"I can feel it, coming in the air tonight…" I'm 87, about to die, and my last thoughts are going to be obsessing some damn song lyric.
I can't remember when all this started, but I must have been the first with Manny. I assume all little boys have some kind of violent inclinations. We're attracted to sword fighting pirates, toy soldiers, World War fighting machines, space ships with laser guns and movies with big explosions: 'Kaboom! Phooaaar!' We also love death and destruction on a smaller, more intimate scale; roasting ants in the sunshine with a magnifying glass, torturing our siblings and pets to a greater or lesser extent, and abusing our own lovely toys as if they all deserve some kind of apocalyptic revenge.
Manny was, is, a big soft and fluffy dog. His features project a neutral expression, but each element of his face holds an individual fascination, or at least, they did for me as a child: dark brown fathomless domes for eyes, and a shiny oval nose from below which a felt tongue pokes in a permanent pant. He has golden fur, un-jointed spread-eagle limbs and a pillowy body, his head topped with the most gorgeously fleecy, big brown floppy ears. Those ears would come off now and again and have to be re-sewn into Manny's round head. The reason they would come off was that I treated Manny hideously, and would habitually fling him against the wall of my bedroom.
This 'phase' I suppose we will have to call it, lasted several years. Later as a teenager, and even as an adult, whenever I came across Manny my instinct remained. The powerful urge was always there, to throw Manny against the wall, to enjoy that satisfying double thud, as his yielding but indestructible body impacted first against the wall, and then with a softer, more resigned plop, landed on the floor. Manny was always just a little heavier than you expected him to be when you picked him up, and the effect of that 'thud' against the wall, with its little escape of air from somewhere deep within, was very satisfying. I learned a little about martial arts in my pre-teen years, and tried to apply my superficially understood new psychology to throw him 'through' the wall: the same wall I had imagined just a few years earlier would flood the room with nocturnal blackness, if only I were to dare scratch a little hole in the wallpaper.
Somewhere deep down, I knew my actions were based on some kind of fear. It was perhaps irrational, but my protracted onslaught on the inanimate animal began to take on a primal, compulsive quality. It was a similar feeling to that which makes you want to run away in the night from high winds in tall trees, and drives you to flee in panic from hidden and no doubt imaginary horrors in the dark depths of a country lane.
Manny ended up in the attic.
I wasn't sure if it was my imagination or some uncomfortable infestation, but I began hearing noises in my bedroom at night. They were very soft noises. I could only describe them as the sound made by someone in cotton socks walking slowly over a polyester carpet. It had that mild Velcro effect of two materials releasing - a kind of scrunching, grinding sound, but somehow weightless. I would listen hard, trying to locate the source, but such things are elusive. All I knew was; my room had no carpet.
I told no-one, but my imagination started putting blame on some of the inanimate characters on my shelves. With a trial and error procedure in mind, I would seal little batches of toys into a heavy clothes drawer overnight. The noise only stopped when Manny went in, so he was banished into a storage box and soon forgotten.
"Do you want to take these things for Georgie?"
Like father like son, my old toys were brought down and added to the tonnage which filled his bedroom, each generation more spoiled than the last. I hated the way my parents always called him 'Georgie', it sounded too much like 'girly'.
"He's called George, mum" I used to say, more often than not under my breath and through clenched teeth. Truth be known I hadn't been that keen on 'George' either, something about references to the Famous Five and an implied trans-sexuality, but the wife insisted on it. Yes, weakness in the face of the weaker sex, I know.
My box of former playthings had for years been carefully wrapped and preserved in plastic so that all the little faces and familiar shapes showed through in a slightly macabre, tightly packed jumble of long-term suffocation. The vague distorted features in their mass cardboard coffin were transported home. Most were ignored or cast aside as being too generic. Children these days are bombarded with and respond to marketing. They prefer recognisable icons, and aspire to the same uniform trophies which their friends also possess. Manny survived though, and before too long I began hearing what my own parents must have heard all those years ago. From outside my son's bedroom, there came that strangely compulsive 'thud' as the poor beast began a new cycle of abuse at the hands of a little boy.
Down the years - all too few of them - further into that accelerating pit of time through which pinpoints of light and glimpses of happiness and inspired passion seem to become ever increasingly rare. Simple pleasures would be enough, but old age takes over, and the physical self has fewer strengths of its own on which to cling. Those tiny things we always took for granted become huge. When I was a small child I used to think I was all 'eyes' - the most obvious seat of consciousness. Now, paralysed, I'm all 'head'. Progress, hah. I have to be grateful I can breathe, and swallow - just.
There are those external joys though: family, grandchildren.
It is as I lie, helpless and fading gently, that my grandson 'Georgie junior' (for Goodness sake) aged 5, comes into my room at the hospital with Manny under his arm.
I can imagine the conversation.
"Junior wants to take something for Grandpa…"
Junior probably remembers Grandpa telling him how he used to 'love' Manny so much when he was a child.
"He wants to take Manny, is that OK?" That's settled then; let's go.
I can't talk, so there can be no protest.
Manny is sat on the table at the side of my bed with innocent enthusiasm, as close as possible without putting him over my head like a hat. Before the lights go down that evening I can just see him out of the corner of my eye, in the mirror next to the door. In that bad-posture way of soft toys, Manny is now leaning forward.
The nurse comes in to check on me before dimming the lights, but no amount of eye acting can communicate how much I would prefer it if the soft toy was taken somewhere else.
"Aaaah, that's nice. Got a little present I see?"
It doesn't matter if you've been a genius, a war hero or a wet blanket your whole long life, those nurses will always find exactly the right patronising tone, make you feel worthless, especially as their words resonate on in the gloom of an institutional night, that terminal misery.
I may be mute and unable to move but I can hear, and now I wish I couldn't. Even with all the hissing and crackling going on inside my old ears I'm convinced it's that sound again: a slow grind, the abrasive movement of disparate fabrics. It's all very slow, agonisingly drawn out. Manny's profile changes until the head drops below his own shoulder level. I can still make out his shape in the distant mirror: he must be on the point of pitching forward.
A big ear flops: I can just feel it against my cheek. It doesn't itch, is not unpleasant, but it's only a prelude. Now there is something else. My own ear is starting to burn. I feel a tightness. There's something gripping the pinna - almost the whole ear. Maybe it's a mouth, a surprisingly big mouth with teeth: tiny serrations increasing in painful pressure, like a vice. That's not the worst though, not by a long way. The rasping noise has congealed into a dreadful, constantly advancing breath: slow, harsh and horrifyingly close, seething with untold depths of deep-seated hostility. A tongue appears - I can see it in my mind's eye: sharp, stiffened - the image of that dying horse in Guernica. That thin wedge of a tongue is going to bury itself, unhurried, inevitably and unstoppably deeper and deeper until... I can neither move nor make a sound. No scream could be loud enough as this slow silent punishment is enacted…