The first time I stayed with Jack, I was in distress. A lover had unceremoniously turned me out of the house, and, as my parents were dead, I had nowhere to go.
‘Jack, may I stay with you?’
‘Are you in distress?’
Jack was a friend since childhood, when we lived two roads apart along the Harringay Ladder. We attended the same primary school before going to separate secondaries. Jack, though poor, had by hard work and a cleverness that bordered on coldness, achieved excellent results and found his way, like me, into a Cambridge college.
‘Then certainly, darling. But only for three days. We’ve just collected Hastings.’
Jack and his husband Gordon lived, with Gordon’s insistence, in a five-storey town house on Gordon Square. Its previous occupant but three had been a celebrated member adjacent to the Bloomsbury Group. Though the house recently had been renovated, Jack and Gordon decided that the kitchen required extending and the floorboards were too wide; so they gutted the interior with all the enthusiasm of gourmands removing the soft flesh of oysters, and restyled the home in their taste.
The result was immaculate in a way that was both male and sterile. The carpet was crisp and unpleasant under bare feet, as if walking on tightly stitched burlap sacking. The steel blues of the Roman blinds in the library accentuated perfectly the ammunition greys of the lampshades and the herringbone fabric of the freshly upholstered wingback chair in which Gordon sat every evening sipping his nightcap. In the second drawing room, the baked clayey colour of the specially commissioned wallpaper — taken from a design by a mid-century artist whose work Jack had encountered in a weighty coffee-table book — made guests feel they were being served tea and Jack’s cardamom and lime biscotti in the drawing room of an Italian palazzo. But the triumph was the extended kitchen, with its German-engineered drawers that closed as softly as hands at prayer and whose cabinet space was voluminous enough to hold every baking dish and single-use device Jack employed for his frequent and elaborate dinner parties. In the centre of the kitchen, an island of its own, was the Aga, whose flame, like a war memorial, or the light of Christ in the heart of the true believer, was never extinguished.
Having lived in their home for one full year, Jack and Gordon decided to introduce a final addition to their domestic situation. Jack always insisted that a dog was not a child substitute:
‘We are insistent that a dog is not a child substitute.’
But on the side table in the entrance hallway lay guidebooks on pet care and training regimes, brochures of dog-walking services, and a thick hardback titled What to Expect When You’re Expecting A Puppy. Already in a neat pile by the French doors leading to the back garden was a collection of chew toys and bedding.
‘What breed?’ I asked once, when I had seen the preparation.
‘There is but one.’
Which I knew to be true, for Jack had mentioned on several occasions that Gordon would only consider a single breed: a greyhound.
Jack met Gordon when Jack was finishing his training as an accountant and Gordon was turning forty. The age difference — some twelve years — was much commented upon among our friends, occasionally within Jack’s hearing, though never within Gordon’s. Gordon was not a healthy forty, in the way that some men reach that age and though perhaps starting to bald or experience a slight slackness in the skin around the neck, nevertheless achieve a knowledge that they are entering their prime. Gordon had already balded to a tonsure by the time he was in his early twenties, and his teeth, though he wore his bespoke mouth guard regularly at night, were still decidedly à l’Anglaise. He was perfectly pleasant but had too much of the overgrown schoolboy about him — stubby, grasping fingers used to plucking sausages from dining hall trays and a juvenile temperament that was prone to sudden outbursts of anger if he was not granted his way.
Gordon’s obsession — his life-ruling passion — was his family, or, more specifically, his family crest, which blazoned partially reads:
And in base three greyhounds courant in pale of the third
Collard of the first
When he proposed to Jack, Gordon presented him with a set of matching pendants fashioned from the eyeteeth of his beloved childhood hound, along with an engagement ring inside of which was inscribed ‘Let me be the master of your hunt.’
So there had never truly been a question of breed.
When it was settled that their already full life, rather than being squeezed by the addition of another creature, would in fact become fuller, even as a rose garden welcomes the blossoming of a new bud — Jack and Gordon contacted Gordon’s chief breeder, who informed them their pick of the litter would be available in three months’ time.
