a psychological novel by
Alex K Delph
Set in Dublin 2021
About two dogs, and the people around them
With the spotlight riveted on being an outsider
In this jaw-dropper Alex K Delph explores the physical solitude of Londoner, George Wilson, and the stark psychological aloneness of Sandymount-born Clara Browne, amidst the sinister presence of Ben McDuff whose darkness threatens them all
Doberman, Joshua Daniel
German Shepherd, Sofia Guaico
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All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Please note: Alex K Delph
writes fiction for adults.
'dogs in dublin' eMagazine
publishes 'Perception' on a
designated adult fiction page.
The scent of roast beef pervades the dining room. How he loves Sunday lunch! Easter day is particularly special. Ben McDuff is sitting at the top of the table looking down at his son putting a fork-full of Yorkshire pudding into his mouth. Seated at each side of the heavy, long oak antique are his daughter and all the grandchildren. He delights in the convivial babble around him.
‘Leave that in your pocket while we’re eating’ Jenna commands to his favourite grandson, Zack, who looks hard at his mother before putting the offending mobile phone back into his jeans.
‘Jenna is doing a good job of rearing those boys in these times’ Ben thinks.
‘She was raised to value the table as a forum for conversation’.
He feels proud of the job that he and Beth have done. Although gone a long time, he still expects to see her there, especially at Christmas and Easter.
He sips his red wine. Feeling tired today. Although a gym-goer five days a week, the retired architect is not used to heavy work. On waking Friday morning, he seriously wondered if he would be able to put on this show for his family. A deep breath of gratitude allows him to relax more into the conversation around him.
He carefully poses the question ‘how are you and Sandra managing working from home with the girls not at school’? His son, Frederick, puts down his knife and fork having relished everything on his plate.
‘With great difficulty’ he replies while swallowing the last morsel, trying to sound light-hearted.
‘Sandy needs her space. That’s why she didn’t come today. There’s a board meeting in the morning on zoom so she’s getting ready as we speak. The open-plan nature of the place means that personal space is in short supply. It wouldn’t be so bad if we could see an end in sight’ he finishes looking to his father for the reassurance he has always given for as long as he can recall.
‘The roll-out of the vaccine is going well’ Ben concedes ‘but I’m not convinced about the necessity for such imposing restrictions on the lives of people’.
‘Surprisingly, Sandy supports ‘Houlihan rule’ like a martyr but I’m inclined to agree with you Dad’, Fred acquiesces , having opted out of the vaccination process amidst stormy repercussions at home. A dull sense of foreboding rises in his belly now. His relationship with Sandy has come under further sustained pressure since the unprecedented regulation kicked in.
‘The sole focus seems to be on the toll of people testing positive for the virus but what about the people who are not able to handle the restrictions. Who is counting them’? His father continues sombrely. The deterioration in his son’s marriage has not gone unnoticed by him. He secretly admires the way Fred tries to seamlessly keep a lid on things.
A clatter disrupts the conversation as dessert is served with some pizazz by his eldest grandchild, Anne. ‘Hard to believe that she is twenty-one’ Ben muses as a large pavlova is proudly placed in front of him. He feels the dropped kiss on his cheek as she leans over to pick up the pastry knife and hand it to him.
Ben stands up to his full five-foot-ten, gracefully. Once the long-associated clapping response has died down, he deftly divides the pavlova into half, then quarter, then eighth as his family look on in silence. His speed and precision with a knife is envied. He places a piece on the top plate stacked beside him. Then hands the gleaming Denby china to his daughter who passes it on until it arrives at the bottom of the table. The ritual is well-practiced in his house.
How he cherishes the solitude of the night particularly after a highly charged day! The clock in the hall has just struck midnight. Ben McDuff knows he should turn in but he cannot resist the violent urge whipping through him right now. His body is aching with exhaustion but he must do this before switching off the bedside lamp. The pumping of his heart is palpable in the stillness of his bedroom as he slides the drawer beside his bed open and carefully removes a locked red tin box. He keeps the key on his person at all times. These days nothing gives him more pleasure than the collection he has accumulated over eight years.
Blankets already turned down. He moves to one side of the large double bed. Then, his long, slim fingers flick away any dust from the white cotton sheet while his other hand extends outwards to remove the creases. All is in readiness. Exactly as he liked things to be when he worked as an architect. He slips the key into the keyhole and turns it gently until the quiet release sound resonates in his ear. The bounty is painstakingly laid out, piece by piece on the pristine white sheet that he will smother his face in before falling asleep.
There’s the powder blue knitted hat she dropped in Rathgar a few years ago. He recalls how he watched her return to look for it a while later from a discreet table where he was dining with his partner Marjorie in Bijou restaurant, with a view to the street. She was visibly upset in her befuddled sort of way. A warmth for her shoots through him. He pinches himself. Then the silver key ring that fell out of her handbag when she was searching for something in the Swan Centre in Rathmines three Christmases ago. The designer sun glasses she left behind on a park bench in Herberton when heavy rain suddenly interrupted her photographs last summer. He watched her look behind and then over her shoulder as she fled for shelter with the dog. ‘She always forgets something’ Ben thinks tenderly.
Then he takes out a half-empty tube of bright red lipstick and removes the lid. Sometimes he allows himself the tiniest sliver on his skin. Not tonight. Two years ago she was struggling with the German Shepherd pup when the contents of her pocket spilled all over the road. He remembers the clumsy way she tried to retrieve everything while holding onto the powerful young dog and dodging the cars. The lipstick rolled away from her and she had no choice but to let it go. He replaces the lid and gently returns it to the red tin box.
