We had let our house for a week. Natasha and Katya had gone to America to see (grand)parents and I to the west coast. Far enough, but not so far I couldn’t get back if the boiler burst, the shower ceased to pump, the roof sprung a leak. I had taken a room overlooking the Sound that runs between the mainland and Skye. I spent hours watching the water, but don’t ask me why this particular story came to me then. It just did.
My QC specialises in cases for the defence. If you want the evidence shaded, muddied, misted up, he’s your man. If you want to know what really happened, you’d better ask me: and now that the verdict is in – not guilty of course – I’ll be happy to give it to you straight.
Let me begin where it all began: in the steely heart of my niece Miranda. I use the word ‘steely’ admiringly. Hers was the heart of a true Englishwoman: a heart with love in it, certainly, if you delved, but also with an instinct which steered it – I would once have said unfailingly – towards the main chance. Being easy on the eye and light of foot, Miranda had no difficulty in surrounding herself by young men of the right sort. The path her life would take wasn’t difficult to predict and her father, Charles, enjoyed few things more than keeping me informed of its upward trajectory.
Until, that is, she announced her engagement. To Jorge.
The boy lived in London but was foreign. From Colombia. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his family was of no account and had no money. From Charles’ point of view the situation could hardly have been worse – which just shows how misguided people can be.
My opinion on the matter was never sought. Had it been, I would have given Jorge the benefit of the doubt. I liked him. He had untroubled eyes, an open smile and a warmth that gathered you in its arms and made you willing to overlook the absence of noughts in his bank account. I even liked the idea of Colombia. My sister, Miranda’s mother, had run off there – “it’s about as far away from him as I can get without switching hemispheres” – but that wasn’t why I liked it. No, I interpreted Colombia’s drug barons and general lawlessness as a sign of a different way of looking at life, an admirable loosening of corsetry. I thought Jorge would be good for her. Someone from a different world.
But, as I said, Charles was of the opposite opinion. When Miranda was on the up, he had lost no opportunity to tell me so. Now, with her descent inevitable, he did the same. I became familiar with his litany of lament: Jorge’s inadequacies – professional, intellectual, temperamental, financial, cultural – , how she’d have to turn her back on the finer things, how no-one would invite them to dinner, and so on, down even to his choice of shirts. Then things went quiet. I didn’t hear from him for a while. I assumed this meant he had become reconciled.
One evening I was summoned. We sat on his green leather fire-surround with our backs to the flames. Charles was fidgety. He scratched his head, he slipped his watch off his wrist and put it back again – I hadn’t seen him like this before. He went round and round his complaints against Jorge like a man lost in a mist. Then he stopped. He turned his head towards me, his mouth set at a curious angle, and spoke so softly I had to strain to catch what he was saying.
‘… and I’ve been told he’s had sexual relations with his dog.’
‘What? Did you say “with his dog?” ’
‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘with his dog.’
I didn’t know how to take it. It sounded mad. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Do you have proof? Witnesses? Photographs?’
‘There is no smoke without fire.’
‘Really? What happened to innocent until proven guilty?’
‘My information is reliable.’
Charles was a barrister with a city practice grown plump on low-life and celebrities. If it hadn’t been for the fact that he knew about such things, I wouldn’t have bothered to take him seriously. ‘Who told you? Where does all this come from?’
‘From a reliable informant.’
‘Charles,’ I said, ‘come off it. It sounds like nothing more than malicious gossip.’
He jumped to his feet and turned on me, striking a fist into his palm. ‘What do you want me to do for heaven’s sake? Nothing? Just let him marry my daughter?’
I gave him a moment to cool down. Then I said, ‘Well, the wedding’s not for a while. Who knows what will happen between now and then.’
At this, he stared at the top of my head so fixedly I found myself brushing away whatever was or wasn’t there. Charles continued to stare. His cheeks became redder and his eyes more inward looking. I couldn’t help wondering what demons this piece of tittle-tattle, probably no more than the chatter of a thwarted suitor, had awakened in him.
I had to go away shortly afterwards. I’d received a call, quite out of the blue, from a man who thought I might be able to help with a problem on one of the Western Isles. A pack of wolves had stopped eating the meat they were being fed and had turned on each other. ‘Could you sort it out? They’ll start eating the tourists next and we can’t have that.’ The approach was a surprise: I’m no expert when it comes to cannibalism. I demurred but he was insistent. So I said yes – well, I never like to turn down money.
The work wasn’t demanding: I’ve always had an instinct for animals. I still wasn’t sure why they had chosen me but, looking across over the Sound at all the beauty that created and recreated itself in each moment, the chattering waves, the hills moving with the clouds, I could only be grateful.
