Hair of the dog

Robert Dalvean

3000 words

I never liked street processions, but as a journalist (the kind that doesn’t win prizes) I once had to cover a Labour Day festival in our fair city and look on hopelessly as a thousand or so floats passed by. Having neglected to reserve an official position, I lurked with multitudes at one side of our proudest boulevard and watched with a professional eye.

All around me shrieking children collaborated with the sticky weather to provide a foretaste of Hell.

If my photographer had not been there to keep an eye on me I’d have defaulted to the nearest pub to compose my piece. But the word was out that he’d been ordered to keep an eye on me, so I remained at my post – for a while. Fortunately, his camera failed when the show was half-way through, so he left and I stayed, wondering if he was secretly watching me from somewhere deep in the crowd. After several people dressed as vegetables marched past shouting incomprehensible slogans, I decided I’d had enough. I shut down my mini-recorder and turned to go.

But before I could escape, there was a disturbance. A circle of compressed humanity had formed round a short bristly man who stood with his back to a steel power pole. He was speaking rapidly in a foreign tongue. I felt the embarrassment all good people feel in the presence of strongly expressed emotion but I was curious. Over the heads of the crowd I saw two caps approaching: the police. Good, I thought. Then the terrified man fell silent and I saw he was staring at me. I stared back and something beyond my control happened deep within my brain. I moved forward, pushing people aside, until I was directly in front of the man. His eyes shrieked alarm. He turned and scrabbled at the smooth surface of the pole as if he would gladly have climbed it. Then, rather to my own surprise, I said, “Don’t worry, everything’s all right” (which, of course it was not). And I put my hand on his shoulder. He tolerated it for a moment, quivered, then struck.

He bit me.

His teeth locked in my good right hand. I shouted, swore and struck at him. I would have kicked him if the police hadn’t arrived. One hand firmly trapped, the other chopping at a head of short grey hair, I was not at my best. One of my rescuers sharply whacked the biter on the side of the head, making him sag. I snatched back what was left of my hand, now all blood and spittle – and fainted.

They kept me in hospital for hours. In falling I had bumped my head. Concussion was suspected. The bite was disinfected and sewn up. Battered, bitten and stitched, I sat feeling sorry for myself, and felt still sorrier when the evening paper turned up. It covered the parade in great detail and included my adventure in a small boxed item on page one, headed: Man Bites Man. (I’d have preferred Biter chomps Writer – these professional concerns intrude at the oddest times.)

Worse was to follow. My wife visited me. I hadn’t seen her in eight months. We got on better, Adele and I, when we were apart.

“Alex,” she said, speaking the name like an accusation, “I heard you were injured. It was in the papers.”

“Not much of an injury,” I said. “I’ll be out of here in two hours.”

But I had let myself forget how tenacious she could be. First she bullied the staff into releasing me in her care, then she bullied me. She always had.

I’d been an unsuccessful writer when we met. I had modest aims – I wanted to rival Shakespeare. Instead I was trapped in a very small-time writing job. I wrote promotional bits for a supermarket throwaway.

She set out to inspire me, but after a time the truth thrust itself on both of us: not only was I incapable of original work, I was barely able to do ordinary journalism. By that time, although technically the editor of a trade magazine, I was actually a clerk, nothing more.

But Adele tried. She’d often tried to inspire someone – anyone – and I seemed ripe for it. She wanted to turn me into a creator. But living with her showed me more of the truth: I had no personality that I could call my own. At the drop of a hat I could become someone else, anyone else. It was a shock but I adapted to it.

Adele single-mindedly pursued interests that absorbed her. I was constantly being subjected to external influences that changed me. She would come home and not know who was waiting for her. I took to switching my husband personality on and off until I became unstable, like a refrigerator with a defective thermostat.

She eventually tendered her resignation, which with relief I accepted.

An hour after she found me in the hospital I was sitting up in my bed at home trying to engulf a revolting hot milk drink. She regarded me with interest.

“Just what did happen today?” she said.

I told her.

“But you – of all people!”

“Yes,” I said. “It was a bit out of character.”

“Character!” she snorted. Then she said, “I’d like to meet the man.”

I said he’d bite her arm off and she said that he’d probably only bitten me because he could see I had a passion to be bitten, which I felt was unjust.

One Friday evening a week later, quite well but successfully malingering, I answered the door chimes and there stood Adele with a companion, a short, square, bristly man.

“I’ve brought someone to see you,” she said.

My carnivorous madman, unmanacled, smiled. His huge, yellow horse-teeth now looked surprisingly innocent.

