There’s odd. You think you know where you are – lived all your life by here after all, Merthyr born and bred! – and next thing you know is you don’t really know.
Rhian’s taking her pugs, Mollie and Batman, for a walk. As usual. She scans her surroundings. There’s no knowing where the two’ve run off to in this vaguely familiar, strangely unfamiliar, area.
Rhian walks in a park that hasn’t seen a gardener for decades. She walks along a line of mighty oaks towards a mansion, flaming golden in the evening sun. Above the doorbell, the faded name plate reads I, King. The door’s ajar but no one’s in.
You shouldn’t walk into kings’ castles, or strangers’ houses for that matter, but Rhian can’t resist the chance to harvest an odd story to tell, and this is truly odd. She wanders through rooms blessed with light. Walls, floors, wardrobes, drawers, tables, chairs and papers, everything’s old and faded and covered in a thin layer of mould. Not dust; not cobwebs; mould. Rhian’s checked. There’s bouquets of rotting roses in cracked vases and dirty curtains in shreds, stirring gently in the breeze.
Rhian admires the stale beauty of this place. She half expects to find a royal mummy sitting in a mouldy armchair; or a throne perhaps, like they got loads round here. There’s really no one in, however, not even the king’s secretary. In the end, Rhian shrugs and leaves. Back outside the air’s fresh and clear. She chokes mould out of her system while she walks back down the line of oaks. Mollie and Batman come running towards her yelping with joy and Rhian feels silly. She knows exactly where she is.
For once, she isn’t too keen on telling a story and keeps the episode to herself. She ought to tell someone, really, to choke it out of her system – because her inner eye wanders back there time and time again. It was old; it was mouldy; it was creepy; but of an odd beauty too. Who could she share this with? Who’d care?
‘Summin’ botherin’ yew love?’ her boyfriend Jamie asks her that night.
‘Nah… I’m fine,’ she replies. ‘Don’ know where I’ve left my ‘ead today, be ‘onness…’
‘I’ll fetch it right back love,’ he says with a smile.
Next day’s grey and full of drizzle. Couldn’t be more miserable.
‘Wha’? Yew takin’ the dogs out in tha’ weather,’ Jamie asks.
‘Gerrin’ bit fat they are,’ Rhian says. ‘Need theyer exercise. An’ me.’
She’s not saying, but she’s determined to find out more about that mouldy place today. There’s just one problem. Playing it through in her head as she walks, Rhian’s not quite sure where she was yesterday. Where that house is.
She ends up in Cyfarthfa Park, with Mollie and Batman dragging their feet and hanging their heads in the drizzle. Rhian knows there’s no mansion round here. Maybe there was once. There might have been. There must have been, given Merthyr’s prolific demolition history. At the end of this tree line. Rhian makes a mental note to ask her nan.
She’s moithered. She knows she’s been inside that house. Not a dream that wasn’t. She’s been there for real: two streaks of mould she found on her jumper and one on her jeans when she put them in the machine this morning.
Rhian’s in a proper mood when she comes back from her walk. She hasn’t found that bloody house – her who knows Merthyr better than the postman!
‘Christ, yew been gone frages Rhi,’ says Jamie when she slams the door. ‘Sun shinin’ where yew walkin’?’
‘I look like it?’ she snaps and vanishes into the bog.
In the fortnight that follows, Rhian drags her two pugs on a quest around Merthyr, to likely and unlikely places. The more she tries to find the house, and fails, the angrier she gets. This is getting personal. She has to get back there. How she wants to shout at him, King!
‘Aw, I’m well impressed with ‘ow fit yew gerrin’ ouer Moll an’ Bat,’ Jamie says when they come back one sombre Sunday afternoon.
With a shy smile, he adds, ‘An’ yewerself, by the way. Well fit yew are…’
Rhian flinches when he tries to touch her and Jamie pulls a face like he’s been stabbed.
‘Rhi…’ he says softly. ‘Wha’s … wha’s wrong? Wha’s goin’ on… I…’
Rhian’s face, infuriated first, falls. A brick wall comes tumbling down and the clouds of its dust bring tears to her eyes.