Now, as I stood outside Jack and Gordon’s home on Gordon Square along with my small suitcase in which were all my worldly goods, I tapped the silver knocker against the large, solid door painted in a shade of black regulated by the local authority. Almost immediately there was a furious sound of high-pitched yapping followed by:
‘Jesus Haitch Christ...’
The door opened to reveal my friend in a bathrobe with a belt that hung loosely, like a bell cord in a stately home some time ago abandoned by its owners, and a pair of fluff-lined slippers. Pressed to his ear was his phone and there, in a black collapsible metal cage placed halfway down the hallway, stood the quivering dog Hastings.
‘Haitch-A-S-T-I-N-G-S,’ Jack said, exasperated, into the phone. He gestured me into the house and shut the door behind me.
‘Surely you must have him on file. We saw you only yesterday for his appointment. Haitch-A-S...Yes. Hastings as in Battle of...’
Determining the name, I knew, had been a source of considerable anxiety, given Jack’s exacting standards. At one dinner party he had said:
‘It must be a real name, but it must not be the name of any of your friends’ children.’
At another party he had said:
‘It must be two syllables, and it should start with the letters d, w, or haitch.’
It was a curious feature of Jack’s speech that he had retained the hypercorrection common to our upbringing, but that every one of our friends had dropped in the intervening years. Thus, Jack read in The Guardian about funding cuts to the N-Haitch-S, addressed his letter-pressed calling cards from WC1-Haitch, and now gave the spelling of his dog’s name as Haitch-a-s-t-i-n-g-s. The habit grated on Gordon’s nerves, I could tell, as he was constantly correcting Jack.
‘Darling, we live in WC1-Aitch.’
I shuffled awkwardly in the hallway while waiting for Jack to finish his phone call with the veterinarian, and my eye caught the eyes of the greyhound Hastings. His fur was sleek, and, I noted, the same ammunition grey as the lampshade in the drawing room. His eyes were set a bit inwardly on his head, giving him more the appearance of a doe than a dog. But this belied an intelligence and — I caught my breath — a sinister intelligence that I had not, until this moment, attributed to the breed. There was no doubt in my mind that the greyhound in front of me, had by accident or fate, a touch of evil in him.
The next morning at breakfast both Jack and Gordon looked haggard, the skin under their eyes dark and puffy, like sooted paper lanterns.
‘Did you sleep well?’ I asked, scraping butter across a slice of porous sourdough toast before returning the knife to its holder. Gordon immediately took it up and plunged it into a jar of Jack’s homemade blackcurrant jam.
‘Darling, what have I said about traces of dairy products in the preserves?’
Gordon picked up his teaspoon, which he had licked after stirring his one lump of brown sugar into his tea, and proceeded to scrape the yellow butterfat from the dark, purpley surface of the jam, like a surgeon removing the remnants of a blastoma from a spleen.
‘And how did you sleep?’ Jack asked.
‘Very well, thank you. I always sleep comfortably after a break up.’
‘I hope Hastings didn’t disturb you.’
‘Not at all.’
‘Well, he bloody well did me,’ Gordon said. ‘Up all night. Yapping. Growling. He refused to sleep.’
Gordon’s eyes turned, as did all of ours, to see Hastings curled primly on his day-bed, slender head on his slender paws, eyes shut, breathing softly, as if the god Anubis had temporarily suspended his interest in petitions from lost souls.
‘Well, I managed not to hear a peep,’ I said. Which was true, in a sense. My waking brain had not heard Hastings’s struggle in the night; but my dreams had possessed the claustrophobic intensity of funerary drapes or the silk linings of coffins and had been peopled with figures who emitted high-pitched yells, or made low purrings like the shudderings of trains awaiting their platforms.
‘We were thinking of taking’ — Gordon nodded in the direction of the dog — ‘for a walk.’
‘Maybe we should allow him to sleep.’
‘And let him keep us awake again tonight? No thank you. Greyhounds, they require vigorous exercise at least twice a day, you know.’
But Hastings seemed unaware that he required vigorous exercise twice a day, for, later, having struggled to wake him, Jack and Gordon further struggled to place his harness on him.
