Pigs and Dogs
© Clive Gilson 2016
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Crisp clean sheets. Becca loved that late night slide under a fresh, wind-dried, duvet. The bed sheet was taut and uncrumpled, the elastic corners still holding their own against the frayed mattress cover underneath. She slept in a pair of shorts and a vest these days, all greys and pinks and girlie with small cat motifs, knowing that her three years and three months old son, Ollie, might call her out of her slumbers at any point during the night.
To be fair, she thought, as she sipped the evening’s last full glass of Riesling, he was pretty good these days. The night wets were already a thing of the past and as yet his dreams seemed to be as sweet and as natural as they should be. He was a good boy. Tiring, yes, but intrinsically a very good little man. To Becca, Ollie was simply perfect, sweetly curled and blonde like her and his dad, but without any of that man’s side and snide. There were just the two of them now and Becca much preferred her life to be organised that way.
Becca settled back against her recently plumped pillows, rested her head against the matt-blacked metal frame of her Ikea bedstead, and took another sip of her nightly sleep tonic. Sometimes she thought about the Riesling and wondered whether she should ease up a little, but the truth these days was that she relied on it. The once-upon-a-time glass that helped her to relax was now usually a bottle to knock her out for a solid hour or two in the dead hours when the boy was sound asleep himself. She felt the effects less and less as the days passed, but she remained steadfast in limiting her intake. Becca hid her drinking well. She could function. She could be the mother that Ollie deserved for most of the day, but she did need a little help when it came time to settle down in the wee small hours.
Even now, in her mid thirties, right at the point when she thought that life and things generally should be getting clearer, Becca felt the unsettling churn of contradictory thoughts jumbling in her head. She knew that she should not drink so much but no matter how bad her guilt trip she also loved that twilight moment when the world became hazy and the sounds of the house settling for the night reassured her that bricks and mortar and tiles and trusses kept her and Ollie safe from harm.
She should not fear the dark and its dreamscapes any more. Becca was thirty-four, a grown up in so many ways, and yet her inner child, her personal demon, seemed to need that numbness brought about by the Riesling. The annoying thing was that Becca’s soundless stupors only ever lasted for an hour or three before her body reacted to the poisons and she became sleeplessly restless, but again there was a clear juxtaposition. Becca craved that hour or two of peace, and yet she was equally grateful that she could rouse herself quickly should Ollie ever need her.
Right now, in these final moments before another bout of fitful sleep briefly smothered her, Becca allowed herself to luxuriate in a newly made bed, letting the tick-tick-tick of cooling heating pipes beat out the rhythm that accompanied her final mouthful of warming white wine as she slowly lowered her eyelids. Her little house was, for just this moment, a haven, a bastion against the night, a two-up two-down fortress of red brick and double-glazed windows. She felt warm and cosy and fuzzy and so she rolled onto her side, put her now empty wine glass on her bedside table and switched off her bedside lamp, safe in the knowledge that all was well and that she would be making her first cup of tea on a bright new day in just about four hours from whenever now might be.
Four thirty-four. The blackout blinds were drawn. The bedside light remained switched off. Becca’s bedroom was illuminated slightly by light seeping in through the crack at the base of her bedroom door. There was no carpet on the landing yet, just bare floorboards. She tasted bitters and grit. Becca lay awake again now, sifting through the detritus of recently disturbed sleep. She never remembered dreams. Rather she focussed on the simple things that combined to keep her and Ollie safely tucked away here in their little house. She had no plans, no strategies. Keep it simple stupid seemed to be her vital modus operandi.
Becca contemplated the night just passed. It had been as peaceful as they come. She had slept for nearly four hours straight, and apart from the bitters and grit she felt clear headed and no more fatigued than ever she did. She stretched out underneath her toastie warm duvet. The digital numbers on her radio alarm clicked over to thirty-five, a promissory note for the safety of daylight to come. Becca pulled the duvet up underneath her chin. She would take five more minutes before the hushed pad down to a cold kitchen. The central heating was not timed to come on until six o’clock, and then only for long enough to take the chill off the early morning and to ensure that there was enough hot water for both her to shower in and for Ollie to bathe in later in the day.