She introduced him as Milovan Something-or-other. I still can’t pronounce his surname. But there we’re equal; he can’t pronounce mine. He stepped forward, grabbed up my injured hand and in careful English apologised to the bandage.

I resisted the urge to club him down. Adele would protect me.

When we had cleared a space in the flat we sat and Adele explained.

“After I left the hospital,” she said, “I went home and tried to sleep. I couldn’t. Something was nagging at me. I got hold of the papers – the story was in the morning papers, and television too, you know – and I started to think about poor Milovan.

“I made enquiries and found he’d been carted off for psychiatric examination. Well, something in me rebelled at that, so I took his case up. The upshot was that he was released in my care – for the moment, anyway.”

As she spoke she kept her eyes on my damaged hand. Obviously it was to blame for everything.

“Crowds upset Milovan,” she said. “Only in the smallest of groups is he completely at ease. It’s probably because of his early life. He must have suffered. He needs your help.”

“Mine!” I croaked, a little imp of terror jumping up and down in my belly. Milovan nodded and smiled. Now that I’d had time to examine him closely I could see that he was not at all the little man I’d imagined. He was a short, broad peasant with close-cropped greying hair, bright blue eyes and hands that could have straightened a horseshoe.

“You weren’t the target,” Adele said. Poor Milovan has suffered at the hands of authority. When you stared at him, when you reached out, his fear just exploded…”

“As it could again,” I said.

“No, no more bite,” Milovan said.

“You see,” said Adele, “He’s already on the way to reform. But he needs the help of someone he sees as having authority – you.”

“No, not me!”

I absently reached for a large, empty, glass ashtray, which contained an assortment of nuts, possibly thinking of it as a weapon. But the fingers of my convalescent hand wouldn’t grip. I watched as the ashtray distributed its load over the carpet.

“You see,” said Adele, “You do need help. So does Milovan. You can help each other.”

Milovan was not one to miss a cue. He dived forward, picked up the ashtray and then fell to his knees so he could put the nuts back in it. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d sucked the carpet clean. During the next half hour, he washed the dishes, made the bed, dusted everything, made merry with the vacuum cleaner, stacked books, tidied cupboards and evicted spiders. I hadn’t realised how badly I had needed help.

Adele was purring.

“Just give him a chance,” she said.

Her eyes were fixed on mine. How could I resist? I was tired, oh so tired, partly paralysed perhaps. Before I knew what was happening I was being steered to my room by an obsequious Milovan.

Next morning when I woke up there he was, standing by my bed. Coffee, toast, a morning paper – he was ready with them all. As I sat up in bed making use of these goodies I thought how pleasant life might be if this Sancho Panza could be persuaded to turn himself into a Jeeves.

Later in the morning a taxi truck arrived bearing suitcases. He hung up his clothes with excessive care. And hour by hour his manners improved. So did his English.

The weekend passed very pleasantly. On the Monday I returned to work and suffered with surprising equanimity the comments of my colleagues. I threw myself into my work with vigour, knowing that at home I had a new toy.

But the gilt soon wore off my treasure. Milovan, it seemed, was not going to turn into Jeeves. Indeed, he wasn’t even going to be Sancho Panza. Within days he changed, becoming less and less servile. I was losing my authority.

At first I was anxious, noting each little alteration in our relations. But when I tried to focus on one of these changes Milovan would seem to sense my concern and he would revert to servility – for a while.

Soon he neglected his housework. Squalor grew in the flat. Entropy grew faster than mere chance could account for. A knotted shirt under the bed, a crust of dried spilt oatmeal in the sink, a stained handkerchief in a drawer – these and other abominations appeared, forcing me to conclude that Milovan was actually dirtying the place.

Feverishly I cleaned and tidied in an effort to compensate. No use, the flat turned into a midden. One morning I got up, saw that Milovan was asleep on his camp bed in the next room and, unable to bear the filth any longer, I took a whole day off from work to clean up. I made enough noise to wake the sleeper, who opened an eye and said, “Sure you don’t want me to…?”

“No, no, you just stay where you are.”

“But he didn’t. He hauled his gaudily pyjama’d body off the camp bed and left the room. I made a start on the mess he left behind but it was dispiriting work and I soon needed rest. When I went to my bedroom I found Milovan asleep in my bed. This was too much. I shook him and said, “Wake up, you filthy peasant.”

And wake he did. His eyes flicked open and the bedclothes boiled as he lunged at me, his great fist closing on my left hand, the unbitten one. He drew the hand close to his face and said, slowly and deliberately, “We’re going to be good, aren’t we?”

