Animal

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There was a dead Christmas tree in the corner of the living room and an abandoned spider’s web hanging between the plastic angel and the curtain rail. Gary, foetal, with his back to the coffee table, rolled off the couch and hit the floor. The ache in his left shoulder was dull. His head was fuzzy from last night’s ether binge. He sat up, scratched into his thick beard and groaned. She was still dead.

There was nothing in the fridge. He knew that before he opened the door. Checking was habitual. He looked in the cupboard where there used to be tinned goods. There was nothing but three cans of cat food. He scanned the floor but there was no sign of a cat, just an empty dish on the floor.

He stumbled back to the couch and sat staring at the blank television. He had not felt hungry for a long time but now he did. His trousers were in a heap by the couch. He pulled them on and took out his wallet. There was enough money for some food. He grabbed his keys off the coffee table and headed outside.

The sun was punishing. Roads were melting. Wavy lines were blurring the edges of everything. In the shop he was unsure what to buy. Bread, butter, ham, apples; that would do for now. Looking for bruises on a Royal Gala he noticed a woman watching him. Her eyes were sympathetic and she was on the verge of approaching him. He almost recognised her, could almost hear her voice. He dropped his basket and left the shop.

Back on the couch, he sat staring at the apple that he had accidentally stolen and decided not to eat it. Instead, he breathed into his ether soaked rag, curled up into foetal position and said goodbye to the rest of the weekend.



Gary didn’t get much done at the office these days and he kept bad time. His phone had been forwarded to Ben’s desk. The two of them were friends and Ben knew most of Gary’s accounts. Gary’s mistakes were racking up and he seemed to be getting worse. Their boss had asked Ben to “keep a close eye on him”. He was clearly losing patience.

“Hey, Buddy.”

That meant that it was only 11am. Ben always brought him a coffee and tried to get a few words out of him. Gary looked at the digital clock in the bottom corner of his screen; 10:43. Ben was early. Those lost seventeen minutes made him want to cry. He looked up to acknowledge Ben’s presence for a moment.

“I’m going to get the barbeque fired up tonight. We’ve got tons of food left over from the weekend. Fancy coming over for a burger and a beer? You look like you could use it.”

Gary remembered that feeling of hunger in the pit of his stomach. Chargrilled burgers floated through his mind.

“No thanks,” he said.

“I insist,” said Ben, looking around him.

Gary tried to smile and shook his head. Ben put a coffee down on his desk. Gary nodded his head by way of thanks.

“Elaine would love to see you, and the kids.”

Gary’s eyes glazed over. He shook his head again, reached out for Ben’s arm and affectionately pushed him away.

“Okay, we’ll talk later. Don’t forget the BSA file needs updating today.”

Gary looked despondently around his desk. In all honesty, he was not quite sure what the purpose of his job was anymore. If he just copied the accounts from last year, with the new figures, it usually seemed to work itself out. The computer programs did most of the work. At least, he hoped they did.



“Tuna and sweetcorn,” said Ben, putting a sandwich down in front of Gary.

He looked at the sandwich and, though the impulse disgusted him, he could not resist. He grabbed it and began devouring it hungrily. Ben pulled a chair over and sat down with him.

“Getting your appetite back? That’s good. Maybe you really should come over tonight?”

Gary carried on gorging on the sandwich.

“I think it would be good for you. A bit of fresh air, some good food, a couple of beers, some company. What do you say?”

Gary took another huge bite of the sandwich.

“You wouldn’t have to stay long. Just a couple of hours. It can’t be good for you, staying cooped up in that house like you do.”

Gary swallowed and looked at his friend.

“One burger?”

“One burger.”

“Okay.”

“Great!” said Ben. “That’s great. I’ll ring Elaine. This is really good, Gary. Really good. I’ll come back for you at five. Gary? Are you okay?”

His cheeks were pale.

“Pass me the bin. The bin.”

Ben passed him the waste paper bin. Gary threw up into it. Ben rubbed his back and looked around, smiling nervously.



By the time 5pm came along worlds of time had passed. Gary had completely forgotten about the barbeque. His couch and his ether were the only things that existed to him now. His head was aching. His limbs were heavy. He needed his couch. He almost made it to the door.

“Not so fast,” said Ben, whipping his coat on. “I thought you might try to slide out on me.”

Gary looked at him blankly.

“The barbeque?” said Ben. “The sun’s still blazing. Elaine’s looking forward to seeing you.”

Gary nodded, a thousand obstacles rising between him and his couch.

“Do you want to ride with me? Leave the car?”

