Michael finally left the sanctuary of the bathroom and went back downstairs. He couldn’t, after all, spend all of Christmas hiding in the toilet. Okay, so he had an alien living inside him. He to keep focussed on what he wanted; his end goal: Abigail. Gor Ul Hatamakatakanaka was merely an inconvenience, he told himself. Nothing more. He could do this. Eyes on the prize.
As he descended the wide staircase in the hallway, he saw a dog sitting at the bottom of the stairs. He was big old Golden Retriever, looking up at him with sad, rheumy eyes.
‘Hello, boy,’ said Michael reaching the foot of the stairs and crouching down to stroke the dog. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Fraroo the Mighty and the Loyal, Vanquisher of the Squirrel, Scourge of the Cats,’ said the dog in perfect English with a very distinct Cornish accent. ‘But they all call me Buster.’
Naturally, Michael hadn’t been expecting an answer so was understandably surprised.
‘Y-y-you speak English?’
‘Do I?’ said Buster. ‘Not that I was aware of.’
‘Actually,’ said Gor Ul, using Michael’s mouth, ‘he can’t speak English, you speak cunee. The language of dogs. With me inside you you can speak and understand all languages.’
‘Dogs have a language?’ asked Michael. Buster/Fraroo tilted his head to one side watching Michael seemingly converse with himself.
‘Oh yes,’ said Gor Ul. ‘Everyone has a language. Some more sophisticated than others. Cats, for instance, have a far more extensive vocabulary than dogs.’ Buster coughed up something from the back of his throat to show his disgust. ‘But hardly use any of it. They just spend all their time telling you how much they hate you. Trees are rather dull and whatever you do don’t start a conversation with a mushroom.’
‘This is a lot to take in,’ said Michael.
‘You’re telling me,’ said Buster. ‘You seem a bit odd. I should probably bark at you and chase you from my master’s property, except you’re the only person who has ever understood me. I’m in a bit of a quandary.’
‘I’m not odd,’ said Michael, though as he said it part of him was thinking he had an alien inside him and he was having a conversation with a dog so if this wasn’t the definition of odd then he wasn’t sure what was. ‘I just really like Abigail.’
‘Oh, I like her too,’ said Buster. ‘She’s nice.’
‘I want to make a good impression on everyone.’
‘Why?’ asked Buster.
‘I want to marry her.’
‘Oh, I see. There’s been a few of those in my time. Weddings.’ Buster’s sad eyes looked even sadder. ‘I never get invited to any.’
‘Well, I’ll insist you come to our one,’ said Michael.
‘Would you?’ Buster looked up, his face now beaming joyously. ‘I’m going to wag my tail.’ And he did.
Buster stayed close to Michael then, following him wherever he went. When Michael returned to the kitchen he discovered that Abigail and her parents had been joined by Abigail’s brother, Spencer, sister, Louisa, and Abigail’s maternal grandmother, Florence. The hushed conversation stopped abruptly as he and Buster entered and it didn’t take a genius to know what they had been talking about. Abigail tried to cover the awkwardness by making the introductions.
Spencer was huge: six-foot-five and built like a rugby player. Which he was. He looked just like his father but even bigger. His hand enveloped Michael’s when they shook and his grip was immensely powerful. Michael wasn’t sure if he was trying to hurt him but he did. Louisa looked just like Abigail. There was only two years between them but Louisa’s face lacked the sparkle of her older sister. She didn’t smile. Ever. Michael felt the urge to say cheer up, love, might never ‘appen like a cheeky, cheery workman would but he had never said those words before and decided not to start then. Florence immediately made Michael think of the grandmother in Roald Dahl’s book George’s Marvellous Medicine. She too had a small puckered mouth that looked like a dog’s bottom. As if to compare Michael glanced down at Buster’s backside.
‘Hoi, cheeky,’ said Buster when he caught him looking. To everyone else in the room it just sounded like a short, sharp bark.
‘What’s your name?’ asked Florence, holding his hand. Her skin was papery and cold. Michael became slightly transfixed on her shrivelled mouth. Her tongue kept flicking in and out, like the head of a small, pink earthworm.
‘Michael,’ said Michael.
‘Michael.’ He said it slightly louder.
‘MICHAEL,’ he shouted.
‘Alright, don’t shout, I’m not deaf,’ said Florence and she started to laugh. It was a funny little laugh that didn’t seem to have enough breath behind it to rise much above a hum. All the Tremethyks joined in.
‘It’s gran’s little joke,’ said Abigail.
‘Ice breaker,’ said Florence. Michael laughed too. The laugh became a small moan of pleasure and Michael was aware that his heartbeat was rising. He was feeling a little lightheaded. He wondered if he was in the process of having a stroke but then realised it was not him so much as Gor Ul. Michael just happened to be experiencing the sensations that Gor Ul was feeling.
