Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Autumn 2011 Results




Hildegard Wool-Ball

Copyright © Jim Murphy 2011


Two days ago I sat at a table in Moaning Monicaís coffee lounge waiting to meet Leonard Long, the worldís most successful failure. When Monica asked, "Would you like to order?" I declined, so she scowled. Monica is not a happy soul, not like Mildred Earl, with whom I am desperately in love and wish to live with and perhaps even marry, except for one grave physical defect. Mildred is cheerful, intelligent, kind, and very pretty, but she plays the saxophone very badly. In fact if diabolical saxophone playing ever becomes an Olympic event she will be a medal certainty, which upsets me.

Despite Moaning Monica glaring at me rudely I did not wish to order anything before Lenny Long appeared. Lenny and I have been friends ever since we attended both Primary and Secondary school together. At first he was a little, fat, lazy kid but at Secondary school grew into a tall, slim, muscular and equally lazy kid with a kind word for everyone. A slow reader, he was placed in a remedial class supervised by Felicity Fennel; a blonde twenty-five year old who taught backward students. She insisted on his attending after-hour tutorials, during which her tuition was observed and reported by the caretaker to the Principal, prompting Miss Fennel to leave suddenly to open an Employment Agency.

When Lenny left school Miss Fennel found him a job as a sales cadet, a position in which he was loved by all, especially Miss Fennel, for Lenny is a fellow that women find irresistible. He obtained a driverís licence at sixteen in the name of older brother Benjamin, who did not object, having died at age two; a fact that escaped the notice of the licensing department.

Lenny was a superb salesman, especially with purchasing officers of the opposite sex, and many large firms changed their supplier after he called. He once ambiguously remarked, "My work is occasionally very exhausting."

He also observed, "Wayne, I am actually better educated than you since my schooling was practical, with a long grounding in adding, subtracting and Basic English whereas yours was comprehensively irrelevant. I can spell debit and credit, overdraft and surplus and commissions and incentives, the fundamentals of existence."

I never argued, for Lenny and I are on the same wavelength. For instance, if he asked me, "And how are the music gigs piling up?" and I replied, "I am heavily booked next month," he knows that I have avoided mentioning that this month is as lean as string and I may ask him for a loan, and since I already owed him four hundred bucks from two earlier inquiries he would simply reply, "Iím pleased."

Likewise if I asked him how his business is prospering he would reply that trading these days is unbelievably hard, and that some of his clients are folding and fleeing to the Gold Coast. I do not believe this, for Lenny piles up money. He recently bought a luxury flat in Upsville, drives a big BMW and always has a number of adoring girl friends. In fact I knew envious guys with Doctorates and Masters Degrees who would tear up all their diplomas to be one tenth as successful with beautiful women as Lenny, the High School dropout.

Moaning Monica approached yet again, so to pacify her I told her I was meeting Lenny. Miraculously her sorrowful facade peeled off like paint, leaving a broad smile. She floated off happily, saying, "Iíll put a vanilla slice aside."

So I sat there waiting for Lenny and thinking about Mildred Earl, because Lenny had rung me the previous day and said, "Meet me for coffee at ten-thirty at Moaning Monicaís. You must meet Hildegard!"

It was a strict rule of mine that I do not go out in the morning since it usually involves getting out of bed, but these rules were flexible for Lenny. I was curious to see why I must meet his new girl-friend; he is normally secretive in such matters.

When he arrived I heard the buzz among the women in the vicinity, and then when I finally saw him my eyes nearly fell out. He was alone, no Hildegard in sight, and he was dragging behind him a white ball of wool on a string, and furthermore the ball of wool had wheels, for it rolled along quite happily behind him. I bent to touch the wool-ball and a tiny mouth opened and several miniscule but sharp teeth clamped on to my finger in a pain-producing manner and I screeched. Monica howled with laughter.

"Quiet, youíll frighten Hildegard!" Lenny reprimanded, "Sheís wary of strangers." He turned with a smile to the fawning Monica and ordered two coffees and a vanilla slice.

