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For two and a half weeks, Leon has known the girl with the sausage dog as “DAX_26”. DAX_26 is the one with the big smile that fills most of her profile picture, and, of course, the cute black-and-brown sausage dog with the smooth-looking ears and the slightly helpless look about him. Leon likes the boldness of the photo. And he likes the look of the dog, Nigel.
Now, incredibly, DAX_26 is here in the flesh, standing beside him in the hilltop gardens of the Horniman Museum. They have a connection: they’re fun-loving dog people, not unfriendly cat people, and they share a passion for hunting out London’s quirkier museums.
If Luce were to read Leon’s profile, she’d laugh. But Leon has brushed aside all thoughts of Luce. And Emily too. He didn’t even let himself be dispirited by the silences from the girls on the dating site. He honed his profile description, he widened his preferences, and he carried on messaging. The breakthrough came with DAX_26. When she signed off “Carol xx” in message four he knew they would meet.
DAX_26, aka Carol, is a maker. She makes her own clothes, she makes her own cards. Carol is only 26, but she knows a hell of a lot about post punk music. She seems pleased with his choice of venue just up the road from her house-share in Peckham Rye. Carol loves dogs. Carol is hot.
So why is their first date going so wrong?
They’re looking out beyond the leafless trees and the stark Overhill Estate to London’s skyline where the Shard is just catching the last of the afternoon sun. It’s a holding-hands moment, but they aren’t holding hands. Fair enough, thinks Leon, they’ve only known each face to face for, what, an hour and a quarter? But there was that moment in the museum’s hall of stuffed animals. They were both studying a display cabinet with an armadillo, a hedgehog and a mysterious creature called a pangolin all rolled up tight in their little suits of body armour. He put a hand on her arm and she didn’t pull away. He felt the warmth of his fingers ease away her gooseflesh.
But now they’re outside in the gardens and she’s back in that long black overcoat that looks like it belongs to a man. It’s not his, that’s for sure. Why couldn’t he have just carried on holding her arm in the hall of stuffed animals? Why the dumb offer of the blazer? Girls like Carol don’t need protecting from air conditioning. Who does he think he is, Sir Francis Drake?
He realises he’s been staring at the ground, so he jerks up his head. His dad does that, says Luce. The head jerk thing. Carol is further along the terrace where the kitsch wooden bandstand overlooks the sloping lawn. She’s staring heavenwards, with one arm up to the elbow in a Daunt Books tote bag. She pulls out a phone and Leon worries that she’s looking for a missed message. She’ll be making her excuses any minute.
He considers her ankles again. They’re very white. Leon noticed her ankles before he noticed anything else about her, before he even knew this was Carol. An hour and a quarter ago he was leaning on the rail that leads up to the museum entrance, looking for a girl with a sausage dog. He saw bare white ankles beneath a long black overcoat, he saw black-and-white trainers beneath bare white ankles, but he didn’t see a little black-and-brown sausage dog, so when Carol said his name he nearly jumped out of his skin.
They didn’t really talk at the ticket desk or in the queue for the cloakroom. But soon after, down with the fishes in the museum’s aquarium, the mood improved.
“Can you believe these?” asked Carol, charmed by the seahorses who were using their tiny curled tails to hold onto upright strands of seaweed. “Don’t you think they’re so elegant?” Leon couldn’t get close because of the ebb and flow of kids who pressed themselves up against the glass and left smudgy prints, but he liked looking at Carol’s slim shoulders as she knelt at the tank, and her sleeveless orange dress with large, round, pointless buttons on the back that traced the curve in her spine.
Going to the hall of stuffed animals afterwards was the big mistake. Carol’s chattiness dried up as they wandered among the glass cabinets of Sussex foxes and scarlet ibis. There’s a hulking walrus that sits on a fibreglass iceberg in the centre of the gallery, and Carol didn’t really laugh when Leon pointed out its similarities with the warden who sits beside it. And when she knelt to look at a collection of British beetles pinned in ranks by size order, he could hear her suck in her cheeks. By the time they got to the “Animal Defences” display, he risked the comforting hand on her arm, a move that seemed to go well until he fouled it up with the dumb offer of the blazer.
