Oh, What a Lovely War! — Tamim Sadikali

Opening credits close and an orchestral accompaniment – all staccato strings and portentous drums – gets drowned out by a rush of applause. Cameras pan the studio audience, sanctifying each constituent: from the young, female scarf-wearer, right up to bless-him-he-fought-for-us. Or rather, fought for you.

Alone on your sofa I scan the room, willing distant voices in from the kitchen. Naturally you respond, near-skipping towards me, holding a bowl of nachos smeared with goo.

‘Fancy something different?’ you ask me teasingly, cupping my chin in your free hand. I roll my head, burying my face in your open palm, and taste your hopes, fill my lungs with your fears.  

Your man enters the room and the universe we share obliterates. Smiling, he holds two tall glasses of fizz, one of which he offers to you. I watch you move, open, eager, a tip-toed little girl receiving a kiss. You giggle and blush like you did way back, when still a girl, still trying out women’s shoes. But the circle is now almost complete, my lady. And if I could, I would say that your blushing has always betrayed you.

Sipping your drink you sigh, before sinking into the sofa. You pick me up, tender hands placing me to your side as the applause decrescendos, allowing the moderator to introduce the panel. And suited, pressed and preened, how shiny they all look, safe from the proles and the bloodlust in their eyes. Amongst my own, we have order. Gods and clods. But you cursed humans, you’ve never learnt to stop agitating. And tonight, the crowds have come to watch the blade fall.

‘And you, Mister, can sit between us,’ you purr, in sync with me. We exchange a slow-blink kitty kiss so you don’t spot your man, yet to take up his seat, and frozen on the spot. Blind to our mutual repugnance, the endless power play for your time, you stroke my back and I stretch a little more, eating further into his space.

‘There, there,’ he says, a clammy hand on my flank as he sits to my side, his voice betraying nothing of an impotent’s rage. After all this time, he still can’t shoo me away when you’re present. Disgust forces me up and I walk over him, slowly, extending claws as I jump off.

You pacify his yelp with a snuggle, moulding your body into his. But he seeks comfort in a tortilla chip, runs its face along the bowl’s edge, leaving the merest smudge of goo.  

‘It’s like watching the Christmas Day episode of EastEnders, as a kid,’ you say, wriggling a little, spreading a blanket across you both. And as you snuggle up to him, I do the same with you, sidling alongside, finding a little room at the end of the cloth.

‘It’s only Dirty Dens that I’m seeing. No Angie in sight,’ he offers up sagely, not taking his eyes from the screen.

‘What about that Scottish woman?’

‘Bloody nationalists. Lost without us, they’d be.’

Think of me as an observer, a wayfarer – merely stuck in the amber of this moment, with you.

I rest my cheek against your body and listen – the rise and fall of your breath; blood pulsing through, around, surrounding myself with your sound. And I detect change –first in your scent, then in body temperature. I nuzzle up closer, a little higher… That fragile hope you carry, that lifeline – here it comes. Peeling myself away, I look you up and down, recalling your squeaky little girl voice, your blushing and swaying. My oh my, how the animal inside you lives! But danger lies ahead, my lady. For tonight, your nation’s heat rises with your own: top billing, up and down the land, is this dog show unfolding right in front of us. And so the question is, what will draw your man in – these rosette-wearing mutts on TV, or the sweet smell of estrus?

I shake off a sense of foreboding by grooming, combing through my fur, paying attention to where that dog-man soiled me with his touch. And once satisfied, I turn to face the mutts on-screen. The perfect drama for a nation of dog lovers. The public gets what the public wants. I should say that, like most, I’m not partisan. And were I eligible, I doubt I’d even vote. So think of me as an observer, a wayfarer – merely stuck in the amber of this moment, with you.

*

The opening gambit is delivered and the kingpin begins answering, calm and measured. The others listen – politely, earnestly. And they smile – oh, how they smile.

‘Showbusiness for ugly people,’ comments your man, looking pleased with himself.

You don’t respond but instead try some intimacy, the both of you warm under that blanket. But he just helps himself to more nachos.

Us cats believe in rank and file: no need for my fellow blue-bloods to break sweat. But you people love a drama, and the proles are now wanting a show. And so the moderator loosens the leashes, readying for the trapdoors to spring open.

