“Mr Connor?” Oli glanced up at the assistant when she spoke, “Ms Jones is ready for you now, this way.”
Ms Jones beamed when she saw them, and held out her hand across her desk.
“Hi, I’m Boris Connor.”
“The writer!” Ms Jones’s smile widened considerably, “it’s so wonderful to meet you at last! And you brought Buddy with you!” She came around the end of her desk and immediately began to fuss Oli, who wagged his tail and grinned at his boyfriend. “It’s such a shame that Mr Volkov couldn’t be here as well.”
“He’s not feeling great,” the pair of them had prearranged their lie, “he didn’t want to give anyone else this awful cold that’s going around.”
“Oh, I know! Half the office has been off at some point over the last week. It’s all this rain.” Ms Jones stood and straightened her jacket, “oh you’re such a good boy Buddy! He’s just the most patient dog.”
“Isn’t he just? Oli said you had something I needed to sign?”
“Yes, yes!” Ms Jones pulled herself back from her informal chat and dog-cuddling mode and began to sort through the piles of paper on her desk. There were contracts, waivers, the minutes of meetings between authors and cover artists, thick manila envelopes of unpublished manuscripts, and a book.
Quite small, and square, the book was a hardcover mock-up. The word SAMPLE had been watermarked in red over the cover, but it was still easy enough to read the title and see the image on the front. The little dog, one ear cocked, the other adorably floppy, stared out at the reader, big eyes and faintly waggling tail begging to be picked up and taken home. Boris rubbed his thumb across the text at the bottom.
Written by Boris Connor, Illustrated by Oliver Volkov
“That’s the final proof. Do you like it? Oli signed off on it last week, he said he’d showed you.”
“Oh yeah, he did,” Boris smiled, tracing their names faintly with the pad of one finger, “It’s lovely.”
“Well then, we’ll just get you to put another signature on the final contract,” Boris took the biro and scrawled on the appropriate dotted line, “sorry we couldn’t send this one to you, company policy dictates final publishing contracts are signed in person.” She took the contract back and smiled, “they’ll be printing them up next week and we’ve set the publish date for the first of next month, just in time for the big rush up to Easter.”
“That’ll be good, won’t it Bud?”
Oli woofed happily and rubbed his head against his partners thigh. Boris was happy, but shaking faintly. Being in such formal situations was still very new to him. Oli licked his hand and drowned the faint shaken chemical yellow of worry with a thick red blanket of confidence and adoration.
“So are the two of you working on something new? Obviously we don’t know quite how sales will go but the reviews of preliminary copies are amazing. If you’re half as popular as I think you’ll be, this little book stands to make a lot of money,” she tapped the cover happily. “Obviously we will have a box shipped to you as soon as they’re ready, for your own personal use, though we do generally ask that authors refrained from giving away too many copies before the release date; family of course are a different matter.”
“I hope you have a nice rest of your day Mr Connor. It was lovely to meet you.”
“You as well.”
They left the publishers by the main doors and as soon as they were outside, Boris sniffed the air and wrinkled his nose in disgust.
“Oh god, let’s get out of here, eh?”
Oli yapped his agreement.
Brighton was a city, but it was a small city. Being in London was an assault on all the senses, like being smacked in the face with a rotten fish stuffed full of petrol and tar. To a wolf’s nose, there were layers upon layers of scent, each adding to the mix until, as with paint, all the colours combined just created an awful brown sludge. This was the third time the pair had ventured in: once to meet with Ms Jones and the publishing team for the first time; the second on a double mission to sign off on the price margins and print run of the book and to visit the headquarters of the pet shop who had employed Oli to rebrand them; and now for Boris to sign the contracts. Oli could feel his partner’s heart beat going double time with the sheer amount of stimulation going on around them. Smells, sounds, the air tasting of tin and smog, the enormous number of people living, breathing, loving, hating, dying all around them and on top of each other. It was too much to deal with for a whole day.
