The winner of this year's VS Pritchett prizeby Alice Jolly / December 11, 2014 / Leave a comment
Alice Jolly is the winner of the VS Pritchett Memorial Prize, in association with Prospect, for the best unpublished short story of the year. Jolly has just finished her third novel, has published four plays and is working on her memoir. She teaches creative writing at Oxford University. The winning story was inspired by her rural childhood. “Growing up I encountered many odd and difficult people like Ray who lived at the end of long country lanes. My question is—now that traditional rural life has all but evaporated, what place can there be for people like him?”
They tell stories about him in the pub. Used to work in the cider factory. No, the morgue in Hereford. Son of a millionaire-film-star-celebrity with an Aston Martin and all. Family keep him out the way down here. Well, you would do, wouldn’t you?
The stories go around with the pints of Westons and the salt and vinegar crisps. Grows a ton of wacky baccy out the back somewhere. Used to be married, but his wife was eaten. Yeah, eaten. Well, you’ve seen the teeth on them, haven’t you? Buried her in the garden. Ever actually seen him? Nah. Only once at night, digging. Great big hole in the garden. Body shaped. Yeah.
No one sees him, everyone agrees on that. And certainly no one goes to see him. Except me. Now. Walking down the track towards his crooked, bulging house, the sound of barking already loud and the spring-nearly-summer air stained with the smell of dog shit. Josh in the pushchair and me with some biscuits—rather burnt at the edges—which Josh and I made earlier this morning.
Just to be clear—I’m not the home-made-biscuit type, or the sociable-calls-on-neighbours type. But in this world where we now live—two miles to the village, ten to the nearest town—Ray The Rottweiler, three fields away and down a track, is our only neighbour. So I felt I ought to try. But now that I’m getting closer I’m beginning to wonder.
It’s all dog. Dog everywhere. Slobbering dog faces at every window. Paws sticking out through a chewed gap at the bottom of the ruined front door. A dog’s howling head is even poking out of the chimney. OK. Well, maybe not—but you get the picture.
Josh is sitting up straight in the pushchair now, his hand stretched forward. I approach the high gate. The garden is bare earth, littered with dried dog turds. Rottweilers pace up and down by the fence.
Hello, I call. Hell-o-o-o.
The Rottweilers rush against the gate. My voice is drowned out by another burst of barking, whining, scratching. Best to go home now, I tell myself. And anyway I can’t stand the smell of dog hair, dog shit, dog pee, dog breath, dog meat. But then a face appears, at an upstairs window. The face of child, surely, rather than an adult? A voice shouts. Ge-e-e-et out of there, get down. Off. Shift, you fucking mutt. I wait for a moment, wishing again that I hadn’t come.
A battle seems to be taking place behind the front door. Slobbering muzzles appear, a hand gripping a rolled up newspaper, then the back of a man, narrow and frail, in a dirty white T-shirt. He fights his way out backwards through the crack in the door, batting at the snarling dogs with the newspaper.
But even as he does that, the garden dogs are on him, leaping and licking, their heavy tails slapping against him. Down. Out of it. Go on now, you buggers. He whacks at them with the newspaper as he starts down the path towards me. He’s tiny, barely five foot four, with the body of a teenager. His face is red and worn, with wobbly lips, prominent teeth, watering eyes.
At the gate, he smiles and says something. But the dog noise is so continuous that I can’t hear. He waves his hand, indicates that I should wait. Then he moves away to a shed closer to the house. Soon he reappears with large bones and chucks these far down the bare-mud garden. The dogs go after them and the level of noise drops. He smiles crookedly, nods and comes back to the gate.
Hi, I say. I’m Tess. And this is Josh. We live up at Black Covert Cottage. Moved in about a month ago.
Silence. I nod. He nods. We both nod again.
So you’re Ray?
I reach down into the bottom of the pushchair and pull out the biscuits. Ray rolls his tongue and nods enthusiastically, then heads back to the house. I wait, uncertain what to do. What I should do is to go home and not come back. But I don’t want to seem rude so I wait—and wait.
Finally Ray appears around the side of the house carrying the lid of a cardboard box that supports two mugs of black tea and a can of condensed milk. He puts the lid down on the concrete path, peels back some sellotape from a hole in the tin and pours a generous slug into the tea. He passes the mug over the high gate. I take it and hand a biscuit over to him and then give one to Josh. Ray rolls his tongue, nods and smiles.
We used to live in Worcester, I tell him. But we—that’s me and my husband Adam—neither of us liked the city and so we came here.
Ray makes a noise that sounds rather like the word Adam.
Yeah. My husband. He works on the gas pipelines. So he’s away quite a lot.
Josh is waving his biscuit at us. Ray waves his biscuit back.
