The man next to me on the plane was so tall he couldn’t fit in his seat. His elbows jutted out over the armrests and his knees were jammed against the seat in front, so that the person in it glanced around in irritation every time he moved. The man twisted, trying to cross and uncross his legs, and inadvertently kicked the person to his right.
‘Sorry,’ he said.
He sat motionless for a few minutes, breathing deeply through his nostrils with his hands clenched in his lap, but before long he became restless and tried to move his legs again so that the whole bank of seats in front of him was jolted back and forth. Finally I asked him if he wanted to change seats, since mine was on the aisle, and he accepted with alacrity, as if I had offered him a business opportunity.
‘Usually I travel in executive class,’ he explained, while we got up and changed places. ‘There’s a lot more legroom.’
He stretched out into the aisle and his head fell against the back of the seat in relief.
‘Thank you very much,’ he said.
The plane began to move slowly out over the tarmac. My neighbour gave a contented sigh and appeared almost instantly to fall asleep. An air hostess came up the aisle and stopped at his legs.
‘Sir?’ she said. ‘Sir?’
He jerked awake and folded himself awkwardly back into the narrow space in front so that she could pass. The plane paused for a few minutes and then lurched forward and then paused again. Through the window a queue of planes could be seen ahead, waiting their turn. The man’s head began to nod and soon his legs were splayed once more across the aisle. The air hostess returned.
‘Sir?’ she said. ‘We need to keep the aisle clear for take-off.’
He sat up.
‘Sorry,’ he said.
She moved away and gradually his head began to nod again. Outside a haze stood over the flat grey landscape so that it seemed to merge with the overcast sky in horizontal bands of such subtle variation that it almost resembled the sea. In the seats in front a woman and a man were talking. It’s so sad, the woman said, and the man grunted in reply. It’s just really sad, she repeated. There was a pounding of footsteps up the carpeted aisle and the air hostess reappeared. She put her hand on my neighbour’s shoulder and shook it.
‘I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to keep your legs out of the way,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry,’ the man said. ‘I can’t seem to stay awake.’
‘I’m going to have to ask that you do,’ she said.
‘I didn’t actually get to bed last night,’ he said.
‘I’m afraid that’s not my problem,’ she said. ‘You’re putting other passengers at risk by obstructing the aisle.’
He rubbed his face and rearranged himself in his chair. He took out his phone and checked it and put it back in his pocket. She waited, watching him. Finally, as though satisfied that he had genuinely obeyed her, she went away. He shook his head and made a gesture of incomprehension, as though to an unseen audience. He was somewhere in his forties, with a face that was both handsome and unexceptional, and his tall frame was clad with the clean, well-pressed neutrality of a businessman’s weekend attire. He wore a heavy silver watch on his wrist and new-looking leather shoes on his feet; he exuded an air of anonymous and slightly provisional manliness, like a soldier in uniform. By now the plane had made its halting progress up the queue and was slowly turning in a wide arc towards the runway. The haze had turned to rain and droplets ran down the window pane. The man looked out with an exhausted stare at the gleaming tarmac. The clamour of the engines was rising around us and the plane finally surged forward, then rose tipping and rattling through layers of thick wadded cloud. For a while the dull green network of fields beneath us with its block-like houses and huddled groups of trees returned to sight through sporadic rents in the grey before it closed over them. The man emitted another deep sigh and in a few minutes had gone back to sleep, his head lolling forward over his chest. The cabin lights flickered on and the sounds of activity began. Before long the air hostess was at our row, where the sleeping man had once more stretched his legs out into the aisle.
‘Sir?’ she said. ‘Excuse me? Sir?’
He lifted his head and looked around himself, bewildered. When he saw the air hostess standing there with her trolley he slowly and effortfully withdrew his legs so that she could pass. She watched with pursed lips, her eyebrows arched.
‘Thank you,’ she said, with barely concealed sarcasm.
‘It’s not my fault,’ he said to her.
Her painted eyes fell on him momentarily. Their expression was cold.
‘I’m just trying to do my job,’ she said.
‘I realise that,’ he said. ‘But it’s not my fault that the seats are too close together.’