Boris studied the pocket map for a while, and they chose a bus stop to take them back to the mainline train station. Oli sat between his knees, looking out at the city passing them by while Boris kept one hand closed around his chevron patterned collar, the rope lead held tight in his other fist. He hadn’t wanted to come to the capital, and they’d put the trip off for months while Oli tried to talk Boris around to the idea that getting on a train to London was no more complicated than getting on the bus to visit his parents. Boris was scared of the city. The entire time they’d been there when he was wolf shaped he had stuck, as though glued, to Oli’s thigh.
On the train home they got an empty bay of six seats in a fairly quiet carriage: there weren’t a lot of people leaving in the middle of the day, and Oli lay on the seats across from Boris and quirked an eyebrow spot at his boyfriend.
“Just once, I was fifteen, I think. I sorta fell in with this dead-beat half-spaniel and a boxer with attitude problems. They were good at finding food, they never finished anything up, so I’d follow them and get scraps,” Boris shrugged half-heartedly. He was well fed now, well-conditioned and happy, but when he talked of digging through dumpsters for leftovers, Oli couldn’t help but be reminded that not quite nine months ago, the man he loved had been living life wild on the raggedy edge of existence. “We were just in and around the outer ‘burrows, but one night the boxer got cocky and we headed into town: dunno where exactly. The food was good, we were confident. Then the damn half-spaniel ran into the road and got pulverised by a bus,” Boris gripped the edge of his seat: ten years later and he was still shaking, “I ran. Didn’t go back to cities if I could help it much, stayed away from roads.”
Oli wiggled across the seats and leant over to nuzzle at Boris’s hand with a soft whine.
“Yeah, I know I don’t have to be scared anymore,” Boris bent double and kissed his nose, “let’s just stick with our city though. I can manage that.”
Boris complained of being tired on the train, but as soon as they stepped out of the station the bright blue of the sea salt washed over them. It didn’t matter that it was only early spring, and the weather and sea were still chill, because Brighton was a city that loved the seaside. Oli barked happily, dancing around his boyfriend on the pavement, drawing attention and waving his tail around for anyone who could read their language. Boris laughed at him, unclipped the lead, and after crossing the last main road they raced each other down to the sea. Oli skipped along the promenade, yapping joyously, turned on his own footprints, pelted down the concrete steps to the beach and dived headfirst into the water. He came out completely soaked, and surprised a small boy making a tower of stones almost as tall as he was. Oli wagged his tail and the boy grinned in excitement: when Boris called to him, Oli shook himself from nose to tail accompanied by squeals of delight from the small boy, and scrambled up across the beach to his boyfriend.
“You’re all soggy!” Boris held out his arms and Oli jumped into them. The advantage he had found, to being a smaller wolf to his larger partner, was that Boris could carry him quite easily, and it was nice to spend two minutes snuggled against Boris’s chest, nuzzling his neck and making his shirt wet and see-through.
Boris kissed him and Oli jumped out of his arms, barking, dancing backwards with his tail waving. He wanted to run and play more than anything.
“Alright then,” Boris pointed along the promenade towards the pier, “let’s go!”
They ran for the joy of running. Boris alternated between jogging and putting on bursts of speed when Oli stopped to sniff things. Every time the wolf was left behind he barked and ran to catch up, jumping to put his fur under Boris’s hand. When they reached the pier, Oli charged into the sea again, the surf breaking against his chest. He swam thirty yards while Boris walked with him along the shore and made sure to shake himself all over his lover. That way they would both need showers when they got home. Man and wolf walked until they reached the edge of town before crossing the road and heading up into the fields.
Land closer to his parent’s house was thick with cloying wet clay mud, but on the chalk the water drained away and left good grazing land for the sheep over the winter. Oli rolled in the grass, nosing his way along almost upside down to rub his fur and skin against the earth. The world was smelling green, the faint pale colour touched with lilac hues and hints of crocus which heralded the beginning of spring. It wasn’t there yet, but it wouldn’t be long until the sheep were moaning and bleating in the fields as their lambs were born, there would be rabbits everywhere and the world would break forth in a riot of new life. Boris could smell it too, and Oli pressed up against his leg as they walked, happy to stain the pale land with their combined terracotta, ochre and deep green scents.