Yeah. This is Josh. Yeah. Sorry. He’s got eczema. Other allergies too. Quite bad. It’s better for him here than the city. And he’s not at school. School didn’t really work out.
Ray rolls his tongue. This time I hear the words distinctly. School is no good.
You’re right, I say. Dead right. The thing is he had to go when he was only just four and really he was too little and the other kids. Well.
I find it hard to say more. I don’t know why I’ve said as much as I have. Probably only because I’m assuming that Ray’s got no idea what I’m talking about and won’t be able to answer. What I’m really doing is talking to myself.
Josh is sticking his fingers through the fence and Ray leans down, places the tips of his fingers against Josh’s, then moves them suddenly to another link in the fence. And that’s how they go on, Josh giggling, as the two of them play a game of finger chase along the links of the fence.
Then Ray speaks some more. His voice is clearer now. Dogs. Very hard work. Rottweilers. A very special kind of dog. People don’t understand. You have a lot of people who buy them and don’t look after them properly. They get taken in dogs’ homes and then killed. The dog meat is very expensive.
I think that’s what he says. I nod, smile.
Ray waves his fingers through the fence links at Josh.
Do hum some more clay, he says.
Or maybe—you come again another day.
I shouldn’t go again. Obviously. I made an effort once, I didn’t see any body-shaped hole in the garden. I tell this to Adam when he’s home so that he can report it in the pub. Adam recommends that I stay well clear. Often we are woken in the night by the sound of the dogs and sometimes, when the wind is in a certain direction, the smell blows into our garden.
Adam is right. Steer well clear.
But only a few days later Josh and I wander down the track again. I tell myself we are just having a general walk, something to do in the long afternoons. But I’ve made biscuits—unburnt this time. Josh cut them out. He did some of them with a dog-shaped cutter but unfortunately most of the legs dropped off when I was getting them off the tray.
Every time we go it’s the same. The dogs barking, slobbering, hanging out of the windows. The tea with condensed milk passed over the gate. The bizarre conversations in which I talk to myself and Ray nods and smiles. Ray likes Josh, he doesn’t seem to notice the red patches of skin on Josh’s face which is all that most people see. One day—the fourth or fifth time—Ray squeezes his way out through the gate and we sit on a fallen tree trunk.
At first I tell Adam about these visits but, after a while, I don’t. He thinks that being around all those dogs might not be good for Josh’s allergies. He’s on the side of the pub blokes. I mean, we all like dogs. Course. But there’s just too many of them, far too many.
But still Josh and I go and visit. I never ask Ray about the dogs but he does talk about them. He has to take them or they’ll be killed. He’s got to do it. Who else would?
The summer drifts on—dozy and dreamy. I try taking Josh to local playgroups but the other children are all younger than him and they push and shove. Or they are frightened by the raw skin on his face. So I don’t bother any more and stay home. I prefer it like that. Trips down to see Ray, sitting on the fallen tree, condensed milk tea and the dogs pacing and barking.
And I’d be happy if it went on like that forever. But autumn comes and with it a letter from the Education people about why Josh isn’t at school. It arrives just as Adam is leaving for work. I think he hasn’t seen it and sweep it up under some other papers. But he has seen. Tess, Tess, he says. So what are you going to do? They do have a point, don’t they?
Yes. No. Anything to end the conversation.
After Adam has gone, I put Josh’s warm jumper on and we head off for a walk. Just a general walk. Ray sees us coming from a distance, waves, hits at the dogs with the rolled up newspaper and emerges after a while with the tea. We sit on the trunk and I show him the letter. He holds the letter sideways as though assessing the quality of the paper. I wonder whether he can read.
But clearly he can because soon he says—Fools of gold.
Or—Schools No Good.
Then he says—New Book Dafter Than Him.
Or—You look after him.
And then I start telling him why I don’t want Josh to go to school. But I can’t get the words out. Ray’s still got the letter and he tears a strip from the side of it, holds it close, looking at it with narrowed eyes. Then he rips a shred from the top of the strip and eats it, chewing and swallowing, judging the flavor.
Josh is thrilled and yo-yos up and down, laughing. Ray tears another piece from the letter, licks his lips, eats that as well, then gives a piece to Josh to eat. And then he goes on like that, slowly but surely, munching his way through the whole letter.
It is ripped, he says.
Or—it is shit. And then he motions to show how the letter will pass through his stomach and will re-emerge from his body as shit. Josh is collapsed on the track, convulsed with giggles and even I start to laugh although I don’t much feel like it. And just for a while the dogs are silent and the whole world is quiet and the green around us holds us quite still. And that—that particular moment—is what I’ll remember later.
