"Where do you think you're going with that?" Hazel called after him. "Just bring it back, it's way too soon, they won't be here for hours."
Alf reversed his steps and put the tray back where he'd found it. He began to turn an uneasy circle between the table and the stove.
"Well, I'm sorry," Hazel said. "Well, you're just underfoot, that's all. Haven't you got a class to go to? Then just go out and get some air, go on now, scat!" The kitchen steamed and she steamed with it; she had sweated nearly through her blouse. She smiled at him gaily through the vapors, and flapped her hands to send him away.
He walked up Exhibition Road to its end, went into Hyde Park and continued as far as the lower end of the Serpentine. Two men were fishing where he paused, their long poles leveled over the dank surface of the water. The concrete bank was littered with goose down and slimy green goose droppings. An unpleasant idea came to Alf completely of its own accord. Many years before when he was small and they still lived on the farm outside Cedar Rapids, he and his older brother had taken the BB gun to the little pond and whiled away an afternoon shooting toads. When he remembered the phttt sound the BBs made going through toad bellies, two voices separated in his mind.
It was Tom's idea, he was the oldest, claimed the first, and the second answered, no no, Alfie, it was you,it was your idea from the beginning, if not for you it never would have happened.... The thing was that it didn't actually kill the toads, at least not right away, just left them drearily flopping around with drooling puncture wounds through their slack stomachs.
"RURRRRFFAAARRRH," cried Alf, and discovered the subject had been instantly wiped from his mind. One of the fishermen looked up at him sharply, then away.
Alf couldn't get his bow tie right and finally decided to leave it with one end bigger than the other. Leaning into the mirror, he pulled the loose skin of his cheeks down into bloodhound jowls, then let it snap back with a wet smack. He passed a hand across his head, wiped the loose hairs on the edge of the sink, and went downstairs to survey the situation.
An assortment of pinstriped Big Bangers and a smaller number of their fretful wives were circulating through the two front rooms. Big Brother, sharkskin File-O-Fax in hand, appeared to be rearranging his appointments. A somewhat scurvy-looking gent, Hazel's water-color teacher, stood alone, snapping salmon sandwiches into his mouth, glancing around after each gulp to see if anyone was observing him. Hazel stood with the gay hairdresser who'd befriended her at the painting class. Alf ate a caviar and cracker and began to eddy up onto their conversation. She wore some sort of pseudo-Victorian velvet dress, fastened with a thousand tiny buttons down the back. Though it conformed to no current fashion it made the most of her bee-shape; the swell of her rear and the arch of her back even suggested a bustle. Alf drifted in a little nearer. Hazel's hair was scooped up into a smooth blonde orb, exposing the fine down on the back of her neck.
"...then a body perm, and Bob's your uncle," he overheard the hairdresser saying. "Just whip a comb through it in the morning and you're off!"
Hazel plucked at her lower lip with a finger. "It does take a lot of time to look after...." she said musingly. Alf felt some rough obstruction rising in his throat.
"But after all," said Hazel, half-turning to include him in the subject, "What else have I really got to do?"
A steely clasp shut on Alf's upper arm and he felt himself inexorably drawn away.
"Mr. Thracewell, my brother Alfred," Big Brother said. "Alf, fetch Mr. Thracewell a gin and french." He passed Alf an empty glass and leaned to whisper in his ear, "Jesus Christ, your tie's not straight." As Alf receded into the hallway, he thought he heard the murmured invocation: London School of Economics, and he swallowed against that plaguey roughness in his gullet.
The kitchen was empty and he snatched up the gin bottle, carried it into the pantry and shut the door after him. With the bottle upended over his jaws, he squinted up at its butt end until he saw four bubbles rise, then lowered it and gasped. Gin and French? He sniffed the glass the Beeb had given him, but the scent was unenlightening. He fixed a gin and tonic with a lot of ice and headed back toward the front of the flat. En route he toppled a tower of bowler hats from the hall stand, made an abortive move to gather them, then decided to let them lie. Deep in conversation with Big Brother, Thracewell took the drink unconsciously and tasted it without looking. Alf watched his mouth shrivel to the surface of the glass, and at that very instant the vast bubble of gin he'd swallowed burst inside him with a soft explosion.
