Bernice had been using Cousin Frankerston’s cream for a week and had calculated that she now looked 20% less hideous. She had even begun to entertain the idea that she might be quite pretty, at least in certain lights.
But the best part about being 20% less hideous was that now she might have a chance with Clifford Velveteen Gingersnap, who was the 224th most handsome man in the entire universe and a renowned Italian Greyhound poet. His poems were published in the local tabloid, but some of his titles—Italian G for Me, Italian Greyhounds Abound, and An I-Greyhound to Remember—were international successes.
Her favourite of Clifford’s countless poems was titled The Perfect Hound, and it read:
is grey and ‘talian.
The perfect sound
is her howl.
Bigger than a terrier,
but smaller than a normal g-hound,
life couldn’t be merrier
now you’re here.
The best dog breed
is Italian G.
She’s all I need,
and her love is free.
Bernice showered the page with tears, causing the ink to bleed. She read it over and over, though she knew the poem by heart. Such unrivalled mastery of the English language. Such a profound appreciation for the noble Italian G-hound.
She had longed to own a perfect Italy-G ever since she first saw Mrs Wintersparrow visit the teahouse with a hound of that brand. Mrs Wintersparrow was as beautiful as a postcard, and the weather also happened to be beautiful whenever Bernice spied the pair at their table. The owner of the teahouse would bestow a reliable rasher of vegan bacon upon the privileged hound, and the breathtaking Mrs Wintersparrow would sip her decaf soy vanilla mocha and read smutty erotic novels, such as Please Commit Adultery with My Better-Looking and Younger Best Friend and Then End Our 25-Year Relationship—Despite Me Giving You All My “Best Years” and Having Been 100% Faithful Since the Age of Sixteen—over the Telephone: Diary of an Emotional Masochist.
Mrs Wintersparrow was later murdered by her husband and dumped in the river, but she lived on in Bernice’s mind as the catalyst for a lifelong obsession with Italian G-hounds. She also served as a reminder of better times—times when the world was brighter and everyone was still alive and she wasn’t forced to live with her successful and much older cousin called Cousin Frankerston.
Not that there was anything wrong with Cousin Frankerston. He was a good and decent man, who only scammed vulnerable ladies out of their money out of necessity. He was also a friend of Clifford’s older brother and therefore a valuable contact.
Bernice decided to question him about her perfect poet at breakfast, eager to design a situation where their paths might cross. She spoke her cousin’s name three times before he responded.
“Hush.” He bit the head off of an eggy soldier. “I’m looking at this picture of a horse.”
His finger tapped a black-and-white photograph of a Clydesdale. Bernice spread half a jar of jam on her toast. She waited until his eyes parted with the horse before speaking again.
“Cousin Frankerston, what kind of man is Clifford Velveteen Gingersnap?”
Cousin Frankerston looked distracted. “Don’t you think the horse in the picture looks like the horse decorating those priceless antique vases I’m currently exhibiting in the drawing room?”
Bernice sighed. She said the horses were very similar, before repeating her question. This time it sunk in.
“C.V. Gingersnap? A raging libertine, if the rumours are true.”
“What’s a libertine?”
“Never you mind, dear. Eat your copious amounts of jam.”
“Is it a profession—like being a solicitor?”
Cousin Frankerston grunted. “If only.”
Bernice scraped the other half of the jam jar on to her toast. Cousin Frankerston shushed her when she tried to talk again. He had returned to looking at the horse, his finger tracing the mane—once, twice, three times. Another half an hour trotted by.
“Heavens, girl, you’re like a cat in the kitchen!”
“If I owned a perfect and cute Italian G-hound, would Clifford Velveteen Gingersnap come to the house and write a beautiful poem about it?”
“He writes awe-inspiring poems about all of the Italian G-hounds in town.” Cousin Frankerston drowned another soldier in yolk. “You do the ruddy maths!”
“Hell’s bells, you are a pest!”
“Can I please have an Italian G for my very own?”
Cousin Frankerston closed the tabloid, as if that were the only way he could prevent his eyes from slithering back to the horse. Bernice gave him her most persuasive smile, which only deepened the furrow between his eyebrows.
“You only want an IG-hound so that Clifford Velveteen Gingersnap will cast his handsome poet-eyes upon your face with rose-tinted glasses. But I can assure you, dear, you’ll only end up with a broken heart and admittedly a very perfect and loveable hound.”
“Oh, please, Cousin Frankerston!” Bernice clasped her hands in a begging motion. “You know I’ve always wanted a perfect Italian G to feed and dress up as an elf and fetch a stick for.”
