‘Letting Go’, Neil Ayres

Artwork by Djibril

Vienna 1995

Adrian, the strictest of vegans, gracefully scored the cutthroat razor across the dog's neck. Blood pumped out for a moment before the subdued breathing ceased altogether. He and his fellow conspirator continued to work in silence, the razors shaking between dirty fingers that extended from calloused hands. On the floor the cruor converged with other effluvia to form sticky dark puddles: a vulgar cocktail of blood, tufts of matted hair, bile and diarrhoea. The last of the unlucky animals dispatched, they had perhaps ten minutes at the most to make good their escape. Adrian faltered a moment: an imagined cool wind sent an icy shiver down his sweating back. Though the dogs were all dead he heard a heavy panting. As his sight blurred Adrian thought he saw a loping, gangly canine scout the edge of his vision.

 [ Dead dogs: image (cc) 2005 Djibril ] The strange image gone, his accomplice wiped the side of her blade on faded jeans before pirouetting it down into its plastic handle.

"I'm not sure how well they'll come out in this light without a flash," she noted in German, before raising the short-lens camera at her chest and snapping the scene hurriedly, without considering the composition of her shots. Adrian was not listening, but instead looked at the pale lolling tongue and charcoal gums of a dead terrier. Eventually he said:

"We should go."

Heading for the staff room, having left the girl to make her own way out, Adrian crossed paths with one of the supervisors: a self-important retired army trainer from Graz, who was at the centre for the pay and the pay alone, a bitter subsidy to boost his pension.

"Oh oh, the ballerina. You and Carin haven't finished your barbershop duties yet, surely?"

A multitude of animal rights protests and lab break-ins served the Englishman well under pressure. "We finished putting them back in their kennels a few minutes ago, Herr Köhler."

"And the dogs up for adoption outside? I told you already Pietr is only here for the morning. No-one has gone to help him yet."

Might as well go for broke on this, Adrian decided, It's not as if I've anything else left to lose.

"Shit. I forgot. I'll skip break and get straight out to the yard."

"Damn right you will, dancing boy. And if you haven't finished by noon, then I guess you'll be skipping lunch too—might make up for all those years prancing around like a tranny in tights."

Adrian bit down on the inside of his lip, smiled politely and headed in the general direction of the yard, the centre's open-air rehoming pound where the less problematic dogs were housed. Rounding the corner of the fenced paddock, a lively wall of mainly tan fur shielded him from the view offered by the window of the staff-room: a grey, damp portacabin balanced above the winter sludge on four breezeblock stilts. Beneath a raucous sheet of excited barking, high-pitched yelps at one end of the vocal spectrum, the hoarse croaks of an aged Bassett-cross at the other, Adrian doubled back on himself and made for the exit, inhaling for the final time the centre's pot-pourri scent of sweat, disinfectant and faeces.

London 1993

She was small, petite you might say. Five feet tall at a push, and slender: deceptive, for what she was mostly was bunched sinew and muscle, encased in a learned shell of infallible balance. Her grace was like the workings of a pocket watch: a calm and measured façade to an inner turmoil, no less perfect than the vision offered, but far more intricate. Her hair—what there was of it—was reined back in a severe bun, pinned close to her crown. From where he sat in the auditorium she was as a pale, naked ghost, the only discernible colour the flash of red at her lips. And before she noticed him she was in motion, focusing on an asterisk of light projected onto the wall by one of the spot-lamps. In mid-air her head whipped round one, two, three times: but for her, her gaze had never left the artificial star upon the wing of the stage.

She landed in a fluid motion on tiptoes like daggers and was carried across the stage by this deadly poise, this ballon, like a white spectre, the spirit of some long-legged water bird. A further elegant twist at the edge of the stage found her resting on the sole of her left foot, the right leg moved painfully slowly as she executed a cambré, her tiny back arching, eventually the neck exposed to the man watching her. A strand of hair that had squirmed loose from the restrictive bun during her spin kissed the polished floor as her pointed foot reached into the sky, as if a trap waiting for some unsuspecting jumping fish before it could be sprung in ambush, awaiting the telegraphed movement of the grand jeté.

