Dogs, wolves and women
Disclaimers: this is a work of original fiction; please don’t use any of it without asking me. I’m quite nice really and would probably say yes, no problem.
Warning: there isn’t any sex (for once) but there is strong language – understandable, as the narrator is under quite a lot of duress, I think most of us would under the circumstances.
Synopsis: it’s a full moon at Halloween and you’re lost in a strange city. If that isn’t asking for trouble, I don’t know what is.
If you’d like to email me, I’d love to hear from you: Ceri.Lloyd@bodleian.ox.ac.uk.
Dogs, wolves and women
I never saw the appeal of vampires. Well, intellectually I can. I can see what they codify: the other, the frightening loss of control and the horrifying prospect of mingling blood with another race or species. The parallels with lesbians are clearly delineated and symbolically obvious. If I am honest, I have to admit an affection for the folkloric vampire because he is so surreally easy to defeat, the way you can distract him by scattering rice at his feet, and his compulsion to stop and count every grain will be his ultimate undoing. Look at him echoed in the Count on Sesame Street. One, two, three little vampires, ha ha ha. I love it. I guess I do love it, but I can’t take it seriously. I’ve seen The Hunger, and would bare my throat and open my legs for Catherine Deneuve in a heartbeat; cool and blonde and impossibly French. But then I felt the same way watching Belle de Jour and Indochine. No, I’ll leave the vampires to the lonely Goth girls dreaming of Lestat and that deadly kiss. I would rather have the werewolf. Why would I want the crushed velvet decadent super ego of the blood suckers? Give me the id of my inner animal. I don’t want to be ex-sanguinated; I want to be eviscerated, obliterated. Torn limb from limb. I want total and utter destruction.
Have you ever seen An American Werewolf in London? Remember the scene when the two hapless travellers walk into that pub on Tan Hill, and it falls silent as everyone turns round to stare at them? I always thought this was cinematic hyperbole until it happened to me. I can’t even tell you why I picked that pub to go into. I was in a strange city and it was a dark, dreary night; about what you’d expect in this country at the end of October. A thin, miserable rain, nothing as satisfying as a proper downpour, but persistent enough to work through the seams of your clothes and chill you to the marrow of your bones. I’ve heard incomers from much colder countries, Russians and Canadians, whine about the temperature. But it’s not the cold they hate: it’s the damp. I was born and brought up in the North West of England, where the rain first hits landfall after dousing Ireland, an area where you’d be foolish not to take your umbrella out with you every day, even in August, just to be on the safe side. Even so, there are times when I dream of the skin stripping heat of the Mojave, usually when I’m standing at the bus stop desperate to get home.
The weather was keeping everyone in their houses that night. There were no kids dressed as Batman running around off their bonces on sugar and artificial colouring; even the demanding-money-with menaces hoodies were minding their ASBOs, at home watching Corrie with their mums. I’d been in a hotel on my own, which is never my favourite place to be. There’s only so much pleasure to be had from complimentary tea, coffee and bourbon biscuits, those little bottles of shampoo and tiny bars of soap. I’d been lying on the bed, staring at a water mark on the ceiling. If I squinted, it took on the shape of a dog’s head, and I knew I couldn’t stay in that room a moment longer. Outside, water droplets clung to my hair after a matter of moments, the edge of the wind knifed in the gap between the bottom of my leather jacket and the top of my jeans, and I wished I’d been less vain and had brought my anorak.
I pulled the collar up round my ears, and let my feet take me where they wanted. I have an internal Global Positioning System, I have never been lost. Okay, sometimes I’ve not known exactly where I was but I’ve never minded. The exhilaration of being out of control is visceral, almost erotic. I want to be lost, I never am.
So I wasn’t lost when I walked into the pub; I was cold and wet and wondering why it had seemed a good idea to leave the hotel, with its tea making facilities. Right then I could really go a brew. Fuck the call of the wild. I could be up to my neck in hot bubbles with cable TV burbling away in the background. I could raid the minibar and not worry about the excess until I had to check out. Yes, a tot of rum like a merchant seaman while I watched my skin waterlog and prune. That had to be better than freezing my tits off on the streets of an unknown city. But I didn’t turn round and retrace my steps; I pressed forward. I found a swing door and pushed it open before I knew what I was doing.