There was a pause in which the two of them looked at one another.
‘You’ll have to take that up with the airline,’ she said.
‘I’m taking it up with you,’ he said.
She folded her arms and lifted her chin.
‘Most of the time I travel business,’ he said, ‘so it isn’t usually a problem.’
‘We don’t offer business class on this flight,’ she said. ‘But there are plenty of other carriers who do.’
‘So your suggestion is that I fly with someone else,’ he said.
‘That’s right,’ she said.
‘Brilliant,’ he said. ‘Thank you very much.’
He gave a sour bark of laughter at her departing back. For a while he continued to smile self-consciously, like someone who has mistakenly wandered out onstage, and then, apparently to disguise his feelings of exposure, he turned to me and asked the reason for my trip to Europe.
I said I was a writer and was on my way to speak at a literary festival.
Immediately his face assumed an expression of polite interest.
‘My wife’s a big reader,’ he said. ‘She belongs to one of those book clubs.’
A silence fell.
‘What kind of thing do you write?’ he said, after a while.
I said it was hard to explain and he nodded his head. He drummed his fingers on his thighs and tapped a disjointed rhythm with his shoes on the carpeted floor. He shook his head from side to side and rubbed his fingers vigorously over his scalp.
‘If I don’t talk,’ he said finally, ‘I’ll just go to sleep again.’
He said it pragmatically, as though he was used to solving problems at the expense of personal feeling, but when I turned to look at him I was surprised to see a pleading expression on his face. His eyes were red-rimmed with yellow whites and his neatly cut hair stood on end where he had rubbed it.
‘Apparently they lower the oxygen levels in the cabin before take-off to make people sleepy,’ he said, ’so they shouldn’t really complain when it works. I have a friend who flies these things,’ he added. ‘He was the one who told me that.’
The strange thing about this friend, the man went on, was that despite his profession he was a fanatical environmentalist. He drove a tiny electric car and ran his household entirely on solar panels and windmills.
‘When he comes to our place for dinner,’ he said, ‘you’ll find him out by the recycling bins while everyone else is four sheets to the wind, sorting the food packaging and the empties. His idea of a holiday,’ he said, ‘is carrying all his own gear up a Welsh mountainside and sitting in a tent in the rain for two weeks talking to the sheep.’
Yet this same man regularly donned a uniform and climbed into the cockpit of a fifty-ton smoke-spewing machine and flew a cabin-load of drunken holidaymakers to the Canary Islands. It was hard to think of a worse route to fly, yet his friend had flown it for years. He worked for a budget airline that practised the most brutal economies, and apparently the passengers behaved like zoo animals. He took them out white and he brought them back orange, and despite earning less than anyone else in their circle of friends, he gave half his income to charity.
‘The thing is,’ he said perplexedly, ‘he’s just a really nice guy. I’ve known him for years, and it’s almost like the worse things are, the nicer he becomes. He told me once,’ he said, ‘that in the cockpit they have a screen where they can watch what’s going on in the cabin. He said that at first he couldn’t stand looking at it because it was so depressing seeing the way these people conducted themselves. But after a while he started to become sort of obsessed with it. He’s watched hundreds of hours of it. It’s a bit like meditation, he says. Even so,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t be able to stand working in that world. The first thing I did when I retired was cut up my frequent flyer’s card. I swore I’d never get on one of these things again.’
I said he seemed very young to be retired.
‘I kept a spreadsheet on my desktop called “Freedom”,’ he said, with a sideways grin. ‘It was basically just columns of figures that had to add up to a certain number, and when they did I could leave.’
He had been the director of a global management company, he said, a job that involved being constantly away from home. For example, it wasn’t unusual for him to visit Asia, North America and Australia all in the space of two weeks. He had once flown to South Africa for a meeting and flown back again as soon as the meeting was over. Several times, he and his wife had worked out where the halfway point was between their two locations and then met there for a holiday. Once, when the company’s Australasian branch had gone into meltdown and he’d had to stay over there to sort it out, he hadn’t seen his children for three months. He’d started work at eighteen and now he was forty-six, and he hoped he would have enough time to live the whole of his working life in reverse. He had a house in the Cotswolds he’d barely set foot in and a whole garage full of bikes and skis and sporting equipment he’d never had time to use; he had friends and family he’d spent the past two decades mostly saying hello and goodbye to, since he was usually either going away and had to prepare and go to bed early, or coming back exhausted. He had read somewhere about a medieval method of punishment that involved incarcerating the prisoner in a space specially designed to prevent him from being able to fully extend his limbs in any direction, and though just thinking about it made him break out in a sweat, it pretty much summed up the way he had lived.
