Alan and Alice liked Barbara and Eric. Barbara and Eric were good neighbours. Barbara and Eric were quiet. Barbara and Eric never threw parties—or, at least, not proper parties, not the sort of parties with music and loud noise; they’d had a dinner party once, and Alan and Alice knew that because they’d been invited beforehand, inviting them had been such a good neighbourly thing for Barbara and Eric to do. And Alan and Alice had thanked Barbara and Eric, and said that it was a very nice gesture, but they wouldn’t accept, all the same—they gave some polite reason or other, probably something about needing a babysitter for Bobby (although Bobby was a good boy, he didn’t need a babysitter). But the real reason they didn’t go was that they didn’t know Barbara and Eric. They liked them, they liked them perfectly fine. They were good neighbours. But they didn’t want them to be friends. As good neighbours, they worked. Good neighbours was good.
Barbara and Eric had a dog, but it was a quiet dog, it was just as quiet as Alan and Alice’s own. They had two children, but they were grown-up children, and the three times a year the grown-up children visited Barbara and Eric (Christmas, both parent birthdays) they did so without fuss or upheaval. Some weekends Alan would see Eric, out clearing leaves from the front garden, out mowing the lawn, and Alan might be out tending to his own lawn, and the two of them would recognise the mild coincidence of that, Eric might raise a hand in simple greeting over the fence and Alan would do the same in return; for her part, Alice might smile at Barbara in the supermarket. And when Barbara put the house up for sale, Alan and Alice didn’t know why—“Hello!” said Alice cheerily one day when she saw Barbara at the checkout queue, “So, where are you off to then?” And Barbara had told her that Eric was dead, Eric had had a heart attack, Eric was dead—months ago now, and she couldn’t bear the loneliness any longer, she worried quite honestly that the loneliness would drive her mad. And she’d broken down in tears right there in front of Alice. Shrill, with lots of noise, it wasn’t like Barbara at all. And Alice said she was sorry, she offered Barbara her condolences, she offered Barbara her handkerchief, she said she and Alan had had no idea, “how dreadful!” and “we had no idea!” And later she told Alan she’d felt a bit embarrassed, how could they have had no idea? How could all that death and suffering be going on not thirty feet away without their knowing? She supposed they hadn’t been especially good neighbours after all.
“We’re going to miss them,” said Alice, as the family gathered around—Alice, Alan, little Bobby, even the dog got in on the act—and peered through the curtains to watch the removal men take the last pieces of Barbara’s life away.
“I suppose we will,” said Alan. And let the curtains twitch back.
• • • •
“They’re never going to sell it like that,” said Alan one night at dinner. Alan worked in sales, he was an expert on sales. He was pretty much Head of Sales really, or would have been, had Old Man Ellis not nominally still been in charge, but Alan was pretty much de facto Head of Sales, even Ellis had said so, pretty much everyone accepted that. “The first rule of sales,” said Alan, “is you have to let the consumers know you’ve something to sell in the first place. There’s no point in being coy about it.”
There was a “For Sale” sign stuck into the lawn of the house they all still thought of as Barbara and Eric’s, but, as Alan said, it wasn’t well displayed. It was positioned right beside the largest of the trees so it was permanently obscured by shadow; from the road you could barely see it at all. “It’ll never sell,” said Alan, and sliced into his potatoes with an air of smug finality—and it did the trick, this was certainly where the conversation ended, neither Alice nor Bobby nor the dog showed any inclination to contradict him.
Later that evening, Alan was giving Bobby a game of Super Champion Golf Masters IV on the Xbox, and Bobby was playing as Tiger Woods and Alan was playing as Jack Nicklaus but frankly would rather have played as Tiger Woods, but Bobby had been a good boy and had done his homework promptly and done the washing-up without being asked and was in consequence allowed first pick—and as all this was going on, Bobby said he had an idea. Alan said, well, champ, I’m all ears. And Bobby suggested that maybe he and his Daddy could move the “For Sale” sign away from the tree and into a more prominent position. That would help everybody, wouldn’t it? Though he didn’t use the word “prominent.” And Alan thought about it as he made Jack Nicklaus putt, and then said that they really shouldn’t bother; after all, wasn’t it quite nice that they didn’t have any neighbours, wasn’t it nice that it was all so quiet? Wouldn’t it be nice if no one moved in ever, couldn’t it be their little secret? And Bobby shrugged, and said okay, and made par. Bobby was really a very kind and considerate child; Alan had been warned by his friends at work that children could start getting snippy when they got older, and Alan was watching out for it, but here was Bobby eight years old already and there was no sign of it so far. Bobby would say that playing golf with his father on the Xbox was the best part of his day, and Alan would like that, sometimes Alan was touched. What did his friends at work know anyway? Maybe Bobby would always be like this. Right then, Alan decided he liked Bobby as a person, not just as a son but a Person in his own right—one day, when he was older, he looked forward to sharing a pint with him in a pub, men together, he’d be so much better company than his friends at work, he didn’t like his friends much. He looked forward to playing golf with Bobby for real.
Anyway, Alan was wrong. The house was sold within the week.
• • • •
The van arrived early in the morning, before Alan went to work, and stout uniformed men began unloading boxes and furniture onto the next door lawn. When Alan returned home nine hours later they were still at it; and Alice was still watching it all from behind the curtains. “You haven’t been here all day, have you?” asked Alan, and Alice said, “Of course not!” and looked a bit cross. “Alan,” she said, “there’s so much stuff, how do they have so much stuff? How are they going to fit it all in the house?” “I’m hungry,” said Bobby, and he sounded unusually plaintive—and the dog began to yip for food as well—“It’s all right, champ,” said Alan, “let’s go and see what’s in the fridge, shall we?”
After supper Alan went back to join Alice at the window. “They’ll have to stop soon,” said Alice. “It’s getting dark. You can’t go moving stuff in the dark. That makes no sense, does it? You won’t be able to see what the stuff is.”
Now the removal men were offloading from the van a green Chesterfield sofa. It was large and heavy, and the men struggled with it in the summer evening clamminess. At last it was out, and down—and joined three other sofas on the lawn, just as big and cumbersome, all in different colours—one was black, one was burgundy, one was a beige so lurid it could hardly be called beige at all. All four of them were still covered in their protective plastic sheets, not a single sofa had ever been used.
“It’s all been brand new,” said Alice. “All the televisions, the washing machines, the hi-fi system. All still in their packaging. Isn’t that peculiar?”
“I expect so,” said Alan, “if you like. And what of our new neighbours themselves? What do they look like?”
“I haven’t seen them yet,” said Alice. “I keep on looking, but there’s been no sign. I might,” she admitted ruefully, “have missed them,” and she turned to Alan for the first time since he’d come home, her eyes so full of apology as if she’d let him down somehow. Then she started, she realised she’d taken her eyes off the game, and back whirled her head towards the chink of opened curtain.
“Maybe,” said Alice suddenly, “I should go over there.”
“Maybe,” Alice said, “I should take them a cup of sugar.”
“It’d be the neighbourly thing to do.”
“They probably have sugar,” said Alan. “They have four sofas and, look, three widescreen TVs. Look.”
