‘Like’ is the fifth piece in our Story: Retold series, published in association with the Rhys Davies Trust. It is inspired by the Dylan Thomas short story, ‘Just Like Little Dogs’.
By the early hours the town had given up. Any human shriek went bouncing across the terraces like a bullet’s ricochet and if the coast road stayed to a dry-rumble-with-no-hiss, the sea crept into the ear. When the wind was from its direction. Usually you just heard the odd gullcurse from one resting on the air in that arrogant way they had about them. Dorrie imagined it now, the gull, a ghost-kite tethered over their slice of roof, absolute white, rigid or mechanical in its flexion…but aware, looking down on the house.
Through the roof.
Through the house.
Seeing what they’d done.
And once the thought came in on the tide there was no sleep. Instead for her it was a solitary slow journey to dawn, feet first since they pointed at the window where relief showed a light. Till then she heaved herself around, tossed and turned like wreckage. Legs fought textile encumbrances, her eyelids opened, closed, opened again until sand seemed to have got under and she had to raise up on an elbow for a vigorous rub at the eyeballs- that gave no relief, the reverse of relief, whatever that was. Through all her throat clearings, noisy gulps in, the fingernails raking the skin of arms and thighs, and the duvet whisper, the mattress humph, the wood on wood or wall of the complaining bedframe, Tomos slept on.
He was like his brother, he bragged, or his brother bragged. Sleep anywhere, me. Us.
In the morning Dorrie was in her slippers and sneaking up the hidden stairs to her son’s room before she did anything. She grunted with effort. Each tread was only half as deep as her own foot was long and it was angled like a ladder. Tomos had built it, as you would expect of a handy man who’d picked up the skills to solve most practical problems: it was a fine job. As you would expect. He and Gwal, her brother-in-law, between them had taken out the big galvanized old-as-the-house water tank from the cupboard next to their bedroom, had done something clever involving pipes and a thing that looked like a plastic baby bath – but green not pink or blue- and dry taps for most of a weekend and a lot of conspiratorial grinning and back-slapping. And hammering and swearing. The result was the staircase cum climbing frame that now connected a teenager’s attic room, wood paneled like a ship’s cabin, with the rest of the house. Once her head poked up through the new, bigger hatch she was staring straight at the occupant, sprawled, oblivious, yet mumbling as if aware of her. He loved it. Awake he’d be able to stand on the bunk built up there: no solid furniture would ever make the ascent. Through the open skylight the strip of Lower Town was set out beneath him in lanes running down to the dock. The church spire, the betting shops and charity shops, cafés, pubs and clubs could all be pinpointed and the elevated section of dual carriageway that cut them off from the dunes- and cut Himself off by the precariousness of access through an airing cupboard snug as a priest’s hole. And as ducking-and diving, as perverse a pleasure, as dangerous and contrary to law.
‘So why haven’t they done it proper?’ her sister-in-law asked. They are sitting together in the kitchen. One of their husbands hurls spoil of splintered timber down into the yard while outside the other gathers up.
‘Permission wouldn’t be a sure thing,’ Dorrie heard herself echo someone else.
‘I suppose not.’
‘The staircase, the cost, whatever- you’d need to take the main beam out to do it- you know, like a professional would. It was your Gwal said never get the council involved if you want to-’
‘Yeah,’ the visitor nodded, her tone less involved than for poor service from a garage or describing a domestic down on the corner. Her sister-in-law was now a fancier of other people’s domestics, unhappiness seasoning the mildest forms. A duet of hoarse and high shouting of a teatime. A keyed car, last week. Stuff thrown. Whereas picturing a family all scrunched sideways on the sofa for reality tv was a bee-sting to her. She had a better house than Dorrie’s and Tomos’, higher up, with a double glazed bay she left uncurtained till it was well after dark so people could see in to white leather and mirrors. But there was always the filtering through the party wall: a twosome making jokes and the mock rejoinders and three or four giggling together when it got out of hand.
‘Loads of regulations, Tomos-’ another instant and the word was flesh beyond the glass and they locked eyes. His colour was high as candy floss and then his ginger head caught the late autumn sun and she tried a smile but he wasn’t interested, turned away, whatever he was shouting was to the sky, to his brother. Don’t you go bothering about me, eh? You just keep sending ‘em down on– an overhead thump drowned out the rest.
