FICTION: Old Rag

Sally was collecting a trolley from the far corner of the supermarket car park, where the shadows were deepest, when the black dog appeared and told her she was the firstborn child of one in the line of Thomas Fletcher of Crediton and would die before harvest was over.

‘But I’ve never been to Crediton,’ she said.

The dog, which seemed at times to meld with the night, at others to glow, licked its teeth and yawned.

‘A Fletcher you be and ever shall I hunt your kind, be you ever so far from the hills where Thomas brought about the curse which marks you as surely as Cain was marked.’

‘Don’t be stupid,’ she said with an awkward, honking laugh. ‘There’s no such thing as curses.’

The dog growled.

‘Am I not proof of what weird things may be?’

A white van passed and its headlights multiplied in the spots of rain on Sally’s glasses, dazzling her for a moment. When her sight cleared, the dog was gone.

She chewed her lip and stared at the bounding hedge with its green plastic rat traps and rotting pizza boxes. It would be difficult to concentrate on anything else, now, but her shift wouldn’t be over until ten.

She stacked shelves smiling weakly and repeating the names over and over under her breath: ‘Fletcher? Crediton?’ It had the sound of the West Country about it. As had the dog, she realised – a warm rumble, nothing like her own London Basin whine.

Her family had nothing to do with the West Country and weren’t big on moving about. It had taken them two centuries to move from Kent into London and then back again.

‘Crediton? Fletcher?’

She was a Dawes. Her mother was a Holdstock. She’d heard Paylis, Whiffin, Ovenden, but never Fletcher.

Driving home in her yellow hatchback, with the murmur of late night radio and the flat white of retail park light all around, she spoke aloud.

‘Well, what does a silly dog know about anything anyway?’

The next morning, Sally put on her unicorn slippers and a towelling robe and went down to breakfast. Her mother, Ruth, was standing at the counter, busy with a knife on the chopping board.

‘Morning, love. A bit of compote and some Greek yoghurt? Do wonders for your complexion, your regularity and your weight.’

Ruth was pale-skinned, blonde-haired and so slim she barely had hips.

Sally fell into her seat like an emergency sandbag.

‘I’m not hungry,’ she said.

‘Even better,’ said Ruth.

Sally, blinking behind smeared lenses, looked at her mother.

‘Mum?’

‘Yes, darling?’

‘Have we ever been to Crediton?’

Ruth froze, first, then chopped with renewed intensity. Her face reddened, then drained of colour. She laughed, then frowned.

‘Crediton? Never heard of it.’

Though Sally didn’t rate herself a great reader of emotions – most faces looked as distinct to her as dinner plates – even she could tell that her mother did know Crediton and wasn’t pleased that Sally had brought it up.

Sally fidgeted with the head of a plastic flower, stroking a gaudy, striped petal. She liked the texture.

Ruth continued chopping, dumping raw green pepper into the salad she was making.

‘Mum?’

Ruth didn’t respond.

‘Do we know anyone called Fletcher?’

‘No we bloody don’t!’ said Ruth, spinning to face Sally, holding the knife across her chest as if in self defence. ‘What the bloody hell is this? Who’ve you been talking to?’

Sally blinked and chewed her lip.

‘Nobody. It’s nothing.’

‘Look, I’ve got to go to work. When’s your shift today?’

‘Midday to nine,’ said Sally.

‘Well, do something useful with your morning, eh? The bathroom could do with a wipe-down for starters.’

‘I was going to go to the library.’

‘Why?’

‘To look up Crediton.’

Ruth pretended she hadn’t heard. She made a fuss about packing her handbag, attached her name badge to her blazer, and gave Sally an uncharacteristically intense kiss on the forehead as she swept out. The front door slammed and Sally sat alone in the house listening to its humming and ticking, heating and clocks.

From somewhere outside came the sound of a terrier yapping.

The black dog made its second appearance in Sally’s own bedroom. She awoke to flickering blue light and the odour of sulphur, the air full of static.

Sitting upright in her single bed, she clawed around the bedside table until she found her glasses, which she put on with both hands. She stared into the hound’s red eyes and yawned.

‘Hello again.’

The dog whined and pulled itself into the shadows but said nothing.

‘I know where Crediton is now. It’s in Devon. Population 8,000. Main industries: dairy farming and tourism. Named after the River Creedy.’

She switched on the lamp.

The dog disappeared.

With a sigh, she turned the light off.

The dog, back, ran its dripping tongue around its teeth and gave a satisfied whine.

Sally picked up a book.

‘I also got this. Can’t read it in the dark but it’s called Devon Ghosts and you’re in it.’

The dog took a step closer and broke its silence.

‘My tale is often told, rarely well, and never truthfully.’

