Here’s the first tale from The Ox, “Bite” – by me. This story was longlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2009, and subsequently appeared in the magazine Letters From The City: A Glasgow Philavery and the anthology The McCollection. It also appears in my short story collection, Suckerpunch.
By Pat Black
I let myself into the house. “Dad? Hey, you home?”
“Aye, in the living room.”
He was in his chair with his slippered feet resting on the pouffe we got him a few months back. There was a tea-tray by the side of the seat, alongside his walking stick. The tea things bore rust-coloured stains and had been there a while. Judge Judy was on the TV, one of his guilty pleasures.
No small talk or how-do-you-dos, of course. I could tell he wasn’t in the mood for visitors. Something in the way his mouth downturned, like a child’s drawing of someone who was unhappy.
“I got you that DVD you wanted,” I said.
“Jaws.” I held the case out for him. The classic image on the front, the scissor fish streaking out of the blue towards the woman.
“Oh right, aye.” His voice had gotten worse, even more sandpapery. You had to listen very carefully. If you asked him to repeat himself, he got flustered.
“You want to watch it now?”
He huffed and puffed, checking his watch. Interrupting Judy was a bigger crime than I’d previously suspected.
“No worries if you don’t. I’ll leave it on top of the DVD player. You can watch it whenever.”
“Haven’t used that bloody machine yet. Don’t know why you bothered.”
“It’s easy. It’s exactly the same as the video. You just use CDs instead. Look, the remote control’s right beside you. Play, fast-forward, rewind, pause. Exactly the same.”
“Yes, I’m not retarded yet, thank you,” he barked. This outburst caused him to cough. While his body shuddered and spasmed I looked around for the spittoon. It was by the other side of the armchair, out of sight. It hadn’t been cleaned for a while. I held it up for him while he hacked out a rainbow of drab colours; mustard yellow, battlefront browns, rusted reds. The colour of things nature rejects.
When he was done, I handed him a fresh tissue from the box. “You want a glass of water?”
He nodded, holding a hand to his chest. Above the v-neck of his top all I could see was an aggregate of bones and skin. The flesh had shrunk away from his jaw, neck and his cheeks, making his ears more prominent. The stray wisps and strands of hair that had grown back on his head after chemo – and which he refused to cut, because they were still part-black – completed the picture of his decline. This great bull of a man, this giant who used to carry me on his shoulders, had shrivelled to an almost exact replica of Gollum from Lord of the Rings.
I got him his water. The glass shuddered in his hands and I had to hold the bottom to keep it steady.
“What a thing,” he said, finally, “to see happen to your old man.”
“Forget it. I’ll stick the film on.”
It had been a while since I’d seen it myself. I felt an odd thrill at the doomy opening notes of the score, at the shark’s-eye view of the ocean floor with its billowing strands of vegetation. It’s strange that I should feel such a sense of comfort from a film designed to scare you, but I do. The bedtime abscondee’s excitement of being allowed up late to watch it. Fizzy drinks and crisps. Toy sharks bearing down on green plastic soldiers in the bath.
“I remember the first time this was ever shown on the telly,” I said. “The house was absolutely full. Aunties and uncles and neighbours came around, because we had a big colour TV. I couldn’t have been more than four.”
“Aye. I remember. You were a big scaredy cat. Hiding behind the couch.”
“Eh? No I wasn’t. That was Bobby.”
“It was you. Hiding behind the couch. ‘Is it away yet, mum?’ Ha ha!”
“I’m telling you, it was Bobby.”
“Hey, there’s plenty of space behind the new couch, if you get scared. I won’t tell anybody.”
“We’ll come back to this.”
So that poor blonde girl swam out, and the shark closed in. One thing I hadn’t noticed before was the actress’ pubes, almost as clear as day thanks to the DVD transfer as she treaded water. Score one for cutting-edge digital technology.
“Look,” I said, “public hair.”
“There – Rubik’s Cubes. That’s a sneaky one, eh?”
“Trust you to notice that. I always knew you’d be the pervert in the family. Every household has one.”
“You saying you didn’t notice, old boy?”
“Not since they zapped me, not especially.”
I had been braced to say “You dirty… dirty ol’ man” in my Harold Steptoe voice. But I dropped it.
We’d gotten as far as the kid being eaten when he noticed my hair was still wet. “Weather still bad, then, eh, Mr Pansy Hair?”
“Yeah. Raining. And a bit blowy.”
“Wouldn’t blow the fluff off your dick.”
