Ralph’s Great Big Dog
by Jay D. Green
It’s only the fourth time Aria has seen the place and it’s even more impressive with the livid pink sunset sliding across the sleek glass frontage. Her car winds up the sinuous track, bumping in potholes, spitting stones. Behind her, the sky is purpling down to darkness. The ancient stone barn isn’t listed, so Phin didn’t have to get planning permission; he just had the front ripped off, put in floor to ceiling windows, and voila – unbroken views across the gulf of Corryvrekan to the Paps of Jura. Up past Phin’s place, beyond the ridge, there’s an even grander old pile, a holiday home owned by some lord or lady. Phin told her they’d once had a Hollywood actress and her husband staying over for Christmas. Aria had vaguely heard of her; she’d won an Oscar, but not for the kind of films Aria likes. Phin had been invited up to their place for Christmas: ‘And you know what little Miss Hollywood ate? Steamed brown rice for Christmas dinner!’
Aria parks, opening her door to the chill and smell of wood smoke. She looks up to the crouching two-story bulk – solid, hunkered down against the elements. There’s little more than a breeze tonight. Bedroom lights are visible from the back. She takes out her brown paper bag of groceries, emblazoned with ‘Better Way Of Living,’ the same logo as is plastered on the rear bumper of her little blue Saab. Pausing with one foot on the stone step, she puts her hand up between her legs to adjust the ridiculous black filigree gusset.
Steamed Brown Rice for Christmas dinner, a shake of her head loosens her blond extensions. She heaves the bag of organic goodies higher on her hip. Apparently, Miss Hollywood collapsed a few days later in the corner shop at Loch Gilphead. The old biddy came from behind the cash register and tried to rouse her with a Mars bar. ‘Ya need a wee bit ta eat. Ya too skinny,’ she had said, according to gossip at least.
The door is unlocked. Aria calls, ‘Hey baby!’ all bright, breezy and Californian. The lofty space is silent, barely lit in the flickering apricot glow of the fire. ‘Hey?’ she calls again, with a little less gusto, up toward the galleried bedrooms and cocks her head, listening. They’ve only been dating a few months. The ground is still a little uncertain. This is make or break.
‘I’ve been worried, haven’t heard hide nor hair of you in days,’ she says, possibly to no one, turning on lamps as she crosses the room. Not a word, nothing on Facebook, no ‘likes’ on her Instagram, no repartee on her Twitter, no replies to texts. Perhaps not that surprising. Her heart bumps down, her smile faltering at the returning silence. Phin is handsome, from a good family, and is a moderately successful writer. Forty-something and single, as far as she knows. He may be a Virgo and so a little bit unreliable, but her Taurus counters that. He’s a keeper, even if he doesn’t know it. Wheels are in motion.
She pulls a face and stops still – listening, wincing with a sudden pang of fear that she might hear a woman’s voice. The fire in the grate is little more than embers.
‘Hey!’ comes Phin’s voice from one of the bedrooms, sounding pleased. Aria’s smile is all veneers. Her kitten heels clip-clop across the floor, into the open plan kitchen. His voice comes again, a little less …sleepy? ‘Hey babe, I was flat out.’ She can’t see him from the kitchen, but his voice is clearer, so the bedroom door must be open. The wood above her creaks to his tread.
‘I was worried about you,’ she says, reminding herself – don’t nag, don’t smother.
‘Oh, Aria. I’ve missed you this week. I’ve been under the weather.’
‘You poor thing,’ she says loudly into the fridge, stacking wine and organic steaks, then turning to say, ‘Nothing too serious?’
She smoked a joint ten miles back at the gas station when she changed her clothes. Beneath the Burberry coat, she’s concealing a rig of box-fresh, black lingerie: stockings and a lace fringed corset. She closes the fridge. He’s at the bottom of the stairs now, in T-shirt and boxer shorts, yawning. His bed-head hair is all over the place. Aria would be annoyed at this informality if he wasn’t so damned handsome. Even more so in this unshaven insouciance. She holds up the bottle of wine, announcing, ‘No added sulphites! So few wines actually are chem-free. What happened to your elbow?’ she asks, noticing the bandage, then turning to find glasses.