By the time they had showered together, Boris had gotten clean and dry despite Oli stealing every towel he could find, and Oli brushed, both their stomachs rumbled for want of food. Oli had increased his partner’s culinary repertoire with thick meaty stews, dumplings, pies, casseroles, and roasts. Boris reheated a bean, chorizo and chicken stew over the stove and sliced potatoes into thin discs, dropping them into boiling water before coating them in paprika and frying them off in the pan. Oli’s portion included a generous portion of leftover gravy with meaty scraps in the bottom and they ate side by side, part of each always touching the other. Boris still wasn’t a good cook, but at least now he could follow a recipe – but only if Oli sat next to him and watched closely. They had worked their way into modern science fiction films, and Boris lay on the sofa in a towel with Oli lying between his thighs and over his chest as the two of them barked, laughed and giggled their way through Star Trek, openly ogling the young Jim Kirk’s physique. When Oli yawned with a creek, Boris hugged him tight and carried the wolf in his arms, his towel abandoning itself on the stairs, up to bed.
Oli watched Boris brushing his teeth: he still loved the feeling of super clean enamel under his tongue, and the wolf bared his fangs and waited patiently for Boris to switch toothbrushes and do his too.
“She called me a writer,” Oli washed the toothpaste from his mouth with the tap as Boris spoke, sounding dreamy and distracted. He cocked at ear at his boyfriend. “Well, yeah, I know that’s what I do, but… I just never thought of myself that way. I’m a writer.” Boris bit his lower lip with a soft blush, “we made a book, babe…”
Oli jumped up and placed his paws on Boris’s chest before kissing him soundly. Boris grinned, grabbed him, and fell backwards onto the bed. The young man pulled the duvet up around them and Oli nuzzled into his throat gently.
“Your book is amazing.” Oli nudged him forcefully. “Our book, fine, our book is amazing.” Boris smiled dreamily, “I can just imagine all those little kids reading our story and wishing they were us.”
Oli wuffed in gentle agreement as they rolled over. He found himself on his side, pillowed on Boris’s firm shoulder, his lover’s fingers running through his dense fur. They traded kisses back and forth, touching and nuzzling each other until the air around them was thick with pink and gold. Oli pressed his nose to Boris’s heartbeat and sent all his love there. When an itch started in his shoulder, Boris’s finger began to scratch automatically until Oli’s tail was sent wagging.
“G’night babe. I love you.” Boris turned off the light and they wrapped around each other in the dark. It was enough.
“Oli! This is a surprise, come in!”
“Hey, are we in time for dinner?” Oli stroked Boris’s head as the wolf preceded him into the house, nose twitching at the lingering scent of meat roasting.
“Of course sweetie,” she turned away from him, “Alex! Lay the table, your son is here for dinner!” Boris yapped loudly, “with his boyfriend. Sorry dear, you know I don’t mean to exclude you.” Andrea wiped her hands on her apron again and started heading back to the kitchen. “We didn’t expect to see you back again this side of the full moon.”
“Well, we’ve got something we want to tell you guys,” Oli took Boris’s lead, the big grey wolf sharing their joint happiness with his tail, “it’s a surprise. Hi dad.”
Alexander frowned at his son, nodded to Boris, and went about laying another place at the table. They had eaten there often enough now for Boris to have his own bowls, and Oli’s father filled the new water bowl from the filtered jug then growled sternly at Anastasia when she went to drink from it.
“It’s Boris’s. Leave.”
Oli petted the dog when she approached him for attention, but he was aware of his father watching them closely.
“How’s business?” It was a fairly safe topic to stick to, and Boris usurped the Alsatian and laid his head in Oli’s lap while dinner was put together and Oli made meaningless small talk with his father.
“So what did you want to tell us?” For a while after being served, no one had said a word, and all there was to be heard was the sounds of three people, a wolf, and a dog enjoying their dinner. Only Anastasia ate with her mouth open.
“You think we should give it to them?” Oli cocked an eyebrow at his boyfriend, and Boris nodded smugly. “Here. This is for you guys.” He pushed the slim, square hardcover book across the table to his parents.
“A book?” his father sounded deeply suspicious, like it might bite. Oli had never actually seen his father read anything other than books on carpentry. Fiction was an unknown field to him.
