Wales Arts Review is proud to publish, in partnership with the British Council Wales in Germany being held this week, an exclusive new short story from award-winning writer Francesca Rhydderch, ‘Muzzle’.
Caspar! Caspar! Caspar!
Roddy still thinks Caspar’s going to come home. At first it was what he believed because it was what everyone told him. Then, after a miserable few weeks, it was what he tried to find out for himself by typing every search term he could think of into his phone: lost dog, lost dogs near me, dogs’ home, dog finds way home 50 miles, dog finds way home 100 miles, dog finds way home cross country. Underneath the pictures on pets-reunited are occasional, miraculous stories about dogs who manage to get back to where they started from, which make Roddy think it’s possible Caspar might do the same. Every night before supper he insists on going out with his father and Martha onto Llandaff Fields, even when it’s cold and dark and Martha doesn’t fancy it. They go down to the weir, then back past the riding school and the allotments, and through the wildflower meadow that has so recently wilted back to a few frosty mounds, calling as they go, Caspar! Caspar! Caspar! against the subdued sound of traffic and the rise and fall of police sirens.
It’s obvious to Roddy that Martha’s sick of Caspar. Or rather, she’s fed up of the memory of him that still bounds around the house, unruly and messy, taking over Roddy’s conversations with Gwyn at the breakfast table – Do you remember, Dad, how he used to roll a ball along the grass with his nose and then flip it up in the air, do you? And how he used to like running down to the river, to the stone beach where the swans come floating upstream and he liked to bark at them? Not to be mean, but just because he was excited?
In the mornings Martha trips over the bowl of water which Roddy still puts out for Caspar in the kitchen, and he can tell she’s annoyed from the way she walks round in her bare feet, leaving wet marks on the linoleum, saying, Perhaps it’s time to put it away now; it’s not helping, and there are the germs to consider, all those bacteria, but Roddy just ignores her and fills up a fresh bowl before opening the back door and calling into the empty garden: Caspar!
Now, as they pass through a copse of trees, Scots pine that seem to bend right over them, Roddy looks over at his father.
‘Shout it out, Dad,’ he says. Gwyn pulls his woollen hat down over his eyebrows. Between that and his plain navy mask, all Roddy can see are his eyes, and it makes him look like somebody else, not himself.
‘Caspar,’ he says.
‘That’s not shouting, Dad.’
Roddy’s trying not to sound whiny and young, but he can’t help it.
‘Ca-asp,’ Gwyn says again.
Twilight is falling all around them, draping the autumn colours in darkness.
‘He won’t be able to hear you,’ says Roddy.
‘I thought you said dogs have special hearing?’ Martha looks around her as if to say, Look, we’re buying into this wild goose chase for your sake, just give your father a break, why don’t you?
Martha doesn’t understand, Roddy thinks. There’s something empty about the way she throws Caspar’s name away so freely, pushing her hand into Gwyn’s as if that’s where it belongs.
‘What is it?’ she says, catching him looking at her.
Roddy can’t say what it is, exactly. Maybe it’s the way she’s moving, deliberately slowly, glancing in every direction before they walk on. And then there are the questions, which he’s beginning to think are purposely invented to make it sound as if she’s never even laid eyes on Caspar before. (‘Oh, she’s laid eyes on him all right,’ his mother says when he quizzes her about it. Like Roddy, Lauren has a very particular knowledge of Caspar, his likes and dislikes, the way he might take against a person, just on instinct, and the possibility of that instinct being so strong it might make him panic, and run off.)
‘Is he a basset?’ Martha says now. ‘Does he walk low to the ground? Or is he more like a bloodhound, or a whippet, or a retriever?’
She’s seemingly determined to summon him up in the shape of everything he isn’t rather than what Roddy knows his Caspar to be: an albino boxer with long legs inherited from some other kind of dog, a great afghan or a dane perhaps, his ears tipped with red russet fur that feels silky to the touch, his face so eager to please that he looks almost human sometimes, gazing up adoringly at Roddy, waiting for his next command: Sit. Heel. Down, boy.