"Lenny, Iím delighted to see you," I said, "but not your hirsute Hildegard, who is not the Nordic blonde I had imagined. What exactly is she?"

He grinned as the wool-ball thing sniffed under the table, disposing of a smear of lamington and some crumbs of pie.

"Hildegard, it should be obvious, is a dog of numerous small but impeccably pure-bred varieties. She is however a few years old, has been harshly treated by previous owners, and is therefore timid and defensive."

I sipped my coffee Ė the miserable Monica makes a fine brew Ė and asked the inevitable question, "Lenny, how does someone like you acquire an old, undersized cross between a hairy dog and a white rat? Is she your pet?"

He smiled. "She is, and she comes from the Cat Shelter."

"A dog, from the Cat Shelter?"

"Yes, they are my customers, and my friend Sandra was desperate. Some fiendish swine hurled poor Hildegard over the fence during the night and some of the feral cats went berserk trying to eat her. Sandra pleaded with me to take her, since dogs are not allowed in a cat place." He smiled. "Sandra is a most obliging customer, so I helped."

He sat back as our vanilla slice arrived - a tradition from our school days that whoever has a cake shares it with the other. Lenny halved it, then added, "I have fallen in love with Hildegard, but our relationship has problems." I said nothing; the love of a bachelor for a cast-off dog is beyond my experience.

"Therefore, Wayne, I wish to give Hildegard to you!"

"Thank you, no! I hate dogs, and especially ones with sharp points."

"Only for ten days, while I am overseas on business. You would learn to love my Hildegard."

"Your lovely Hildegard tried to remove my finger."

"Yes, sheís very playful. You'll take her?"

"No! I flatly refuse."

"Iíll pay you."

"No!"

"Iíll pay you forty dollars Ė no - twenty a day?" Lenny knew my weaknesses.

"Okay, if you put it like that."

"Wayne, I have made notes on everything; her food and water dishes are in the BMW and even a litter bin is included."

I was aghast. "Sheís not having a litter, is she?"

He chuckled. "Oh no, her previous owners at least saw to that. I bought it for hygiene, but I am told they are for cats, not dogs. As for food, you simply buy tins of dog meat and ladle it out to her morning and night and in return she will love you."

And so, bound by friendship and compelled by the necessity of money, I ended up with the dog. I tried to give her a gentle pat and she bit me again as I popped her into my old van. As we drove off she started jumping all about the place, including on my knee, and when I pushed her away she bit me again. Hildegard Wool-ball and I were destined to be mortal enemies. For her lunch she ate a piece of pork, a piece of cheese, a slice of bread, a cracker biscuit and a bowl of ice cream. She seemed happy, so I sat down with my guitar to practise. I was amazed; she was a music lover, for she jumped up on my knee making a strange purring sound like a cat as I strummed away. I decided Hildegard Wool-ball was a serious judge of musical talent. After a while I stopped playing and absent-mindedly stroked her ears, an act much beloved of dogs and cats. Hildegard Wool-ball loved it so much that she bit me again.

I played a little more, and Hildegard threw up all over my carpet. I was cleaning up the mess and cursing all dogs when Mildred Earl arrived.

Mildred, the lovely lady who has captured my thoughts and dreams and who I was considering marrying but who did not care a damn about me, looked at the mess and said, "What a beautiful dog! I must pat her."

"No Ė donít!" I warned, but Mildred had already picked Hildegard up and was being lovingly licked by the appreciative animal. I wished I could swap places with the hound.

"She bites me every time I go near her."

"You must be too rough. And stop feeding her so much. Now letís get to work."

Mildred worked in an office nearby, and Iíd met her when I performed at a restaurant in the vicinity. She had left her handbag behind, so Iíd kept it secure. When she returned ten minutes later looking very agitated I gave it to her. She was stunned to find her money and cards were all intact and offered me a drink. She said nice things about my guitar playing and singing and told me she was learning saxophone, so I invited her over to my flat to play. Since she works close by she came during her lunch hour, bringing her saxophone with her. She produced some charts, we started to play, and I realised the sad truth - that she would never in light years be able to sound musical. But I cannot tell her; if I did she would depart with angry tears and I would never see her again. So we continued rehearsing for about ten weeks and I suffered the agony of having to accompany her on guitar as she murdered good music, while all the time wanting instead to take her in my arms. And the situation showed no signs of improving. To all this was the added problem of Hildegard, the unwanted dog-woman in my life.