‘He’s a slippery bugger,’ shouted Gordon, half in astonishment and half in pride.
When we finally left, it was already close to lunchtime. Though there were several parks nearby, Jack and Gordon were determined to walk Hastings on the Heath.
‘It’s important he have the best views possible.’
As Hastings was too delicate to ride the Underground, we took a taxicab.
‘Do you mind a dog? He’s well behaved.’
The cab driver, unsuspecting, nodded. Throughout the ride north, the doe-like eyes of Hastings stared in the rear-view mirror, making eye contact from time to time with the driver, who grew more nervous the more Hastings’s eyes, steady and dispassionate, looked upon him, causing him, on several occasions, to miss narrowly running into other cars and, once, a pedestrian.
The Heath was spongy underfoot from the incessant rain of early November. The clocks had shifted only the week prior, and the local population was making the most of the daylight to walk about in their mackintoshes and muddied Wellington boots, all in complementary shades of earthy browns and greens. We clambered up Parliament Hill, passing along the way other dogs and their owners. But though Hastings seemed aware of the other dogs, he treated them aloofly, almost haughty, barely deigning to look at them. On the Hill, we took in the obligatory view of the city, which was laid out before us like items on a picnic blanket. After a moment — Gordon never liked to linger anywhere too long — he nodded to the left.
‘It’ll be less crowded on that side, by the tumulus.’
We made our way through a small copse before emerging in a sloping field dominated by a large central mound atop which stood a circle of trees.
‘This should do.’
‘Darling, are you sure it’s wise?’
‘Trust me. I know what I’m doing when it comes to new pups,’ Gordon said, undoing the lead from Hasting’s collar.
‘Go. Run. Run around.’
But Hastings refused to move. He merely stood, surveying the landscape, as an architect might to determine if a plot is suitable for development.
‘Dammit, Hastings. Run!’
When it was clear Hastings had no intention of running, Gordon instead began moving away, beckoning us to follow.
‘This is an old trick my father taught me. If he won’t move away from us, then we move away from him. But you have to maintain eye contact. It establishes dominance.’
Gordon continued to move backward, eyes fixed on Hastings, calling from time to time, ‘Here! Come here! Here Hastings!’
To add further incentive, Gordon produced a billowy-grey soft toy that I assumed was meant to imitate a squirrel or a rabbit and shook it back and forth.
‘Here Hastings! Come and get it!’
Gordon gave Jack a look, after which Jack too joined in the chorus with cries of ‘Hastings! Here Hastings! Come here!’ Which, after a minute became more desperate, as if Gordon and Jack were calling to their toddler who had decided to stop in the middle of a traffic crossing.
‘Hastings, dammit! Come here you bastard!’
In fury, Gordon threw the soft toy on the wet ground, as the knights of old must have thrown down their gauntlets, in deadly earnest but also with a hidden hope that the gesture alone would be sufficient to bring about the end of the conflict that precipitated it. But Hastings was not to be persuaded, and Gordon let out a final, furious ‘Hastings!’ that resounded across the Heath.
The three of us turned round at once to discover, standing in front of us, a man — tall, lithe, dressed in the uniform Wellingtons, earth-tone trousers, and a well-fitted tan gilet. Though the weather was cold and wet, he wore a forest green, short-sleeved shirt, the sleeves of which were rolled to land at the exact midpoint of his prominent biceps. He possessed the easy handsomeness of a man who could strike up a conversation with strangers and be guaranteed a response.
‘He ... my dog. He won’t come.’
The man looked down at the soft toy, whose manufactured grey coat had a muddy smear on it, as if it had been carried to an Ash Wednesday service, and it too had received the sign of the cross on its forehead.
‘Well, you’ll never get him to come with that,’ said the man, in what sounded like a London — perhaps south London — accent. ‘What greyhounds need is fresh meat.’ And he reached into a shoulder bag and pulled out, as a woman might a tube of lipstick or her appointment book, a raw and bleeding steak wrapped in cellophane. He unfolded the cellophane neatly, intently, as someone might who had recently learned to unpeel an orange, and held the steak aloft.
‘What’s his name?’