I asked him whether his release from that prison had lived up to the title of his spreadsheet.
‘It’s funny you should say that,’ he said. ‘Since I left work I find that I’m constantly getting into arguments with people. My family complain that now I’m at home all the time, I’m trying to control them. They haven’t actually said,’ he added, ‘that they wish we could go back to how things were. But I know they’re thinking it.’
He couldn’t believe, for example, how late they slept in the morning. All those years that he’d left the house before dawn, the thought of their slumbering forms in the darkness had often made him feel purposeful and protective. If he’d realised how idle they were he might not have seen it the same way. Sometimes he had to wait until lunchtime for them to get up: he had started going into their rooms and opening the curtains, as his father used to do every morning when he was growing up, and was astonished by the hostility this action elicited. He had tried to schedule their mealtimes – they all, he had discovered, ate different foods at different times of day – and to institute an exercise routine, and was trying hard to believe that the full-scale revolt these measures provoked was proof of their necessity.
‘I spend a lot of time talking to the cleaner,’ he said. ‘She turns up at eight. She says she’s been dealing with these issues for years.’
He recounted all this with an abashed and easy confidentiality that made it clear he spoke for the purposes of entertainment rather than to arouse consternation. A deprecating smile played around his mouth, showing an even row of strong white teeth. He had grown more animated while he spoke, and his desperate, wild-eyed demeanour had softened into the genial mask of the raconteur. I had the impression that these were stories he had told before and liked to tell, as though he had discovered the power and pleasure of reliving events with their sting removed. The skill, I saw, lay in skirting close enough to what appeared to be the truth without allowing what you actually felt about it to regain its power over you.
I asked him how, given his oath, he had come to find himself on an aeroplane again.
He smiled again somewhat shamefacedly and ran a hand through his fine brown hair.
‘My daughter’s playing in a music festival over there,’ he said. ‘She plays for her school orchestra. The – ah – oboe.’
He had been supposed to fly out with his wife and children yesterday but their dog had been taken ill and he’d had to let them go on without him. It might sound ridiculous, but the dog was probably the most important member of their family. He’d had to sit up with him all night and then drive straight to the airport.
‘To be honest I shouldn’t have been behind the wheel of a car,’ he said in a low voice, leaning his elbow on the armrest between us. ‘I could hardly see straight. I kept passing these signs by the road with the same words on them over and over again and I started to think they’d been put there for me. You know the ones I mean – they’re everywhere. It took me ages to work out what they were. I did wonder,’ he said, with his abashed smile, ‘if I was actually going mad. I couldn’t understand who had chosen them, or why. They seemed to be addressing me personally. Obviously,’ he said, ‘I read the news, but I’ve got a bit behind since leaving work.’
I said it was true that the question of whether to leave or remain was one we usually asked ourselves in private, to the extent that it could almost be said to constitute the innermost core of self-determination. If you were unfamiliar with the political situation in our country, you might think you were witnessing not the machinations of a democracy but the final surrender of personal consciousness into the public domain.
‘The funny thing is,’ the man said, ‘it felt as if I’d been asking myself that question for as long as I could remember.’
I asked him what had happened to the dog.
For a moment he looked confused, as though he couldn’t remember which dog I was talking about. Then he furrowed his brow and pouted and blew out a great sigh.
‘It’s a bit of a long story,’ he said.
The dog – his name was Pilot – was actually quite old, he said, though you wouldn’t have thought it to look at him. He and his wife got Pilot shortly after they were married. They had bought their house in the countryside, he said, and it was an ideal place to have a dog. Pilot was a small puppy, but even then he had the most enormous paws: they knew the breed could get very large, but nothing had prepared them for the extraordinary size to which Pilot eventually grew. Every time they thought he couldn’t get any bigger, he did: sometimes it was almost funny to see how disproportionately small he made everything around him look, their house and their car and even one another.