“A children’s book?” Andrea stopped eating to turn the book over in her hands, “Oli, what is this?” She finally spotted the front cover, “oh! Darling!”
Oli was just about knocked from his chair by the force of his mother’s embrace, and Boris made a funny squeaking noise as he ran out of lung capacity.
“Mum, let him go!”
“Sorry, Boris dear,” she glanced back at the front cover of the book, “Oh my boy! I am so proud of you!”
“What has he done now?” Alexander picked up the book: it looked so tiny in his huge hands, “Very nice.”
Oli shrugged, it was about all he expected of his father, and while his mother began a non-stop reel of excited questions about the book, the title, the drawings, the publisher, the lettering, the sales, the release date and every other thing she could think of, Oli sat with Boris pressed against his thigh, and couldn’t stop smiling.
They stacked the dishwasher together, Boris licking the plates clean before Oli tidied them away. They could hear Andrea in the lounge, giggling as she read her way through the little book.
“Oliver?” Alexander stood in the doorway, but Anastasia wasn’t with him, “Could you and Boris come out to the workshop once you’re done here?”
“Yeah, sure,” Oli was about to ask why, but his father had vanished, “he’s always been good at being terribly cryptic. Shall we go?” Boris put his head on one side and frowned. “Give him more credit than that. I don’t think he’d actually invite us to stumble in on him mid-coitus again.”
Oli took the path that lead to his father’s workshop. The ground was still suffering the after effects of too many months of rain, and in order to save the grass no one, not even Anastasia, was allowed to roam freely across it. The lights were on and as Oli let them into the workshop, they were bathed in the warm orangey glow and thick heavy scent of dry wood.
“Back here,” Alexander’s voice came from the wood store, “both of you.”
Boris walked ahead of him, and Oli tried not to focus on the fact that he hadn’t been alone in his father’s company for several years. All the scents he picked up over the brittle dryness of the wood were soft and calm, and a tiny, barely perceptible purple tendril of anxiety. Whatever his father wanted to tell them, he was nervous about it.
“I made you boys something,” Alexander flicked on the overhead lights in the store, illuminating the stacks of wood, “I hope it’s big enough.”
Standing in the centre of the wood store, about where the big stack of ancient, drying mahogany usually resided, was a bed. It was the sort of furniture his father had become nearly famous for: oak, rubbed down and loved and polished with linseed oil and beeswax until it gleamed. It was a fairly heavy frame with thick mortise and tenon joints, the slats made of slightly springier beech wood, all the edges rounded off and smooth. It was a dog friendly bed, the legs were very slightly lower to the ground, and it was almost square in shape to allow them to lay at completely different angles without limbs sticking off the mattress.
Oli stepped closer to the bed. The headboard was squared off and decidedly manly, but in the centre was a relief carving in fantastical detail. One wolf sat in the centre; obviously Oli with his expressive eyebrow spots and ears pointed slightly out towards the sides, and on his left stood a bigger wolf, looking rather regal and stately but who was nonetheless Boris. On the other side of them, was an Alsatian. Not Anastasia, but Ruff, lying curled around his feet as he always did, his nose pointed towards the wolf who was his master. Oli touched the realistic carving, his cheeks wet with tears.
“I wish you could’ve met him. He was a great friend.” Boris whined softly. Oli looked up at his father, rubbing his face quickly. Even at the rate his father worked, the carving alone would have taken more than a week. “Its lovely dad: thank you.”
Boris nudged his thigh and yipped with a flick of one ear. Oli laughed.
“And how the hell are we going to get it home?”
“Well, I suppose so. Make sure you ask nicely.”
“Yes mum.” Oli watched the little boy make his way over to where they sat. He was probably six, the perfect age to be reading their book all by himself, and he was clutching his copy hard against his little chest: one corner was suspiciously puppy-toothed. “Excuse me?”
Oli smiled at the little boy, leaning with his hands on his knees to bring himself closer to eye height.
“Hello,” he was doing his most obvious to be polite, “Are- are you mister Vol-kov?” He said Oli’s name very carefully, as though he had practiced it.
