Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize 2017/18
PAUL BASSETT DAVIES
‘Seeing the werewolf’
WE BOTH PAID FIVE EUROS TO SEE THE WEREWOLF, and when we emerged from the narrow canvas passageway into a small space at the back of the tent it was just a normal guy sitting on a stool. He was wearing sandals, cargo shorts and a polo shirt, and reading a book.
This is bullshit, I said to Sarah.
The guy on the stool looked up and took off his reading glasses. Hello, he said, is there a problem?
I was about to tell him that yes, there appeared to be a problem concerning him not being a werewolf, when Sarah nudged me and directed my attention to the man standing behind me. He was positioned beside the entrance we'd just come through, which, I noticed, was also the only way out. He wore a blue suit that would have looked quite stylish if he'd been able to find one in his size, but I doubted they made them that large. He wasn't alone. A much smaller person was standing on the other side of the doorway but I couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman, or some combination of the two. You never know these days. Especially in Holland, even though we were in a bleak industrial area just north of Rotterdam. I looked hard at this second individual, whose gender remained elusive to me. It didn't help that the light in the tent seemed weirdly dense, or maybe it was the bottle of wine I'd shared with Sarah in the car. However, experience has taught me that when you're confronted by a pair of potential assailants, one of whom is an oversized lummox, always keep your eye on the smaller one because he – or she – is the one who's going to make a sudden move and stab you in the neck while you're worrying about how to deal with the big dude.
Sarah nudged me again. I turned to see that the guy who was meant to be a werewolf was now on his feet. He wasn't as big as the man beside the doorway but he was still on the large side.
He smiled. Perhaps you should look at me, he said in a pleasant voice that had almost no trace of an accent. After all, he continued, it's what you've paid for.
I told him he didn't look much like a werewolf to me.
Sarah giggled. Me either, she said.
I realised she was flirting with him.
He gave a throaty chuckle. Of course I don't look like a wolf now, he said, it's the middle of the afternoon!
Sarah laughed. She lurched unsteadily and clutched my arm. The bogus werewolf smiled at her with frank appreciation. She wagged a finger at him. I get it, she said, you only turn into a wolf at night, right?
The guy raised his eyebrows comically and nodded with earnest approval, as if a pair of dim school-kids had finally got the point.
And what time, I said, does this place close?
He turned to me and frowned. Unfortunately, he said, local ordinances require that the funfair shuts down at dusk.
Sarah laughed again, long and hard, until she collapsed against me. She pointed a wavering finger at the guy. You bad, bad man, she gasped happily.
He spread his arms, then made a series of graceful, sweeping gestures up and down his body. But look at me, he said, see how hairy I am!
It was true that his legs were pretty hairy, and he seemed to have plenty of chest hair, growing up to his throat, visible at the open neck of the polo shirt. Which was an actual polo shirt, by the way, as in the brand, Polo by Ralph Lauren, and not a knockoff. I worked with knockoffs for a while, and I can spot them. He also had a thick, black beard that grew up to his cheekbones, and now he concluded his exhibition of himself by stroking the beard with both hands as if it were the luxuriant fur of a lovely but skittish animal.
Sarah reached out her arms. She wanted to join in the beard-stroking. She staggered forward, and I caught her around the waist and pulled her back as gently as I could. She didn't resist. Slowly I steered her backwards out of the entrance, taking care not to look at the people standing on either side of it.
The hairy man raised an arm in an exuberant salute. If you're leaving, he cried, farewell and go in peace, my friends!
I kept my arm around Sarah's waist as we walked away from the tent. She was pretty unsteady. I glanced back at the entrance, where we'd handed over our money to another man who was also on the large side. Part of his job, I suspected, was to discourage people like us who'd just emerged from the tent, having been ripped off, from informing people in the line that they, in turn, were about to be ripped off.
