In a basement flat off the Finchley Road, a Siamese cat, an Alsatian dog and a rat called Horatio lived with their owners, Jason and Arabella, known as Bella. Jason was a small-time dealer and Bella used to be an aristocrat, at least thatâ€™s what I heard. About the only thing they appeared to have in common was that both were short. Not so bad in a woman, but you could see he wasnâ€™t happy with it. To compensate, he wore special hand-made boots with Cuban heels, which gave him an extra two and a half inches.
When I visited, Iâ€™d try to minimise my own height. In any case, I have a natural stoop. He would sit in his chair â€“ rather throne-like, somewhat elevated â€“ in the middle room (the bedroom was at the front) and from here would sell hashish. Guests sat on a sofa which hugged the floor, leaving me with my knees practically under my chin.
In one corner of the room was Horatioâ€™s cage with squeaky toys and a four-poster bed, but he was often let out to roam. Donna, the cat, was, I think, Bellaâ€™s. Despite its classic looks, though, it was ugly â€“ especially when it made that yowling noise. The dog â€“ what was its name? â€“ had seen better days. Fur unkempt, back legs weak, and a tail that flopped. Never did see it wag. Was it a guard dog? I believe it was. In theory.
â€śThey all get on,â€ť said Jason. â€śAnimals are like people. We get on. Donâ€™t we? Have to. Itâ€™s your expectations that govern things. Lateral thinking. See!â€ť
Horatio and Donna came nose-to-nose before the cat hissed and the rat ran away.
â€śHow much do you want? The Moroccan is cheaper but the Afghani black is a superior smoke. Wanna try some?â€ť
We smoked the Afghani in a pipe that he produced from his waistcoat. Bella came into the room like fresh air.
â€śWould you like to stay for supper?â€ť she said.
What a nice surprise. I had nothing better to do, and my dinner plans had got no further than anticipated tin-opening and toast.
â€śThat would be lovely. Thank you.â€ť
I bought a half ounce of the Afghani. No sooner had we done the deal than the phone rang, a white phone on a black glass-topped coffee table.
I thought I should leave him to his privacy. Who knows, perhaps he was talking to Mr Big about hashish coming into the country. I went down the hall to the tiny kitchen, the dog sloping along behind me. I needed the toilet and knew it was next to the kitchen. Bella was putting pork chops into the oven.
â€śMmm, those look nice,â€ť I said.
â€śThey will be. No, thereâ€™s none for you,â€ť she said to the dog, which was looking watery-eyed at her.
â€śCan I help you with anything?â€ť
â€śOh, I donâ€™t believe it â€“ Horatio, get off!â€ť She scooped up the rodent from the bread board. â€śOne minute,â€ť she said.
I went to have a piss and, feeling better for that, returned to the kitchen where I washed my hands. The dog was spread across the doorway.
â€śMove,â€ť said Bella, giving him a kick in the posterior.
â€śBella,â€ť I said, just as Jason strode into the kitchen.
â€śWhatâ€™s for dinner?â€ť he asked.
â€śBaked chops, mashed potatoes, spinach. All right? Unless you want something else?â€ť
â€śNo, thatâ€™ll do. Is he helping you?â€ť
â€śYes, I thought I would, if thatâ€™s OK?â€ť
â€śGet on with it, then. Beer?â€ť He handed me a Double Diamond.
Once heâ€™d gone, I asked her what sheâ€™d like me to do. Wash the spinach, she said. I had only ever come across this vegetable in a tin as in Popeye or in an emerald block of ice, so fresh muddy leaves were new to me.
â€śHereâ€™s a colander,â€ť she said. She got on with peeling potatoes. We were back-to-back, almost touching, she facing the door and me the sink.
Was I a bit stoned at this point? I would have to say yes. I took a swig of the beer.
â€śBella, why do you live here?â€ť
â€śOh, I like it. North London is my home.â€ť
â€śYes, but â€“ with him?â€ť
â€śWhat do you mean?â€ť
I wanted to say youâ€™re a good-looking chick and heâ€™s a bloody midget who thinks heâ€™s King Kong â€“ honestly, what does he do all day?
â€śThe dog,â€ť I said, â€śdonâ€™t you find things too cramped. Heâ€™s a big dog.â€ť
As far as I knew all he did was deal dope. Heâ€™d been to prison more than once. Besides, he was mad. Sewn into the rim of his boots, he told me, were saw blades. This was so that, if imprisoned, heâ€™dâ€¦ what? Saw through the bars? And the heels of his boots were hollow to conceal drugs. Here was a man whose greatest achievement was to get three opposed pets to co-exist.
â€śYes, he is. Howâ€™s the spinach coming on?â€ť
I found that rinsing off clumps of dirt was becoming onerous. I could no longer be bothered. I let the water run onto the leaves and I poked them around, and in this way some of the crud was dislodged.
â€śAbout ready for the pot, I reckon.â€ť
â€śNeed to put the potatoes on first,â€ť she said, lighting the gas flame with a match.
â€śIt wasnâ€™t the dog I was talking about.â€ť
She turned round and peered at the leaves. If my hands hadnâ€™t been wet I would have held her. I began to rub the splashy hand closest to her along my trouser leg. Jason reappeared on my other side.
â€śHeâ€™s useless at that, isnâ€™t he?â€ť he said to her. â€śMate, youâ€™ve got to get all the dirt off. All of it.â€ť He turned back to Bella. â€śWhenâ€™s it gonna be ready?â€ť
â€śIn half an hour, Jasey,â€ť she said.
I turned the tap back on and thought itâ€™s funny how between two people there can be something Iâ€™d call unfathomable.