“Oh dear,” the old lady whispered from her chair, her voice rough with smoke and hate. Sha’nonquia had just told Damien that the baby wasn’t his.
“It isn’t mine?” asked Damien wrapping with difficulty his baby-oiled tongue around the words. His teeth were whiter than a baby’s eye and he had the IQ of a book about soil. “Is it,” he chewed, “is it … yours?”
“I WOULD IF I COULD” despaired Sha’nonquia in a line fluff that had evidentially made it past the editors. The strings peaked as she turned away from the sunset to look at another sunset.
Continuity had shit itself.
“I would …” she blubbered like an urban jelly. She wibbled and dribbled. Tears met snot met saliva in a honeymoon glaze of bad times. “… if I coo-oo-oould”
Damien punched a tree.
“There’s someTHING I need TO tell you,” he said, putting the emphasis on the wrong words. “I’M leaving you.”
Sha’nonquia just spilt more face juice. She looked like a drowned cow.
“I’m leaving YOU,” muttered Damien. “For a ghost.”
A sharp musical chord melted into a sweep of strings and yamaha and announcers. That concludes this weeks episode of Get the Fu-
The old lady pressed the red button on her remote and the television screen popped before fizzling to black, and the grand ballroom fell silent. Somewhere a clock was ticking. But the dust didn’t care, the empty chairs didn’t care and the walls seemed to move outwards, the room widening in order to take in all this new damn quiet. She was alone.
“Oh dear,” the old lady whispered from her chair.
She was old. Imagine an ancient book, written in an ancient language, about an ancient kingdom, where lived creatures older than time, who formed galaxies from dust. Imagine those creatures’ ancestors, the First Ones, the birth of all things. Then just imagine a seventy-four year old woman sitting in an armchair and you’re pretty much there.
She looked like a fight between all the rags in the world and all the hair in the world. Her fingernails were problem. All sorts of problems. Her teeth numbered two, were called ‘the broken sisters’, and hated you. But the most terrible thing about her face, the worst of all-
The old lady clicked her brittle fingers.
“Chester,” she rasped. She plucked a soiled bone-shaped meat treat from her terrible purse of such things and dropped it into a dog bowl with a plop.
From another room – the banquet hall perhaps – she heard a scurry of legs and Chester dashed to her side, tongue waggling and big eyes moist. Chester was all at once a good boy, a bad dog, and a human child that been taken from Old Man Cashew’s orphanage and had a dog’s face drawn on his own face with a felt tip pen. He also had a tail, which was not God’s work and Chester didn’t like to talk about it. He ate the treat and just hoped the old lady wouldn’t look at him.
“Do I frighten you, Chester?” she asked, her voice soft but with a sinister steel that seemed to linger in the large loneliness of the ballroom.
Chester ate his treat in silence.
“Chester, my little ruby,” the old lady said again, words carved from bone, “your mummy asked you a question. Do I … frighten you?” She held a meat treat between the yellow pricks of her thumb and fingernails.
Chester whimpered in as positive a tone as he could and gave her withered leg a little nudge with the tip of his nose.
“Oh my little dogspring,” she cooed, “that’s sweet, but I know when you lie. I can see when you lie.”
She turned to face Chester and he looked into her eyes, those terrible eyes. Petrified noise burst from his mouth in an uncontrollable howl. They were a sick yellow all over, with tiny pricks of pupils, and the skin had begun to heal over the sockets. It looked like her face was tried to eat her own eyes, swallowing them like poisoned pills. They were dry, cracked and scabbed, and were staring straight into Chester’s heart.
“Do I frighten you?!” screeched the old lady.
“Yes!” bellowed Chester.
“DOGS CAN’T TALK,” she screamed, striking him across the face. He fell to the floor, face torn with three deep, bloody fingernail grooves, and he sobbed. The old lady spoke again:
“Oh dear. What a terrible domestic accident. Fret not, my furry plumdrop, we’ve plenty of mummy’s methylated iodine. Fetch me a glass of it, two olives, lemon twist, and one for yourself.”