‘It says in this book that you haunt unbaptised babies.’

The dog gave a low growl that Sally felt more than heard.

‘I am servant to neither God nor Satan. My master, long absent, came from the far north, long before Christ, and cared not for church rituals.’

Sally sniffed and rubbed a finger under her cold, wet nose.

‘What’s this business about Fletcher, then?’

The dog seemed to expand in size, pulling shadow into itself to form new muscle.

‘You are Fletcher’s child and you will die,’ it said, its breath hot and with the stink of burning peat.

‘Yeah, I got that the first time. I’m not, though, that’s the thing. But say if I was – how long would I have?’

‘The days of ripening barley and the sharpening of scythes are upon us.’

‘Soon then?’

‘Soon.’

‘Can I do anything about it?’

‘The law is the law. Foreknowledge is fear and fear is punishment.’

The dog snapped its teeth together, bone on bone, and began to dissolve.

‘One more question,’ Sally said, swinging her feet over the edge of the bed.

Hovering between being and absence, the dog waited.

‘What’s his full name, this so-called Fletcher? His first name?’

The dog hesitated, fading further into nothing, and then as it crossed the threshold, half-spoke, half-howled the most prosaic name imaginable.

This time when Sally spoke to her mother, Ruth cracked. She let the melon baller fall to the counter with a clatter and flopped into a dining chair.

Sally polished her glasses on her pyjama top and waited.

‘Your father and I tried very hard to have children.’

Nobody held a blank stare as solidly as Sally.

‘But for some reason, it didn’t work out.’

‘Yeah?’

‘He took many hot baths, I expect. We looked into adopting–’

‘Are you telling me I’m adopted?’

Ruth shook her head and winced.

‘No. We looked into it, as I say, but your grandparents, both lots… Well, we just didn’t think they’d accept an adopted kid. But someone told us about this clinic, see, where a very kind lady…’ She began to cry, clasping bony hands over her quivering mouth.

Sally thought she ought to reach out and comfort her mother but that was a trick she’d never learned, somehow, so, instead, she waited, blinking, with her head tilted to one side – a gesture she understood sometimes conveyed sympathy.

‘She was a pioneer in what they call donor insemination.’

‘Sperm.’

Ruth tutted reflexively, then nodded.

‘Well, yes, that.’

‘Dad wasn’t really my dad, then?’

‘He was your father in every meaningful sense. He… We… You were very badly wanted.’ Ruth sniffed and looked up at the ceiling, letting tears make tracks through the pale foundation that had barely dried on her cheeks.

‘Is that why he left? Because I wasn’t his?’

‘He found it difficult. He didn’t bond with you the way he was supposed to. I suppose I pushed him into it a bit. The clock was ticking, love – you know how it is.’ She looked at Sally and almost rolled her eyes. ‘Or maybe you don’t.’

Sally tried to picture her father or, rather, Ruth’s ex-husband. She didn’t remember him but there were pictures – a lean, sharp-featured man with hair like Luke Skywalker.

‘We didn’t look much alike, now I think of it.’

‘And you certainly don’t get this from me,’ said Ruth, gesturing at Sally’s body.

‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’

‘Well, what good would it have done? It would only have upset you when you were young – remember what you were like? Such a bloody crybaby. And now you’ve made it this far…’

She shrugged.

‘Medical stuff, for starters,’ said Sally, coming as close to raising her voice as she ever got. ‘What if he’s diabetic or, you know, I’ve… uh… Inherited something else.’

Ruth tutted.

‘Don’t be such a drama queen. Have you got diabetes?’

‘No.’

‘Well then.’

‘What do you know about him?’

‘We know his name was Fletcher. He looked a bit like your dad because they tried to find a good match. No ginger babies for blonde parents or anything like that. And we know he did… Well, he did his business, with the–’ She silently mouthed the word ‘sperm’ – ‘in 1988.’

‘That’s ten years before I was born.’

‘They keep it refrigerated, don’t they? Like Häagen-Dazs. It lasts for ages.’

Her eyes narrowed and she brought her thin lips together into a wrinkled pout.

‘Here, how did you find out? Who told you? Your Dad’s not been in touch has he?’

Sally let her face settle back into blandness and just stared. Silence had always been her secret weapon.

After a few seconds, Ruth clapped her hands on her slim thighs, wiped a finger under each eye, and said, ‘Fine. Whatever. Anyway, now you know, and I’d best get off to work.’

The third time, Sally summoned the dog herself. Somehow, she just knew how to do it: find a dark place – the basement was perfect – and whistle.

‘Why have you brought me here?’ the dog rumbled, bringing its own spectral light. It patrolled with soundless steps the edges of the room, sniffing where mice had been running.