Once, as I sat on the hillside, the mist came down. I could see no further than my imagination. When it cleared, I amused myself by looking at the sights without my glasses, something which if you haven’t tried I would recommend. If you have eyes like mine, it adds another layer of infinity to the infinite variety of the water – the swirls, the ripples, the eddies, the intricate play of current and wind. When what must have been a single gull paddled across the Sound, I saw two, one the double of the other with both in precise synchronisation. I saw two logs surfing the waves in tandem and two small boats. And what went for those must also have been so for every swirl and ripple and eddy and for the currents of dark water I watched moving beneath.
In the end, I only had to kill one. It can happen in packs sometimes, that one – especially if it’s a recent addition – will set the others off. It’s almost as if their collective wiring comes loose and sparks in the wrong places. I didn’t like to do it – the animal could hardly be held responsible for her effect on the others – but those who don’t amuse the god of the greater good get the chop, they always have.
I brought her life to an end as humanely as I knew how. First I isolated her, then I moved close enough to touch and, as she bared her fangs, I placed the muzzle of my rifle into her mouth like a metallic teat. She pressed her lips around it and sucked, a reflexive return to her own beginnings, as calm a death as could be wished.
When I returned, I went round to my brother-in-law’s to see if he was feeling any better. I found him in the best of spirits.
‘Glad to see you looking so well,’ I said. ‘Quite a change from the last time we met. What’s happened?’
‘The wedding’s off, that’s what’s happened.’
‘Is it? Why? Did Miranda have second thoughts?’
‘No. He did.’
‘Really. Any reason?’
‘I don’t know. I didn’t ask. It doesn’t matter now, does it?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘I suppose it doesn’t.’
It was only later, when I saw my sister, that I discovered how much Charles had been holding back. Poor Imogen. After all those years in her South American bolthole, she had returned – “where else should a mother be on the eve of her daughter’s wedding!” – only to find the whole thing cancelled.
I commiserated. ‘A bit of a wasted journey, but nice for you to see Miranda again.’
‘Do you think he had him killed?’ she asked, straight out.
‘Who had who killed?’
‘Don’t be stupid. Did Charles have that boy killed?’
‘I didn’t know he was dead. Is Jorge dead?’
‘Of course he’s dead. Why else is the wedding off?’
‘I thought he’d got cold feet.’
Imogen laughed in her un-amused way. ‘He has now.’
‘Good heavens. The poor boy. The poor parents. Poor Miranda. How did he die?’
‘Yes shot, bloody shot, but forget that: does Charles have Jorge’s blood on his hands?’
I dismissed the possibility almost immediately. It wasn’t that I didn’t suppose him capable of murder – most of us are if pushed – but why would he? Just to prevent the marriage? Much as a father may care for his daughter, it was too extreme, surely. ‘Are you serious?’ I asked.
She looked at me with more steel in her eye than I had ever seen in her before. ‘Perfectly.’
Our subsequent conversation, picking our way through the debris of her bombshell, was unsurprisingly not of the sort that might normally have been expected between a brother and sister who haven’t seen each other for many years. (In fact it is only now that I am any the wiser as to her life ‘over there’.) We circled around the ‘case’ and it didn’t take me long to conclude that the speed with which her argument moved from motive (‘he wanted the boy out of the way’) to murder (‘he had him killed’) owed a good deal to her years in South America.
What stayed in my mind were the details of Jorge’s death. First he’d been shot, then his member had been separated from his body. On hearing of his mutilation, I felt a sudden and deep sympathy for his parents. For them more than for Miranda, though as to what particulars, in my make-up or in theirs, moved me in their direction, I couldn’t say. His father was living in some concrete estate south of the river. I had to see him.
Not knowing how welcome I’d be, I didn’t ring in advance. I dressed down as far as possible and climbed the staircases to the third floor, past graffiti, smashed bottles and a boy with saliva dripping from his mouth who was either asleep or dead.
Jorge’s father was a stocky man, unshaven for the last few days, but well turned out. He was wearing a suit. I introduced myself and he greeted me cordially. His English was good and, apart from his accent, there wasn’t much to distinguish him from the rest of us.
He invited me in, sat me on a chair and proceeded to tell me what a beautiful girl Miranda was and how sorry he was that the wedding was off.
‘But your son is dead,’ I exclaimed, not being able to understand how he could proffer such banalities while his son lay in his grave, dismembered. I don’t know what I’d expected. Certainly not politeness.
‘Yes, my Jorge is dead.’
I had no idea how to respond. His control, his acceptance, unnerved me. ‘Forgive me,’ I said finally, ‘I spoke too hastily. I have only just found out.’