Michael turned to a large picture window that looked out over a big garden and fields and forest beyond. There were no other buildings anywhere to be seen.
‘Oh, isn’t that lovely?’ said Michael and moved away from the others under the pretence of appreciating the view. The moment he was far enough away he had an urgent, whispered conversation with Gor Ul.
‘What are you doing? Are you alright? You just went all funny.’
‘It was the female,’ said Gor Ul, whispering back.
‘The aged one.’
‘She is emitting a pheromone that I’m finding rather stimulating.’ Michael glanced back at Florence. She was at least eighty.
‘You fancy Abigail’s granny?’ Michael was careful to keep the volume of his voice under control.
‘I can’t help it.’
‘Well, just try not to act on it.’
Just then, Spencer came over and clamped his massive hand on Michael’s shoulder. Whereas it had felt like his shoulder was disintegrating when Gordon had done it earlier now it felt like his shoulder was in a vice with an elephant sitting on it.
‘Talking to yourself are you? First sign of madness, that,’ said Spencer.
‘I’m much further down the list than just the first sign,’ said Michael. Spencer let out a deep bark of a laugh from the depths of his belly.
Spencer removed his hand and Michael was relieved. ‘Dad wants to know if you want a drink.’
‘Oh, yes, please. A glass of red wine would be nice.’
‘Wine!’ Spencer sounded horrified. ‘Right you are. Glass of wine for the lady coming up,’ he said and went back to tell his dad.
‘That was strange,’ said Michael. ‘What did that mean?’
‘He’s in love with his best friend, Douglas,’ said Buster. ‘Ironically Douglas is also in love with Spencer but neither will admit it. They both sort of over-compensate.’ Just then, a door at the opposite end of the kitchen opened and Spencer’s best friend, Douglas, entered. Clearly he was considered part of the furniture here and was greeted warmly by all. He was tall, broad and athletic, just like Spencer. He made a fuss of Abigail, expressing his true love for her and asking her to run away with him. Spencer grabbed Douglas and the two young men tussled playfully. Watching from an informed position as Michael was, their true feelings for one another were quite clear. Douglas was introduced to Michael and he made a pantomime about how devastated he was that Abigail had chosen Michael over him. Everyone laughed. Michael joined in. Then Douglas and Spencer left to go into town to meet up with their friends.
‘But we’ll see you at the Witches later,’ said Douglas as they were heading out. Michael noticed a black cloud descend over Gordon.
‘What’s that about?’ Michael asked Buster quietly.
‘Pub quiz,’ explained the dog. ‘It’s a big deal round here. Every year Gordon loses to Hamish McAnally. Gordon used to win every year till Hamish moved into the village. He and his kids are all very clever, you see. Now they’ve won every year for the last ten years and they’re not very good winners.’
Just then, Louisa came over with Michael’s glass of wine.
‘Are you talking to the dog?’
‘Well, if you want to know anything about a family, talk to the dog, that’s what I always say,’ said Michael with a smile in his voice. Buster liked it too and laughed. His laugh sounded like he was flapping his jowls to Louisa. She did not laugh or smile. She was nothing if not consistent. She just let out a low, derisive grunt and handed Michael his glass.
‘It’s from Chile,’ she said, meaning the wine.
‘Oh, lovely,’ said Michael.
‘Lovely?’ Her tone was harsh and Michael knew immediately he had said the wrong thing. He just wasn’t sure what it was. ‘Chile’s not lovely actually. Not if you’re a woman. It’s a massively patriarchal society, actually. Women don’t have any rights. I mean, they all make a big fuss about Saudi Arabia and stuff, yeah? But maybe that’s because they don’t make nice wine. Women in Chile don’t have the control of their own bodies. They don’t even have the vote’
‘Actually that’s not true,’ said Michael though it was Gor Ul speaking. ‘Women do have the vote in Chile. Have had for some time. They also had a female president, Michele Bachelet, from 2006 to 2010.’
Louisa let out another sound of derision and walked away. That didn’t go well.
‘What’s her story?’ asked Michael.
‘She’s always been a very serious person,’ said Buster. ‘I’m not sure she knows how to laugh. She used to be fun, was always singing, but then she went off to university and came back like that. I don’t really know what a university is but I don’t like it.’
Florence came over with a tray of nibbles. ‘Crisp?’ she said to Michael thrusting the tray at him.
‘Hello, Florence.’ Michael was aware of his voice going all Leslie Phillips on him. It wasn’t him it was Gor Ul. ‘Stop it,’ he said ever so quietly through gritted teeth.
‘Stop what?’ asked Florence, evidently not remotely deaf.
‘I see where Abigail gets her good looks from.’ Michael was cringing inside as Gor Ul said it. Gor Ul locked eyes with Florence. Michael tried to look away. Gor Ul looked back. This continued and from Florence’s point of view, Michael’s eyes were moving rapidly from side to side.
