A short story by Johnny Rich
The room smells of melancholy and the taste of it in Juliet’s mouth makes her think of dry rice and cigarette ash although there is no reason why it should. Memory, she thinks, is funny like that.
She sits on a grey moulded plastic chair, one of a row on coarse green industrial carpet-tiles against a light painted wall with a picture rail but no pictures. She is sitting upright; she has to with Oliver lying with his head on her lap. And as she sits, she strokes the back of his skull, feeling its warmth and its secret bumpiness and its corporeal weight on her thigh. As he sleeps, each exhalation seems to her an ineffable sigh, as if it were his last although she knows it won’t be, not yet. It’s just the pain, she thinks.
His sleep isn’t peaceful, she can see that without waking him. At times his eyelids part fractionally and the eyebrows jump occasionally. Those eyebrows, the acute curve of them, the angles they come to between his eyes which always seem to be asking, always seem to be upset, always seem to be sorry. When she looks at him, at those eyebrows, she could never be cross with him for long. He’d stare at her, apologetic and fretful, and she’d just melt into laughter and clutch his face and hold him close and kiss him. She moves her hand now over his ear, which she has always thought is like golden velvet.
She hates this waiting room. She hates the room and she hates the waiting. She hates the fact that Oliver hates it even though he hasn’t the strength to hate it now. So many important times in his life have orbited around this room. It’s typical of how he hates change. At first, change excites him; he runs around taking in all the new things, the sounds, the sights, the smells, especially the smells.
Like when she moved out of her parents’ home and Oliver came with her to the pokey garden flat, the best place she could afford where he’d be allowed to live with her. Oliver had hated the change then, even though at first he’d bounded about the place like a puppy. “You’re old enough to know better,” she had told him as he got in the way every time she wanted to get through a doorway.
By their first evening together in the new flat, he had calmed down, but couldn’t sleep. Every five minutes he would get up and walk through to the front door, stare at the handle and then stare back at her, then stare at the handle again. ‘Oliver, come back and keep me warm,’ she said each time and he’d trot back, find a curve in her body that matched his and snuggle up close in front of the two bar electric fire and the television. Oliver liked television although it would usually send him to sleep within a few minutes. That night, though, he lay awake for hours, most of the night, Juliet guessed. Certainly she woke a few times to find him bounding back on to the bed or off again on another mission of patrol or reconnaissance.
The next day as she unpacked, as familiar objects and odours came out of boxes and bin-liners and into cupboards and drawers, onto shelves, Oliver became more settled or perhaps he was just over-tired. After all, Oliver likes his sleep, Juliet tells herself.
He’s sleeping now, but his tail hangs down towards the floor flicking in an agitated way as he lies across three chairs, including the one that she’s sitting on, with his sleeping chin on her lap. He’s drooling again, onto her jeans. She has some Handy Andys in her cardigan pocket, which she’s brought for him specially, and carefully, she mops his chops. This, she is very aware right now, is a profound act of love. Even now, when others, such as the middle-aged woman across the room with her Barbour jacket and her ball of something fluffy in a wicker cage, would look at Oliver and find him fusty and musty – no more than a lolloping, dribbling smell – Juliet still wants to do this for him. How he’d hate the indignity, she knows. He’s hating all of this.
She’s hating all of this, especially the waiting. This is worse than last week when she and Oliver came to see the vet because he had stopped eating – even the special little treats she gives him although she knows she shouldn’t – and what he did eat, he couldn’t keep down. At first Juliet didn’t worry, because Oliver had been getting a little portly lately anyway, just like any old gentleman. It wouldn’t hurt him to lose a pound or two. It wouldn’t hurt her either she’d thought and they took extra walks together until Oliver started to drag behind and sometimes lie down on the lawns in the park and then once or twice on the pavement on the way home. That wasn’t like Oliver at all. He loves his walks, bounds more like, leaping low across the grass, a rhythmic mass of muscle, coat flying and flowing and ears, tail and tongue flapping. Then he’d stop, crouch, and leap up again, tail swinging as he raced back and danced around her.
