Jan 232013

Joan Byrne

In a basement flat off the Finchley Road, a Siamese cat, an Alsatian dog and a rat called Horatio lived with their owners, Jason and Arabella, known as Bella. Jason was a small-time dealer and Bella used to be an aristocrat, at least that’s what I heard. About the only thing they appeared to have in common was that both were short. Not so bad in a woman, but you could see he wasn’t happy with it. To compensate, he wore special hand-made boots with Cuban heels, which gave him an extra two and a half inches.

When I visited, I’d try to minimise my own height. In any case, I have a natural stoop. He would sit in his chair – rather throne-like, somewhat elevated – in the middle room (the bedroom was at the front) and from here would sell hashish. Guests sat on a sofa which hugged the floor, leaving me with my knees practically under my chin.

In one corner of the room was Horatio’s cage with squeaky toys and a four-poster bed, but he was often let out to roam. Donna, the cat, was, I think, Bella’s. Despite its classic looks, though, it was ugly – especially when it made that yowling noise. The dog – what was its name? – had seen better days. Fur unkempt, back legs weak, and a tail that flopped. Never did see it wag. Was it a guard dog? I believe it was. In theory.

“They all get on,” said Jason. “Animals are like people. We get on. Don’t we? Have to. It’s your expectations that govern things. Lateral thinking. See!”

Horatio and Donna came nose-to-nose before the cat hissed and the rat ran away.

“How much do you want? The Moroccan is cheaper but the Afghani black is a superior smoke. Wanna try some?”

We smoked the Afghani in a pipe that he produced from his waistcoat. Bella came into the room like fresh air.

“Would you like to stay for supper?” she said.

What a nice surprise. I had nothing better to do, and my dinner plans had got no further than anticipated tin-opening and toast.

“That would be lovely. Thank you.”

I bought a half ounce of the Afghani. No sooner had we done the deal than the phone rang, a white phone on a black glass-topped coffee table.

I thought I should leave him to his privacy. Who knows, perhaps he was talking to Mr Big about hashish coming into the country. I went down the hall to the tiny kitchen, the dog sloping along behind me. I needed the toilet and knew it was next to the kitchen. Bella was putting pork chops into the oven.

“Mmm, those look nice,” I said.

“They will be. No, there’s none for you,” she said to the dog, which was looking watery-eyed at her.

“Can I help you with anything?”

“Oh, I don’t believe it – Horatio, get off!” She scooped up the rodent from the bread board. “One minute,” she said.

I went to have a piss and, feeling better for that, returned to the kitchen where I washed my hands. The dog was spread across the doorway.

“Move,” said Bella, giving him a kick in the posterior.

“Bella,” I said, just as Jason strode into the kitchen.

“What’s for dinner?” he asked.

“Baked chops, mashed potatoes, spinach. All right? Unless you want something else?”

“No, that’ll do. Is he helping you?”

“Yes, I thought I would, if that’s OK?”

“Get on with it, then. Beer?” He handed me a Double Diamond.

Once he’d gone, I asked her what she’d like me to do. Wash the spinach, she said. I had only ever come across this vegetable in a tin as in Popeye or in an emerald block of ice, so fresh muddy leaves were new to me.

“Here’s a colander,” she said. She got on with peeling potatoes. We were back-to-back, almost touching, she facing the door and me the sink.

Was I a bit stoned at this point? I would have to say yes. I took a swig of the beer.

“Bella, why do you live here?”

“Oh, I like it. North London is my home.”

“Yes, but – with him?”

“What do you mean?”

I wanted to say you’re a good-looking chick and he’s a bloody midget who thinks he’s King Kong – honestly, what does he do all day?

“The dog,” I said, “don’t you find things too cramped. He’s a big dog.”

As far as I knew all he did was deal dope. He’d been to prison more than once. Besides, he was mad. Sewn into the rim of his boots, he told me, were saw blades. This was so that, if imprisoned, he’d… what? Saw through the bars? And the heels of his boots were hollow to conceal drugs. Here was a man whose greatest achievement was to get three opposed pets to co-exist.

She paused.

“Yes, he is. How’s the spinach coming on?”

I found that rinsing off clumps of dirt was becoming onerous. I could no longer be bothered. I let the water run onto the leaves and I poked them around, and in this way some of the crud was dislodged.

“About ready for the pot, I reckon.”

“Need to put the potatoes on first,” she said, lighting the gas flame with a match.

“It wasn’t the dog I was talking about.”

She turned round and peered at the leaves. If my hands hadn’t been wet I would have held her. I began to rub the splashy hand closest to her along my trouser leg. Jason reappeared on my other side.

“He’s useless at that, isn’t he?” he said to her. “Mate, you’ve got to get all the dirt off. All of it.” He turned back to Bella. “When’s it gonna be ready?”

“In half an hour, Jasey,” she said.

I turned the tap back on and thought it’s funny how between two people there can be something I’d call unfathomable.

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