‘I’m unusually tall,’ he said, ‘and sometimes you get sick of being taller than everyone else. But when I stood next to Pilot, I felt normal.’
His wife was pregnant with their first child and so Pilot became his own project: he didn’t travel as much for work in those days, and for several months he spent most of his free time training Pilot, walking in the hills with him and forming his character. He never spoiled him or gave in to him; he exercised him unfailingly and rewarded him sparingly, and when, as a young dog, Pilot chased a herd of sheep, he beat him with a severity and with a confidence that surprised even himself. Most of all, he was careful how he behaved in front of Pilot, for all the world as if the dog were human, and indeed by the time he reached maturity Pilot possessed an unusual intelligence, as well as a ferocious bark and a giant, muscular body. He treated the family with a sensitivity and consideration that other people found frankly uncanny, though over time they themselves had become used to it. For instance, when their son was seriously ill with pneumonia last year, Pilot had sat outside his room day and night and automatically came to get them if the child called for anything. He was attuned to and even mirrored their daughter’s periodic episodes of depression, which sometimes they had only become aware of because Pilot had grown morose and withdrawn. Yet if a stranger came to the house he would transform himself into a guard dog of the utmost vigilance and ruthlessness. People who didn’t know him were terrified of him, and rightly, because he would have killed them without hesitation if they had presented any threat to the members of the household.
It was when Pilot was three or four years old, the man went on, that he got his major career break and began to be away from home for extended periods of time, and he felt able to leave, knowing that the family would be safe in his absences. Sometimes, he said, when he was away, he would think of the dog and feel almost closer to him than to any other living thing. So he couldn’t have left him in his own hour of need, despite the fact that his daughter was to be the main soloist at the concert and had been practising for weeks. The performance was part of an international festival and there would be a large audience: it was a fantastic opportunity. Yet Betsy didn’t want to let Pilot out of her sight. He had the devil’s own job getting her to go: it was as if she didn’t trust him to look after his own dog.
I asked what piece she was playing and he ruffled his hair again.
‘I’m not actually sure,’ he said. ‘Her mother would know, obviously.’
He hadn’t really realised his daughter was so good at playing the oboe, he added. She had started taking lessons when she was six or seven and frankly it had always sounded pretty awful, to the extent that he had had to ask her to do it in her room. The squeaking noise set his teeth on edge, particularly when he’d come off a long flight. Often he could still hear the reedy, insinuating sound behind her closed door and if he was trying to sleep off his jet lag it was actually quite annoying. He had wondered once or twice whether she did it to persecute him, but apparently she practised just as much when he wasn’t there. Occasionally he had gone so far as to suggest that it might be healthier for her to practise less and do other things more, but this opinion had been met with much the same scorn as his attempts to impose discipline on the family timetable. And to be honest, when asked what he thought she ought to be doing with her time, all he could think of were the kinds of things he’d done at her age – socialising and watching television – that he somehow considered more normal. As far as he was concerned, hardly anything about Betsy was normal. For example, she suffered from insomnia: what average fourteen-year-old can’t sleep? Instead of eating dinner, she would stand by the kitchen cupboards lifting handfuls of dry cereal to her mouth straight from the box. She never went outside and, since her mother drove her everywhere, rarely walked. He had been told that when he wasn’t there she walked Pilot every day, but since he never witnessed it he found it difficult to believe. It had got to the point where he’d started to wonder how she was ever going to leave home, and whether they might have to keep her there forever, like some kind of failed experiment.