He sobbed on, rosé drops of blood and saline.
“I cannot cry for you, Chester,” she said softly. “The eyes won’t allow it.”
Chester’s sobs faded away, and the quiet returned to the ballroom, punctuated by the soft plop of a meat treat landing in a little dog’s bowl.
Once she had seen off her glass of iodine, and splashed a little on Chester’s bleeding boy face, she bunched her hair and rags into a comfy little nest, and sat deeper into her armchair. She looked like a cloud which had taken really badly to kicking heroin. And also one that had just gone off.
“My little love,” she said, stroking the back of Chester’s neck and cutting it to ribbons, “you’re just a lovely dog, but have you ever thought of where this all came from? I don’t suppose you have.”
Chester’s neck was just a fucking mess.
“Where this all came from, my marmalade poochkin. The house, the riches, my connections with all of the fightiest orphanage directors in the seven isles. And of course, these festering ocular stillborns I’ve been cursed with.”
She tried to blink but the mass of scaly skin around her sockets did not budge. Rather, the pressure caused her right eye, the crustier of the two, to crack open slightly with a plaintiff crunch. A small cloud of midges flew out of the newly-formed fracture and went on to live happier lives.
“I’d give it all up, Chester. My house, my little dog, my collection of aviator pornography that I don’t understand, all of it, just to see the world through the eyes I once had. Pretty and blue, like the ocean. Course, that’s where it started. The ocean, and a tiny little island.”
The old lady took Chester on her lap, fed him one last meat treat and told the story.
“Ah, my wee canine gentleman,” she began, “I remember like it was only fucking loads of years ago. I was young woman back that, an effect not uncommon to those familiar with time as a linear concept, and I was sailing on the high seas. Years before that, a series of either unsuccessful or depending or your perspective, very successful abortions had left me without parents, a little brother or any family at all, at the tender age of five. Thankfully I was saved from the myriad ignominies of Young Man Cashew’s Home for Lonelied Waifs by the offer of good honest work on board one of the most fabled vessels ever to roam the Big Damp – the Godsley Cockpoppet.
“The family solicitor put me in a hansom cab bound for the orphanage with nothing but the clothes on my back and the family dog, Chester – he was a better Chester than you, dear. You REMEMBER that – and I had all but given up hope. However, fate’s dick was big that day, for who should be sharing the cab with me but a young sailor called Sebastian Sweet. Like his friends used to say, ‘Young Sebastian: Sweet by name, He’ll Fucking Cut You by nature.’
“Well, my little dogheaded dogsbody, Sebastian and I just had the most delightful cab journey and in between him threatening to fucking cut me, he told me of his current engagement, ‘aboard the Cockpoppet,’ he said, ‘life ain’t never finer. A bracing wind at your back, two square meals a day and all the timber you can spend.’ I was only an impressionable young grieving orphan back then of course, and as well you know, they absolutely love boats, so it goes without saying that our cab did not stop at the gates of the orphanage. No, it didn’t stop until it reached the harbour.
“The captain was and still is the most peculiar fellow I’ve ever met. Captain Flynn O’ Courke, a thirty year veteran at a ship’s helm by his late teens and owner of the loudest beard in the world. He had taught it to scream Gaelic and once that genie’s out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back. His ship, the Godsley Cockpoppet, was famed for never losing a single hand. When it put into port, every man Jack who’d boarded her would step onto the harbour, as well as all the men who were not called Jack.
“Some of the more superstitious types got to calling it a blessed ship, and this was attributed to number of different things, each more ridiculous than the last. Some put it down to a pact the crew had once made with angels, others claimed that the ships bow’s were built from really lucky trees. Captain O’ Courke, however, he put it down to the Quest.
‘I’m on a noble quest,’ he told me when Sebastian presented me and my amazing dog to him that very day, ‘and it is my belief that our ship shall sail bright and free until that quest is at its end. It’s taken me twenty years of sailing and it’ll take me many years more.’
‘What is your quest?’ I asked.