‘Just one more before bedtime’ he utters aloud. With the utmost care he removes the red leather glove, his most recent addition. Index finger running over the soft, vibrant material, the same rich colour as the lipstick. He lifts it lovingly to his cheek and moves his head slowly, up and down against the fabric. Then he breathes in the sweet scent deeply with his nose pressed against the glove. A faint whiff of her fragrance infused in the leather instantly gives him a rock hard erection. He knows her scent so well when she passes nearby and he is discreetly behind her, breathing it in. Feeling safe. Feeling truly himself. Feeling loved.
‘It is a long stretch of empty beach. The waves are crashing inward but the tide is going out. He is sitting erect on a fold-up chair reading, behind a wind breaker in blue and white striped canvas. The sun is shining but it feels cold due to the strong breeze. He pulls the woollen rug up to his chest and lets the book rest open on his knee, securing it with his left hand against the strong wind.
He scans the beach to register two people with dogs in the distance. Casually he picks up his binoculars. Suddenly, a violent, cold sickness pervades him within. The pages of his book are now fluttering wildly in the sand beside him. In the lens Clara bounces along beside the Englishman, like a child. The German Shepherd and Doberman chase each other into the crashing waves. Clara is taking photographs. The Englishman is watching her. Then the German Shepherd returns at pace, shakes himself vociferously , the spray drenching the jeans of George Wilson. Clara lets her camera swing on her chest, quickly drawing a towel out of her tote bag. Without thinking she vigorously rubs the denim material full of apologies. There is a moment of absolute stillness. Frozen. Then the Englishman pulls her to him and kisses her on the lips’.
Ben McDuff sits bolt upright in the bed. He fumbles for the lamp switch with a moist, trembling hand, knocking over his mobile phone as the strong light from his reading lamp illuminates the darkness. Three o’clock on the small carriage clock on the mantlepiece.
The palpitations that he woke up with gradually begin to recede.
‘Thank fuck it was only a dream’ he calls out as he checks that his phone is still intact.
He drags up a pillow to support his back against the headboard as he breathes in deeply in sheer relief vividly recalling the dream involuntarily.
Ben inhales deeply. Even the memory of the dream is overwhelming. He slowly counts to ten. One…two…three…four…five…six…seven…eight…nine…TEN!
‘She is mine’! He reassures himself aloud in the early morning chill filling his room. A creak in the floorboards above tells him that Jenna is out of bed. His daughter never moved out of the large family home in Donnybrook. When she married, her husband simply moved in. ‘How many years is it since Geoff left’ he thinks distractedly? Followed quickly by a thought of mounting panic. He hopes that he didn’t call out too loudly.
Pleased that he has meticulously covered his tracks over the past eight years. Lately, he is finding it harder to hide things. This troubles him exceedingly. There have been a few lapses, the occasional slip of the tongue. The odd look from Jenna. Of course he managed to kick to touch in that seamless old-world way of his. Still, it bothers him. She must never know anything about this. No one must ever know.
A paralysis of fear consumes him now. The unwelcome fact breaks through into his consciousness. He did not want to act. Of course it was not his fault. The Englishman provokes him systematically. He is the aggressor. He has to be thwarted. In truth, since he first became aware of George Wilson in early February he has not had an easy night. ‘He simply doesn’t get it that she is mine’ he spits out. Marjorie, his partner of two years, is the right type of woman to adorn his table when she is not with her own family in Rathmichael. She manages him just like Beth used to do except that she is self-centred.
He hates to admit it to himself but Clara connects with his soul. He was raised to believe that the soul must always succumb to the prudence of the head. ‘There’s no place for us to go’ he informed Clara succinctly on her final attempt to penetrate his life two years ago.
Now, their last face-to-face meeting throbs in his head. He instantly realised, when he returned to the table where they were having coffee in Ballsbridge after paying the bill to find it empty, that he had gone too far this time. His arrogance for the first time overstepped her mark. He knew it for a half-dozen years. Clara loves him. She believes in him. In the starkness of the night he admits that he doesn’t believe in himself. How can he? He has abused her faith. He has played callously with her trust.
Then, the dark voice to be reckoned with in his head intervenes. ‘She should have known these things, that she doesn’t measure up. The pathetic innocent has only herself to blame’.
A violent burst of white anger passes through him like a bolt of lightning.
‘Clara is a fucking whore’! he spits out venomously. She responds to his sexuality so she is contemptible. Marjorie rarely sleeps with him these days. A cold shadow crosses his aquiline, well-sculpted face. The virus is her excuse but he knows better. He swallows hard against the pillow.
The outburst is almost instantaneously replaced by the deepest sense of love for Clara. He smiles when he remembers her outspokenness. Secretly he admires the way she thinks for herself. Her feistiness excites him. Fact is she is so lucky to have him around. She needs him. Her problem is that she doesn’t know how lucky she is. How he can make her feel safe in the world. Something that she has never known. ‘She fucking wants more. How ungrateful can a wanton be’ he whispers as the floorboards creak overhead again. A ghostly smile sits on his face as he corrects himself. ‘She wanted more.’
All his life, it torments him that he cannot be with a woman with whom he is sexually at ease. ‘Prudence at all costs’ his father used to say.
He changes his alarm. Switches off the bedside lamp. Feels vulnerable. Browne figured him out with his complex algorithms alright. But look how long it took him! A sick smile against the crumpled white sheet in the early morning light. ‘He has nothing on me’, Ben McDuff affirms quietly with the greatest satisfaction. Then, unsolicited raw fear rises in his belly as he grudgingly acknowledges that the Englishman has forced his hand. The bastard has made him do something that potentially leaves him exposed. A cold shiver runs through his whole body, akin to someone walking on his grave. Naturally, he planned the operation with the utmost precision. Still, he stoically acknowledges that there is no such thing as the ‘perfect murder’.