Once it was a butcher’s shop with bloody aprons on the coat hooks and a queue of smartened housewives out the doors and down the main street, queuing for their turkeys at Christmastime. But the old signboard is long gone now, along with the slicers and cleavers and ratchets, the smell of slopped guts and marinated chops. And Tabitha Byrne can never be sure, when she puts the key in the switch and jerks it to twelve o’clock, whether the shutter will open or not. It is rusted raw and paintless—frayed in the middle like an overwalked step. The objects displayed inside the shop front judder to its rhythm and it groans like a thing possessed as it climbs. The fact that it has never once faltered in two-and-more decades does nothing to reassure Tabitha. She knows only that, one day, it will.
For years after Mr Byrne first took over the shop premises, his wife only helped out on Wednesdays and weekends or with major cleaning jobs, deliveries, unexpectedly large litters. But now it is Tabitha’s rear that weathers the varnished stool behind the counter from shutter-up to shutter-down six days a week, and of all the things that Mr Byrne has gifted his wife—the antique la-z-boy, the porcelain jester, the potted cheese plant—his shabby main street pet shop remains the largest disappointment.
As the window inches into view below the rising shutter, Tabitha’s reflection takes shape against the glass. There are her spectacles, her thinning hairline, her sagging jumper. In the background, there are the murky aquariums and buckled shelving, the denta-bones and kitty collars, the fish tank filters and netted fat balls. Up a narrow staircase from the store room, although she cannot see it in the glass, there is the poky flat where Tabitha houses her la-z-boy and her jester and her potted tree. And there is Mr Byrne himself, of course, all three hundred and forty two pounds of him, slumped on the bed or the sofa or the carpet in a rippling mound of pallid flesh and roomy underwear.
Today, the window is bobbled by raindrops. It poured all night, and even though it has lessened to drizzle, there is an angry tinge to the daylight that suggests it will be pouring again before lunch. It is Monday, and Tabitha wonders if she will make it to Tuesday without having to go and sit on the sacks of silica litter in the store room to cry. She makes it to tea break. From the litter sacks, she listens up the stairs to hear if Mr Byrne is snoring still or if the television is on and the sofa springs are squeaking under his fidgeting weight. But she can’t hear him at all and frets that he is on the balcony in his underpants and his yellowed string vest. And Tabitha cries all the harder when she pictures her husband leaning his girth against the railings to survey the street below, sending the swallows and sparrows scattering from the telephone wire in fright.
The pong of damp sawdust and tank slime are so lodged within the fine hairs of Tabitha’s nostrils that they have become the smell of air itself. The pet shop does not sell many living creatures anymore—mostly just goldfish. There used to be clown fish and rainbow fish and red clouds and bettas but they always died within a week and came back up to clog the Byrnes’ toilet bowl after Tabitha had tried to flush them. Sometimes she would find herself carrying pocketfuls of glimmery corpses to the river at night to toss to the shadowed shallows. Apart from the goldfish, there is a demented canary that hops back and forth between its perches and blurts a quiet peep each time it lands. There are a few Syrian hamsters that sleep all day and a rabbit that will never be sold now it is old and crocky and sneezes rather a lot.Tabitha tries to fill the rest of her morning by feeding and mucking, by rearranging her dusty accessories. Then she shuffles the notices about on the board, rips and chucks the expired ones—the Jack Russell pups that have long ago been given freely to good homes, the missing moggie that was since found fatally biffed to the side of the road.
Nobody much will venture into town today to have their trouser legs splashed by passing cars and their umbrellas bludgeoned by the wind. The old lady from two doors down comes in for peanuts at midday. She has bin bags fastened about her shoes and an old lady headscarf mashing her lilac perm.
‘Sure the weather is only brutal!’ she says, pushing her coppers from palm to countertop. She is the only soul all morning.
At lunchtime, Tabitha goes to the store room and cups her ear to the stairs. When she hears the ping of microwave and the thunk of fridge door, she hangs the BACK IN 10 MINUTES sign in the shop window and drives down the main street, all the way splashing pedestrians with the spray from her tyres, to the new shopping centre. The car park is in a bad way—already the river is reclaiming the edges of its concreted plain. Next door there is a large plot of undeveloped land being used to house a travelling funfair. Tabitha stands in the rain and stares at a strip of blipping bulbs and listens to the tinkling of boxed music. She can see the dodgems and the spinning teacups, the merry-go-round and the Ferris wheel reaching above them all, tickling the grey mist. There’s not a single person either at work or play inside the funfair; everything drips and sinks into the sodden grass and the wind whistles about the garish structures like a rainbow ghost town. Tabitha wonders if it will flood.
