"Once or Twice Upon a Time" is a home for stories longer than is usual for blogposts. Some have been previously published in hardback. These are indicated (p) along with the year of publication. Word counts (2500 etc) let you estimate how long a read will take.

July 12, 2016


(4720 words)

Havoc has slain the Marmalade Cat!”
My first  meeting with Zoe’s family has got off to a poor start.  The bringer of bad tidings is Sarah,  Zoe’s niece.  She is nine. Havoc is Zoe’s dog. The Marmalade Cat is – was  -  Sarah’s pet. It is the first time Zoe’s family has met Havoc.  Zoe is my not-quite partner.  We are not quite an item.
“The Marmalade Cat is all over the back path,” Sarah wails. No one comforts her,  not her mother,  not Zoe, who does not even look at her.
We are gathered in the kitchen of the converted farmhouse where Zoe’s sister, brother-in-law and Sarah, their daughter,  live.  Zoe’s mother and father are also here to meet me. We had driven up – Zoe and I - in my van from Leeds and had disembarked, only minutes before, with Havoc, when furious barking outside silenced the introductions, and Sarah rushed in, distraught.
 “Who left a door open?” Zoe asks, shrill and clearly angry. “Surely you know better than to leave doors open when the Hound is around.”  Still she does not apologise. No one asks Zoe why they should know better.
 Sarah glares at Zoe. “Havoc’s a horrible dog,” she says, still wailing, “and you’re a horrible auntie.”
Zoe’s reply is astonishing. “I’m your aunt, Sarah. Auntie is a silly baby word.”
The family look anywhere but at Zoe or Sarah who turns, rushes from the kitchen.  Moments later a door slams somewhere upstairs.
Havoc, down from his adrenaline high, trots into the kitchen and sprawls. His tail thumps the tiled floor. His black-lipped grin drips blood and shreds of Marmalade’s intestines.
I notice that no one remonstrates with Zoe: father, mother, sister, brother-in-law, and I wonder why. They react as if dogs slaying the family pet was just one of those things. Perhaps they are reluctant to make a scene in front of me.  I am after all the reason for this visit. I am Zoe’s  friend.  Would her family prefer her ‘young man’ or even her ‘intended’?  Zoe would love to introduce me as her fiancĂ©.  Her agenda this visit is to plant my feet under her family’s table.
 She makes one concession to the dog’s misdemeanor.  Immediately after lunch she makes excuses and we leave.  Sarah has not reappeared. The Marmalade cat is not mentioned on the journey back.
* * * *
Sixteen years later Zoe and I still send greetings at birthdays and Christmas. Is it really that long?  That’s quite a few cards when you reckon it.  Always Funnies, sometimes via Moonpig.  No flowers or balloons printed “Hi!” and certainly no dogs.  She’s heading for her Big Four Zero now, and I’m, well - older.  We advise changes of address, likewise phone numbers, landline and mobiles, though we never talk.  We don’t swap family news. We don’t talk about job prospects, career progress, that sort of thing.  We put - Regards; How’s things with you; If you’re ever in this neck of the woods; You use email? and so on, but these scrawls always side-step the uncomfortable events in our past and we never follow them up, although I sometimes think I one day will. Or she might.  Havoc demolishing the Marmalade Cat turned out to be a straw in the wind and when the storm broke we left things unfinished; actions, mine as well as hers, unexplained and unjustified. 
It’s strange, sure, but it is a relationship of sorts, even though neither knows such basic things as whether the other married, had kids.  Well, I don’t.  Maybe the grapevine has told Zoe about  the women – no names, no pack-drill – who waltzed into my life and mostly waltzed out again.  Zoe had made me wary.  She  had a sharp tongue as well as a short fuse but she never told me I was a dead loss.   Rather the opposite in fact, sixteen years ago.

* * * *
“Goodness gracious me, Collier,” she said at the conclusion of one of our irregular couplings. “You’re must rank amongst the five best sex athletes in the north of England.”  She’d uttered no sounds, nor called upon any gods during the process, but at its conclusion, fanned her face with her open hand.