‘It is okay. Don’t worry,’ the man said.
The door opened. I readied myself for the usual introductions but nobody came through. Whoever was on the other side seemed to be waiting, perhaps taking stock of the new presence in the room. Finally – and I was by this time strangely apprehensive – in walked a dog. I don’t know from what mixture of breeds or exotic country it came but it looked at me sideways through eyes alive with an almost human intelligence.
‘What an extraordinary dog,’ I exclaimed.
‘Oh, we’re very proud of you, aren’t we Millita?’ he said, stroking her side enthusiastically.
‘Was she your son’s dog?’
‘Of course. They loved each other.’ He reached for a brush and began to groom her tail. ‘Jorge took her with him everywhere he went.’
‘Really. Everywhere.’ Then caught by a sudden thought, I said, ‘but surely not when he went to Miranda’s house, not when they were going out?’
‘Yes, yes. She stayed with Miranda’s father. Jorge collected her before he came home.’
The man seemed happy to carry on talking and I nodded encouragingly as he did so. I remember none of it. I couldn’t take my eyes off Milly. As I watched her, I formed the impression that she was watching me – it was as if we were both conversing, a private conversation on airways above or below those being used by Jorge’s father. I removed my glasses. The one Milly became two, as I expected… but then, after a while, one again – only this time, where previously I had seen a dog, what I now saw was a young girl. I don’t know how old this girl could have been. The signs were contradictory. Her lithe, almost gymnastic figure suggested someone not much more than eleven or thereabouts. On the other hand (and I was seeing her without my glasses so I don’t claim this as gospel), she was swaying as if to some kind of music, moving her hands along her thighs and with such knowingness, I thought she was more like twenty-one.
I focused my attention. I wanted this girl of indeterminate age to return to what my common sense was telling me was a dog. I addressed her, my lips may even have moved. ‘You are a dog… no more than a dog… a crossbreed, yes… from some strange place undoubtedly… but still a dog… just a dog. ’ This I said, but yet before me, now holding one hand up to her breast as if cast forever in neuronal bronze, remained this picture of pubescent seduction.
Jorge’s father was still speaking. The subject, as far as I could make out, was how much everyone loved Milly. His final words, which happily I managed to catch, were ‘…and the rats got what they deserved.’ I put my glasses back on, cast my eyes up to the ceiling, anywhere but at Milly, and said, ‘oh, that’s good, nobody wants rats.’ Judging from the look he gave me, this may not have been an appropriate response. I didn’t care. I had to leave and the sooner the better. I stood up, told him how sorry I was, how Jorge had been such a delightful boy, thanked him for seeing me and, without so much as a pat for Milly, turned on my heels. No one accosted me on the staircase.
By the time I’d arrived back at my flat, I decided I must have been delusional – perhaps I was coming down with a fever – and that, anyway, this tragedy of Jorge was none of my business. That’s what I told myself and for a few hours was able to find distraction in a bottle that had been given to me as a thank-you for my work on the island.
It was enough to keep me occupied but, back-stage, somewhere behind my eyeballs, the alarming metamorphosis of Milly kept on dancing to the beat. I had to try to look her in the face, to cross and re-cross the border between states real and imagined, and this I did, or thought I did, until sleep, no doubt brought on by the wine I’d drunk, overcame me.
When I awoke, it was evening. Darkness was falling. In the half-light, my room repulsed me. I took a walk along the City’s well-kept streets. Men and women were also strolling – the night was balmy – and then I realised that everybody out that night, all of them with the exception of myself, had dogs; dogs who strutted like some banker who has just received his annual bonus, dogs who minced along like rugby players in pleasurable anticipation of their next scrum, dogs with short skirts and pouty rouged lips leaning against lampposts. I shut my eyes, I started to run, to stumble, I must have bumped into people because I heard angry remonstrations, I may even have been struck… but I had to get away. Somehow I arrived at Charles’ front door.
By the time I’d climbed his stairs, I had pulled myself together. I told him about seeing Jorge’s father. ‘He seems decent enough to me,’ I said.
‘Quite possibly. I’ve never met him myself.’
‘Well, didn’t seem much point. I never believed the wedding would go ahead. Why muddy the waters?’
I thought about this and didn’t know what to make of it. ‘What waters would they be exactly?’
He sniffed. ‘Foreign waters.’
‘They’re from South America somewhere, didn’t I tell you? Colombia I believe.’
‘Ah, I see, Imogen running off there – given the whole place a bad name has it?’
Charles sniffed. ‘Don’t bring your sister into this. Jorge is dead. There is no reason why I should have anything to do with his family.’