Cousin Frankerston squinted at her. “Is the hound not supposed to fetch the stick?”
“Well, either way—I don’t mind! And if Clifford happens to take a shine to me, we might get married and then I’d never disturb you ever again while you look at your horse pictures.”
Cousin Frankerston hummed, saying it would be good if he could enjoy his horse pictures in guaranteed silence. Bernice nodded with urgent enthusiasm. If she married Clifford Velveteen Gingershap and also owned a perfect Italian G, she would be the happiest woman in the world.
“But who will I test my safe creams on?”
“I’ll still test all of your risk-free creams! And if Clifford does fall in love with me, there could be no greater testimony to the efficacy of your products—your sales would triple overnight!”
“Say, that makes dollars and cents—you’re not as stupid as you look!” Cousin Frankerston fondled his walrus-like moustache. “The worst-case scenario is that Clifford robs you of your innocence, subjects you to any number of depraved acts, and leaves your soiled heart in a deflated heap on the floor. But is that really such a tragedy?”
“I don’t think it’s a problem in the slightest.”
His moustache flapped when he laughed. “All right then! I’ll buy you the prettiest IG-hound in town—right after I finish my eggy soldiers!”
“You’re the best, Cousin Frankerston!”
He drove her to the dog shop after styling his moustache with pork fat, and Bernice befriended an Italian G-boy with sparkling eyes and a happy tail. But Cousin Frankerston disapproved of her choice, saying that the hound in question looked like a homosexual, and he wouldn’t tolerate any male-on-male hound-humping in his household. He pointed to a larger dog that reminded her of a normal greyhound.
“But Clifford specialises in Italian Greyhound poetry!”
“That is an Italian greyhound, you dozy goose.”
He displayed the dog tag to Bernice. The name Giovanni was written in gold italics, suggesting that the G-hound was undeniably Italian.
“You’re right! I’m so sorry.”
“I’ll forgive you this time, but correct me again and you’ll be out on the street—I don’t care how related we are!”
Bernice thanked Cousin Frankerston—he was a good man—once again. They took Giovanni home and she renamed him Rodcliff, which was a subtle anagram of Clifford. Cousin Frankerston promised to slip the arrival of the hound into conversation with Clifford’s brother during their next round of darts.
And sure enough, as soon as Clifford heard there was a fresh Italian G in town, he telephoned the house. Bernice jumped a metre out of her chair and rushed to answer. Cousin Frankerston watched her speak into the receiver for five minutes before correcting her. The voice of Britain’s leading Italian Greyhound poet oozed into her ear like melting chocolate.
“Is that Bernice Swanveneer?”
“Yes!” she screamed. “It’s me, Clifford Velveteen Gingersnap!”
“I say, you sound dreadfully pretty.”
“Oh, Mr Gingersnap! I love your dog poems with all my heart. I read them at night to get to sleep and they stop me from crying about how my parents are dead and also how I’m probably severely deformed but it’s hard to tell because sometimes I look great and other times I look like a literal troll under a bridge. I love you—I mean, I love your poems and you are also quite handsome. Not top-tier handsome but pretty close—good enough, at least when taking your transcendent artistry as a dog poet into consideration and who am I to be picky anyway? Oh dear, I am rabbiting on!”
Clifford’s laugh crackled on the line. “Thank you, Miss Swanveneer. I won’t hold you for long.”
“You can hold me as long as you like!”
Bernice flushed red as the carpet. “Sorry, that was my Cousin Frankerston talking to the dog.”
“Anyway, I’ve been informed that you are now the proud owner of an Italian Greyhound, and I make it my business to write brilliant poems about all the Italian Gs in town. If you would be so kind as to tolerate my presence in your home for a few hours, I’m compelled to see what inspired words my trusty pen might bleed upon a willing page in the presence of a fresh hound. Would Friday evening suit?”
Bernice shrieked like a schoolgirl-parakeet, and they arranged the date for six o’clock. Cousin Frankerston prepared a new cream for her to test on the day, which she lathered all over her face and body. It smelled of geranium and rosewood, but the secret ingredient was no doubt arsenic or something else off the periodic table. Her skin itched enough to suggest that it was working.
Clifford arrived at ten-past-eight—fashionably late—looking like the 224th most handsome man in the universe. He handed Cousin Frankerston a bottle of brandy, before turning to Bernice. She blushed beneath his profound poet gaze.
“You must be Miss Swanveneer. You’re just as pretty as you sound over the magic talky-box.”