“Amongst?” I said. “Is that experience talking? Or surmise?” She ignored this. 
Ask me why she always used my surname – I’m Kenneth, Ken - and I’ll tell you I don’t know. I mean I’m not sure.  An affectation, perhaps? She told me surnames were de rigeur in the up-market school where she taught English, so maybe using my surname was just habit. But Kenneth is her brother’s name – he’s older than her - and her father’s. Draw your own conclusions. Even now, after so many years, her cards come addressed to “Mr. K. Collier,” never  “Kenneth.” Something else – I never heard her speak of her Mum or Dad; always ‘my mother’ or ‘my father.’ 
At the time she had a one room flat in the Roundhay district, north Leeds.  She referred to it as her apartment.  A ground floor bedsit roughly five paces by five. The room’s wide window looked across to Roundhay Park – quite a pleasant aspect.  Off the main room was a cramped kitchen, bathroom with WC. There was rudimentary heating. Access was by a private side door that opened directly from the yard into the main room.  A yard gate opened onto the street. This gate of solid planks was tall enough to stop folk peering into the yard.
So there she lived with Havoc. He was a cross.  He had the long, pale coat of a golden retriever and the upright ears of a German shepherd – to be fair, a handsome dog. He’d come from a Rescue Centre or Dog Pound or some such and besides being handsome he was a psychopath, a homicidal maniac, an uncultured canine lout, take your pick.  The Centre warned her - if he spots another dog, or any other four-legged friend smaller than a Shetland pony - there will be no social niceties, no polite bottom-sniffing, no hail-puppy-well-met gamboling. Head down, snarling, Havoc will attack. Lord knows what treatment in early life had brought him to this pass, condemning him to restraint and incarceration. And Lord knows why Zoe wanted to rescue and control such a beast. Dogs don’t answer back, maybe?
She said “I told the Rescue Centre he needs a firm hand, that’s all. Leave him to me.”  And again, let’s be fair.  Pretty soon she was taking him walkies, always muzzled, and on a tough lead of plaited leather strands, and a choke-chain.
"He protects me, Collier,” she would say.  “And my property.  He’s my security. With little me living alone it’s woe betide intruders.  So don’t let him see you move as if you had ideas of taking advantage of me.”  This as she reclined in a low armchair, her knees spread wide, Havoc between them, head in her lap, drooling while she fondled his ears.  “One word from me,” she said, “and he’ll have your naughty bits for breakfast.”  I judged them safe: for if I did move on her, her two hands would go up in a defensive gesture and I would be ticked off about there being a time and a place for everything.  Here and now were neither, mostly.
  Throughout that Spring she had been setting her cap at me – I believe that’s the expression – with a subtlety, never very great, that diminished as the season wore on, from “Just think what we could be doing for the next thirty, forty, fifty years,” via “You really should be married, Collier, you know that?” to “I want lots of kids and lots of laughter!”
“These days lots of couples get married when the kids are old enough to be pages and bridesmaids,” I said,
“My parents would never accept such an arrangement.  They are old fashioned, a generation out of step, maybe two.”
“Most of our generation seem prepared to jump into the sack with anyone who’ll keep still long enough and who cares what the parents think.  Why are you so defensive?” 
“You want to share my bed three-sixty-five and twenty-four-seven at weekends. I know you do.  I can tell by the way you trail around after me with a permanent erection.  So - make me a proposal.  Then I can put the other fellow out of his misery. And you too in a different way, you poor hungry lad.”   
Other fellow?  This was a new one. She’d never before spoken of another fellow or mentioned his other fellow’s name.
“You like two strings to your bow, eh?  Who is he, this other fellow?”
“You don’t need to know, Collier, but be warned - he’s lurking in the undergrowth. Marry me – then I can exile him to his couch of thorns and you, darling, will be admitted to my bed of roses.”
