Instead, she goes west to the sofas. She navigates the streets of sofa town – pressing on their plump bellies and pspspsp-ing their sagging bits. It’s a joy. The air in here feels different from anywhere else, she thinks, and when a tall man with neat hair says, ‘Can I help you with anything?’ she doesn’t feel accused or apologetic. She says ‘I’m just looking, thanks,’ and he smiles and walks away, like it was the most natural thing in the world. She eases herself onto a green sofa and rests her elbow on the end-table sat next to it. She plays with the cord of the rotary phone sitting on the end-table. ‘None of this is real!’ she says aloud, and she feels as happy as a wife.
In the wardrobe section she tests hinges and door handles – she prefers the ones with a facsimile of antiquity, even though they’re so young they could be her children. She wonders if wardrobes age in the same way as dogs. The first time she held the Kerry Blue in her lap and felt the heat coming off its genitals it was three human years old. Old enough to drink in America, she said to the owner. She doesn’t like the white, blocky wardrobes that look like they’re made of icing sugar, their handles obnoxiously utilitarian; two 15cm creamy Toblerones. She finds a wardrobe that has its wood pre-scored and brass handles like nipple tassels. This is a wardrobe that was born old, and she adores it. Amazing, she thinks, that they’ve found a way to bypass the unpleasant duration of living. You’re like a baby born with a heroin addiction, she thinks to the wardrobe. You’re a toddler with inherited trauma. When the aisle is empty, she opens its doors and climbs inside, stands for a moment in its cool, dark absence, breathing in the stagnant plastic and varnish.
In the bathroom section she makes the toilet seats talk to each other like they’re Pacmen. There is no homogeneity with toilet seats. Each one is unique in its charisma. In her early twenties she dated a man who was 6ft 5 and wore eyeliner. He was homophobic in a way that he was always trying to pass off as joke – how embarrassing for him, his homophobia. He had a toilet seat that was just hanging on, like a beloved but expendable sidekick clinging to a cliff edge. She liked the toilet seat. It wasn’t cruel in the way some toilet seats are; even at 3am, walking barefoot and naked through the damp miasma of his dilapidated flat, the toilet seat would never be too cold. She never had to brace for landing. It became her accomplice in staving off UTIs, more so than the long man in bed, who had not once reminded her to pee after sex. When they stopped seeing each other, it was the toilet seat she missed the most. She finds one a little like it: unassuming, cream plastic, with a thin and reedy timbre when its lid closes. She strokes the matte ceramic of the fancier models and spends too long looking at the novelty ones – the animal print and the Perspex.
She comes to an assembled proximity of a bathroom. It’s like a film set. The rainforest showerhead plays the romantic lead; the marble-topped unit with its Belfast sink is the reliable and necessary best friend. The oval over-sink mirror is the antagonist. She turns her head this way and that and the lighting finds and loses the lines in her skin. She takes the pink, vibrating toothbrush out of her bag and sets it in the chrome cup next to the tap. Looks right, she thinks.
One night, after too much peach schnapps and a badly rolled joint, she and Miles were draped across the surfaces in his living room.
‘It’s just weird, you know?’ he said. ‘I don’t have a dad, anymore. I’m dadless.’
‘Miles is a weird name,’ she said.
‘What?’ he said. ‘Is it?’
‘Miiiiiiiles,’ she said, and they laughed wheezily for seven-eight minutes.
In the bedding section she finds a couple having a conversation about the virtues of a top sheet.
‘I just don’t see why we need one,’ he says.
‘It keeps the duvet cover more hygienic,’ he says.
‘But we can just wash the duvet cover when we need to,’ he says.
‘But this would mean we could do it less often: we could just wash the top sheet,’ he says.
‘Why is that more convenient?’
‘Because I’ve seen you trying to change a duvet cover – you’re like Kate Bush in Wuthering Heights.’
They laugh, finding their conviviality, but she wants to go over and say, ‘What if you didn’t need any of these? What if we only have beds in our homes out of habit? What if we only have homes, out of habit?’ She finds a showroom bed – its proportions are all off. It’s short and wide, there to display the bedding only, but she wonders how it might be to sleep on this half-bed, to have her feet dangling over the edge. She sits on it, testing its fishy buoyancy. Her bed at home is enormous and firm, like sleeping on a basketball court. She hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in years.