‘Won’t you miss the dog?’
‘Yes, Milly. Are there any other dogs?’
‘You met her then?’
‘What did you think of her?’
‘I thought there was something … something out of the ordinary about her.’ Visions of the dog-girl floated once again before me.
‘I keep thinking about her, Charles. Crazy isn’t it? I can’t get her out of my mind.’
‘Nor can I,’ he said with a sigh.
‘Didn’t she stay with you when Miranda and Jorge went out?’
‘Yes… I looked forward to it. Strange to say this about a dog but we enjoyed each other’s company.’
‘What did you do? Together.’
‘Not much. The occasional walk. She liked to sleep in front of the fire. Well we both did. She made a good pillow.’
‘And then Jorge came to take her away…’
‘How did you feel about that?’
‘I didn’t like it but what could I do?’
‘Not a lot, I suppose. She was his dog.’
‘He was her master, but she never wanted to go with him.’
‘Do you think he abused her?’
‘Of course he did. I told you. You didn’t believe me.’
‘Imogen thinks you had him shot.’
‘I know. She rang me up to tell me. According to her, nothing of doubtful provenance takes place without my having a hand in it.’
After that he said nothing. He settled into an armchair and stared at the ceiling as if captivated by some piece of music (though no music was playing). Presently, I said, ‘Will they find his killer?’
‘It’s possible, though I wouldn’t put money on it.’
‘What about the mutilation? Isn’t that a clue? Implies a sexual motive don’t you think?’
‘It would seem to. Unless it’s to put the police off the scent.’
‘I see… you mean an ordinary killing disguised as a lover’s quarrel?’
‘Or a double bluff? A lover’s quarrel disguised as a lover’s quarrel so the police would think it wasn’t.’
Charles looked at me. ‘You should have been a barrister,’ he said.
‘When I came back from the island, why didn’t you tell me he’d been murdered?’
‘Probably because I was still enjoying the fact that I wouldn’t have that… that animal-lover as a son-in-law.’
All this seemed plausible enough and I decided to put the whole thing – Jorge, Charles, Milly – behind me. It wasn’t any of my business. The next few days passed uneventfully. I strolled around the city, I was untroubled by canine apparitions. I comforted myself with the thought that what had happened with Milly was an anomaly, not something that would recur and that I was not mad. I even went to see the man who had given me work on the island. He told me that from time to time he did have assignments for someone “with my particular skills”. I almost smiled. The assumptions people make. They see, they know – so they think. I waited for his call. It never came.
I hadn’t seen Miranda since Jorge’s death. When I bumped into her at a friend’s house, I had the impression that our meeting was not an accident. She led me down the garden. Most of its lower parts, those far away from the house, looked as if they’d been abandoned entirely to nature. Wild flowers sprouted among the grasses and the trees grew above them as they would.
Miranda linked her arm in mine.
‘I called you, you know, but you never answered.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I wanted to be alone. I had to try to make sense of it.’
‘And have you?’
‘No.’ There was a hard edge to her voice. ‘He didn’t deserve it, I know that. He was gentle and kind. Who would want to murder him?’
I said nothing.
‘Who?’ she asked again.
‘Why? For what reason?’
‘I can’t tell you. All I know is that I’ve seen men, even decent men like Jorge, killed for all kinds of reasons and for no reason at all. Someone thinks their world will be better if someone else is removed, or that this someone else has it coming, or they get so mad between the ears that they don’t think anything at all. Just…’ And the sound that I didn’t utter, and the image that appeared in my eyes, was pop.
She looked at me. ‘Who was it?’
‘Who do you think it was?’
‘My father hated him, he wanted him out of the way but I can’t believe he had him killed.’
‘Then he probably didn’t.’
‘He could have. He knows people. Mummy thinks it was him.’
‘I think if Milly could speak she’d be a good witness… but then she’s only a dumb animal.’
A tear appeared in her eye and rolled down her cheek. I don’t remember ever before seeing her cry. I drew her to me. Her body shuddered in my arms.
A pigeon sat on a low branch of a holly tree apparently watching us. Its muscles had shrunk to such an extent that it had almost no breast and its cheeks were down to the bone. I thought of my mother in her last hours. The bird’s beak, unobstructed by flesh even at its source, pointed backwards to a pair of staring eyes. ‘A fox will get you,’ I said. ‘Or a cat.’ The pigeon didn’t blink.
‘She looks as if she’s seen some stuff,’ Miranda said.
‘How do you know it’s female?’
‘I know. Look at those eyes. She understands she’s going to get what’s coming to her.’
‘Everybody has to die. Even pigeons.’
