Harry raised her arm and observed the damp patch that had begun to blossom in the armpit of her t-shirt. She’d always been a heavy sweater, ever since puberty first coated her skin with downy fur, transforming the climate of her body into something dank and grotty. Over the years, that fur had developed into a thicket of wiry hair that spread unevenly from her ankle to her groin, and was also a major contributing factor, or so she suspected, to the stains that turned the underarms of her vests and t-shirts yellow. She poked her nose into the crevice and inhaled. Fag butts in the dregs of an old beer can. She’d always had an excellent nose for smell.
Using both hands to prevent the shakes from causing a spillage, Harry reached across the cluttered kitchen counter and grabbed hold of the coffee pot. The pot was a recent purchase. To get the largest and cheapest option on Amazon she’d been obliged to buy the one advertised as ‘Family Size’, a description she considered a targeted and unpleasant kind of irony. It wasn’t that she wanted kids – she could think of nothing more tiresome – nor did she want what was known in the infantilising and business-oriented language of contemporary romance as ‘a partner’. Someone to hold your hand as you crossed the road? To co-author your tax return? A Fleshlight would be more romantic. Love, in Harry’s limited experience, was like tripping on a dislodged paving stone and smacking your head on the curb. You have no idea what’s happened until you come around sometime later, sore, lonely and embarrassed, usually relieved of the contents of your wallet along with whatever scraps of dignity you had left to lose.
Without bothering to pour herself a glass of water, which would have involved the impossible task of locating a clean glass, Harry fished a blister pack of co-codamol out of the pocket of her decrepit towelling dressing-gown. She chucked two pills into her gummy mouth, swallowed them with the small amount of spit she was able to muster, and flopped onto the sofa, which rocked as it took her weight on account of a missing back foot. The problem with family size, she thought – gearing herself up to return to a bugbear that was by now so well-worn it had the texture of a threadbare shirt – beyond the fact that she was perfectly capable of drinking three pots of coffee a day all by herself, was that it belonged in what Harry called The Obnoxious Dictionary of Presumptuous Marketing Vocabulary. Harry kept a list of the dictionary’s entries in her head. At the top of that list, and considerably worse in her estimation than family size, was the use of the word ‘boyfriend’, an egregious act of sartorial straightening when placed before ‘shirt’, ‘jumper’, ‘jacket’ or ‘jeans’, that made everything sound like something put on after waking up in some teenage loser’s bedroom, next to a tit-shaped bong and a guitar he can barely play. Harry pictured a sleepy girl, crawling out of bed and putting on one of said boyfriend’s jumpers. In her mind, she looked like any one of the dimple-cheeked, desire-by-algorithm girls who she wasted hours lusting over online. The jumper swamped her, the too-long sleeves extending over her hands like mittens, the hem brushing against her soft thighs. Forgetting why she had gone down this particular rabbit hole in the first place, Harry set about cajoling her imagination into making the girl bend over, in order to see if she was wearing any underwear.
Before Harry could compel her mind into completing the task, she was distracted from the reverie by a strangled yelping noise. Conked out on a sleeping bag in the corner of the room, Sontag was kicking her little black paws in the air and making a strange faraway sound like a wolf yowling underwater. Sontag’s face looked particularly ghoulish when she was sleeping. Her lone eye had rolled all the way back in her skull, exposing the white of an eyeball covered in a web of jelly-soft veins. Her lips were also twitching, intermittently flashing her yellow teeth and revealing the meaty pink of her gums.
Unsure if the yowling was evidence of a nightmare or a dream, Harry demurred from waking her. In the best-case scenario, she thought, the whimpers were a sign of pleasure. Maybe Sontag was finally wrapping her jaws around the grubby tortoiseshell cat that spent its days lingering in the stairwell, flaunting its swollen arsehole to passersby like a florist hawking a single hideous orchid. All the water at ground level was a breeding ground for parasites, as a consequence of which a great many of the pets in the floodzone had been reduced to walking prolapses, a fate that Sontag had so far managed to avoid. If Sontag was dreaming of pussy, Harry thought – however revolting that pussy may be – it was a dream she didn’t wish to intrude upon.
