Art by Gareth Humphreys

Keeping Company
by Jackie Morrisey

 

What nobody understood was that Riley loved that dog. For fifteen years it had followed him around dumbly, sometimes hiding under the sofa when he had one of his episodes, but always coming back to trail behind him once the mood had passed. Riley had got used to it. He told it things that he would never tell the doctor. It never looked at him as if he was crazy. Naturally, he missed the animal when it died. It was a mystery to him why people acted so oddly when they saw it nicely stuffed and standing in the window.

He had put it there, because that was where it had always liked to be, beside Riley, watching people on the street. It was as good as having the live dog really. Better, maybe, because it didn’t need to be fed, or walked, or anything. It just stood, keeping him company. The perfect pet.

Riley found people puzzling. They said one thing, then did another. Certain things he had learned in the playground. If he punched one, it would get angry; if he gave one a sweet, it would be his friend, but never for long. After the incident in his teens, and his spell in hospital, they looked at him more strangely. He couldn’t figure it out. He would talk normally to them, but they would always mumble awkwardly in response and look away into the distance and ease towards the door. It seemed rude. His mother had taught him to be polite, but other people often weren’t. Sometimes he shouted after them, especially if it happened in the street, or at a bus stop, somewhere his mother wouldn’t hear. They always quickened their pace and didn’t look back.

‘Don’t mind them,’ his mother used to say vaguely, when he told her. ‘They’re probably late for work.’

He knew that wasn’t it though, he wasn’t stupid. The two women who had rushed off the previous day didn’t work. He had watched them walk their dogs every morning for weeks, hair swinging loosely, laughing as if they knew a man was watching. He had even walked behind them a couple of times, just looking. One of them lived in the next street, the other a few blocks away. Both of their houses had big picture windows. At night, they turned on the lights and watched TV. They didn’t close their curtains all the way. The plumper one had a husband, the thinner one lived with her mother.

Riley had given a lot of thought to how he would introduce himself to the women. He didn’t want to scare them off, that had happened before. He knew he needed a reason to approach them. The dogs were the key. He could talk about dogs. He had offered to buy one of their dogs. They weren’t interested, but it gave him an opening.

‘Do you know where I might get a dog like that?’ he had persisted ‘Where did you buy your one? I really want a dog you know, mine died last year.’

Sensing their doubt, he pulled out his trump card, incontrovertible proof.

‘Look, that’s him, my old dog, standing in the window. You see him, the yellow dog? Stuffed. They did a great job with him, he’s as good as when he was alive. I can’t walk him though, that’s why I want a new one. I used to like to take a walk up all the old back lanes. You’d be amazed what you see in those old back lanes.’

Riley had sensed that this was not working according to plan, if anything, the women seemed to have quickened their walk.
‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said, as they approached the first one’s door and both seemed to be turning into it, ‘you live here, right? I’ll call in for the address. You just find it for me and write it down, and I’ll call and collect it another day.’

The women were silent. He remembered to smile. He felt like asking the stupid whores what was the matter with them, but he held it in. His doctor would have been pleased. He was always on about keeping control, not losing the temper or shouting after people. Riley went home satisfied that he had broken the ice. He would do better next time. They would get used to him. The skinny one who lived with her mother should be glad a man was interested, he thought. She was no chicken, and no beauty either. She wore old tracksuit bottoms and an outsized tee-shirt to bed. He could teach her a few things. She pretended to be so respectable, but he knew better. He had phoned her number a couple of times, just to hear what her voice sounded like, and the language she had used wasn’t the sort of thing a nice woman would know about. She hadn’t known it was him, of course. He hadn’t said anything, it was too soon for that.

He had gone in well satisfied with his morning’s work. His mother had quizzed him, but he knew better than to tell her much. She would turn odd, and maybe make him take more pills, or even go back to hospital. It was a strange thing, she wanted him to make friends, but then always reacted badly when he tried. She had liked it when he went to those day group meetings at the hospital, but he hadn’t much time for them. Those people were mostly crazy, and some of them drooled. He didn’t belong with them. No, his mother meant well, but she was old, and losing it. She forgot things a lot now, sometimes even his pills. He didn’t remind her because he didn’t like them, when he woke up in the mornings after taking them he was limp like a wet firework. He wasn’t a man with those things in his system, even the dirty pictures didn’t work. What was there without that? He was entitled to a life. No, Riley took the pills when he had to, but he wasn’t foolish, he would skip them when he could. The old woman wasn’t that sharp, and she slept a lot nowadays.

Riley had checked on his new friends that evening. At the back of the thin one’s house he had found a comfortable spot beside the garden wall. Her bedroom was inside the upper right-hand window. He watched until the light went on, and her shadowy figure moved behind the curtain. He stayed for about an hour. Before he left, he carefully spread gravel and earth over the evidence of his excitement. He watched a lot of television, and he knew about forensics and DNA. Not that there was anything wrong with being attracted to a woman, or sitting in a lane on a summer evening, but he knew from experience that people wouldn’t see it like that. They could watch pornography, but he couldn’t sit and think about a real woman that he’d actually talked to without being called a pervert. It was one of those things he didn’t understand about ordinary people, but it didn’t bother him. He was not ordinary. Released from his pills, he felt like Superman, or maybe one of those pagan gods he’d read about, spreading his semen on the ground like a fertility rite, to make the world fertile. At home, slapping his belly in front of the mirror, he thought how lucky the skinny one was, to have the attention of a man like him. He slept soundly.