Then one evening Betsy was playing in a school concert and he went along with his wife, and with every expectation of being secretly bored sat jammed into a small chair in the auditorium amidst the other parents. The lights came up and in front of the orchestra on the stage stood a girl he took a long time to recognise as Betsy. She seemed much older, for a start; and there was something else, perhaps the fact that she didn’t appear to need him or to reproach him with the problem of her existence, that was startlingly relieving. Once he accepted that it was her, what he felt was the most terrible, ominous fear. He was absolutely certain she would embarrass herself and he clutched his wife’s hand, believing she felt the same way. The conductor arrived – a man he immediately prepared himself to dislike, dressed in black jeans and a black polo-neck sweater – and the orchestra began to play, and at a certain point Betsy started playing too. What he noticed was how closely Betsy watched this conductor and responded to his slightest sign, nodding her head and lifting the instrument to her lips, her large eyes unblinking. Of such a silent feat of intimacy and obedience he had not thought his daughter capable, he who couldn’t persuade her to eat her cereal from a bowl. Only after some minutes did he connect the eerie, snaking sound with her more literally: he had sat in enough audiences to know that this one was charmed, spellbound, and only then was he able to really listen. What he heard drew water from his eyes in such quantities that people began to glance round at him in their seats. Afterwards Betsy claimed she could see him weeping from the stage because of his height. She said it had been embarrassing.
I asked him why he thought he had cried, and his mouth tugged unexpectedly downwards in the corners so that he tried to hide it with his large hand.
‘To be honest,’ he said, ‘I suppose I’d always worried there was something wrong with her.’
I said it seemed to me people often found it easier to entertain that idea about their children than about themselves, and he looked at me as though he were momentarily considering that theory before firmly shaking his head.
From earliest childhood, he said, Betsy had been unlike other children – and not in a good way. She was unbelievably neurotic: when they went to the beach, for example, she couldn’t bear the feeling of sand under her feet and so they would have to carry her everywhere. She couldn’t stand the sounds of certain words and would scream and put her hands over her ears if anyone said them. The list of things she wouldn’t eat, and the reasons why, was so long it was impossible to keep up with. She was allergic to everything and constantly ill and was also, as he’d said, an insomniac. Often he and his wife would wake in the middle of the night to find Betsy standing beside their bed like a ghost in her nightdress, staring down at them. As she grew older the most serious problem of all became her extraordinary sensitivity to what she called lying, but what was actually as far as he could see the normal conventions and speech patterns of adult conversation. She claimed that most of what people said was fake and insincere, and when he’d asked her how she could possibly know that, she replied that she could tell by the sound. As he’d said, even as a very small child the sound of certain words had been unbearable to her, but as she got older and started school this problem became more rather than less pronounced. They had moved her to a different school that dealt with her problems more expertly, but even so it made family and social relationships somewhat difficult when their child would run shrieking from the room with her hands clamped to her ears just because one of their guests had claimed to be so full she couldn’t possibly eat dessert, or that business was booming despite the economic downturn. He and his wife had tried hard to understand their daughter, to the extent that when they talked to each other after the children had gone to bed they would try to inculcate her sensitivity in themselves, straining their ears to hear the insincerity in one another’s phrases, and they had discovered that it was indeed true that much of what you said was pretty scripted and that if you really thought about it you could admit it didn’t often represent how you actually felt. But they still fell foul of Betsy with great regularity, and he had noticed that his wife was growing increasingly silent, which he believed to be Betsy’s doing, by creating such a minefield around communication that it was easier to say nothing at all.
Perhaps for this reason – because he couldn’t speak, and therefore lie – Betsy adored Pilot with a sometimes unnerving ferocity. Yet not long ago there had been an episode that had caused him to question, for the first time, Betsy’s definition of truth and her tyranny in the matter of storytelling. He had taken her out with him to walk Pilot and the dog had suddenly bolted. They were in the park of a stately home and somehow he had failed to realise that they kept deer there and had let Pilot off his lead. Usually Pilot was scrupulously obedient around livestock, but on this occasion he had behaved in a way that was completely out of character. One minute he was there beside them, and the next he was gone.