Right now the only people in the line were two stoned-looking teenage boys, and a young woman with a baby in a papoose arrangement on her chest and a little girl, no more than three, holding her hand. What the fuck was she thinking, taking little kids in there to see a werewolf?
None of it made sense, especially as the rest of the funfair was just a regular, travelling funfair, and everything was modern and tacky, with loud techno music and lots of flashing lights on the rides and the stalls.
Naturally, Sarah and I had gone to see the werewolf ironically, expecting the whole thing to be kitsch and unintentionally funny, and I guess we'd both imagined that some kind of effort would have been made – a cage, some fake fur and teeth, makeup, whatever – and the ineffectiveness of these efforts would have been part of the fun. But what had happened in there hadn't been fun.
We were a few yards beyond the funfair exit when Sarah suddenly sat down on the grass with her legs splayed.
I'm going to throw up, she said, and immediately an arc of vomit gushed from her mouth. She leaned forward. I tried to pull her hair out of the way but it wasn't really long enough to matter, so I settled for patting her on the shoulder. Her body heaved and she released another stream of spew. Some of it splashed back up from the ground and flecked her face.
We'd been drinking for several days, and that morning we'd taken some pills I'd bought in the club in Amsterdam, and we'd also done some lines of what may or may not have been coke. As I patted Sarah's back half-heartedly something told me we wouldn't be sleeping together again. Our whirlwind romance was drawing to a close, I felt.
But I was wrong, in a way. We decided to continue driving to Rotterdam, which was where we'd been heading when we saw the funfair and took a detour, and the journey was pleasant after I remembered I had some weed left. We arrived in the city as the sun was setting, and I asked Sarah if she wanted me to take her to the station. She shook her head. I got the feeling she was running low on money. Neither of us had anyone else to be with, and we didn't want to be alone.
We found a hotel not far from the city centre. It was a nondescript place, not too big, and I liked it for that reason and because I could still afford it. We crashed out for a couple of hours, then woke up at around midnight and made love. It was slow and sweet, maybe because we'd both decided it was over between us, and now we could just enjoy ourselves, no pressure. We went to sleep again afterwards and slept until noon.
We went out and bought some food and ate it in a park near the hotel. Even though we were only a mile from the city centre the area was solid and residential. It was restful to stroll around there, looking into the windows of unexciting shops. Both of us seemed in reasonably good shape after a binge that had begun when we hooked up in Amsterdam, and lasted nearly a week. Now we were making a slow, soft landing.
After another nap at the hotel we wandered back into the streets at around nine. We passed a couple of bars before we found one that seemed like the kind of place we wanted to be in. It was small, and although the crowd inside appeared relatively young the music wasn't loud enough to make much of an impression, which was a definite advantage.
But the big attraction was at the far end of the room, where almost the entire back wall was an aquarium tank. Behind a thick sheet of glass, eight feet high and twelve feet wide, a whole bunch of fish were mooching around.
There were four booths back there, with narrow tables at right angles to the glass, separated by low partitions. One of them was unoccupied and Sarah slid into it while I went to the bar.
It was only when we were drinking the beers I'd bought that we began to notice a couple of things about the fish. Firstly, there were a lot of them, and they often collided and tangled with each other. Secondly, several of them were very damn large. Even taking into account the magnifying properties of the thick plate glass, many were at least three feet long, and some were bigger. A couple of them were definitely some type of shark. But there were also plenty of regular fish, of the kind you'd find in a domestic fish tank. All things considered, there was an exceptionally wide range of aquatic life in there.
At first it was both unsettling and mesmerising to be sitting so close to all those fish, especially as some of the big predators had a habit of drifting past casually, then executing a sudden, swirling turn, and zooming back to inspect you, shoving their snouts up against the glass. But we got used to it after a while.
I went to the bar again, and just as I was slipping back in opposite Sarah there was a huge commotion in the tank. The water churned and thrashed, then turned pink, and then red. Fragments of flesh and entrails drifted away in every direction, like shrapnel from a slow-motion explosion. One of the sharks circled around crazily, remnants of a smaller, less fortunate fish trailing from its jaws.
