We trawled the streets for an hour or so. Weedgie looked around and sniffed while I watched traffic, heading instinctively towards busier streets. Finally, I hit the jackpot. A wide street with a traffic island in the middle and scores of taxis nipping back and forward between buses.
I pointed across the street.
“Hey, Weedgie,” I called him back to me, “There’s a café over there. Let’s go and I’ll get us some sandwiches. We can have lunch in a park somewhere.”
“Braw!” Weedgie was ridiculously happy at the thought and waved his bushy tail madly as I led him to the pavement edge.
If I could just gauge this one better…here we go…two buses…yes!
I strode forward with Weedgie at my side and jogged swiftly to the centre island. I turned to look. The first bus sailed by and then the second. I craned my neck and looked hopefully for a brown furry body lying in the road.
Then I glanced down.
And did a double-take.
Weedgie was sitting by my side.
“Whit’re we lookin’ for?” he said, following my gaze, “Ye’re no’ yin o’ they sad flinkers who like watchin’ buses, are ye? Do ye like train-spottin’ an’ all?”
“Aargh…” I bunched my fists and clenched my teeth to stop myself screaming out loud. “C’mon, you.”
I spun around and launched myself into the second lane of traffic. Next thing I knew, there was a screech of brakes and I bounced off the side of a taxi and tipped into the back seat of an open-topped sports car.
“Hey! What the -” The driver turned to scowl at me as I flailed around, legs in the air. He was big and brawny, wearing a tweed sports jacket and smoking a pipe. “I don’t take hitch-hikers. Get out of my car!” He swung the car to the pavement and I scrambled out, face burning.
Weedgie was sitting on the pavement outside the café.
“Ah’m gonnae pretend ah’m no wi’ ye. Numpty.”
I lurched past him on unsteady legs and went into the café. I joined a queue at the counter. My head was reeling.
The reality of the past day and a half suddenly caught up with me. Weedgie had been right; I was a non-person.
No-one remembered my name. No-one thought I was attractive. Sadie had barely noticed me when I asked about the room and she hadn’t even asked for a reference. Pat and Eric were uninterested in me. My first victim was alive and presumably all the other ones were happily existing too. I’d lost the ability to harm anyone…except myself.
I knew the score now.
If I tried to get Weedgie killed I would be the one ending up in hospital.
I had never felt so lonely in my entire life.
I shuffled forward in the queue, thoughts whirling, wondering how I could change. I had to become a different person if I wanted to survive. I had to become a better person.
I wondered if there was somewhere I could book myself in for a frontal lobotomy…
When I came back out onto the street five minutes later, Weedgie was a few doors down. He was on his hind legs, front paws resting on the window ledge of a small shop. The sign above the door said they repaired shoes, cut keys and did engraving. I stopped beside him and stared wearily at a display of pet tags. Most of them were round silver discs but Weedgie was focussed on one in the middle which was shaped like a bone. He looked up at me.
“Haw, Marty, get us yin o’ they wee bones fur ma collar, wid ye? And pit ma name oan it?”
I looked closer at some of the tags which had been engraved as samples. They said Rover, Fido and Bonzo.
What the hell.
My life couldn’t get any worse.
I went in, nearly passed out from the smell of glue and rubber, and emerged a short while later, slightly spaced-out and carrying a silver bone bearing the legend ‘Weedgie’. I fastened it on his collar while he grinned in delight. I avoided looking at his too-human teeth and said, “You called me Marty.”
“Did ah?” He looked shifty. “Must have been a slip o’ the tongue. I meant tae say numpty. Cheers fur the bone, ’though. Whit sandwich did ye get me?”
Turned out he preferred the one I’d got for myself.
Ten minutes later, I was seated on a bench in front of a small flower garden with Weedgie beside me. I surrendered my sandwich and contemplated his in return.
I’d lost the will to live.
I’d also lost any appetite I had, so Weedgie forced himself to eat the second sandwich too. Then he sat and stared at me.
“What?” I said, avoiding his gaze.
“Ye’re awfy quiet,” he said, then cocked his head, “And ye look a bit…younger?”
I seethed in exasperation. Was there anything this damn dog didn’t notice?
And then I felt a jolt inside me and something cleared in my head.
“I’m sixteen years, three hundred and sixty four days old.”
“Jings bangs!” Weedgie’s eyebrows shot up to his quiff. “That’s awfy…specific. Why dae ye say that?”
“Because, the day before my seventeenth birthday, my parents were killed in a car crash.”
“Aye?” The eyebrows came down. “Bummer.”
I started to speak. I felt the need to talk about it and this was the first time I had told a living soul.
Or a talking dog.
“It was a horrible time. The night before they died, my parents had a huge row. My mother found out my father had been seeing another woman. She must have had suspicions for a while…I was at school, had my own friends and hobbies. I was never in. I had no idea. I still don’t know who the woman was…someone he worked beside, I suppose. But my mother found something in his pocket, something which proved it. They shouted at each other until midnight, then my father went and slept in the spare room.”
My head drooped and tears pricked my eyelids. “The next morning, my mother had a doctor’s appointment. She didn’t drive; hardly any women did in those days. My father had to take her and they must have argued in the car and he lost concentration because he pulled out right in front of a lorry. They…they were both killed instantly.”
I paused and buried memories came back swiftly and clearly; the kindly policeman who’d broken the news, the funeral, the empty house, the sudden loneliness. My eyes filled up and I blinked rapidly.
Weedgie pursed his lips and gave a low whistle.
“Frinkin’ balloobies.” He shook his head. “Ye’d better brush up yer road crossing skills then if ye don‘t want tae go the same way. Ye nearly got blootered by twa buses this mornin’.”
He jumped down from the bench and started walking away.
“C’moan,” he said over his shoulder, “Let’s go back and see if Mary’s arrived yet.”
I stood up, the familiar rage coming down as I seethed at him. A large stone lay at my feet. What would happen if…?
I swooped, picked up the stone and threw it at Weedgie.
Then stood and watched it curve impossibly away from him, ping off a lamp post, ricochet off a wall and hurtle back towards me.
“Aargh!” I ducked just in time and it sailed over my head and bounced back into the gutter. Weedgie looked around at me.
“C’moan, numpty,” he yelled, “Stop mucking aboot!”
I trailed miserably behind him - this was becoming my default position now - and tried to focus on the job ahead and forget how isolated I felt. I needed to turn this whole thing around.
“Try harder, Marty,” I said under my breath, “Try harder…”
We arrived back at Sadie’s and wandered through to the lounge. Music was playing softly, something classical, coming from a large polished wooden cabinet in the far corner. Pat was on the settee, listlessly knitting, her needles clacking slowly, a frown on her face.
“Hi.” I sat on the armchair opposite. “What’re you knitting?”
She held up a pink shape which told me nothing.
“Lovely,” I said.
“It’s for my niece,” she said, “Damn, another stitch gone.” Her frown grew deeper as she slid the knitting from the needle and carefully unwound part of it. I watched as she painstakingly hooked it, stitch by stitch, onto the second needle.
“There’s something up wi’ her,” Weedgie said, “She was happy as Larry this mornin’. Ask her whit‘s wrang.”
I sighed. “Whit’s - I mean, what’s wrong, Pat? You don’t seem too happy.”
Her sigh was deeper than mine. “Oh…it’s nothing.” She shrugged. “Just…I think too much sometimes.”
“Aye, me too,” Weedgie said.
I gave him a look which said yeah, right! and turned my attention back to her. She avoided my gaze and concentrated on her needles. Something was definitely worrying her but if she wouldn’t tell me, then what could I do?
“Ah’m awa’ tae the kitchen,” Weedgie said, heading out the door, “Ah’ll see if Sadie’s finished thae biscuits she mixed this mornin’. She was daein‘ twa lots o‘ them, they smelled guid.”
“You’ve just had lunch -” It was out before I could stop myself. Pat looked up in surprise.
“I couldn’t eat much.” She smiled faintly. “Wasn’t too hungry.”
I doubted I’d ever be hungry for Sadie’s cooking.
“Me neither,” I said cringing inwardly, “So…when’s the sister arriving?”
“Mary? Sadie got a phone call, she’s just tidying up in the kitchen. They should be here soon.”
“Don’s bringing her. They’ve got a car.”
I remembered that owning a car was a fairly big thing in the sixties. You had to have a decent wage to afford one.
“What does he do?” I said.
“Manages some big manufacturing firm,” Pat said, rolling up her knitting, “They make glasses.”
“Pint glasses? Whisky glasses? Lemonade glasses?”
“Trust a man to think of alcohol first!” She smiled. “Spectacles. Eye-glasses. That sort of thing.”
“Is Mary her younger sister or older?”
“Oh, younger, by four or five years.”
Then the door opened and Weedgie came back in, looking disgruntled. Sadie was behind him, looking cross.
“Mike,” she said, “Please keep your dog out of my kitchen. It’s most unsanitary.”
The doorbell rang as I was processing this development.
“Oh! That’ll be Don.” Sadie rushed off towards the front door and Pat rose and followed her. I looked at Weedgie.
“What did you do?” I said.
“Nothin’. Ah didnae dae a thing. She wis happy fur me tae be there this mornin’ when she was mixing and stuff. And noo she throws me oot.”
“What did you do?” I said again.
He gave a sigh.
“She brought a’ these wee ginger biscuits oot the oven and tellt me they were fur this Mary that’s comin’. She put them oan a metal rack and then yin o’ them fell on the flair.”