‘You wouldn’t believe that animal’s speed,’ he said. ‘He was an enormous dog and when he chose to move there was no way anyone could catch him. He’d lengthen his stride and just change into another gear altogether. He was fifty yards away before we knew it,’ he said, ‘and we just stood there and watched him flying across the park. When the deer saw him they started to run, although it was already far too late for them to escape. There must have been hundreds of them. I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen anything like that,’ he said, ‘but in an awful way it’s a beautiful sight. They run in a body, like water. We watched them streaming over the park with Pilot on their heels and despite everything I was almost mesmerised by it. They kept turning and doubling back in a big figure of eight and he followed them but it was almost as if he was steering them, making them describe some pattern he already had in his head. For about five minutes they carried on like that, round and round in these big flowing lines, and then suddenly it was as if he got bored or decided it needed to end. Completely effortlessly he just doubled his speed and he penetrated the body of the herd and he picked off one of the young ones and he brought it down. There was this woman standing near us,’ he said, ‘and she started screaming at us and saying she was going to report us and get someone to come and shoot him, and I was trying to calm her down and we suddenly heard this noise behind us and we look round and Betsy has fainted. She’s lying there out cold on the grass and there’s blood coming from her head where she hit a stone as she fell. Honestly,’ he said, ‘she looked like she was dead. Pilot had taken off into the woods by this point and the woman was so worried about Betsy that she forgot about shooting the dog and helped me carry her to the car and came with us all the way to the hospital. Betsy was fine, of course.’
He laughed grimly and shook his head.
I asked him what happened to the dog.
‘Oh, he came back that night,’ he said. ‘I heard him at the door and when I opened it he didn’t come in but just stood there outside looking at me. He was absolutely filthy and covered in blood and he knew what was coming to him. He expected it. I hated beating him though,’ he said sadly. ‘I only had to do it two or three times in his life. We both knew he couldn’t have been what he was without it. But Betsy refused to accept what he had done. She wouldn’t touch him or speak to him for weeks. She wouldn’t speak to me either. She just didn’t get it at all. I said to her, you know, you don’t train a dog by sulking and being in a mood with him. You’ll just make him sly and dishonest. You know, I said to her, the reason you feel safe when I’m not here is because you know that if anyone tried to hurt any of you, Pilot would do to them what he did to that deer. He might sit on the sofa with you and bring you things and lie next to you on the bed when you’re ill, but when someone he doesn’t know knocks at the door he’s ready to kill them if need be. He’s an animal, I said, and he needs to be disciplined, but when you impose your sensitivities on him you interfere with his nature.’
He was silent for a while, his chin lifted, staring down the grey aisle where the air hostess was pushing her trolley through the sea of people. She turned to left and right, bending from the waist across the rows, the lifted corners of her eyes and mouth so sharply delineated that they almost seemed to have been intricately carved out of the smooth oval of her head. Her automatic movements were hypnotising and the man appeared to go into a kind of daze watching her. After a while his head began to nod forward until it fell with such a jolt that he sat up again.
‘Sorry,’ he said.
He rubbed his face energetically, and after staring past me out of the window for a while and breathing deeply through his nose, he asked me whether I had ever been to this part of Europe before.
I told him I had gone there only once, years ago, with my son. He was finding life difficult at the time, I said, and I had thought a trip away would be good for him. But then at the last minute I had decided to take another boy along too, the son of a friend of mine. My friend was ill and needed to go to hospital and so I thought it would help her. The two boys didn’t get on very well, I said, and my friend’s son needed a lot of attention, so while my own son might have expected to be my focus for a few days, in the end it didn’t work out like that. There was an exhibition I very much wanted to see and so one morning I persuaded the two of them to come with me to the gallery. I had thought we could walk there but I had judged the distances wrongly and we ended up walking for miles along a sort of motorway in the pouring rain. It turned out my friend’s son never went to galleries and wasn’t interested in art, and he began to misbehave, so that the attendants had to reprimand him and eventually asked him to leave. In the end I had to sit with him in the café in our wet clothes while my son went to the exhibition on his own. He was gone for about an hour, I said, and when he came back he described everything he’d seen for me. I didn’t know, I said, whether it was ever possible to ascribe a final value to the experience of parenthood, to ever see it in its totality, but that time we spent in the café while he talked was one of its moments of grace. One of the things he’d seen was a giant wooden crate in which the artist had reconstructed his own room in its life-sized entirety. Everything was there – furniture, clothes, typewriter, piles of paper and books lying open on the desk, dirty coffee cups – but it had been inverted so that the floor was the ceiling and the whole room was upside down. My son had been particularly struck by this upside-down room, which you entered through a small doorway in the crate, and had spent a long time inside it. Often, I said, in the years afterwards, I would remember his description of it and imagine him sitting there, in a world that contains all the same elements but is the other way round from how you expect it to be.