He has crossed the room and is wrapping his arms around her. Aria turns. He kisses her smile. Her hands are awkwardly occupied with the empty wine glasses.
‘I missed you,’ he says through his flurry of kisses.
She tells him she missed him too, eventually pushing back to unscrew the wine and slop it into glasses. She’ll soon be tipsy and stoned, but it’s all organic, Fairtrade and sustainable. Phin lifts a hand to smooth back his more-salt-than-pepper hair.
‘What happened?’ she asks, stroking the gauzy texture of his bandaged forearm. Her brow furrows – as much as it can.
His lips touch her face. He smells unwashed, but not unpleasantly so. She breathes in that familiar scent of his skin, his scalp.
‘What happened?’ she repeats, whispering into his hair.
‘It’s a bit of a mood dampener.’ Phin slides her belt open, fingers pausing at the rigidity of the corset. He steps back enough to look down and admire, then up, gazing into her eyes to share without words his smiling delight that she’s dressed for him. Her hard, realistic breasts are barely contained by the flimsy nylon, pushed up, presented, spilling over.
‘Aria,’ he beams.
‘Are you sure you’re up to it Papi,’ she asks, in a baby voice, nuzzling closer again. ‘Can you feel your fingers?’ Her words are little more than breath to his cheek.
He growls as he grabs and squeezes two fistfuls of her bare buttocks, making her gasp.
‘Then we’re good to go,’ she says as his open mouth meets hers, and she pushes her tongue to his. For Aria, one of the things about being stoned is that she’s very uninhibited and acrobatic sexually, but conversation gets a bit tricky and stilted. ‘My poorly boy is gonna feel so so good so very soon,’ she says, her lips brushing his lips. ‘Nurse Aria knows best.’
‘How do I get this off?’ he asks, kissing, grinning, fumbling at the back of the corset.
‘Too tricky.’ Sinking to her knees, dragging down his boxer shorts, she says, ‘Leave it on,’ to the rigid cock in her hand and opens her Deep-Rose-Sheen coloured lips. Wide.
Later in his darkened bedroom, on the floor – they didn’t make it to the bed – she asks, ‘So, what happened?’ He had pulled away and winced when she touched the injured arm. ‘Is it super-sore? What did you do?’
‘I was bitten.’ He drains his wine glass and clambers up onto the unmade bed.
‘A snake?’ she asks, eyebrows raised, just a nudge.
He shakes his head, still swallowing the last of his wine, reaching down to put the glass on the carpet.
‘By what?’ She joins him, sitting at the edge of the bed.
He crawls back up into the pillows. ‘I was out jogging a couple of nights ago. You know the limestone path up and over the hill?’
She says, ‘yes’ because it’s quicker than having him explain the locale.
‘Well, I’d forgotten about the hour going forward, and suddenly it’s getting dark, and I’m heading down the other side into the little patches of trees. I’m halfway along my 10K, and it’s pretty damn dark, and …’ He slaps his hands to his bare thighs; a story is coming. ‘I had my earbuds in and was running along then a song ended, and I could hear something, and it was pretty fucking dark. It took me a second of standing still to realise it was someone running, very close by.’
‘Oh my God,’ Aria’s horror has been building. She slaps her hands to her throat. ‘OMG.’
‘I nearly shat myself. I just ran. Just fucking sprinted.’ He snorts a laugh, and my iPod is playing ‘Xanadu’ for some reason. I didn’t have the split second it’d take to turn it off. I’m pelting along to Olivia Newton-John; heart banging. Just running ‘til my lungs were fit to burst, well until ‘Xanadu’ had finished. Then I stopped and looked back, and I thought, hey, calm down, they have boars and sheep and shit here. So I’m jogging, with the music off, keeping an eye out, heart still banging. I picked up a bit of fence post as I went, just in case. By then, I was back over the ridge, so there was just a little sunset left on that side, and I thought I could see it in the distance, like a cow or something or a big dog. Then it’s up ahead of me again, but not coming too close.’