For about two months, he has hardly walked, he has waddled, like a mass of liquid in a furry bag, as if each part of the system has gone its own way and the process of herding them into each step is an act of conscious will. The change crept over them stealthily and its stealth allowed them to deny it, to suffer it, even though they both felt its predatory approach. Try as he might to hide it from her, Juliet knew Oliver was in pain, but she was sure he was trying to be brave. Oliver doesn’t want me to know, she had thought, but we have ignored it long enough, hoping the pain will go away.
And so they had come here together. Oliver hadn’t wanted to, but Juliet had said, “It’s for your own good, Oliver. Come on, Peter won’t hurt you, you know that.” Although as she said it, she blushed as she realised it wasn’t actually true. Oliver knew better. Oliver knew that in fact, behind Peter’s round glasses and his kindly look, behind his hygienic smell, he had been a harbinger of pain on many an occasion.
There was the time, nearly twenty years ago, when Juliet and Oliver met Peter for the first time. In those days, Peter had had long unruly hair, a zapata moustache and wore tie-dyed shirts under his loose-fitting white lab-coat. And Juliet: Juliet was just a little girl, prissily attired in a dark blue dress dotted with little purple flowers, pouting sullenly as she clumsily clutched the wriggling, yapping Oliver to her chest. She’d looked up at him and called him Dr Usher and he’d said, “It’s Peter, please – we got a very friendly practice going here” and she’d suggested that then perhaps the sign on his door ought to say ‘Peter’ not ‘p usher’. She didn’t want to be antagonistic, but such informality in an adult had increased her nervousness rather than allaying it and she wanted to say something precocious so that Oliver would know matters were in her hands. He’d laughed good-naturedly and said, “You’re absolutely right, but I like the thought of a door you should pull which says ‘pusher’ on it. Especially, when there’s me doling out drug prescriptions on the other side. Besides, none of my patients can read, can they?”
Maybe not, Juliet had thought, but they sense these things in other ways and Peter shouldn’t be so casual, especially when talking to a girl of ten and a bit. Oliver stood on the table. In those days, his feet were like big paddles and his skin didn’t really fit. Peter Usher, who smelt different then, more exotic, and didn’t wear glasses, grabbed the scruff of Oliver’s neck and stuck in a needle which made Oliver yelp and squirm and then whimper dejectedly when Peter took it out. Juliet took him up in her arms again and held him close to her, telling him it was okay, it was all over and she rejoined her mother in the waiting room which in those days had a brown carpet and purple curtains with a pattern.
But it wasn’t all over. Six weeks later, they were back again and Oliver had been so fractious as they waited in the waiting room that Juliet had had to keep him on a leash, which they both hated. Juliet swung her legs to and fro as she sat on the moulded plastic chairs. Her mother read the magazines.
In this room Juliet could never bring herself to read the magazines. There was always too much on her mind. Although, now, she was wondering how the magazines got there. Surely Peter doesn’t read Chat and bring it in when he’s done with it? Or maybe it’s his wife’s. If he’s married. Probably not. Or perhaps the receptionist gets through both Cosmo and House & Garden every month? Maybe they subscribe, but if they do, why these magazines? Why magazines at all? If she ran this place, Juliet decides, she’d have a few good books; light stuff you can dip into but wouldn’t want to read, like Mary Wesley or Joanna Trollope. Maybe some poetry: Wendy Cope, perhaps, although you could be more heavyweight with poems. But you wouldn’t want anything too depressing, not in here. And suddenly, a line comes into her mind – To die, to sleep; to sleep: perchance to dream – and she looks at Oliver in his unsettled sleep and then she feels her throat gag with tears.
She had thought she was done with crying for the time being. Surely she must have run out of tears after the last week. She never normally cries. Never. Except sometimes at a film on a Saturday night, usually at least once a month, when she’s got nothing better to do and she’s feeling sorry for herself. Then she likes nothing better than to make a big flask of hot chocolate mixed with Baileys and settle in front of a video, black and white, snuggled up with Oliver and sharing biscuits. Even though he usually falls asleep. He wakes up at the end and sees her crying. He looks at her asking what’s wrong and licks the salty tracks from her cheeks which tickles and makes her giggle.