‘Don’ know J… I’m sorry I am love…’ she stammers. ‘I been so moody lately… Get a pregnancy test tomorrer…’
She takes Jamie’s hands and lays his arms round her waist. Gets really close and makes it all good again, right there at the door.
‘Well fit yew are, aye…’ he whispers. He needs his beauty sleep now.
‘Mmh. An’ yew J,’ Rhian says. She contemplates her boyfriend for a while, all skin and warmth and sweetness. She knows she got a good one there. And she can’t understand how she got so obsessed with something so stupid, and let it make him sad.
The air feels fresher, less oppressive somehow, when Rhian takes the dogs out again the next day. She’s going nowhere in particular for the first time in epochs and ages, and it feels good. Mollie and Batman sense a change in mood too. They hobble around happily and snap at falling leaves.
It’s one of those days. The gale plays merry hell with all that’s light and loose. Rhian’s hair comes alive like a basket of untamed snakes, she can hardly see where she’s going. The sun shoots its fiery light against an anthracite sky. The mansion at the end of the tree line looks pale and somewhat unreal in this light.
Rhian stops dead and stares at the house. She’s run up and down all of Merthyr in search for this place, and then she finds it the moment she gives up? Her heart slows and cools. This can’t be luck. Someone’s pulling strings. She knows she got to turn around and leave, now. Now.
But she doesn’t. Her curiosity’s piqued. She got to find out what’s going on, to tell an odd story after, when it all makes sense.
And the door isn’t ajar. It’s wide open this time. Him, King, is inviting her in.
Rhian can’t help feeling flattered by being so welcome. The moment she passes the threshold she understands much better why she has searched for this place so passionately. Longing it was. A longing to be here again, see this again.
Nothing has changed, but Rhian takes in a lot more detail this time. The chairs, the vases, the roses; how beautiful in their decay. Grand old paintings on the walls, faded to nearly all-black and frosted with mould they might be blind mirrors. How perfectly gothic, how beautiful. Yellow papers strewn on tables, fallen on the carpets and the wooden floors – Rhian wants them to be full of love letters, longing love letters by him, King, to a nameless lady.
Eager to find this the truth Rhian lifts one of the papers, then another, and another. Old warnings are scribbled in cracked blood across the orginal, faded ink.
“Leave while you can and never come back!”
“GO NOW! QUICK!”
“Hasten out, dear reader, ere the door is shut forever.”
Rhian drops the papers in disgust. How dare these people sully his letters and make them utterly illegible!? How is she supposed to get his messages, just because these jealous fuckers want this beautiful place, want him, King, for themselves!? Like fuck she’ll do as they say! She’ll search the whole house from top to bottom for a clue!
When Rhian comes home, Jamie runs to meet her at the door.
‘Rhi! Fucksake, I been worried sick ’bout yew!’
‘Juss been round Nat’s,’ she says quietly.
‘An’ wha’ yew two been up to?’ Jamie asks. ‘Look at yew? Yew into buildin’ work now or wha’.’
Rhian gives him a sombre look.
‘Bloody kids wha’ carn even afford eggs ‘ese days? Don’ know whar it is ‘ey throw at me, but I do wannw wash thar off now.’
She disappears into the shower for a while, then makes a half-hearted attempt to relive last night with Jamie. She’s knackered though, and asleep before he is.
Next day, same thing: she can’t find it. With the cunning of desperate longing Rhian works out that she can only get to this ghost of a place by not wanting to get there.
Why does he, King, make it so hard for her? Is it to test her determination, her devotion? Sweet pain trickles through her at the very thought of it, makes her go wild.
‘Aw! Rhi! Tha’ was! Fuckin’! Amazin’!’ Jamie shouts.
‘I wannw feel tha’ forever J,’ Rhian admits.
‘Aye… Me too,’ he says. ‘Eternal orgasm … wud do…’
Then he’s asleep and Rhian gets out of bed. Ten minutes later she’s sat at her nan’s kitchen table, sipping a strong brew.
‘Yew awright then, sweet’eart?’ nana asks. ‘.Ow’s yewer Jamie?’
‘E’s all right?’
‘There’s lovely Rhi. Lovely feller, yewer Jamie.’