"iirrrfffooorrrffffaaarrrROOOOORF OOO OOO!!!" he howled. All around the room he could hear vertebrae popping with the speed of the turning heads.
"Your younger brother this is, you say?" Mr. Thracewell murmured. "My word, a most original chap."
The Spanish holiday did not materialize and now that school was out Alf was at looser ends than ever. Though the weather had turned generally fine, he tended to loiter around the flat, tracking Hazel from room to room till she was inspired to invent some errand for him. He went down Elystan Street to the candy store on the little square and joined the queue of all the old ladies of Chelsea, each waiting patiently for a lovely chat with the brick-faced woman behind the postal grille at the rear. Often he came here to buy stamps for Hazel. The fat lady behind the candy counter glowered at Alf and only Alf, who was a foot taller and forty years younger than anyone else present, the only man and to be sure the only foreigner. He shifted nervously from leg to leg, trying not to think of how soon Big Brother was likely to discover that he had only set foot in the London School of Economics once or twice ten months before. The tiny lady immediately ahead of him, ancient and brittle as a bit of dry-rotted antique lace, had with the help of a complicated- looking walker made her way up to the grille. She conducted some sort of savings transaction and asked for a television stamp. Television stamp? Alf rocked forward and peered to see what that might be.
"What do you mean?" the brick-faced woman hissed. "Turn round you, turn right round. I shan't go on till you turn right round."
Alf unfroze himself and turned around and stood staring out over the heads of heads of the others behind him into the blinding square of sunlight at the door. When permission was given to approach, he made his purchase wordlessly, fumbling the change with his slightly trembling fingers, and went out. Halfway back up Elystan Street the enlargement of his throat surpassed containment.
"wurf! Wurf! WurrrfffaaarrrhOOORRHHrrrr," he barked. A bobby looked at him sternly from the opposite side of the street. With an additional swallowed snarl tightly wrapped around his tonsils, Alf averted his eyes and went resolutely on.
Hazel seemed to grow a little restless too; she swept more and more activities into her schedule, adding to the water-color sessions a class in yoga and another in French conversation. Her shopping expeditions moved further afield, she undertook riverboat trips and excursions to outlying villages. Alone in the flat, Alf turned the television on and off, flipped through books and magazines, and furtively prowled from room to room; the areas he found the most attractive were those where he had no good reason to be. A time or two he breached the sanctity of Big Brother's electronic office, tiptoeing in and standing on the little throw rug before the desk. All around him on their long shelves the machines blinked and flickered, pooped and wheeped, and every so often they spontaneously crunched out some document. Alf could not rid himself of the superstitious fear that somehow they were recording his own activity to report to Big Brother on his return.
In the bedroom, Hazel and Big Brother's bedroom, there was an indefinable smell of lilac, a natural scent as from dried petals, though Alf could find no bowl of potpourri. Atop the bureau was a wedding picture in a silver frame. Big Brother's long neck was loose in the high stock of his tuxedo; he looked a little frightened, perhaps startled by the flash, but Hazel wore an easy, merry smile, and looked straight out of the frame at Alf, who set the picture down. He opened a drawer at random and discovered Big Brother's starched white shirts laid out in rigid rows. Another held a tangled nest of Hazel's jewelry.
The bed was a platform on short legs, low and broad, with two unremarkable nightstands on either side of it. On Hazel's was a ragged copy of Time Out. Big Brother's was bare except for the coaster where he set his water glass at night. The bed was spread with a quilted eiderdown, emerald green, with feather pillows mounded on it at the headboard. When Alf leaned down and touched the surface of the quilt, his fingers somehow would not come away. He was drawn further, further down, his shoulder tucking as he dropped. He curled up on his side and dreamed.
"I don't know why," he said. "I just don't know." His arms were pasted to the leather arms of the deep dark chair, his head lolled, his eyeballs spiralled behind their lids.
"You know," the hypnotist murmured softly. "Oh yes, you know very well."
"I didn't want to know," said Alf. "What would have been the use of that?
"Knowledge is power," the hypnotist suggested.
A galvanic shudder emerged from the reaches of Alf's autonomic nervous system and shook him to his fingerends.
"No it's not," he said loudly. "Not when you know everything and can't change any of it."
