Changes in the night

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Chapter 1

Sunlight. Bright sunlight. Too bright, I rolled over. My head throbbed, thoughts came slowly, exploring the vacant space in front of me. The sheets had been flicked back, the pillow dimpled. In short it was a used space.

Five minutes of intense cogitation rewarded me with the conclusion that there might be someone else in my house. I called "Hello" without much hope of a reply. There was none, just as there wouldn't have been on any other day. I rolled onto my back and considered the ceiling, the lamp, and the remains of a spiders web that was thick with dust. Testimony to my housekeeping.

Gradually my memories of last night crystallised. Who am I kidding? They congealed. I had tripped over her bag in the beer garden of the Plough and as I clumsily helped her we had started talking. She wasn't attractive in the normal sense, but not plain either. Thick brown hair flecked with lighter shades surrounded a soft face that suited the all-over plumpness of her body. Her eyes were full of life, and she laughed easily as we joked.

She had grown on me and yes, I had gotten her drunk despite her half-hearted protestations and yes, I had taken her to my place for a coffee before calling her a taxi. Except I hadn't: I had deliberately (although that suggests a level of consideration I was incapable of) engaged in a slurred conversation with the automated information service for my local cinema, and she had stayed when the taxi failed to show.

Except of course now she was gone.

My mouth was as dry as a vacuum cleaner bag, and my bladder reminiscent of a turgid water balloon on the edge of catastrophe. On balance I'd better get out of bed.

Standing in the bathroom, straddling the bowl, one palm against the wall, and wondering just how much I had drunk last night, I became aware of a certain tackiness where normally there is none. Had we made love? I flushed and went to the kitchen.

My first thought was that I had been burgled. Most of the cupboard doors were open, and the contents strewn across the work-surface and floor. A pool of water, punctuated by peas, flowed around the freezer. The door must have been open for some time. What time was it anyway? I glanced at the midi CD player unit that also doubled as the kitchen clock: a little after two in the afternoon.

Why hadn't the thieves taken that? Or the stack of CDs? I quickly checked the other obvious items: the scales, mixer, and the big chromed food processor were all still here, as were my chef's knives. The Italian coffee machine, its clash of functionality and style leaving it looking like a steam engine designed by Fischer Price, lay un-disturbed. Okay, I admit it, I spend a fair amount of time in the kitchen as evidenced by my soft belly.

No, I wasn't thinking like a thief: those items were valuable to me, not to someone else. I ran through the other rooms, checking for missing items, but the effect seemed contained to the kitchen. Video, TV, hi-fi, all those things were undisturbed. I set some coffee off then went to the fridge to get milk. There wasn't any. I had four pints in there yesterday! One of the plastic containers lay against the leg of the table and had a dribble of milk in the bottom, enough for my first coffee of the day at least. The top of the bottle looked to have been torn off.

Breakfast, I must get some food in me and start thinking clearly. My usual cereal of frosted flakes was undisturbed, as were my bowls. Not much use without milk though I reasoned. Munching a handful I looked for another alternative. The bread was fine, so I could have toast, but the butter dish was clean. Or rather had been scraped clean, but not with a knife.

As I went again around the table my bare foot touched a cold clammy object. I stooped to retrieve it: the end of a bone with a very few scraps of raw meat still adhering. This took a while to place, then I remembered that my parents were due to visit for Sunday dinner, and I must have remembered to take the bird out last night. By rights though a turkey that size should still have been part frozen in the early hours.

What else was missing: bacon, sausages, black pudding, cheese, ice-cream, a few packets of biscuits, chocolate, and the milk. Thieves had eaten my meat and dairy products!

Well there was no way I could cook for us all now, so I called my parents and, after some protracted explanation, including a fictitious power failure, cancelled their visit. I went out to the tiny utility room that separated the kitchen from the back door to fetch the mop & bucket. I half expected to find that door open: my new rationalisation was that some animal had found its way in during the night. A fox maybe, or a lot of foxes. What was the collective for many foxes anyway? The door was locked, keys still in the keyhole. Nothing had come in, or for that matter gone out, this way.

I propped the mop against the cooker and left the hot tap running to encourage hammering pipes to deliver something beyond tepid on my return. I checked the front door next, the mop clattering to the floor behind me. That door was also locked and chained. Windows upstairs and down were secure as well. The locks on those a concession I had made to the insurance company some months previously. I hoped I wasn't going to have to deal with them again anytime soon. A free number to sign up and give them your credit details, yet anything else was a long distance call.

Back to the kitchen. I put the bucket under the hot tap, and added a generous measure of cleanser. The overpowering lemon scent scouring my nostrils. I stooped to retrieve the mop, and caught sight of a paw under the table. I bent down for a better look, then must have fallen back against the kitchen unit in my surprise.

Curled up under my kitchen table was the biggest dog I had ever seen. Easily as big as a Great Dane, but with a rough coat and the colouration of an Alsatian. Its deep chest rose and fell rhythmically, its abdomen distended. Paws the size of my own hands flicked in its dreams.

I sat and watched, mesmerized by its breathing, its presence. I've no idea how long. Water flowing around my left hand dragged me back to the mundane reality of an overflowing sink. Turning off the tap I contemplated my life expectancy if I was to wake this creature with some unexpected noise or accidentally spilled scalding water.

It was an easy decision to make. I pulled on some clothes, checked I had cash and headed out of the house. I left the back door ajar, hoping that the creature would choose to leave of its own accord.