“Yes, you can call me Oli. This is B-”
“Buddy!” The little boy’s face lit up when he looked at the wolf. “Can I stroke him?”
“Sure thing. Bud, you got a fan.”
Boris lifted his great wedge shaped head from his paws, but remained lying down. He was taller than most of his small fans, and it was a bit disconcerting when they discovered this. He thumped his tail on the hard carpeting, pink tongue sticking out the side of his muzzle, and nuzzled into the little boy’s hand as he was stroked. The boy giggled and beamed, all his scents shining with silver and gold. Oli was distracted as the boy’s mother came up.
“Hello, thank you.”
“Not a problem,” Oli spun his pen around his thumb knuckle. He’s always wanted to learn how it was done, and the tiny gaps between individual book signings had been the perfect opportunity to practice. Now he was a pro.
“Not just this,” the woman smiled at him, genuinely happy, “he never used to read, ever. And then we found your book and now I can’t ever get him not to be reading, he even reads to the dog.”
“And what did you get?”
“A jack Russell terrier cross; he took a liking to your book too.”
“So I saw,” Oli smiled, “oh Bud, have some decency.”
Boris grinned up at him from where he now laid on his back with all his legs in the air, the little boy using both hands to scratch his thick chest fur. Boris flicked an ear at his boyfriend and Oli scowled at him gently: he wasn’t that jealous.
“So you’re the artist?”
“Yes ma’am. My partner Boris writes, but he unfortunately couldn’t be here tonight.”
“It was nice that you could bring Buddy though.”
“Mum made me leave William at home with my sister,” the little boy did not sound particularly happy with this, “he’s a lot smaller than you are Buddy.”
“James, didn’t you have something else to ask Mr Volkov?”
“Oh!” the little boy scrambled to his feet, back to holding his book tightly, “um, could you maybe sign this? Please?”
“Of course.” Oli took the book gently and turned to his signing table. The book was well loved, the pages crinkled at the edges by sticky thumbs and hurried fingers, and the top corner chewed softly by the milk teeth of a young dog. He opened the book at the little used title page and smoothed his fingers over letters that Boris had painstakingly copied over and over again until he was happy with his version of the handwritten ‘font’
A Dog and His Boy
The blank space between the title and their joined names at the bottom of the page, Oli took his marker and wrote.
For James and William,
Who I’m sure will grow up and have many adventures together too.
Little James hugged him, then Boris, and waved to them until he was completely out of sight. Oli relaxed back in his chair and looked around the bookshop. Hanging over the main entrance to the children’s section was a large banner with a blown up section of the book, sketches showing the two heroes playing in a field, Buddy running ahead with a stick between his teeth and his tongue sticking out the side of his mouth. Underneath was a smaller more colourful banner announcing the soon to be released second book by Oliver Volkov and Boris Connor. The cover of Another Puppy showed a big wolf-like dog standing over a little bundle of upside down fluff with a puzzled expression on his face. The editor and publishers had squealed and laughed so hard they had cried when Oli had first brought them the pages, mocked up to look the approximate size of the book, and it was set to be another firm hit with the four-to-six’s and their parents.
When Boris nosed his hand, Oli’s world was brought back into hazy focus, the image of his lover suffused with pink and gold and a dozen other shades he couldn’t name that simply made his heart open up and glow.
“You’re more famous than I am, eh?” Boris nodded happily, “you smug sod. We did pretty well for a couple of fools in love though. Didn’t we Bud?”
“You wanna go for a walk on the beach tonight?”
“Wroar ruu woooff.”
“We can do that afterwards. Promise,” he glanced up, scenting the approach of another of Buddy’s young fans, “best behaviour babe. I love you.”
Boris nodded, rolled over and put his head on his paws.
“Hi, Mr Volkov?”
“Yes, come on up and say hi to Buddy. He likes to meet his fans.”
With Boris’s happy grumble in his ears, Oli took another, slightly less dog-eared copy of their first book, to sign. Their sudden rise to slight fame had its good points, and there wasn’t a book shop or library across the country where ‘Buddy’ wasn’t allowed to come and spend some time. And they always had the best carpet to scratch on.
For a good stray and a bad werewolf, they’d done pretty well after all.