Late afternoon on a mild July Saturday. A weak sun struggles through clouds thin and white as gauze. I’m building a tiny Jenga tower of kindling in the clay oven set against the outside of the house.
Inside, Marie folds dough in the kitchen with swift, precise movements.
We’ve been married five years today. For reasons best known to herself, Marie has invited Stefan and Lucia to dinner to mark the occasion. I anticipated our usual anniversary routine: restaurant, then bar, then back to the hotel to fuck like rabbits, but what Marie wants, she usually gets.
Marie calls from the kitchen.
‘We need mozarella’
‘I bought mozarella’
‘No, I asked you to buy buffalo mozzarella. This is no good’.
‘Fucks’s sake. Alright then. I’ll go to the deli.’
‘David. You know how I hate it when you use that word. We need wine too. Something that’s not from a supermarket this time’.
I walk round the front of the house, crunching gravel. Marie’s Civic is on the drive, so I take that.
The road into town is heavy with memories. I could tell you my life story from the shops and houses that run either side. I pass the newsagent where I started my working life aged twelve, delivering papers and porn round the estates.
Further on, the launderette where mum worked for twenty-odd years after dad lost his job. She’d come home smelling of detergent and John Player Specials. Dad would be sat in the armchair with his betting slips, his quick wits turning stale and bitter on a diet of Marx and Johnny Walker Red.
Past lives. I could run a million miles and this town would still have its hold on me.
I park up in the multi-storey attached to the shopping centre. The centre is squat and ugly, like some repurposed Cold War command centre. Inside, people shuffle across its fake marble floors like drones, faces lit by jaundice-yellow striplights.
Everyone seems to have brought their dog today: chavs in twos and threes with squat-nosed Staffie terriers on short leashes. I wonder if I’ve stumbled into some Jeremy Kyle version of Crufts.
I hurry to the deli. Inside I order mozzarella and expensive, unpronounceable Tuscan wine. Olives too. There’s something about these bourgeois operations that compels you to buy fucking olives.
From outside comes the sound of thumping and scratching. A dog throws itself against the deli’s window. Its owner, some rickets-faced kid in polo shirt and chinos, laughs with his friends. ‘Posh wanker’ I see them mouth, ‘you’re gay, mate’.
The old me wants to deck every one of them. The new me pushes past the kids outside, head down, rage simmering. Marie likes me to keep out of trouble.
I head for the escalators up to the carpark. People are flooding into the shopping centre now, Mongol hordes in Primarni bearskins. All of them have Staffie terriers. All of them.
It’s quiet. Too quiet. Every person in the centre now is mute. Couples walk side by side in silence. Babies lie quiet in their prams. The kids from outside the deli shuffle behind their dogs, faces blank, mouths shut.
The Staffies are the most animated things in here. Their eyes are bright and alert. They walk with purpose towards the escalator, their leads taut, their owners like mute chav-Golems, in tow behind them.
The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. The atmosphere in the shopping centre crackles with nervous energy.
I’m hemmed in on all sides by shoppers now. Dogs and owners are still flooding through the centre’s automatic doors. The crowd carries me along towards the escalators.
There’s a huge guy with prison tats on my left and a teenage girl with a fag in her mouth to my right. The cigarette burns down to the filter in her mouth. Her Staffie, an overweight waddling furball, looks up at me with enquiring eyes.
‘What are you looking at?’ It says.
‘Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck’
I can’t tell if I said that or if I thought it. Nothing makes sense anymore. I look for help or recognition from the people around me, but all I see is blank, lifeless faces.
I try to force my way back through the crowd, but their momentum is unbreakable. Mr Prison-Tats on my left grabs me by the shoulder, his grip like a vice. The only way to stop the shooting pains in my arm is to let him bear me along. If I’m going to get out of this, I’m going to have to bide my time.
I only came for buffalo fucking mozzarella.
This is what you get for social climbing I guess.
I follow the throng up the escalators. The dogs signal to each other with barks and paw movements.
All the shop lights have gone down except for the lamps in a light fittings shop on the top level. It’s this that the crowd is moving towards. Through the shop’s entrance, two security guards with dogs flank a woman in a supermarket uniform. ‘Wendy – Duty Manager’ her nametag says.
She has a huge black Staffie on a pink fluffy lead. It looks on with calm authority as we approach the light store. The lamps in the window flicker crazily, off-on, off-on, off.
The crowd parts and Prison-Tats pulls me forward. Wendy-Duty Manager’s dog is called Chanel. It’s printed in diamante on her collar.
‘Looks like we got us a live one’ Prison-Tat’s dog tells Chanel.
‘Oh yeah? Let’s us just see about that.’
Chanel pulls free of her lead and paces around me.
‘Ain’t no thinks-he’s-too-good fucking white-ass fucking two leg-walking allotment cupcake motherfucker’s gonna fuck with our shit now. Lucas!’
‘Yeah?’ Prison-tat’s dog answers.
‘Get this bitch a dog.’
Lucas heads into the crowd while Prison-Tats holds onto my shoulder. ‘Sorry about this mate’ he says in a dead android voice.
‘Can’t you let me go?’ I whisper between gritted teeth.
‘Could do. Don’t want to. No.’
Lucas returns with a white dog following him. Prison-Tats grabs the white dog’s lead, then takes hold of my wrist and forces the leash into my hand.
A strange, keening flows up the lead. I feel restless, a coiled, furry spring, ready to jump, run and pee on everything that stands in my way. I want to lick things. I want to sniff butts.
I hate cats.
But not as much as I hate the humans.