‘Here Hastings! Here boy!’
Upon hearing his name, Hastings lurched forward, his legs bounding like uncoiled springs. He sped toward us and the man and the steak, which occasionally dripped red-purpley droplets into the earth. As Hastings approached, the man squatted down and held out the steak, so that when Hastings arrived, he opened his jaw, snapped it closed over the flesh, and tore straight past.
There was a terrifying ripping sound, as fabric being rent, but the man held the steak firmly, and Hastings found himself jerked backward, coming to a sudden stop.
‘Good boy, Hastings. Good boy,’ said the man, looking with a bemused benevolence, as a father might do when he realises his son shares his passion for sports betting or women. Hastings proceeded to eat the steak. The man stood and extended his hand.
‘My name is Andrew,’ said Andrew.
‘This is our friend. He is staying with us for a few days.’
‘I was in distress.’
‘Of course. And this is’ — he turned to Gordon — ‘your dog?’
‘Yes. Well, mine and ... Jack’s.’
All three of us had, by this time, started to stand slightly more upright, placed our feet at wider stances, chosen to cross our arms or push our hips forward in what an onlooker might take to be an imitation of men standing around a golf course putting green.
‘He’s very fine looking. Purebred?’
Gordon nodded politely.
‘We’ve not had him long.’
‘If you’re looking for a trainer, I run a business,’ Andrew said, pointing to the upper-left corner of his gilet, embroidered into which was a logo of a dog — a greyhound — encircled by laurel branches.
‘I specialise in greyhounds, actually.’
‘Oh, I was planning to train him myself...’ Gordon was in the process of saying, when Jack cut in:
‘We’d love your card, if you have one.’
Andrew reached into the inner pocket of the gilet and produced a crisp white card in matte finish, on which read:
‘I must warn you,’ he said, with no blush or hesitancy, ‘my services are priced on the more expensive side of the market.’
‘Oh, that’s not an issue.’
‘We live in — ’
‘Gordon of Gordon Square. Pleased to meet you,’ Andrew said, his eyes softening but his gaze fixed in a manner that held Gordon’s own, and for a moment I noticed — and I hoped for his sake Jack did not — that Gordon appeared transfixed, as if he were a mathematician working out an equation or a philosopher contemplating the Platonic Good.
‘And it’s so wonderful meeting you, Hastings,’ Andrew said, bending down and stroking Hastings’s sleek body. ‘Well, ta ta.’
And Andrew stood and walked away, circling round the tumulus before disappearing from view, leaving us feeling bereft and on edge, as promise always does when it is unfulfilled.
Later, after we had exited the Heath, we walked along the road looking for a cab. Gordon was several paces behind, taking a call from his mother. Jack walked next to me, holding Hastings in his arms.
‘I’m sorry, darling, that I forgot to introduce you properly. I should have mentioned your name to Andrew rather than simply referring to you as someone who is staying with us. As if you were a mere lodger. In fact, I’m pleased we were your first call when you were in distress. We are such old friends, after all, and old friends should be able to rely on each other no matter the circumstances. Oh! A cab!’
Jack turned suddenly and jerked his head in the direction of an oncoming cab whose light blazed with all the hopefulness of a star newly formed in the galaxy.
‘Catch it!’ Jack called. ‘Oh, I can’t!’ His arms, encumbered with Hastings, could not reach out. ‘Catch it quickly!’
But either because I was too slow or the cab driver did not see, the cab drove by.
‘How could you?’
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘There won’t be another one for at least five minutes.’
‘Perhaps he’s allergic to dogs.’
‘Don’t shift the blame. Oh — never mind. Apologies. Apologies. I know it’s not your fault.’
Jack smiled weakly at me.
‘No hard feelings?’
I gave a faint smile.
We continued to walk down the pavement. But as we did so, I saw Hastings turn his head toward me, and I felt a sensation that was akin to the exhilaration I experienced when swimming in open water, unsure what creatures lurked in the depths beneath my prone and unprotected flesh.
The next time I stayed with Jack, I was also in distress.
‘Jack, may I stay with you?’
‘Are you in distress?’