“You mean he’s your first reserve if I don’t make an honest something of you, and vice-versa? Neither of us the favourite, it would seem? Nice to be spoiled for choice.”  She ignored this, but her tightened smile suggested I’d touched a nerve.
I did not make a proposal. Her inducements made me wary.  I suspected she thought I was simply swivel eyed with thwarted lust. Or maybe she just didn’t tolerate disobedience, being a school teacher,
“Some women have style,” she once said, standing at her full length mirror, smoothing a sheath dress over her hips, green stilletos flattering her calves. “I go one better. I’ve got oomph, don’t you think? I flutter my lashes and the lads go down like ninepins.”  If you say so, I thought.
The last time she entertained me in her bedsit-flat-apartment, the ornamental cherry trees in the park were at their best.  That would be early May, not long after the uncomfortable meeting with the family, when Havoc breakfasted off the Marmalade Cat.
* * * *
At the time I was driving from Carlisle most weekends to visit her. I would reach her place during the evening of Friday, leave late on Sunday evening.  These times in her company were entertaining, side-stepping her guile; deflecting her frontal assaults which varied from brisk but infrequent sessions under the duvet to straightforward bribes -  “You can keep your other girl friends, Collier. I wouldn’t mind. I’m relaxed about these things, you know.”
“That sounds like a nihil obstat?”  She didn’t ask what that was.  If Zoe didn’t know something she behaved as if it was not worth knowing – a bizarre attitude in a school teacher with a Master’s from the University.
The other shadow under the candle was her insistent ‘love me, love my dog.’  She argued that Havoc must have been badly treated as a puppy, maybe even trained as a fighting dog and wasn’t to blame for his criminal tendencies and so his attacks on other dogs and house pets should be excused.  I argued that I didn’t fancy taking joint responsibility for the Hound of the Baskervilles II.  Had she public liability insurance, I wanted to know.
“I’ve thought about it. “
“Get some. Before it’s too late.”
“The Rescue Centre did warn you. So far he’s been happy enough eating cats.  Who’s next?”
“My sister soon replaced Marmalade.  Anyway, they should have kept the cat shut in. They knew what Havoc was like.”
“How could they know? When he bounced out of the van it was the first time they’d set eyes on him.”
“Don’t talk to me like that, Collier. And don’t try to be clever.  Neither suits you. I’d called my sister and my mother to tell them what to expect. Lot of fuss over a cat.  You know cats are ‘free spirits’ in law?  They have no legal identity so in the circumstances my sister knew better than to make a fuss. Particularly in front of you.” 
“A dog owner could sue,” I said.
“And this dog owner will sue any dog that attacks Havoc.”  There was a smirk in this remark  that didn’t reach her face.   Zoe has to win, I thought, or thinks she does.
We were having coffee al fresco in the small paved yard – the patio, she called it – outside the flat. It was Whitsun week, her half-term break from school she said.  A breeze that couldn’t make up its mind brought cherry blossom and scattered it around. Havoc lay stretched under the table, gnawing one of its legs.   She leaned down and scratched his head.  “You hear that, Hound?  The bad man wants to put you in prison for biting the pussy cat.”
“It was kill, Zoe, not bite.  You could get a hefty fine.  And Hound would get a Destruction Order.”
“Nonsense!” She said that in that event she would tell her father to engage Counsel, reducing me to open mouthed silence when several things happened at once.  Or almost at once.
The yard gate opened and the postman came in, a short, solid chap, in his fifties, a weathered outdoors face, and on this warm Spring morning he was doing his walk in shorts.  Havoc looked up, bristled and barked.  The postman held up envelopes.
“Don’t approach me!” said Zoe. “Shut the gate.  Now!”
The door to the flat had a letter slot. The postman stepped towards the door.  “I’ll just pop them through . .”
In the same moment a schoolgirl in maroon blazer and grey skirt passed the open gate.  She had a dog, a fox terrier, brown and white, on a red training lead.  Why did I notice the colours?  The lead had enough slack to let the terrier a little way through the gate to investigate the barking, its perky head cocked.