First we hear shouts and the sound of vehicles reversing. Then a massive surge of barking which washes up the fields towards our cottage. Josh and I are out in the garden digging up weeds but immediately I run inside and find the pushchair.
Before I’ve even turned the bend in the lane, I know that our world is folding up. A police van is parked at the entrance to the track. Ray’s in the garden, shouting, arms waving. I turn the pushchair into the track. A policeman steps forward.
Better not to walk that way today, love.
Fuck off, I tell him. It’s a public right of way.
As I hurry the pushchair over the rutted track, I see that all the dogs are out. Their bony bodies surge and seethe and Ray stands at the centre of them, his hands pressed to his head. At the gate, masked men wear white, space-like suits. They carry nets and ropes, a collapsible cage. Nearby is an open case full of syringes.
What are you doing? I yell at a masked man.
It’s a private matter, love.
No it fucking well isn’t. He’s my neighbour.
Josh is rigid in his pushchair, yelling, the eczema on his face crimson and raw. Two of the space-suit men are in the garden now, trying to corner one of the cringing dogs. Ray is weeping, body bent, hands tearing at his face. And it’s like the school all over again—or that’s what I think.
But actually I don’t remember, I really don’t. Except that later I’m sitting on the tree trunk in the lane, crying, and holding on tight to Josh when a guy Adam knows from the pub comes and makes me walk home. He carries Josh and says—come on, love. Come on. He had it coming to him.
When we get home, I hear him the pub guy talking on his mobile out in the garden. He says Bloody Crank and I think he’s saying that about Ray but maybe he’s saying that about me as well.
Problem with you Tess is you’re far too kind hearted, he says.
I’ve noticed that’s the kind of thing they always say. You’re too kind hearted. But how can there be such a thing as too kind hearted?
After that Adam organizes for Josh to go to the local school. He doesn’t even ask me about it, just makes all the arrangements. And I say about the eczema, and what happened last time, and Adam takes me to the doctor who refers me to an Anxiety Clinic. Fine. But would you be calm? Would you? If you were that worried about your kid?
That first day when Adam has taken Josh off to the new school, I’m limp as a rag and my breath won’t go down below my throat. I walk down the lane, into Ray’s track, but the house is empty now and there’s a For Sale sign at the gate. I sit down on the tree trunk. Adam will be angry if he finds out I’ve come down here. He had it coming to him. They’ll find her body now too. That hole in the garden. Body shaped. Yeah.
It’s more than six months later—spring again—when I next see Ray. I’m on my way back from somewhere and I need milk so I pull into the car park next to this mini supermarket round the back of Hereford where I never usually go. And there’s Ray wandering towards an alleyway, with one hand pushed down deep in his anorak pocket, the other gripping a plastic bag.
Well, it was nearly like that. But I am trying to be honest here. So maybe I’ll just say that actually I had been looking for Ray and maybe wasn’t in that mini supermarket car park accidentally. But anyway I shouted out to him and for a moment I thought he was going to run but then he recognized me, gestured me to follow him.
It turns out he lives there now—behind the supermarket, in a one bedroomed flat with slit windows in the corridors, like narrowed eyes, and a bin lorry smell everywhere. I know, of course, that he was convicted because that was in the local newspaper. Not for murdering his wife. I don’t think there ever was any wife.
It was only a suspended sentence because they only put two of the dogs in the gas ovens and the rest were found new homes. Or that’s what the newspapers said but Ray tells me now that it isn’t true.
They tilled that all, he says.
Or—They Killed Them All and his head goes down further than it needs to as he’s peeling the sellotape from the tin.
Quite often now I have to pass through that tangle of road junctions round the back end of Hereford. And since I’m passing I tend to drop in. Ray is doing all right, I think. Although someone in the building keeps emptying tins of baked beans into his letterbox. I don’t know why.
There’s so much I don’t know. Like why I feel so sad for Ray, living there without any of his dogs. Since I’m trying to be honest, I’ve got to say that he was convicted of cruelty to animals. But how can that be? When he loved those dogs like a limpet loves a rock.
Eventually I do an online search and find a company that makes model animals. They have several different types of Rottweiler and they’re expensive really, for little bits of plastic, but when they arrive I can see why because they’re heavy in the hand and just like the real thing in every detail. Ray is thrilled, puts them on a shelf. The next time I go he’s cut up some green felt for them to stand on.
And all I can say is that it helps me to see Ray when I’m worrying about Josh at school. Waiting for the phone call, remembering and worrying, wishing he could just stay at home with me always. And often I think of Ray when I go to pick-up at the school. I see Josh running towards me, his scabby hands waving as he turns to say goodbye to a friend. And that hurts me so much and I can’t say why. But I think Ray would know if I ever asked him—which I don’t.