In the worst-case scenario, however, in which case Harry would want to shake her back to consciousness – a decision not to be taken lightly given Sontag’s liberal attitude to biting – she was reliving a past traumatic episode. Not long after her arrival at Harry’s flat, Sontag had been chased through the floodwater by a demented golden cockapoo who had escaped from one of the houses in the dryzones. Perhaps the freedom had gone to the dog’s head. Perhaps it had been bitten by an infected tick. Perhaps something in the water, a diseased rat or chemical spillage, had poisoned it to the point of madness. After what felt like forever, Sontag eventually got away. A few days later Harry found the stiff, sodden corpse of the cockapoo washed up against the metal fence around the basketball court in the centre of the estate, its hind legs tangled in a Tesco carrier bag, the green plastic wrapper of a sanitary towel hooked around its snout, its once decadent locks forlorn and stinking.
Harry believed the incident had inflicted a psychological wound on Sontag’s already complicated personality, and that her humiliation at the hands of this curly-haired monstrosity had determined a pattern of psychosexual dynamics. In addition to the growling, gnashing and occasional unprovoked attacks of ankle-biting, there was also the curious matter of Sontag’s erotic proclivities. In spite of her generally ferocious demeanour, she submitted exclusively to breeds that looked like they’d been plucked from the imagination of a toddler hooked up to an IV drip of ketamine. Harry despaired at the thought of her rolling over for the obese pug on the ninth floor with a wheeze like a 40-a-day smoker, or lifting up her leg in invitation to the Shih Tzu on the third, a dog whose pom-pom tail was permanently dip-dyed brown by the floodwater.
Harry had found Sontag via an advert on Gumtree, in the time before all of her shopping needs were fulfilled by Amazon Prime. ‘Puppies for sale’, the advert said, above a photograph of a litter of eight-week-old Staffordshire bullterriers snuggled up together in a wicker basket. Desiring a dog big enough to fend off potential intruders, she put down a deposit of a hundred pounds. Two days later a woman came knocking at her front door, baseball cap pulled low over her eyes, nervously tapping the toes of her government-issue waders on the concrete walkway. The puppy, it turned out, wasn’t a Staffordshire bullterrier puppy at all, but a fully-grown Chihuahua bitch, her black fur already beginning to turn salt-and-pepper around the muzzle. She was also missing her right eye, the lids of which had been crudely stitched together in a jagged line with plastic wire that poked out like stubby lashes. Looking at the dog’s botched face, Harry was surprised to find she didn’t care. In fact, more than not caring, she saw in her a kindred spirit. After all, Harry made a living out of pretending to be someone she wasn’t. Instead of demanding her deposit back, she transferred the remaining £200 to the woman’s PayPal account, removed a metal tag from the dog’s collar with a phone number and the name ‘Coco’ engraved on it, lobbed it over the balcony, and carried Sontag inside.
At the sound of footsteps in the corridor, Sontag woke, growled half-heartedly, and settled back down to sleep: the neighbour’s shoes clacking on the walkway, his out-of-time gait giving him away. Despite having lived next door to George Waits for over a decade, Harry had so far managed to avoid any interaction beyond the rare hello or nod of the head. In fact, she only knew his name because the postman seemed chronically unable to tell the difference between flats 36 and 37, which meant Harry had accumulated a not-insignificant quantity of his mail. Bank statements, in the most part, from which she had gleaned he was badly in debt on account of his regular custom of Lucky Online Casino – but she also received catalogues for tactical clothing, and had been pleased, on occasion, to acquire unexpected gifts that he had bought for himself. There had been the pocketknife with a torch attachment, the sleeping bag that Sontag had claimed for her own, and the pair of night-vision goggles, none of which George Waits came looking for. The goggles in particular had been a revelation during the electricity blackouts that had become a regular occurrence ever since the rains came. Last week there had been a blackout that lasted all afternoon and right through the night.
When Harry’s phone and laptop ran out of battery, and there was nothing left to do, she sat in the pitch-black living room with the goggles on, attached to her head with an elaborate strapping system that went over the crown of her skull and under her chin, and watched Sontag staring into the darkness. The edges of her tiny body glowed purple and orange in the infrared light, her one eye lit up green like a blazing, spectral orb. Contrary to expectation, she was surprised to find that Sontag spent a good deal of the night awake. Ruminating on something significant, Harry thought, although she had no idea what.
