13 February 2010

he's always there

On my way upstairs, in the dark, I bumped into old Salamano, my next-door neighbour. He had his dog with him. They've been together for eight years. The spaniel has got a skin disease—mange, I think—which makes almost all its hair fall out and covers it with brown blotches and scabs. After living with it for so long, the two of them alone together in one tiny room, Salamano has ended up looking like the dog. He's got reddish scabs on his face and his hair is thin and yellow. And the dog has developed something of its master's walk, all hunched up with its neck stretched forward and its nose sticking out. They look as if they belong to the same species and yet they hate each other. Twice a day, at eleven o'clock and six, the old man takes his dog for a walk. In eight years they haven't changed their route. You can see them in the rue de Lyon, the dog dragging the man along until old Salamano stumbles. Then he beats the dog and swears at it. The dog cringes in fear and trails behind. At that point it's the old man's turn to drag it along. When the dog forgets, it starts pulling its master along again and gets beaten and sworn at again. Then they both stop on the pavement and stare at each other, the dog in terror, the man in hatred. It's like that every day. When the dog wants to urinate, the old man won't give it time and drags it on, so that the spaniel scatters a trail of little drops behind it. But if the dog ever does it in the room, then it gets beaten again. It's been going on like that for eight years. Celeste always says, "It's dreadful," but in fact you can never tell. When I met him on the stairs, Salamano was busy swearing at his dog. He was saying, "Filthy, lousy animal!" and the dog was whimpering. I said, "Good evening," but the old man went on swearing. So I asked him what the dog had done. He didn't answer. He just went on saying, "Filthy, lousy animal!" I could just about see him, bent over his dog, busy fiddling with something on its collar. I asked again a bit louder. Then, without turning around, he answered with a sort of suppressed fury, "He's always there." Then he set off, dragging the animal after him as it trailed its feet along the ground, whimpering.


  We went out and Raymond bought me a brandy. Then he wanted a game of billiards and I just lost. After that he wanted to go to a brothel, but I said no because I don't like that sort of thing. So we made our way slowly back and he kept telling me how pleased he was that he'd managed to punish his mistress. I found him very friendly towards me and I thought it was a good moment.
  From some distance away I noticed old Salamano standing on the doorstep looking flustered. When we got nearer, I saw that his dog wasn't with him. He'd look in all directions, spin around, peer into the darkness of the hall, mumble a string of unconnected words and then start searching the street again with his little red eyes. When Raymond asked him what was wrong, he didn't answer at first. I vaguely heard him muttering, "Filthy, lousy animal," and he went on flustering. I asked him where his dog was. He replied abruptly that he'd disappeared. And then all of a sudden he spoke rapidly: "I took him to the Parade Ground, as usual. There were crowds of people, round the stalls at the fair. I stopped to watch 'the Escape King'. And when I turned to go, he wasn't there any more. Of course, I'd been meaning to get him a smaller collar for a long time. But I never thought the lousy animal could disappear like that."
  Raymond then explained that the dog might just have got lost and that it would come back. He cited cases of dogs that had travelled dozens of miles to get back to their masters. This only seemed to make the old man more flustered. "But they'll take him away from me, don't you see? If only someone would take him in. But they won't, everyone's disgusted by his scabs. The police'll get him, I know they will." So I told him he should go to the pound and they'd give it back to him for a small charge. He asked me how much the charge was. I didn't know. Then he got angry: "Pay money for that lousy animal. Ha! He can die for all I care!" And he started swearing at it. Raymond laughed and went inside the building. I followed him and we said goodnight to each other on the upstairs landing. A minute later I heard the old man's footsteps and he knocked at my door. When I opened it, he stood for a moment in the doorway and said, "Excuse me, excuse me." I asked him in, but he didn't want to. He was looking down at his boots and his scabby hands were trembling. Without looking up at me, he asked, "They won't take him away from me, will they, Mr. Meursault. They will give him back to me. Otherwise what will I do?" I told him that they kept dogs at the pound for three days for their owners to collect them and that after that they dealt with them as they saw fit. He looked at me in silence. Then he said, "Goodnight." He closed his door and I heard him pacing up and down. Then his bed creaked. And from the peculiar little noise coming through the partition wall, I realized that he was crying. For some reason I thought of mother. But I had to get up early in the morning. I wasn't hungry and I went to bed without any dinner.


Outside my door I found old Salamano. I asked him in and he told me that his dog was definitely lost, because it wasn't at the pound. The people there had told him that it might have been run over. He'd asked them if he could possibly find out at the police station. He'd been told that they didn't keep records of things like that, because they happened every day. I told old Salamano that he could get another dog, but he rightly pointed out to me that he'd got used to this one.
  I was crouched on my bed and Salamano had sat down on a chair by the table. He was facing me, with both his hands on his knees. He still had his old felt hat on. He was mumbling half-finished sentences into his yellowing moustache. He was annoying me a bit, but I didn't have anything to do and I didn't feel sleepy. To make conversation, I asked him about his dog. He told me that he'd got it when his wife had died. He'd married fairly late. As a young man he'd wanted to go into the theatre: in the army he used to act in military vaudevilles. But he'd ended up working on the railways and he didn't regret it, because now he had a small pension. He hadn't been happy with his wife, but on the whole he'd got quite used to her. When she'd died he'd felt very lonely. So he'd asked a friend in the workshop for a dog and he'd got this one as a puppy. He had to feed it from a bottle. But since a dog doesn't live as long as a man, they'd ended up growing old together. "He was bad-tempered," Salamano said. "Every now and then we had a right old row. But he was a nice dog all the same." I said he was a good breed and Salamano looked pleased. "Yes," he added, "but you should have seen him before his illness. His coat was his best point." Every night and every morning, after it got that skin trouble, Salamano used to rub it with ointment. But according to him, its real trouble was old age, and there's no cure for old age.
  At that point I yawned and the old man said he'd be going. I told him that he could stay, and that I was upset about what had happened to his dog: he thanked me. He told me that mother used to be very fond of his dog. He referred to her as "your poor mother." He seemed to assume that I'd been very unhappy ever since mother had died and I didn't say anything. Then, very quickly as if he was embarrassed, he told me that he realized that local people thought badly of me for sending my mother to a home, but that he knew me better and he knew I loved mother very much. I replied, I still don't know why, that I hadn't realized before that people thought badly of me for doing that, but that the home had seemed the natural thing since I didn't have enough money to have mother looked after. "Anyway," I added, "she'd run out of things to say to me a long time ago and she'd got bored of being alone." "Yes," he said, "and at least in a home you can make a few friends." Then he said he must go. He wanted to get some sleep. His life had changed now and he didn't quite know what he was going to do. For the first time since I'd known him, and with a rather secretive gesture, he gave me his hand and I felt the scales on his skin. He smiled slightly and before he went, he said, "I hope the dogs don't bark tonight. I always think it's mine."

Albert Camus, The Outsider (2000: 30-31, 40-42, 46-48)