‘What is it this time?’
There was a pause, and then:
‘Come by any time after one. That’s when Andrew collects Hastings for his second walk.’
It had been just over a year since Jack, Gordon, and I had encountered Andrew on the Heath, and I was surprised he was still involved in training Hastings. I expressed this thought to Jack in his kitchen as he was making preparations for his next party. It was approaching Christmas, and invitations (‘Mr. Jack Smith-McAlpine and Mr. Gordon McAlpine-Smith cordially invite you to their winter soirée...’) had been issuing from the house with the steadiness of a drumbeat mustering troops to battle.
‘Oh yes, still very much involved. He was a godsend, of course. You’ll see him again at the party. It’s being covered by Vogue. Well, Vogue America.’
‘He takes Hastings for walks. Looks after him when we need a sitter. Gordon trusts him completely. Now, help me dip these almonds in the sugar coating.’
We spent the afternoon in the creation of various confectionery. First the sugar-coated almonds, and then chilli-caramelised popcorn, and finally chocolate truffles in a ganache that Jack topped, some with the letter A, some with the letter G, and some
‘With the letter haitch...’
All drawn elaborately in gold, lapis lazuli, and cinnabar-coloured icings as if they were the historiated initials of an illuminated manuscript.
‘This was the first item I learned to make at college. It meant everyone came to my room.’
Jack looked at his watch.
‘Darling, would you mind terribly running to the shop? I need a few more ingredients.’
He handed me a list and a card with Gordon’s name on it.
‘If it’s over the contactless limit, then ask to pay in two portions. It’s what I always do. I can never remember the PIN.’
When I returned from the shop, I stepped into the entrance hallway. There, standing immobile like the other objets d’art, was Hastings, newly returned from his walk. In the intervening year he had grown close to his full height. His fur coat was lustrous so that the hall lamp light shone off it like the hull of a newly commissioned battleship. He retained his sleek, aerodynamic look, and his teeth, when he raised one cheek and then another in what was either a gesture of condescension or threat, gleamed with a milky whiteness. But while his body had grown, his eyes had somehow failed to grow in proportion, giving his gaze an even narrower, more intense focus.
‘You’re back. You’ve just missed Andrew. Never mind, you’ll meet him again at the party,’ Jack said, squatting down and offering Hastings something dark and viscous from his fingers.
‘Kidneys and chicken hearts. It’s what keeps his coat looking so luxuriant.’
Observing them side by side, it struck me that it was true what was said about owners and their pets: that they often looked alike. But I had always taken this to mean that owners chose — consciously or not — pets that in some way resembled themselves. But since I had seen him last, Jack himself had appeared to have become thinner, had lost some fat around his face making the underbite of his jawbone more defined and his nose appear more pointed. And whether it was the leanness in his face, or his new tortoiseshell glasses — which he had changed from rectangular to circular frames — his eyes, too, appeared narrower, the distance between them shrunk like two planets that had long orbited each other suddenly pulled together by the other’s gravity.
In preparation for the Christmas party, Jack had hired decorations from a local trader.
‘Too much storage space in a home makes me nervous.’
The decorations included garlands of softened fir branches and mistletoe with waxy, white berries; fairy lights in tasteful ice white; and an enormous wreath into which were woven dried orange and lemon peel, pine cones, holly sprigs, and clove. The garden had more strings of fairy lights carefully wound round the fencing and a display of poinsettia that Jack felt were good value.
‘I can never keep them alive much beyond Christmas anyway,’ he said. ‘I’m not very good with plants.’
Jack’s one concession to Gordon’s sensibilities was to allow him to place a colour pencil portrait of Hastings prominently in the hallway, over the glass of which Gordon had stuck a Santa’s beard and a small Santa’s hat. Hastings himself had for the occasion of the party been dressed in a tam and a tartan overcoat.
‘He finds it so difficult to keep warm at this time of year,’ Gordon explained, adjusting the elasticated string of the tam under Hastings’s jaw. ‘You’re going to be a good boy tonight. Yes, you are.’
Gordon patted Hastings affectionately. ‘Such a good boy. And you’ — he said, turning toward me — ‘I hope you have a good time this evening.’