“I’ll take them some sugar,” said Alice, and she tore herself away from the window, and hurried to the kitchen. Alan followed her. She poured the sugar into a cup—not one of the best cups—she wasn’t offering them the cup to keep, the cup was merely a receptacle for the sugar, she wanted the cup back—but she didn’t want any awkwardness, if the cup were to be accidentally sacrificed in the spirit of good neighbourliness then it was going to be a cup she didn’t like all that much. And then, now appropriately armed, she went outside and up the driveway to the next door house. Alan watched her from the window. He was surprised to see that in the little time it had taken Alice to fetch the sugar that the removal van had gone; the lawn was bare; the garden was deserted; night had fallen. Alan saw Alice knock at the door. He saw Alice pause, then knock harder. He saw her bite her lip and chew it, it was what she always did when she couldn’t make up her mind. Then she set the cup down gently, carefully, upon the welcome mat; she stood up, waited expectantly, as if that very act alone might have attracted the neighbours’ attention.
“Can we play golf, Daddy?”
“Isn’t it a bit late?”
“All right. Just for a little while.”
“Can I be Tiger Woods again?”
At last Alice came home. “They weren’t in,” she said.
“So I gathered.”
“I waited a bit, though.”
“So I gathered.”
She frowned. “Who are you tonight, Alan?”
“I’m Jack Nicklaus,” said Alan.
“And I’m Tiger Woods,” said Bobby.
Alice drifted back to the window. She gave a little cry of surprise that caused Alan to miss his stroke. “What?” he said.
“The cup,” she said. “It’s gone.”
“Right,” said Alan.
“They must have been in after all,” said Alice. “How very rude. I wonder,” she went on, and she pressed her hands hard against the window, as if she could force her way through it, be that tiny bit nearer, “I wonder what they’re like.”
Alan said, “I just wonder why you care.”
They said no more about it, and when they went to bed Alice undressed silently, and went to sleep without saying good night. Alan wondered whether she was in a mood or not—but it was so hard to tell, she was usually pretty quiet in the bedroom, it had never been a place for noise or chat.
• • • •
Theirs had never been a relationship based upon romance. Not even at the start, not even on that first date. And for the first few years this had nagged at Alan a little, he suspected he was doing something wrong, missing out on something nice all his friends at work got. So he would take to giving Alice boxes of chocolates, sending her the odd bouquet of flowers every now and again. And Alice would eat the chocolates, and she’d put the flowers in a vase, and she’d do both readily enough, but never with any especial gratitude; indeed, sometimes she’d give him a look, that look, as if to say, “what do I want these for?” So he stopped.
Alan hadn’t wanted a date anyway, not after Sandra, not after what Sandra had done to him and (he supposed) what he had done to her. But Tony had said to him one day, “You could do with a girlfriend, feller,” and Alan respected Tony, Tony was very senior in sales, at that time Tony was pretty much the de facto head. Alan thought at first this was typical Tony banter, and Alan laughed along, but Tony assured him he was being very serious. “It shows stability of character, feller,” he said. “It shows us you’re somebody we can rely upon.” And he recommended Alan try someone he knew, he recommended Alice, and so Alan gave Alice a call, and Alice suggested they meet for dinner that very Friday. Alan could come and pick her up, early would be best, there was an Italian restaurant she liked around the corner, close enough that if the date wasn’t working to either of their advantages they could skip dessert and she could be back home without wasting the entire evening.
Alan dressed up for the date. He took a second set of clothes with him to the office, and at five o’clock got changed in the toilet. Alice had dressed up too; when she opened the door to him Alan noticed right away how immaculate her make-up was; nothing too much, nothing garish or extreme—and it took him a few long seconds to recover and look through the shininess and see the woman underneath. She looked him up and down. She nodded. She gave him a polite smile, and he gave one back, just as polite. He told her his name was Alan. She nodded again, fetched her coat.
As they were walking down the street to the restaurant, Alice suddenly stopped. It caught Alan up short, right in the middle of some smart observation he’d been making about the weather.
“Have you forgotten something?” he asked.
“Yes. No. Oh,” she said, “oh.” And looked him up and down again, and chewed at her lip. She looked quite distressed for a moment, and Alan felt a sudden desire to protect her, to assure her that everything would be okay. “Please don’t take this the wrong way,” she said.
“No, no . . .”
“But. Your tie.”
“It’s just wrong. It doesn’t go with that jacket at all.”
“Oh,” he said. And then, somewhat lamely, “It’s my best tie.”
“Would you mind?” she asked. “I’m sorry. Would you mind if? We went back? I have ties. I have a better tie for you.”
“Oh. Well. If you’d prefer.”
“If it means that much to you.”
“All right then.” And they turned around and walked back to the house. Alan resumed his weather remark from where he’d left off, but he soon stopped, his heart really wasn’t in it.
“You wait down here,” Alice said. “Make yourself at home. I won’t be a moment.” And she went upstairs. Alan looked around the sitting room. It was pretty. The wallpaper was a woman’s wallpaper, but quite nice. Everything was clean and ordered and well vacuumed, and there was the smell of recent polish, and Alan thought to himself that he could get used to that.
“Here,” said Alice. And she was smiling, and it was proper smiling this time, there was a warmth to it. “Try this one.” She held out to him a tie, quite formally, draped over her arm. It was pure black. Alan put it on, taking off his own tie with stripes. Alice gave him an inspection.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes. Oh. Oh. Just wait,” and then she went back upstairs. This time she came down with a jacket, and a shirt, and some shoes. “Try these,” she said, “these will go with the tie.” And she was smiling all over now, her face was one big beaming smile, and Alan couldn’t help but beam back, and he did as he was told.
“Why do you have all these clothes?” he asked, and she stopped smiling, and gave a sort of shrug.
She didn’t smile again for the rest of the evening. The moment had been lost. He had lasagne, she fettuccini. The lasagne took longer to cook than the fettuccini, and that kept her waiting, and he felt a bit guilty. She didn’t respond to his conversation; his small talk was too small, he realised, and he longed suddenly for Sandra, with whom he could have talked about anything, even if there sometimes had been shouting and swearing included, and though the restaurant was quite busy and the tables squashed too close, together Alan felt desperately lonely. He didn’t expect Alice would want dessert. She did. She ordered tiramisu. Alan was so surprised that he ordered tiramisu as well, even though he didn’t like tiramisu.
And when she had devoured the tiramisu, after she had consumed it deliberately and precisely, Alice laid down her dessert spoon and examined Alan quite intently. She chewed her lip. “I cannot decide,” she said, at last. “Whether we’re going to be friends or not. I can’t work you out.”
And Alan said something about how he hoped they’d be friends, and she laughed at that, shook her head.
He paid for the meal; she let him. He walked her home, and neither of them said a word. He pretended they were both enjoying the still of the night. “You’d better come in,” she said. He supposed this was so he could retrieve his own clothes. But as soon as the front door was closed behind them she tore into him, she ripped off his tie, his jacket, began to unbutton his shirt. Then she grabbed at the trousers, and Alan suddenly thought, the trousers are mine, she’s at last touching something that’s me.
And he knew then that she would look after him. That she’d make sure he looked good for the office and wore the right things, that she cared, she actually cared about him, that somebody out in the whole wide world was prepared to do that. She proposed to him on their fourth date, and he could see no reason to refuse. He asked Tony to be his best man, and Tony said yes, and although asking Tony was a good career move it wasn’t just that, Alan genuinely felt quite grateful his boss had played matchmaker. It was during the best man speech that Tony announced Alan’s promotion. Alan and Alice had a son called Bobby, and the way he was conceived wasn’t especially romantic either, but Alan admired the way Alice took all those vitamins and boosters to facilitate the chances of pregnancy once she’d decided it was time they had a baby. And they all moved to a bigger house, and the neighbours were nice and quiet and elderly. And Bobby was bought a dog when he was deemed old enough to take care of it. And the sex between Alan and Alice swiftly became more sober, more manageable, and ultimately more for special occasions, and that was a good thing, a Good Thing, and Alan only very rarely thought of Sandra at all. And Tony, Tony was long dead, Tony had died years ago, Alan took his job and the power that went with it, Alan very rarely now thought of Tony either.