Quint made his fingernails-down-the-blackboard appearance. I knew my dad liked Quint, saw a lot of himself in him. “Y’all know me,” Quint said. “Y’know how I earn a livin’.”
“It took me years to work out what Quint was saying. What the hell kind of an accent’s that? It’s Boston Irish mixed with BBC English.”
Dad waved at me, impatiently. “Shut it, I’m trying to listen!”
“Fuck, you bring me a film to watch, I can’t even watch it for you gibbering!”
Later on, Chief Brody is drunk at the family dinner table and his son is mimicking his gestures. Cute little scene. Desperate to get away from what was going on there, my dad said, “That sister o’ yours was up all day yesterday.”
“Marie. Which one do you think? The other one can’t just appear on a plane all the time.”
“She can and she does.”
“Well… it was Marie, anyway. I tell you. That girl.”
“What was she up to then?”
“Fussing. Doing dishes. Bringing in shopping.”
“The very thought! I hope you told her off.”
“She’s got weans of her own. And she wastes her time coming round here. I said to her, ‘You’re going to an early grave, you keep worrying like that.’ But Jesus Christ… the noise. The mouth on her. Constant nip, nip, nip… ‘Are you taking your tablets, dad? Are you comfy in bed at night, dad? Want me to get you a cushion, dad? Want me to bring you some ice cream, dad?’ Non-stop. At least you know when to shut the fuck up every now and again.”
“I ended up telling her to piss off, she was doing my nut in.”
“Funny, I heard that. And I meant to talk to you about that.”
“Aye. As in a, ‘Don’t speak to her like that again, you old bugger’ talk.”
I was surprised; he just took it. He sat a little straighter, he thrust his chin out, but he said nothing.
“You listening to me?”
“I could be.”
“You could be? You better be. That girl is over here every day. She looks after you, cleans up your mess, and on top of that she has to listen to your nonsense. And you wonder why she’s stressed out?”
“Nyah nyah nyah.” He made a face then, presumably meant to be my face. “Yeah, she cleans up, and you pay the fuckin’ cable. I know.”
“Never mind the cable. I just want you to try and be nice to Marie. She’s bursting her arse for you.”
After a few moments, he said: “I just don’t want her to put herself out. Or anyone else.”
“No-one’s putting themselves out. We’re happy to do it. We’ve been through all this. Now relax and enjoy the film.”
“You’re on a day off. You should be out enjoying yourself, not sitting here watching films with me.”
“Well maybe I actually want to be here, watching films with you.”
“I’m thinking of trying out that St Margaret’s place.”
I felt goosepimples rising up my arms. “Well… no. Bollocks to that. If you don’t want it, you’re not going. You stay here.”
“We’ll see,” he said.
We got to the head-out-the-boat scene. He must have seen this dozens of times – with or without me – but he still jumped. He disguised this by turning the move into a fake cough, which segued into a real one. I got his spittoon again.
“Why in fuck,” he wheezed, “does the shark spit the head back into the boat?”
“It’s toying with them,” I said, “messing with their minds. They’re fools.”
Jaws made its appearance, eating the guy in the boating pond. The sneakered leg, trailing blood, sinking to the bottom. It was kind of funny really.
“You can tell it’s not a real shark,” dad said.
“Tricky to film if they’d used a real one. Especially when it bites people.”
“Six kids, I turned out,” he sighed, looking at his hands, “and only one of them ended up a smart arse. Not bad work, I suppose.”
Something had been bugging me about the wall behind him since I’d come in; something different about the mass of sports medals and badges and awards that had adorned a special shield he’d had made. An absence of something. It took me a while to place it. “What happened to the sword?”
The sword; sacred artefact, prized and ancient weapon that had adorned the wall beside the shield ever since Uncle Tommy had brought it back from Spain. An elegant weapon, from a more civilised age… when you could blithely stick a lethal weapon in your cabin baggage at Malaga and bring it through Customs, without anyone asking you about it.
“Door-to-door fucking salesman. Can you believe it?”
“What… and you sold him the sword?”
“Eh? No, did I fuck. I showed it to him, and told him where I was thinking o’ sticking it. I just haven’t put it back yet.”
“Dad, you’re kidding.”
“Do I look like I’m kidding? The boy took off like shit off a shovel.”
“Dad, Jesus Christ.”
“Well, it worked, didn’t it? That’s one bastard who won’t be back. What they going to do anyway, arrest me?”
“Well, yeah!” I ran a hand through my hair.
“Ach calm down ya big fairy, it was just a bit of fun. Don’t tell me you’ve never wanted to do that to a salesman, boyo.”