As all this happened several youngish men at the bar were giving a ragged cheer. They slapped each other on the back and exchanged fist-bumps. Some kind of bet had been settled and money changed hands over the bar. These guys, along with quite a few others in the room, were big, meaty types. Many of them wore camouflage pants and other garments with a military theme, but they didn't look fit enough to be soldiers, and a lot of them had prominent bellies. They seemed to be the kind of people who like to dress up in military gear, and go into the forest at weekends and fantasise about the end of civilisation.
My attention was caught by a man in the next booth, who'd been sitting with his back to us, and who now stood up. I'd been wondering about him for a while, mostly because he was wearing a small, go-pro style camera on his head. It was strapped down with canvass webbing over his thick, springy hair. He scanned the room, and as his gaze met mine we recognised each other. It was the werewolf. We stared at each other in astonishment. After a moment he broke into a huge grin. Sarah turned to see who I was looking at and as their eyes met he gave her a shy, yearning glance followed by a debonair bow.
My friends, he said when he straightened up, I will join you, yes?
We told him he was welcome. He slipped out of his booth and into ours, sitting down next to Sarah.
Don't worry, he said, pointing to the camera on his head, I am an activist.
His name was Bruno, and what he told us in the next five minutes reminded me how very wrong I can often be about pretty much everything.
Firstly, the whole werewolf thing had nothing to do with the funfair. It was an experimental performance art project. He and his two colleagues had been given a grant by an arts foundation to perform the piece in a series of different contexts, and they'd paid the funfair to host them. The project's purpose was to challenge the expectations of an audience around the idea of monsters, and then to engage them in a shared narrative journey, creating an interactive contemporary myth based on the transformative celebration of the wolf that lurks within all of us. Unfortunately, Sarah and I left before we got to that part.
Next, Bruno revealed that when he and his friends weren't doing performance art, the three of them were in a circus. Bruno did a clown act, sword swallowing, and stage illusions. The big guy, Tancred, was a strongman who also performed what Bruno described as erotic drag ballerina dancing. Jana was an acrobat and contortionist.
I interrupted by asking if Jana was a woman.
Bruno laughed and said that yes, she was a woman. He gave me an odd look and told me Jana had been watching me on video. I asked him what he meant. He said there had been a camera in the tent. Hadn't we noticed?
No, I said, we hadn't.
He mentioned the release form we'd signed when we bought our tickets. I said I vaguely remembered signing something, but I'd thought it was all part of the flimflam, like an old-time publicity stunt, where they'd say you were being insured in case you had a coronary because the show was so scary. No, Bruno said, it was so they could film us. Jana had been reviewing the footage.
I said I'd been confused about her because I'd been unable to see properly in the tent. He explained that it had been full of dry ice, which probably contributed to my confusion, although he'd also noticed that Sarah and I were totally shitfaced. But it was probably the dry ice, he said magnanimously. The machine was very powerful, he said, and they used it a lot in their circus, which they performed in the same tent, and which seated only thirty people when employed for that purpose. He described the circus show as being very small scale, and magically intimate, so it was super effective at the end when the horse came on.
Bruno told us they had a wonderful horse. A beautiful old animal, that emerged through a pair of curtains and paraded sedately around the tiny ring. It always sought out children in the audience, and would allow them to pat its nose. It seemed able to identify kids who were disabled in any way, and approached them, and nuzzled them, which invariably created wonder and delight. It was a lovely, enchanted animal, he said. They'd rescued it from a big, conventional circus, where it was being mistreated.
Bruno's face darkened. I hate cruelty to animals, he said, and that's why I'm here. They know me, all these macho bullshitters. I'm going to get this fucking place shut down, and they know it.
He gestured at the camera on his head and grimaced at the fish tank.