‘To sail the world,’ he answered, staring out at the blue horizon, ‘and to fight every single fish.’
‘Do you mean one of every type of fish?’ I asked.
‘No, I do not.’
“Well, my fists were keen and so was I, and of course I had such lovely eyes, so they set me to work in the galley, handing out biscuits to the crew and cleaning the pots. Chester was very good at that, as he was at all things. We set off from Plymouth on a course around the Africas. Captain O’ Courke had heard rumours about some absolute wanker dolphins off the coast of Madagascar and we were setting off to give them a lesson in British fists, and perhaps fuck up some sturgeon on the way.
“And so it would go for next fifteen years of my life. We would flit from port to port, never losing a man, and battering the world’s fish. We would sail along with our nets in the water and when they were full of the gilled bastards, they’d be dredged aboard, and we’re set about giving them a damn good thrashing. My first was a bass. I sparked him the fuck out.
“By my twentieth year, the crew had become as family to me, more so than my parents ever were. Billy Cobb, the first mate with a heart of gold that he kept showing to people when they were trying to eat; Karen Savage with her ten pegfingers and ability to speak saltwater; Danny Cauldwell, who had a 1:1 scale tattoo of his wife over his entire body; Cabbage, the midshipman who earned his nickname by eating only fourteen cabbages in his whole life; Big Bitch, who was only a medium-sized bitch; and Teddy Boyd, who always claimed he was ‘on his way to a wedding.’ I was also courting Sebastian Sweet at the time, which considering he met me when I was five, was creepy as all shit. But I always felt closest to the cook.
“His name was Harper, and he was fat as he was small. Yes, tall and thin he was, blessed with a way with biscuit that bordered on the romantic. It was he who taught me all of the most important lessons I ever learned: first, go for the neck; second, go for the fucking neck; third, when life seems to be at its darkest, when all hope seems to have left you, just remember to go, my girl, go for that fucking neck.
“It was a day like any other. Well, not like the days when we weren’t at sea, but like all the other ones. The sea ones. We were off the coast of Spain and I was petting my third Chester – also a finer animal than you – while the Captain and the crew were laying elbow drops on a basking shark when we ran aground. The ship halted, pitched up and we all fell to the deck.
“We all gathered at the front of the ship to see what we had struck. There, wedged under the bow of the Cockpoppet, was the tiniest little island you ever did see. It was like a child’s drawing of an island – you know not the ways of children, wee crying Chester, I understand. It was a small mound of sand poking out of the sea like a pimple on a really really big blue face. Sticking out of its sand was a single palm tree. Simple little thing it was, easy to overlook, but the bow of the ship had wedged in solid.
‘Dig us out and let’s be off, me fine selection of simply-characterised bowsy bastards,’ O’ Courke yelled, headbutting a salmon, and his beard screaming ‘Beidh lá eile ag an bPaorach.’
“Despite my years of service, I was still junior and so, while the rest of the crew returned to the basking shark to make it down a few tall glasses of Punch, Cabbage and I took up shovels and climbed down to dig us free from the sands.
“The sun baked down on our backs as we worked. It was as Cabbage was regaling me about the 6th cabbage he’d ever eaten – the ‘turning point’ he called it – when my shovel struck wood. Cabbage yammered on – he was on the other side of the bow to me, shielded from view – as I prized a small wooden chest from its resting place beneath the sand. It was a simple wooden chest, no possessive markings or signature carvings of any kind. It was the sort of a chest you’d put pretty good plates in, or maybe a few shoes.
“However, I was wiping the sand from the chest’s lid when I found scratches cut into the wood.
‘ – I chewed not once, not twice, but thrice, young miss and would you credit it – ‘ went Cabbage.
“I blew the sand from the grooves made in the lid, and as I did so a message began to appear, cut into the chest.
fourtune faire fourtune keene fourtune shared now unseene
“The message, despite clearly being written by spod, spoke of a fortune, a fortune that, as I assumed from the message, would, if shared, go ‘unseene’. I cracked the lock of the chest with the tip of my shovel and the lid sprang open with a spray of sand.