‘Nana, gorrw ass yew summin’, ’bout old Merthyr, like. I been out an’ about wi’ the dogs quite a bit an’ I found this place in the park, there’s trees, like reely old oak trees, an’ I was assin’ myself if there ever been, like, a big ‘ouse, a proper manshun, in the old days…’
Rhian’s voice trails off as her nan starts to think.
‘Well, there ewsed to be thar old ‘ouse up the Skeepo, wannit? Tha’ was demolished in the sixties… Or where to wazzit…’
Nana tries to remember and there’s silence in the kitchen. Then suddenly, nana’s face grows hard and she asks, ‘Yew seen a ‘ouse where there should be none?’
Rhian shakes her head vigorously.
‘No, I ‘aven’ nana. I’s juss askn’.’
‘Good,’ nana says. ‘Tha’s juss reminded me o’ summin’ whar ‘appened – ’bout forty years ago?’
‘Whar ‘appened forty years ago,’ Rhian asks.
‘Quite positive I am it ‘appened in the sev’nties,’ nana says and loses herself a bit trying to figure out the exact year.
‘Yeah, but whar ‘appened,’ Rhian interrupts her.
‘Aw, sumwun vanisht, sweet’eart. Wun o’ the Jenkins’ girls, carn remember ‘er name… Been to a grand old ‘ouse, she said, an odd place, she said, quite unreal accordin’ to ‘er. Went there agen an’ never came back. An’ thar ‘ouse she’ve been on about no wun found. ‘Appened before, my own nan said back then.’
‘Odd little story nana,’ Rhian says. She adds a light laugh, finishes her tea, hugs her nan and returns home. Jamie hasn’t noticed she was gone.
Nana hasn’t really helped Rhian. All she can do, Rhian reckons, is keep wandering without wanting to reach her Caerbannog too much. She spends all her time outside in the shortening days, a slender body, rosy cheeks, fit pugs.
‘Yew not cumin’ out wi’ us AGEN,’ her mates ask her.
‘No, she isn’,’ Jamie replies in her stead. ‘She not spendin’ time wi’ me either, so, if she were givin’ sumwun ‘er attenshun, it be me.’
Rhian doesn’t notice his sad smile when he says that.
She’s trying so hard not to think about it that her head’s gone blank. She’s trying so hard not to get anywhere in particular that she isn’t really coming back. It all revolves around not revolving around it.
A thin layer of snow has covered Merthyr tonight and made Rhian even more aware of how out of reach a certain mould-frosted mansion is for her. It’s just snow. It’s not the same.
Mollie and Batman come running towards her all excited when she comes home.
‘Where yew been,’ Jamie asks her.
‘The ewsual, takin’ the dogs for a walk,’ Rhian replies.
‘Forgot summin’ ‘en, innit,’ Jamie says. He’s not looking at her.
‘Wha’ yew mean J?’ Rhian asks.
‘Forgot to take the dogs Rhi,’ Jamie says.
She got nothing to say to that.
‘An’ yew wasn’ at Nat’s thar other night. This been goin’ for months now Rhi. I reckon tha’s the way it goes, but I do wonder why yew bother cumin’ back. Why yew not stayin’ with ‘im. Cuz I gorrw leave now, ‘aven’ I. Yew got two places an’ I got none.’
She got nothing to say to that either. She just stands at the door till Jamie’s left.
”E’s King J,’ she says when he’s gone. ”E’s King. An’ ‘e’s waitin’ for me.’
Rhian feels ashamed. She feels so ashamed for keeping him, King, waiting for so long.
Now that Jamie’s gone she’s relieved. There’s no need to go home anymore; she’s free to search for him, King, whenever she likes for as long as she likes. And how sweet it is to search for him, King, trying not to search for him. He knows she’s looking for him, and she needs to trick him, King, into believing she’s not. What a sweet game, what a sweet, sweet pain. What determination. What devotion.
Rhian’s been walking for the last forty-three hours. She knows Merthyr better than the postman, aye. She’s past the need for sleep, and at about eleven that night, she’s past herself too. She doesn’t remember herself or Merthyr or mouldy mansions or him, King. She doesn’t remember she’s walking, she just walks, and she walks into a park, and along a line of trees, and towards a wide open door.