‘You know what they say about dogs?’ Martha says. She’s turned around and is walking backwards for a few paces, as if she’s trying to act younger than she is, the blond spikes of hair on top of her head making her look slightly ferocious. ‘They’ve got no concept of the future, and that’s why they get upset when they’re left on their own, even for a few hours. Every time their owner leaves, the poor dog thinks he’s never coming back, imagine that?’
Roddy thinks about Caspar, how wild with delight he used to get when he heard the sound of the key in the door, how he would wag not only his tail, but the whole back of his body, swinging back and fore, jumping up onto his hind legs, balancing against Roddy’s knees, and his eyes sting with tears. Caspar was always just there, waiting for him, as if the whole world revolved around him.
‘Well, guess how old you are in dog years?’ he counters. He knows how much Martha hates this game, that it’s fun for an eleven-year-old boy but no fun at all for her. He watches her frown, trying to work it out, that if she were a dog she’d actually be: ‘Two hundred and eighty,’ he says triumphantly.
‘Oh, that’s a good one,’ she says, and the corners of her mask lift up a little, as if she might be trying to smile.
As they come to the children’s play park, which is empty apart from signs telling the children they mustn’t play here, that they might get infected by the monkey bars or the swings, or the roundabout, Roddy whistles, a proper dog whistle that makes other dogs come running. Gwyn and Martha push their way through them; Martha’s disgusted, Roddy can tell, by the warmth of their lanky bodies, and the saliva that drools from between their teeth, the wet tennis balls that they bring to Gwyn as if he’s their master, and the way they try to nuzzle into Martha’s coat pockets, looking for treats, before distant voices call for them, and reluctantly, one by one, they head off.
‘Everything OK?’ Gwyn says to her, in a voice that Roddy hates, alert as he is to the insincerity in the grown-up conversations that surround him, especially since his mother moved out and Martha had started coming round, and then staying overnight, on the spare bed in the study at first, and then in the master bedroom with Gwyn, where his parents used to sleep together in a warm nest of sheets and duvet that Roddy didn’t climb into in the mornings any more, and hadn’t done since he was little, but still liked to know was there. Even the memory of it is spoiled now by Martha’s cropped hair on the pillow, and her plucked eyebrows that lie in smooth curves across her forehead. When his mother facetimes him he tries to find ways to talk to her about it, but she always changes the subject. She won’t ever mention Martha by name.
‘Tell me about school,’ she says, staring into the screen, over his shoulder, as if she’s trying to work out where he is in the house, to make sense of the things on the kitchen table behind him, Martha’s work stuff, a pile of papers and her appointments diary.
He tries to explain that it isn’t how he’d secretly hoped secondary school would be – exciting and noisy, with hundreds of kids massing in the canteen at lunchtime, their faces close to his, their voices in his ear, or collecting in overheated, intense, shouting packs around the edges of the football pitch, and writing their names in the condensation on the back window of the school bus. He finds himself stuck for words, as if no one has ever experienced this before, what he’s going through, not even the other kids who have to sit so far away from him and each other in the classroom.
‘There’s a one-way system,’ he says. ‘They’ve painted yellow arrows all along the corridors so you can only walk in one direction.’
‘What if you want to go back the way you came?’ his mother says.
He wants to touch her, to feel her presence in the same room as him. If he puts his face close to the screen he can see the pale blue paper mask moving lightly each time she turns her head, and the shape of the wire following her nose where she’s pinched it so it will fit over the bridge. When he asks her why she wears it all the time, even in the flat, she talks about the people who bring her groceries to the door, and how she’s used to it now, anyway. Sometimes they run out of things to say but it doesn’t matter because his mother likes to just watch as he walks around the house with the phone, making a film of what it looks like now with Martha’s things in it, her ankle boots lined up by the front door, and her laptop put away neatly in its soft case.
‘When can I come and see you?’ he asks.
‘Soon,’ she says.
Then they are both quiet for a while, until she starts asking about Hallowe’en, and he realises that no one has told her that he’s not allowed to go knocking on people’s doors this year, no one is.
‘Tell Dad to get you a pumpkin,’ she says, ‘and some fun size sweets; remember to put them in a bowl by the door. And you can wear your costume that I got you last year – remember the werewolf outfit, with the lumberjack shirt?’