She can feel a tear now, crawling a path down her face and, with a sniff, she pulls out one of Oliver’s Handy Andys and blowing her nose, pulls herself together.
Nights like those, she thinks, nights in with Oliver, were the best she’s ever had. Why couldn’t Adam have been more like Oliver on nights like those? Not that Adam was ever that bad, not really, despite what she’s said to Oliver about him. Okay, Adam betrayed her, but after all, he’s only human. But that’s the good thing about Oliver, he’s never betrayed her, ever. Not like she’s betrayed him.
Thinking about it, Adam was almost the complete opposite of Oliver. If they went to the park, all Adam had ever wanted to do was lie in the sun and read the papers or watch other women walking past although he’d protest he wasn’t, he was just looking at a BMW convertible or something. And, of course, Adam loved change. Couldn’t get enough of that, could he? Change. From the moment they met when he had come round to fix the door after Juliet’s third break-in in as many months.
“You should get a different type of door,” he’d said, “and a different lock.”
“But I like my door,” Juliet had told him. He’d looked at her like he didn’t believe it. “I like yellow and I like the panels.”
“That’s okay. It can be yellow and it can have panels,” he’d said quick as a trap. “It’s just this bit here is always going to be a cinch to kick in. Especially now it’s happened… how many times d’you say?”
“Three times,” she had replied meekly as if it had been her fault to have been burgled three times, her fault because she likes silly things like yellow doors with panels.
“Yeah, okay, three times. So you got to change the actual door, so you might as well change to a better type. Safer. Designed to accommodate a better locking system.” He talked at her like a brochure, selling her the delights of her new door, but then she’d begun to feel that that wasn’t what he was after, this tall man with brown eyes like a bear who had stood with the sun behind him in her doorway without his shirt on and giving off a pungent, sweet scent which had made her think of roast beef. It was the speed of his speech, she had realised, he was nervous. Nervous of her.
“I could put one in for you, if you like,” he had said. “Come back on Saturday and do it for you. I wouldn’t charge. Well, just for the door and the lock and the hinges and that, but not for the labour. Would you like me to? I’ll just put in a temporary one for now, if you like.”
Oliver had stood at Juliet’s heel regarding the stranger blankly, but, Juliet thought, obviously with his own quiet suspicions.
“How much will it cost then?” she had asked.
“Not more than fifty. If that. Prob’ly less.”
“Okay. Alright. You can come back on Saturday morning,” she had said and then realised that it sounded a little begrudging. She knew she could come across like that sometimes, especially when people were being nice to her, but she was always wary of their motives whenever they interfered. She smiled and added, “Er… what’s your name?”
“Okay, Adam Great. Thank you.”
“No, it’s just Adam,” Adam had explained. “I was just saying ‘great’, because, er…” and he trailed off.
“I know,” she had said and left him to replace the door frame and put in the temporary door under the watchful supervision of Oliver while she made him a cup of sweet milky tea and a cup of coffee for herself. She thought at the time that now she was beholden to him and she hated that, hated owing people, not clearing everything up at the end. Owing people things made things complicated, made them expect you to live up to expectations. It made for awkward relationships. People always have other reasons for everything and she thought she knew what Adam’s were. She had guessed by the way he’d tucked in his T-shirt when he came to the door and by how he’d taken it off later when he’d started his work, lifting it over his broad chest with his arms crossed. She had guessed also, by the way he coughed slightly as he spoke to her and had kept flicking his gaze away from her face to her neck, her breasts, his hands, her bare feet and finally, with a turn of the head, to the splintered door frame.
On Saturday, Adam had turned up dressed rather too smartly for handiwork and he had greeted her and Oliver like reunited friends, shaking her hand with both of his and squatting down to rub Oliver’s neck with his big palms and have his cheek licked.
“I love dogs,” he’d said, although clearly, she’d thought, he was not enjoying Oliver’s attentions. But she looked down at him trying to like it and warmed to him anyway, because Oliver clearly had. She knew Oliver was a better judge of character than her, less cynical, more open and trusting, which is what she felt she ought to be.