• • • •
By the time Alan got home from work he was already in a bad mood. Sales were down, and that of course was a nonsense; there were more and more people in the world, and people needed more and more Stuff, and Stuff just happened to be what they were selling. Impressing upon his workers the logic of this had exhausted him. As de facto head, he felt responsible for their incompetence.
“They’re having a party,” said Alice, the moment he closed the door.
“Who’s having a party?”
“The neighbours. Housewarming, I bet. And they didn’t invite us.”
Alan began to reply to that, but Alice shushed him. She raised a finger for silence. “Listen,” she mouthed. So he did. And yes, he supposed it was true, he could hear the beat of distant music.
“Why would they invite us? They don’t know us.”
“That’s right, Alan, take their side. All I know is . . . that what they’re doing is invasive. I feel invaded. How long’s this music going on for? What if we can’t sleep?”
“It isn’t very loud,” said Alan.
“What if Bobby can’t sleep?”
“I’ll be able to sleep,” said Bobby, cheerfully.
“It’s like an invasion,” said Alice. “And I think you should go over there, and ask them to turn it down.”
“It’s still early,” said Alan. “If the music is still playing later. Then. Then we’ll see.”
The family ate their dinner in silence. Silence, except for the bass thumping from next door. Alice deliberately didn’t mention it, but Alan was annoyed to hear she was right, it was getting louder, and it was invasive. There was a snatch of something familiar about the music, but he couldn’t place it, the melody was smothered by the thump. Alan tried to talk, he hoped that some dinner conversation would drown out the neighbours, or at the very least distract him a bit. He would have liked to have told his family about his day, about the slump in sales, but he knew they wouldn’t be interested. “What did you learn at school today, Bobby?” he asked at last—“Give me one fact you learned,” and Bobby promptly gave him the date for the Battle of Naseby. There wasn’t much to add to that. “Hey, good boy,” said Alan, relieved to see the dog slouch past the open doorway, “hey, come here, come here, boy.” The dog trotted closer, but when he saw that Alan had no intention of feeding him anything, turned right round and trotted away again.
“I bet the music will be off by nine o’clock,” said Alan. “That’s the watershed. Everyone knows that.”
Bobby did the washing-up, and so as a treat was allowed to be Tiger Woods til bedtime. Alan enjoyed concentrating on golf for a while; he almost persuaded himself he couldn’t hear the beat of music getting louder and thicker and uglier, couldn’t hear the pointed sighs of despair from his wife.
“It’s gone nine o’clock,” Alice said at last. “You said they’d have stopped by now.”
“I said they might have.”
“Bobby has to go to bed. Bobby, will you need ear plugs?”
“I don’t need ear plugs,” said Bobby. “I’m fine. I kind of like it. Night, Mummy. Night, Daddy.”
Alan and Alice watched television for a while.
“There’s a child here trying to sleep!” Alice suddenly cried, and she didn’t even wait for a commercial break. “That’s what I don’t understand! How they can just ignore that!”
“They don’t know we’ve got a child,” said Alan.
“They didn’t bother to ask. It’s gone ten o’clock.”
“Next, it’ll be eleven. Eleven!”
“Yes, I know.”
The music never stopped. There was never a pause when one song ended, and another waited to begin. Alan idly wondered how they managed to do that. Was it just lots of little songs mashed into one unending paste, or were his neighbours simply playing the longest song in the world?
At last Alan and Alice went to bed. Alice used the bathroom first. Alan got undressed in the bedroom. At first he thought the music was quieter in the bedroom, and that was good, that was a relief. But then he realised it wasn’t quieter, it was just different—and this different, if anything, was louder. He heard Alice spit out her toothpaste, and she really spat, she really went for it. They swapped positions, bedroom out, bathroom in, and he brushed his teeth as well. He thought he saw the mirror reverberate to the sound of the beat, but he had to really stare at it to check, and he wasn’t sure whether it was just the effect of his head moving as he breathed. He got into bed beside Alice. She had her eyes screwed up tight, not wanting to look at him, not wanting to let in the world. He turned off the light.
As soon as the red neon of the clock radio turned midnight, that very second, Alice said, “That’s enough.”
“You have to do something now.”
“All right.” Alan turned on the bedside lamp. He put on his dressing gown, his slippers.
“Tell me what you’re going to say to them,” said Alice.
“Um. Please turn the music down?”
“Ask them to turn the music off.”
“Down isn’t good enough.”
“And be firm.”
“Yes.” He went towards the door.
“You can’t go out like that,” she said. “Not in your pyjamas.”
“But I’ve just been woken up . . .”
“It sends entirely the wrong message,” said Alice. “It robs you of any authority. You should look smart, formal even. Wait. Wait.” She got up, looked through the wardrobe. She handed him a jacket, a freshly ironed shirt. “This will do,” she said. She smiled as he put the clothes on, she was enjoying this. “Now, go. And whilst you’re there, get me my cup back.”
He stepped outside into the night. The air was still so clammy, but there was a welcome breeze to it, and Alan closed his eyes and drank it in and enjoyed it; he wished he was still wearing his pyjamas, he’d have loved to have felt it properly against his skin. He could feel the sweat already beginning to pool behind the layers of his suit, and rebelliously he loosened his tie—
And listened. Because he could now hear what the music was, and it wasn’t aggressive, it posed no threat, it was charming, charming. And he felt the urge to go back inside, go and fetch Alice—yes, and Bobby too, wake him up, wake him and the dog, bring them all out for this. How much we take it for granted, thought Alan, when it plays on every television ad, when it’s pumped into every department store, when it’s allowed to define just one little month of the year, when it sells stuff—you get sick of it, or you screen it out—but now, here, in the middle of a July heat wave, how incongruous it sounds, how nostalgic. Memories of days long ago, when he was a child, when his mother was still alive, when his father still talked to him—and he felt his eyes pricking with happy tears, he should rush inside, get his family whilst the music lasted, this was a treat. But he didn’t go back inside. He didn’t want his family there. He didn’t want them, and the thought of that surprised him, and hurt him a bit, and somehow made him lighter too. And he stood on his porch, and listened, and basked in the little breeze he could feel, basked in the sound of Hark the Herald Angels Sing as it segued seamlessly into Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
But he knew Alice would be watching him. She’d be watching from behind the curtains. Watching and waiting. So he set his face into the proper authoritative pose, he straightened his tie again. And he marched down the garden path, out on to the pavement, through the next door gate, into strangers’ territory.
There was no light visible from the house. All the curtains were closed. It looked as if everyone had gone to bed—no, more than that, it looked as if the house were deserted, as if it had been long ago abandoned and no one had lived in there for years and no one ever would again. It looked like a dead place. And he nearly turned back—not out of fear, Good God, no—but because it was ridiculous to think that such music could be coming out of a house like that. But it was, it was.
The mat in front of the house said “Welcome” upon it. Alan stood to one side of it, he didn’t want to be accused of accepting even the smallest part of their hospitality. He knocked on the door—gently, very gently, because he didn’t want to wake the household up. Then he realised how stupid that was; he lifted the knocker high, he let it swing.
