A group of writers in Chichester coming together once a month for inspiration, collaboration and sensation
Dora Novotny stood shivering in the freezing snow. The morsel of stale bread she’d stolen for Nina was still there, hidden beneath the rags she wore, next to her skin. She faced the guard, feigning innocence. If she was lucky, he might think her too stupid to be a thief. But his weather-beaten face held no trace of pity, its angular features jutting out into the winter air, like the sub-machine gun he carried. She lowered her eyes from the arrogant smirk as he barked at her in crude German. A blizzard of snowflakes, glittering like fragments of tinsel in the searchlights, fell unceasingly over the camp from a sky filled with gloom. She scanned the horizon, out beyond the barbed wire to the bleak surrounding hills. It would soon be dark. The dogs strained at their leashes and their eyes burned with hatred over bared yellow teeth, but Dora was not afraid. Two years in the camp had beaten the fear out of her. At any moment, Eichmann would unleash the brutes, goading them to tear her heart out, yet she no longer cared.
The memory, so clear and painful in her mind, faded back into the past. A shadow, or a noise perhaps, had woken her. In the kitchen, a patchwork of photographs, some faded and dog-eared with age, covered the breakfast table. She replaced the tiny picture of Nina, her twin sister whose life had ended when Typhus struck the camp so long ago. Moving on, she picked up one of herself in happier times. As a young girl she’d once been considered a musical prodigy, with a glittering future as a concert pianist. And both she and Nina had loved to sing. But, it was Nina who had the finer voice, and Dora could not bring herself to sing again, after her sister’s tragic death. With a sad smile, her spidery fingers replaced the fragile photo before caressing the worn surface of another. It showed the face of her late husband as a young man in Czechoslovakia, just before the war. For a moment, she allowed the memory of him to fill her thoughts, before dismissing the heartache with an image of her grown-up daughter’s graduation. Most precious of all was a colour snap of Mercy, her granddaughter, smiling up from beneath a Christmas tree. Dora just couldn’t help smiling back.
Suddenly her arm jerked as a dark shape reared up against the kitchen window. She dropped the cup and a river of cold tea ran to meet Mercy’s picture as an enormous German Shepherd pawed at the fragile glass. Moping up quickly, she felt for her stick and limped painfully to the window, but before she could reach it the dog bounded away out of sight, called by a man’s voice. The sound brought a frown of recognition.
“I knew you were in!”
“Go away Kevin! What are you doing in my garden? Why didn’t you ring the door-bell?”
“’Cos I knew you wouldn’t bloody answer it. And besides, the dogs needed a shit.”
“Not in my garden, Kevin. I didn’t give you permission…”
“Permission! You’re havin a laugh aren’t you? When did I give you permission to break our contract, then?”
She looked at him. He was sullen and resentful, yet smirking, daring her to defy him.
“Where’s my fuckin money? You’re a week late.”
She only had her pension. Not enough for the little extras she sometimes needed. Kevin had been a last resort, but she’d not understood about the interest payments.
“I told you next week, didn’t I. Are you stupid, Kevin?” she shouted through the glass.
“Don’t give me that crap, you dried-up Gypsy whore! I say when payment is due. Check the small print!” he yelled back.
Kevin reached down and pulled something from his pocket. For a moment, she thought it might be a gun, but it was just a garden trowel he’d stolen from her tool-shed. Holding it out in front of him, he jabbed it repeatedly at the window pane. As he ranted at her, she saw that some of his teeth were rotten. She imagined how his breath might stink if the glass broke.
“I’ll be back this afternoon, at two. You’d better have the money. I’ll bring the dogs; they want to meet you!” He stepped away, grinning, and threw the trowel directly at her. It was caught by the window, but left a scar.
When he was gone, Dora limped back to her seat. The wall clock showed half past eleven: less than three hours to get the money, but she knew it was hopeless. She looked again at the photo of Edvard. Smiling and vigorous, he showed all the reckless confidence of youth. A gifted mathematician, he’d fought in the resistance after the Nazis invaded and, though she’d at first been too afraid to join him, his determination had eventually won her over. They’d been caught, of course, yet despite the brutality of the camps, somehow they’d both survived the war and come to England to make a life: a minor miracle. It would be twenty years next month since he’d died. God, how she missed him.
She looked again at the picture of Mercy: ten years old in just three days. A puppy, she’d said, when granny had asked her what she wanted most. And so, Dora had gone to Kevin for a loan.
At ten-to-two the door-bell pierced the silence of the house. So, there he was, this young hero, on her doorstep with two enormous dogs and another man as backup. She wasn’t expecting that; so brave of him. They didn’t wait. Kevin was already squatting in her husband’s favourite chair, tapping his foot on the carpet when she entered the room. The dogs paced about over her best cream carpet, full of energy, dominating the space; their movements were quick and nervous, with ears pricking up warily before settling.
“I don’t think you’ve been introduced properly, have you?” said Kevin, leaning back and addressing the dogs in an exaggerated, theatrical manner. They took up positions either side of him, sitting obediently on their haunches, staring up at her.