‘Do you have a name? It would be easier if I could call you something.’

It growled.

‘My master called me Old Rag.’

‘Pleased to meet you, Rag. I know what’s going on,’ said Sally.

She pushed her plump hands into the pockets of her high-waisted jeans and shivered. The basement was cold and damp at the best of times but the dog seemed to suck up the last of the warmth.

‘I’m technically this Fletcher bloke’s daughter, but not really.’

‘Tech-nic-ally?’ Old Rag slavered over the new word as if it were a marrow-rich bone.

‘He was a sperm donor. He donated his sperm, the clinic gave it to Mum and Dad so they could have me.’

At this, Old Rag fell to the ground and lowered his head upon his forelegs, like settling smoke. A deep whine came from his gut.

‘Tell me more.’

‘It’s not complicated: they took his sperm, kept it cold for years, and put it inside my mother. Then I was born.’

‘Not complicated?’ said the dog with quiet astonishment. ‘In older days, people were inventive in ways to nullify such curses. One Fletcher of old dressed the firstborn daughter of his line as a boy, and named her for a boy, but it mattered not: still I tore out her throat among the haystacks at Yeocombe in her twentieth year. Another rode to a far town where he seduced an idiot woman of low birth and left her there with child. Still, when the stars commanded it, I came for the girl and feasted on the meat of her lungs.’

Sally frowned and shifted the weight on her hips in such a way that she seemed almost to stamp a foot at the hound.

‘Well, that hardly seems fair.’

Rag’s red eyes dimmed.

‘Fair?’

‘If the curse is punishment, how does killing some young woman this bloke’s never met, and doesn’t care about, hurt him? I think he did you there, mate.’

The dog stood and began to prowl, circling Sally, more thoughtful than menacing.

‘It is how it has always been done. A curse is a curse,’ he said, though his voice had a distant, uncertain quality. He had lost his snarl.

‘Well, it’s a bloody stupid curse, then. Someone should have gone over the contract.’ She stamped her foot again. ‘Like I said, you’ve been done.’

Rag barked, full-throated, foul-breathed, gut-deep, and shook himself out of existence.

On her first break, after the lunchtime rush, Sally wandered out past the smoking area, beyond the bins and recycling skips, to the grassy slope between the store and the petrol station. As she sat in the sun eating a discounted egg and cress sandwich, she dialled a number she’d saved to her phone at the breakfast table that morning.

‘Fletcher and Sons Heritage Builders, Angela speaking, how may I help you?’

The woman had a buttery country accent with soft, round vowels.

Sally, who avoided speaking on the telephone as much as possible, had to clear her throat before she could say at an audible volume, ‘Can I speak to Nigel Fletcher, please?’

‘May I ask who’s calling?’

Tempted as she was to say, ‘His firstborn child,’ Sally simply gave her name.

‘And what’s the call regarding?’

‘I’m calling about a dog.’

‘Thank you, please hold,’ said the receptionist.

Sally watched a seagull strutting nearby, pecking at cigarette ends in the stubble. After two bars of ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ and two rings, a man’s voice snapped in Sally’s ear. It wasn’t buttery at all, more like coffee grounds and broken eggshells.

‘What kind of bloody joke is this? I’m not selling or buying a bloody dog.’

‘I don’t suppose you like dogs much, do you?’ said Sally, not meaning to be arch.

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘I’ve been talking to a big black dog, or a sort of dog, called Old Rag.’

Nigel Fletcher switched the receiver from one hand to the other to buy a moment and then spoke in a strangulated whisper.

‘Very fucking funny. Fucking hilarious. Who put you up to this? Jerry, I suppose? Well you can tell him this from me: he can harass me all he likes, he ain’t getting one penny from the sale of that house.’

‘I’m sorry, I don’t know who Jerry is, or anything about a house.’

‘Mum’s house – Mum’s bloody house!’

‘I really have met Rag and he says I’m going to die because you’re my… Because you… Because we’re related.’

The breath whistled down Nigel Fletcher’s nose and Sally heard the wet, wordless working of his mouth. The seagull, she noticed, was getting nearer.

‘I told him I’m not your daughter, not really, so it doesn’t count.’

‘Of course you’re not my–’ he said in a near shout before stopping back down to a subdued growl. ‘Of course you’re not my fucking daughter. What are you after? Because you’re not getting a penny from the bloody house either.’

‘Did you know about the curse when you donated?’

Sally heard a beep in her ear and knew the call had ended.

‘Not had much luck with dads, have I?’ she said to the seagull which pretended not to hear as it side-eyed her half-eaten sandwich.

That night, Sally sat up in silence, in darkness, waiting for Rag.