The Shakies started up not long after that. My own term. He would go into these spasms, strange shaking fits, every now and again. No apparent cause, no warning signs. He was in control of most of his faculties and could speak, but it was all a bit of a mystery. They’d been getting worse recently, though this one wasn’t too bad.
“The fan?” He nodded. Standard operating procedure during the Shakies. Despite looking freezing cold and his body reacting as if he was out in the snow, his temperature would shoot up and he’d be drizzled with sweat. It would be one of these episodes, I knew, that would finish it. I always felt a bone-deep dread when they started up.
The fan whirred away, tickling the stray strands of hair on his scalp. “It’s alright,” he said, once he’d calmed down. “I’m not too bad.”
I clicked the fan off. “Ouch,” I said.
“I think… I think the fan just blew the fluff off my dick.”
On screen, we’d reached the scene in the cabin. Comparing scars. As a boy, I remembered playing this game with him, though of course his pits, pocks, marks and scratches were far worse than mine. “That one was made by a lion,” he’d said, solemnly, pointing to a jagged white cut on his hand. Turned out he’d done it opening an old-style tin of beer at the football, years ago.
Watching the scene, a light blinked on in his eyes. “Here,” he said, “look at this.” He rolled up his sleeve. On his matchstick forearm there was a huge purple bruise, the shape ofSpain.
“What happened there?”
“Doctor’s,” he smirked. “Wanted some blood. They couldn’t get the needle in. Dunno what they teach these young ones nowadays. Degrees off the back of a Cornflakes packet. Like yours.”
“That’s the thing about a shark,” Quint said, recounting his USS Indianapolis all-my-friends-you-can-eat story, “he’s got these… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes.”
“That’s a man who knows,” my dad said.
“Don’t think he served in the war, or anything.”
“That’s a man who knows,” he said again.
“He did write that speech,” I said. “The actor. Robert Shaw. All his own work, apparently.”
“Barry Norman, shut up please.”
Later on, Quint was in Jaws’ mouth. The great rubber fish had jumped right out of the water onto the Orca to get him. Just him. “At least he went down fighting,” my old man said, watching Quint scream and thrash around.
“What are you talking about? There’s no ‘fight’ in it. It’s game over. Mano a tiburon. Jaws ate him. Jaws 1, Quint 0. What was he going to do, bite the shark back?”
“Look at the knife,” he said, coughing. “Left hand.” I looked, and he was right; Quint had a machete in his hand, and was stabbing into the shark, even while he was vomiting blood. Memo to self: never allow shark to bite you in half.
“You’re right, fair play. Quint’s plunged Jaws. That’s the first time I’ve ever noticed that. And I must’ve seen this more times than you.”
“That’s because you’re a dumpling.”
Then Jaws was after dessert in the form of Chief Brody. It burst through the side of the boat and my dad jumped at that, too. Goodness me, it is a while since he’s seen it, I thought.
“I always liked that you can see bits of Quint stuck in its teeth,” I said, as Chief Brody thrust the air tank into the shark’s mouth.
“What’s it going to do? Use a bit of toothpaste? Gargle some mouthwash? Put its falsies in a glass, come back later?”
Then he started coughing and spitting again. This was followed by a fresh helping of Shakies. I went to get the fan on again but he held his hands up. “Cold,” he said, “cold this time.” We kept a fleece by the side of the chair, in case he felt like going to sleep there, or was in too much pain to go to his bed. He nodded, as I put it around his shoulders.
Onscreen, Jaws exploded. Its arse and whatever else was left sank away into the deep in a cloud of its own guts, and presumably some of Quint’s, an oddly spooky moment.
I said: “Au revoir Jaws. Anything else I can do for you?”
“There’s a wee thing with my feet,” he said, “they get all pins and needles… you don’t need to do it if you don’t want to.”
“I know,” I said, “Marie told me about it. It’s cool.” I knelt down and slid off his slippers, then rubbed his feet through his thick, green, no-messing woolly socks. Even through the fabric I could feel that his feet were cold. The foot problem was an especially troubling sign. Something to do with his heart labouring, Marie had said.
“Well I never thought I’d see the day I’d be giving you a foot massage, old man,” I said, chuckling.
“Get yer fingers working, boy,” he said, “I don’t want tickled.” We both laughed.
Looking up, I saw his mouth was working, as if he was chewing something tough. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it.
“It’s alright,” I said to him, “you don’t have to say it.”
(C) Copyright Pat Black 2014