‘Because, right,’ she said, tonguing the joint like a saxophone mouthpiece. ‘Miles sounds like “mild”, right? So easy, clement, gentle.’
‘I thought “mild” was just the past tense of me,’ he said, smiling blithely at his knees.
‘So: easy, clement, gentle, but also “miles”, like the distance. Not easy: far, long, arduous. A big undertaking.’
‘God, the undertaker was so nice,’ Miles said. ‘Are they still called that? Maybe it’s “funeral director”, now. She smelt like Christmas.’
‘You contain both: easy and difficult. It’s weird.’
‘I can’t believe –’ he said, then sneezed like a horse. She laughed, and he sneezed again, and she laughed.
‘What – what can’t you believe?’ she said, reaching plaintively for the bottle of Archers.
‘I can’t believe Vanessa Carlton loves me so much that she wrote a song about thousands of me.’
They laughed for a long time, and then when Miles said, ‘Hey, look,’ and showed her that he was wearing two jackets; they laughed again. After a while he started to suck on her bare toes, which she didn’t mind, and then he turned her over and masturbated onto her back, onto the silky fabric of her shirt. This she was less sure about, but decided that she probably didn’t mind, either.
That night she paces her flat, ignoring the recriminations of her bare lightbulb. She goes to the bathroom and panics at the closed-in-ness of its four walls, its absence of price tags. Nothing in the kitchen is lined with a clear membrane of plastic – everything has wear and the table is bruised and unfashionable. When she closes her eyes she feels unmoored. When her phone starts buzzing, she realizes that it’s morning.
‘Can you do me a favour?’ says Miles.
‘Can I leave Jim with you for a couple of weeks?’
‘Why?’ Jim is Miles’s pet axolotl.
‘The neighbours are having building work done and the drills upset him.’
‘Great – I’ll drop him over later.’
‘Any time after five. I’ll be out till then.’
‘Doing what? You’re unemployed.’
When her father died her mother decided to sell his three-branch pharmacy chain to a large, faceless conglomerate. They’d been half-rich ever since, and while initially she’d tried to ignore the money to retain a semblance of normality, the stakes were too low. Lying down at 11 each night, only to stop lying down at 7am each morning, seemed masochistic, but an unremarkable, tedious masochism. Eventually, she stopped pretending, and nobody seemed particularly concerned. After all, nobody wonders what a snail does all day.
‘I have to go shopping,’ she says.
‘Okay, well if you’re in a supermarket, Jim likes frozen shrimp sometimes, as a treat.’
‘I won’t be in a supermarket.’
‘Oh. Okay then.’
‘See you later.’ She hangs up.
The coffee table is a sheet of glass on a metal frame. She tests its tethered-ness – she puts her fingers to one corner of the pane. It lifts up. The whole pane can be lifted off the frame. For cleaning, she thinks. She leans back on the yellow sofa and tries her feet under the table. She’s not sure if she likes being able to see her grubby boots through it. Why own a beautiful thing only for it to betray the presence of an ugly thing? The table becomes a framing device for her bad shoes. Not for me, she thinks. She finds a chest of drawers, sturdy and absolute. It’s dark wood; knobs that are brass or silver depending on how you approach them. It’s taller than she is. She slides the penultimate drawer open and sets in the few things she brought from home: three pairs of knickers, all black; an old T-shirt with a fake university logo; a pair of socks. She places a couple of books on a reasonably priced bookshelf, next to a reasonably priced cat statuette. On the shelf below is a reasonably priced leatherette photo frame. The picture in the frame is of a woman playing a cello.
Jim is the colour of cotton candy. His eyes look like they were drawn on with a felt tip. Miles is putting frozen meat in her freezer.
‘Jesus,’ he says, ’Do you ever defrost this thing?’
‘Why would I do that?’ she says. ‘It’s a freezer – it’s meant to be frosty.’
‘Jesus,’ he says again.
‘Why did you bring me chicken?’
‘It’s for Jim.’
‘Why are you feeding a fish chicken?’
‘He’s not a fish.’
‘Why are you feeding a not fish chicken?’
‘He likes it.’