Dorrie’s mind wandered up and up to its source. In the odd-shaped cabin, now a room, Tomos’s brother- his twin in stance or movement, in the corrugations of thick hair, in the misplacing of the stress in her own name- would be dropping final armfuls of gash over the side. This was their last day. The job was complete. And he didn’t bother, Tomos was right, he had never cared for much…so why is that? she’d asked. I don’t know. That’s how it is with Gwal. Does as he likes. (‘You were saying?’ she heard herself prompted.) ‘Main beam…out…yes. And there’s the time factor.’ Dorrie patted the waiting child beneath the strained dress. Her passenger was drowsy now, saving itself for the dark restless hours to kick and flail and rock the mothership. ‘With this one here soon we needed to get Himself moved. And they’re always after space, teenagers! They want privacy, don’t want to be part of things so much.’ All good practical reasons and Tomos or Gwal’s voice was saying them in her head. All good reasons: but that didn’t make them right to speak aloud. Her sister-in-law had had a little boy of her own once, a nice little boy who had died before a year. Instead of matching Himself’s age as he would now. Dorrie dropped her hands and sat straighter, the kitchen table nearly shielding the ripe fabric puff of yellow dotted blue. ‘Anyhow, maybe, I-’ she pushed on, willing either of the men to perform an outrageous act, to have some half-serious, half-obscene brother baiting come ringing down, or Tomos the catcher fumble an easy one and send an end-block of two by four straight at the window. A broken window was more bearable, would win easy over her sister-in-law’s broken look. ‘-I should get them a sandwich made-’
‘They’d rather go down the pub. It’ll be gone seven before they’ve brushed up and I can’t see then staying in, can you? They’ll think they’ve earned it.’
Dorrie shifted again after comfort and to avoid the share of sisterly bleakness on offer. She fingered leftover items on the shiny cloth, the pepper mill and a teaspoon containing a single milky tear, and heaved herself to her feet. ‘You don’t know.’ She did know. ‘We’ll go- yeah? Make ‘em take us to the place opened just down from the clinic. No, it’s next to, isn’t it…I mean, have they got a sense of humour or what?’
Gwal’s wife looked blank, her plump cheeks sagging. Gwal’s wife had been the soft one, the not so pretty one, the one that would be still just wondering if… while Dorrie was already in there. They’d trawled of a Saturday night once, from Back Row down to The Love Spoon, taking their pick, as you could at nineteen and twenty-two. They’d picked Tomos and Gwal, or thought they had, Tomos who’d started it by mending the heel she’d whacked clean off cheap shoes on the kerbstone and nearly pitched forward into the wet road, Gwal seeing, hooting, always the edgier brother, ‘Oh, there’s keen. Leave his pants on, eh love?- bad, this one is!’ Laughing, laughing as she hung onto Tomos’ belt to stay upright while Tomos still gaped at ‘your friend, there.’ It was Gwal that night watching Dorrie, sizing her up. Same brown in the eyes as Tomos but something else, like a fleck of another shade. A mix. Bad, this one is! Maybe. Takes one to know one, Gwal. The dunes, scratchy and full of grass that cut like wire when you got down in there, and Gwal, hot, practiced, so whoever put you together needs getting a medal, the first one to look up though, to look around. While Tomos’ interest was still elsewhere. But not long after and they had the connections sorted. Different. To understand how that happened was the thing-?
Never ask yourself, girl, or never again. Her and Tomos, Gwal and…not her. (Smoothing it over in the well-used memory should make all the pieces of ‘that night’ a cozier fit. Less jagged, one against the next. Should.) Her and Tomos was how it ended up. Gwal and… not her. And she was the prettier one, the quick one.
Or no harm done? Maybe it had been Tomos, really: that’s what thinking back provided, when the gull hovered, one beady eye boring clean through the slates and through their lovely, loose, lanky boy who slept on his front as though he’d fallen into a bed made of fine sand, of water.
‘Go with them. Us? You up for it, then?’
She hadn’t been even when making the offer. She shrugged, glanced down. ‘God, well, this one’s a full load. What was I thinking of? Remind me, again! Have you seen my ankles today?’
They did the trick. ‘OK.’ Someone terminally unhopeful couldn’t feel disappointment; Dorrie used the thought to pacify her own guilt. ‘Tell him,’ her sister in law said, nose and chin jerking aloft, ‘I’ll see him when I see him. I s’pose,’ and she’d gone.
Glad? Glad wasn’t halfway over that hill. When the front door slammed, Dorrie seriously considered letting her head fall forward to grab a nap down with the dirty cutlery and condiments….Himself had been missing hours, and would be in late. He played pool with the college kids though not where his father and uncle were aimed. The brothers would be next to go, strutting, dragging their bubble of achievement out, then willing it not to burst. Sod the building regs, just got it done didn’t we? Still ragging each other: I thought you were gonna knock my bloody block off out there!
Like you’d notice!
‘See you, Gwal,’ Dorrie called. ‘Thanks for everything. He loves it already. He’d say if he was here,’ and because she couldn’t or wouldn’t help herself, ‘But I guess Tomos told you.’