In the supermarket she buys a newspaper, a noodle-pot and a four-pack of raisin bagels, then she goes into Pet World, just to torture herself. She strolls its several aisles of canine accessories and luxury hutches, she fingers the tweed terrier jackets and jangles the musical tank ornaments. At the back of the store there is a miniature zoo with everything from chinchillas and opaline budgerigars to iguanas and poodle pups. They twitter and meep and yap and babble in disharmonious unison and all of the creatures are as bright eyed and shiny toothed as the staff themselves. One of the poodles squats on its back legs to poo and Tabitha thinks how strange it is that something so similar in appearance to a cloud of candyfloss should also be able to shit. She does not buy anything. On her way out, she is startled by a streak of fur that crosses her path before vanishing beneath a display. It is, Tabitha thinks, too small for a kitten, too large for a gerbil. She searches for a shop assistant.
‘Excuse me…?’ she says.
‘How can I help you?’ says the teenager.
‘I think you’ve got an escapee, I saw it there.’ She points. ‘It vanished below the flea powders.’
‘I’m sorry,’ says the teenager, ‘that’s just the fugitive chipmunk. It got out on Friday and we haven’t been able to catch it. It’s perfectly harmless.’
‘Oh,’ says Tabitha.
‘Was there anything else?’ says the teenager.
‘No,’ says Tabitha, ‘thank you.’ And as she leaves, she sees it again. It is prowling around the security detectors pricking its tiny ears and twitching its striped tail, challenging the automatic doors for its freedom.
Tabitha once found a dead squirrel in the drain gully, beside the footpath. It was right in the very middle of the town with no trees in sight, save a few spindly beeches rooted to the slabs, their branches hardly brawny enough to withhold a garden tit. She bent down to see if it was real. The fur looked a little dusty and the limbs looked a little stiff and the eyes were clogged with grit. Tabitha has always had a tendency to notice ordinary things in extraordinary places—coat hangers twisted into magpie nests and shoes that have been laced together and slung over wires high above the road. But she had never seen any town squirrels, not even in the park, and she could not imagine what treetop or rooftop or sky this one might have tumbled from. The next day, it was gone.
When Mr Byrne hears his wife return, he bellows down the stairs, ‘WHERE DID YOU GO?’
‘Just to the supermarket,’ Tabitha says.
‘Just bread and lunch things.’ But she doesn’t go upstairs to unpack them.
‘THEN WHY GONE SO LONG?’
‘Just browsing.’ She sets the kettle to boil in the store room for her noodles and for tea, always for tea.
‘FLOODED?’ he says, as though twenty-six years of marriage have erased the need to form full sentences or contextualise his question marks with places, persons or things.
‘Not yet. Trying to.’
After a small silence, Tabitha hears Mr Byrne moving away from the top of the staircase. His whole body seems to scuff the carpet as though he has no legs at all, but a giant tail instead, like a beached merman. She punctures her pot and his scuffing is drowned out by the ppfftt of processed air, the gathering rumble of bubbling water.
The fishmonger’s boy always stops by the pet shop on his way home from school. He is eight or nine and wears a rat’s tail in a small plait with a gammy elastic tied to the end of it. Tabitha knows the fishmonger well, yet still finds it hard to reconcile herself to the idea that his boy belongs to anyone at all and is not just wholly his independent self.
‘Hallo, Mrs Byrne!’ he says, but passes her without slowing and goes straight to the animals. The boy has struck up a special friendship with the rabbit. He drops to his haunches and tells it about how he swapped his Taytos for a tube of sweet milk from the Polish kid at lunchtime, and when it does not seem too interested, he pokes it through the bars with the blunt end of the fishnet. The rabbit sneezes. When Tabitha goes down to ask if he thinks his mum and dad would let him take it home and keep it, he pulls a face.