‘Thank you, I shall.’
‘Perhaps you’ll even find someone whose place you can move into after the New Year.’
I smiled politely.
The subject of my departure came up again later that afternoon, as we were separately readying ourselves. It was a curious feature of the house that though it had been so thoroughly redesigned, it retained the occasional reminder of its previous lives, as the reincarnated can talk with limited but haunting specificity about ages past. An earlier occupant — far earlier I am sure than the Bloomsbury adjacent member — had at some point installed a dumb waiter. Now defunct, it had been plastered over but the shaft still ran the height of the house. It passed both Jack and Gordon’s room on the second floor, and the bathroom of the guest room, where I was staying, on the fourth. I was brushing my teeth when from the wall suddenly I could hear, as if far off, from below, like souls murmuring in Purgatory, two voices. They were indistinct at first, but became clearer.
‘How much longer will he stay?’
‘As long as he needs.’
‘But we’re always putting him up.’
‘He’s in distress.’
‘I’m sure if I were in distress, he would allow me to stay at his. When he finds a place, of course.’
‘Yes, but that’s the point. You are not in distress. You never are. You and he made different choices and now you live securely and he — well, he doesn’t, does he.’
‘Darling, don’t talk about what you don’t understand.’
‘What is there to understand? You both started out where you did, you both had opportunities, but you’re an achiever and he’s a — a squanderer.’
‘Fix my tie, will you?’
‘All I’m saying is...’
‘No, no, you’re right. Of course, he can’t stay here for long. His presence is, not interfering so much as — well, as the wallpaper in the downstairs loo. Innocuous, but if you look at it too long, it becomes alarming. I meant to have it redone before the party, but it will have to wait until after New Year.’
I looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes glanced upward to the small scar, barely perceptible, on my right brow: the result of sudden contact with the edge of a glass table when I was seven, and which I rarely thought about because to do so caused a feeling within me like the point of a needle entering the sensitive and inflamed tissue of my heart.
The men at the party — for it was almost all men — were taller than average. During the days and on weekends, they enjoyed sport — members of rowing teams, squash and running clubs, tennis leagues, rugby sides. But tonight, they were their evening selves: bespectacled, wearing scarves, lightly bearded — like a gathering of Fantastic Mr Foxes. What facial skin that was on show was highly polished, shining to the point of being oleaginous with creams and lotions to protect against the dryness of the cold December air. They formed clumps of listeners and speakers, and midway through the evening I found myself in one such clump, clustered near the ten-foot-tall Christmas tree, atop which, instead of an angel with its trumpet announcing the advent of Our Lord, was a cupid with a bow and arrow.
The men in this cluster bent slowly back and forth at their hips, as if bowing in slow motion, but what was in actuality a sign of agreement with the speaker. He possessed all the ponderous intensity of a graveyard as he related an anecdote regarding an Anglican vicar he had slept with on several occasions but had recently stopped seeing.
‘It was a shame because he was low church, and I am high. It really couldn’t continue.’
He held in front of him a saucer on which was a small wheel of melting cheese into which, like a crescent moon sinking into a puddle, stood a half-bitten water biscuit. The man’s breath, I noticed, as the others seemed to as well, did not smell of cheese, or even of coffee followed by wine, but was a smell that I associated with men who were approaching middle age.
He was still in the midst of his story when I saw in my peripheral vision Hastings walk up behind him. Hastings cocked his head, as if he too were listening, but then emitted a series of high-pitched barks. The shoulders of the man tensed up reflexively.
‘Dammit. He’s been doing that all evening,’ the man said, scooping some cheese onto his water biscuit and then placing it carefully on the centre of his tongue, as if he were administering communion to himself. Hastings continued to bark, and the back-and-forth motion of the men in the cluster began to shift side to side.
‘I’m going to get a drink,’ another man said and walked away, followed one by one by everyone else until I alone stood by the tree, Hastings still barking. I felt the eyes of the crowd turning toward me, to see what had so warranted the constant, piercing noise. I had a sudden urge to hide behind the tree, or to climb it and install myself at the top: neither an angel nor a cupid but someone — the thought flashed through my mind — wielding a sword.