There was something a bit wrong when he awoke next morning. The old woman was usually pottering around in the kitchen. As her days and nights became more alike, that early morning ritual was the one constant. For the fifty-six years of Riley’s life, she had been in that kitchen by 8am, making tea. Not today. He went downstairs and ate breakfast cereal. He looked out the front window, waiting for the women to pass by. By midday they had not appeared, so he guessed they had changed plans for the day. He felt restless. Energy ran through his body like electricity. He went out quietly so as not to alert his mother, and walked the streets, passing the women’s houses, but not stopping too obviously. Perhaps they had gone on an outing, he thought. Back tomorrow. He rang the skinny one’s doorbell on his second trip past, planning to ask about the dog breeder’s address if she opened the door, but there was no answer. He considered going around the back, but it was daylight, and there were a lot of people around.

Back at home, he tried the telephones a few times, but there was no answer from either of them. His frustration was building to rage. Pacing the floor, he almost tripped on the furniture, and responded by smashing the offending chair repeatedly against the wall, screaming abuse at it as he did so. When he had finished, he thought of the old woman. She had not appeared to calm him down. Surely she had heard! He went quietly to her room. As usual the door was ajar. She liked to keep control of the house, or had, when she was younger. Now she heard little, but by force of habit still never fully closed her door. He listened outside, but only a dead silence seeped through the gap. If she was still asleep, he didn’t want to wake her. Quietly, he pushed the door, and stepped into the room. The old woman’s bodyshape could be seen under the bedclothes. He crept closer. She was very still. He touched her hand, it was cold. He pushed her body experimentally. It was stiff. She reminded him of the dog.

Riley left the room and went back to the kitchen. He was hungry. She usually cooked, but he could take care of himself. He pulled packets from the cupboards and ate randomly – crackers, biscuits, a banana. Milk slopped down his shirt as he drank from the carton, but he didn’t mind. He thought of the process as re-fuelling. Stomach filled, he went back to the phones, but still his women didn’t answer. Frustrated, he kicked the wall.

As darkness fell, he walked again, circling the area, passing the houses several times. There were lights on, so the bitches were there. He went back home to the phones. This time, the fat one’s husband answered. Enraged, Riley swore and cursed at him. The man hung up. Riley paced the house. Passing his mother’s room, he checked again. She was still cold, but not as stiff as before. Touching the shrouded body, he felt his energy pass into her, driving the stiffness of death from her bones. He sat for a while, looking at her. Once, he pulled at her eyelids, but the eyes showed no signs of life. It was a long night. Moving from the bedroom, he took the old woman with him for company. He talked to her like he talked to the dog, telling her everything. He would never have done that before, but now she was changed, things were different. He put his hands on her head, passing his thoughts into her skull. Eventually, he slept.

At 7am, he rose and began to re-organise the house. The furniture was in all the wrong rooms. He moved things back and forth until he had arranged it to his satisfaction. Then he sat in the window and waited. The women didn’t come. At lunchtime a squad car pulled up and two guards approached the house. He answered their ring without concern. Light shone from his eyes and crackled through his veins. They began with polite small talk, but he knew what was coming. These two had visited before. They knew his name. ‘Riley’ they called him, as if he was just anybody. He concealed his annoyance.

‘Well Riley,’ said the older one, like a kindly uncle, ‘We’ve had a bit of a complaint from two ladies. Would you know anything about that?’

‘No Officer,’ said Riley, ‘which women would they be?’

‘Two ladies who walk their dog past here,’ said the guard, ‘You seem to have alarmed them. They said you followed them home.’

‘No,’ said Riley, ‘that’s all wrong, they must have got confused. I did talk to them alright, about getting a new dog, but there’s no harm in that, is there?’

‘But you already have a dog, don’t you?’ said the other Guard.

‘I wanted a young dog to walk with me,’ said Riley. He didn’t mention the stuffing. The Guards mightn’t like it.

‘And do you ever make phone calls?’

Riley shrugged. ‘My mother doesn’t like me running up phone bills,’ he said.

There was a silence, as the Guards looked past him into the hall. Eventually, one asked the inevitable question.

‘Is your mother home?’

‘She is,’said Riley, ‘but she’s asleep.’

‘We need to see her,’ said the guard.

‘She’s up there,’ said Riley, ‘in the window, you see? But I wouldn’t want to be disturbing her now. She doesn’t sleep well these days.’

The two guards followed the direction of his pointing finger. One of them stepped back from the door step and craned his neck upwards for a better look. The old woman was lying back in an armchair behind the upstairs window facing the street. The dog stood companionably by her side. Satisfied, the guards nodded.

‘We might be back to have a word with her again,’ they said. ‘When she’s awake.’

‘OK,’ said Riley, smiling.

As the squad car left the street, Riley sat in the window with his dog and his mother. Contentment spread through him. He told them about the guards, and about the women, and the houses, and the phone calls. They understood him perfectly. He told them about his plans to visit his girlfriend that night. She would understand too. They all did, eventually.