‘Are you having some sort of fit?’ she asked. ‘Should I get Abigail?’
‘No, I’m fine,’ said Michael. ‘Just something in my eye.’ He managed to poke himself in the eye then and Gor Ul was forced to give up. Michael took a crisp from Florence’s tray and the old woman backed away.
‘This is really, really not going well,’ said Michael quietly.
‘Sorry,’ said Gor Ul. ‘I just can’t control myself around her.’
That evening, after dinner, the entire Tremethyk family, including Buster, and Michael walked into the village to the Three Witches pub. It was small and old. The pub had been here longer than any other building in the village apart from the church. The pub had a very low ceiling that Michael could almost touch. Gordon only just managed to stand up straight and he had to remember to duck under the many oak beams. Spencer and Douglas were already there and Spencer stood up and beckoned to his father. Spencer couldn’t stand up straight and had to either hunch or tilt his head to the side.
Everyone knew the Tremethyks and the Tremethyks knew everyone. Michael was introduced as Abigail’s friend from London. He got the impression that Gordon was already trying to downplay his relationship with his daughter.
Suddenly the main door opened and an icy wind blew in, followed by the McAnally clan. Leading the way was Hamish McAnally. He was short and rotund with a mop of wild blonde curls perched on his head. He was dressed in a three-piece Tweed suit. His wife and four children all looked very similar and Michael was reminded of the von Trapps from The Sound of Music. The McAnallys approached the bar, divesting themselves of gloves and scarves.
‘Well, here we are again, Gordon.’ Hamish McAnally had a greasy drawl for a voice. He used it to good effect. It made him sound supremely confident. ‘Tonight is the night, the McAnallys become outright champions.’
All eyes turned to a small silver cup sitting on a shelf above the bar. The names of the winning teams were etched on a plaque behind it. Team McAnally had won for the last ten years running. Team Tremethyk had won for the previous ten years. Before that various teams had won for the forty years the Christmas quiz had been staged. The history of this small Cornish town was written in that plaque.
‘You haven’t won it yet, Hamish,’ said Gordon but the confidence that Michael was already used to hearing when Gordon spoke was absent. His voice sounded hollow.
‘Hello, Abs,’ It was Hamish’s eldest son. He was blonde and handsome and his face had a ski tan. Michael didn’t like the way he was looking at his girlfriend.
‘Hi, Oliver.’ Abigail’s reply was polite and to the point but Michael noticed a slight reddening of her cheeks. She didn’t retain eye contact but she did take a few quick glances at Oliver McAnally. Michael didn’t like that.
‘Confident you’re going to win, Mr McAnally?’ Everyone turned to see who had spoken, including Michael. It took him a moment to realise it had been him. ‘Oh god,’ he said but so quietly no one else heard him.
‘I don’t know you,’ said Hamish McAnally, sizing Michael up and making it apparent that he didn’t like what he saw.
‘Michael Stone,’ said Gor Ul, thrusting Michael’s hand out. Hamish shook it limply. ‘I’m here with Abi.’ He made a point of directing that last line to Oliver. He was marking his territory. Except it wasn’t his territory. It was Michael’s territory and Michael never did anything like this. Michael felt completely out of his comfort zone. Gor Ul turned Michael’s eyes back on Hamish.
‘Care to make it interesting,’ he said. Michael could feel Abigail and her family tensing around him. He knew it was better to just be quiet and not say anything but Gor Ul was having none of it. ‘Ten thousand pounds.’
A ripple of disbelief circled through the group.
‘Do you have ten thousand pounds?’ asked Hamish, chuckling, not sure if this was a joke.
‘Of course,’ said Gor Ul, looking with disdain at McAnally. ‘What sort of man makes a bet he can’t cover? But if it’s too rich for you—’
‘No, no,’ said Hamish. ‘It’s fine but with one small caveat: ten thousand pounds to the winner and the losers… never enter again.’
The thought of never playing the Christmas pub quiz again filled Gordon with more horror than the money. ‘Now wait a minute—’ he started to say but Gor Ul didn’t let him finish. He shook Hamish’s hand.
‘Done,’ he said.
The McAnallys retired to the other side of the bar to wait for the quiz to begin. All eyes turned on Michael.
‘What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?’ asked Gordon, his face turning a concerning shade of beetroot.
Michael waited, expecting Gor Ul to explain but now the alien was inconveniently silent. ‘Well…’ said Michael. ‘Gor Ul?’ This he said very quietly, little more than a mumble. ‘Say something.’ Still the alien said nothing. Michael looked at the dog. ‘Buster?’
‘Don’t look to the dog to save you,’ said Gordon, still clearly furious.
‘No, sorry, Mike, you’re on your own,’ said Buster but everyone else just heard a whimper.
End of part three.