And that’s when it happened. There were about thirty people in the room, all of whom instantly stopped talking and turned to face me. The fruit machine in the corner continued its desperate attention seeking son et lumière, but twenty nine pairs of eyes were fixed on me. One pair, however, weren’t interested in the slightest. At the bar a woman was gazing intently into the bottom of her silver pint pot, her hair the same colour as her tankard, tucked behind her ears and curling softly at the nape of her neck. I took a deep breath, ignored the fifty eight staring eyes and made my way to the bar to stand next to the silver haired woman, who carried on ignoring me. The barman was, of course, regarding me as if I were some other species. I gave him what I hoped was my most charming smile and ordered a pint of Stella. Unfortunately, it didn’t come in a shiny tankard. It came in a glass that was only one step up from filthy. Being British, I didn’t complain; instead I asked him for a packet of crisps.
“Would you like one?”
I offered the bag of Ready Salted to the woman next to me. Startled, she turned to face me and I gasped. The smoothness of her skin belied the silver of her hair, she was young and beautiful, her cheekbones high and her mouth full, but that wasn’t what had taken me by surprise. She had the most incredible eyes I’d ever seen; not just their colour, although they were an astonishing yellow, her gaze was intense, solemn and for a long moment looked directly into my soul. I blush to say this, as I’m not prone to such grandiose pronouncements, not even in bed, but I felt a connection that was profound, if brief. She shook her head and turned away, nodding to the barman who refilled her tankard without either of them exchanging a word. I sighed and ate my crisps amid the continued silent attention. I made a show of finishing the last of my pint before clunking the glass down on the counter with a flourish.
“Right that’s me off then, folks. Back out into the rain”
The woman’s voice was raspy, rusty, as if it had fallen into disuse. Surprised, I gaped at her and then shut my mouth as I knew I looked like an idiot.
Silent again, she nodded. I was about to ask her how she knew as the curtains were all drawn and no one had come in to the room since me, but as I opened my mouth to speak, she looked away, making it obvious that the conversation was over.
“Well, okay then. Cheers, I guess. Nice to meet you”
I firmly tucked my shirt into my jeans before zipping up my jacket.
“It’s alright, guys, I’m leaving now. You can go back to talking about – well, whatever you were talking about before I intruded”
The thing about making a dramatic exit is that you really can’t glance back and see how it went down. Not that I minded too much; I was glad to be out of that freaky place. My only regret was that I’d never see the silver haired, yellow eyed woman again. She was right: the rain had stopped. Ragged strips of cloud were unfurling across the sky. There was too much light pollution to see any more than the most obvious stars, but up above the trees and the tower blocks, fat, white and spectacular, was a hunter’s moon. A full moon at Halloween. Despite my lack of superstition, I couldn’t restrain a shiver, and I buried my suddenly cold hands deep in my pockets, hunching my shoulders, my breath steaming up the air.
I love cities: the patterns and ribbons of light, the stop and go of red, amber and green, the flashing neon of chip shops, kebab joints and Chinese takeaways reflected in the puddles and the windows of cars. The juxtaposition of the old against the new: the glass and steel of high rise offices looming over the delicate stone, fret work and filigree of deconsecrated churches. I love that you can turn a corner and find a gardened square you never knew was there. I’m at home in them, even if I’ve never been there before. It’s more than my innate sense of direction. I can roam around in what everyone believes to be the roughest parts of town and know that I am in no danger. This isn’t me being complaisant; I’m aware of my surroundings and my position in them, and I’m secure in that place. I know no harm will come to me.
But something was wrong that night. My sense of direction and my sense of belonging were off kilter. The hair at the back of my neck prickled, as if my hackles were raised in a state of hyper awareness, but what I was aware of was eluding me. I was wandering streets that were starting to blend into one another, there were no distinguishing features to clue me into where I was and where I needed to be. Well, I’d wanted to be lost, and now there was a real chance that I was. And for once I didn’t thrill at it. Tension was building and knotting in the pit of my stomach, a thin sheen of sweat breaking out at my hairline and in the small of my back. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being followed. Followed and watched.
I quickened my pace, hoping that I’d find the hotel soon, or failing that, the pub. Unpleasant as it was, it was better than being lost, if that’s what I was. A glimmer of optimistic hope lay at the heart of the darkness of my increasing anxiety: if I asked her, the silver haired woman would walk me back to my hotel. I’d be so grateful, I’d do anything she wanted, and I mean anything. I snorted to myself; it was nice to know that when all else failed, lust was the last thing to desert me. But there was more to it than that. Thinking about the way those extraordinary eyes had looked directly into mine gave me a brief sense of calm. Her silent presence next to me, I’d felt a charge between us that I’m sure I hadn’t imagined. It was something animal; it was almost as if I could smell an interchange of pheromones. I wanted to bury my nose in the warm skin of her like it was fur.
