‘Martin’s Story’ by Jon McGregor
12 Tales for Christmas: an extract from ‘The Reservoir Tapes’
Jon McGregor, author of Reservoir 13 and The Reservoir Tapes
It wasn’t even a llama, for starters.
He’d had to clear up that misunderstanding more than once. People had been quick to tell the story – oh, here’s a good one, did you hear about Martin and that llama? Well, the joke was on them, because it hadn’t been a llama in any case.
People liked talking, in these parts. There was always a story going round, and they generally took on a life of their own. But he wanted to set this particular one straight.
He’d been thinking about getting the wife a dog.
Not a great big one. Something easy to manage. But something to keep her occupied. He thought it might cheer her up. A butcher’s dog. It made sense. He didn’t know why they hadn’t thought of it before.
Things had been sticky with the wife for a while. She’d been unpredictable. Both kids had left home, and the two of them were rattling around a bit. Martin found himself down at the pub more often than not, and who knew where Ruth was some nights. And then the shop was running itself into the ground, on top of everything else.
Things weren’t all roses and sunshine, basically. He needed something to turn it around. He’d been thinking her birthday might be the opportunity.
This particular evening, he’d been down at the Gladstone for a quick pint with Frank, who used to work at the quarry. Frank had been going on for a while about some trip to the doctor’s. Martin was nodding a lot, but not really listening.
Anyway, he said, when Frank stopped talking. I’ve been thinking about getting the wife a dog. For her birthday.
When’s the birthday? Frank asked.
Tomorrow, Martin said.
Problem, Frank said.
Martin agreed. It was a problem.
Leave it to me, Frank said, and went off to the bar.
When they got outside the evening was still warm. It was the type of evening Martin could have done with just sitting out in the garden, watching the sprinkler. But Frank had talked to Tony, and Tony had made some calls, and now they were heading over to Cardwell, to talk to a man about a dog. Someone knew someone who was breeding. Had some spares to get shot of.
Martin could tell it was going to be a long night. The last time they’d got involved in a mission like this they’d come close to getting arrested. They’d been trying to get rid of some scrap. It hadn’t gone to plan.
Frank drove. He always drove fast, although his car didn’t seem built for it. The lanes were narrow and the verges overgrown, and the weeds whipped against the side of the car. The sun was starting to lower, and it flickered through the high hedges.
Frank was telling a long story about getting his appointments mixed up at the doctor’s, or being sent to the wrong department, or something. Martin couldn’t really hear above the noise of the engine and the air whistling through the gaps around the door. Well, that’s doctors for you, he said, when it seemed like the story was finished.
They parked up in Cardwell and went to a pub called the Grapes. Martin felt on edge already. Folk didn’t go over to Cardwell much. There was history. While he was getting the round in, Frank told the barman they were looking for a man by the name of Rake.
That was standard.
It was usually clear which way things were headed when there were folk involved with names like Rake.
The barman said he knew no one with that name.
Frank stood his ground.
Said he’d been told to meet Rake there. Said he was happy to wait.
The barman said he could wait all he liked, he still wouldn’t know anyone called Rake.
They sat in the corner, and waited. The place was basically empty, but there was some kind of fuss going on in the pool room. Two women arguing, it sounded like. Martin wasn’t sure, but he thought one of them sounded like Will Jackson’s girlfriend. That would be a turn-up. He was just about to mention it to Frank when a young lad came over to their table, nodded, and sat down. He dropped a pouch of tobacco and some papers on the table, and started rolling a cigarette.
You’re looking for Rake? He said, talking in a low mutter.
Correct, they told him.
This one’s after a dog for his wife, Frank said, nodding towards Martin.
The lad thought that was hilarious for some reason. Told them he could get a puppy within the hour. Your man Rake’s desperate to get shot of them, he said. It was surprising what you could come by, round here, if you found the right person to ask.
So then it was back in the car, following this lad, hurtling down the narrow lanes, trying to hear what Frank was saying about X-rays and waiting times while also trying to work out where they were headed. The sun was nearly down and when they came through the woods the road was suddenly dark.
They were somewhere on the far side of the reservoirs when they got out of the car.
It wasn’t much of a place. Looked like a scrapyard of sorts. Corrugated-iron fencing. Lots of chains and padlocks, warning signs. Inside, there were sheds and kennels, a lot of mud, and three dogs roaming around on long chains, barking. The lad from the pub went and knocked on a caravan at the far end.
Martin gave Frank a look. He didn’t like the way this was going. The lad came back and said Rake was all out of puppies but Woods might be able to help.
Well now. Woods was a name you didn’t want to hear at that time of night, in a strange part of the valley and with dogs barking all over the place. Woods was a man you wanted to avoid getting involved with, if you could help it.
But they’d come this far. Martin was out of options.