There were moments when Becca looked vicariously at the many worlds around and about her, the worlds that she helped to clean, and she wondered whether her life was all that it could be. Those moments of envy, of dissatisfaction, remained few and when they did occur Becca could dismiss them easily enough. Cleaning for other people, taking in ironing, the anything and everything of tax credits, universal benefits and cash in hand meant one simple thing. She survived. She and Ollie survived. They survived together, never apart, one and the same and indivisible. Today she would watch over him. One day, many years from now, he would watch over her like a guardian angel. It was a simple thing. An absolute truth.
Becca shivered despite the warmth of her bed. She felt a footstep fall heavily upon her grave. Becca mentally corrected herself. Another footstep upon her grave. This continual pacing across her dead soil was the reason why she had never quite settled here in the land of the living. These heavy treads were the reason why she was on constant watch. The old man who Becca imagined to be walking on her corpse wore thick-soled boots.
Becca tried to reason away the jitters. She and Ollie lived in a small space, an enclosure, a fortress, four walled and square. She could protect the boy. She could make this world her own, insular and protected. Cash-in-hand and benefits kept Ollie safely by her side and away from the bleeding edges of her own childhood dreams.
Ollie. Becca smiled broadly in the darkness. Her little soldier. She was saving up for him. A few pounds sometimes, just pence at others. It all depended on the time of the month and the cash to hand. It all depended on her habitual craving for juice of the grape. She was nearly ready to buy a present for him, something for him to cherish, to look at or play with and think of his loving mother, even at three years and three months. Becca had asked him what he wanted most in the world just a few days previously. She had just over twenty pounds stashed away in a jar on top of one of her kitchen cupboards and she was starting to see toys and clothes and gifts take shape in her mind’s eye.
Her darkling smile twisted as she remembered his words. Ollie had thought long and hard before he answered her. He wanted, he said, a pet. Becca had tried to change the subject but Ollie had remained firm in his three year old wanting. Becca offered him an option – maybe, one day, a hamster.
“No hamster”, he had said. “Want cat. Black cat.” His cheeks had puffed red and his tiny blonde brows had inched downwards with absolute, uncompromising determination.
“Oh, Ollie. Don’t be silly. We can’t keep a cat. Do you know how much they cost? Food and animal doctors and they run out in the road and get killed by cars. You don’t want a cat, my darling…”
“Want cat… dog… rabbit…” and so the list began. Ollie answered everything for the next thirty minutes of their child-centred conversation with one of or a combination of cat, dog or rabbit. The episode ended in a full floor bitten tantrum, a maternal walk away to peer from behind a door, a messily shared chocolate milkshake, and a wrap up warm because we’re going off to Mrs Hopcroft’s to clean her bathrooms. Despite the obvious frustrations of coping with a three year old and the certain knowledge that she would have to disappoint her suddenly pet mad son, Becca remained confident in their unselfish love for one another. She quietly dreaded the day when school would rear its ugly head.
Later the next morning Ollie sat out on the landing at, as fate would have it, that same Mrs Hopcroft’s village cottage. The good lady was out at work, doing something executive in Oxford, which was, Becca supposed, why she could afford such a house and such a cleaner.
“Hey ho, hey ho, it’s off to work we go…” Becca whistled as she set to work cleaning dried faeces off the rear of the toilet bowl with a good dose of strong bleach and a stiff brush. Such was life for such a cleaner in just such a village house. The whistling helped to pass the time and Ollie seemed to like it too. He tried to join in with Becca’s whistling but usually ended up blowing raspberries in weird child-time synchronicity. Neither he nor Becca ever finished a song, always collapsing into a fit of giggles by the end of any second verse.