Mildred took out her instrument and tuned up, which achieved no purpose at all, for Mildred was the sort of player who spent her time either tuning up or playing out of tune. She produced a piece of music.

"Do you know this?" she said. "It is a song called Denver Depression."

I had never heard of Denver Depression and my spirits joined the depression, for she only had her part, which was in C major. This required me to play by ear in E flat, an unpopular key with Country and Western performers such as myself and difficult even if I had known the tune. I fumbled through an introduction and Mildred let out an enormous blast on her saxophone.

Pandemonium! We heard a deafening howl from Hildegard Wool-ball as she rocketed into the air and ran around the room shrieking as if in mortal agony. At long last, I thought, I have met a dog with an ear for music. Startled, we stopped playing, but by this time Hildegard had disappeared completely.

"Weíd better find her, she canít have gone far," said Mildred. We called "Hildegard, Hildegard," while moving from room to room, all two of them, but the dog had flown. Then Mildred spied the front door, and looked quite ill.

"Oh my god, Wayne, I left the door open! Poor Hildegard could be anywhere by now. Quick Ė in my car and weíll search!"

And how we searched! We drove systematically up and down the surrounding streets for nearly two hours, calling the dog without success. Hildegard Wool-ball had vanished, taking my two hundred dollars in lodgings with her. How, I thought, will I ever face Lenny Long? Mildred searched with fervour, but finally we admitted defeat. We returned to my flat and Mildred, looking totally drained, made a cup of tea.

"Donít get so upset, Mildred," I said, "itís not your dog and itís not your fault."

"It is. I will explain to your friend personally that I am responsible."

"No Mildred, thereís no need." Mildred meeting the irresistible Lenny was the last thing I wanted.

I noticed desperate tears in her eyes. "Wayne, please tell me the truth, how lousy am I on the saxophone?" Her eyes bored into me, and I had the awful feeling that I was about to lose her forever.

"Mildred, my dear, let me sincerely tell you two truths; the first is that I love you very much, the second is that you are the worst saxophone player I have ever heard."

She looked at me stunned, picked up her instrument and placed it in its case. She was leaving, I could tell; my romance was dead. Then suddenly, looking totally miserable, she sat down before her unfinished tea.

"Wayne, my mother told me I was frightful, but what my father said really set me thinking. Can you guess what it was?"

"I have no idea, my love."

"He said, 'If this Wayne bloke hasnít told you how terrible you are he must be so much in love with you that his brain is fried.' Thatís what he said. Wayne, is he right?"

"I am hopelessly in love with you Mildred, and my brain is not fried." I sighed. "I wouldnít lie to you."

"Wayne, the reason I continued learning the saxophone was to keep seeing you. You are a kind, genuine person, Wayne, and I adore you. And now you hate my playing and I have driven your lovely little dog away. Iím sorry Wayne, Iíll go now."

But she didnít, for I grabbed her and we kissed and before we knew what was happening we were entwined on my bed with saxophone playing far from our minds. And when we finally lay back together Hildegard was also forgotten, I was far too happy.

Then, magic! A grey grimy ball leaped onto the bed and snuggled between us.

"Wayne - itís Hildegard! Sheís been under the bed Ė and sheís filthy!" She sat up smiling. "Oh dear, I will come again tomorrow and bring a vacuum cleaner instead of the saxophone." She moved to pat the dog.

"Careful darling, she bites," I cautioned.

"No she doesnít." Mildred was smiling and rubbing the little houndís tummy. "Wayne, when we have a daughter may I call her Hildegard?"

"Mildred my dear, when we have a daughter I will be so ecstatic that you may call her Bert if you so wish."

Delirious with happiness I moved my hand over to hold Mildred's.

And two sets of sharp little teeth clamped savagely onto my finger.