Now they’re outside in the chilly February dusk, and Leon’s date is sitting on her haunches by the bandstand, phone in hand, ankles lost within the draping overcoat. Walking over, he sees that Carol is looking at the heart-shaped holes cut into the decorative fence posts that encircle the bandstand. She frames a shot with her phone. Electronic click. Image captured. She looks up and says, “One for Instagram”, showing him the screen. The colours are faded like a Polaroid from one of his mother’s albums, except his mother would never have taken a picture of a fence post with a heart-shaped hole.
“Oh Instagram. Yeah, looks good,” he says, and Carol gives him a kind smile, taking his hand as she stands up. The rings on her fingers dig into his. Remember, he thinks, we both like dogs. We both like dogs.
“Yeah, so I didn’t bring Curtis either,” he says.
“Curtis?” she asks.
“You know, my black lab, Curtis.”
“Actually, he lives with Luce… Lucy.”
“That’s my wife, ex-wife, well, technically wife, but soon to be ex. Just working on that.”
“So you’re married.” The breeze has picked up some strands from Carol’s loosely bunched hair, which she tucks behind an ear. My hair has a life of its own, she says in her profile.
“Soon to not be,” says Leon. “Soon to be not married. Divorced.” He looks across the sloping lawn towards the family home in Crouch Hill. “She got the dog, she got…”
“Look I get it,” interrupts Carol in a raspy, masculine-sounding voice. “Everyone’s got baggage, right?”
How can you have baggage? he thinks. You’re 26. But he has her attention, so he maybe he should go the whole hog and mention Emily. She might even like that – if she likes cute dogs, she might like cute kids. Maybe they will come back here one day with Emily.
Carol sucks in air like she’s just pulled on a cigarette. “Sorry about clamming up in there. Because, actually…” She blows out. “Because actually those animals really bummed me out. In boxes. All static like that. I know they’re Victorian and everything, but…”
“It’s ok,” he says. “It’s ok.”
She pulls at the belt of her overcoat. “It’s just that I haven’t been entirely straight with you, Leon.”
“You see, Nigel’s actually dead.”
“Nigel’s dead? Jesus! What happened?”
Carol chews her bottom lip and frowns at the clouding skyline. “Well, it was quite a while ago. A year, a bit more, I remember it was just before Christmas, because Christmas was shit. We had to put him down. It was the totally the saddest thing.”
“That must have been tough,” he says, and checks himself before saying something patronising like, “You must have been very brave.”
“Slipped a disc. It’s quite common in sausage dogs, if they jump around too much.”
“And that’s… fatal?”
“Look, do you know how much the surgery costs?” she asks, turning her brown eyes on his. “And the physio? And Harry’d buggered off to India for God knows how long, and I couldn’t afford it on my own. My parents offered, but the point was that I was supposed to be standing on my own two feet. Harry’s a dick. We live in the same flat, we have a dog, we’re having, you know…”
“God, Leon,” she says, rolling her eyes. “What do you think? Do you want me to spell it out?”
Oh, he thinks. Not really.
“S-E-X,” she whispers loudly.
“Anyway, Harry was always saying we’re ‘just friends, Carol’. As if we’d just found ourselves living together with a dog. Losing Nigel got to him though.” She sniffs and turns away. “Poor Nigel.”
Leon worries she might cry. “I’m sorry, Carol,” he says.
“Yeah, well, it’s no skin off yours. Everyone loved that dog. How’s Nigel? Where’s Nigel? What’s the little tyke been up to this time? Oh God, I miss him. He used to shake if anyone else looked after him but me. Maybe we could have saved him.”
Leon should probably say something else consoling but, then again, maybe she could have saved Nigel. These helpless animals we look after. They trust us completely.
Leon rubs his nose. The Shard is in shadow now. Crouch Hill is directly behind it as the crow flies. Not the easiest location to get to, but it had been affordable back when he’d bought the house with Luce. For Luce. It wouldn’t have been her choice, she always says. Too small. He bought her Curtis to cheer her up but that just made it worse. Jesus, Leon, there’s even less space now. He knocked through as many walls as he could, and then they had Emily.