‘I like eating chips off the ground – doesn’t mean I should do it.’
‘Do you like that?’
‘Is feeding a fish chicken not cross-contamination or something?’
‘I’m not planning on eating him. I’m not breaking kosher.’
‘Are you Jewish?’
‘Stop staring at him so intently – you’ll freak him out.’
Miles has an enormous glass of wine before he leaves. When he’s drunk half of it, he leans over and tugs on her hair. When her chin is tilted upwards, he pours the wine into her mouth, letting the excess spill down her chin and over her neck. He says, ‘Thanks for doing this,’ and she’s not sure what he’s talking about. When he’s gone she resumes watching the axolotl in the tank. The rattling sound could be coming from the water filter, or from inside her head. That night she can’t bring herself to even sit on the bed. Instead she paces from room to room – listening to the rattle and the high-pitched burbling of the water’s surface. Jim glows like a night-light, and she reaches her hand in and gives him a prod in the thorax. He has the consistency of a gummy bear.
The next day she eats a flapjack in a right-angle show kitchen. She unwraps it in her bag and breaks bits off surreptitiously; deposits them into her mouth. A young man and woman test out the cupboard doors and she smiles at them, tolerant and welcoming. ‘Hi,’ she says. They all smile. She notices that a middle-aged woman is permitted by an assistant to step into a shower cubicle and she takes this as her cue to do the same. The cubicle she chooses is narrow and cylindrical – she feels like a parcel in a pneumatic tube. She finishes her flapjack, then returns to the carpet rack and allows herself to be subsumed into the wall. She mimics Jim’s shape and becomes a streamlined forearm of a thing. When she wakes up everything is dark. She retrieves her soft socks and T-shirt from the chest of drawers and crawls into the sawn-off bed. It’s brilliant. She was right about it. It’s just brilliant.
She wakes at 6am, effervescent. She remakes the bed and puts her trousers and coat on. She goes back to her carpet crevice, sleeps again. At 11, she squeezes out into the empty aisle and follows the sunlight. ‘Have a nice day,’ she says to a cashier. ‘You too,’ the cashier says, uncertain. On the walk home she spots the owner of the Kerry Blue, but without the Kerry Blue. ‘No dog today?’ she says. ‘He’s in the vet’s,’ the man says, and his eyes become wet. ‘The daft idiot impaled himself on a fence.’ At home she defrosts a chicken breast in the microwave then dangles a narrow strip of it in the tank. It’s hard to know where the chicken flesh stops and Jim begins.
When her father died, she and her mother became less like parent and child and more like equal percentage shareholders in a company. What the company dealt in was hard to say: grief, or the performance of grief, or performing grief in a dignified way. They were both equally grief-rich and rich-rich, and it meant that neither was more or less responsible for the other, than the other. They stop speaking regularly, although when they did her mother still gave as much unsolicited advice as any mother. She can’t resent it too much, though: after all, it was her mother who suggested the lampshade, which led her to the furniture showroom.
When Jim has eaten half a chicken breast, she phones her mother.
‘How are you?’
‘I’m about to head out – what’s wrong?’
‘I was hoping for some advice.’
‘Advice? What are you talking about? I’m late.’
‘Just generally. I thought you might have some advice.’
‘You’re making me annoyed now. Is there anything actually the matter?’
‘No, I –’
‘Well, I’m late. We’ll speak soon.’ Her mother hangs up.
Probably greedy to expect more than one boon per season, she thinks, in the subsequent silence. Then the filter rattles and the water gurgles. Jim yawns, and the magenta, fibrous tissue on either side of his head wiggles. She cooks the other half of the chicken breast in a pan and distributes it through a salad. She loads her bag with toothpaste and more socks and a clean pair of jeans and an eye mask. ‘Enjoy your evening,’ she says to Jim on her way out. He smiles. He looks like the governor of sofa town.
On the walk to the showroom, she sees the aftermath of a car accident: a Toyota with a dent in its side and a Volkswagen with a flattened nose. She remembers that today is the anniversary of Miles’s father’s death. She’ll call him from the showroom, see how he’s doing. Maybe tomorrow they can go for a drink. She checks that the salad in her bag is still upright. It is. She crosses the street.