No matter how deep his daydreams took him, Alf remained alive to the sound of Hazel's key entering the downstairs lock. He'd roll from the eiderdown, land on his hands and knees and scamper out, coming erect again some distance down the hallway toward his own bedroom. Until the day some deeper sleep overtook him and he woke to find Hazel standing in the doorway, looking down. She wore her loose black sweatsuit, her face was patchily flushed from yoga, and a forefinger pulled down her plump red lower lip in her familiar gesture of perplexity.
"oooOORF!" barked Alf, in sheer alarm. He flipped from the bed to his all fours and barked again, "urrfffOOOHRRRFF RRAAAARRFFFF!" Hazel's eye's lit up, she swirled in the doorway and ran down the hall. Alf pursued her, quickly as he could on his knees and elbows, barking happy ringing barks. She ran a little awkwardly, her loose hair flagging out behind her, looking back over her shoulder in mock fright. He chased her around his room, back down the hall and down the stairs and up again, yapping hysterically at her heels. Hazel fled back into her bedroom, dove onto the bed and rolled onto her back, shuddering with wave upon wave of laughter. Her knees drew up toward her stomach, her sweatshirt rode up to the bottoms of her breasts, her head thrashed back and forth on the wide silky spread of her hair. Too breathless to bark any more at all, Alf put his forepaws on the quilt between her feet and raised himself to look at her. She was warm with a radiant heat, an intoxicating scent poured out of her, she was rich with her own beauty (he put his hind paws on the bed and bunched himself for his next move) -- she was his brother's wife.
Hazel turned stone pale and sat up quickly on the edge of the bed. She clapped her knees together, wrapped her arms around herself, bit down on her lip till it went white, and began to shake all over. Alf got up too and stood with his hands hanging, dead little lumps against his thighs. After a moment he picked up her hairbrush from the bureau, turned her slightly with the least touch on her shoulder, and began to brush her hair. Supporting the whole sweep of it over his left forearm, he brushed it out till every auburn highlight gleamed beyond perfection. After a few minutes her back loosened and her breath began to ease and deepen.
"Thank you, Alf," she said. "Thank you, that feels good. That was very nice. You can stop now, please."
Alf walked away and set down the brush, turned and propped himself on the bureau's edge. Hazel gathered her hair in one hand and drew it forward over her shoulder. She put an end of it into her mouth and wet it into a point, then took it out and stared at it, round-eyed.
"I'm thinking of getting all this cut off," she said.
"Don't do it," said Alf. "What for?"
"It's a lot of trouble to take care of."
"It took you twenty years to grow it."
"Neddy said he'd style it for me free, said he'd come to the house and do it."
"What, that whinging little shrimp? Don't you let him touch your hair."
"He'd like it if I looked a little more contemporary," Hazel said, jerking her head toward Big Brother's nightstand.
"Don't do it," Alf said as he walked out of the room. "You'll be sorry if you do." He hadn't been so sure of anything all year.
Big Brother had been working too hard -- well, that much was no secret. But Hazel wanted a good night out, she wanted a date with her husband in fact, and that wasn't so unreasonable, was it, once every couple of months or so? They went to the theater and to a champagne supper afterwards. Alf fell dead asleep on the eiderdown and didn't wake up till he heard them giggling outside the bedroom door.
There was time, just barely time, for him to make it under the bed. He lay frozen in a mummy's pose, admiring its simple but ingenious construction. There were many slender wooden slats, and these were surely what made it so comfortable to lie on. He heard the sound of buttons and zippers, drawers opening and closing upon articles put away.
A great soft weight settled itself over him. He began a mental chant: don't bark, Alfie, you mustn't bark, quiet now, good dog, good dog... and by some mercy this drowned out every sound. Three fifths of the way down the length of the bed, a group of slats began to flex, slowly at first, then faster and faster and FASTER.... Then it stopped.
Big Brother unlocked the door, came in, set down his sharkskin briefcase, locked the door, picked up his sharkskin briefcase, and snapped his fingers. Alf, who'd been basking in the glow of the BBC in the front room, raised his head slightly from a couch cushion.
"A word with you, young Alfred," Big Brother said brittly. "Upstairs, if you please."