Bernice made every effort not to faint as he kissed her eager hand. His lips were the exact texture of velveteen, which seemed appropriate given his middle name. His eyes settled for a moment on Rodcliff—who was snoozing in a patch of sunlight by the window—before darting around the room.
“So! Where’s my muse?”
Bernice laughed at what must have been a joke and gestured towards Rodcliff. Clifford’s face fell through a silence.
“Miss Swanveneer, I thought you were a fan of my work.”
“I am!” Bernice panicked at his accusatory tone. “I love your work so much, I once wrote out every one of your poems, smeared myself in marmalade, and then rolled about in the pages!”
Clifford’s eyebrows arched at the confession. “Oh, well, that’s—that’s interesting. It’s just that this Italian Greyhound looks a tad less Italian than I was anticipating.”
Bernice directed his eye to the name Giovanni on Rodcliff’s tag. Clifford’s features softened into an apologetic smile. They all guffawed at the misunderstanding.
“My mistake, Miss Swanveneer. Forgive me.”
They agreed to dine first, as Clifford said that composing on an empty stomach only produced mediocre dog poetry. They ate swan stuffed with goose stuffed with duck stuffed with chicken stuffed with quail stuffed with robin stuffed with sparrow, and Clifford sent his compliments to the cook who presumably existed but was largely irrelevant. They enjoyed two glasses of brandy each, before Cousin Frankerston complained of a galloping headache and retired early.
Bernice—thrilled to be alone with Clifford—retouched her lipstick and met her favourite dog poet in the drawing room. Rodcliff was still sleeping soundly because greyhounds sleep about eighteen hours a day. Clifford sat beside the G-hound and removed a notebook from his breast pocket. Bernice’s curious fingers longed to slide into all of his pockets, especially the ones on his trousers. Perhaps they would find a penny or a piece of snuff that she could cherish forever.
“I’m dreadfully sorry for my behaviour earlier—I was simply taken aback by the large size of your Italian G-hound. This is indeed a fine hound you have here.”
“Italian Gs are the best dogs.”
“Yes, they are. This is a true fact.”
“I hope she’ll inspire your best work.” Bernice sat on the lounge opposite. “You can—you can visit anytime, sir.”
He smiled. “I appreciate that.”
She smiled back. If her skin wasn’t itching like a case of chickenpox, she would have thought she was halfway to heaven. She stole a scratch here and there, but it was difficult to satisfy herself without appearing unladylike. Rodcliff stirred when Clifford stroked him.
“Sleeping ever so sound…” he began composing handsomely. “Miss Swanveneer’s Italian Greyhound.”
“Oh!” Bernice trembled. “That’s remarkable, Mr Gingersnap.”
He closed his eyes, his hand pressing into Rodcliff’s side as if to draw energy from the hound. “A dream of sprinting through the night—bounding at the speed of light.”
Bernice scratched her elbows with increasing ferocity. This live demonstration of Clifford’s literary capabilities was rapidly increasing the sensitivity of her skin—or perhaps that was Cousin Frankerston’s cream too. She withdrew a ravaging hand from her inner thigh as Clifford opened his eyes. She crossed one leg over the other, quite eager that he should spy at least a suggestion of ankle. She rather hoped he would subject her to depraved acts sooner rather than later.
“Oh! However will it end? You have me drenched in anticipation!”
“One cannot rush these things, Miss Swanveneer.” He fondled Rodcliff’s twitching ear. “I may have to pay a few visits before the perfect words arrive inside my tortured genius mind.”
He stood up, and for a moment she thought he was about to leave. But then he sat down on the lounge beside her and smiled with expert handsomeness. The smell of cocaine-laced cigars wafted towards her.
“Miss Swanveneer, I find it useful to get to know the owners of my muses.” His gaze smothered her like a heavy blanket. “I get to know them very well indeed.”
Bernice gasped when he took her hand in his. “Do you always do that—get to know the owners?”
“Oh yes, I always get to know them. But I must confess, Bernice, you’re the prettiest G-hound owner these poet-peepers have ever peeped upon. Admittedly half of them are tubby middle-aged men who only bathe fortnightly.” He squeezed her hand and laughed. “I’ll wager you’ve never seen such a tangled monstrosity as what awaited me beneath Barney Finchwhistle’s jodhpurs!”
They laughed hysterically. Clifford laughed so hard a tear escaped down his cheek.
“Oh, Mr Gingernsap—you are the limit! You are the most attractively talented Italian Greyhound poet I’ve ever had the fortune of knowing, and even though you’re only the 224th most handsome man in the universe, your aptitude for arranging dog-related language into effective verse hoists you up to number one in my heart.” Bernice raked her fingernails up and down her ankle with a seductive grimace. “There’s nobody in the world I would prefer to subject me to depraved acts!”