‘It sounds like, you know like… what’s the word…agile. Like – very fast. It sounds – ’, She’s not sure if she should alarm him. ‘It sounds like it was hunting you.’ But he’s talking over her.
‘And then as I came up to the hedge, it was just there, part of the shadows, part of the hedge, and it kinda fell out at me, shoved me over and was on top of me.’
It was that old bastard’s dog,’ she says, adamant, but Phin looks blank, so she elaborates. ‘Him!’ She points outside and down, ‘That old bastard down the hill. Must be. He’s the only one with a dog.’
‘You mean Ralph? Ralph’s dog?’ Phin says incredulously.
‘Yeah, Ralph’s big, crazy dog. Oh, you poor thing.’
‘No. No. No.’ Phin wags a finger, dismissing her. ‘Ralph’s dog was there when I got back, all tied up.’ With a one-second pause, he pulls a face and says, ‘And anyway, I killed it. The one that bit me.’
Aria pulls a rictus grin. ‘Oh my God, that’s just awful.’
‘Aria, honey. I know you’re a big dog lover, and I know about Scrappy back in LA – ‘
‘Oh, just the thought of his face at the airport!’ She puts a hand to her chest, biting her bottom lip, picturing her Labradoodle.
‘But it was really big. I had to. I stuck it with the bit of fence post.’ His fist makes a dull thud to his chest.
They’re quiet for a minute. She’s finished her glass of wine and is feeling pleasantly blasted. ‘The poor creature,’ she says, hoping she’s not over or under-reacting. Hard to gauge sometimes.
‘I really had to,’ Phin says,
‘I didn’t see Ralph’s dog as I passed his house just now. And it’s usually jumping at the fence and going crazy as soon as it sees the car. Are you sure it wasn’t… ?’
Phin’s not quite listening. His grave expression is enough to stall her.
‘Well, the thing is – the weird thing is that when I saw it in the hedge, it was really just shadow, and I was quite dazed after. I did fall …so… I’m not certain. I might’ve banged my head, but…’ He is quiet, thinking.
She leans into his silence, about to prompt him with, ‘what’?’
‘I’m not sure if it leapt out at me, from a funny angle, or… Well… I think it was standing. On its hind legs.’ The words must sound strange to him because he snorts, something like a laugh, and closes his eyes, making a slow shake of his head.
‘On its back legs?’ Aria cups her bare shoulders as a chill thrums through her. ‘There was a similar thing back in L.A. They think a mountain lion was attacking joggers up in the hills above Mullholand. I think it attacked Morgan Fairchild’s agent.’ Aria bites and releases her lip, staring at the ceiling. She’s quiet for a minute until her mind rounds on an earlier thought. ‘Do they have mountain lions here?’ Then a pause as her bare arms turn to goose flesh. She pulls a face and asks, ‘It wasn’t a person, was it?’
‘No. It’s still there, I think, on the verge.’ He hooks a hitchhiker-thumb over his shoulder. ‘Back over the hill. It must be dead. Definitely a dog. A great big dog.’
‘Well, Ralph’s dog ain’t there now.’ Aria makes wide eyes, challenging.
‘I told you – Ralph’s dog was there when I got home. Crying and whining as I walked past.’
‘That dog is super crazy,’ she says, curling her blonde hair behind her ears, watching her reflection in the wardrobe doors, as moments earlier she’d watched Phin fucking her, down on all fours.
‘Did you hate it when you killed it?’ she asks dreamily.
He thinks for a second, inhales and says, ‘No, I had to, I really did. And you know – a dog’s gotta bite. It’s their nature. It is nature.’ He shrugs.
She’s glad she chose him and tells him that he’s brave and beautiful but pauses and does not say she loves him. Yet. As she is kissing the bandage, she asks if she can see the wound.
‘It’s very wrapped up. Do you have any medical knowledge?’ Phin’s tone is a little disparaging but not unkind.
Aria shakes her head, gets off the bed, tugs the bra back into place, adjusting the corset that has remained on throughout and steps into the incredibly uncomfortable panties. She hasn’t had her money’s worth from them yet.