The raspberry blowing was short lived this morning, however, and was replaced by the sound of something heavy being bumped into a wooden skirting board. Oh God, thought Becca, he’s bored… She poured one final dose of bleach around the toilet bowl and under the rim, carefully screwed the bottle top back on and then pulled off her bright yellow Marigold gloves. Becca stepped back out onto the landing and sure enough, Ollie was flying one of his Transformer toys around his head, making whooshing noises, before crashing the toy down onto the carpet and into the skirting board. There were already a series of dents and scratches in the wood that seemed to form a distressed sort of face that, to Becca’s eyes, screamed; ‘a small, annoying child was here…’
“Ollie, Ollie, stop doing that. Bad. Mustn’t do that…” Becca pointed to the marks on the skirting board as she grabbed Ollie’s flying wrist. Immediately she did so she saw the boy’s eyes well with tears. His lower lip trembled for a moment before shifting to form the base of an oval through which a long, keening moan morphed into a full-blown wail.
In a moment the boy was wrapped in Becca’s arms, his head against her shoulder as she stroked the back of his head. “It’s all right, my lovely, it’s all right. No harm done, not really. Mummy’s not cross, darling. Mrs Hopcroft, remember, darling. Mrs Hopcroft.”
Plan D. The television. Mrs Hopcroft had a good selection of assorted children’s DVDs in a rack downstairs for when her niece and two nephews came to stay, now that her own daughter was an undergraduate at university in Exeter. Ollie loved Wallace and Gromit. Half an hour of The Wrong Trousers was all that Becca needed to finish the upstairs bathroom and that would be her morning done. The afternoon would be easier. They would once again be safely tucked up at home. Becca had Mrs Mobb’s ironing to do for pick up at six that same evening.
Outwardly soothed but inwardly still seething with three-year-old effervescence, Ollie threw his Transformer toy at the bathroom door with all his might before convulsing in one final, almighty sob.
“Come on, my love, that’s not how we behave, is it?” suggested Becca, knowing full well that the child would be asleep in her arms in moments. She had to keep him talking for a few minutes longer while she got ready to stand up and carry him down to his stroller for his television interlude before the walk home. “What’s wrong with Transformer?” she asked.
Ollie didn’t look up, burying his face firmly into her shoulder. “Want a farm”, he said softly into Becca’s jumper. “Want farm and tractor and sheep and cows and pigs and dogs…”
Becca shuddered inwardly, holding onto Ollie as tightly as she could. Pigs and dogs. Whatever other animals he might have on his toy farm she would never stand to see pigs and dogs. Never again.
Becca and Ollie reached the end of another day, with Mrs Mobb’s ironing done for the week and a little more cash tucked away. Becca had the usual bills to pay, an electricity meter to feed, and a toy farm set to save up for. She had given in. Again. She told herself that she would do a little Internet research and find out how much a really nice farm set might cost before she finally committed to buy the toy for the boy, but Becca already knew that this particular game was lost. Ollie’s poker face was already so much better than her own. She settled back against her pillow, resting her head on the usual spot on the bedframe and thought about the day to come. No cleaning tomorrow. No ironing. No visits to the social. Wednesdays were a park day, weather permitting, and it comforted Becca that Ollie would like that.
She continued to muse on the day just closing as she drifted slowly down towards sleep. The only other downside to Becca’s day, and far more worrying than the damage done to Mrs Hopcroft’s skirting board, was the barren state of her kitchen cupboards come teatime. Mrs Mobbs had collected and paid for her ironing too late in the day for Becca to make it to the village shop, so she and Ollie had shared two rounds of toast with half a slice of ham on each and with the last half of an already opened tin of baked beans shared out on top. They had played the usual game of trains, with Becca cutting up and forking Ollie’s choo-choo tea for him while her own plate congealed as it it chilled. No matter, she thought, time for a bath and then bed.
