John McAvoy is in his third year of an English degree at UWA, majoring in Creative Writing. His previous works have been published in Wet Ink and Indigo.
It had been raining that day, he remembered. The sun beat down on the pavement and heated the pooling water into a fine mist. A cool breeze stirred the rising vapour around his feet, swirling it this way and that, like stepping through clouds. The sunlight warmed the leaden air and refracted colours back as he walked. It was a beautiful day, a day of beginnings, of old rain and new light, a day to remember. But for all that, it was the sound that Jake would never forget.
Other memories bubbled to the surface, bound by a kinship of feeling… eating in an Argentinean steakhouse, the fillets three inches thick. The chef tenderising them with a serrated wooden mallet - the hard, wet slap of the wood beating on raw flesh echoing out of the kitchen; a sad rhythm of brutal finality.
That was the sound the dog made when the car slammed into it on the empty road on that beautiful day. He watched it fly through the air, landing hard and sticking fast to the concrete, like a loose sack of over-ripe fruit. The car swerved to the right, mounting the pavement and revving the wheels over the still form. The crunch of bones, the spray of the rear wheels biting into something soft; those were the sights and smells that stayed with him.
Winston. He had never been a very bright dog, but he was loyal and loving. And he had been a gift - from Angel.
“I have to warn you,” Angel said, grinning up at him. “I’m hooked on the first six months.”
“What do you mean?” He asked, holding this strange, fragile girl in his arms.
“The first six months, you know, when you’re first getting to know each other and everything is new and different and you can’t tell if it’s going to last another hour, another day. I love it.”
He smiled, uncertain if she were joking.
Angel blew into Jake’s life like a small, dark-haired hurricane. Upsetting habits and routines and attitudes and everything else he had built up within and around him. She called his existence a form of death: narrowing life down by constraints to the point where only one path, the safest path, was available to follow. A part of him must have agreed with her, because he didn’t interfere when she tore those constraints down.
Her smile had a life of its own. The corners of her mouth flitted between sadness and joy like the wings of a butterfly. In her eyes he saw something wild and untamed, a skittish animal that had lived too long in a world of hunters; so vulnerable, it made his heart ache. He didn’t realize, at the time, that some people create their own predators. All he saw was someone who lived in the moment; spontaneous and unpredictable, she was capable of extravagant acts with little thought of consequences. Winston had been one such occasion.
“You need a dog,” she said, “so I got you one.”
A bulldog sat placidly on his doorstep, a large yellow bow around its neck.
“I live in an apartment,” He protested. “They don’t allow pets.”
Her forehead creased in what he had come to know as the ‘don’t be silly’ frown. And so he became a dog owner.
A week later, she moved in. Arriving with surprisingly little, she set up house with chaotic cheerfulness. Colourful oddities started to spring up in his apartment with each passing week. Flowers in the bathroom, a stained glass thing that seemed to have no practical function in his living room. The greatest surprise of all was that he didn’t mind. Changes in his apartment were matched by changes in his life.
Angel loved to party. For her, moving from pub to nightclub was as easy as following a well-worn hunting trail. But most of all she liked to gamble. Blackjack was her game and she would stare for long hours with limpid eyes as each brightly coloured card flipped over on the soft, green felt. It wasn’t the winning or the losing she loved, it was the moment of unknowing. She was always at her happiest just before the cards were turned. When the cards lay there on the table, all their mystery and promise stripped away, a slight dip in her small shoulders was all that betrayed her disappointment.
It was on a Sunday morning like any other that she refused to get out of bed.
“Come on baby, you’ll be late for work,” he said, putting her cup of tea on the bedside table.
“Not going,” came the muffled reply from beneath the bedclothes. He reached out and touched her arm. She flinched and threw his hand off.
Silence. After a while, he heard the sound of her breathing.
“Maybe you should have some tea?”