“I’ll get the door,” he’d said, “and my other stuff and I’ll be back in a jiffy.” He bounded out of view to his van. Oliver decided to trot after him and Juliet giggled to herself because she thought ‘jiffy’ was a funny word the way he’d said it and it was obviously not one he’d ever used before.
Juliet giggles to herself again in the waiting room as she remembers what happened next. She ruffles a big furry clump of Oliver’s jowls in her hand. She leans forward and lifts his ear. “You did that on purpose, didn’t you?” she whispers into it.
After Adam had fixed up the new door, they sat on her sofa at opposite ends, drinking tea for him, coffee for her, with their knees just touching sometimes because the sofa was small and his legs were long and they both had to sit at an angle so they could look at each other. They talked about how Adam wanted his own business, carpentry (but proper craftwork not just shoving up shelves and that), and how he was making a rocking horse at the time from limed beech. And then Oliver had just strolled in, carrying his leash. He had planted himself in front of Adam and sat there upright and expectant with it dangling from his mouth, looking gormless. Juliet was quite shocked. That innocent look didn’t fool her for a moment. He never fetches his leash when he wants to go for a walk. He just nudges at the door in the bottom corner where it opens. They both hate his leash and she only makes him wear it till they get to the park.
“I think he wants a walk,” Adam had said. “Do you want me to take him?”
“No, no, it’s okay.” Juliet had darted a scornful look in Oliver’s direction, but he was obliviously continuing to stare at Adam.
“I don’t mind. Honestly, I’d like to,” insisted Adam.
The three of them had ended up in the park together, because Juliet hadn’t really wanted Oliver abandoning her for a walk with Adam. Oliver and Juliet were hardly ever apart and she knew that Oliver had only proposed the walk imagining that she would come too. The two boys had bounded about the park together, throwing sticks and running after them and Adam had bought them all ice creams, well, lollies for Oliver and Juliet and an ice cream for himself.
That was the only time Juliet had ever known Adam to bound about with Oliver like that. His eagerness to please waned after a night three days later when they had shared an Italian meal and two bottles of wine and he had come back to check she got home safely and to say hi to Oliver and to see how the door was doing. He had nuzzled her neck and had kissed her with swathes of passion and had then interloped his way into her bed. She had let him, hoped he would.
Oliver had leapt onto the bed too and Adam had led him into the sitting room and installed him on the sofa before tip-toeing naked back to the bedroom and shutting the door. After they had made love efficiently, Juliet had lain awake as Adam’s breathing washed backwards and forwards like a tide. She had been certain she could hear Oliver upset at the door, but when she got up she found him also asleep where Adam had left him.
She had woken him and let him pad through into the bedroom, where the three of them had slept side by side in the double bed with Juliet in the middle with her arm around Oliver.
Juliet thinks about the three of them in that bed together and imagines from a viewpoint on the ceiling what they must have looked like lying there asleep and, as she pictures it, she realises there is a quietness in the room, in the waiting room, and Oliver’s breathing has stopped in his sleep. Her ribs tighten sharply and her forearms bristle. There is sudden panic streaming all through her body and her own breath has turned into short gasps as she thinks, thinks, thinks what to do.
But then Oliver breathes out slowly and rearranging his jaw begins to drool again. Juliet collects herself and mops his mouth tenderly and then chokes loudly as she realises that she herself had forgotten to breathe.
“Excuse me,” she says by way of apology to the woman in the Barbour who has brought a book to read. Juliet feels genuinely sorry to have broken the stillness in this room where anything less reverent than the solemn sounds of Oliver’s sleep seems almost sacrilegious. That is what this place is like, it occurs to her, a mausoleum. Outside, the sun might be beating on the door or the rain might be lashing against it, but in here, it is always chilled, dry and silent.
The woman looks up from her book as if more surprised by Juliet’s apology which deliberately breaks the silence than by the cough. She smiles and looks back down. Juliet tries to see what she is reading, but the cover is tilted too far down. She imagines it is a local library book, in large print, like her mother used to read when she used to bring her and Oliver here.