While Ollie splashed joyously in six inches of lukewarm water, converting a set squidgy, sponge letters into zooming submarines and flying terra-dinosaurs, Becca knelt by the side of the bath, resting her left forearm on the olive green plastic edge. She had long ago given up any pretence of staying dry. A bombing run by a Pleistocene letter F momentarily sunk a bobbing letter M in an explosion of soapy bubbles. Ollie laughed out loud as Becca sat up and wiped froth off of her nose. Ollie lost himself again in the dive-bombing game and Becca drifted off with her own, tired thoughts.
As Becca half watched her son play in the bath she sensed in him questions. Why just we two? Like you watch over me, who watches over you? Who watches over us? Where do the dreams come from, mummy?
A clever boy, thought Becca, but then she realised that these were her questions and not the wise-beyond-his-years thoughts of her infant son. Ollie was just three years and three months old. He had no cares to bear down upon his dreams and turn them sour. He knew nothing of such strains and disappointments. Becca breathed in sharply. She had startled herself out of her day-tired daydream.
“Right, little man”, she said softly, “time to dry…”
A howl of protest and flat palms slamming into the waters.
Becca stood quickly, bent down, placed her hands underneath Ollie’s armpits, and lifted her little soldier out of the bath, while his legs kicked the last suds from his toes into his mother’s damp stomach.
“Ollie, no. Bad” Becca whispered as she lowered her son to the floor and immediately wrapped him in a large white bath sheet. The smothering instantly stopped his struggles. A drying and a tickling. Happy bunnies in a soft, warm burrow.
And so Becca moved through rituals and lists and cuddles before she could finally struggle down the stairs, and enter into her own time, into that small moment of solitude that allowed her to sort and fix the day. To get to her happy place Becca dressed Ollie in blue robot pyjamas and tucked him into his bed. She twice read out loud The Hungry Caterpillar and Little Red Riding Hood just the once. She made sure that there was a bottle of water on Ollie’s bedside table, that the duvet was safely tucked under his chin, and that his night light glowed a gentle shade of green. With everything sorted Becca kissed her son on his forehead and finally stole away, shutting his bedroom door ever so gently behind her.
With Walford’s finest doing their damnedest to be miserable on a low volume on the television, Becca waited out the half hour during which Ollie was most likely to stir and call out before she opened a chilled bottle and took her first sip of liquid relief. She felt the wine, as chill as it was, warm her gullet and spin her down into a state of exhausted bliss. It was eight o’clock when Becca took that first sip. She drifted through a series of television programmes, idly flicking across the channels, and only stirred again as she poured the last glass from the bottle. It was now eleven-thirty and time to take her last glass with her to her own bed.
In her happily dazed state she too soon found herself safely washed and tucked up. Becca tried to sink into that final languor that brought forth that sense of total relaxation that came just before sleep, but the usually soporific effects of work, childcare and Riesling did not seem to be combining in happy slumber. Becca felt very awake. Her neck felt strangely stiff and she ached in her joints, as if coming down with a fever or an influenza, Around her the midnight ticks and clicks of a house shutting down for the night seemed somehow wrong, seemed to shift out of time, as though the walls and the pipework and glass in the windows were being drawn by the unsteady hand of her sleeping child.
Becca fought an urge to check in on Ollie one last time. It was late and she feared that in her present state of nervousness she would be clumsy and wake him. Steeling herself for a frustrating, sleepless struggle wrapped in a hot and sticky duvet, Becca lay on her side so that she could reach the bedside lamp switch, paused for just a moment, sighed, and turned out the light. Around her she sensed the darkness fall.
The shift from lamplight to night darks was not instantaneous. Becca was sure that the shadows slid rather than plunged across her vision. Her breathing quickened. She felt the muscles in her neck tighten by another notch. Across her chest she felt a band of pressure bear down on her lungs and adrenalin pumped through her veins. The darkness, now fully formed, drifted through walls and doors and floors like thick, dense cloud seen through an airplane window. Becca fought an urge to succumb to the terrors in sheer childish panic.