As soon as she’s inside Rhian’s all there again. She’s so overjoyed she throbs and wails. She’s made it back! She got it right! She does need to be oblivious of how to get here! Otherwise it doesn’t work! And now, she’s found a way of achieving this oblivion! She’ll be able to return whenever she wants!
Rhian cries and cries. She wanders through the rooms crying, stroking the mouldy furniture, the paintings and walls, like the soft fur of a beloved pet. She lifts a rose out of her vase and smells at it, her rotting petals touching Rhian’s nose, lips, tongue and chin. Limp petals fall off. Some land on Rhian’s tear-smeared breasts. She licks the petals off their stem because she senses him, King, watching her and liking it. She knows she’s good. She knows he knows. Good enough for him, King. She’s proved it. She’s found his palace, his open door. She’s passed his test. She knows how to not know, now, how to find what can’t be found, always.
And then again…
He might make it harder, just to tease her. But she doesn’t need to go yet, does she? No one waiting, nagging her with where-you-beens. Why not linger a bit longer? She’s even found a few beds upstairs, their swollen pillows and blankets a virgin white under an untouched layer of mould. Let mouldy sheets swallow her, is what she longs for now, breathe it in, lick it off, and sleep, sleep in his bed until he, King, comes. She got everything here. There’s no need to leave. So, why not stay a bit longer? Why not – stay?
Rhian hears a creaking sound and turns. She’s in the room next to the hall again and can see the front door from here. It’s closing by itself.
‘Oh, how wrong I was,’ Rhian thinks. ‘Only now I’ve passed his test. Now that the door is closing…’
She watches the door shutting ever so slowly, watches with a breathless smile, can’t wait for the final click.
‘Oi! Love? Yew awrigh’?’ someone shouts.
And then it’s all gone.
Rhian turns around in horror. The night’s cold, the gale’s wet and vicious, and she’s soaked. She’s outside the park’s cast-iron fence, stroking something that’s choked by layers of ivy and mosses and lichens. And there’s a big bloke stumbling towards her. The one who called out to her and ruined it all.
‘Fuckin’ ‘ell… Tha’ yew Rhi?’ he shouts.
Jamie’s so drunk he can hardly stand. He needs the fence to come closer. One look in his face tells Rhian he’s been drinking for her.
Oh, how she hates him. He’s ruined it all. He’s spoilt it for her, he’s spoilt it. Of course it’s Jamie who got to ruin it.
‘Yew spoilt it!’ she wants to shout. ‘Yew spoilt it!’
He’s stopped in front of her. He stoops a bit and takes her face in his clumsy hands as carefully as he can. Warm he is, very warm. In what could be Wookie-speak, he fights for her with the sharp sword of drunken despair. He wants her back! He needs her badly, and even through the thick fog of countless pints and chasers, he can see she needs him too, if she knows it or not. She’s cold and thin and nearly see-through, like a wraith.
‘Yew gorrw take me back love,’ he wails. It’s not an order, it’s a plea.
‘Yewer not the King,’ someone else inside Rhian says.
‘But – but yewer my Queen,’ Jamie blurts out.
He can’t stand anyhow, so he gets on his knees to pledge silent allegiance, confirmed by a burp.
Slowly, Rhian gives Jamie a nod. A bit of a forced nod, forced perhaps by her own sudden Investiture. She doesn’t know. She reckons they’ll have to work something out then. Her and him, – um, Jamie. She’ll just stop thinking about it. Or maybe she’ll better keep thinking about it.
She tries to smile, and Jamie tries too. He gets back up and takes her hand, and they stumble away together, quite determined to live happily ever after. Just like kings and queens do.
Melanie C. Fritz was born in south-western Germany in 1982 and came to Wales in 2006 to study at the University of Glamorgan and to learn a bit of Welsh. She has enjoyed making up and writing down stories ever since she was taught the alphabet and, to date, she has published two novels in her native German: Weltmeister im Handtuchwefen (2010) and Chaos im Kessel in 2014. She lives in Pontypridd, a place that inspires here somehow.
The Wish Dog, (Honno, October 2014) edited by Penny Thomas and Stephanie Tillotson, is available to buy from all good bookstores price £8.99 although the Honno website, as will all publisher websites, would be the best place to do this.
original illustration by Dean Lewis