“I’ve been walking,” said Gary. “Can’t seem to, I don’t know.”

“That’s great. Walking’s really good for you. Great. You’ll come with me then. You can drink too. Get a taxi later.”



In Ben and Elaine’s back garden Gary was left to sit on his own for a while. Elaine brought him a beer and a Long Island Iced Tea. She chopped up a salad in the kitchen and made some potato wedges. Ben took charge of the barbeque and made some trivial jokes about “man’s work” which were meant to be ironic.

Their two children were four and seven. The boy, Llewellyn, was the youngest and still interested in playing in the mud but the girl, Mindy, wanted to talk.

“Do you work with my daddy?”

“Yes,” said Gary.

“Does Daddy work hard?”

“He works very hard.”

Ben glanced over from the barbeque, Elaine from the kitchen window.

“This is Gary, Honey,” said Ben, calling over. “You know Gary.”

Mindy considered this for a moment and decided that her father was wrong.

“Do you work hard too?” she asked.

Gary took a sip of his drink. The effort of talking to this little girl was making his head spin.

“I work as hard as I can,” he said, his voice cracking slightly.

“I don’t,” said Mindy. “I never work hard because I get too bored. Do you get bored?”

“All the time.”

“Me too. I get bored all the time. Work is boring. I prefer talking and playing out. What do you prefer?”

“I don’t know. I like the quiet.”

“For thinking?”

“No. I don’t like to think too much.”

Gary downed the rest of his beer and reached for his cocktail.

“I think all the time,” said Mindy. “I can’t stop thinking. Sometimes I can’t sleep because my head’s going round and round. Daddy says I’ve got a carousel in my head and sometimes it’s pretty and the music’s nice but after a while it gives you a headache. He says that when he’s getting angry. Mummy says I’m a handful but that it doesn’t mean that I’m bad. Do you get angry?”

“Sweety,” called Elaine. “Come and help mummy in the kitchen.”

Mindy sighed and zipped off into the kitchen. Gary watched the boy playing in the mud and slowly lost consciousness. When he woke up everybody was around the table. Mindy was giggling because he had been snoring.

“Sorry,” said Gary, running a hand over his face.

Mindy laughed loudly. Her little brother sniggered along with her. Elaine reached for Gary’s plate and began serving him some salad. Gary, in his sleepy state, took the opportunity to gaze at her. The sun in the trees behind, the slender arms, the breasts neatly packed away in a sturdy bra behind her checked shirt. The feminine seemed so picturesque, like a beautiful landscape, not something you could live with in your everyday life. It was something for your soul to drink, something beyond you. She passed him his plate back and saw that tears were beginning to stream down his face.

“Are you, okay?” she said, checking to see if her children had noticed.

“I’m fine,” he said, wiping his eyes and cheeks with the back of his wrist.

Ben was looking carefully from one child to the other, wondering whether to take them inside.

“Your friend is crying, Daddy,” said Mindy.

“Grown-ups get upset as well as little girls and boys. You know that.”

She nodded and stared at the blotchy skin around Gary’s eyes. She almost went to say something but decided not to. Ben and Elaine shared a glance and seemed to agree that they should go ahead with the meal; let the children see a grown man cry.

Whilst Gary had been snoozing the middle of the table had been covered with food. There was a large pile of thick, succulent burgers, over twenty dark-skinned sausages with fat drizzling out of the tips, barbequed corn – browned and speckled with spots of black, a bowl of thick-cut potato wedges, beans and pulses in a homemade tomato sauce, three different types of coleslaw, fried onions, a selection of sliced cheeses and a basket full of freshly baked bread rolls.

The salad was mandatory, for the children, so that was put on everybody’s plates first but when that was done a free-for-all ensued; Ben and Elaine telling Mindy to be more patient and informing Llewellyn that he should politely ask for what he couldn’t reach. Gary sat back and watched them all interacting, strung together like a living tapestry. He’d forgotten that across town, every night, this family was living and eating together, learning how to conduct itself; all arms and elbows and food and rules.

When their plates were full and they were passing each other slices of cheese and condiments, Mindy started giggling again, looking at Gary.

“Don’t be rude,” said Elaine. The giggling persisted. “What is it?”

“He’s got nothing on his plate,” she said, pointing.

“Pass me your plate, Gary,” said Elaine.

Gary passed it and watched as she fixed him up with a burger in a bun, a hotdog, some wedges, a corn on the cob, a dollop of coleslaw and a spoonful of beans.

“Thank you,” he said, accepting the plate.