Through the shifting clouds Becca sensed once more an old and familiar gaze coming to rest upon her face. She was being watched. Time shifted and she was a small child again. She knew not who the watcher might be. Becca never had known the answer to that question. She knew only that nights here in this dislocated space were long and dark. She was paralysed. The eyes that watched were never seen. These piercing blues, were always at the edge of her vision, beyond the frames of solid reality, a flickering in the margins through which she passed her days.
Becca sensed again breathy warmth upon her skin. A pane of glass broke somewhere in the house. Winds rushed across her face. There was a distant peel of laughter. Something tugged at the corner of her duvet. Becca could not breathe. She remained wide-eyed but rigidly paralysed. The warm breath on her arm was feral and borne of the wilderness. She felt as though she was being pulled, this way and that. A decision was called for. She must make a choice…
Becca stared up at the ceiling. To each side of the bed she could hear things, snorts and whimpers and scratchings. She was sure that at the foot of the bed stood that same old man with the heavy boots, the one who walked across her dead earth with such alarming regularity. His were the eyes that stared in the darkness. These creatures beside her bed were his as well.
A sudden convulsion. A full body spasm. Becca was suddenly wide awake, and she understood completely. These were the clouds that came with the dreaming. These were the mists and the blights brought down upon her head by the ghosts that walked upon her grave. She pulled the covers up over her head and closed her eyes tight. Her heart raced. She thought she must surely burst but slowly, slowly she relaxed her grip and started to breathe again. As the shadows and the sparkling star bursts behind her eyelids shifted and drifted and merged and spun, she began an incantation.
“There are no animals in this house… there are no animals in this house… there are no animals in this house… not in this house… this is my house… this is my…”
And once again Becca could feel the sour warmth of the creatures that had dogged her childhood dreams. She could feel the soft panting of some fauna, of some dumb beast crouched next to her bed. Under the thin protection of her duvet the hairs on her bare arms lifted. Her tongue felt hugely swollen in her mouth and Becca was sure that she would choke. She must cast these creatures out. She must exorcise these old friends and enemies. She tried to swallow, tried to moisten her tongue. Her voice sounded thick and vague in her head.
“There are no animals in this house…”, she whispered, her voice slowly rising with the repeated cadence of the recitation. “There are no animals in this house… there are no animals in this house… there are no animals in this house… there are no…”
Becca ceased her spell making abruptly when she realised that she was almost shouting. For the first time since waking amid the memories and the irrational fears of her youth she remembered her son in the room next door. She remembered the way the darkness seemed to drift through the wall. She remembered Ollie’s daytime mantra, “…cows and sheep and pigs and dogs”.
Becca pulled the duvet away from her face, sat up and glanced into all four corners of her bedroom. There was a faint lightening of space and time. The clouds were gone. Becca saw that the landing light still shone through the gap at the base of her bedroom door. Out of the corner of her eye she saw… no… she felt the last wisp of something deep and sombre pour itself through a skirting board.
This time she did shout. “There are no animals in this house… there are no animals in this house…” Becca threw back the duvet and launched herself out of bed and towards the lighted landing.
“There are no animals in this house… there are no…” She threw open her bedroom door and stood for a moment in the light before moving her hand to the switch on the wall. Her voice returned to a faint whisper as she decided not to turn off the landing light. She and Ollie needed the safety of electricity. Becca slowly and quietly completed the last line of her mantra, “…animals in this house.”
Becca padded over to Ollie’s door and listened intently, her ear pressed against one of the door’s upper wooden panels. Becca’s mind raced. Could she hear something? What was that? “Ollie…” she whispered and gingerly Becca started to press down on her son’s door handle.
On opening Ollie’s bedroom door Becca instantly felt the drag on her skin caused by time shifting backwards again. Ollie’s night-light was off now. The illumination thrown into the space beyond the doorway by the bare upstairs landing bulb seemed to break and splinter at the threshold to the boy’s bedroom, throwing weird misshapes into the inner darkness. As Becca took her first faltering steps towards her son’s bed, and as her eyes grew accustomed to the diffused half-light, she saw that he was still sleeping, thumb in mouth, on his side. He faced out towards the door. He looked utterly serene.