She remembers the kerfuffle at the library when her mother had tried to explain what had happened to the books on holiday when Oliver first came to live with her.
The family – which, before Oliver, was just Mummy, Daddy and Juliet – had gone on a week’s boating holiday on a barge on the upper reaches of the Thames and Juliet’s mother had stocked up with her maximum limit of four large-print books from the local library. She would always take books like Rebecca and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, stentorian stories of lonely or abandoned women, other lives which her mother would visit for a couple of hours a day and a few minutes before sleeping. Both Juliet’s parents were relatively old when she was born and, whenever possible, Juliet’s mother would borrow the large-print versions, not really because of her poor sight, but because she liked to feel she was making steady progress through the pages.
All the books had been on the barge, along with all their holiday paraphernalia and the wrapped presents for Juliet’s tenth birthday, when they moored up on their first day and strolled across the fields and into the village for provisions. Strolling back, Juliet became impatient and wanted to run ahead.
Juliet replays the scene in her head, an anecdote she’s told a thousand times, each time more distant from it, remembering the last time she told it and not the events themselves, although sometimes something will jerk them back into the present: the smell of petrol perhaps.
As she ran across the fields, first she saw the inverted cone of turbid smoke, tumbling skywards, then the red and blue lights, spinning and reflected off the rising pall. Next the vehicles came into view and the busy people, busying themselves watering down the blackened hull by the bank, billowing out the column of cloud. Juliet turned and ran back, back to Mummy and Daddy.
“There’s a police car and ambulances and the fire brigade and I can’t see the boat,” she had blurted when she reached them.
They had laughed at her at first, not knowing how to take this joke, but they were close enough by then to see for themselves the grey trunk of smoke in the middle-distance. The three of them ran together to the small crowd gathered at the river’s edge where the barge clearly no longer was. It was the last but one time that Juliet could remember her father running, the last being once when he desperately needed the loo in a motorway service station.
The unctuous boat owner was there and had come towards them as they approached, shaking Daddy vigorously by the hand, holding on and speaking quickly. “You’re safe. Good. Uh, she’s exploded. Good, you’re safe. Oh, thank God.”
“What happened?” Daddy had asked the boat owner, the police, the firemen, but it was never really answered.
“What about our things?” Mummy had asked. But a red lambswool jumper, a purchase she had made specially for her honeymoon eighteen years before, rolled sulkily in the water by the muddy banks, blackened and shrivelled in places like barbecued flesh. Charred belongings scattered the banks and the river and the bright paper and ribbons of Juliet’s presents no longer existed.
A few items, however, did survive: strange things. The laminated Scrabble board and at least half the tiles, although the box had become pulp under the fire-hoses or the river. The family size tube of Signal toothpaste – in those days they were still metal – had ended up on the towpath. And luckily, Mummy’s reading glasses, protected in their silver case, were returned to her the next day when the police came to ask them for details.
The boat owner had put them up overnight in a local B&B and in the afternoon, after they’d been shopping for clothes and toiletries, he offered them a full refund and a new barge for the week at no cost, but Daddy had insisted he didn’t want the refund because, as he had explained later to Mummy, it might prejudice their Statutory Rights.
The next day was a Sunday and Juliet’s birthday. They’d left the excitements way upstream and had re-equipped themselves as best they could, but there were no presents for Juliet. She understood and felt slightly compensated by the excitement, but didn’t want to show it, so she stared dolefully over the edge of the boat at the shining folds of water turned by the barge as it moved silently by. They came to a lock and Juliet leapt ashore with the big lock key ready to perform her duties as superintendent of the gates. There was a lock-keeper’s cottage with a sign saying puppys need good homes. Juliet turned the big handle and Mummy joined her while the water drained and the barge was lowered between the lock walls.
“Look at that, Mummy,” said Juliet and then, while Mummy was still reading it, “You know what I’d really like for my birthday?”
Mummy felt terrible about the presents and, just at that moment, Daddy was too busy in the boat to talk some sense into Juliet.