He knocked like this for a little while. There was no answer. He felt like an idiot, knocking away, in the middle of the night, dressed like he was going to a business seminar, and no one paying him any attention. He stooped down to the letterbox, lifted the flap, called through. He felt a cold draught from it—they must have had their air conditioning on. “Hello?” he called. “Hello? Is there anyone there?” He hated how weak and anxious his voice sounded. “Hello? Could you turn the music down a little? Hello?” You idiot.
He tried knocking again. He then tried knocking whilst calling through the letterbox at the same time. “Please!” he cried. “I’ve got a family and they can’t sleep! Really, you’re being a little selfish! And, and. And if you don’t quieten down, I’ll . . .”
Alan had no idea how to finish that sentence, so it was just as well that at that very moment, the music switched off. The sudden silence was numbing. He blinked in it.
“Oh,” he said. “Well, thank you. Thank you, that’s very kind! Sorry to be a nuisance, we don’t want to be . . . But it was past midnight and I . . . Well. Well, welcome to the neighbourhood!”
With that, he eased the letterbox back into position, gently teasing it closed with his fingers so it wouldn’t make any unwelcome sound. And he left their porch, walked up their driveway. He turned around, and the house was still so dark, and the curtains still drawn—and he doubted anyone could see him, but nevertheless he gave a friendly neighbourly wave.
The sound that burst out of that house a few seconds later almost knocked him off his feet. It couldn’t have been loud enough to have done that—not really—that was silly—but the sudden blast of it frightened him, and he did stagger, he did, he nearly toppled to the ground. It took his brain a few precious moments to realise it was just music, maybe music ten times louder than before—and a few moments longer to identify the song as Auld Lang Syne. But in even that little time he was overcome with an almost primal terror, that this was the roar of a monster, that this was the roar of death, that he should run from this inhuman scream wrenched so impossibly out of the perfect silence, that he should run away fast whilst he still could. And he very nearly did; he suddenly knew with absolute cold certainty how very small and useless he was before that wall of noise, and how very quickly the night had become very dark indeed, he could be lost within that pitch darkness, and within the battle cry the pitch was shrieking out, he knew that he’d drown in that noise and be lost forever . . .
And instead he found a rage within him he’d long forgotten, or never even guessed he had.
He stood his ground.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never”—“You fucks!” he screamed at the music. “You selfish fucks! I’ve got work in the morning! And a wife, and a son, and a dog—we’ve all got work in the morning!”
And up on the first floor he saw a curtain twitch—a little chink of light, then gone.
“I see you!” he raged. “I see you up there! Do you think I can’t see you?” He picked up a loose piece of crazy paving, he ran towards the house, towards that noise, he hurled it up at the window. It struck. For a moment he thought he’d broken the glass, terrified he had—then he hoped he had, hoped he’d smashed the whole fucking pane in—and was disappointed when the paving bounced back harmlessly.
“I’m coming to get you!” Alan screamed.
“We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for the sake of auld lang syne . . . !”
He raced out of their garden and into his own. He scrabbled at the door of his garage. He pulled out a metal stepladder, it clanked in his grasp. He felt his jacket rip under the strain, but that was too bad, fuck Alice for making him wear a jacket in the first place. For a terrible moment as he lugged the ladder out into the darkness he thought the song might have stopped, and he didn’t want that, then what would he do?—but no, it was back on for another bout, Auld Lang Syne was ringing in another new year, just so loud, just so selfish, just so fucking festive. He dragged the ladder out of his garden, first pulling on one side then on the other, it looked as if the two of them were dancing together to the music.
And now he was leaning the ladder against their house—no, slamming it against the house, and up he went, the metal rungs creaking under his weight—“I’m coming to get you!” he shouted again, but perhaps less confidently than before, and he knew his rage was still powering him on, but maybe it was starting to ebb away, who knows, just a little? And he looked down once, and he wished he hadn’t, because the night was so black now, everything was so black, and he couldn’t see the ground below. But still he climbed, “I’m coming to get you,” but almost softly now, like it was a secret, and suddenly there were no more rungs to climb, he was at the top, and—look! happy coincidence!—he was right by the window. And there was no light behind, the curtain was closed tight. “Hey!” He banged upon the glass. “Hey! Open up! Open up!” And this close to the music he thought it was buffeting him, that the force might knock him from the ladder, but he was strong, he was holding firm—nothing could stop him now, and any terror he might be feeling in his gut, that was just a private terror no one could see, right? Right? “Open up! One last chance!” And he banged again—
And the curtains opened.
And the music stopped.
Later on, he would doubt what he saw in that room. He would suspect that he’d misunderstood it at some fundamental level. Alice would ask him about what had happened that night, and he’d lie, he’d just say he never got a glimpse inside the house at all. That the neighbours had resolutely refused to show themselves, that he still had no idea who their enemies were. It was so much easier that way. He almost began to believe it himself.
The curtains pulled back all the way, they opened wide and he was blinded for a moment in the light of the room. So maybe that’s why he couldn’t see who had opened them, because someone had to have, surely, they couldn’t open themselves? But there was no one in the room—no one—Alan thought there was at first—he gasped when he saw those figures, they looked so human—so lifelike—but . . .
But they were dummies. Dummies, the sort you’d get in clothes shops, modelling the latest fashions. There was a child wearing sports gear, and he was lying on his back, his body splayed out over cardboard boxes. The child looked dead in that position, or wounded, that wasn’t a natural way for a body to lie—so why then was he smiling so widely? There was a man, and he was in a business suit (and, Alan noted, not a suit as good as his, this dummy didn’t have someone like Alice to dress him, quite clearly!)—and he was almost standing, propped in the corner of the room, head swivelled towards the window, almost facing Alan but not quite, almost grinning at Alan, almost grinning because of Alan, but not really, not quite. And the third figure—the closest figure—oh—she was naked, and Alan felt such guilt suddenly, here he was staring at her, like she wasn’t a woman at all, just an object, a slab of meat—but wait, she was just an object, just a dummy, what was the problem? And her breasts were perfect symmetrical mounds, and they looked quite inhuman, so why did Alan want to look anyway?—and her legs were long and smooth and had no trace of hair on them, the (frankly) pretty face locked into a smile too, but it was a cautious smile, a demure smile—it made her look so innocent, as if she needed protecting—or, wait, did it just make her look stupid? She was bending over, her arse in the air, one hand dangling towards the floor as if in a painful yoga position—and now it looked to Alan as if the man in the corner was inspecting that arse, as if he were examining it critically, and his grin was because he had that job, who wouldn’t grin if their job was arse-examiner?—and the little boy in the sports clothes was rolling around on the floor laughing at the fun of it. And all three of them wore Santa hats, little red Santa hats, as if they weren’t just part of some Christmas revelry, but were Christmas decorations them very selves.
And that’s when the dog began to bark, and it was loud, and it was fierce, and it was the fury of a dog defending its territory and its family from attack—and in a moment the curtains pulled back shut, impossibly fast—and Alan was lost again in the darkness, and suddenly the stepladder was falling one way and he felt himself falling another. “I’m going to die,” he thought, quite clearly, “I’m falling back into the black,” and down he crashed, and he wondered whether death would hurt. And he wasn’t bothered, and he wondered why he wasn’t bothered, and his brain said to him, “God, Alan, just how depressed are you?” but he put that out of his head quickly, he always put it from his head, he had no time for depression, and besides, he didn’t want that to be his final thought as he died. But he wasn’t dead—that fact now dawned on him—he hadn’t fallen that far after all—and he was lying in the little flowerbed that only so recently Barbara and Eric had worked at hard to make look pretty.