At this moment Andrew — dressed in dark jeans, the monogrammed gilet, and a short-sleeved shirt that attracted glances throughout the room — appeared and knelt next to Hastings. He performed a manoeuvre I had seen other dog handlers do: he held Hastings by the snout, turned up his head, and forced Hastings to look him directly in the eye. He did not speak, but merely maintained eye contact with an expression of calm resignation, much as the Victorians depict Christ looking at sinners. At once, Hastings stopped his quivering and fell silent.
‘I’m afraid he finds the crowd overwhelming.’
‘They are so tall.’
Andrew released Hastings, who remained still, as if in a daze, and stood; but whether deliberately or not, when he did so he was closer to me than I expected him to be, and I had to take a small step backward — pressing myself against the wall lest Andrew press himself against me. He had dark brown eyes and fine, silken, golden-brown hair swept to one side in a style that reminded me of a boy in my primary school class whose hair I had, even then, envied. There were creases around Andrew’s eyes, but only when he smiled, which he was doing now, showing me his bleached and even teeth.
‘You are Jack and Gordon’s friend, yes? The one in distress?’
‘That is correct.’
‘They are very generous.’
‘How long are you staying with them?’
‘Not much longer.’
‘Have you tried Jack’s chocolates?’
‘I helped to make them.’
‘You and he are great friends.’
‘Since childhood. On the Harringay Ladder,’ I said, turning slightly to catch sight of Jack standing, champagne flute held delicately by its stem, on the other side of the room. He was staring at the two of us.
‘The Harringay Ladder? Imagine that. I always assumed he was born and raised in WC1 Haitch.’
I could not tell if he was imitating Jack’s habit of speech or if he, too, also hypercorrected the letter. So, I simply said:
‘The postcode suits him.’
Jack’s stare from across the room seemed to grow more intense.
‘And you? You see them often?’ I asked.
‘Only when picking up or dropping off this one,’ Andrew replied, patting the now complacent Hastings on the head.
‘I always seem to be out of the house when you come by.’
‘Yes, funny that.’
Then Andrew smiled, and shook his head.
‘The Harringay Ladder. I had no idea. I grew up in Hammersmith myself.’
He was about to turn to walk away when Gordon emerged unsteadily from the crowd like a strand of kelp washed out of the teeming sea and onto the beach. He was drunker than he was trying to let on and sought to maintain the illusion of composure by over-enunciating his words.
‘How are we this evening? Having a good time?’ he said, placing his left hand on the small of Andrew’s back.
‘A lovely time, Gordon.’
‘A splendid time.’
Gordon gave me a broad smile, but I could tell his attention was focused squarely on Andrew. He stared at him as I imagined he once stared at the Yorkshire puddings at his school dinners.
‘This one here has done wonders — wonders — with Hastings. Honestly, I thought I knew everything there was to know about raising greyhounds, but this one here...’ — at this point Gordon moved his hand from the small of Andrew’s back and placed it around his shoulder in a gesture of comradely affection — ‘this one is a magician!’
‘You’re too kind, really.’
‘No, don’t be modest. Such skill is an art — an art I tell you.’
And then, without warning, Gordon leaned in and kissed Andrew on the mouth.
There was a flash of light. I turned to see a young man, slight, with receding ginger hair and mesmerising ears, lower his camera. Around his neck he wore a lanyard on which was embroidered several American flags and the word Vogue. In the distance I saw Jack’s eyes go wide and his face turn a deep purple shade: much like a borscht he had once served me. Others in the crowd had noticed too, and there grew a humming, a buzz, like bees, satisfied with their hunt for nectar, about to return to their hives.
‘It’s time I take Hastings to the garden for a wee,’ Andrew said. With studied nonchalance, he hooked his finger under Hastings’s collar and led him away. Before they reached the door, Hastings turned briefly, looking — at me, or Gordon, I could not say — with narrow eyes. And what I thought — though again, I could not say — was a look of glee.