The man was listening with an expression of mild puzzlement on his face.
‘And did he go on to become an artist?’ he said, as though that could be the only explanation for my telling him these things.
He would be going to university in the autumn, I said, to study art history.
‘Oh, okay,’ he said, nodding his head.
His own son, he said, was the academic type, far more so than Betsy. He wanted to be a vet. He kept all sorts of weird animals in his room: a chinchilla, a snake, a pair of rats. They had a friend who was a vet and his son spent most of his weekends there, at the surgery. It was his son, in fact, who had noticed there was something wrong with Pilot. The dog had been very quiet and subdued for the past couple of weeks. They had put it down to his age, but then one evening his son was fondling Pilot and noticed a swelling in his side. A couple of days later, when his wife was out and the children were at school, he took Pilot to his vet friend, not really thinking anything of it. The vet examined him and said that Pilot had cancer.
He paused and looked past me out of the window again.
‘I didn’t really know dogs could have cancer,’ he said. ‘I’d never thought about how Pilot would die. I asked whether he could operate and he said there was no point – it was too far gone. So he gave him some drugs for the pain and I drove him home again. All the way home,’ he said, ‘I kept seeing Pilot as he was when he was young and strong and powerful. I thought about all the years he had been here while I was away for weeks at a time, and the fact that he was fading now that I had retired seemed significant somehow. Most of all I dreaded telling the others, because to be honest I’m not sure they wouldn’t rather have had Pilot than me. I started to feel I had upset everything by coming home. They had all seemed so happy when I wasn’t there, and now my wife and I were arguing all the time and the kids were shouting and slamming doors and to top it all,’ he said, ‘I’d caused the dog to get ill, when he’d never shown a second of weakness his whole life. Anyway,’ he said, ‘I did tell them, though admittedly I made it sound less serious than it was. We had arranged for him to go to kennels while we were abroad but I knew he wouldn’t make it, so I told them to go on without me. They were pretty suspicious. They made me promise to phone them if he got worse so that they could come back. They even called that evening from the hotel and made me swear I wouldn’t let Pilot die while they were away. I said he was okay and that it was just a cold or something and that he’d probably be fine in the morning.’ He paused and looked at me sideways. ‘I didn’t even tell my wife.’
I asked him why not and he paused again.
‘When she was giving birth to the kids she didn’t want me to be there,’ he said. ‘I remember her saying she wouldn’t be able to handle the pain if I was in the room. She had to do it on her own. They loved Pilot,’ he said, ‘but it was me who had trained him and disciplined him and made him what he was. In a sense I created him,’ he said, ‘to stand in for me when I wasn’t there. I don’t think anyone could have understood what I felt about him, not even them. And the idea of them being there and of their feelings having to take priority over mine was pretty unbearable, which I think,’ he said, ‘was more or less what she meant.
‘Anyway,’ he went on, ‘Pilot had this big bed in the kitchen where he used to sleep and he was lying there stretched out on his side and so I went and got some cushions and I made him as comfortable as I could and I sat down next to him on the floor. He was panting very fast and he was looking at me with these huge, sad eyes and for a long time we just stayed there, looking at each other. I stroked his head and talked to him and he lay there panting and at around midnight I started to wonder how long this was going to go on for. I didn’t really know anything about the dying process – I’ve never been with someone when they died – and I realised I was beginning to feel impatient. It wasn’t even that I wanted him to get it over with for his own sake. I just wanted something to happen. For pretty much my whole adult life,’ he said, ‘I’ve been on my way somewhere or on my way back. I’ve never been in any situation without the prospect of it ending or of having to leave at a set time and even though that way of living was sometimes unpleasant, in a sense I’d become addicted to it. At the same time I was thinking about how people say you should put animals out of their misery, and I wondered whether what I ought to be doing was knocking him out or putting a pillow over his face and whether I was just too weak or scared. And it felt weirdly like Pilot would have known the answer to that question. In the end at about two in the morning I cracked and called the vet and he said that if I wanted him to, he would come straight over and give him an injection. So I asked him what would happen if we just left it as it was and he said he didn’t know – it could be hours or it could be days or even weeks. It’s up to you, he said. So I said to him, look, is the dog dying or not? And he said yes, of course he’s dying, but it’s a mysterious process and you can either wait it out or you can choose to bring it to an end. And then I started to think about Betsy playing in her concert the next day and about how tired I’d be and all the things I had to do and so I told him to come over. And he was there fifteen minutes later.’