There was still barking, but it was definitely inside, so he was safe—but what if the beast burst through the door? And he hadn’t got time to pick up the stepladder, they could keep the stepladder—he stumbled to his feet, ran from the garden, so fast that it wasn’t until he reached his own bedroom he realised how bruised he must be and how much those bruises hurt.
“You got them to turn down the music,” said Alice, in the dark. She sounded snug and cosy beneath the duvet. “Well done.”
“Yes,” said Alan. “But I think I woke up their dog.”
• • • •
That night Alan dreamed of the woman dummy. He couldn’t help it. He dreamed of her breasts, and decided quite formally that they were a lot firmer than Alice’s—from what he could remember of Alice’s breasts, that is. The dummy’s were too perfect to be human, too round, too sculpted—but inhuman was better than nothing, surely. He dreamed that there had been hair on that too smooth plastic skin, something soft there after all. He dreamed that the dummy was smiling at him.
And the next morning Alan woke up, and was surprised at how refreshed he felt. He was in a good mood. A cloud had lifted—he’d known the cloud would just go away if he didn’t think about it, and now he could be happy again, couldn’t he? He couldn’t even remember why he’d been unhappy in the first place. He thought of the breasts and he smiled—and he looked across at the still sleeping Alice and he smiled at her too, oh, bless. He felt he could face the day with equanimity. And next door was quiet; no music, no barking, everything back to normal.
He went to his car. The stepladder was propped against the garage door. The neighbours had brought it back. That was kind of them. The neighbours had brought it back. The neighbours had been around and brought it back. All smiles, how kind of them, all smiles and breasts. The neighbours had been around, they had left that still dead house, they had stolen into his garden in the night, they had come on to his property, they could have come up to his very front door, they could have been leaving their footprints all over his welcome mat, they could have been wiping their plastic hands all over his door knocker. How kind. The neighbours—they’d been around—in the dark, whilst he slept, whilst his family slept, whilst they slept and would never have known. They’d brought the stepladder back. He could have it back. He could use the stepladder again. He was welcome. He was welcome. He could come over with his stepladder, and climb up, and look through their windows whenever he wanted. He was welcome.
Alan felt a pain in his chest, and had to sit down to catch his breath.
• • • •
At work, sales continued to slump. Alan called a meeting for his staff. He told them to buck their ideas up. That everyone was counting on them. That he was trying his best to be harsh but fair, everyone could see him being harsh but fair, right? Some of them smiled, and promised Alan that they would indeed buck up, and a couple of them even seemed convincing.
At home Alice would tell him that the barking was at its loudest in the afternoons. It’d start a little after lunchtime usually, and would continue throughout the day. The worst of it was that Bobby’s dog was incensed by it. He’d run around the house, yipping back in pointless fury. Alice said she could cope with one dog barking, maybe, at a pinch. But to have two in stereo was beyond her.
The dog next door would settle down each evening. That was when the music came on. It was always Christmas music, but you could only ever tell which song it was by standing out in the front garden. That way you heard not only the beat, but could get the full benefit of the sleigh bells, the choir, the dulcet tones of Bing Crosby, the odd comical parp from Rudolf the Reindeer’s shiny red nose.
They tried calling the police. The police took down their details. Said they’d drive by and see for themselves.
One evening the neighbours played O Little Town of Bethlehem seventy-four times straight times in succession. Bing Crosby sang it. Bing sounded angry. Bing hated them and wanted them to suffer. When the song eventually segued into Once in Royal David’s City, Alan and Alice felt so relieved they almost cried.
And in the daytime, Alice would tell Alan, when Bobby came home from school, as he did his homework and his chores, he’d be humming Christmas carols under his breath. She asked him to stop. She screamed at him to shut the hell up.
At work, Alan was forced to call an emergency meeting. He had to use that word in the memo, “emergency.” He told his sales force to work harder. He begged them. Or else he’d be obliged to take punitive measures. He had to use that phrase in the follow-up memo, “punitive measures.” One or two openly laughed at him.
Alice said she’d called the police again, and that they’d just said the same thing as before. So Alan called them. He explained the situation very calmly. The police took down his details. Said they’d drive by. Said they’d see for themselves.
The neighbours were at last unpacking their belongings. Their front lawn was littered with cardboard boxes, sheets of plastic wrapping. The breeze would blow them over the fence. And each morning Alan would leave for work, and walk through a flurry of Styrofoam and polystyrene balls.
The dog continued to bark. Bobby’s dog stopped. Bobby’s dog couldn’t take it anymore. He’d hide in the kitchen when the barking started, and he’d whimper. He’d piss on the floor in fear. He’d throw up.
Alice told Alan that he had to speak to the neighbours again. To go over there, knock on their door, demand an answer. He suggested they should do it together, that as a family they would more represent a united front. Bobby asked if he could come too, Bobby got very excited, and his parents said no, and Bobby got disappointed and a little cross. Alan and Alice walked to the neighbours’ house. The music playing was O Little Town of Bethlehem again, but it wasn’t Bing this time, it was some other version, so that was good, that was all right. The welcome mat read “Welcome—Welcome to our Home Sweet Home!” Neither Alan nor Alice wanted to tread on it. They stood in the porch and knocked and called through the letterbox. There was no reply. “We’re not giving in,” Alice told Alan, and he agreed. “We’re not going home until we’ve got this straightened out.”
But some hours later they had to.
The police told them they should stop phoning them. What they were doing, they said, was harassment. Not only to the neighbours, but to the police receptionist. Their neighbours were fine, good people; they shouldn’t hate them just because they were different. “But different in what way?” asked Alan, and he wasn’t angry, and he clearly wasn’t shouting, so he didn’t think he deserved the subsequent warning. “Just different.”
Alan and Alice tried knocking on the doors of other people in the street. Neighbours they’d never said hello to, not in all those years. But no one was ever in.
One evening Alan came home to find Bobby was in the front garden. He was playing in all the bubble wrap. “Look, Daddy,” he said, “I can make it go pop!” He was jumping on it, rolling around in it, setting off a thousand tiny explosions. He was laughing so much. Alan told him to get away from it, get inside the house. It wasn’t theirs, it was rubbish, get away. Bobby looked so hurt—but couldn’t he play in it, couldn’t he and Daddy play in it together? “It’s not safe,” said Alan. “You stupid boy, you idiot. It isn’t clean.”
And Bobby still looked hurt. His mouth hung down in a sad little pout. But then the pout became a scowl. His face contorted. It actually contorted. And slowly, Bobby raised his hand, he raised a single finger. He held it out defiantly at his father.
That night Bobby wasn’t allowed to play golf on the Xbox.
Alan and Alice slept wearing ear plugs. But Alan thought he could still hear the music. He couldn’t be sure. Whether the thumping was the bass beat, or his own heart.
And he dreamed about the mannequin next door with her fake plastic body and tits, and her fake plastic smile. “Oh, Barbara,” he grunted one night, as he took her from behind, bending over like that, arse pointing up to the heavens, just asking for it. He liked to call her Barbara. With his heart thumping away like the drums of Winter Wonderland.