Relaxing momentarily at this point for the first time since beginning the exercise, Melanie saw the man shift in his seat. She gently returned her body to a more usual stance.

"Can I help you?"

"I'm looking for Mister Grigori."

"Oh yeah, Luka. You must be Adrian."

Adrian nodded. "Your étendre was very well-executed."

"Thanks." Melanie slipped down from the stage and Adrian rose to meet her. "I'm Mel. Looks like we're going to be partners."

They shook hands, Melanie's delicate fingers framed by the newcomer's heavy grip. Her handshake was firm—again, deceptive—and there was a hint too of the energy to come. He took in her narrow almond-shaped eyes and the dense but thin eyebrows that framed them, and as their hands touched the scents of undergrowth and the thunder of adrenaline caused Adrian to look away from his new acquaintance.

"You may as well change before he gets here. Luka will want to start as soon as he arrives."

Guilt flickered briefly across Adrian's face.

"No kit?"

But it was too late even to acknowledge his error. Luka Grigori entered the hall. He stood studying the pair, leaning his thin body against the red velvet coverings of the back row seats.

"Perfect!" he hissed. "The two of you: the energy. Perfect!"

Had he seen something in that moment, or was it coincidence alone, synchronicity latching onto his words in an attempt to own them? Either way, Luka Grigori's words proved prophetic.

"Adrian," Luka's voice was clear now, the trace of an accent detectable in his pronunciation. "Warm up, please. Give your measurements to Melanie at the end of the session and she'll have you some proper clothes for tomorrow."

Luka moved to switch on the lights; a single vast mirror filled the back of the stage.

"Get the feel of the boards. We'll be rehearsing here three times a week. The other three we'll be in the college hall with the rest of the company. Sundays are your own."

 [ Rehearsal: image (cc) 2005 Djibril ] And so it was. Monday to Saturday Adrian and Melanie, under Luka's unforgiving eye, made mixed progress as the ballet's premiere performance approached. They rehearsed their pieces in reverse order in an effort—Luka insisted—that would aid their memories.

When it came to rehearse the final, opening piece, late in January, snow had settled on the rooftops of buildings and the bonnets of sleeping cars, but not on the roads or busy pavements of Brixton. Adrian had watched the flakes evaporating as they met the heat of these unforgiving surfaces.

As one hand closed around Melanie's thigh and the other clasped firm beneath a small breast, his palm feeling the rib-bones beneath the flesh, he saw the wolf, briefly. It was grey and its tongue lolled wickedly, an un-melted snow crystal on its moist nose, the nostrils of which exhaled steady plumes of winter mist. Then it was gone and Luka's voice was chastising him.

"Adrian, how many times? Bring your arm out more before the turn. Allongé! What is wrong with you this morning? You are like an amateur! Again. Go!"

And they did it again, and the wolf kept its distance.

Vienna 1996

"What do you mean, you didn't know? Look: it's been in all the papers. The conservatives are talking of banning the mastiff breeds altogether. Give it a few years and there won't be any dogs left in this country." Kurt swigged at his lager.

Adrian, exhausted from insomnia and nightmares when he could sleep, looked down at the monochrome picture in front of him, thankful that it wasn't colour. There were no photographs of Carin's body, only one of the mastiff and a woman, presumably a vet, standing next to it.

"But I thought she'd left. At least she told me she was going to."

"After you murdered those dogs together, you mean?"

Adrian shot his companion a dark look. "She pinned that one on you, Adie. Everyone thought you'd pissed off back to England."

"I was going to, but I got distracted. I mean I did go, but.... When did it...?"

"When was she killed? About three months ago. Do you remember Sabrina? She had a thing for our photographer, apparently; unrequited of course. Still, after the mastiff killed Carin, Sabrina shot it, and then herself, with an old chamber pistol. Fuck knows where she got it. I bet we don't see that making any of the tabloids." Kurt raised his glass and clinked it to Adrian's.