“Riches, my bow wow beauty, riches as you’ve never seen or would ever understand because you’re a dog. There were pearls the size of a small boy’s fist – you have no frame of reference for this, Chester – blood-red rubies that made your teeth itch, chunks of gold that glinted and glimmered under the midday sun, a first edition of the bible signed by all the main guys except Mark. It set my heart racing, a horrible sickening thump in my chest, and my mouth was filling with saliva. There was enough treasure to set someone up for the rest of their life. Just one someone. I suddenly became aware that I could no longer hear the tale of an epiphany vegetable.
“Cabbage was behind me staring at the chest. It was a reflex, dear Chester. That’s all it was. You know as well as any that I have these turns, these little moments where I’m not sure what I’m… well, Cabbage was dead, because when you hit people really hard in the head with a shovel about sixteen times, that’s what happens. That’s just maths.
“I had the element of surprise on my hands, you see. That’s probably what it was. That and the betrayal, the incomprehension, froze them all to the spot I shouldn’t wonder. Just how and why could this be happening. Big Bitch went down first, you were a damn fool if she wasn’t your first target. Billy Cobb – in the heart; Danny Cauldwell – in his wife’s face; Teddy Boyd – he was on his way to a funeral; Karen Savage – either choked on her own blood or was swearing at me something horrible in seawater. And poor Sebastian, always the guy getting killed by a shovel, and never the bride.
“I found Harper in the galley. At first I didn’t think I could do it, but then I just remembered his advice. I brawled with Captain O’ Courke at the ship’s stern. He was a dab hand with a cutlass, making shitsnacks out of my amateur shovel. But I was young, and my fists were keen. Caught him a solid blow under the chin and he toppled into the water. I was afraid that he would climb back aboard to finish me off when, suddenly, all of the fish’s older brothers cornered him and dragged him beneath the waves, his beard screaming ‘Is iad na muca ciúine a itheann an mhín’ as he went. Roughly translated, ‘It’s the quiet pigs that eat the grain.’ Or, in other words, it’s always the one you least suspect.
“That was how the infamous Godsley Cockpoppet returned to Blighty, plus a chest of gold, but minus all hands, bar one. I made up some flimflam about pirates and daring escapes. After all, I was such a beautiful young thing with such lovely eyes, how could I possibly … well, by the time I cleared my case with the authorities, the Cockpoppet was already being referred to as a cursed vessel. Pacts with the devil, really unlucky trees, the usual rumour mill. I wasn’t concerned. I had precious metals to broker.
“Bought this old place, and retired to a life of puddings and sparkling fluids. Wasn’t for about three or four years after that that I first notice a slight itch in my right eye. Thought nothing of it, bought the fanciest eyedrops in town, with real gold flakes floating in them, and thought that would be that. That was not. My eyes would begin to ache at night, they would inflame at the drop of a hat, I would wake to find them sealed tight with crusted pus.
“Specialists were sent for, appointments made and kept, but nothing could be done. My eyes began to leak corrosive fluids that ate away at my eyelids, they would dry out in the sun and the world around me warped and gradually faded away to darkness, now … unseene.
“I had hoped that by locking myself away in here all these years, spending so very little, perhaps the less I touched my fortune, my eyesight might return. Alas, I am blind and broken and withered beyond measure, with naught but an endless succession of Chesters to keep me sane.
“I’m,” the old lady faltered, “I’m scared of the dark, Chester. I thought it would get easier with time. It hasn’t. I’m awfully frightened.”
Chester looked up at the piteous old hag, her misshapen, deformed eyes. Out of the corner of the left eye, where the overlapping flesh almost covered the pupil, he could make out the tiniest little tear. A single brave drop that had forced its way to the surface, the first of his kind in almost a decade. Moisture at last. The old lady’s lips were wobbling like a mess.
“Do you ever get scared, Chester?” she asked, tried to hold back dry sobs.
Chester placed a hand on her shoulder.
“I do,” he said.
She struck him across the face.
“DOGS CAN’T TALK.”