Bobby still played in the garden. Alan would watch him from the window, catching pieces of polystyrene on his tongue like snow. He’d knock on the glass, try to get him to stop, but Bobby couldn’t hear, or wouldn’t hear, and he looked so happy, like an eight year old on Christmas morning. Tilting back his head, mouth wide open, the white specks of packaging floating down on to his face. Spitting them out, or swallowing them down, whichever way the fancy took him.
Alice worked out that the barking next door stopped if no one made a sound. So they tried not to provoke the dog, they trod gently, tried not to walk on floorboard creaks, they kept the television on mute. They talked in whispers, if they talked at all.
“Do you fancy a game of golf, champ?” whispered Alan to Bobby one evening. “We haven’t played golf in ages.” And Bobby shrugged. “You can be Tiger Woods if you like,” said Alan. And so they played golf together, one last time, and Bobby didn’t try very hard, and still won anyway. “We can play real golf one day, if you like,” said Alan. “Real golf, not just this fake version, the real one in the fresh air. We can go and have a pint together in a pub. We can be friends.”
At work, Old Man Ellis summoned Alan to a meeting. It was just the two of them, in that airless little office. Ellis told Alan that if he couldn’t handle his staff, he’d find someone who could.
One night Alan came home with a good idea. The idea had been buzzing around his head all afternoon, it had kept him happy. “Let’s give them a taste of their own medicine!” he cried, and he didn’t even bother to whisper, let’s see what they make of that! And he and Alice got together all their favourite CDs, and they played them in the hi-fi, and turned the volume up as far as it would go. Alice played her Abba, Alan his Pink Floyd. And next door went crazy—the dog began barking like nobody’s business, the retaliatory Christmas music was deafening. But it didn’t matter, it was fun, Alan and Alice rocking out to Voulez-Vous and Comfortably Numb. Even Bobby joined in, and Bobby was grinning, and Alan hadn’t seen Bobby smile for such a long time, and his heart melted, it did. “Can I play some music too?” asked Bobby, and Alan laughed, and said, “Sure!” And Bobby played something his parents didn’t recognise, and it had a few too many swear words in it for either to approve—but they were all jumping up and down to it, and Alan said, “I’m not sure you can dance to it, Bobby, but it’s got a good beat!” And for some reason they all found that simply hilarious. At last, of course, they had to give up; they had no more music to play; they were exhausted. And it hadn’t done any good, Bing Crosby was screaming out apoplectic rage, and their own dog was a quivering wreck of piss and sick. But as they got into bed that night, Alice said to Alan, “Did you recognise it? That was our song. Do you remember? That was the song we used to play, back when we first met.” And Alan didn’t think they’d ever had a song, they’d never been that romantic, had they? But she kissed him, and it was on the lips—it was very brief, but it was sweet—and then turned over and went to sleep. Alan lay there in the dark and wondered which song she had been referring to. Probably one of the ones by Abba.
The next morning, beneath the sea of cardboard and plastic and bubble wrap crap, Alan saw that there were now holes in the lawn. Craters even. It was like a battlefield. And he supposed that last night the neighbours had let the dog out. And that afternoon, at work, he sacked three of his team force. He called an emergency meeting, and sacked them at random. One of them even cried. “But I’ve got a family,” she said. “Tough,” said Alan. “We’ve all got fucking families.”
• • • •
Alice phoned Alice at work. She never did that. “Are you coming home soon?” she asked.
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s the dog. He’s very ill.”
“Well, he’s always a bit ill, isn’t he?”
“This is different. Oh God, he got out of the house. I don’t know how, but he escaped, and he’s just crawled his way back and . . . Come home soon.”
Alan explained he was really very busy, and that he didn’t know much about dogs, and there was nothing he could do to help. But he still left work early, he drove back as quickly as he could.
By now Bobby was home from school. He was crying. “Oh, Sparky,” he said. “Sparky, please don’t die.” And all at once he was an eight year old again, Alan’s special little boy, and he loved him so much, and he pulled him into a hug. And Bobby clung to him, and sobbed all over his suit. “Please, Daddy, don’t let Sparky die.”
“I won’t,” said Alan. “I won’t. What did the vet say? You have called the vet?” And both Alice and Bobby looked at him blankly. Alan felt cross. “Well, why not?”
“Look at him,” said Alice.
The dog was doing its best to stand on all fours, but the paws kept sliding beneath him. At first Alan thought it was simple weakness—but no, it was odder than that, the paws themselves looked so shiny and slippery, they couldn’t get purchase on the kitchen tiles. The dog was trying hard not to look at anyone, it almost seemed to be frowning with human irritation—I know how to stand, don’t worry, I’ll puzzle it out in a moment. Around him lay clumps of fur, big handfuls of it. There was a pool of liquid that looked a bit like cream but smelled much worse.
Then the dog sneezed—a peculiar little squeak like a broken toy, and it almost made Alan laugh. And it was too much for the dog, its legs shot out from underneath him, his belly slumped to the floor in one big hilarious pratfall. And the dog opened its mouth, as if to give some punchline to the gag, and instead retched out a little more of that cream.
“They did this to him,” said Alice. “They poisoned him.”
“We can’t know that.”
“Fuckers,” said Bobby. “Dirty shitty little fuckers, they did this. Pesky nasty motherfucks.” And he glared at his parents, and that eight year old innocence was lost again, and Alan thought it was probably lost for good.
“Hey, boy,” said Alan, bending down towards the dog. “Hey, champ. How are you doing? Don’t you worry, champ, everything will be fine.” And the dog’s eyes bulged wide, in utter confusion, and it retched again. But this time there was no mere trickle of cream. It poured out, thick and fast, as if some hose inside had just been turned on. No wonder the eyes bulged—there was more liquid here than there was room inside the dog’s body, surely!—it was as if each and every one of his innards had been diluted into one same sticky mulch and were now being pumped out of him on to the floor, coming out now in waves, lapping against the dog’s head and getting stuck in the remaining scraps of fur, lapping against the open eyes that stared on beadily in vague disinterest, the contents of his entire body swimming lazily past him and his not even showing the inclination to care. There was a pinkish quality to the cream now, and Alan thought that might be the blood—but the creamy beige flattened the pink out, it became a beige so lurid it was hardly beige at all. And oh God, it wasn’t even liquid, not really, it was like a syrup, soft and smooth, and the dog was now quivering in it, seemed to be supported by it and floating upon it, this syrup so thick you could stand a dessert spoon up in it. Clean, and pure, and hard like plastic.
The dog gave one last shudder, as if trying to shake out the last of its body’s contents; a few last drops out, all done? Good.
“Sparky,” said Bobby.
“Now, we have to be brave,” said Alan.
“Fuckers,” said Bobby.
“Yes,” said Alice. “Fuckers.”
Alan opened his mouth. He wasn’t sure why, to say something, what? Something conciliatory possibly, or just some sort of eulogy for a dead pet, something suitably touching for the circumstances. His family looked at him expectantly. “What,” he asked, “do you want to do?”
“Revenge,” said Bobby. “We’ll get revenge. We’ll poison them, we’ll poison their dog. We’ll . . . we’ll put shit through their letterbox.”
“Right,” said Alan, “right, or we could . . .”
Alice looked at him. Stared at him, in fact. “What, Alan?” she said, and it was so soft, that was the dangerous thing. “Well? Well, tell us. What can we do?”
He tried to think of an answer to that. She waited. Give her her due, she waited. Then she tutted with exasperation, and stormed out of the room.
Alan and Bobby watched the dog for a little while. Even now the fur was still falling from its body, each hair a rat deserting a ship that had already sank. Alan thought he should close the dog’s eyes, if only for Bobby’s sake, but he didn’t. Instead, “Come on,” he said, awkwardly, reaching out to put his arm around his son, then thinking better of it. “Come on, let’s leave poor old Sparky in peace.” They left the kitchen, and Alan left the door behind them.
Alice was waiting for them both in the sitting room. “Here,” she said.
She handed Alan a little cellophane bag, the same she’d use to pack his lunch for work and Bobby’s lunch for school. Inside nestled what looked like three sausages, small and thin, with knobbles on—and they were three turds, Alice’s turds, and they looked so dainty, they looked like polite little lady turds.
“Oh God,” said Alan.
And Bobby grinned at that, a wolfish grin that showed his teeth. “Yeah, all right!” he said, and left the room. He returned a minute or two later, still all smiles, his dog was dead but everything was okay now because they had a plan. And he was carrying his own offering in his bare hands, proud, like a hunter, like a child who had now proved himself a man—look upon the fruits of my labours!—and it was a big greasy hot dog of a turd, and Alan realised that Bobby was really no longer just a little boy.
“You expect me to put these through their letterbox, just like that?”
“Not at all,” said Alice. “We need to tell them why. We need them to know we know.” She went to her desk, found an envelope, a nice big padded one. She wrote on it in bold felt tip: DOG KILLERS. She took her bag of chipolatas dangling from Alan’s still outstretched hand, dropped it inside; Bobby dropped his inside as well.
“Now we’re just waiting for your contribution,” said Alice.
“Don’t you think we’ve got enough?”
“This is a present from the entire family.”
So Alan went to the toilet. He took the envelope with him. He thought of his wife and son outside the door waiting for him. It was too much pressure. He couldn’t perform like that. He strained and strained, he honestly tried. But nothing popped out. He opened the envelope, looked at the turds inside for moral support, at the pioneering turds that would be forebears to his own turds. It did no good.
He flushed away an empty bowl.
“All done?” asked Alice as he emerged.
“Yes,” he lied.
And his family nodded at him grimly. “Then,” said Bobby, “it’s time.”
The neighbours’ house was actually quiet when he stepped outside. It was too early for the Christmas music, and the dog was taking a break from barking. It was peaceful, and Alan almost believed this was a joke, that nothing really had happened, that Barbara and Eric still lived there, and all was well. He wondered if he were being watched as he walked up the driveway. By them, his enemies—and by them, his family—both sides watching his progress secretly from behind curtains. He tried to hold the envelope as nonchalantly as possible, as if it wasn’t the sole reason for his paying a visit, as if, with his pet dog dead, he now wanted to take his pet envelope for walkies instead.
The sun was already setting as Alan reached the front door, and that was peculiar.
For once he didn’t want to attract attention. One simple delivery, and he was done. Gently, very gently, he pushed open the flap of the letterbox. He bent down to it, he peered through into the house—but there was nothing to see, it was dark. Pitch dark, and Alan got the sudden thought that it was from inside the house that the night was leaking. He felt a slight draught from it. He shivered, looked back. The light was almost gone already, get it over with. He measured the envelope against the letterbox, and it was a perfect fit, the right size exactly, and he balanced it there, began to feed it in.
And then from the other end he felt a tug.
At first he thought he’d just hit an obstruction, he prepared to adjust the angle so he could push it through more easily—but then he felt it again, a definite tug—there was something waiting behind that door, and it’d taken hold of the envelope, it was pulling it in.
Instinctively Alan pulled back, and he didn’t know why—he wanted this delivered, didn’t he? But from inside the house he heard a growl, something thwarted, something angry, and he knew then he mustn’t let this envelope going inside that house, he mustn’t let any part of his wife or his son go in there, not even the worst part of them, not even their shit. And he pulled back harder, and the growler was shocked by that, at the sheer nerve of it, there was a gnashing of teeth too, Alan was sure of it. And he set his feet upon the welcome mat to try to get a better grip, and he looked down at it, and that was a mistake, because there was nothing now on the welcome mat, no wording at all—and more than that, there was really nothing there, it was smooth and soft and oh so slippery, and Alan couldn’t stop himself, Alan fell backwards, Alan let go.
The envelope was snatched away; the letterbox slammed shut; the jaws of the house, they slammed shut. And Alan cried out in frustration and fear, and suddenly realised how very dark the night was.
When he got home, Alice was in the bedroom waiting for him. She was wearing her underwear. She never showed that. He could see her breasts peeking out, saying hello. “But where’s Bobby?” he asked.
“Bobby went to bed hours ago,” said Alice. “Hey. You did it. You big, bad, bold man. You’ve been husband to me, and father to our boy. You’ve protected your family, you’ve kept us safe.”
And for only the second time since he’d known her, she tore into him. She ripped off his tie, his jacket, her hands were all over him, her lips too. “I want you so much,” she said, “I love you so much,” and she pulled him down on to the bed—”Oh, okay,” said Alan—and, oh God, she was everywhere, how was she doing that, when she only had two hands, and she was in him and now he was in her and that last bit was pretty unexpected—”I love you!” she shouted, and he wanted her to hush, Bobby would hear, the neighbours would hear—and it was all so silent out there, there was no music at all, and Alan could picture them maybe as a family sitting around the contents of the envelope soberly, “Well, I guess we learned our lesson,”—and Alan wished the music was back, just a bit of it, just to give him a bit of rhythm, it had been a long time since he’d done anything like this. “I love you,” cried Alice, “Alan, why did we ever stop? Why did we ever stop loving each other?” And Alan didn’t know.
• • • •
Alan was woken by Alice with a kiss.
“I have to go to work,” he said.
“Couldn’t you just stay here with me?”
“Not really,” he said.
There was still no sound from next door, and Alan supposed that was a good thing.
• • • •
Alan phoned Alice from work. He never did that.
It was late morning, he wanted to hear her voice.
“I love you,” he said.
“That’s nice,” she replied. “Will you be home at the usual time?”
“I think so. I hope so.”
He phoned her again later in the afternoon, but this time there was no answer.
• • • •
When he got home at last, he was surprised to see the dog was waiting for him.
The fur had fallen out, every last hair of it. But the dog didn’t seem too distressed by this. His face was etched into one big doggy grin, tongue lolling out. He waddled towards Alan on those shiny smooth paws of his.
“Hey,” he said. “Hey. Good dog. Good boy.”
He stroked at his off-beige skin, and it was a little sticky to the touch.
Bobby was playing on his Xbox.
“Hello, champ,” said Alan. “What about Sparky, then? Sparky pulled through!”
Bobby didn’t look up; he was too absorbed in his game. Alice came in from the kitchen.
“Bobby,” she said. “That dog of yours needs feeding.” Bobby’s body twitched in irritation. “Now, come on,” she said. “He’s your responsibility.”
“Hello,” said Alan. “I love you.”
“Now, Bobby,” insisted Alice.
So Bobby tottered to his feet. Then tottered to the kitchen, fetched a can of dog food. He tottered back to the dog, who all this time had gazed after his young master in utter adoration. Bobby scooped some of the food out of the tin with his fingers. He bent down towards his dog. And then, very carefully, he smeared it all over the dog’s face. He smeared it in good and hard, so that the jellied meat stuck there firm—some of it went into the mouth, and a little on to that hanging tongue, but the majority hung off the face and gave Sparky an impromptu beard.