I'd noticed that Sarah had been gazing at Bruno intently, and whenever he looked at her something seemed to pass between them. At this point she shifted on the bench and said she needed to use the ladies' room. Bruno sprang up and ushered her out of the booth with great gallantry.
When he sat down again he leaned towards me. I'm sorry, he said in a low voice, but I have to tell you I am in love with your woman.
She's not my woman, I said.
His face lit up with a big smile. So, he said, it is okay if I attempt to make a romance with her?
I told him yes, it was okay to make a romance with her. I explained that I'd only known Sarah a week, and we were no longer an item, and I wished him well. He nodded gravely and shook my hand. It was nice of him to be so sincere about it but to tell the truth it didn't make much difference to me.
Sarah returned, and the smile she exchanged with Bruno as she squeezed past him, taking her time, made me think she had a pretty good idea what was going on.
Just after Sarah sat down, a muscular middle-aged man with very short hair came out from behind the bar carrying a big pail. He went to the booth at the far end of the aquarium tank, and spoke curtly to the couple in there. They stood up quickly and shuffled aside. He hopped up onto the bench and opened a hatch on top of the tank. Raising the pail, he tipped a cascade of slithering new arrivals into the water. They splashed and squirmed around too much to tell exactly what they were, but none of them looked particularly large. Maybe they were piranhas.
As the short-haired man – who seemed to be the proprietor – stepped down from the bench he caught sight of Bruno. He strode over, swinging the pail, and stood glaring down at Bruno, who stared at him impassively. The proprietor said something in Dutch. He sounded angry.
Bruno nodded at me and Sarah and said, in English, that we were English.
I'm American, Sarah said.
Fuck you, the proprietor said, in English, and then continued speaking to Bruno in Dutch, pointing at the camera on his head. He finished and waited for a reply. Bruno said nothing. The proprietor turned and strode away.
Bruno smiled grimly at us. This is not Amsterdam, he said. It's not a place in a fairy tale. This can be a hard city.
He took out his phone and started texting as he continued speaking to us, telling us that the guy wanted him to hand over his camera and get out.
Shouldn’t we go, I asked.
Bruno shook his head. It's all right, he said. Nothing bad will happen.
I looked over Bruno's shoulder and saw that the proprietor was back behind the bar, watching us angrily. Bruno followed my gaze and turned to look at the guy, who narrowed his eyes and pointed to Bruno's camera, and then at his own his watch. Bruno shook his head. He turned back to me. Don't worry, he said.
The proprietor began whispering to three of the camouflage asshole types propping up the bar. They all turned and gave us hard, tough-guy stares, then went back into a huddle.
I didn't like the way this was going, and I thought maybe I should try to persuade Bruno that we should leave before things escalated any more.
Too late. The three wannabe soldiers pushed themselves off their bar stools and fell in behind the proprietor as he walked towards us again.
Before they reached us Bruno glanced at the door and waved. Two figures entered the bar and strode the length of the room to our booth, arriving at the same time as the proprietor and his goons. The newcomers were Bruno's colleagues, Tancred and Jana. Now that I could see Tancred clearly, without the hindrance of dry ice and alcohol, he looked quite amiable. But there was no denying his massive physical bulk, and he was still bursting out of his suit, which was a green one today.
And Jana still looked very small beside him, not least because she was, in fact, no more than five feet tall at the most. She was extraordinary. I couldn't take my eyes off her, and when she looked at me I felt a jolt of excitement. She had huge, expressive eyes beneath a crop of spiky red hair, and a very wide mouth with full lips. She put her hands on her hips and grinned at me, revealing prominent teeth. I loved the way she stood. She was wearing tight leopard-print leggings and a sleeveless denim jacket over a sports bra. Her short, squat body looked strong and compact.
As I took all this in, a tense standoff was developing. The proprietor and his friends were flicking their eyes between Bruno and Tancred, making calculations. They'd clearly dismissed me and Sarah from the equation, probably correctly, and they weren't paying much attention to Jana, either. Not, that is, until she stepped forward, glanced at each of the men in turn with a confident smile, and then, with a deft movement, flipped her jacket open to display a small gun taped inside it.