“Gate! Now!” Zoe yelled as Havoc streaked from under the table before she could grab his collar.  On his way to the terrier’s execution, he collided with the postman’s legs. The postman dropped his bag as he staggered back. The shoulder strap tangled his ankle and he went down on hands and knees and I thought “Havoc attacks anything on four legs . .”
Havoc turned on the postman who lifted an arm to his face when the dog stood over him, an ominous growl punctuating each bark.  But the postman was a distraction.  Havoc turned back to his first quarry, the terrier.   The delay had given the girl time to scoop her little dog into her arms. I crossed the patio in three strides. I grabbed Havoc’s tail and pulled, hard.  Havoc’s barks turned to yelps but still he tried to get at the terrier, his forelegs off the ground,  scrabbling for  the other dog, now out of reach.
“Go!” I said to the girl. “I’ve got the dog.”  She mouthed something – thank you, I think, before she turned and bolted, the terrier clasped to her chest.
The postman was on his feet again.
“I saw all that,” he said.
“I told you to close the gate!”  Zoe, furious.
To me the postman said “Could have been bloodshed there, squire.”
“Didn’t you hear me tell you to close the gate?  I blame you for this.”  Zoe was shouting, her face livid.
He said nothing for two or three beats, then, “Blame on, lady. I’ve to report  incidents like this.”
“Don’t you dare!  I’ll shred you.”
“Rather you than the dog, lady. Yours, is it?  You know something?  That lassie’s home is on my walk.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“Be careful, Zo,” I said. “I rather think he is. “
“Don’t you dare side with him, Collier. Anyway, my word against his. And let go Havoc’s tail.  You’re hurting him.”  Havoc was still straining towards the gate.  I hung on.
“Not until someone shuts the gate.  There’s a dog out there and Havoc knows it.”  The postman shouldered his bag.
“A postman’s word’s nowt against a posh bird like you, eh?” he said to Zoe.  “What about your fellow here?  He saw it all.  So did the girl.”
“I don’t believe this,” said Zoe. “I told you to shut the gate. But no.  So the stupid child let her dog onto my patio through the gate you left open.  Then she let her dog annoy my dog.  No one will believe a child’s word against mine. You know I’m a teacher?”  - which, though pathetic, was a step down from asking Daddy to engage counsel.
The postman spoke only to me. “I can’t speak for the attack-dog, squire, but sounds like you’ve a right bitch to cope with here.”
Now Zoe blazed.  “Take your insolence off my patio! At once!”
The postman had recovered from his fright. “Patio’s not yours, lady,” he said.  “You rent it from a nice old chap called Cohen, a real gentleman.  Just up the road. He’s on my walk too.  Does he know one of his tenants keeps a wild animal?  You’ll have heard of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.  Protects  schoolkids and your friendly neighbourhood postman.” He handed her the letters.
It struck me Zoe wasn’t used to being spoken to like this.  It also struck me that she sensed shallow waters ahead, very shallow indeed.  She said nothing more, took the offered letters without looking at them, or him.
I shifted my grip from Havoc’s tail to his collar as the postman withdrew,  edging past the dog, closing the gate behind him. 
We went into the flat and surprisingly she opened a bottle of white and sat on the edge of the bed and patted the duvet for me to join her.  This was so unlike her there had to be a hidden agenda.
“What shall I do with my time off?” she said,  an unexpected even surreal gambit.
“Don’t you think we should talk  about, er, what just happened?”
“No. That’s boring.  These things blow over.”
“I see why you call him Havoc. It suits the hound better than it suited Julius Caesar.”
“ ‘Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war’  Quote from Julius Caesar.”
“Exactly,” she said.  “That’s why I gave him his name. But I think you’ll find the line is from Henry the Fifth’s soliloquy before Agincourt, not Julius Caesar.”
“No. Henry’s dogs are ‘greyhounds straining in the slips.’ ”  I should have known better.  She stood up, whirled to face me, nostrils flaring, shouting.