The good feeling didn’t last long. Fear, an emotion I feel so rarely, was spreading its tendrils through the whole of my body, cramping my muscles with the urge to either stand and fight or, more sensibly, run away. Someone or something was definitely on my tail, I could feel eyes burning into my back, hot breath on my neck, but when I turned round, there was nothing there and I could neither flee nor fight. I had to keep steadily putting one foot in front of the other. Tears of frustration, anxiety and growing panic were welling.
“Please, whoever, just get me out of this”
I barely recognised my own voice, it was as squeaky and cracked as an adolescent boy’s. If I had to cry for help, I doubted anything would come out. Not that there was anyone to scream for. The buildings were all blacked out, the windows shuttered and the doors barred. No cars passed me on the street, no bikes or buses. It was a closed down ghost town and I was alone. Alone with whatever was behind me. I was crying in earnest now, tears trickling down my face to drip off my chin and splash on the leather of my jacket, blurring my vision. I stopped and viciously wiped at them with the back of my hand, hating feeling so weak. When I opened my eyes, I realised that I was no longer on an open street. Some how, I had turned off into an empty lot. A tall chain link fence cordoned off an area overgrown with nettles, bind weed and creepers. Scattered in a thin strip of grass, shards of shattered glass glinted in the moonlight; beyond that was a gaping hole in the ground, the basement of a destroyed building. I couldn’t see the bottom in the dark but it had to be at least a fifteen foot drop, a mass of twisted metal and more glass, I guessed, broken concrete and masonry. I stood for a moment, my fingers gripping the links until they dug into the skin, and then banged my palms against the metal until it rattled. Enough was enough; I was damned if I was going to be lost anymore. Whatever was following me could fuck off.
It was then that I heard a sound that turned my blood to icy slush that pooled in my stomach and turned my guts to water. From no more than six feet behind me I heard the distinctive, deep throated growl of a dog. Judging by the depth and resonance of the sound, it was an enormous dog. An enormous dog standing between me and my means of escape.
Devil dogs: beloved of writers and sensationalists from Conan Doyle to tabloid hacks. I’ve seen The Hound of the Baskervilles, the Antichrist’s Rottweilers in The Omen, even Zoltan: Hound of Dracula. But when I turned round to face him, I knew he was no black and tan Hollywood horror dog. He was ancient and mythic, sent out of Hell itself. He was Old Shuck, the Black Dog of countless ghost stories, terrorising travellers on lonely, out of the way roads, or putting the fear of the Dark Lord into a church full of virtuous parishioners. Now I saw him, I realised the stories hadn’t been exaggerated.
The tears started again; I couldn’t help it. He was as black as the night, standing as tall as my waist, eyes hot coals burning in his gigantic head, teeth bared in jaws that could tear out my throat as if it was made of tissue paper. I started to sob. This was so unfair, I’d not lead a blameless life, it’s true, but I didn’t deserve Satan sending out his dog to fetch me. Mine was a run of the mill soul, neither very good nor very bad. But I knew there was no point reasoning with him; he was a dog the size of a pony, but a dog none the less. Dogs, even demonic ones, are not renowned for their negotiating skills. Adrenalin sang in my head, my genetic throwback monkey brain chattering in the trees of my central nervous system. If I couldn’t fight then I had to fly. I was bouncing on the balls of my feet, making calculations at the speed of light; was there any way I could get round him? No, he had effectively blocked the alleyway, leaving me no room to squeeze past. The only chance I had was to scale the fence, praying that he had essential dog physiology and was unable to climb. It was my only option.
With this in mind, I took a flying jump and hoped there was as much remembered monkey in my arms as there was in my adrenal glands. I’d scrambled my sorry arse six feet up the fence when I felt a whoosh of air and the unmistakable snap of jaws, which gave me the motivation to make it to the top of the fence where I sat, wishing I had rocks or coconuts to fling down at Old Shuck. Instead, I gave him a chimpanzee grimace-grin and shouted abuse at him. For his part, Shuck growled and leapt and nipped at my ankles. This could go on for some time, Shuck was showing no signs of tiring. My position was precarious; each time Shuck threw himself at the fence, the sheer weight of him rattled my bones and sent me dangerously close to tumbling onto his teeth or into the big, black hole.