When Phin speaks, his voice is so soft that she has to ask him to repeat.
‘I said, it was quite beautiful, black, very sleek.’ By his eyes, she can tell he’s back there, seeing it. ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was a panther. And FYI we don’t have them either.’
‘Wow, sounds lovely.’ She’s wondering how she looks silhouetted in the moonlight. ‘Sounds sexy.’
Phinn smiles, crossing his arms over his not insubstantial chest and asks, ‘Are you stoned?
She gives a playful, non-committal shrug of her slender shoulders.
‘Did you bring some?’
‘There might be some in the car. But for the moment – more wine?’ He nods and is still watching her as she glances back from the door.
From the window downstairs, she can see Ralph’s house; a pale smudge of 1960s bungalow, a home for a labourer, leftover from when the place was a working farm. Phin should tell him to tidy up that mess of a garden. The windows are dark, no lights on inside. Hard to tell if the dog’s roaming, circling its metal stake or just asleep in its kennel. She opens the fridge, sniffs the raw steaks, fills the glasses and locks the front door. On her way back, she stops at the arrangement of sofa-and-two-easy-chairs, reminding herself to rearrange them in the morning. She is Feng shui’ing the place by stealth. This main room needs curved backs, not hard edges, and the flowing lines of the two-seater sofa will be much more intimate as they sit toasting their toes at the fire. She makes her way back upstairs, setting off creaks with each step.
‘I’m pretty sure that old bastard’s dog’s not there,’ Aria says, sitting back down on the bed, careful of the wine glasses she is balancing. ‘Bit of a coincidence.’
But Phin’s onto a different topic. ‘I called you when I was walking back. After I was bitten.’
‘Aww, baby, that’s so sweet. I was the first person you thought of.’ Her brow creases, a weird corrugation against the Botox. Her plump pucker leans in to kiss his wine-wet lips. ‘You sweet man.’
‘I couldn’t get hold of you. Your phone just rang to voicemail.’
‘Monday?’ she says thoughtfully, ignoring his vaguely accusatory tone. ‘Oh yeah, I was with a client.’
‘Spirituality and health ain’t gonna wait, and I’m kinda desperate for clients.’ The healthy living ethos had gone down well in California, but not so much amongst the women of Glasgow. She’s been in the UK for six months and had wondered if she’d last the year. Until she met Phin. She longs for cosy nights in, but he loves these people, and not just in a quaint touristic way. He actually searches them out. She’s only been out drinking with him twice, down at Tarbert Harbour. It was awful. All those fat, alcoholic locals. All that smoking outside the pub; like watching people self-harm. She’d not understood a word all night. Just sat and smiled so hard her fillers hurt. By the end of the leering, lairy, blaring night, the only word she could pick out was ‘cunts’ – stupid cunts, ugly cunts, thieving cunts. Though she would never ever say it aloud – these people are beneath her. She’s yet to be introduced to any of the posh London chums. She drains her wine glass.
But oh, this landscape: the emptiness, mile upon mile to roam, no sound but the lazy, restless sea on the rocks. The lush green, moss-garlanded trees. The virgin forest. So unlike the barren scrub up past Mullholland and Benedict Canyon. This new start needs to work. Aria has fallen in love. She zones back into Phin.
He asks, ‘Are we exclusive?’ with a mildly pained expression.
‘I’m exclusive. Are you?’ This is nearly true on her part, she has a few irons in the fire, but Phin is the one in which she has invested. His jealousy is arousing.
His awkward expression gives way to a grin, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. I want this to be serious. I want to… well, I don’t know. But I do want… more.’
‘Then we’re exclusive.’ She kisses him. Her long hair catching in his stubble as her lips slide close to his ear. ‘But you don’t have to sweet-talk me.’
She whispers over his protestation of, ‘It’s not just sweet talk. I mean it.’
‘Because I’m gonna let you do anything you like to me tonight,’ she kisses him, smirks lasciviously, steps up from the bed and wanders to the view of the moonlit landscape. Her muscular, worked buttocks give just the slightest jiggle, a ripe, firm ripple with every step. There are a few ‘walking away’ videos on her phone to test the effect. The whole rig looks smokin’ hot from the back too.
