Author: Bethan White
No fall from grace happens to just one person; when I was writing this, the term heard so often by any CSI fan was always in my mind; ‘High velocity spatter’. There is no blood and gore in this book, but the high velocity spatter of a life suddenly in ruins touches everyone and no one is ever the same again.
The other theme in the story is that no one we meet can ever be quite all they seem. No one goes to work, to a party, out shopping wearing a badge saying, ‘Hi! I am an amoral sociopath – approach at your own risk’. It might be said that things would be easier if this indeed were the case but looked at from the other end of the spectrum, fiction would be a poorer place were it so.
Not everyone crashes and burns along with Chris, a lettings agent with a partner and young child. Some are collateral damage and boy, do they deserve it. Some are hurt but can limp away, to carry on lives which are not worse, just different. Others gain knowledge, perspective and another layer of skin, making them more fit for the rest of their lives.
Through the whole tale, the soundtrack of Chris’s life plays out, sometimes black, other times blacker still. Chapter titles are taken from appropriate songs which will surely be stuck in his head sometimes as his life unravels and an unusual feature of this book which I hope readers will enjoy is a list of links to performances of the songs in question – played with the chapter or afterwards, it gives another dimension to what goes on in Chris’s head as he and his black dog crash on to disaster.’
‘The idea for this book began as an almost documentary style project, charting how easily someone can go, in a distressingly short time, from leading a normal family life to being on the streets. As so often happens, the characters rose up and grabbed me by the throat, demanding to be heard. As a result, this is the story of a man, no stupider or thoughtless than anyone else you might meet, whose struggle with depression and the denial which is so often its travelling companion, begins on a downward spiral, taking out so many others in his wake. The story is also told from their perspective; no one is just a bystander in someone else’s life, we all have stories which need telling.
It all seemed very strange. Every day was different; that was one of the things that stopped being a lettings agent boring him to death. Actually, the only thing, but perhaps one thing was enough. It could be worse. He could be emptying bins. He could be teaching thirty snotty-nosed kids who despised him. He could be … but right now, being a lettings agent was a bit confusing. He couldn’t get the lights to work in this stupid house, for one thing. He had told the landlord over and over about making sure the bulbs all worked, that the wiring had been checked, but click, click – the switches just weren’t working. And this stupid couple he was showing round. Every time he turned his back, they wandered off. He had found her in the cupboard last time, just standing there, staring at the wall. He was going to recommend they didn’t let to these two. They didn’t seem to have all their sandwiches at their picnic.
He turned to speak to the husband, boyfriend, whatever the hell he was. And he’d gone. Again. But sitting there, looking up at him with that manic grin they sometimes seemed to have, was a black Labrador. Labrador cross, perhaps. It was certainly a big bugger. Well, that was a clincher. This house was strictly no pets. The landlord was absolutely adamant about that. He might be a total moron when it came to making the house habitable and attractive to potential clients, but he wouldn’t be shifted on pets.
This dog seemed quite well behaved, though. It just sat there, panting softly, rolling its big, brown eyes.
‘Sorry, boy,’ he said. ‘I don’t carry dog treats on viewings.’
The dog looked at him, dolefully.
‘There’s rarely the call.’ He looked down at it. Was that a tooth starting to show at the corner of the animal’s mouth? Was that rumbling noise the beginnings of a growl? Where the bloody hell were that dim couple? Standing in the cupboard like some kind of vegetables, bringing a bloody dog when there were no pets allowed, disappearing again.
‘Hello?’ he called. Had this hall always had this echo? ‘Hello? Are you there? Your dog is getting a bit …’ yes, that was a growl and now he could see all of its teeth. It was bigger as well. Could dogs grow like that? Should dogs grow like that? It was rearing up now, its breath hot and rank, its mouth wide to take his throat in just one bite, to shake him, and shake him, and shake him, until …
‘Chris! For God’s sake, what is it?’