“Cut it out!”
I aimed a kick at his head, managing to connect briefly with the side of his muzzle, doing no real damage, but making him sneeze. It was a tiny victory but I took inordinate pleasure in it.
“Serves you right, you fucker”
Shuck was pacing now, glowering up at me. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut; I called him every name under the sun and told him, in no uncertain terms, that if he thought he was going to get me down, he had another think coming. I’ve always been a smart arse and I’ve been told more than once that it’ll be my undoing but I never paid any attention. Now, it would seem, everyone from my mother onwards was about to be vindicated. Shuck stood for a moment as I called him a Devil-fucking bastard, and then he very purposefully shouldered the fence. Uh oh, that was not good. I felt the fence sway under me. I wasn’t sure how many of those either it or I could take. BAM! There he went again, and the fence gave a stomach churning lurch with the grating sound of something loosening. Alarmed, I let out a piercing yelp and Old Shuck took the bit between his teeth, knowing that one more push would dislodge me or the fence, which would result in the same thing. Both of us were bracing ourselves for the final assault, Shuck yodelling to himself, me muttering fervent and heart felt prayers to any deity that would listen.
And then something rose clear above the din of dog, metal and petrified woman: the clean, protracted rise and fall of a howl. Not dog, both Shuck and I recognised, but wolf. I searched around for the source and saw the shape silhouetted against the moon; up on the roof of the building opposite: the unambiguous outline. Despite myself, I couldn’t help but be awed.
Those might’ve been my last words, but I didn’t care. As last words went, they weren’t bad. And it was true: the wolf was beautiful, up against the sky. Away from the street lights, I could see the stars, layer upon layer, wheeling and spinning, sending their pulses from millions of miles and years ago. If I had to die, then it was good to die on a night full of the cosmos. I forgot about Shuck, about the broken glass and concrete and metal. Instead, I raised my face and my arms to the heavens and laughed at the delights I saw there. Galaxies dying and being reborn elsewhere, the tear of comets wagging their tails like good dogs. I threw back my head and yelled.
“You are beautiful!”
As if on cue, the wolf threw back its head and sang out. What else could I do but howl too?
For a few glorious moments I forgot about Old Shuck, the Devil Dog, and it would seem he’d forgotten me too. He was staring very pointedly at the wolf, as if he was weighing up his options. Panic was raising the temperature of my blood. If it came to it, I fancied the wolf’s chances against Shuck about the same as I fancied my own. For some reason, it was an idea I couldn’t bear.
He looked up at me, as if he was surprised that I knew his name, and for a moment, I felt the occult power of naming things.
“Yeah, Shuck, I know you, you ugly fucker. Satan’s spawn, my Aunt Fanny’s arse. You’re just a lousy old flea bag”
He didn’t like that one bit; now I had his undivided attention.
“You’re about as much a Hell Hound as Paris Hilton’s Chihuahua. What’s the matter, have I hurt your feelings? Well, come and get me then, ya big pussy”
I wasn’t sure I hadn’t taken complete leave of my senses, especially when Shuck resumed his assault on the fence. Uh oh, now I really was in trouble. The fence had been in difficulties before the wolf appeared, with Shuck really putting his back into it, it was only going to take one good push. I closed my eyes and said goodbye to anyone who might miss me. It was a short list and didn’t take long.
“You know, Shuck, I’d like to say it’s been a pleasure but it hasn’t”
BAM! Sixteen stone of demonic muscle smashed into chain link. My world shuddered, rocked over to the left and started to descend with sickening alacrity. I didn’t even have time to scream effectively, what came out was high pitched and strangulated. I was going down, and if Shuck had his way, it was down further than the concrete beneath his paws.
At the last moment, I had the presence of mind to try and tuck and roll, the way I’d seen the parkour boys do. I wasn’t completely successful; pain jarring through my shoulder as it struck the top of the tumbling fence, sending me sprawling, winded and flat on my back. Within a heartbeat, Shuck was bearing down on me, I could feel and smell the sulphur of his evil breath, and I turned away, awaiting the inevitable.
