You find me on a Tuesday, on my Tuesday trip to town.
You’re sellotaped to the inside pane of the jumble shop window. A photograph of your mangled face and underneath an appeal for a COMPASSIONATE & TOLERANT OWNER. A PERSON WITHOUT OTHER PETS & WITHOUT CHILDREN UNDER FOUR. The notice shares street-facing space with a sheepskin overcoat, a rubberwood tambourine, a stuffed wigeon and a calligraphy set. The overcoat’s sagged and the tambourine’s punctured. The wigeon’s trickling sawdust and the calligraphy set’s likely to be missing inks or nibs or paper, almost certainly the instruction leaflet. There’s something sad about the jumble shop, but I like it. I like how it’s a tiny refuge of imperfection. I always stop to gawp at the window display and it always makes me feel a little less horrible, less strange. But I’ve never noticed the notices before. There are several, each with a few lines of text beneath a hazy photograph. Altogether they form a hotchpotch of pleading eyes, foreheads worried into furry folds, tails frozen to a hopeful wag. The sentences underneath use words like NEUTERED, VACCINATED, MICROCHIPPED, CRATETRAINED. Every wet nose in the window is alleged to be searching for its FOREVER HOME.
I’m on my way to purchase a box-load of incandescent bulbs because I can’t bear the dimness of the energy savers, how they hesitate at first and then build to a parasitic humming so soft it hoaxes me into thinking some part of my inner ear has cracked, or some vital vessel of my frontal lobe. I stop and fold my hands and examine the fire-spitting dragon painted onto the tambourine’s stretched skin and the wigeon’s bright feet bolted to a hunk of ornamental cedar, its wings pinioned to a flightless expansion. And I wonder if the calligraphy set is missing its instruction leaflet.
You’re sellotaped to the bottommost corner. Your photograph is the least distinct and your face is the most grisly. I have to bend down to inspect you and as I move, the shadows shift with my bending body and blank out the glass of the jumble shop window, and I see myself instead. I see my head sticking out of your back like a bizarre excrescence. I see my own mangled face peering dolefully from the black.
The shelter is a forty-minute drive and three short, fat cigarettes from home. It occupies a strip of land along the invisible line at which factories and housing estates give way to forests and fields. There are rooftops on one side, treetops on the other. Concrete underfoot and chain-link fencing all around, its PVC-coated diamonds rattling with the anxious quivers of creatures MISTREATED, ABANDONED, ABUSED. Adjacent to the diamonds, there ’s a flat-headed building with unsound walls and a cavity block wedged under each corner. A signpost rises from the cement. RECEPTION it says, REPORT ON ARRIVAL.
I’m not the kind of person who is able to do things. I don’t feel very good about climbing the steps and pushing the door, but I don’t feel very good about disobeying instructions either. My right hand finds my left hand and they hold each other. Now I step up and they knock as one. The door falls open. Inside there’s a woman sitting behind a large screen between two filing cabinets. There’s something brittle about her. She seems small in proportion to the screen, but it isn’t that. It’s in the way the veins of each temple rise through her skin; it’s in the way her eyelids are the colour of a climaxing bruise.
‘Which one?’ she says and shows me a sheet of miniature photographs. As I place the tip of my index finger against the tip of your miniaturised nose, she ever-so-slightly smiles. I sign a form and pay a donation. The brittle woman speaks into a walkie-talkie and now there’s a kennel keeper waiting outside the flat-headed office. I hadn’t imagined it might be so uncomplicated as this.
He’s a triangular man. Loafy shoulders tapering into flagpole legs, the silhouette of a root vegetable. He ’s carrying a collar and leash. He swings them at his side and talks loudly as he guides me through the shelter. ‘That cur’s for the injection I said, soon’s I saw him, and wouldn’cha know, straight off he sinks his chompers into a friendly fella’s cheek and won’t let go. There he is, there.’
The kennel keeper points to a copper-coated cocker spaniel in a cage with a baby blanket and a burger-shaped squeak toy. The spaniel looks up as we pass and I see a pair of pink punctures in the droop of his muzzle. ‘Vicious little bugger. Had to prise his jaws loose and got myself bit in the process. Won’t be learning his way out of a nature like that. Another day, y’know, and he’d a been put down.’
I nod, even though the kennel keeper isn’t looking at me. I picture him at home in a house where all of the pot plants belong to his wife and the front garden’s been tarmaced into an enormous driveway. His walls are magnolia and his kitchen cupboards are stocked with special toasting bread and he uses the bread not only for toasting, but for everything.
'Any good for ratting?’ I say.
‘Good little ratter alright,’ the kennel keeper says, ‘there he is, there,’ and now I see he is pointing at you.
You’re all on your own in a solitary confinement kennel beside the recycling bins. There’s a stench of old meat, of hundreds and hundreds of desiccated globules stuck to the inside of carelessly rinsed cans. There ’s dust and sweet wrappers and cardboard cups whirling in from the whoomph of traffic passing on the road. There’s the sound of yipping and whinging from around the corner and out of sight. It’s a sad place, and you are smaller than I expected.
You growl as the kennel keeper grabs you by the scruff and buckles the collar, but you don’t snap. And when you walk, there ’s no violence, no malice in the way you move. There’s nothing of the pariah I expected. You are leaning low, nearly dragging your body along the ground, as though carrying a great lump of fear.
'Easy now,’ the kennel keeper tells you. ‘Easy.’
What must I look like through your lonely peephole? You’re only the height of my calf and I’m a boulder of a man. Shabbily dressed and sketchily bearded. Steamrolled features and iron- filing stubble. When I stand still, I stoop, weighted down by my own lump of fear. When I move, my clodhopper feet and mis-measured legs make me pitch and clump. My callused kneecaps pop in and out of my shredded jeans and my hands flail gracelessly, stupidly. I’ve always struggled with my hands. I’ve never known exactly what to do with them when they’re not being flailed. I’ve a fiendish habit of picking the hard skin encircling each fingernail, drawing it slowly down into a bloodless hangnail. When I’m out in the world and moving, I stop myself picking by flailing, and when I stand still I fold my hands fast over my stomach. I knit my fingers in restraint. When I’m alone inside and unmoving, I stop myself picking by smoking instead.
In certain lights at certain angles, reflecting certain surfaces, I am an old man. I’m an old man in the windshield of the car and the backside of my soup spoon. I’m an old man in the living room window after dark and the narrow mirrors at either side of the tall fridge in the grocer’s. Whenever I go to close the curtains or lean in to reach for milk or margarine or forest fruit yoghurt, I’m an old man. My brow curls down to tickle my eyeballs, my teeth are stained ochre, my frown lines are so well gouged they never disappear, not even when I smile. Although I’m impervious to my own smell, I’m certain I smell old. More must and porridge and piss, I suspect, than sugar and apples and soap.
I’m fifty-seven. Too old for starting over, too young for giving up. And my name is the same word as for sun beams, as for winged and boneless sharks. But I’m far too solemn and inelegant to be named for either, and besides, my name is just another strange sound sent from the mouths of men to confuse you, to distract from your vocabulary of commands. There ’s a book on one of my book shelves, now its pages are crinkled by damp, but it’s about how birds and fish and animals communicate, and somewhere it says that animals like you are capable of learning to understand as much as one-hundred-and-sixty-five human words, roughly the same as a two-year-old child. I’m not so sure, but that’s what the book with crinkled pages says.
There was a time when my hair was black as a rook with flashes of electric blue in certain lights at certain angles, now it ’s splotched with grey like a dishevelled jackdaw. I wear it fastened into a plait and flung down the stoop of my boulderish back, and sometimes I think that if I had people I bantered about with, they’d nickname me CHIEF for the wideness of my face and the way I wear my womanly hair, for the watery longing in my wonkety eyes. Only I don’t have anybody I banter about with. My confinement has walls and windows and doors instead of PVC-coated diamonds, but still it’s solitary. Still I’m all on my own, like you.
Everywhere I go it’s as though I’m wearing a spacesuit which buffers me from other people. A big, shiny one-piece which obscures how small and dull I feel inside. I know that you can’t see it; I can’t see it either, but when I pitch and clump and flail down the street, grown men step into the drain gully to avoid brushing against my invisible spacesuit. When I queue to pay at a supermarket checkout, the cashier presses the backup bell and takes her toilet break. When I drive past a children’s playground, some au-pair nearly always makes a mental note of my registration number. 93-OY-5731.
They all think I don’t notice. But I do.