Oliver and his brothers and sisters tumbled around clumsily in a cardboard box lined with a travel rug and with the front turned down. The lock-keeper explained that he had almost run them over in the car on Friday, the same day that the barge had exploded. Been abandoned in the road, they had. By someone who wanted shot of them, he’d reckoned, but as he was driving in to town and would be back later, he’d reckoned on just leaving them on the verge, in case the mother were around. But he’d come back and there they still were, so he’d taken them up and thought as how he’d find homes for them if he could.
Juliet was chasing them around the floor, but settled on one who had bored of nosing around his new surroundings and was asleep in the box and who had hardly stirred as she lifted him up.
And now, Oliver sleeps again, hardly moving but for his tail which continues to stir the air, still not at peace in his sleep.
The door which nowadays says ‘peter usher’ and swings both in and out, swings out. A lanky black boy, about twelve – or maybe sixteen, Juliet can’t tell anymore – lopes out in front of his father, or maybe his older brother, holding a cat in his arms which, Juliet notices, as they wash past wordlessly and out through the other door, has been shaved above its right hind leg and has been stitched with thick black sutures. Juliet hopes the woman in the Barbour is next.
The mausoleum silence has been disturbed again and takes a few moments, a few foot shuffles and a sigh from the woman opposite to settle again. Oliver doesn’t move, even his tail now hangs motionless.
But he is still breathing, breathing softly.
Juliet thinks about Adam again. Adam and his changes. All the little compensations and petty compromises that he brought into her life. Like the answer-machine he got her, so he could be sure he would be able to let her know his movements, whether he’d come over. It seemed so pointless to her. Why couldn’t he just turn up, if he wanted to? And if she was out, he could go away again or wait if he really wanted. She was very rarely out anyway it seemed to her: there were walks with Oliver and shopping trips. And once a week, she’d go into Soho to see the publishers for whom she did proof-reading and subbed dull key stage two science books.
In the first month she had counted the number of messages to see how worthwhile it was. Six. Two of which she didn’t want and the others would have probably got hold of her anyway sooner or later rather than her feeling she had to call them back and then playing telephone tennis as she left messages on all their machines. Not one of the messages was from Adam either, not in the first month at any rate. She was always in when he called, or she had been during that month. The vase could have stayed in its place by the phone. Even though she only rarely used it for flowers.
Perhaps Adam should have bought her flowers more often rather than an answering machine, she thinks.
And he liked to go out. So does she, of course. A meal is nice, a movie, perhaps. She likes quiet pleasures and she doesn’t mind admitting it, but Adam didn’t. Adam always wanted to go clubbing which she point-blank refused to do, for three reasons: because they’re too noisy, they’re too crowded and because she always ends up reeking of smoke. Why, she wanted to know, did he want to go anyway? They’re only places to prowl for sex and so what was the point when he was virtually living with her anyway?
In three years, they never did go to a club. In fact, Juliet can only now remember two occasions when she’s been to a club in all her thirty years. Except when she’s been on holiday, abroad, when she was still living with her parents and they looked after Oliver. Or when she was at university where she went to ‘bops’ and when she and Oliver missed each other terribly.
Even when Adam and Juliet went out to dinner, Oliver would be at the door when the key turned in the lock and he would be getting excited and would start to make a noise, his low friendly barks. Sometimes Adam would want to stand at the door and kiss before going in, but Oliver would always hear or smell them.
Juliet bends down her head and lifts Oliver’s ear again, whispering into it, “You were worse than Mummy and Daddy, you know. You are.”
When Oliver interrupted them, Adam would sigh or sometimes click his tongue at her. But she didn’t want to stand outside snogging like a teenager with Oliver inside making a racket. Adam surely couldn’t have thought it was romantic.
He used to do that quite a bit, click his tongue, disapprovingly. For example, when she used to give Oliver titbits from her plate, which he’d chomp cheerfully. She did it especially when she was cross with Adam, partly because she knew he didn’t like it, but mainly because Oliver was always her ally.
“You’d rather I ate them and was fat?” she had asked him once when, predictably, she heard the clicking of his tongue on the roof of his mouth. He didn’t reply. He just breathed heavily as he got up and walked through to the sitting room to switch on the television.