“How dare you? How dare you pretend to a deeper knowledge of Shakespeare than  . .”
“An English teacher?  Sorry I spoke. Many a slip forgive the pun twixt cup and lip,”  A growl from Havoc and I held up my hands in apology.
 ‘I should think so.”  She sat down again, mollified. “Now – if there should be any trouble from the dimwit and her pathetic dog - just you remember to stick to my version of events.” 
She rested her hand on my thigh. “You’ll do that for me, if the need arises, won’t you, Collier?”  Her other hand, fingers round the stem of her glass, was shaking and she drank in small,  rapid sips.
 “What do you think the other fellow would do?” I said  “Would he – what did you say – stick to your version of events when the police come round to ask Havoc to assist them with their enquiries?” 
She bridled again. “If you want to go down that road, I’ll share my holiday plans with the other fellow instead.  He’s Danny, by the way.  You did ask.”   It was obvious. It was crude.  And she was scared.  Well, no way out but forward.
“Holiday plans?  They would be the plans you were just getting round to telling me about when the postman burst in on us?”
“Yes, now you mention it, yes.  I was going to suggest you take me to Carlisle with you for the rest of the week.”
“Would that include Havoc?”
I couldn’t resist it.  “And Danny?”
“Danny,” she said, glancing at me. “Who’s . . ?” She checked herself. “Of course not.  I’ll have to tell him.  So he’ll know not to call mid-week when you’re not here.”
“Ah, right. See it. Danny will have to make do with one of his other girl friends while the star attraction, the Lady with the Oomph, is away with her other fellow.”
Her sideways look told me she wasn’t sure I was pulling her leg.  I went on before she could say anything. 
“So what will you do in Carlisle all week while I’m at work.”
“Can’t you take time off to be with me?”
I made ‘maybe’ gestures.  “And if I can’t, you could tramp the Lakeland fells and train Havoc to kill sheep.” I laughed, patted the hand on my thigh.  “Woof!” 
“That’s more like the Collier I know and love,” she said.  “Let’s make a start then.”   Before the blue lights and sirens surround you, I thought.  Oh, Zoe, Zoe.
She bundled underwear, tops and jeans haphazardly into a hold-all, followed by items of make-up, hair brush, mobile, coin purse and such like. Tins of dog food and an opened bag of dog biscuits went into a cardboard box, all this done in under five minutes.  The week-end bag I’d brought had hardly been opened.  She stowed it with her own stuff, the dog food and Havoc, in the back of the van, parked on the street.
“Get in.  I’ll lock up.”   While she did this I googled the quote. Julius Caesar! Yay! But I wasn’t intending to resume the Shakespeare tutorial. In another half minute she was buckling herself into the passenger seat.  “Right! Let’s hit the road.”  So we set off, and as we drove north I wondered whether the postman had finished his round; what the girl walking her little dog had told her parents; how long would it be before the police got to her landlord, Mr. Cohen; how long before they had her landline and mobile phone records and found me in her directories.  I let a good few miles pass - Harrogate, Ripon, heading for the A66 - before I suggested she should maybe have brought her lap-top with my email address, and Danny’s.  Then I paused before -
     “Did you call him, by the way, Danny?  You were going to.”  This time she was answer-ready.
     “Jealous, are we, Collier? I didn’t call. Let him sweat wondering where I am.’’  O.K. I thought, so she never gives up.
We left the A66 for Barnard Castle, then up through Teesdale, past High Force, over the Penines, and down into Alston, Brampton – a magic drive on a fine spring afternoon - and to my shame I was hugging myself, wondering whether the police would get to my flat in Carlisle even before I delivered the fugitive.

* * * *
As it turned out, nothing happened.  No blue and yellow cars screeched to a stop outside. All week no calls came asking me would I mind loping down to the station to bark answers to a few questions.  So the week went by and the weather stayed fine and I did take some due holiday and Zoe relaxed, but Havoc’s attack still weighed on her, I could tell because her ‘Marry Me, Why Don’t You?’ campaign seemed to be on hold. 