‘Yes everybody has to die. There has to be an end somewhere. For her, the sooner the better.’ She reflected in silence for a while and then said, ‘Shall I do it? Or will you?’
‘Does it need to be done? We could leave it to nature.’
‘Either way,’ she said.
We went back to the house, Miranda running ahead.
Later that evening, returning to the holly tree, I saw that death had left no trace – no carcass, no feathers, no bones – except for the empty space.
By chance a few days later, I found myself back in the area where Jorge’s father lived. I thought I’d ask him how the police were getting on. I climbed the concrete staircase and knocked on the door. Imogen, my sister, answered. ‘Come in,’ she said.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked.
‘I could ask you the same question.’
‘I just happened to be passing.’
‘Oh yes. Well she’s dead too you know.’
‘Milly. The dog.’
‘Milly… No!’ A sudden dizziness came over me, my head buzzed and dots of light pinked my eyeballs. I must have stumbled because the next thing I knew I was grabbing the waistband of her skirt for support. ‘How? Why?’
Imogen brushed my hand away. ‘She was shot.’
‘Shot? How can a dog be shot? We’re in the middle of London not on some country estate.’
‘I’m just telling you what I know. She was shot, that’s all.’
‘My God, what next?’
‘You’d better come in.’
She opened the door. Jorge’s father was sitting in an armchair, staring at the carpet beneath him. I went over and put my hand on his shoulder. He grasped it with his own and looked up at me, his eyes filmed by tears which he couldn’t control. He held my gaze and what rose up from his deeps, and what he passed across, was unmitigated sadness.
As I was leaving, Imogen handed me an envelope. She’d obviously prepared it before I arrived. Either she was expecting me – feminine intuition she’d have called it – or she was going to give it to me later. It contained cash, that was obvious, £100 notes probably – as if there was some understanding between us and this her side of the bargain. What she imagined my side would be, or had been, was unclear to me, though I knew my sister was not one to let the ordinary boundaries that others found constraining stand in her way. I returned the envelope unopened.
I went immediately to Charles’ place. He opened the door in quite a state. ‘That poor dog. What had she ever done to anybody?’ he declared slumping down in his chair. He shovelled across a bottle of malt that was standing half-empty on the table. ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘what indeed?’ We finished off the bottle between us.
Sometime later – I don’t know how long we’d passed in silence – I said, ‘Milly’s death has hit you hard.’
‘The death of an innocent.’
‘Death makes everyone innocent, don’t you think, especially those we love.’
‘What does that make the killer?’ he said looking up at me. ‘Some kind of saint?’
Miranda came in. She kissed me, didn’t say a word to her father and left. I took this as my cue to make for the door. Charles didn’t seem to notice although as I was going out he said, with what seemed like particular intent, ‘Goodbye.’
‘That sounds very final, Charles. Are you planning to die soon?’
‘Soon yes. It’s about time don’t you think?’ Then he added, ‘Take care, by the way, it’s you they’ll come for.’
‘Me? For what?’
‘Just take care.’
Those were the last words I heard him speak.
Miranda refused to identify the body. I went to the morgue with Imogen. It was indubitably Charles, stiff and pale certainly, but himself in all respects except for the absence of his vital spark. Bizarrely – to shock me no doubt – the police had left his eyes open. I examined them closely. I wanted to discover if some understanding had crept in at the time of his departure and been captured like a fossil for the duration of his human remains.
I have seen many pairs of dead eyes and some have stories to tell and some do not. I took my time. Such stories as are within do not give themselves up without a struggle. I concentrated my attention and, after a while, came to realise that Charles had been killed with love, or at least without malice or ulterior motive – as if he had not so much been murdered as had his life surgically removed. He had co-operated in the act, even had his hand on the knife as it entered his flesh, even knew the face of his murderer or – if you accept my conjecture – collaborator. As to wisdom, that knowledge of your own reality which comes to you finally and too late at the moment of death, I can’t say I saw any of that. But then, Charles had never been the existential type.
When I came out, Imogen wanted to know what I’d been doing all that time. ‘Couldn’t you remember what he looked like?’ she asked. I replied that I wanted to understand what death had to tell us. She snorted and walked to the car.
May I end by saying that Colombia suits me well. The heat can be taxing, certainly, but you get used to it. Imogen’s place is miles from anywhere which is one reason why, after the trial and the publicity, we all came out here. Miranda and her mother get on: their separation seems to have done them good. Friends visit us. My QC stayed for a week, Jorge’s father for six months. We don’t have a dog. I sleep with my eyes open sitting up in a chair. I face out to the jungle of immense trees beyond the flowerbeds growing wild and am comforted by the howling of wolves.
© Michael Tobert