It was little things like that, nothing particularly awful in their relationship, that meant they never actually moved in together or got married or whatever the next step was. Things like that and the fact that her flat was too small really for the three of them and his, well, they didn’t often go there because Juliet didn’t like to leave Oliver overnight and so it was still his more than theirs.
So it ended and Juliet repeats to herself now, as she always does when she wants to conclude this internal debate and feels her bitterness rising, that it was nobody’s fault. They just couldn’t move on, so they had to stop. But the way he did it, there really is no way she can call it anything but betrayal.
She had always said that fidelity was a big thing for her and even though now she has eventually come to believe his confession on her answering machine: that it was at least partly her fault because she wouldn’t bend to his needs, not just sexually, but that, sexually, he had felt the need, just that once, to experience something other than them before he felt he could bend entirely to her forever. She hadn’t been sure she wanted him to bend entirely to her forever, but she had phoned him back and told him he could come over to talk.
She had expected apologies, but as it had turned out, his confession had only been half the story. He wanted out. He said he had realised that, although he was willing to change to make things better, they would never change together; this was the best they could hope for. So maybe he was better calling it quits.
She had said she didn’t want things to change. And she didn’t see why they should. And did they have to talk about it? She said she hated talking about it. Why couldn’t they stay as they were, everything was fine?
He had said it wasn’t, they weren’t, that they would never be good enough, because nothing real was ever going to change.
She had asked why they couldn’t keep going and see what happens.
He had said that they already had been doing that and that he was twenty-seven and that she was twenty-eight and that they weren’t so young that they could afford to wait for change. And change is inevitable, he had warned.
And he had been right. Change, Juliet knows, is inevitable. However much she hates it. And everything was not fine and is worse now.
She had watched from the yellow-panelled door whose paint had begun to chip as Adam bounded to his new van. Oliver had stood beside her and leant against her leg without a word.
Last week, Peter found a growth in Oliver’s stomach. He wasn’t portly. He was dying.
Juliet asked what was the best thing to do, but she knew when Peter paused.
“Put him to sleep,” he said.
“If you like.”
“No, I don’t like. I don’t like at all.” Juliet said angrily, biting her lip to keep it still but it wasn’t doing any good because she knew she was about to cry anyway.
Peter spoke to her softly, as if she were a little girl, but not like that time when she had been. “You can take him home now, but he’s in pain, Juliet.”
Juliet thought how bravely he was suffering, for her. For her sake, he been keeping inside this pain inside. For him, she could not let him go to sleep right then. “A last week,” she had pleaded, “he might improve.”
“He might,” Peter had conceded, “but he probably won’t.”
“A week, then,” Juliet said, pulling herself together with a sniff but with her face still wet.
Just as she led Oliver out, the leash they hated hanging lazily between them, she stopped and turned around to ask Peter something. “Why? Why is Oliver dying?”
“He has a growth in his stomach.”
“No, Peter, I know. But, why? Is it something I did? Have I mistreated him?”
“He’s an old dog,” said Peter. “Dogs die.”
“But was it his food? I mean, could I have helped?”
“Maybe, I can’t say.”
“I just want to know,” insisted Juliet. “I’ve known you a long time and you know how much I care about Oliver. I just want to know these things. Should I have brought him in sooner?”
“Look, what does it matter?”
“It matters to me. He matters to me.” Juliet couldn’t help herself and began to cry again, in addled incoherent sobs. With jerking shoulders, Juliet said, “Tell me.”
“Juliet, it might have helped, but…” But Juliet didn’t hear the rest of what he said as he handed her a tissue and she mopped her face.
“Juliet.” It is Peter’s voice again. He stands at the door and summoning her. “In you come,” he says.
She looks up, apologetic and fretful, and moves her hand from Oliver’s head as Peter gently bends down to lift him from her. He sleeps and suddenly she has a thought, an inhuman thought that will dog her forever: whatever will she do with all the dog food?
Copyright © Johnny Rich 2002 All rights reserved
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