Short Story Prize - Shortlist
‘That fucking dog will be the death of me,’ Ronnie said, gazing over the street at the scuttling chihuahua.
‘It’s ugly,’ I replied.
‘Ugly?’ he stopped short of his Tiger beer. ‘Fucking ugly? I’m telling you, that’s a rat on a leash!’
‘Have you talked to the bloke that owns it?’
‘You know the fella? Is he an ex-pat as well?’
‘He works at our campus on Mondays. You probably haven’t seen him around. He’s from London.’
Ronnie scratched the face of the Grim Reaper- a black and white tattoo on his left forearm. ‘Aye, and is he like, you know, other southerners?’
‘I mean, he’s not like a northerner but he’s not some Prince William wanker.’
‘What’s with the hair then?’ Dandyish… like an artist?’
‘He is an artist.’
‘I fucking knew it.’
‘No, I’ve seen his pictures, they’re good. He goes into the slums and paints all the awful shit you hear about. Kinda like a protest against it.’
Hugh, the dandy we were on about, noticed me and waved across the street toward the bar.
‘Alright pal?’ I shouted.
‘Bad, my friend. The little guy isn’t feeling too well… We’ll catch up later.’ Hugh and the dog went inside the pet hospital.
The young Vietnamese waitress appeared and dropped some ice into our beers, rapidly warming in the tropical sun. ‘Cheers pet,’ Ronnie said as she disappeared back inside from the terrace. ‘I tried talking to dandy boy, but he never answers the door, he just seems to open it up and let that little bastard shit all over the joint.’
‘Have any of your other neighbours said anything?’
‘No, it’s a weird place… I bumped into a Chinese fella but he just kept bowing at me and there’s a French or Spanish fella who I say hello to but he never makes eye contact—I’ve seen whores coming and going from his gaff so I suppose he’s embarrassed.’
‘You wouldn’t be embarrassed if your neighbours saw you with a prostitute?’
‘I had a few whores, I’m not ashamed to say. After the divorce and all that. Vietnamese lasses, you know, they’re the prettiest in the world.’ He stroked his bald head. ‘I couldn’t keep on though. It seemed daft, for some young lass, to be under this middle aged Geordie.’
Ronnie refocused on the pet hospital. Next door was a yoga studio and beside that a Fairtrade coffee shop. ‘You know Dan, I think he reckons that dog is his baby, that’s why he lives around here, he probably told the estate agent he had to be within 100m of the hospital in case his rat gets caught in a trap.’
‘Mate, you could pick any house at random in this district and be within 100 metre of a pet hospital, or a meditation centre, or a fucking organic food store. I went out looking for Vietnamese food last week and I was hard pushed. Imagine that in the middle of Saigon.’
‘Let’s not be too rash to judge it badly…At least you can get a decent drop.’ He lifted up his beer and I cheers’d him.
My boss met me on the ground floor of the hospital. ‘He’s had a heart attack…Two heart attacks.’
She clutched her diamante studded iPhone, hair shimmering black... At school, she fluttered from classroom to classroom saying nothing of significance, coquettishly impressing the dirty old men that ran the school. In that moment she seemed like a magpie who’d swiped an expensive watch only to discover that it was the timer for a bomb.
‘Was there not a better hospital?’ I said as we walked through the waiting room past a sea of staring brown eyes.
‘Not in rush hour traffic.’ She stepped around a man to the elevator door.
I looked back: Angry eyes, curious eyes, desperate eyes. Eyes as cloudy as the city air on still days. Eyes as viscous as the river on all days. One eye, a man with a bandage covering half his head, the edges red and crisp with blood like dead leaves in late October. Eyes as dull and worn out as the linoleum floor. Eyes moist and dripping like the trickling air conditioner. Narrowing eyes, eyes open with fear, eyes closing—the mind’s eye wandering into distant tunnels.
Bing. The elevator door closed. We were alone. ‘What happened?’
‘He,’ she paused, her English wasn’t good enough to be running a language school but her pronunciation was perfect. ‘The neighbour saw him, in the hallway, picking up, how do you say, dog stuff, and then he just went face down.’ She mimed a fifteen-stone Geordie face-planting as best she could, herself being a seven-stone Vietnamese woman in a business coat.