“Sorry, Leon,” says Carol, and the tears are waiting to fall. “It’s just those animals, all dead and still like that.”
Emily always cries when Leon visits. She cries when he gets there, she cries when he leaves. The only time she doesn’t cry is when she’s sitting on his lap or he’s holding her in his arms.
“You don’t hate me now, do you?” asks Carol.
No more tears, thinks Leon. No more tears.
“Because of Nigel. You don’t hate me because Nigel’s dead. You seemed disappointed I didn’t bring him.”
“Listen, Carol, I’ve just thought of something.”
He puts an arm around her slim shoulders, and turns her away from the skyline and the Shard and Crouch Hill, and back along the path to the museum.
“What?” she says again, looking at him sideways and letting a small laugh slip through.
“Just hold your horses and you’ll see.”
“Oh no, we’re not going back in there.”
“Trust me,” he says firmly, shouldering open the wooden door to the hall of stuffed animals and pulling her in by the hand. They skitter through, her trainers squeaking on the parquet. The warden raises his head and eyes them.
“Ok, bear with me,” says Leon, patting his blazer. “Almost forgot I’d downloaded this.” He draws out his phone and holds it up to the walrus like an offering, tapping the screen. “Ok, hold this.”
Carol obediently takes the phone, which shows the walrus fangs and all. “What, you want me to take a photo? Getting into Instagram?”
He thinks of Emily playing on the living room carpet with his phone and taking snaps of Curtis. Only four and already showing an artistic eye.
“No, no, just press that.”
She does as he says, and on the screen the walrus suddenly honks and dips its head, then raises its fangs and its entire blubbery bulk. Carol squeals and steps back as if the walrus might burst through the screen. She continues to hold the phone aloft and on the screen the walrus dips and hulks, dips and hulks, on a loop. “Awesome!” she says, and Leon notices a dimple show in her cheek. “Oh my god, does it work for other animals?”
“This is totally the coolest thing.” And now she’s by the Sussex fox, who trots proudly round her leaping cubs, now the pangolin unrolls itself and snuffles the air curiously, now the British beetles prize themselves free from their pins and march out of the cabinet. “I love this app!”
Leon almost has to run to keep up with Carol so that he can see what she’s seeing. The warden watches them, but Carol’s delight is infectious and Leon is laughing and his heart shakes from the sudden exertion. He pictures Emily again, just because it’s innocent fun.
Then Carol swivels and the loose ends of the overcoat’s belt slap against her waist. “What else does it do?” She brandishes the phone at Leon. “Be cool if it worked on you.”
“It’s only for the animals.”
“Aaaaahhh!” she screams, looking into the phone. “Oh my God, this is hilarious.”
The warden shakes his head slowly.
“Shhh!” whispers Leon, widening his eyes.
“But look,” she says, leaning into him. He sees nothing, save for the gallery’s glowing cabinets and the lifeless creatures inside them.
“Oh, it doesn’t work now because you’re not in front of the camera. Well, I hate to break it to you, Leon, but the app thinks you’re a sloth!”
“Yeah, this is brilliant.”
Leon catches sight of a hairy creature, blinking from a tree branch. Then Carol skids round and points the phone at the warden in an exaggeratedly covert fashion.
A sloth, thinks Leon. Not a lion?
Carol suppresses a giggle and looks over her shoulder at Leon, tucking back some hair. She nods towards the warden: “He’s a barn owl, apparently!” Carol’s spinning out of control, like Emily after a pack of Haribo. Better calm her down.
“Hey, Carol, what about you?”
She freezes. “Oh, me? Good point.” A pretty flush has invaded her cheeks. She hands over the phone. “Go on then.”
Leon raises the screen, but really he’s just looking directly at Carol, her straggled hair, her blinking brown eyes, the warmth in her cheeks, the tip of her tongue visible, her chewed bottom lip, her smile. He looks at the phone. There’s a Carol there too – smaller, brighter, simpler. What animal will she turn out to be?