He sat up sharply, drenched in sweat, heart racing. Where was the house, the couple, the dog? He looked round, eyes wild. ‘There … there was a dog. A big, black dog.’
Megan put a soft hand on his chest and pushed him back down onto the pillow. She pushed his hair back from his sticky forehead, soothing him as if he were Kyle, climbing into bed with them, confused and crumpled from a bad dream. ‘There’s no dog.’
He nodded, but with less conviction now that reality was biting. ‘There was. A Labrador or some such thing. Big. Black. Teeth.’ He half-heartedly mimed a vicious mouth, snapping his teeth at her, smiling.
‘Perhaps it was a Labradoodle,’ she said. ‘A cockerpoo.’
‘A sprocker.’ His smile faded. ‘It was scary, though, Megs. It was so real. So ordinary. I was showing this dim couple round a house and the lights wouldn’t come on. Then, this dog suddenly appeared and … it was friendly, then it went for my throat.’ His eyes were wide as he relived it.
She leant forward and kissed his forehead. ‘Babe,’ she said, quietly, ‘it’s just that dream. You know, that dream you have?’
‘I’ve had this dream before.’ There was a slight query in his voice. Every time, she thought, every time he wakes up wild-eyed and sweating from the dream of the dog and every time he has forgotten it is the same old, same old. But it was real to him, there was no getting away from it, and when she had had a quiet word with the GP, he had just said it would go away when Chris settled down at work, when he felt more secure, when the baby was born. There was always a holy grail in view, the time when Chris would stop dreaming of the dog. But here they were. He had had two promotions, he was doing well as far as she could see at work. They had never been closer, their relationship was steady as a rock. And if the sex was less amazing, well … that’s how it went, wasn’t it? That’s what her sister had said anyway, and no one’s marriage was sounder than hers. Samantha of course said the opposite, but then, that was Sam. Always with the glossiest boyfriend, the latest clothes. But she didn’t have a three year old. Or a man who woke up sweating and babbling about a dog he could never remember seeing before …
She kissed him again. ‘Yes, sweetie. You have had the dream before. But what do we always say?’
He smiled, remembering. ‘It’s only a dream. And as long as it doesn’t leave poo on the carpet, no worries.’
She tapped his nose with her finger and smiled. Eventually, he came out of it. But somehow, in the back of her mind, that black dog sat, waiting patiently, for its moment to come. She shivered.
‘Cold?’ he said, holding out the covers. ‘Come in for a cuddle.’
She looked longingly at the cave, with his naked body tempting her to stay. But she had heard the stirrings that meant that Kyle was waking up and long experience had taught her that ten minutes well spent now, coaxing him out of sleep and into wakefulness instead of letting him wake on his own and fly into a panic, would be time she would never regret. So she swung her legs out of the bed with a smile and went to the door.
‘It’s okay, Kyle,’ he heard her say as she opened his door. ‘Mummy’s here.’
Chris closed his eyes and listened to her voice, soothing her son, bringing him back to the world of day from the dark of night. He let her sing-song voice wash over him, sending him back to sleep. To where the black dog always lurked, ready to go for his throat.
Breakfast was the same as always. Megan ran the house on military lines almost, routine being what kept her menfolk on what passed for the straight and narrow. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree and Kyle was like his father in almost every way, looks, temperament and the tendency to completely lose the plot if things went a little bit to the right or left of centre. So breakfast was always the same. Two Weetabix with cold milk, no sugar for the big one, Readybrek with a spoonful of jam for the little. She would have a slice of toast when Chris had gone to work and Kyle was intent on his millionth rewatch of Tree Fu Tom. One thing about having a child wedded to routine was that you knew exactly what he would want to be doing at any second of any day. She had worried he might be on some Spectrum somewhere, but the GP had reassured her, just as he had reassured her about Chris; normal, just perhaps a little fragile. She watched them eat, in from the outside to the middle, turn the bowl round a quarter of a rotation and begin again. She sighed, but quietly so they didn’t hear. She just hoped that doctor knew what he was on about. Some days, she wondered.