Were we going to be good! We were going to be angelic. We were going to do the cooking, the washing, the mending. We were going to keep the flat tidy. We were going to give Milovan money and send him out to play. And when Milovan came home we’d be waiting up, wouldn’t we? Otherwise he’d overturn the camp bed and tumble our poor little body on to the floor.

Oh yes, we’d be good, as long as the man didn’t bite us.

Adele called one night to see how we were getting on. Although nothing was said, I knew Milovan expected me to play the master. He reverted to servant status for the evening.. Adele was delighted.

“I must tell you,” Adele said. “We’ll all have to appear at a magistrate’s court soon. We’ll put up a good story and Milovan shouldn’t be in any trouble.”

“Splendid!” I said. I had to be agreeable. Milovan had dropped his good servant mask for a second and was avidly eyeing my left hand.

Before leaving, Adele came close to me and said, “I think Milovan’s been good for both of us,” and she kissed me lightly.

After she’d gone I returned to the main room to find Milovan sprawled in my favourite chair, smoking an enormous cigar. He gestured towards a bottle of vodka.

“Schnell!” he said.

(He liked to express himself in German. He said it was the natural language of command.)

Fumbling a little, I got bottle and glass to him quickly, so as not to have him stare at my hand. He nodded, smiled and tossed off the drink.

Days passed, weeks. I went to work and worked. Then I came home and worked. Milovan was happy, mellowed, almost kind. One night he patted the hand he had bitten, now completely healed, and said, “We are coming on nicely, yes?”

I agreed, and he said, “Very nicely. But I think we’d better move into the flat next door. It’s bigger than this, and vacant. There we can have proper quarters – yours, mine.”

When I failed to respond with eagerness, he said, “Why do you never talk with me? Why do we not have conversations? I talk, you say yes or no, but nothing more. Say something to interest me. Be clever.”

Desperately I tried to think of something. Milovan’s chunky body quivered with laughter.

“Very well, then,” he said. “Something to stimulate the brain. Have a drink.”

He pushed the bottle towards me. I reached for a glass. He swept the glass to the carpet and indicated that I was to drink from the bottle. Vodka had never been my drink. I knew I couldn’t tolerate it, but orders were orders. I picked up the bottle, noticing the legend “90 per cent proof”, said farewell to the lining of my stomach and drank.

Or tried to

The fluid, which tasted like something you might have cleaned old boots with, would not go down. I gagged, choked, spat. Milovan roared with laughter as I staggered about the room, holding the bottle as if it were a floating spar and I a drowning sailor. Vodka was splashing everywhere. I retched and held the bottle far from my face, unable even to bear the smell. Unfortunately for Milovan, the bottle was now upside- down and his face was under it. He bellowed and bounded to his feet, sending table, bottle and me flying.

“You blinded me!” he said. “Oh, where are you?”

They were the last words I understood for he switched to his mother tongue as he hunted for me, making huge sweeps with his hands. Terrified, I backed away, uttering frantic apologies. Locating me by my voice, he lunged for the sound and caught my hand. My other hand still held the bottle. His free hand loomed before me like some giant spider. It came closer and closer. There was nothing to do but close my eyes.

And bite.

That was the moment. That was when I broke free, free from the past, free from Milovan, free from Adele. The price of freedom had been one healthy snap of the jaws.

Milovan, of course, objected strongly to being bitten, especially by me. He might easily have killed me if my free hand hadn’t wildly swung the bottle, which stopped with a thud as it encountered his head. He relaxed completely.

I cleaned myself up and telephoned the police, giving them a heavily edited version of the story. They arrived and carted Milovan off.

Adele was furious, of course.

“I don’t care what they say. I think he’s innocent.”

“Adele,” I said. “I’ve just discovered that nobody’s innocent.”

Then I held out my hand and said, “Before you go, would you care for a bite?”

For one terrible moment I thought she actually would. But she merely glanced at the hand and then at my face. Then she turned and walked away, presumably in search of a cause worthier than mine.

These days, I am not thought of as an easy man. I’m an editor hard on those who scribble at my command. I am neither liked nor admired. I am feared. I can live with that. The people I rule don’t know the truth about me. Only Milovan knows, and nobody will believe him.

My only fear is the quite irrational one that someday I might have to interview a job applicant of solid build, who has disguised himself by growing his bristly, greying hair long, whose beard seems to be of recent growth and whose accent is vaguely east European.

I dream of this man; in my dreams he has filed his teeth to a shark-like pointiness.