Phin says, ‘There’s a whirlpool out there, in the bay. George Orwell was very nearly drowned in it.’
Aria does not turn to his voice, ‘Oh, the poor man. Is he okay?’ She’s too distracted to wonder why he is laughing as he assures her, ‘Yeah, he’s fine.’
‘Ralph’s not in,’ she says, squinting. ‘His lights are out.’
‘I think his sister took him out for the day.’
‘With the big ugly dog? Oh yuk. Imagine the state of her car.’
Phin shrugs. He’s very pale in the moonlight, propped up against the pillows, his glistening dick lolling between his open legs.
‘It was actually one of the Charlie’s Angels agents who was bitten by the mountain lion,’ Aria says, distracted, gazing out to the distant black and silvered waters. She inhales. ‘L.A. was too crazy. After the lion attacking joggers, there was this guy, The Pasadena Cannibal. OMG! Slicing people up. Was he in the papers over here? They found the guy, in the end, burned up in a dumpster. Suicide they think. That’s when I knew I had to get out. Too many crazies. I mean – I’m a night bird. I never felt safe. Did I tell you about my friend, Brandi? She dated him.’ Her voice is becoming distant, distracted, as she’s focusing back on the view. ‘He wasn’t even from Pasadena. They think he must’ve been on angel dust. So many cray-crays. The only non-organic thing in my handbag is pepper spray.’ Aria makes a defiant nod, peering through her reflection. From this angle, leaning with her forehead to the glass, through the dissipating steam of her breath, she realises she can see into Ralph’s bungalow.
‘Ralph’s TV’s on,’ she says and turns back to the bed.
Phin is quiet for a moment but manages to summon, ‘Well, I’m sure he’s fine – ’
Her mouth is an ‘O’ of faux outrage. ‘OMG. Phinley Hamilton, you are soooo London. If you were Scottish, you’d be out there now, totally checking on him. Making him broth or whatever shit these people eat… He’s an old, retired guy.’
Phin smiles, making a snort of laughter and beckons her back to the bed. ‘I was laid up until you came. Kinda feverish. Hot and cold,’ he almost whines.
‘You, poor baby,’ she coos. ‘Have you had all your shots? Rabies and stuff?’
‘There’s no rabies here.’
‘Well, there was no COVID in China – ’ she makes wide eyes ‘ – until someone got Covid.’ The mattress gives a little as she sits back down.
‘You’re very wise.’ His smiling lips brush her cheek.
‘Did you call a doctor for the fever?’
‘No. I didn’t feel bad.’ He tweaks her chafed nipples through the gauzy material of the bra. ‘I felt rather good. Like I was purging something.’
‘Like free radicals. Anti-oxidants like pomegranate juice are amazing for that. They… ’ She stalls mid-sentence, biting her lip as her stubble-grazed nipples stiffen to his touch.
Eventually, she asks, a little breathless, ‘So are you not gonna check on poor old Ralph, your seventy-year-old disabled neighbour?’ Indignant but smiling.
‘I’ll phone him.’
Her wide, blue eyes roll. ‘What happens when he doesn’t answer? It’s a hundred yards away.’ In her mind, the poor old soul is on his back, on the carpet, his outstretched fingers scrabbling without moving, trying to touch the phone that is just out of reach.
Phin insists that he’ll go and check.
But she’s up, gently pushing him back. ‘Not if you’ve had a fever. It’s temperature spikes that wake up the germs. Stay put.’
‘I’m not gonna let a woman go out in the dark – ’
‘Phin honey, I was brought up in Burbank. And it’s not like we’re in, like, olden times. Please allow me to walk one hundred yards and back.’ She cocks her head, daring him to challenge her, and is a little disappointed at his silence.
There are second and third thoughts when she gets downstairs and realises she only has the two-inch heels and the Burberry coat. Cinching the belt tight, she pulls open the door. It gives a sucking release sound, inviting a draught of chill. Cautiously crossing the decking, leaving the spill of the house lights, her pupils quickly open to the darkness. With her last glance back, she sees that Phin has followed her down and is at the window, little more than a naked silhouette in the buttery glow of lamplight. Watching her. She wiggles a toodle-ooh wave of her fingers and starts down the steps.