But it didn’t come. I felt the nick of tooth enamel on the flesh of my throat but before he could get any purchase, there was an almighty roar, snarling and barking, and Shuck was forced off me. Naturally, I rolled as far away as I could and curled myself into a ball, only daring to peep out once. There was a streak of silver on a mass of black, I saw the mass of black trying to shake off the silver but to no avail. The wolf was clinging to Shuck’s back, teeth buried in his neck, and no matter how much Shuck bucked and writhed, the wolf kept worrying at him, wearing him down. The wolf looked as if it could keep it up all night. The noise was horrific; I wrapped my arms around my head to try and block it out. Suddenly there was a loud yelp of defeat and the sound of four running paws. I cringed, knowing the fight had simply been a respite and now it was my time. I was oddly dry eyed, not exactly at peace with what was going to happen but resigned to it.
A wet nose pushed into the crook of my raised arm. Too gentle to be Shuck – he’d have torn it off at the shoulder. The nose continued to push more firmly until I could feel not just wet skin but warm, rough fur. The persistence made me laugh, my laughter met by a snuffling noise. I opened my eyes and dropped my arms, one of them coming to rest around the shoulders of the wolf. Tears were pouring down my face again, but this time with relief and joy. I was still alive, and more importantly, so was the wolf. It, or rather she, worked her way even closer, lapping at my face with a surprisingly smooth tongue, making me squeal and giggle like a little girl, the wolf making small happy, huffy noises.
“That’s my girl. You saw him off, didn’t you?”
I ruffled the fur around her ears, loving the texture of it: coarse on the top, silky and warm underneath. I buried my face in it and had a flash to the silver haired woman. Startled, I looked up and met eyes that I recognised in an instant. Astonishing yellow eyes that knew me and saw deeper into the heart of me than anyone ever had, and I let her. I held nothing back.
I whispered in her ear before kissing the tip of it.
“Thank you, you beautiful thing”
And then I knew exactly where I was. I knew that the pub was three streets away to the north, my hotel was round the corner and half a mile down the road to the west. The wolf trotted beside me to the end of the alley before leaping up onto the fire escape of a dilapidated warehouse that backed onto the lot. Sadness swamped me; the gap next to me an aching wolf shaped hole. But it wasn’t safe for her on the open street, someone would call the police and that could only end badly. Still, I couldn’t help but call after her.
“I’m staying at the Marlborough Hotel. Room 316”
Our eyes met for a long moment and then she stepped into the shadows and was gone.
It didn’t take long to find the hotel, I’d only been ten minutes away. Back in my room, I took three miniature bottles of vodka from the minibar and poured them into the glass from the bathroom. I had a good view; the city centre all laid out like a shiny toy town. The place was bustling with people, buses and trams, the air buzzing and thumping with the bass seeping out of the club two doors down. Above it all, the wolf moon was making its way across and down the sky. Before long, it would sink from sight completely. I sighed and took a large gulp of my drink, the glass clinking against my teeth as my hands shook. Not trusting my legs to keep me upright any longer, I sat on the edge of the bed. By anyone’s reckoning it had been one hell of a night. My life had been threatened by a devil dog and saved by a werewolf. I’d wake up tomorrow and tell myself it was a dream, especially when I saw the empty bottles. I’d succumbed to bored loneliness and drunk myself into a stupor. I curled up on the bed, hugging the pillow tight, my teeth chattering even though waves of heat were eddying from the vents. I should’ve got under the covers but I couldn’t move.
Around dawn, I’d fallen into a light sleep filled with images of red eyes and white teeth, black fur and silver fur, a beautiful woman and a beautiful wolf. It took a couple of minutes in this semi-conscious state to realise that the knocking I could hear was someone at the door and not my heart trying to escape my rib cage. That changed in an instant, of course, as I leapt off the bed and made for the door. My heart was jumping around my thoracic cavity like a hyperactive toddler, unable and unwilling to sit still. One, two, three, I breathed deeply in an attempt to calm myself before I dared peer through the spy hole.
She was standing in the hallway, gazing down at her boots; all I could see was the top of her silver coloured head. As if aware that I was watching her, she looked up and yellow eyes met mine. Despite the deep breathing, my heart started to pick up speed as my thick and clumsy fingers fumbled with the security chain. Eventually it came loose and I yanked the door open, and there she stood in all her human glory, a shy smile on her face. I pulled her into my arms so that she could bury her nose in my neck.
I whispered softly and she replied: