After many a summer dies the swan, and after a few more, comes the blubber.
We now take up residence in the interregnum, between the time I was ruled by opportunism and the later era when geriatric exigencies governed my life. This was my bourgeois period when I did such things as paying taxes and voting
It had been a long winter in our too-far-south city. A winter of sleepiness and sloth and – oh, yes! – feeding. I had never been a glutton, but throughout that long, cold seven months, I believed that only a wall of fat could keep me from death.
The fat-by-nature people, those happily chubby types who are endlessly energetic and seem to use fat only as a covering for solid muscle, had a wonderful winter that year.
Summer came at last, but for all the joy I had of it the sun could have remained in hiding. For the first time in my thin life I had become too fat by far to parade in the near-nudity of the young. To expose my skin would have been a crime. Yet to rug up was out of the question. I’d have cooked.
I had carelessly mislaid my wife Iris years before this. If she had been in charge, I might have remained thin. Of course, I might also have died. There was something odd about my attraction to Iris, she of the permanently pursed lips. I can’t imagine now how we came to wed each other (in fact, I’m beginning to think we never did; she would not have approved of my profession). She had disapproved of everything about me until disapproval matured into a cultivated style. Then she went too far, lost patience with life itself, and died, leaving me to do the cooking, or so I tell those who ask. The truth is that I simply mislaid her, for which I ought to be forgiven, since absent-mindedness, if it is a sin, is surely venial.
Obesity had crept up on me, matching its stealthy tread to my dogged lumbering, and then seizing me and wrapping me in blubber. Six months of nibbling and tippling, aided by inertia, had entombed me in flesh.
I now understood the function of fat. It was armour. In a world seething with assassins one could feel safe in one’s adipose cocoon.
I tried to become a gourmet. I read the right books, bought ingredients from the right shops. It was surely no fault of mine that my taste buds betrayed their plebeian origin. No matter what kind of wine I drank I found I could not sip. I simply had to empty half a glass at one swallow. Then I would shudder deliciously, my eyes watering, and utter the one word in my wine-lover’s vocabulary: Wonderful!
I soon gave up trifling with feeble reds and whites. Fortified wines worked faster and they saved on food and fuel bills. Why spend hours preparing food that would be wolfed down in seconds? And why heat the flat when one’s own blood could be made to burn like a furnace? I could make do with snacks. Port and snacks – I couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t live on them.
And hating tea, I grew to love coffee, my own kind of brew. Two heaped spoons of instant coffee, half a cup of boiling water topped with half an inch of sweetened condensed milk – that was a man’s drink. It would sit in the stomach for hours, burning away hunger and fatigue and helping the port to do its work. I threw a sop to the nutritionist in me by eating a few oranges every day. I didn’t want to come down with scurvy.
I was richly unemployed. The ledgers and filing cabinets, the typewriter, desk calculator, paper clips, stamps and envelopes that had cluttered the flat when I ran my business from it were gone. They had been part of the assets of my company, and when I sold it I sold them too. God knows what the purchaser thought when the deal was finally done. My business was larceny. After I became too arthritic to pick pockets, I took to funnelling unpaid-for goods through a series of warehouses owned by dead men and women – a practice once common but later made impossible by “improved” taxation laws.
Getting rid of everything had given me pleasure, but now, I had to admit, there was a slight but troublesome urge to fill in time. Thinking about how to do this, I lost a good deal of energy. Half way through the day my eyes would droop. During rare forays in the car I would go to sleep in traffic jams and wake to the music of horns. I came to think that someone was getting at me, putting things in my food, poisoning my water. When I could stand the torment no longer I called on my old doctor, who had also been my wife’s doctor.
Fat and naked, I put up with probing and questioning. Then, as I dressed, I listened to the lecture.
“I can’t find anything definitely wrong with you,” he said. “But you’re carrying far too much weight. You can get rid of that with diet and exercise. Your throat’s a bit raw from smoking, you’re badly out of condition. You’re on the way to having an old man’s body. You can at least slow the process down…”
Yes, yes, yes, diet and exercise, moderation, good sleep, sensible occupations . . . yes, yes, yes . . .
By the time I left I felt ten years younger. It had been good to talk to someone who understood. Now all I needed was a savage tussle with black coffee, perhaps sweetened with glucose, and a session with the port.
Being locked up alone in a dark cell would not have troubled me – so long as I had food enough and wine to fill myself – for I had learned to live much of my life inside my head. I found a world in there, cities and fields and mountains, armies of giants, swarms of monsters. I discovered that, like the whale, I could live submerged for a long time. But I had to remember to come up for air. To stay under for too long was likely to introduce complications into my simple life. I had to find a way of floating on the surface while I breathed deeply. Or I had to find a companion who would serve to remind me of the existence of a world outside of my head.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before all that happened, I had to change my habits. From being a married businessman, I went to a widowed pensioner without a flicker of hesitation. I did not say, “Iris, what would you like for breakfast?” There was no point in it. Instead, I got up from my lonely, oversized bed and said, “What do I do now?” I tried reading newspapers. I’d heard that widowers in my position did a lot of that. But I had long ago lost the habit of reading the papers. This was, of course, not my fault. I had remained steadfastly myself. It was the papers that had changed
In the shopping district near my flat stood many shops I had never entered. One day, on impulse, I strolled fatly up to and along the busy street that led into the heart of the city and fingered my wallet. A new watch, perhaps? Clothes? A set of chessmen fashioned from pine cones? Mild panic threatened when I asked myself what would become of me if I turned out to want nothing.
I soothed my nerves by studying the legends on shop windows. I tried to penetrate their foreignness (no more alien in this part of the city than I was in any part of it). And then, to my horror, I came across a shop that simply said, in the plainest blue lettering, Smith’s Pet Shop. Shocking! Who gave Smith the right to publicise his British ancestry in this district?
I peered through the window at cages of puppies and kittens, glass tanks of fish, shelves of animal medicines. But it was the solitary cocker spaniel puppy asleep on its bed of straw that I bought.
“How much?” I said, once I was in the shop and pointing at the dog.
“Ah, that one’s a beauty, mate. You’ll love ’im.”
As I did not immediately reply, the shopkeeper went on to say that the dog was purebred. He named a price and set himself for a bout of haggling.
“He’s not very big,” was the best thrust I could manage.
“Well, it’s not the size that matters,” said the man, presumably Smith. His tone was defiant. He was a very small man with a narrow bald head who looked up at me as a terrier might have looked at an aged St Bernard.
“That thing what counts, see, is breedin’, and that’s a well-bred, well-behaved dog there. House or flat?”
“Flat,” I said, a little surprised by the speed of my response.”
“Then all you have to do is train him,” Smith said. Take him for a walk each day . . . not chainin’ him are you? Don’t like dogs being chained. Even a cocker’s too big for a flat.”
“He can have a room of his own,” I said.
This pleased Smith so we completed the transaction. I then allowed him to sell me some accessories – a feeding bowl, a water dish, an open wooden box lined with straw, a leash, and several other items whose function I never did discover.
“Now remember,” said Smith, when I returned after fetching my car, “He isn’t a cat, he isn’t a parrot and he isn’t a kangaroo. He’s a dog. Treat him right and he’ll be yours for life.”
Back at the flat I fussed about in the room that had been my office. I arranged the dog’s sleeping box, gave it a dish of chopped meat and thought about naming it. My mind was a little foggy at the time and I could see nothing wrong with naming the dog Iris, after my late wife. When the unwisdom of this dawned on me I sought some other name and, finding none, called the creature simply Dog.
My wife had never permitted animals to live with her, so I’d had no practice in caring for dogs. Going very much by the book, I fed it, walked it and saw it settled for the night. The poor beast did everything in its power to please me. When I came home after a shopping trip it would welcome me with much squirming and tail wagging. I soon got used to having it about the place.
At first the dog performed one function very beautifully. It listened, the perfect confidant. I would get up in the mornings, walk the dog, then return for breakfast, which we took together, I up at the table, Dog under it.
After breakfast I was usually eager to talk, and when I did the dog’s ears moved attentively. It was possible to speak complete sentences, even paragraphs, to this animal without feeling that one was taking unfair advantage of a captive audience. Day by day the sentences grew longer, and soon I was telling Dog about my late wife, my parents, my long marriage and my children – all my troubles and triumphs. The material did not disturb the dog but my manner of delivering it was not always to his taste. When relating a painful incident I would experience real distress, which I expressed by scowling and snarling my words between clenched teeth. At such times the dog shrank from me. It was nice to know that someone took me seriously.
The days grew warmer and longer, the dog larger and I fatter. We were becoming known in the neighbourhood. Men and women of dark complexion who spoke languages I could not understand smiled and nodded as we passed.
But we did not live in an earthly paradise, and I was no Adam. The dog may, for all I know, have existed on a higher plane of being. Perhaps the angels are all dogs. Or bitches. Or some heavenly composite. What is plain to me now is that this dog, inhabiting a world ruled by cynical compromise, was an idealist. It had obviously been influenced by tales of canine devotion in which affection between dog and master had grown to alarming proportions, the animal at last performing some act of heroic self-denial to save its master and live on in fond memory thereafter.
Nothing of the kind occurred.
It happened merely that we got tired of each other. Dog lovers will insist that this is impossible, since a dog’s affections, once engaged, are not disengageable. Well, perhaps I had a dog in a million. For I remember one morning, when I was telling Dog how disgracefully my son had once behaved, how he had flatly refused to show me any respect, it suddenly struck me that the animal was not listening.
This was not only unnatural, it was outrageous, as if I had bought a piece of equipment, taken it home, switched it on and found it wouldn’t go. I tried to interest the animal in some other subject. It sulked. I used baby talk. I spoke in an even tone about nothing in particular. Useless. It just looked away. I tried to read it a few items from a newspaper but I lost my temper and could not read without shouting.
An experiment: I would lock up the dog and go out until it got lonely. I went out shopping, stayed away two hours and, on my return, opened the door in expectation of a welcoming display. The dog looked at me listlessly and then at the wall.
Clearly this beast wouldn’t do. Our differences were irreconcilable. I explained as patiently as I could that when two people were joined in a form of matrimony there came a time, inevitably, when each looked at the other and beheld a stranger. At such a time there were four possible courses of action: divorce, murder, suicide, desertion and inner migration (which involves staying where you are and going somewhere else at the same time). Now the dog, being but a dog, could not have understood a cold shoulder, and I was neither disposed towards murder nor partial to suicide. And I could not desert the dog without deserting my home. So only divorce would do. Gathering the creature up, I huffed and puffed my way downstairs and into the car. Within ten minutes I was bearing the inert animal into the shop from whence it came. Smith appeared and the dog went wild. It wriggled free, fell to the floor, ran to the little man and nearly floored him. After he had acknowledged the dog’s greeting, Smith looked at me and said in a voice heavy with puzzlement, “Is there . . . something wrong? I can see there’s nothing wrong with the dog but . . . is there?”
“I’m returning him,” I said. “We are incompatible. From the beginning we were star-crossed. Our differences make chalk and cheese look like peas in a pod. Do I make myself clear? We don’t get on.”
“You mean – you don’t like him?” Smith said, as one enunciating impossibility.
“The question of liking doesn’t come into it,” I said. “I love oysters. I would give a kingdom for the ability to eat five dozen of the squishy little darlings. But they turn me purple and make me break out in pimples. So I say, ‘Oysters, begone!’ and I drive them from my door – out into the storm to fend for themselves. So it is with this dog. Fascinating brute. But not for me.”
Then, without further explanation, I turned and strode out of the shop. Hindered by the wriggling dog, Smith could not follow me. Later that day I took pleasure in getting rid of the leash, the bowl and anything else that could remind me of the ungrateful animal.
Now I could revel in my solitary freedom, and revel I did. I was the very king of revellers. On close inspection the world proved to contain other beings, and I even caught a glimpse of them from time to time. But although I had to deal with these . . . people (indeed, I had veritably to consort with them), I did not have to admit that they existed in the same way I did – richly, profusely, extravagantly and, if I may say so, with an enviable touch of style. I was happy. I danced to the music that played behind television test patterns. I stripped myself naked and rolled on the carpet, going from room to room of the flat at a good brisk pace and hardly ever injuring myself badly enough to need medical attention. Did ever a man live so full a life? Why, I’d be living it now if it were not for the calendar. It betrayed me by surreptitiously popping up a certain date.
I knew nothing of the day, the week, the season or the month until one unhappy day when relatives arrived. They laid hands on me and dragged me kicking and screaming to a blistering hot meal. Shoals of children, to whom I was apparently an uncle, swam about me looking joyful.
It was, so they told me, Christmas Day. Without consulting me they had decided to prise me out of my lair and give me a taste of family life. When I protested that I was familiar with every aspect of that condition a young woman purporting to be my daughter laughed and said, “Dad, what you need is companionship.”
Then, as a great hush fell, my present was brought in. It was in a box. It stank. It was obviously canine.
Worse, it was a cocker spaniel.
I do not deign to offer a justification of my subsequent behaviour, which I can assure anybody who may be interested was grossly misreported in the press and most unfairly punished by the magistrate.