"To euthanasia," he toasted. "What you up to now, Adie? What're you doing back in the big V?"

"I'm not sure. I only got here last week. I heard Grigori and Mel are planning to get married.."

"No shit?" Kurt chinked his glass against Adrian's again. "Not being funny, but this don't quite strike me as the best place to go looking for a fresh start."

"Who mentioned anything about fresh starts?"

"Then what?"

"Would you laugh at me if I suggested the prospect of redemption?"

"Like a drain. What about your kid?"

Adrian shrugged. "I'm still paying the child support."

"Bad news, my boy. At least you're a free agent now, huh?"

An older man in a check shirt entered the bar alone and looked straight over at the two of them.

"What happened after the, you know?"

"What, you killing the dogs? Not a lot. Carin lost her bottle and threw the film away. As far as I know, we're the only peeps alive to know for sure that she was involved. I think she'd regretted suggesting the camera."

"The camera was the whole point. She was the one with the press contacts. I suppose it didn't help matters when I suggested the razorblades, but it was the only thing I could think of to separate us from the Animal Liberation crazies. I thought it would show how serious the problem was, if someone who cared enough to try and expose the horrors of no kill shelters was willing to go to such an extreme."

Kurt was far from convinced that Adrian wouldn't have known whom to contact without Carin's involvement. "Other than Köhler going apeshit, and yours truly having to spend the afternoon bagging up the sorry mess you left behind, I don't think much came of it."

"Why didn't Carin take the pictures to the press?"

A shrug in response, then, "I suppose in the long run, her unexpected demise did more for your cause than a fruit-de-loop PR stunt from militant activists was ever likely to."

"So we wasted our time."

Kurt considered a lone blonde at the bar. The older man in the shirt was out of sight.

"You put a few souls out of their misery at the very least, Adie, which is what I intend to do right now. You've still got my mobile number, yeah? Give me a call next week. Now excuse me, but the big bad wolf is on the prowl and it's dinnertime. Woof, woof."

Adrian was left alone in the bar with a Kraut-rock soundtrack and the smack of balls on the American pool table for company, until the man from the bar, tiny and bearded up close, in his red and black checked shirt, found his way into the seat that Kurt had vacated.

 [ Mikhail Bojik: image (cc) 2005 Djibril ] "You're Adrian," he stated. It wasn't a question. "I followed you here from the hotel. Luka told me you would be coming to Vienna."

Adrian bristled. "Any friend of that arsehole is no friend of mine."

"Sh, sh. Where are you English manners?" The man patted the air with down-turned palms in an attempt to pacify. "I am not a friend of Luka. More a business associate." He stopped stroking the air and extended an open hand.

Adrian stared at it. "What do you want?" he asked, bluntly.

"Luka tells me you are a great dancer. In fact, the best he has come across."

"I no longer dance. Who are you?"

"My name is Mikhail Bojik."

"A Russian, like Grigori?"

The man wiped his neglected hand on his chest. "No, I am Romanian. Though my father was from the Ukraine."

A muted cheer sounded from the pool table as the black was sunk.

"Well, Mikhail, nice as it was for you to seek me out, but it's like I say: I no longer dance."

The man, Adrian had begun to think of him as the old man, shook his head. "Tuttuttut. This is not what the wolf has been telling me. She is telling me that you are dancing night after night, in the woods, with her. You are dancing perhaps to avoid the dogs?"

Adrian rose from his chair, anger puffing up his broad chest.

The Romanian licked his lips.

Adrian stood and left the bar without another glance for the old man, failing to notice Kurt's arm round the blonde's waist, a predatory grin splitting his friend's face as the woman looked back at him with scared-doe eyes. The Romanian pawed over Adrian's half-empty glass and quaffed the remainder of the drink down in one.

Chill winter air hit him as he exited the bar, Bojik's words having stirred his memory.