Over the years Harry had built a profile of her neighbour. George Waits lived alone. He was partially deaf, going by the volume of his television. Every evening the canned laughter tracks from ancient sitcoms travelled through the walls like a gang of asinine poltergeists. In the past he must have sustained some kind of injury to his left leg, which he dragged slightly as he walked. He worked six days a week, leaving at 8.45 a.m. and returning at 6.15 p.m. like clockwork, dressed in the same cheap black suit and government-issue waders and carrying the same battered umbrella. His thinning hair was home-dyed the colour of a digestive biscuit, and his body, clearly once strong, had sagged in the way that bodies do when they spend the majority of their time sat in chairs. Putting the evidence together, Harry concluded that he was an ex-military man in his early sixties, and that he worked as a security guard in one of the business parks in the dryzone beyond the dual carriageway, seeing out his life in the mausoleum of an entrance lobby while double-screening a CCTV monitor and the Lucky Online Casino website.
By 9 a.m. the unpleasant aroma emanating from Harry’s armpits had begun to waft upwards through the neckline of her t-shirt. She tightened her dressing gown around her body in an attempt to muffle the stench. Thankfully it was a problem that no longer particularly bothered her. For all she cared, or so she told herself anyway, the world outside could drown itself in a bath of antibacterial hand wash, and there was nobody else around to complain about her personal hygiene. There was only Sontag, and true to her kind she was a connoisseur of bad smells. Harry swallowed the remains of her coffee through gritted teeth. Caffeine made her hands moist and jittery, and she imagined the same thing happening on the level of every pore, each minuscule opening twitching and slimy and queasy. While coffee may have been a significant cause of her olfactory unpleasantness, as well as her physical unsteadiness, she considered it a necessary counterbalance to the wine she was in the habit of consuming in the evenings. Without it, her brain would never drag itself out of the swamp. Evidence of Harry’s prodigious drinking could be found spattered up the living room wall. One night not so long ago, she had sat slumped on Sontag’s sleeping bag trying to open a bottle of wine with the back of a spoon, too drunk to find the corkscrew. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. It also wasn’t the first time that the corkscrew had been in the cutlery drawer all along, where she always left it. When she finally managed to bash in the cork, a stream of liquid squirted over the sofa and up the wall in a bloodlike spatter that reached all the way to the ceiling.
Most evenings Harry would call it a night after a single bottle of Rainforest Red, the cheapest bottle of Amazon own-brand wine available for delivery to the floodzone. Despite the promise of ‘dark fruits and cedar notes’ it tasted like pepper and paracetamol. An unpleasant flavour, but one that she had come to appreciate. On rare occasions, when Harry was feeling especially decorous, she would leave a centimetre of wine at the bottom of the bottle as a gesture of her abstemiousness and powers of self-control. Sometimes – if she was being honest, at least three times a week – she would drink as if possessed, chasing down glass after glass and speeding up as she went until she entered into free fall. The effect was like running as fast as she could with an elastic cord attached to her back. Eventually she reached her limit and came hurtling backwards. Last night had been one of those occasions. By 10 p.m., Harry had finished the second bottle of Rainforest Red and had turned her attention to the Marmot Brandy that had arrived with the week’s Amazon food delivery. Sometime before midnight she blanked out while binge-watching Selena Grande music videos, mesmerised by the sight of the singer rolling around in a wet t-shirt or posing by the side of a pool, her enormous ponytail accentuating the tininess of her body, looking like she’d entered the twilight zone of lobotomised erotics. It was a vision taken straight from the imagination of every poisoned id, every one of the billions of creeps whose brains had been addled by porno fantasies of tranquillised feminine submission – intern, stepsister, cheerleader, secretary, babysitter – Harry’s included. She eventually conked out with her laptop on at full volume, leaving it to descend into the abject hole of YouTube autoplay, the algorithm spiralling downwards through the various layers of musical hell until she woke at 1 a.m., fully clothed and choking on her own spit, to the sound of Ed Sheeran crooning on about happy-ever-afters. I found a love, to carry more than just my secrets, to carry love, to carry children of our own. Smug heterosexual pervert. The lyrics were more than Harry could take. She walked to the toilet, forced her fingers down her throat until she felt the bumps at the back of her tongue, and waited, retching, for the contents of her stomach to reappear in the bowl. Which it did. A soft mound of red mulch flecked with luminous orange. Part Doritos, part wine, part brandy. A combination, she discovered, that smelled a lot like rotten apples.