‘Rabbits are for girls,’ he says, ‘I want a lizard.’ His oilskin is trickling onto the floor, and because the lino is warped, the rainwater forms a shallow pool upon which a canary poo serenely floats.
‘Why don’t you have any lizards, Mrs Byrne?’ he says.
Tabitha knows that Pet World has leopard geckos and crested geckos and even bearded dragons.
‘I’m a girl,’ she says, flatly, ‘I like rabbits.’
The boy stands up and rattles the hamster cage until one of them wakes and peeks angrily through the woven floss of its giant nest.
‘Oh,’ he says, and the rabbit sneezes.
The door chime jingles and Tabitha goes back to the counter even though she knows that the school girls who came in are only sheltering from the showers and won’t buy anything. Beneath their school kilts they are wearing pink and blue and white leggings with bracelets around their ankles and drenched pumps. They go to admire the canary but she can still hear them chattering and giggling stupidly. Tabitha tries to remember what it felt like to be thirteen, whether her own pubescent world had been filled with such humble cause for excitement, but she can’t. She is glad when they leave and when the fishmonger’s boy leaves as well, when the only sounds in the pet shop are the animals muttering and the rain on the roof pattering soothingly.
For the rest of the afternoon, the rain comes down in stair-rods and Tabitha is reassured that it will keep Mr Byrne off the balcony. She finds no reason to move from her stool where there is a portable radiator wedged beneath the till and turned up high. It is a draughty old pet shop and the heat from the radiator is like a beautiful sedative, lulling Tabitha into an unproductive stupor. Occasionally she shifts her arms and legs about like a contortionist, trying to touch as much hot metal as she can all at once. The caps of her knees and the palms of her hands are furious red but the tip of her nose is purpled and dribbling. Tabitha leafs through her newspaper. She keeps watch on a lost trolley across the street. It lingers all bewildered so far from the supermarket. When the wind picks up and the rain drives hard, it begins to totter. Eventually it snags a wheel on the kerb, topples to the concrete and lies wounded in the drain gully with the butts and gum and crumpled receipts, with the fallen squirrels.
Tabitha closes the pet shop early, because of the rain and because the main street is so generally deserted. She stands beneath the door lintel for a moment before locking up and looks out at the soggy town. There are a few ageing regulars dawdling beneath the canopy of The Maple to smoke. The bakery has already dowsed its lights although the window is still stacked with towers of sculpted bread. Even McDonald’s is empty and Ronald looks foolish—all alone with his nose pressed to the glass and a goofy smile frozen into his fibreglass features. The clock above the library says twenty five to two. It stopped one day, at twenty five to two, and nobody has fixed it yet. Beyond the main street, Tabitha can see the hump of the Ferris wheel. Surely empty, she thinks, but still turning slowly. She locks the door and lowers the shutter, which strains a little, but makes it to the sill.
The fifth step creaks and the twelfth one wobbles—step step step step creak step step step step step step wobble step. Behind the door to the flat above the pet shop, Tabitha can see mostly all of their belongings at once—other than a few unfancy toiletries, her kitchen appliances, the bed—that is how small it is. Although the light is on, Mr Byrne is not in the living room and so Tabitha greets the pretty porcelain urn that houses her mum instead. Painted with a pattern of oriental cherry trees, it sits by the television atop a flat pack cabinet that somewhat diminishes its decorative splendour. Mr Byrne can’t stand the thing and would never open it, which is just as well. Folded and rolled and blackened by fine ash, this is where Tabitha keeps her small wad of notes, her small wad of just-in-case notes, her small wad of when-the-time-comes notes. Usually Mr Byrne shuts the urn in a cupboard or covers it with a tea towel when his wife is in the shop, but tonight, it is still baring its blossoms to the lamplight.
It is five years since Tabitha took over the running of her husband’s business, three and a half since Mr Byrne has even set foot in the shop. Yet still his presence lurks low in the kibble bins beneath the last scoop and high in the circular mirrors of the suspended birdcages that no one ever buys. Tabitha has never quite understood how it was that he chose to become a pet shop keeper. Her husband’s thick shoulders and podgy hands seem to have been in every way designed for butchery. She can only ever remember him hating animals—squeezing the baby guinea-pigs until they screeched, dropping the goldfish to their tanks from too tremendous a height and scrimping on birdseed rations so he could afford to buy a pint of stout in The Maple after closing. Mr Byrne had once punished the neighbour’s cat for crimes against his window box by shutting it inside the old butcher’s shop freezer. He let it out after ten or fifteen minutes, but still it lost its tail and ears to frostbite. Tabitha remembers how the cat went on to survive for several years afterward, and how Mr Byrne would gag with laughter every time he caught it falling off a fence because it no longer had tail enough with which to balance itself.