“And you saw your chance,” I said.
“Well, ah never got the chance.” Weedgie was indignant. “Ah thought she wouldnae want tae gie that yin tae her sister, being on the flair and a’ so ah went tae get it. She grabbed ma collar and nearly strangled me.”
I suppressed a grin. Strike one for Sadie.
“Then she threw me oot and chased me back in here. Ah don’t ken…weemin!” He growled to himself.
“Let’s go see this potential victim.” I hoisted myself out of the armchair and Weedgie followed me into the hall. The front door was open and Pat was hovering behind Sadie. Sadie ignored her.
We stopped beside them in time to see a couple climb slowly up to the front door, the woman supported by the man. From the way she moved you would have thought she was climbing Everest.
I studied her carefully and the tingling feeling I‘d had before got stronger.
“It’s her! It’s her! Ah ken it!” Weedgie bounced with excitement.
“I know, I know,” I said and Pat turned and looked at me. I smiled weakly, cringing again, and stood back to let the couple enter the hall. The woman was thin, painfully so, but despite that I could see she was very beautiful. She had a slight look of Sadie around the mouth but apart from that they didn’t look anything like each other. Mary had large, expressive green eyes and dark brown hair. Her face was heart-shaped and she wore a pale blue skirt and jacket which emphasised her slim figure.
Beside her, Sadie looked large and uncouth with her dyed black hair and ample figure squashed into a tight patterned dress. Her ankles bulged over high-heeled court shoes with pointed toes. I felt she’d made an effort to compete with Mary. Sibling rivalry, perhaps; the younger sister eclipsing the elder one?
“She’s a right stoater,” Weedgie said, “Braw!”
I assumed stoater was a compliment.
Then I noticed the man who was with Mary.
“He’s some poser,” Weedgie said and I had to agree. The man was tall, the same height as myself, with brown hair waved back off his face. He was clean shaven and very smooth-looking in a dark grey suit. His chin was dimpled and his jaw was square. He looked like a Hollywood actor, playing the concerned suitor.
Sadie gestured to us all and turned to the couple.
“Mary and Don,” she said, “You know Pat. And this is…” I forced a smile and held out my hand before she could rename me again.
“Marty Hollis,” I said, “Pleased to meet you.”
“Don Steele.” His handshake was crushing. “And this is my wife, Mary.”
Mary’s handshake was limp and dry. She smiled wanly and I noticed deep shadows under her eyes.
“I’ve just moved in,” I said, then sighed as Weedgie tugged at my trouser leg. I pointed at him. “This is Weedgie.”
“Oh, what a nice dog,” Mary said, bending slowly to pat him, then wincing at the effort. As she straightened up I took a chance and dived at a suitcase Don was holding.
“Let me take that for you,” I said, grabbing the handle, “Where is Mary‘s room?”
“Oh, er…” Sadie was torn between accompanying us and being the gracious hostess. The latter won out.
“Mary knows the way,” she said, turning to usher Don towards the lounge, “Do come on through and I’ll bring us some tea. You must be tired driving through all that traffic…” Her voice tailed away. I watched as Pat followed slowly behind them, looking unsure if she was included in the invitation. Weedgie had no such doubts and bounded after them. I turned back to Mary.
“This is very kind of you.” She led me through a door into a living room which caused my jaw to drop. And not in a good way. There was floor-to-ceiling peacock blue velvet curtains with gold tasselled tie-backs and a matching settee with scores of gold fringed velvet cushions. The walls were papered in gold flock with a pattern of swirly leaves intertwined with huge red roses and the carpet was green and gold overlapping squares. My eyes swam.
Mary picked her way between small tables with spindly legs which held an assortment of crystal ornaments, and over-stuffed tasselled armchairs. I followed slowly and we reached a door at the far end. She opened it to reveal a tiny room with a single bed, a small chest of drawers and nothing else. “Here we are,” she said and I put the case down on the floor.
“Well, this is…basic.” I smiled at her.
She smiled back, her eyes creasing attractively at the corners. “Sadie likes her gold and tassels. I prefer this room, I used to stay here quite often, before I became ill. This is a nice treat for me.”
“What’s wrong with you?” After I’d asked I realised this was quite rude. “Sorry. I’m being nosey.”
“It’s quite alright.” Mary took off her jacket and hung it in the wardrobe. “I don’t mind. I just wish I could give you an answer. My doctor is unsure, he thinks I’ve picked up some kind of flu virus and I can‘t shake it off. I keep being ill and I ache all over. I try not to moan too much, for Don’s sake. He’s been my rock.”
I’m sure he has, I thought grimly, as I looked at her pale face. Flu virus? I didn’t think so. Unknown illness…or slow poisoning?
I was willing to bet Don Steele had taken out a huge life insurance policy on his wife.