The Bobby sat down again, picked up his Xbox joystick. He squeezed the controls hard, and the remains of dog food oozed out from his fist.
Alan watched, appalled. “What’s wrong with Bobby?”
“Nothing’s wrong with Bobby,” said his wife. “Bobby’s got his dog back. Bobby’s happy, the dog’s happy, everybody’s happy.”
“Are you happy?”
“Of course I’m happy. Come into the kitchen. I want to talk to you privately.” He followed her, and she smiled as she closed the door.
“What is it?”
“You should sit down.”
“I’m having an affair,” smiled Alice.
Alan didn’t know what to say. “What?” And then, “Why?” And, “But you said you were happy . . .”
“I am happy. I’m happy because I’m having an affair.”
“Oh,” said Alan. He supposed he ought to have felt angry. Was that what she wanted? But he had no anger left. He’d used it all up, wasted it on loud music and garden rubbish.
“Don’t look glum, Alan. I’m not glum. We’re going to sort this out. Let me explain how.”
“Okay.” And Alan felt strangely reassured, actually; Alice always sorted everything out.
She explained how she could keep everything she wanted. And how he could get the same thing in return. That way everything would carry on as normal. It’d just be a different normal. A better normal.
He said, very quietly, “Can I have time to think?”
She was very polite. “Of course you can, darling.” He’d been staring down at the kitchen table as she coolly told him what she wanted from him, how she saw their marriage surviving, what her conditions were. And now he looked up at her. She was staring at him closely, and there was still that smile, and her head was fixed to one side for the best angle, and he shuddered for the briefest moment. “Oh, Alan,” she said. “When we first met, I remember. Trying to work out whether we ought to have just been friends. I think, darling, that we lost our way. I think we could have been such good friends.”
“And last night?”
Alice turned her head to the other side, narrowed her eyes, frowned. “What about it?”
• • • •
That night Alan stayed on the sofa. He played on Bobby’s Xbox. He played as Tiger Woods. He beat the computer once.
He went to work. The roads were filled with motorists who’d found love. Old Man Ellis called him in for another emergency meeting, and this time Ellis told him he was a disgrace, and threatened him with redundancy, and Ellis was a short ugly man and body odour clung to him like a limpet, but he’d found love, he’d found Mrs Ellis, he’d made it work, and Alan wanted to ask him what the secret was. Waiting on his desk when Alan came out was an unsigned note calling him “Wanker.” The man who’d called him a wanker was probably in love too.
He thought about calling Alice. He didn’t dare.
He didn’t go straight home. He went to the pub. He sat on his own. He drank lager and ate crisps.
By the time he reached the house, Alice was already in bed. He undressed in the dark, and climbed in beside her. She didn’t move, not a muscle. He couldn’t tell whether she was asleep or awake. Alive or dead. Human or. Or. He wanted to rub against her. In the moonlight, her skin looked so smooth.
There was still no sound from next door, and the silence, the desperate silence, began to hurt.
“All right,” he said, out loud. “I’ll do what you want.”
• • • •
Alan hadn’t been on a date in years, and didn’t know how to dress. So Alice took him to the wardrobe and picked out a tie, a jacket, a shirt, shoes. She inspected the results critically. “You look good enough to eat.” Alice herself was immaculate, she’d never lost the knack, who’d have thought?
“Maybe we don’t have to do this then,” said Alan. “If this is what you like.”
She chewed her lip, just for a second, then laughed. “Come on,” she said, and plucked him by the sleeve, and took him downstairs.
Bobby was playing golf with his new friend. “Hello, champ,” said Alan. “Hello, champs.” He thought the boy on the right was Bobby, because that was Tiger Woods.
“Don’t wait up!” Alice told the two children gaily.
They stood on the welcome mat. The mat read, “Nostra Casa” and “A Very Happy Family Lives Here!” and “Home Sweet Home Sweet Home Sweet Home Sweet Home.” Alan raised the knocker, but at his touch the door swung open.
“We’re expected,” Alice assured him.
The house was pretty. Everything was clean and ordered and there was the smell of recent polish—or was it something besides? On a shelf with the telephone directory Alan saw his padded envelope, still sealed. “DOG KILLER,” it said, and that accusation seemed so spiteful now. We’re all good neighbours, aren’t we, good friends. Next to it, he saw, there were other envelopes, similarly sized—“Cat Poisoner,” read one. “Murderer,” said another. Still more: “Child Abuser.” “Rapist.” “Killer.” “Rapist.” “Killer.”
On a shelf beneath, a cup filled to the very brim with sugar.
“But where are they?” said Alan.
“They’ll be in the dining room,” said Alice. Her eyes were shining with excitement. “Let’s see what they’ve got for us!”
• • • •
They’d cooked pasta. Lasagne, fettuccini.
Barbara had really made an effort. Alan had never seen her with her clothes on before, and she looked beautiful, she’d done a really good job. Barbara smiled, a little demurely Alan thought. “Doesn’t she look wonderful, Alan?” Alice cooed. “Good enough to eat!”
Eric’s smile had no shyness to it, and he flashed it throughout the whole meal. He was wearing a suit. His tie was pure black. Alan thought it made his own striped one look wrong and silly. Eric looked so good, he could have got away with a striped tie; even the Santa hat perched on the side of his head looked smart and chic.
The small talk was very small, but Alice laughed a lot at it, and Alan had almost forgotten what her laughter sounded like. In the background, playing very subtly, was a selection of festive favourites. But there was nothing cheesy about them, they were performed by famous opera singers, and the orchestra was one of the Philharmonics.
It was time for the dessert. “Allow me,” said Alice, “you two have worked so hard already,” and she fetched it from the brand new refrigerator. “Tiramisu!” she said. “It’s my favourite! Oh, how did you know?” And she sat down, kissed Eric gratefully upon the lips.
“Tiramisu, yum yum,” said Alan.
Alice scooped a fistful of tiramisu from the bowl. She looked straight at Alan. And her eyes never leaving his, she smeared it slowly over her face. She massaged it into her cheeks, her lips and chin—then rubbing lower, down on to the neck, thick cream and chocolate peeping over the top of her cleavage.
Alan winced. Alice’s eyes flashed for a moment.
“If you don’t like it,” she said, “why don’t you come over here and wipe it off me? Come on. Lick it off. Lick it off me, if you dare.”
Eric grinned at that, Barbara smiled so demurely. Alan didn’t move.
And Alice smiled such a polite smile from beneath her mask of soft dessert. “I think it’s time we left you two lovebirds alone.” And so saying, she got to her feet. She picked up Eric from the waist, she tucked him under her arm. And they left the room.
Alan couldn’t be sure, but he thought as he left that Eric may have winked at him.
“Well,” said Alan. He looked at Barbara, who was still smiling, but was it really demure, was she perhaps just as embarrassed as he was? “Well,” said Alan. “What do we do now? Just the two of us.”
He reached across the table, and took hold of Barbara’s hand. It felt like the skin of his dead dog.
Alan said, “I hope we can be friends.”
He closed his eyes. He concentrated hard. As if through thought alone he could make that hand warm to his touch, make it take hold of his in turn. As if, by wanting it enough, he could make Barbara love him.
He heard the sound of bedsprings, of his wife shrill and noisy, her screams of pleasure as she reached orgasm. He kept his eyes squeezed tight, and tried to block out all the noise, all the noise there was in the world.