Right then, he said: let’s go and see Woods.
You don’t go and see Woods, the lad said. Woods comes to see you.
He said the price was going to be a hundred, and he needed half of it up front. Martin was ready to leave by then, but Frank just handed the money over.
Martin knew there was no point discussing it.
The lad said they were welcome to wait in the caravan, and left.
The dogs were still barking, and this tall lad in the doorway of the caravan was looking over at them. It was dark by then, and getting cold, so they thought: what the hell. Why not.
Rake nodded hello as they ducked through the door, and pointed to a sofa at one end of the caravan. He opened a beer, but didn’t offer one to Martin or Frank. Which was fair enough. It was unlikely he’d been expecting guests. They had to move some piles of clothes and magazines before they could sit down.
It wasn’t a big caravan. It had a smell of being lived in, and was a squash with the three of them in there. It was damp and stuffy, even with the door open. Rake was up to something with some pots and pans on the stove. Not cooking exactly, just sort of poking around. He was too tall to stand up straight in there, so he was stooping around the whole time. Skinny as well. A bony face, with a crooked nose.
There wasn’t much in the way of conversation. Frank was trying to tell Martin something about his wedding anniversary, of all things. And then they were just sat there, waiting. Rake rolled himself a cigarette, and stood there, smoking it and watching them. You can put the television on if you want, he said. But they couldn’t get it to work.
The whole time they were sitting there, Martin was remembering the stories he’d heard about Woods. He was trying to work out how they could leave. Frank seemed more relaxed.
Eventually they heard a car outside, and there was a sweep of headlights across the yard. Doors slammed, and the dogs started barking more loudly. Through the open door they saw a big lad come marching towards them. This was Woods, they took it.
Martin had never actually met him before, despite knowing his name all that time. The man looked like he’d been a rugby player twenty years before. He had that size but it had all gone soft. A smooth head. One of his ears was mashed. He was carrying something in a plastic bag.
He came up the steps and leant in through the door. The whole caravan rocked. He nodded to Rake, and asked who was after the dog. Martin put his hand up, like some sort of schoolboy, and Woods dumped the bag in his lap.
All out of dogs, but these are popular.
Martin looked in the bag. The smell was terrible. Whatever it was, it had a lot of dirty white hair.
Llama, Woods said. Baby llama.
Martin was not expecting that. That was non-standard. But time was getting tight.
He lifted it out of the bag, and had a good look at it. He was a butcher, not a vet, but he knew a thing or two about animals. This one was in a bad way. The eyes were all gummy and the breathing was off. Quick and shallow. And there was the smell.
He looked at Woods, and at Frank.
It’s not even a bloody llama for a start, he said to Frank, quietly.
No? asked Woods. What is it then?
It’s an alpaca, is what it is, Martin told him.
If Woods was surprised, he didn’t show it. Well, mate, he said; whatever it is, it’s yours now. He stepped outside, and started talking to the other lad.
Martin said to Frank, muttering: this is no good. This won’t do the job at all. Look at the bloody state of it. It’s nearly dead. What am I going to do with a dead bloody alpaca? Hide it in the garage? If my wife comes home and finds a dead alpaca in the garage, I’m going to get bloody divorced. No marriage counselling, no trial separation, I’m going to get bloody divorced. And I don’t want to get divorced, Frank. I love my wife, okay?
It was the most he’d said all evening. Frank didn’t reply.
Woods came back into the caravan and asked if they were all good.
Mr Woods, Martin said. No disrespect, but this wasn’t what we were looking for. It’s for my wife. She really wanted a dog. I’m sorry. As though he was apologising for not wanting to buy a half-dead alpaca.
Woods just looked at him. He repeated the price. He told Martin it was late, he was tired, and Martin was going to take the so-and-so alpaca whether he so-and-so wanted to or not.
They handed over the rest of the money. They took the alpaca and went to get in the car.
They didn’t talk much on the way back. They had to wind the windows right down on account of the smell. The air rushing in was cold and damp. When they came along the road above the reservoir the moon was shining off it.
Frank said that anyway, what he’d been trying to say earlier was that he’d finally got a new appointment sorted at the hospital, next week, for a something Martin didn’t quite catch. He looked like it was important so Martin asked him to repeat it.
BIOPSY, Frank said.
Oh, right, Martin replied.
It was probably nothing. These doctors. They’d whip you in for tests at the drop of a hat. It would be nothing. You look fit as a fiddle to me, he said.
They stopped off at the reservoir car park, and got rid of the alpaca.
Martin asked Frank if he had any more good ideas about the wife’s birthday. Frank did not. They were quiet the rest of the way back.
The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor is published by 4th Estate. First broadcast as a series of specially commissioned stories on BBC Radio 4, The Reservoir Tapes returns to the territory of the Booker-longlisted Reservoir 13