The party had now reached its louche stage. The people who wished to be respectable or who had other parties or who simply wanted to take public transportation before it became drunken and loutish had departed. Those who remained were the occasional close friend, but mostly hangers-on, or those who had discovered a sexual charge to the evening.
I was downstairs in the dining room, with its overwrought oak table across which were strewn the disorderly remains of Jack’s earlier cooking efforts — half-eaten chocolates, biscuit crumbs — and corks and metallic wrappers from bottles of champagne the guests had opened themselves after the waitstaff had left. A crowd was gathered, all pressed against each other though there was plenty of space in the other rooms, discussing the other guests, the gossip and intrigue. I found myself standing next to the young man from Vogue.
‘Did they send you here from America on assignment?’ I asked.
‘No, I live here.’
‘Hackney. And you?’
‘I live upstairs.’
I smiled at him, and he was about to return the smile, when the sound of two men’s voices seemed to be emanating from the wall, distantly.
‘How could you?’
‘Don’t pretend to be so innocent. I know what goes on when I’m not around...’
‘Jesus Haitch Christ Gordon what were you thinking...’
‘It’s aitch for Christ’s sake. It’s aitch.’
There was a sound like a glass shattering.
‘What is that?’ someone in the crowd said.
‘It is the dumbwaiter. The shaft runs the height of the building.’
Late that evening, after everyone had departed, I stood at the end of the kitchen smoking a cigarette, one foot on the tiled floor and the other on the concrete landing of the garden, between the open French doors. The garden was still aglow — no one had turned off the fairy lights. I tapped the ash from my cigarette into the garden and felt a warmth brush across my legs. A cold snap was predicted for the night, and even now a fog was revolving, slow and thick, as if swept by the long train of an invisible ball gown. Winter had truly descended, visiting upon the houses and gardens of Gordon Square a hoary frost that was crystalising on every plant and flower, every blade of grass, bringing sudden death, but also a stillness: preservation.
The third time I stayed with Jack — it was in fact Jack who wished to stay with me. It was the following morning. I was awakened by what sounded like the bellowing of a bull. The noise — human or animal, I could not tell — emanated from the garden. I had slept soundly, safe and comforted under the thick duvet, and I was loath to leave the bed; but the noise continued — grew more desperate. I threw off the cover, walked across the harsh carpet and looked out the window. Four stories below, in the garden, I saw the tonsured head of Gordon, bent low. He was crouching, huddled down, cradling in his arms some object I could not see. I was peering closer, when the door to my room burst open and in walked Jack, dressed hastily in a jumper and jeans.
‘We must leave.’
‘Are you in distress?’
‘What about him?’
‘Frozen. Outside. Last night. Come, we must leave. Now.’
I looked out the window again, and this time saw distinctly the stiff, grey body of Hastings, his legs like four spindles.
‘Someone forgot to bring him in for the night.’
‘Come, we must leave,’ Jack said, throwing some of my clothes into a suitcase.
‘Because Gordon blames me. He thinks I took Hastings out to the garden. Out of spite. Because of last night.’
‘And did you?’
‘Are you sure? You never really know what you are capable of. Especially when you are angry. Or drunk. And last night you may have been both.’
‘I don’t remember.’
‘You never do.’
Jack wore a worried look on his brow.
‘Come, let’s go,’ he said.
He continued to rush about the room, packing more of my clothes, before hurriedly zipping the suitcase and setting it upright. He looked at me expectantly.
‘I don’t think so,’ I said, yawning, climbing back into bed and pulling the duvet around me like a cloak.
‘I do not understand.’
‘I am not going.’
‘But...I am in distress.’
‘I can see that.’
‘Then why won’t you come with me?’
‘Because I like it here.’
‘But you are my friend. We are old friends.’
‘You are clever, Jack. I am sure you will land on your feet.’
I gave him an encouraging smile.
‘You had better hurry. Gordon’s stopped bellowing.’
Jack stared at me for a moment, and then, silently, turned and fled the room.
I lay in bed, gazing at the winter morning light against the wall: painted a shade of the faintest grey — called ammonite. Below me I heard the sounds of feet scratching as they rapidly descended the harsh carpeting of the stairs.