“This,” he said, adding a dramatic pause “is… Doris!” The other man responded obediently with a sarcastic chortle, clapping his hands, sucking up, but was cut short with a swift sideways glance, making it clear who was boss.
Kevin went on with a flourish, gesticulating. “Doris, meet Monty. And this fine young reprobate, last but by no means least… is Hank.” Monty seemed the dominant one, thought Dora. The other dog was a little smaller and younger, she estimated, though still very powerful. Monty had a steady confident gaze, as if sure of his abilities, whilst Hank seemed more distracted, as if waiting for the go ahead from Monty. She waited for Kevin to introduce the other man, but they just stared at her, ignoring the man who faced the wall and helped himself to a porcelain figurine that had once belonged to Edvard’s mother.
“Actually, my name is Dora and… please don’t touch that! It belonged to my late husband. It’s not worth anything to you.” The man held it for a moment, weighing it in his hand and examining it, as if he hadn’t heard her speak. Then he carelessly and deliberately let it drop back onto the shelf.
“So, let’s get on with it: hand over the money, then. We haven’t got all day to waste, chatting. Oh, and make Danny here a nice cup of tea, while I’m counting it.”
“Go to hell!” she yelled, without really thinking it through.
They were circus people, her folks, long before the Nazis came. The women had skills not shared with the men; handed down, mother to daughter, from the old times. Some had called them witches, but without cause, for there was no wickedness in them. Only a love for animals that could not be expressed in words.
After she had spoken, a deep, unhealthy silence descended upon the room. You could feel something brewing, like distant thunder presaging a storm: a kind of animal tension building. Dora had felt it before, long ago. It seemed to reach back into the past. And the dogs felt it too, she could tell.
For a few moments, the future ambled drunkenly towards the edge of a cliff as Kevin just stared at her, unblinking, coming to the boil, with his cold dead eyes shivering in his skull, and suddenly she knew what it was about him that reminded her of Eichmann. And then it happened: he just got up and lunged at her, without any warning. Immediately, she felt her hip go, as a blinding pain tore the Earth from under her feet. In the next moment, she was on the floor, unable to move.
Monty came up excitedly and loomed over her, his teeth close to her face. Dora could smell his foul breath as he tasted her scent. The dog seemed to be searching her eyes for something… unfathomable. Hank stood behind him as backup, silent but ready as Monty waited for Kevin’s command.
Then, Kevin placed his boot gently on Dora’s bony hand. As she imagined his full weight upon it, there came into her mind a vivid memory from childhood: she had just completed a Chopin nocturne to a standing ovation, surrounded by the clapping hands of many others, unseen but loving and supportive, far away in the darkness. She looked up and saw her tormentor’s cold expression from far above, regarding her – much as the guards had done long ago in the camp – as if she were an insignificant insect, about to be crushed underfoot. And then she saw Nina’s dead face, once so beautiful, and heard her lovely voice, bright as a spring day. It brought forth an ancient outrage that welled up in her like a red tide, filling her mind, as the power of music once had. Its intensity surprised her, and she knew the dogs felt it too.
For God’s sake, what did someone like Kevin know of love? And now the animals themselves were dying, becoming extinct in greater numbers than ever before. Future generations might call it the greatest tragedy in history, and all because men like Kevin had forgotten how to live, and to love. Her mother had taught her that love and suffering were always bound together. What mankind had taken, had to be given back.
Suddenly, she let out a cry, with all the animal power of a wolf, but with a wild and subtle music behind it, that startled the two men. They looked at one another, bemused and, as Hank sprang at his throat Danny dropped a cigarette lighter he’d just purloined. There was no warning as Monty drove his teeth deeply into Kevin’s calf muscle and tore away a lump of flesh as big as a half-pound steak. Blood dribbled down his leg in a lively, liquid stream, over Dora’s ancient fingers and deep into her beautiful pale-cream carpet, even before the screaming began. Everything was happening in slow motion. Danny tore at Hank’s face but it was no use: the dog’s sharp teeth soon eagerly and fatally lacerated his carotid artery, so that a bright red fountain spurted half-way across the room. He was dead before he hit the floor.
Somehow Kevin managed to drag himself outside with Monty in hot pursuit, but Dora never saw him again.
The police were very good. An old lady attacked in her own home by vicious money lenders and their ‘status’ dogs. Kevin’s police record was as long as your arm, they’d said, as she served them tea and brandy biscuits on her kitchen table. A thoughtful older male officer looked wistfully out over the garden, saying nothing, whilst a chatty young woman constable sat with her as they examined the photos together. She noticed the one of Edvard, calling him handsome.
“These are lovely biscuits, Mrs Novotny. I’m so glad you’re feeling better now. It’s really a miracle you survived the attack.”
“Thank you, my dear. Of course, the carpet’s ruined: the bloodstains will never some out.” Dora lifted her teacup with a bony, wrinkled hand.
“Yes, such a shame,” replied the young woman sympathetically. “Will your pension run to a replacement, do you think? Perhaps we could make a collection for you, back at the station?”
Dora smiled brightly at the suggestion. “You’re very kind, my dear, but I don’t think there’s any need. I’ve always believed that a person should sing for their own supper. And anyway, if I require money I can always take out another one of those super loans. Do you see?”