He remembers. He remembers how she’d pulled the rubber mask over his head and held her hands up in mock horror, pretending to be frightened. He remembers the way they used to walk so close to each other that he could breathe in her perfume, feel the heat of her, and smell the sugary smell of sweets and toffee apples and people’s fires being lit for the first time that year, and dry, crunchy leaves the colour of bruised gold gathering in little piles on the pavement and the kids running around Canton dressed as skeletons with luminous bones, and vampires cloaked in outfits made out of black bin liners, and killer clowns with painted-on lips – afraid but not afraid, and screaming when they felt like it.
‘I grew out of it,’ he says.
He looks away from the screen. He so much wants to see her face, but not when she’s looking at him like this.
‘Ages ago,’ he says.
* * * *
Caspar! Caspar! Caspar!
Lauren often thinks about the day Gwyn took Caspar up to the Brecon Beacons on one of his walks and came home without him. In her mind it lingers on as a combination of causes and effects which are stored in the communal memory bank of the family, although the family itself is no longer intact.
‘Don’t rush back,’ she’d said as Gwyn sat down on the bed to put on his new hiking boots, criss-crossing the laces and pulling them tight. ‘You don’t need to, not today.’
Roddy was going to a friend’s house for a sleepover and was chuntering across the landing, helping Lauren to pack his rucksack. They walked around the upstairs of the house talking about what he needed. Together, they wrapped the top of his toothbrush in silver foil, and Lauren made sure he had clean clothes for the next day.
‘See you!’ Gwyn shouted up the stairs.
The front door banged and he was gone. They heard Caspar’s claws skittering along the path outside, and Roddy ran to the window and knocked on the glass. When Gwyn looked up, Roddy waved frantically and watched as Caspar jumped up into the car.
‘I don’t want Caspar to go,’ he said, coming back to his bedroom, where Lauren was clipping the buckles of his rucksack shut.
‘He’ll be fine,’ she said, giving him a hug, breathing in the tangy smell of the orange he’d just eaten. ‘He’ll have a lovely time.’
Then there was a long time, an hour or so, when the house was empty, while she walked over to Roddy’s friend’s house with him, through Pontcanna, where the little shops were busy because it was a Saturday morning. There were families buying cream cakes from the bakery, young couples pushing designer prams and holding paper cups of coffee, and old couples carrying string bags of fruit and veg, just small amounts for lunch, cooking apples and salad.
When Lauren had dropped Roddy off at Victoria Park she had walked back slowly, losing herself in the leisurely feel of walking on her own, even without Caspar, who liked to pull on the lead and sniff at small children as he went past, making them laugh and annoying their parents. She had taken her time going through Alexandra Grove, sneaking looks through the windows of expensively furnished living rooms, admiring the oil paintings on the walls, rural scenes in blacks and greys, and white plantation blinds.
As she let herself back into the house she felt her solitude wash over her; it was like drinking a glass of cold water. The house was in a mess, still full of the life that had so recently vacated it: Roddy’s warm pyjamas flung onto his bed, Caspar’s food bowl that he’d nudged with his snubby, wet nose into the middle of the kitchen as he’d tried to lick it clean, Gwyn’s laptop on the desk in the study at the top of the house, and his books open one on top of the other, their spines under strain.
She moved the books to one side, trying to keep them in a pile. She spent a few minutes tidying up, taking heaps of clean, crumpled washing from the spare bed and adding them to other heaps in the other bedrooms, fetching her notebook and pen from downstairs and finally opening her own laptop on the desk.
When Roddy asks her to remember that day, if she had thought of Caspar at all at the very moment when he was still theirs, asleep in the back of Gwyn’s car, she has to lie: yes, she says, yes of course. But the truth is that once she’d opened her laptop and the file where she was keeping the article she was writing, she had started typing straight onto the screen, without hesitation, Where do they come from, the mythical dogs of Annwn? and the words that had been storing themselves up in her mind while she hung the washing out, or talked to her neighbours about the old B&B at the end of the street, which used to house several Polish families who seemed to have been thrown out overnight, simply flooded out. Even as she had breathed in the smell of detergent coming off the wet clothes on the line she had felt the phrases and sentences running in the back of her mind, the words that she would later corral into some kind of order that pleased her in these few spare hours which stretched out in front of her like an empty road. She thought of Gwyn driving quickly, overtaking at speed, and something vibrated through her – a sense of his absence, that was all – but then she pictured Caspar lying asleep on a blanket in the back, such good company, so silently loyal, and she felt something, some imbalance, right itself again.