Becca could feel the drifting darks falling across her face like the faintly fluttering wings of a candle burned moth. She gasped as she sank to her knees by Ollie’s toy box. She reached out to steady herself and as she did so she touched a sponge letter still damp from the bath. The air around her was thick and clogging as she tried to draw it down into her lungs. She started to pant, and with her laboured breathing there came a companion sound, a stereo image, a doppelganger effect. She tried to orientate herself, but the blood pounding in her temples created an uneven landscape in a space that she could usually navigate through without thinking.
No more than a couple of metres from where she knelt, Becca thought that she could see shapes forming amid the smoky shades of these night darks. She could make out heads, one to the left of the bed, on the far side, and one to the right, nearer to where she now sat. Both heads, as yet disembodied by the night shades, simultaneously turned to look directly at Becca, as if on some unspoken command. Becca saw the iridescence of dull light reflected back at her. She thought that she saw browns and yellows and dirty pinks. She imagined for a moment that she heard again those sympathetic snorts and whimpers and wheezes accompanying her own laboured breathing. Something feral, something instinctively impatient rooted through the core fibres of her soul. She sensed surprise and anger. She sensed a question. She sensed words forming… “Now… Now… Now…”
A choosing was asked for by a shadow drifting more blackly than any other in the room, back beyond the edge of her vision. She could hardly break away from the staring creatures by her boy’s bed, but slowly, by painful degree upon degree, she shifted her gaze to the floor, where she saw the outline of one huge, shaggy paw and a thickly cast metal chain. In her looking away the shadows lightened and she could describe definite outlines at the periphery. A dog. A pig. Both wearing wide black collars, from which hung chains that fell and snaked back into the vast well of darkness settling by the wall opposite the foot of Ollie’s bed.
Underneath the driving beat of the blood still pumping at her temples Becca heard a voice. Voices. A tandem craving. And then a third voice, weathered and cracked and faded. “Time to make a choice… we’ve waited… we’ve waited… pig and dog… dog and pig… chained all these years… pig and dog… dog and pig… you and him… him or you… we’ve waited…”
Becca let a flood of tears fall onto her cheeks. She bit back on her sobs. Ollie stirred slightly and rolled over to face the far wall, but he remained in gentle peace under the watchful gaze of his mother and her companion creatures. As her tears filled her eyes and her normal vision blurred, so she started to see the world in which she now existed far more clearly than she had since her earliest recollections had taken form and shape. Her childhood friends were back. She saw them clearly again after such a long absence. She must choose. Pig or Dog. Girl or boy. Becca or Ollie.
Becca steeled herself. She gulped in air. Through her tears she could now see the old man in heavy boots quite clearly. She shivered. He trod gently up and down upon black earth. She felt an impulse to say a name, but before she spoke out loud one last thought flashed across her retreating mind. Please let it be my name, she thought, please let it be mine.
Adrenalin. The world slowed. Becca felt every twitch of muscle and cartilage and tendon as she picked up her son’s discarded Transformer toy and stood up. Becca felt her mouth shape sounds Becca felt her vocal chords tighten. She thought of the letter B. Her mouth shaped to form a vowel.
Childhood dreams... Childhood friends... That breath upon your arm in the dead of night that makes the hairs stand up... Becca and her 3 year old son, Ollie, are settling down after another day of work and play... Be careful with those dreams, my darlings... This is another new story by author Clive Gilson, available here for free until Clive's new collection is ready later this year, when all of Clive's new stories will be made available in print and eBook format here on Smashwords and on Amazon. Individually Clive's stories have been downloaded over fifty thousand times since the end of 2012. Clive's stories mix a love of traditional storytelling with magical realism. There's a lot of reality here, good and bad, but you're never going to be far away from the odd, the horrific and the mysterious...