They weren’t wicked, either of them. Just brothers. Tomos stayed mute, a statue. You could smell his fresh soap. Gwal shuffled first. Gwal said, ’Right, good. Good,’ and blushed to the scalp and the other way into the stronger chin than his brother’s, on down the thicker neck, and Tomos said, pretending to glance round the kitchen for the first time, ‘You on your own? Nothing stopping you coming, is there?’
And did she imagine it? Or could all three of them feel the electricity arcing out of the dodgy wiring that was their next job, that’s what they said, and discharging itself crackle, crackle, crackle with a trace of the sea? ‘No I’m better off having a lie down.’
‘Bring you something back?’
She shook her head. Just as it had with Himself, the nausea was returned in this, her thirty-third week but she chose not to remind Tomos. The hot greasy smells from the town would be coming in on his clothes as it was, on his hair. On the pillow. ‘I’d rather graze out the fridge. Feeling fussy. Go on the pair of-’ but Gwal was already a shadow. She heard their march across the rabbit hutch of a dining room that nobody ate in and the front room that opened into the street, sounding more like invaders with their boots tramping in step, the pine floorboards resounding…and suddenly rougher, alien voices were inside, the clumping was a whole army entering before the door could be slammed. Gwal and Tomos- they were where? Soldiers or policemen had forced their way into her small house, the sort that’s was always fair game for the bully boys, and they intended to search and probe and threaten and trash everything. Here for one reason. Destroy! They’d root out weakness, stake a claim in piss on the beds, maybe find a pet to torment. And when secrets couldn’t be forced from the only locked drawer or in among the teabags, frustration only heightened viciousness. Those faces, those mouths. Furniture splintered to kindling. Clothes ripped off your back and peeled right away. There’s a child, a child, can’t you see? What sort of men are you? Those faces, those mouths and filth thrown like grenades would explain: what sort were you hoping for, love?… Gwal and Tomos nowhere or dead at the same hands, these huge, sweaty, crushing hands. Branding irons. At least they’d be leaving now, surely- but no. There were the dishes and plates to pulverize still, the food to grind into old quarry tiles, red and brown sauces to splash up the wall pattern of bunched herbs. Faces like masks, mouths like drain holes. Her eyes squeezed shut not to see… You’re fuckin’ lucky we don’t burn you out, bitch. Fuckin’ death trap, this place- no surprise if som’dy, say, got roasted alive!
The kitchen flashed into view, remade; only a chair was crooked, as her sister in law had pushed it aside. The pepper mill lay where it had last rolled and her polka dot sleeve, not ripped, not even creased, came up in a cloud of pepper. She sneezed and broke the silence. Those floor tiles hardly needed a mop- and she realized the instant Tomos has turned from her, she’d fallen asleep and the tramping feet, the horror, the mess, even the gaudy earthenware flicked from the dresser shelves, had been a dream – though incredibly convincing, their impacts, the wicked shards bound to lacerate feet, the thought must get them up first if nothing else, if I can’t face any of the rest, Himself always walking in with bare feet. Yet there the plates were, upright as soldiers themselves, all six in swirls of orange and gold, Spanish-looking. A present from somewhere she hadn’t even liked- it was the friendly, ugly plates that let her pulse rate slide down again, let her work the saliva round her mouth in time to swallow back the vomit (it was like she could still taste them) and let her properly lift her head – a risk! Five minutes had passed according to the cooker clock…but sometimes that’s all it took. And where had all that come from? Tomos and Gwal, dead. One or both.
Never ask yourself, girl…
Tiredness hit her like a punch and she slogged up to bed, her body rather than her brain reaching for the feel of the mattress, the luxurious width of it and the heat of the quilt double wrapping the spine and hips and belly and not needing to be shared. But mean as ever, sleep ran out on her and, worse, dragged her mind with it to totter through the town on the high heels she’d worn, on the slim ankles she’d had…before Himself- who was playing pool now, his pink harmless face serious as a man’s, the warm brown squint along the cue familiar as… Tomos and Gwal would be planted already in one of their haunts along Back Row, telling tales to whoever’d listen or each other. The defiant room built where it shouldn’t be – the staircase tight as a ringlet of hair – the brotherly near misses. Nearly took my bloody block off, you did! Thoughts curled through the ceiling above her like smoke. Smoke might find out its fresh crazes after all that hammering and thwacking. Up and up to the ship’s bunk it drifts and now circles around the long loose lovely boy that was going to be thrown across there later on…would you have done it proper, you two, if you’d known for sure? Tomos or not Tomos, Gwal or…?
Original illustration by Dean Lewis