‘Your friend, very sick.’ The doctor said as we looked through the window at Ronnie. ‘Two heart attacks—another and he dead.’ The doctor nodded gravely and then with nimble fingers reached into the pocket of his stone wash jeans. ‘He need surgery, stents in heart.’ He handed us his business card and then disappeared.
‘Ok, Ms Hai, where do we go from here? When is the surgery?’
She hesitated, keeping eye contact—the way all management books tell you too—even as her mouth slid into a grimace. ‘The problem, is, Ronnie has no health insurance, and the operation is 100 million Vietnam dongs.’
‘Ok.’ I glanced back at the tube in his throat, rhythmically filling and emptying his vast hairy chest. ‘Well, let’s sign what needs to be signed, get the operation done, and worry about the rest later.
‘No, no, the doctors—’ she hesitated—‘no money now, no surgery.’
‘What? A hospital is just gonna let him die.’
‘Not if he pays money.’
‘But he doesn’t have the money, I don’t think. He’s divorced. I don’t really know him other than from the pub.’
She nodded. ‘We call his ex-wife; she gives £200.’
‘£200? That’s only five million. ‘
‘I know, very cruel, very cruel.’
‘And the school? They won’t pay?’
‘Ronnie not full-time teacher like you, part-time.’
‘Ok, well will they not put in half the money?’
She smiled uneasily and wrinkled her button nose. ‘I try, with my boss, you know, but he says we’re a growing business and it sets precedent…But don’t worry… I sent email to all our teachers. We’ll have a charity box for him.’
‘Just let me say this, Danny. Please let me.’ said Hugh the dandy, before he’d even sat down on the
I went to say ok, but he didn’t let me finish. ‘Just let me.’ Hugh sat in the same seat Ronnie had a week earlier.
‘I saw the fundraiser going around at school, and I saw the Vietnamese had made everyone write down their fucking names and amounts they’d donated…fucking disgusting…’
The waitress breezed by interrupting our train of thought. She went to pet the chihuahua and then jumped back when it snapped at her fingers. ‘Can I have a gin neat,’ Hugh said, ‘with a just a hint of a squeeze of lemon.’
‘A hin oh a squee oh leh?’ She looked back at him like she might get more sense out of the yapping dog.
‘Ok, ok…gin, just gin and ice…’ He turned to me…‘I promise you can speak, just let me—disgusting in so many ways. Disgusting that they’d ask other teachers to pay for surgery when they’re raking it in. I mean, it’s the price of one class…’
‘And fucking disgusting that the hospital wouldn’t do the surgery. What about the Hippocratic Oath? How can any of those doctors sleep at night… and Daniel, I hate to speak ill of him,’ he paused studying my reaction (southerners haven’t worked out yet that it’s almost impossible to offend a northerner with something you say) ‘but what was he doing here with no health insurance? A fifty- year-old man, a big man, who drinks at this goddamn place every day. It’s absolute stupidity. And where’s his wife and family and friends? I know, I know, I saw you gave 20 million, but what about the friends back home from the fucking steelworks or wherever he used to work?’
His backside had barely touched his seat. He was up on his spindly hamstrings, body as agitated as his speech.
‘I’m sorry,’ Hugh continued, stroking the yapping dogs belly, ‘she’s not usually so distressed… that’s why, that’s what I wanted to get to, I don’t want you to think I’m a heartless bastard, for not donating—the vet says she might need an operation on her left paw. And you know, I hate to say it…’
And he didn’t…What he was about to say was a variant of what everybody else thinks. The life of his dog was worth more than the life of a man. A new iPhone was worth more than a man. For me, I could’ve bankrupted myself. I could’ve paid for the surgery. I could’ve took out a credit card and stayed in this place that chewed up people and spat them out when they were just gristle. But I wouldn’t do it. It wasn’t worth it to me—the life of a man.
The waitress reappeared with the gin. I attempted to interject a final time but Hugh continued once more
‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m in a rush, I have to go.’ He held up his rocks glass and we clinked. ‘To good health.’
He lolloped over the street, aquiline nose pointed purposefully toward the pet hospital. He went inside and two girls dressed in immaculate white coats offered sympathetic smiles and then brought out a stretcher for the dog.
I don’t think I said it out loud, at least I hope not because the waitress was nearby and she had enough semi-crazed westerners to deal with.
‘But Hugh, Ronnie died this morning.’