He materialised slowly this time, as if his battery was running low, and his blackness seemed less black than before. His eyes were dim, too.

‘Firstborn, you have delivered the message of the curse to Fletcher.’

‘You took your time. I was nodding off.’

Rag whimper-growled and slunk beneath the desk, among the cables and wires, beside the pink wastepaper bin.

‘It was simple, once. Bloodlines were bloodlines. Must you children of mud, you offspring of ash and vine, always make such obstacles?’

‘Sorry,’ said Sally, ‘but it wasn’t my bloody fault, was it? I just got born.’

Rag licked and breathed his butcher’s bonfire stink.

‘I call forth Black Edwin.’

‘What?’ said Sally, even as she became aware that there was now a large, musky goat in the room, regarding her with milky, dead eyes. Her room was narrow with only a few inches between the bed and desk and this creature occupied most of the remaining space.

‘This is the child?’ it said in a voice neither male nor female, glancing down at Rag, now trapped beneath the desk. He faded away and then, weightless, reappeared on the bed, standing over Sally, panting wisps of cold light.

‘It is – the firstborn in the line of Fletcher.’

‘But not his daughter, by his own declaration,’ said the goat, like a barrister.

‘How did you know that?’ said Sally, pushing herself back against the headboard and grimacing. Her room smelled like a barn on fire.

‘I attend always once I have found the scent,’ said Old Rag. ‘In other forms. In shadow. Invisible.’

‘Fletcher has another child?’ asked the goat.

Rag snorted.

‘The second-born, a boy, his heir – Tyler Fletcher, of the city of Exeter.’

‘I’ve got a brother?’ said Sally. A smile broke across her face, then faded, then returned. She laughed and then laughed at herself laughing. ‘I always wanted a brother.’

Then another thought occurred to her.

‘When was Tyler born?’

The dog answered too quickly, ‘It matters not.’

‘No, seriously – when was he born?’

The curtains rippled in the breeze through the half-open window.

The goat answered.

‘Nineteen-hundred and eighty-two.’

‘So he was the first-born?’

‘Your seed was first,’ said Rag with a snort.

‘But he was born first, right?’ Sally laughed. ‘We are complicated, aren’t we, humans?’

Four eyes, two red, two pearl-white, stared at Sally. The goat kicked a heel. The dog panted.

‘My decision is made,’ said the goat at last. ‘The days of the bough and pasture are behind us. We must adapt.’

Tyler Fletcher was vaping outside a bar on the edge of Cathedral Green when the lights went out. He watched the black lamp-posts flicker, dim and die one after another, and the shopfronts fall black, as if a wave had washed through.

He turned to go back into the bar and found it dark, too, and the door locked.

‘What the fuck?’

He looked at the glowing face of his Swiss watch. It was suddenly, somehow, three in the morning. He exhaled one last, long mouthful of cinnamon-flavoured smoke and slipped the device into the pocket of his quilted jacket. A shiver took him over, from jowl to ankle.

Then a voice echoed across the cathedral square or, rather, a howl with words in it: ‘Son of Fletcher! The curse is enacted this night!’

Who was that? Chidgey? Snegs? One of the lads. A wind up, of course. They’d probably dosed his drink or something – that would explain the missing hours and the headache. Massive, massive banter. Epic. It probably explained the dog, too – the thing as big as a horse that was running towards him quickly but slowly, heavy as stone but light as mist, across the green where, as a child, he’d danced around the maypole in beret and tunic.

Old Rag pounced, knocked him down, and for just long enough took corporeal form. Real fangs. Real claws. A tongue as rough as sandstone.

As the beast clamped onto his windpipe and carotid artery, Tyler Fletcher thought, ‘Oh, so this is why Dad wouldn’t let me have a dog.’

When Rag appeared to Sally the final time, his jaws seemed to sparkle with rubies or pomegranate seeds. He woke her by crying like a wolf from the back garden with its patio furniture and compost bin, threading her name into the infinite vowel. She opened the window and leaned out into the late summer air.

‘Shush,’ she hissed. ‘People will hear you.’

‘Not tonight, daughter of Fletcher. I am powerful now. I command light and sound and time and space.’

‘Oh, that’s good, isn’t it?’

‘Tyler Fletcher has been taken.’

Sally sighed.

‘I never did get to meet him – my little brother! Or big brother, was it? I don’t know.’

With that, she felt herself lift on the breeze and levitate from the window. She drifted, frictionless, out above the garden, until a soft, unseen wall stopped her above the dog. Its red eyes shone beneath her.

‘But a curse is a curse, child of ash and vine, and now the second-born, first-seed child must die before the harvest is complete.’

She began to fall slowly towards the dog, like a drifting leaf.

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