Mum carried Heston into the room. I was reading and, looking up from my book, I thought it strange. He wasn’t small but almost as big as me. She set him down, not on the sofa, but on the floor. I watched him closely, waiting for him to shift and settle, to make himself comfortable. He didn’t and, after mum had gone out, I continued to stare. But Heston, unflinching and arrogant, simply glared back at me and, far too quickly and far too easily, I gave in and went back to my book.
I hid behind the cover and tried to concentrate. Just moments before I had been entirely caught up, enthralled, but now I was lost and needed to begin again. But with Heston so close this wasn’t possible. Of course, I could have moved but to do so, to push myself up from the comfy chair, would have felt like a further admission of defeat and so I decided to wait it out.
Staring blankly at the words and turning the pages I pretended to read. At last my brother stuck his head round the door.
‘Dinner,’ he said, without giving Heston as much as a glance.
‘Great,’ I replied, slamming the book down on the rug in front of Heston.
Over dinner they didn’t mention him and I also tried to be nonchalant but with Heston just across the hall and, I supposed, still immobile, their chatter was simply too much.
‘What about Heston?’ I blurted.
‘What about him?’ mum asked.
‘Why doesn’t he join us? Isn’t he hungry?’
‘You needn’t worry about him,’ she said, ‘Heston can take care of himself.’
‘Meaning we can’t?’ my brother huffed.
‘No, I mean that you don’t have to worry. Heston is entirely self-sufficient. I mean that you don’t have to concern yourselves, that things around here don’t need to change.’
I did try to heed mum’s words and carry on as if Heston wasn’t there. In our small and cluttered house this was easier said than done. It wasn’t that he used up a lot of space or got in the way. In fact, he took up less space than the shoes piled beneath the coat hooks beside the front door. And considerably less than the sofa or the chairs or the television on its stand. And he didn’t move. Well, no, that’s not quite true, he did move, constantly appearing in different places. But I didn’t ever witness, or at least I couldn’t remember, his moving.
I would leave for school and when I returned in the afternoon he appeared to be in the exact same spot and in the exact same position. I asked mum about this.
‘How does he do it?’
‘Sit like he does, for hours without moving.’
‘I don’t know,’ she sighed. ‘Please try not to become preoccupied with Heston. It would be for the best if you just put him out of your mind.’
‘Ignore him, you mean?’
‘If you want to put it like that then yes, ignore him.’
Mum was right, I had become preoccupied, even obsessed with Heston. I watched him whenever I could and would have sat staring at him all day but with mum and my brother hovering in the background it wasn’t possible.
I was slipping behind at school and had stopped revising for the end of term exams. I could easily have changed this. I simply needed to start reading again, to get back into my books. If I had persevered for just an hour or so I could have done as mum had advised and put Heston out of my mind.
Instead, I sat behind him, cross-legged on the carpet and adopted his straight back position. I felt stiff and awkward and was concerned that mum or, worse still, my brother, might notice me like this. After a few minutes I leaned back against the sofa and, stretching out my legs, relaxed. It was then that Heston moved, he had been jarred by my foot. Unknowingly I had pushed my trainer into the small of his back. He leaned against it and I pushed back a little more before pulling away. I stood and noticed the hairs on the back of Heston’s neck and arms had risen.
‘Your mum only wants what’s best for you,’ he said, his voice dry and rasping.
‘I know.’ Looking up I noticed my brother in the hall. He stepped forward into the doorway, smirking. I pushed past him and made my way upstairs. In my room I grabbed a book and, laying on my bed, I tried to read.
For the first time Heston settled in my room that night and I assaulted him with a barrage of questions to which he didn’t respond. I didn’t ask what mattered most, what intrigued and troubled me so. Instead I plagued him with the mundane.
‘Would you like one of these pillows? Shall I fetch a blanket or the sleeping bag? Or would you like the bed? I don’t mind sleeping on the floor. If you want the bed, you only have to say.’
But Heston remained silent and I realised I needed to be patient. I was also aware of my brother out on the landing, listening closely and waiting. I felt as though something was going to happen.
Heston and I quickly established a routine. In the afternoons, after school and late into the evening, we played chess. I had to move the pieces for him and felt that this hindered my game but I didn’t mind. We were connecting, at last we were conversing. Heston was talking or at least barking out orders which I dutifully obeyed.
My books and homework forgotten, all that mattered was playing chess. I lost time and again, but I didn’t care. I was losing, but improving, and whilst locked in the game, often deliberating for twenty, thirty minutes or more before making a move I would chant under my breath.
‘Not losing, improving, not losing, improving.’
At teatime I was forced to abandon play. Mum stood at the bottom of the stairs and called for me. I hadn’t any choice but to step away from the board and join her at the table. My brother relished this chance to pry and tease.
‘Who’s winning?’ he asked.
‘It’s too early in the game to tell.’
‘I don’t mean this game in particular, I mean overall?’
‘We’re not counting. It isn’t a competition, we’re just playing.’
‘Oh, come on,’ my brother laughed.
‘Leave him,’ mum said.
‘No, come on, own up. You haven’t won a game yet, have you?’
‘No, but I could beat you.’
‘Yeah, I do,’
‘We’ll see,’ my brother said softly, and concentrated on his dinner.
I looked across at mum.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
‘It’s nothing,’ she replied. ‘Just eat your tea.’ Her face was stricken.
My brother took to standing just inside the door to my room, didn’t even lean against the frame, but observed us patiently from there. I found this disconcerting and expected him at any moment to make some barbed comment. He didn’t. Nevertheless I couldn’t focus. Heston, as usual, was unperturbed and over the course of the next week or so my game rapidly deteriorated. I played rashly, managing in a single evening to lose more games than I would ever have believed possible.
My brother gradually edged closer until he stood at my shoulder, gazing down at the board, and still he didn’t speak out, his former sarcasm, it seemed, had deserted him.
When mum called for us I heaved a sigh of relief, pushed myself up and without as much as a backward glance I headed for the dining room. My brother, of course, lingered.
Mum and I didn’t mention him. We sat at the table, the food getting cold on our plates until we heard Heston’s voice. It was the first time I had had heard his hoarse staccato bark from afar and it sounded strange.