“It’s cold,” she said, sitting up. “It’s always fucking cold.”The skin of her face was pulled tight. Her hands were shaking. “Why do you do that? You do it every time - make my tea, go to the toilet for ten minutes then come back and put the fucking milk in? Do you think I like cold fucking tea?” She reached out, grabbed the cup, and threw it against the wall.
He backed away, out of the bedroom, leaving her shaking and crying in the bed.
Arriving home that evening he found her mood had completely changed. She wanted to go out for a drink and tried to convince him to join her. When he replied that he was tired, an argument ensued that lasted all night.
“I have a chemical imbalance,” she said, “in my brain. You have to treat it like a disease.”
“But how do I know where you end and the disease begins?” He asked.
“You don’t,” she replied, an unspoken plea beneath her veiled eyes.
He went to her then, holding her in his arms. But in his heart he felt a cool breeze, a premonition of winter on a warm day.
Jake had always imagined a relationship as a kind of landscape. In this imaginary country stood a border demarcated by a single, large sign. Daubed in simple red lettering was the sentence: beyond this point lie the words that kill love. Angel seemed to have no such border, or if she did, she crossed it with barely a glance at the sign. Love, like a coward, died a thousand small deaths, one argument at a time. Each fight blossomed larger than the last and roamed spitefully without limits. Each reconciliation contained the bitter aftertaste of un-avenged wrongs. The scale on which love had once weighed so heavily, slowly became balanced, and finally tipped to the other side.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“Wherever I want. You don’t own me, you know.”
“So what’s with the skirt? Looking to pull tonight?”
Her smile never reached her eyes. “If I do, we’ll try not to wake you up.”
“Knock yourself out - just make sure he leaves the money on the fridge.” He laughed, but it sounded more like a dog barking. She was at the door. He had his back turned, so he never saw the hit when it came, long nails raking down the side of his cheek, gathering skin and blood.
He jumped up from the couch, grabbed her by the throat and slammed her against the door. The punch landed almost before the thought entered his head. At the last moment, his fingers unclenched, and he struck her with the palm of his hand.
Her lip split open like a ripe pomegranate, blood spurting across his shirt and down her blouse. She sank to the floor, tears sliding down her cheeks - but she wasn’t crying. She was laughing.
"You fucking prick. How am I supposed to pull now?” she asked, still laughing, eyes smiling. Her legs were sprawled apart, her skirt hitched up to her hips. She watched his eyes traversing her thighs. Leaning forward, she opened her mouth and let her tongue snake out over her bottom lip. Her mouth just inches from his groin, she changed direction and smeared the blood from her lips down the inside of his leg.
“Guess I’m staying home tonight,” she said, pulling him down on top of her. Still shaking, still lost, he followed her, taking her roughly on the floor, against the wall, draped over the couch. They were still fighting, but he was no longer using his fists.
Jake wasn’t sure when he made the decision. He felt that it had been born some time ago, deep down in that unknowable part of him, and only now bubbled up to the surface of his mind, fully formed and resolute. It was a choice felt rather than thought, and although he would later analyse what led to the decision, he was aware that it emerged from the irrational swirling soup at his core. Later, he would make himself think that hitting Angel had been the tipping point, the act that had so disgusted him that he simply had to do something. But it was a lie, a painting over of a canvas already dry. In truth, it was on a day like any other, when nothing much happened, that quite suddenly it was all over.
He told her in the morning. He was taking the dog for a walk, he said, his eyes detached and staring at a fixed point in space, and when he came back, he wanted her to be gone. She flew into a rage. There was something about rejection, even by someone she no longer loved, that was intolerable. So he took Winston and walked out the door. Give or take a few days, it was six months since they had first met.
Jake watched the car speed down the road, swerving erratically from side to side. He walked over to where Winston lay and knelt down and cradled the dog’s limp head in his lap, stroking the short fur between his muzzle and forehead. When Winston’s eyes finally turned to glass, Jake looked away and upwards at the never-ending blue of an Australian sky. Not one cloud or vapour trail broke the totality of colour. The haze of morning moisture had been burned clean away, leaving the air crisp and clear. Such a beautiful day.