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The King of the Castle by Julian Green

© Julian Green

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I am not currently seeking reviews for this, but I include the opening thousand words to wet your appetite.

(* = italics; --- = em dash)


I sometimes relive those idyllic first minutes of married life at Number 43. Despite it being her house, I would have carried Rosemary over the threshold, but my leg was on the blink. As I examine those scattered memories – the taxi drawing away, the heap of letters blocking the doormat – I search for clues that might have warned me. Perhaps there was too much for me to take in to notice the photos arranged along the sitting-room mantelpiece or those stuck to the fridge with ladybird magnets. Even if I’d looked in the pantry, I wouldn’t have realised the true implication of the tins. When we kissed by the telephone, Rosemary pulled away to check for messages – I didn’t know she was listening for news about the delivery.

As my new wife trawled through the mail, I filled the kettle and wandered into the garden: a modest, but adequate affair with dandelions spotting the lawn like chicken pox. I hoped the mower wasn’t a fly-mow; a widow in her early sixties might find one easier to handle, but her first husband hadn’t sounded the sort to go in for electric gizmos.

Rosemary had told me about Jack (or both Jacks, rather) on the cruise. Their pictures had overseen us in her cabin as I’d wooed her with roses purloined from the restaurant. I should have heeded the signs then: the endless accounts of their antics and the scuffmarks on Jack Number Two’s photo where she’d scratched his chin with her painted fingernails. Before the marriage ceremony, she’d even mentioned her other ex, Terence, but I’d attributed the wobbling of the champagne in her glass to pre-wedding nerves.

After seeing if the lawn needed scarifying, I admired the semi-detached house, my stomach jittering at the prospect of the unknown. Okay, I’d often chatted up Rosemary across the library counter where she worked (the sight of a familiar face explained why we’d gravitated towards each other at the start of the cruise), but I hardly knew her. A six-week Caribbean courtship, followed by an impromptu Vegas elopement and honeymoon wouldn’t be enough for even fruit flies to acquaint themselves. Yet – as Rosemary had said – when you reach our time of life and Cupid fires an arrow, you grab the opportunity; it might be your last. Of course, she had pursed her lips at my suggestion of moving in with her: living in sin, she’d called it. As old fashioned as that view was, I respected her for it. So, before another bottle of champers had disappeared down our gullets, I’d found myself proposing.

I admired Rosemary as she set her coat on the kitchen table and puffed up the curls of her hair. But then the dulcet chime of the doorbell summoned her.

The kettle bubbled to a finish, and I listened to a blackbird’s warbling. A van chugged away in the road, but the house was sheltered from the din of the bypass. The dawn sun bathed the garden, and not a cloud muddied the sky, save for a vapour trail from a plane heading for Heathrow. That was where I’d ordered the flowers while waiting for the taxi.

A delighted cry sprung from the hallway. I grinned, but then pursed my lips at the weeds in the border. Well, a project to get my dentures into was what the doctor ordered. When yet more of Rosemary’s whoops broke through the spring air, I frowned and peered over the side gate as the van trundled off. The local florist’s it wasn’t.

Claws clattered across the kitchen parquet. Then a speeding bullet shot out through the open French windows and hurtled around the garden on a blur of stubby legs. Round and round this thing blustered, nuzzling into plant pots, sticking its head behind the shed and traipsing through the undergrowth, unearthing half-chewed plastic bones or deflated balls to be mauled for a second and then tossed skyward.

I shifted back as its sniffing muzzle neared my loafers. The sniffling halted. Its body tensed, and its excuse of a tail stopped attempting to wag. The nose twitched again, making the beads of moisture on it glisten. Finally, the jack terrier craned its head up at me and we locked our gaze. Even in that instant, his brown patch covering one eye reminded me of the mask in *The Phantom of the Opera*.

“Ah, good: you’ve made friends with Jack.” Rosemary’s heels clunked onto the patio, and a mug of coffee loomed into my peripheral vision. “Now, this is Mr Whitherhide, Jack.” The thing’s name badge tinkled as she rubbed its back. “Bernard’s coming to live with us. Isn’t that exciting? I’m sure you’ll both get along like a house on fire.”

I tensed and sipped at my coffee, only to pull away with a scalded tongue. Surprise, surprise: a close-up of the dog grinned at me from the photo daubed across the mug.

“Isn’t it glorious to be home?” Rosemary levered herself up as Jack bounded off. “And it’s your home, too, I guess. You’ll see to the solicitor’s tomorrow, won’t you?”

“Er, yes.” I expunged Jack from my mind, and fondled Rosemary’s hand as we strolled to the bench, the scent of fresh coffee beans tickling my nose. I must have muttered something romantic, for she tittered and her cheeks flushed. That impish sparkle flickered in her eyes, and I imagined myself back on one knee proposing to her in the Havana Restaurant with the sunset aflame above St Lucia.

A seventy-ton weight leapt on my lap and smacked its tail into my face, spilling half the mug’s contents over my watch.

“Oh, you soppy thing,” Rosemary cooed into Jack’s perky – devil horn – ears. “Did you miss me? Of course you did. I’m so, so sorry for going away for such a long time, longer even than I promised. It won’t happen again. No, it won’t. Honest.”

As Jack tenderised my thigh with his hind claws, I consoled myself that at least I didn’t have to endure any children from Rosemary’s previous marriages. Besides, she’d have to cope with my foibles – not that I could think of any as I slurped at the remains of my drink.

The doorbell chimed its mushy tune again.

“Ah, that’ll be the flowers I heard Bernard ordering. Come on, Jack. There’s a good boy.”

Something tickled my throat. Gagging, I spotted dog hairs clinging to the inside of the mug. I poured the dregs over a hydrangea, and delved into my mouth to extract the offending specimens...

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