The toilet flushes and Mr Byrne lumbers into the living room, takes up Tabitha’s rumpled newspaper and flops onto the sofa. His bulk spreads around him so that his skimpy clothes stand out like coloured marquees against a mountain-scape of ruddy skin. And there he sprawls for the rest of the evening—reciting the headlines and describing the pictures. And there she brings him his tray of food and wonders how long before he won’t get through the door frames anymore, like he can’t get down the stairs. And she will have to lever him onto a commode and rearrange the furniture so that he can reach it from his seat and buy a giant paddling pool in which to wash him on the carpet with a yard brush and a hose.
Tabitha goes to bed too early for sleeping and lies on her back squinting at the quenched bulb. She has a whisper of a headache, and when it has built into a shout, she paws for the lamp and her spectacles. In the bathroom she opens the mirror and finds a packet of paracetamol, then notices that it is out of date by almost six months. Tabitha has never realised that such things can expire and she finds this suddenly, terribly, crushingly sad—this prospect that there comes a day when remedies no longer work, when things are left too late for their solutions.
There is hardly any rain now beating the skylight in the bedroom ceiling, burbling through the gutters. Instead, a strong wind has picked up and Tabitha can hear it smashing hanging baskets and tossing bin lids around back yards the whole length of the main street. In the living room, she can hear Mr Byrne channel hopping and squirming on the sofa springs. Downstairs, she thinks that she can hear the canary cheeping, but maybe it is just the hinges of the back gate swinging in the wind, squealing for oil. Tabitha sighs and crooks her left arm behind her head and pushes her fingers across the flesh of her left breast, roughly, inch by inch, pressing and mauling and even hurting, a little. Then she crooks up her right arm and starts on her right breast, rummaging about for the pea-sized lump that finished off her mother first, two aunties and one older sister, each in turn. Inside the sheets that hint of Mr Byrnes’s stale sweat and upon the old mattress that tilts to his side, Tabitha’s headache fades to a dull thump before, finally, she sleeps.
The next morning, all throughout the flat and shop, the lights are out, the electricity off—a line down somewhere, a fallen tree or damaged pole. Yet still, Tabitha puts the key in the switch, jerks it to twelve o’clock and waits for the shutter to rise. Down the back, the goldfish, desolate without any artificial bubbles to spur them on, are sniffing sadly at their lifeless filters. The hamsters, who have not realised it is morning, are still sprinting fast circles inside their exercise wheels. They can see flashes of Syria between the metal slats and are pelting desperately in the direction of their native home, covering no ground at all. The canary is sleeping, at last. It is dreaming of the aeroplanes it sees trailing the sky beyond the window and wondering why it can’t be an aeroplane too. Tabitha feeds everything that eats. When she comes to the rabbit, she kneels on the lino and strokes its head and decides that she will move it to a better hutch and a brighter spot, give it a name and let it see out its days as a pet shop fixture. The rabbit sneezes.
Tabitha goes back upstairs and pushes the door to the balcony and lets all the cold in. The main street is strange and unfamiliar—the shop fronts dark against a brightened sky when usually they are bright against a gloomy one. The TV screens in the electrical shop are motionless, blinded. McDonald’s has not opened and the bread towers in the bakery window have subsided to a heap.
Tabitha wonders if the river has reached the shopping centre, if the poodles are paddling in their Pet World play pen and if the chipmunk managed to make its break for freedom before the automatic doors seized up. Maybe it is swimming now, maybe it is struggling for all its life is worth through the swampy waters, trying to find its way back to the North Atlantic, and all the way home. The clock over the library says twenty five to two. And above the slates and chimney pots of blank faced buildings, Tabitha thinks that she can see the funfair Ferris wheel still turning slowly, although she might easily be mistaken. It might easily be nothing more fantastic than a smeared spectacle, a fault of the eyeball, a trick of the light.