George, a writer who has suffered a nervous breakdown, and his partner Barbara, an art teacher, along with Barbara’s child Alan, embark on a year’s sojourn in a farmhouse in rural Italy. Intended as a period of recuperation for George and a break from the rigours of his writing, and for Barbara as a sabbatical to develop her painterly talents, the year deteriorates into a nightmare of recrimination and bitterness during which George, aided by mysterious apparitions and voices, begins to recall an unsavoury period of his childhood.
Barbara, worried about her thyroid problem and heartily sick of her partner’s drinking and shiftlessness, goes home to London for Christmas after a final quarrel when George returns to the farmhouse late and sees her in the arms of their landlord, Rogero.
George is befriended by Piero, a neurotic ex-professor of psychology, who is now venturing into the paranormal, and his ravishing daughter Tessa, and endures the company of the landlord’s three neglected dogs.....
George had got into the habit of leaving the door of his apartment slightly ajar, in the faint lingering hope that Tessa would keep her promise of a nocturnal visit. One night, when he was asleep, the three dogs held a meeting in his living room. Babs, the Chairperson, had summoned Giorgio and Carignosa, the other members of the Committee for Canine Well-Being, to an EGM.
The Alsatian reclined on the fouton, Giorgio the mongrel snuggled up on the armchair, and the terrier Carignosa, the smallest, had to be content with sitting upright on an armless wooden chair with a circular seat.
‘This is a sorry pass,’ growled Babs.
‘A sorry pass indeed,’ yelped Carignosa.
‘I call this meeting to order. Items on the agenda: first, the minutes of the previous meeting…’
‘May be taken as heard,’ barked Giorgio.
‘Second, What to do about the Sorry Pass. Third, AOB. All agreed?’
‘Okey-dokey. Let’s tackle the main item, the Sorry Pass. To put it in a nutshell, there are no walkies for us doggies because all the humans are too busy plotting and ameliorating and fretting the life out of themselves to even think of us.'
‘Well said indeed.’
‘I put it to the meeting that we must address, first and foremost, our own canine interests. We thought that introducing yer man to the hermit good who lives in the wood might have sorted him out for dog-accompanied hikes. But it has only complicated things. Unless we are content to see a spring pass without walkies, we must do something drastic.’
‘No walkies in the spring?’ whined Giorgio. ‘I can’t bear the thought of that.’
‘Take but walkies away, untune that string, and hark what discord follows,’ yelped Carignosa.
‘Precisely,’ said the Chair. ‘When dogs are not walked, extensively and regularly, all kinds of evils come upon the world. Unfortunately, however, it is always the case that when things are bad, as they are right now, they have to get worse before they can get better. So at this point in time, the question we have to ask ourselves is, How can we make things worse?’
‘And what is worse than dogs not being walked?’ Carignosa asked, in a didactic manner that strongly suggested she already knew the answer.
‘I can’t imagine anything worse than that,’ moaned Giorgio. ‘I’m getting on. I mightn’t even see another spring.’
‘But it’s obvious! Dogs not walking is even worse than dogs not being walked. Therefore, if dogs do not walk at all, even worse evil will come on the world than if they were simply not being walked.’
‘I don’t get it.’ Giorgio frowned.
‘I get it,’ barked Babs, ‘and your foxy terrier logic, Comrade Carignosa, is very much in line with the course of action I wish to propose. Namely, that we have a lie-in protest against our neglect, and make such a nuisance of ourselves that yer man will be goaded into taking us for walkies. In other words, we will up the ante and respond to no walkies for doggies with no walking by doggies.’
‘That will be too hard,’ objected Giorgio. ‘Did you ever see a dog staying completely still for five minutes, unless he was asleep or suffering from depression? We are by nature restless creatures.’
‘You weren’t very restless the night the burglars came here,’ yelped Carignosa.
‘Don’t let’s get personal now,’ Babs cautioned. ‘None of us was very restless that night. They must have drugged us.’
‘But I need exercise more than either of you. I might get a stroke.’
‘You can exercise without walking, Comrade Giorgio. This is no time for prevarication. I put it to the committee that in our own best interests we commence without further notice a lie-in on the balcony outside, of indeterminate duration or until such time as walkies are restored to us. All in favour bark once.’
‘Arf. Motion carried. Any other business?’
‘Is it all right to take a blanket or something out of the apartment to lie on?’ asked Giorgio. ‘My old bones, you know…’
‘In the circumstances, I think it is justified to take a few items to lie on, and to cover us. After all, there were supposed to be three humans here, and now there’s only one.’
‘There’s a small matter you have both forgotten about, smart and all as you are,’ persisted Giorgio. ‘How are we going to eat if we stay on the balcony all the time? Is this a hunger strike as well as a lie-in?’
‘If yer man doesn’t throw his leftovers out on the balcony,’ Babs said, ‘we may slip down for a few minutes after dark to our master’s bowls of lousy pellets.’
The dogs languished. They slept on George’s balcony by night and day, settling themselves on cushioned or blanketed wicker armchairs or bedding on the stone floor. George’s overcoat had become one of Giorgio’s blankets and was growing a crop of mongrel hairs.
By day the dogs lay round the balcony, pathetic, hovering between hope and despair. They stretched in stupors against the parapet as rain invaded the floor and formed a widening pool in the middle. As George came and went, they opened depressed eyes and closed them again. Occasionally, he tripped over one that was lying in innocent ambush on the threshold; he would turn back, cursing, and dislodge the abject canine flesh with a push of his foot. But the dog would lie down again, a little farther from the door.
The dogs got on George’s alcohol-thirsty nerves. He kept tripping over them, the pleading of their eyes tugged at some painful nerve of guilt and unreality. He felt guilty about hating the dogs, hated them because of his guilt. He was continually on edge because of abstinence and waiting. Despite the professor’s optimism, and his own vigilance, there hadn't been anything that remotely resembled an epiphany, no set of circumstances a shade out of the ordinary that quickened in his mind towards significance.
George had nothing better in proximate bodily form to feel guilty about than three dogs; no woman to feel guilty about, no child. That kind of guilt would have been real, would have helped to define reality; but this kind undermined definition and reality. The dogs did not complain, did not react. There was no agreement breached, no social contract dishonoured by ignoring them. They weren’t his dogs. Those other two lunatics downstairs should be looking after them; his canine responsibilities had been revoked. And yet they looked at him with those depressed or pleading eyes, Giorgio innocent and depressed, Babs pleading and eager, the small fox terrier catatonic. The constant presence of the dogs was for George like the unhappiness of hell, as defined in the terms of scholastic theology, because it amounted to the possession of that which he most hated and feared. His hatred of the dogs intensified his hatred for the landlord; if this monster in human shape had felt any appropriate concern for his pets, George would never have been attacked in the core of his being by canine angst. The immobility of the dogs was yet another twist to his continuing ordeal; but the professor had dismissed his discomfort as a symptom of alcohol withdrawal.
One day, out of all patience, George lifted the inert canine lumps and carried them one by one down to the bottom of the balcony steps, with scatological warnings about their daring ever to return. But when he woke from his afternoon doze and looked out through the glass of the door, they were, as he feared, back again, a triptych of sprawling misery, three mafiosi guarding the gates of sanity against him.
From A Year's Midnight a novel © Ciaran O'Driscoll 2011