I asked him what happened in those fifteen minutes.
‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘Nothing at all. I was still sitting there and Pilot was still panting and gazing at me with these big eyes and I didn’t feel anything particularly, just that I was waiting for someone to come and get me out of this situation. It felt like it had become false, yet now,’ he said, ‘I would give literally anything to be back in it, to be back in that room in that precise moment of time.
‘Eventually the vet came and it was very quick and he closed Pilot’s eyes and gave me a number to call in the morning for someone to come and take the body away, and then he left. So there I was in the same room with the same dog, only now the dog was dead. I started to think about what my wife and kids would say if they knew, if they could see me sitting there, and I realised then that I had done something awful, something they would never have done, something so cowardly and unnatural and now so completely irreversible that it felt like I would never, ever get over it and that things would never be the same again. And in a way it was just to hide the evidence of what I’d done that I decided to bury him then and there. I went out to the shed in the dark and got a spade and then I chose a place in the garden and I started to dig. And all the time I was digging I couldn’t tell whether what I was doing was manly and honourable or just fake as well, because at the same time as I was digging I was imagining telling people about it. I was imagining them thinking about my physical strength and my decisiveness, but in fact it was much harder work than I had expected. At the beginning I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it. Yet I knew there was absolutely no way I could give up. I could see how it would look in daylight, me sitting there with a dead dog and a half-dug mess in the garden. The ground was incredibly hard and the spade kept hitting rocks and the hole had to be pretty big to fit Pilot in it. Once or twice I thought I was going to have to admit defeat. Yet after a while,’ he said, ‘I started to feel that this actually was what it was like to be a man. I realised that I felt anger, and that it was anger that was giving me the strength to do it and so I let myself get angrier and angrier until in the end I wasn’t even afraid of what the family would say because they hadn’t had to kill the dog and then dig this hole to bury him in. One of the phrases my wife had started to use when we argued about the way she ran things was: “You weren’t here”. I always hated it, but now I could imagine saying it back to her. I realised how angry she must have been to say it and suddenly I was glad that Pilot was dead. I was actually glad, because it felt like without him we were going to have to admit what we truly felt.’
He paused, an expression of bewilderment on his face.
‘I finished digging the hole,’ he went on after a while, ‘and I went back into the house and I wrapped Pilot in a blanket. I picked him up from his bed and he was so unbelievably heavy I almost dropped him. It would have been easier to drag him,’ he said, ‘but I knew I couldn’t let myself do that because I was already starting to become frightened of the body. When I went back into the house and saw him lying there dead,’ he said, ‘I had the most unbelievable urge to run away. I had to believe it was still Pilot,’ he said, ‘or I couldn’t have gone through with it. In the end I had to hold him right against my chest,’ he said, ‘and even then I managed to bang his head on the door frame on my way out, and I was talking to him and apologising to him out loud and somehow I staggered outside with him and got him across the garden and put him in the hole. It was starting to get light. I arranged him all nicely, then I went back inside and got some of his things from his bed and put them down there with him. Then I filled the hole with earth and tided it and marked the edges with stones. Then I went and packed my bag and had a shower. I was absolutely filthy,’ he said. ‘I had to throw away my shirt. Then I got in the car and drove to the airport.’
He spread out his large hands in front of him and examined them back and front. They were clean, except for the dark, compacted half-moons of dirt under the nails. He looked at me.
‘The only thing I couldn’t get out was the mud under my fingernails,’ he said.
Copyright © 2018 by Rachel Cusk