He brought it up to his face and let the scents drift up into his nose. First the burger, then the beans, then the hotdog. Everybody was looking at him, curious. Gary put his plate down and reached for the butter. Ben and Elaine began eating. The children were still fixated on him.

“Well?” Ben asked them. “What are you waiting for?”

They both pretended to start eating but really they had to watch this man. He was putting three slices of cheese on his burger instead of one. He was putting mustard, mayonnaise and ketchup on his hotdog, and cheese and onions. The wedge of butter he had hacked off for his corn was melting into a huge puddle across his plate. Finally, he had his burger in both hands in front of his face, the juices beginning to dribble down his little fingers. He took a huge bite out of the middle. The children’s spines straightened to see how much of it he had managed to fit in – a lot. They smiled at each other and continued to watch him but, after the third giant bite, they got bored and started eating their own dinners.

Gary ploughed through his food without pausing for breath. His chomping was systematic and intense. If people were speaking he didn’t hear. Nor did he notice that his beard was drenched in butter and ketchup and grease and mayonnaise, or that the fat and the salad dressing had covered his hands and wrists, or that a trail of butter had made it to his elbow. It was dense, wholesome food, full of life and flavour, and he needed it more than he had ever needed food before.

He finished the plate Elaine had served him long before anybody else had finished theirs and without asking, without thinking, he reached for another two burgers – grabbing them in the same fist – and then he took three sausages in his other fist. He took a bite of one of the sausages immediately, before he’d even put the other two down on his plate. Mindy gasped. Elaine looked at this vision of a caveman, sitting on her patio, undermining all the manners she had struggled to teach her children, but she couldn’t find fault with him. She smiled, subtly and with warmth. Llewellyn had outright stopped eating his dinner and was watching this strange hairy man with his mouth open.

“Stop gawping,” Ben said to his son, taking a moment to look at Gary with a smirk.

Mindy put her hands on her mouth, pretending to stop a huge burst of laughter, so her parents could see that she was a grown up and knew that this man could be smiled at but not humiliated with laughter. Gary started making deep, guttural noises of appreciation after swallowing. There were some odd carnivorous growls as he was going in for bites, the smacking of lips as he chewed and gesticulations from his hands that indicated the food going round and being ground up in his mouth.

Elaine and Ben began talking about their days and, to pull their children’s attention away from Gary, began asking them about theirs. The children responded politely and only stopped to look at the size of the extras Gary was piling onto his plate, or the fact that he now had two sausages and a burger in the same bun.

Corn on the cob had always been a favourite of Gary’s and he was soon onto his third – corn skin wedged between every other tooth. His chomping seemed louder now that everybody else was beginning to finish. Mindy couldn’t resist.

“Daddy, your friend eats like a wolf. I’ve seen them eat and they eat like that.”

“Is he really, really hungry?” asked Lewellyn.

Gary was slowly coming round from his frenzy and, hearing the comment about the wolf, he looked at Mindy, growled and made a barking sound as he went in for his next bite of corn. Mindy wrapped her arms around her father’s arm and peeked out at Gary from behind it. Gary growled again and bit into his corn with a bark. Mindy released a small, nervous giggle. Llewellyn’s mouth was agape.

After nuzzling through his corn for another ten seconds, growling as he went, Gary released a loud howl into the air above him.

“Ow-Ow-Oww!”

Mindy released her father’s arm and slapped her forehead.

“Daddy, he’s silly like you.”

Llewellyn laughed.

“Yes he is,” said Ben.

Gary grabbed another sausage and bit into it with a snarl.

“Ow-Ow-Owww!” he howled, up to the sky.

“Ow-ow-oww,” said Llewellyn, quietly imitating.

Mindy grabbed a sausage and took a bite.

“Ow-Ow-Owww!” she howled, up into the air.

Elaine’s eyebrows were raised but she was smiling. Ben grabbed a sausage and took a bite.

“Ow-Ow-Owww!” he howled.

“You can’t do it,” said Mindy. “It’s just for us. Ow-ow-oww.”

A dog started howling in the next street.

“Owwwwww,” went the dog.

“Okay, now,” said Elaine. “Let’s not upset the whole neighbourhood.”

“Owwwwww,” replied Gary. “Owwwwww.”

“Owwwwww,” went the children, the dog joining them.

“Owwwwww,” went Ben, shrugging his shoulders.

Elaine put her hand on her forehead looking down at the table with a blush then she looked up with a meek but playful grin and raised her head to the sky.

“Owwwwww,” she howled.

“Owwwwww,” they all went, the dog too.