“So how would you cut the deficit?” she asks. Spend more, say some. Spend less, say others, whilst the joker-in-the-pack blames it on those vampires at your door. They jostle for position but no-one is breaking free. It’s like a day at the races – pick a hound and then cheer it on.

Suddenly the sound dims and I see you holding the control, J’accuse!, at the TV. Your man looks aghast but again, with him it’s confusion that reigns. But you can’t see what he really wants – to beat you to a pulp with that remote control, and then turn the volume back up and watch in peace. Same as it ever was. But he says nothing as you plant a languorous kiss on his lips. A pall of silence fills the room, pregnant with hope and hate. You kiss him again, forcing him to swallow down his bile, deep into his pit. Alone, I turn back to the now mute screen, the wet sounds of passion providing replacement audio.   

And denied speech, the panel members begin to morph, warp and distend. The TV starts going blurry, the picture dimming as rainbows materialize, all around the room. I look above and around as they turn, swirl and coalesce, forming rings – concentric circles that spin, expand then contract. A vortex in golds, greens and reds, right here in this front room. And I’m mesmerised, paralysed…circles spinning faster and faster… I spring up onto all fours and snap towards you – but lost in a mist of estrus, you’re now out of reach. With claws extended I hold my ground, shakily, as delicate shufflings continue alongside. And all that shapes my world with you – his loathing, your self-loathing; la petite mort of that first drop of menstrual blood – it all implodes as a giant, cardboard kingpin materialises out from the vortex and starts wobbling towards me. Instinct screams at me to leap off the sofa and run, keep running until the world is again familiar. But for you, my lady, I stay – clawing at the cushion’s edge and baring my teeth until the kingpin stops, abruptly, just inches away. I crane my neck upwards: blank, unblinking eyes; head set straight. Its cardboard jaw begins moving, up and down, dislocating and relocating, though without any accompanying sound. Voiceless mouthings continue, as if masticating air, until a warbled voice starts coming through, wholly out of sync with the metronomic jaw:…………………………………………………………………………………………

…schools and hospitals… schools and hospitals … schools and hospitals…..

………………..…our brave boys………brave boys …………….…………..…..

……………………decent, honest, hard-working families …………………..…..

…………………………………………………………………………………………

…………………………………………………………………………………………

………………………………………………….……….our NHS…………………..

…………………………………………………………………………………………

The vortex sparks and fizzes and the kingpin’s voice is lost, though his jaw continues to open and shut. Again I turn but you remain lost to me, hands continuing to shuffle underneath the blanket. Reluctantly I return to this gothic drama but as I ready myself, the sound from the TV returns and the vortex, along with the kingpin, snaps back into the screen.

‘That’s right, enough. We’re already full!’ Your man bolts upright, holding the remote like a prize.

‘That’s right, enough. We’re already full!’ Your man bolts upright, holding the remote like a prize. With spare hand he readjusts his clothing, his eyes glued as his punt makes a play. You sit up and look at him, holding your gaze, and his sole response is to hand you the now empty nacho bowl. Brusquely removing the blanket you get up and march out of the room, back towards the kitchen.

And without you the race goes on, now just a blur of hounds, their tongues lolling, chasing a rubber duck.

‘You not coming back down?’ he asks, his voice reaching for disappointment as he hears you climb the stairs.

‘I’ve got an early start tomorrow,’ you say from the corridor. ‘I’ll be reading in bed for another ten or so minutes. Join me, if you like.’

He grunts some response but does not move. The moderator bids the home audience goodnight and your man looks plain lobotomised, sat on his own as the credits roll. He remains unmoved whilst you walk around upstairs, trudging from bathroom to bedroom, before finally the door shuts. With the TV now providing the only sound he turns down the volume and channel-hops, spends a few minutes watching the news, then a few more on an action movie, before settling on Babestation. Who cares for dogs, when you can watch babes… He catches me staring at him, my face betraying no thought, my eyes unblinking.

‘Get out!’ he scream-whispers, throwing something soft in my direction. I jump off the sofa and scamper away, committing myself to haunting him, for what’s left of this life, and the next.

Freedom, the right to choose – it’s a many-splendored thing.


Tamim Sadikali has completed his first short story collection. He reviews short fiction for @OpenPenLondon and is the author of Dear Infidel (Hansib, 2014). Twitter: @TamimSadikali

Image: Ajewl Chou, Flickr, Creative Commons