On the Thursday evening, the day before we’d planned to go back to Leeds, I said “You won’t mind, Zoe, I’m sure.  Thursday.  My night for Polly.”
We were slumming with pizzas and Coke in front of the TV. She stiffened. She rose. She stood over me.  She harangued me using the same shrill tones that told the postman to get off her patio, that told her family the Marmalade cat should have been shut in, that argued about Shakespeare, that told me not to be clever, it didn’t suit me.  Of course she hadn’t really meant I could keep my girlfriends, of course not.  And what sort of a tatty little tart was this Polly anyway?  “Some shop girl or bank cashier, I suppose?” she shrieked.  “Hardly a good swap for an English teacher in a fee-paying Girls School.”
“You mean I can keep my girl friends as long as there are no English teachers watching?”
Her fists clenched but any reply was cut short by Havoc. He sensed her anger, looked interested, growled, a low rumble in his throat.  I held up both hands in surrender. “Okay, okay!  Polly will have to make do with her other fellow for once.”  If Zoe noticed this jab she didn’t show it.
“Let me just call her.”  I scrolled my mobile screen and called my desk number at work.  It rang out, of course, then went to voicemail.  “Oh, hi, Pol,” I said. “Look, love, can’t make it this week.  Held up in the deep south.  Call you again when I’m back.  Take care. Kiss kiss.”  I thumbed my phone off. All’s fair in love and in the war that love can turn into.
“Happy now?” I asked Zoe.
 “Don’t imagine you get to sleep with me just because it’s our last night here.”  She stalked out. Havoc stirred himself, got to his feet and padded after her.

* * * *
We didn’t say much on the way back, or when we got to her flat, late Friday afternoon. No ominous notes through the door – just letters delivered during the week. She picked them up, put them on a small side table where she kept her landline phone along with the ones the postman had brought the previous week. It seemed the Havoc incident had blown over but while she made tea I read the envelopes looking for summonses, eviction notices, whatever.  Two of the envelopes – brown manilla - were from the Department of Work and Pensions in Belfast, and another from the Council’s Housing Benefits office. I left them on the table. I sat down as she came from the kitchen with tea in mugs.  Mugs! Mugged!  I was being mugged by a Lady with Oomph who couldn’t remember her own lies.  OK, time for a little test.
“Lovely,” I said. “Builders tea.  Then I’ll be going.”
“So soon?  I had plans for us for the evening.”
 “But you’ll be wanting to get ready for school starting.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“School. Starts Monday, no? Back to the grind. Chocolate digestives in the staff room. Piles of marking.  Refereeing hockey matches. Standing in for colleagues on sick leave.”
“What? Oh!  Yes. That’s right. Monday.” For once she couldn’t look me in the eye while she made her life up on the hoof.
“Well, enjoy Day One, Zo. And don’t get Henry and Julius mixed up. Children’s futures could be at stake.”
So I finished up my tea, took my leave with the briefest hug and an assurance that I’d see her next weekend, knowing that those seven days would last for ever,  and wondering if she knew it too.  
* * * *
All very well, but sixteen years later these events still bother me.  There were many things I could have done at the time, I suppose. Checked with her local Education Authority; or the Department of Welfare and Pensions; the Housing Benefits people; even the Social Work.  Or I could have contacted her sister, pretending I wanted to apologise for Havoc’s behaviour.  But why?  Her family surely knew she needed help. Maybe they said nothing at the time because they feared her incendiary temper? Maybe they’d hoped that somehow help would come from me, and when it didn’t told themselves that I, or love, or something,  had failed her, and them.
It was a month, maybe more, before I stopped hoping the text alerts on my mobile would be from Zoe asking “Where the hell are you? What have I done . . ?” etc, etc. The texts never pinged in, and then at Christmas the cards started.
There it is then.  Year by year the laconic cards are posted and are delivered.  The cord stretches but never snaps and I wonder if the silences in between are a sort of punishment, and if so, who is punishing whom and for what exactly.