Ralph’s house is a short walk back along the track. There’s no smoke drifting from his chimney. The big stupid dog would be barking by now, up on its back legs, anchored by the chain. She presses the clattering thumb latch, and Ralph’s flimsy picket gate swings open. There should be canine eyes shining somewhere in the darkness of the garden. Her hackles bristle. Each step is measured, not quite tiptoe, just balls of her feet, rather than the clack of the heel. Tensed, she’s anticipating a slow, prowling approach. But for the sibilant breeze through the winter-bare branches of Ralph’s apple trees, the darkness is utterly silent.
Stepping off the path into the flower bed, drawing closer to the uncurtained window, she bends, squinting to the glass. The TV is on – local news, a faint murmur of the reporter’s voice through the double-glazing. The screen shows slumped heaps in a field. As the camera closes in, they become recognisable as cows, clearly dead.
In front of the TV set is a shape, lying down. A human form, maybe. The tip of Aria’s nose touches the cold glass. She’s trying to understand. Ralph, it seems, is on the floor, face-up, eyes staring, lit by the flicker of the light from the television. The face and chest are largely intact, but below the smashed rib cage is –
The gasp is caught in her throat. Her trembling breath fogs the glass. Wide-eyed, recoiling, covering her mouth, her heels are awkward in the loose earth, staggering back onto the path and further. Until she realises she’s well within reach of the dog. But nothing comes for her. Her gaping pupils become reaccustomed to the moonlight.
Walk fast, walk steady, don’t run.
The trailing length of chain on the lawn is motionless, looped wide around her feet, The dog’s chain. She keeps walking. The hairy mound onto which she stumbles can only be Ralph’s great big dog. Her knees hit the carcass. The heels of her palms splat to the damp ground. She is straddling the glistening, ruined mound of fur and gore. For a few seconds, she doesn’t even stand, letting the night settle around her, waiting for approaching footsteps. Nothing comes. The raw, torn meat is inches from her nose. She stands quickly, awkwardly, pushing herself up and back, not wanting to sink her hands into the mess. Normal movement is constricted by the tight bodice. Backing across the lawn, her eyes skitter to every shadow, to the rustle of a leaf in the quickening breath of wind.
Then she’s kicking stones, scuffling her heels up the limestone drive. Phin is waiting, a silhouette against the sky, naked, stepping from the decking, down into the darkness. But she can see him, can see the way the moonlight reflects at the back of his retina, like a dog’s eyes.
‘You can stay away from me,’ she says, angry, trembling, but not afraid.
By the time Phin reaches the bottom of the stone steps, he is on all fours.
‘You ate that rancid old bastard and his dirty dog,’ she shouts, shrugging the Burberry from her shoulders, unhooking the corset, opening the stifling material to the cold. It’s too dark for a human being to make out, but Phin will see, and this is the easiest way to explain. She kneels at his height, stroking the scar just below her ribcage, still ragged and bloody, but a miraculous recovery for a mere four days of healing. Keeping him at bay with an outstretched hand, her flexed fingers curl down to one rigid finger. Phin growls, baring his teeth, not quite animal, still reasoning as a man.
‘Turning faster than I thought,’ she says, largely to herself. The timing is not an absolute science, but then, it’s not really science at all.
Phin’s low growl stops, caught in his throat. His hot breath steams at his muzzle. He has much to learn, obedience first. And there’s a can of gasoline in the car if this one plays up.
‘Calm your heels, boy, I’m stronger than you,’ Aria says, curling her windswept hair behind her ears.
Author Richard Daniels (‘Occultaria of Albion’) presents ‘an entertaining and occasionally terrifying journey into an alternate realm filled with strange conspiracies, ghosts, UFOs and more’ at Louth Town Hall on 23 September…
Pre-orders are now open for Death Lines: Walking London’s Horror History by Lauren Jane Barnett