Something about the dullness of the metal and the worn grip made me think the gun was real. No one else seemed to doubt its authenticity, either. Everyone became very still.
Jana let the jacket fall back into place. Bruno placed his hands on the table and looked at me and Sarah. Let's go, he said.
We stood up. The proprietor and his cohort made no attempt to stop us as we walked out.
When we got outside Bruno already had his arm around Sarah's waist. She told me she'd call me tomorrow about her stuff at the hotel. Tancred said he was in a rush to see his boyfriend. He smiled, performed a pirouette, and walked away.
I muttered something about the hire car at the hotel.
You can leave it, Jana said, and if you come to my place, I will ride you.
Bruno snorted and squeezed her shoulder. What she means, he said to me, is that she will give you a ride there. On her bicycle.
Jana poked him in the ribs. I know what I mean, she said.
They laughed, and Sarah joined in. I felt like a teenager.
Bruno and Sarah sauntered away, lurching into each other. Jana's bike was leaning against the wall beside the entrance to the bar. She pulled it upright and pointed to the saddle.
You can sit, she said, and I will pedal.
Jana straddled the bike, holding it steady for me. It was a big old-fashioned, sit-up-and-beg ladies' model with no crossbar. As I started to sit on the seat she stopped me. It's easier sideways, she said.
I balanced myself side-saddle.
Hold me, Jana said, and scooted the bike forward.
I held her hips as she stood on the pedals, cycling powerfully over the cobbles. It was like I was a prince, or maybe a prize.
Jana left her bike in the hallway of an old, narrow house, and led me up three flights of stairs. Her flat was just a room with a bathroom and kitchenette. A bed took up most of the space. Jana closed the door and threw off her jacket. She kicked off her shoes, rolled down her leggings, and stepped out of them.
She stood there in her underwear and held out her hands. I took them in mine and she began to pull me towards her gently. As we reached kissing range I resisted for a moment, just to see what would happen.
What happened was that Jana did some kind of very fast Judo flip on me, and I landed on the bed, looking up at her and gasping. She sprang onto the bed and straddled me, gripping my wrists and forcing my arms apart until I was spread-eagled beneath her. She was like a beautiful ape. She licked her lips in a pantomime of lasciviousness, then flashed me that huge grin.
So, she said, do you want to join the circus?
I was very aroused, and now I felt an unfamiliar rush of weird exhilaration. Maybe it was happiness. I had no idea what was coming next.
As Jana slowly leaned forward, pressing her body down onto mine, a flash of silvery light caught the corner of my eye. I turned my head to see that over Jana's shoulder, outside her window, the moon was almost full.
Yes, I said, I want to join the circus.
Jana seemed to be getting closer to me all the time. Her huge, unblinking eyes gazed into mine. They were pale grey with tiny flecks of yellow. I tried to raise myself up so I could kiss her but I couldn't. She had me pinned down and she was extremely strong.
She lowered her head. Are you sure, she whispered in my ear.
Yes, I said. Her bare arm and shoulder were next to my face, and the moonlight from behind her silhouetted the fine hair that covered them.
I felt her tongue licking my ear. Its surface was rough and it was drenched in saliva. You will need a safe word, she said.
I felt a powerful wave of energy rippling through all my muscles. I tried to flex my arms but I still couldn't move them beneath her grasp. Even though I felt exceptionally strong, she was stronger.
Werewolf, I said.
Yes, I said, that's my safe word. Werewolf.
I felt her body convulse against mine as something erupted deep inside her and surged up to her throat. She threw back her head and laughed.
I laughed too. We allowed the laughter to overwhelm us, thrashing and bucking against each other as we clung on for dear life.
Slowly my hysteria drained away. But Jana didn't stop.
She went on and on. She was howling with laughter.
Then she was just howling.