She turned her attention back to the flashing cursor on her screen and carried on typing. She was writing about a story she knew well, a mythological tale of the hounds of hell, who belonged to a ghostly otherworld ruled over by either one king or another, Arawn or Gwyn. They were white all over, she typed, her fingers moving quickly across the keys now; their ears dipped in scarlet. When they gathered in vicious packs, taking part in what was known as the Wild Hunt, this was thought to foretell some apocalyptic event, such as war or plague.
As she typed she felt herself plunging to another level of consciousness, that there was something dangerously swift about it, and maybe it was then that she sensed the picture in her mind of Gwyn and Caspar going on a journey together shifting a little, moving and changing to accommodate some other reality that was only just starting to take shape. She still thought she was safe in the world of her imagination where nothing could hurt her. She didn’t know that on his way out of the city Gwyn had pulled up outside an elegant red-brick apartment block and waited for Martha to come out carrying a bag filled with boxes of pimento olives and a bottle of prosecco, seeing Caspar in the back and saying, Oh, isn’t he cute? and stroking the soft fur between his ears. Scenes that would play out later in her mind like a wordless mime didn’t exist yet; they traipsed along behind reality like one of Roddy’s time-lapse videos of Caspar sleeping, or running, or playing, that he would leave recording for an hour on his phone and play back to his mother, amused by the speed at which he could direct the action.
Still she kept on writing as if it was a consolation for her ignorance, letting the words do their own work, while the world existed at a distance from her. People talked and laughed loudly on the street below as they went through the park gates but they seemed faraway; the cluttered room in the eaves slowly cooled down as the sun disappeared behind the houses opposite, yet she barely noticed. She was in the midst of a pack of wild dogs, watching them, running with them, feeling their power, chasing after whatever it was they were instinctively pursuing. They didn’t look so different from Caspar, she thought, with his heavy jowls and ears cocked, listening out for some far-off sound, imbibing the world around him through smells and textures, damp earth and brindled forest paths. She kept on typing, savouring the magic of it, the small details that came unbidden, but the room was slowly starting to feel empty without him, and her mind began to wander in between pages, and then paragraphs, alighting on one vague feeling of being alone and then another. She didn’t know what time it was, but once the words began to falter across the screen she pushed her chair back from the desk and started walking round the house as if she might find Caspar curled up on her and Gwyn’s unmade bed, halfway under the sheets, snuffling into the smell of them, or in Roddy’s room, keeping guard over his plastic superheroes as they lay petrified across the carpet.
She was tempted to call out for him – Caspar! – although of course she knew that he was with Gwyn on a mountain path open to the sky. She didn’t feel them yet, the brambles that were about to catch on her skin and the thorns that would sink deep and stay there. She had no idea about Martha. She was still wondering, as she walked around the empty house, what instinct it was that made Caspar come when they called him. She remembered how when she was Roddy’s age she used to become so absorbed in whatever it was she was reading or writing that she wouldn’t even hear her mother calling, and her mother would worry if she didn’t answer. Once, she had hidden behind the bedroom door and stayed quiet each time she heard her name, enjoying the power of silence.
That’s what Caspar must have been doing, playing hide and seek, she said to Roddy the next day, when he sat in the kitchen making Gwyn tell the story over and over again, asking for different details each time, tears running down his face. Why had Caspar jumped down from the car? Which lay-by was it? How long had Gwyn stayed there, waiting for him? Why hadn’t he come back?
‘People don’t always know why they behave the way they do, she’d said; perhaps dogs don’t either.’ She’d looked over at Gwyn for confirmation, some explanation of the inattention that must have led to this, but there’d been a distant look on his face, and a few long seconds had elapsed before he said something like, ‘Quite right,’ as if he was at work giving one of his sales presentations, his mind far off, just saying something for the sake of it, to fill in some gap which, until he said it, she hadn’t known was there.