By morning, of course, Harry had forgotten all of this. She had forgotten Facebook-stalking Lauren, a nervous girl from sixth form she once fingered in the alleyway that backed on to the staff car park after sharing a half-bottle of vodka on the last day of term. Lauren had flushed with shame when she finally relaxed into the fuck and pissed all over Harry’s hand. They never spoke again – although the thought of Lauren’s blushes when they passed in the corridor never failed to make her wet – but since Harry’s sexuality had fully migrated online, she had taken to keeping tabs on the women she’d had sex with, storing screenshots from Facebook and Instagram in a folder on her desktop named ‘IRLGIRLS’. These days, Lauren was a geography teacher who lived and worked in a gated community in Oxfordshire with her husband Tom: a lanky, immensely boring-looking business consultant who Lauren posted pictures of going for runs with a baby in a cross-country buggy, or spread out on their sofa with a Labrador on his lap, and a man who Harry had dedicated a considerable amount of time to cropping out of images. She had forgotten scrolling through the Pornhub profile of Keisha Danger, a porn star she had watched having sex so many times that she had begun to feature in her dreams, a woman whose pink, hairless pussy she sometimes saw when she closed her eyes, as if its image was burned into her retina. A ring of Barbie-colour skin, a glistening teardrop made of flesh, pulled inside and out as some arsehole’s Godzilla dick jabbed at her over and over. She had forgotten trying and failing to masturbate to celebrity lookalike porn, a video compilation Harry returned to on those occasions when she was staring down the barrel of her own libidinal debasement, by which time her appetite for sleaze was out of sync with a body rendered comatose by booze. Harry had fast-forwarded through the reality TV stars, computer game characters and actresses until she reached her favourite segment. ‘How do you like to relax?’ a journalist from Fille Magazine asks Selena Grande, who is giving a tour of her home. ‘I will sometimes journal. And I have these beautiful little rosewater face sprays, a candle to help me as well,’ the real Selena replies, sitting cross-legged on her king-size bed in a cashmere cable-knit sweater and hot pants, her ponytail pooling in her lap, before the video cuts to a petite brunette wearing a budget interpretation of Selena’s outfit getting nailed on a budget interpretation of Selena’s bed. She had forgotten the death-wish drinks, the ones she poured when the room had already started to spin, and all she had wanted was to accelerate to whatever ending this particular minor tragedy had in store.
In fact, when Harry woke with the sun the following morning, the only memory of the night before was contained in a dull ache behind her left eye. The ache connected her head to her stomach via an invisible string. Every time she moved the string twanged, triggering waves of nausea that went rolling through her innards. As was the case whenever she came around after a heavy night, the hangover also brought on a pious streak. Ironically, given the state of her, this morning Harry was in the warm embrace of the never-agains, and as a consequence she was full of the promise of a healthy new beginning. The resolve would inevitably fade with the headache, as surely as her thoughts would turn again to Rainforest Red when afternoon turned to evening, but it gave her, for a brief time anyway, something like succour. For this reason, Harry held the hangover in particularly high esteem. It suggested the possibility of a clean break, the moment of blackout a bodily eclipse, an epic form of punctuation, a way of inserting a giant full stop in the story of a life that otherwise threatened to senselessly and endlessly unravel.
Looking around at the flat from her position on the sofa, Harry noted that it had fallen into disarray, and resolved that from now on – or at least from tomorrow, as there was a limit to what she could achieve in her current state, and it was important to be realistic – she would spend her evenings organising and reading. Clothes would be folded and put away in drawers. Dishes would be washed, dried and placed in cupboards. The mould on the bathroom ceiling would be wiped away with bleach, fresh gaffer tape applied to the broken tube of the hoover, and new screws ordered for the kitchen cupboard that was hanging off its hinges. Teeth would be brushed twice a day, hair conditioned and detangled. There would be no more alcohol, she said to herself, a promise she could ardently commit to at that precise moment given how awful her body felt, and there would be no more porn. On this particular morning, Harry’s piety went hand in hand with a grandiose mood. As she rose from the sofa and wandered through the rooms with Sontag trotting at her heels, serenely observing the drops of vomit on the toilet floor, the empty bottles on the kitchen counter, the filthy underwear she had kicked off before crawling into bed, Harry considered the wreckage of her life as akin to a ship, bathed in the gentle glow of the morning sun following a heavy storm. Like a captain assessing torn rigging and smashed decking, she felt confident that it could be mended, and pleased to have survived.
Image © Craig Smiley
This is an excerpt from Sinkhole: Three Crimes by Rosanna McLaughlin, which will be published by Montez Press in 2022.