London 1994

"Something weird has been happening when we dance together: I keep seeing this wolf, not running or anything, it's just sitting there in front of me."

"A grey one?"

"No, it's black. Why do you ask?"

"The same thing's been happening to me, only the wolf's grey."

Melanie slapped her hand across her fiancé's super-toned stomach. "Don't be mean. I'm serious. I don't know what to do. I'm still conscious of everything else; it's like dreaming when I'm awake. That's the best way I can put it."

"I'm serious too. The exact same thing's been happening to me since..."

"...Since the day it snowed?" She finished for him. The intercom buzzer interrupted them. "What do we do about it?" Melanie asked, reaching for the handset.

"What can we do about it?"

"Oh, hi Luka. I'll come down and let you in."

Moments after she had disappeared down the stairwell, Adrian followed his fiancée to ask her to collect the post.

He saw them there, in the cramped rectangle between the front door and bottom of the stairs. The effete Russian was practically eating Melanie's face off; his small hands were clawing her, one clutching a tiny buttock, the other a small breast.

Adrian pushed the two lovers aside, before they had even registered their error, and made his way to the nearest cash-point, a dried channel of tears adding sheen to his cheeks by the time he got there.

He arrived in Austria the same evening.

The following week a letter arrived from Melanie. It read simply:

I'm sorry and I'm pregnant.
Love Mel.
(PS It's yours.)

Vienna 1996

Walking through central Vienna in the bitterly cold January air, for once not tempted to shout 'This means nothing to me', but desperately wanting it to be true, he considered the aged Romanian's words. She is telling me that you are dancing night after night, in the woods, with her.

But Bojik was incorrect in one respect: Adrian was not dancing to avoid the dogs; he was dancing to try and find them again. At the time, he thought it would appease the wolf, if he freed the dogs. It was why he had taken the job in the rescue kennels of a shelter with a no kill policy, but Adrian soon regretted his decision. The life the dogs led there were torture to the wolf: it sought him out more and more during the day, whilst continuing to wrack his sleep, shivering and pitiable now, not playful in the snow.

Adrian realised he had failed. He missed Melanie and so did the wolf. Adrian wanted the dogs to have their revenge on him. He shunned the prospect of forgiveness. He wanted to free the wolf of him. He believed he had failed it, by killing the dogs; by ignoring its gifts; and he felt he'd unfairly consigned it to share with him a life of misery, without dance; without Melanie, and without their child.

But wolves and dogs abhor such concepts as vengeance and compassion. As he walked away, Adrian knew this was what Bojik was trying to make him appreciate.

He found himself standing before one of the city's fountains and had the sense someone, or something was watching him. A snowflake drifted down to land on his shoulder. It made him think of his ex-wife, the feel of her, defying gravity between his hands.

"What do you say, one final performance?" The voice was Mikhail Bojik's.

"I'm not a dancer."

"No, you were a dancer, but not now. Now you are something more. There's nothing for you in this life, Adrian. What would you do, forget your past? Find another woman? Feel bitter envy for the rest of your days towards your wife and Luka."

"I'm not prepared to leave my world for yours, Bojik."

 [ Letting her go: image (cc) 2005 Djibril ] "What a tragedy for you if you were." Bojik looked out into the middle distance. The pair of them had wandered to the woods at the edge of the city.

"I can see you are a brave man, Adrian, as well as stubborn," the Romanian said.

The Englishman turned to follow the old man's line of sight. A big dog, maybe a wolf, vanished into the trees.

"I was brave once too, and equally stubborn. Do not make the same mistake I did."

Adrian waited to see if the wolf would come back. It didn't. "What mistake was that?" he asked eventually.

"I let the wrong one go."

Adrian was still peering into the trees, looking to see if the creature he'd glimpsed would return.

"They're not like gundogs, Adrian," Bojik said. "They don't come when you call. If you want to get them back, you have to go after them."

© 2005 Neil Ayres

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