* * * *
When Lauren and Gwyn had first moved to Gordon Road they used to laugh about the pet-minders – not about them personally, but about the need to pay someone to walk your dog; Who did that? they’d said to each other.
They were just joking, she’d thought to herself at the time. They had come to the city from a small town where you could get around easily, maybe even pop home from work at lunchtime. The whole service culture on the street was new to them: builders, cleaners, childminders, gardeners, dog walkers – leaflets that came through the door from companies called My Pooch or Yours, or Walkies, advertising different services: grooming, playing and walking, only five pounds per half hour.
Standing next to Gwyn in the bay window of the bedroom looking at the Victorian stone houses on the other side of the street, she’d thought well, yes, it was true that they’d moved to what was to them a new world, but they didn’t have to fall in with its habits. Behind the stained-glass windows of their porch and despite Gwyn’s new job they would still be the people they had always been. They had felt perfectly settled in from the beginning, they’d agreed, and anyway, there was no going back. But Roddy hadn’t felt the same sense of calm; he’d missed his friends, had nightmares, and had come back into their bed to sleep, although he must have been too old to by then, seven or eight.
That was when Lauren had decided to get a dog. She had pictured the three of them going for wholesome country walks, maybe with one of Roddy’s new friends, how good it would be for them all. They went and got Caspar from the dog pound: his funny, awkward gait had attracted Roddy’s attention, and once Roddy had gone up to him and stroked him and felt his damp nose sniffing against his wrist, the decision had been made.
What Lauren hadn’t realised was that Caspar would end up going everywhere with them. She must have said a thousand times, Oh, I’ll just bring Caspar, shall I? while Roddy stood at the door in his hockey kit or his football boots, waiting patiently for her, saying, Come on, Casps. Then, once they were in the park, Roddy would run ahead with his friends as she loitered with the other mothers and their dogs, who pulled impatiently at the leash, tugging them into the undergrowth, or to the thick bases of ancient oak trees, where there was a chance of finding squirrels. Some of the mothers would be holding things: rucksacks, bottles of water, ball throwers, and torches, big, heavy duty ones, and the figures of the children became distant and indistinct up in front as they ran away from the circles of light, their small, lively bodies seeming to dissolve into the night, while the sound of hockey sticks hitting the edges of the training ground cracked sharply through the cold air. Those moments, she thinks now, had felt so perfect, despite the mud and wet and being late, and letting Roddy go ahead but worrying about letting him out of her sight, and, somewhere in between, that feeling, the constant, low-level loneliness of Gwyn not being there – he couldn’t now, he was too busy to leave work until much later, long after supper – and missing him.
What strikes her now is how she had no sense of what had been about to happen, none at all. It had been like a tornado about to pass over, and although as they trotted along through the park together the mothers had maybe even felt their bodies bending under the pressure of the oncoming threat, none of them had realised they were already giving in to it.
* * * *
Caspar! Caspar! Caspar!
But somehow, somewhere beyond the realms of possibility, in among all the befores and afters, the story of Caspar’s homecoming is up on Facebook for anyone to see, carefully keyed in by Roddy.
It begins with cars braking round one of the sharp bends on the A470, picking out the shape of something with their headlights: a long-legged boxer dog, white all over, with a childlike face. They flash their lights at him, once, twice, or maybe hoot the horn, and he retreats under the trees at the edge of the road and sniffs around among dry pine needles, trying to pick up a scent. He looks for food around abandoned picnic tables, and swallows it down quickly, glancing up from time to time, his tongue hanging out, snarling into the black spaces under the trees.
Light comes over the top of one of the mountains, slowly at first, then pouring down the hill in a wave of pink warmth, reaching the dog’s feet, touching his paws and spilling over his small body. When it is light, it is warm. When it is dark the dog is cold, waiting for the light to come again.
Even when the light comes, it stays cold. It rains through the darkness and through the light. The dog is wet, shivering, looking for something: a door, a lead, a bowl. Sometimes he hears growling in the dark, other dogs fighting; he runs away, towards anywhere, away from everywhere.
No one – not even a dog – can know how long it is until the darkness rolls away again, and the light brings something with it. The shape of a day is primal, immediate, until you have a row of them all together and they begin to press into each other – summer, autumn, winter, spring – through what could be months, years or millennia.
One day, in between the coming of the light and the losing of it again, a van comes with a man in it, tall with a light grey baseball cap. He leaves the engine running while he pisses into fresh green bracken. The door of the van is open. The dog jumps into the footwell and over the seat into the back. He slides in between an oil drum and a collection of empty cardboard boxes. He makes no noise, or none that the man can hear over the sound of the engine. Perhaps he sleeps for a while, as the mountain road drops away and is replaced by a dual carriageway, and the mountains become retail parks and the trees become houses and playgrounds. He is woken not by a sound, but by a smell, which has some tinge to it that he senses already, deeply familiar and known only to him. He is silent but alert, waiting for the van to stop, which it does, close to the house where Lauren used to live with Roddy and Gwyn, a few blocks down from a garage on Cathedral Road. While the man is busy unscrewing the petrol cap he leaves the driver’s door open again, just a touch. Within seconds the dog is out, loping along the pavement, turning off down a cul de sac, along the back lane, squeezing himself under the gate, pushing one paw against the door which Gwyn has left unlocked, running straight to his water bowl and lapping up the water until it’s practically dry and he’s licking it.
Then he pads around the house, making his way slowly upstairs. Even after all this time he picks up Lauren’s scent and goes round looking for her, the layers of herself she has left behind underneath the new smells, the new perfumes, hairsprays and aerosol cans in the bathroom. The old and the new still do battle with each other somewhere deep in the fabric of the house, a reminder of the fights that Roddy used to enact on the rug in his bedroom with his toy figures.
But this is later, much later. Rooms have been painted, furniture moved around. Lauren – who can go out of doors now like everyone else – has been back to the house and taken some of her things and re-arranged them in her flat the way she wants them. She’s decorated a room there for Roddy, which has a big picture window overlooking the bottom end of the park, where the river fills up to the arches of the bridge sometimes and threatens to flood out onto the banks in the spaces between the trees. Sometimes, when he’s not there, she still sits on his bed and smells his jumper and looks at his trainers which he’s left so carelessly kicked off by the bed, but not as often as she used to.
A mobile phone beeps out a morning alarm as the dog finds his way into the bedroom where Gwyn’s lying flat on his back in bed with his mouth open, the skin around his jaw loosened and slack. Next to him is a small bundle with short blond hair resting on the pillow. The dog pushes himself up to sniff the candy-floss scent of Martha and whines. Still sleeping, she turns her head away so that she is facing Gwyn.
The dog jumps down from the bedframe on both paws, and creeps towards the next bedroom along. The door is shut tight. The dog scratches it, and then again, until a teenage boy pulls it open from the other side. He is wearing pyjamas that are too short for him. His ankles are pale and hairy, his chin shaded with the beginnings of a light, soft stubble.
For Roddy, when he sees the dog it’s like the stories his mother used to tell him, only this is real. Slowly he feels a lush green hope forming in his chest. He opens his mouth, growls some deep, unintelligible sound in his newly broken voice, attempts to speak the word that keeps coming to him even in his unsteady morning daze. And when at last he manages to say it it’s like flipping a coin from head to tails, or taking off a paper mask and crushing it in your fist and throwing it in the nearest bin, or finishing a story and starting it all over again, all in one breath, turning it around and around until it’s a reversal of everything, simply because he exists – this dog, Caspar!
Francesca Rhydderch is a novelist and short story writer. Her début novel The Rice Paper Diaries was longlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and won the Wales Book of the Year Fiction Prize. She has also been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award for her short fiction ‘The Taxidermist’s Daughter’, which was broadcast on Radio 4.
She is an Associate Professor of creative writing at Swansea University and is co-curator, along with Niall Griffiths, of this year’s British Council Wales in Germany Literature Seminar, where ‘Muzzle’ debuted as a live reading on March 3rd.
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