“Well, my darling, that is cracking good news because—at least in this particular moment—there’s nobody else in the world I’d rather foist depraved acts upon!”
Bernice scratched the back of her neck until the skin throbbed and asked him what he had in mind. He pulled a bucket of orange slime from behind a pot plant and placed it on the coffee table.
“Oh! Is that what I think it is, Mr Gingersnap?”
“What do you think it is?”
“A huge bucket of cumquat jam.”
A rare bashfulness came over him. “I must confess, I could scarcely stop thinking about what you told me earlier—you know, about covering yourself in jam and rolling about in my poems. I was pitching a five-person tent all through supper!”
Bernice giggled. “But how—where did all this cumquat conserve come from at such short notice?”
“I snuck out while you were improving your appearance in the mirror and bought twenty jars of organic fair-trade cumquat jam. I had just finished emptying them into the bucket when you returned looking slightly better than before!”
Bernice eyed the bucket impatiently. He told her to strip to her underclothes so that he could drown her in twenty jars of cumquat jam and then rip all the pages out of his notebook and make her roll in them until she was covered from head to toe in his profound poems.
“Oh, Mr Gingersnap! But what about Cousin Frankerston?”
“Cousin Frankingston has gone to bed with a headache. The chances that he would return downstairs and catch us in the act are next to none!”
“You’re so right.”
Bernice ripped off fifteen layers of clothes, leaving just one flimsy undergarment that barely covered her ankles. Clifford grabbed the bucket and stood over her.
“Are you ready to get drowned in cumquat jam?”
“Yes, please drown me in CJ right now!”
He cackled like a maniac as he tipped the bucket over her. She shrieked at the sensation of cold conserve oozing down her head and chest and back. He shook the bucket above her and even scraped the last bit out with his fingers. An intense burning sensation erupted across her coated skin, aggravating the itching to such a degree that she screamed in the most seductive way possible.
“Oh, that’s the ticket!” He tore all the pages out of his notebook and threw them up into the air, his crazed laughter echoing as they fluttered to the ground like giant snowflakes. “Now roll in my dog poems, Bernice. Roll in my brilliant poems, you dirty dollymop—I want you to look like a bulletin board at the finish!”
Bernice obeyed immediately, like a perfect Italian Greyhound.
Clifford’s manic giggling bounced through the house as she rolled back and forth, picking up the pages along with bits of hair and dust. He made her roll until she had collected all the pages, at which point he hauled her up off the ground and pulled her into a very romantic and passionate French-styled kiss, his hands slip-n-sliding all over the soggy poems. She snuck a cheeky hand into the left pocket of his strides, disappointed to find it clean and empty.
Nobody was perfect.
They were stumbling over to the nearest lounge when Bernice slipped on her own cumquat-coated feet, sending them crashing into one of Cousin Frankerston’s priceless antique horse vases. Rodcliff’s ears flattened at the smashing sound that followed, but they carried on as if nothing had happened. Clifford was sucking a glob of jam off Bernice’s earlobe when Cousin Frankerston’s voice thundered from the doorway.
“What in God’s gameshow is going on here!”
Bernice gasped and covered her stinging ankles.
Clifford peeled himself off her and stood up, his fists clenching as if preparing to plant a punch on Cousin Frankerston’s moustache. “You’re supposed to be in bed with a headache!”
“I don’t have a headache, you idiotic pinecone—I was playing darts in the attic so that you and Bernice might have some time alone and decide to get married so that she can’t disrupt me at breakfast anymore. But destroying my priceless antique horse vase was hardly on the menu!” He aimed a dart at Clifford’s right eye. “If you don’t explain yourself this instant, I’ll be scoring fifty points at your expense.”
“No, don’t hurt him!” Bernice threw herself in front of Clifford. “We’re sorry about your horse vase.”
“You weren’t looking very sorry when I walked in!”
“Listen, old mate,” Clifford said. “If anyone has the right to be furious, it’s me. I was just about to unveil my custard slinger when you interrupted!”
Cousin Frankerston roared as he hurled the dart in Clifford’s general direction. Everyone gasped as Bernice blinked down at the foreign object protruding from her chest. Fortunately the combination of semi-dried cumquat jam and the hardening pages of Clifford’s poetry proved effective armour. She pulled the dart out—unscathed—and pegged it across the room, where it knocked Cousin Frankerston’s other priceless antique horse vase off its podium. Poor Rodcliff’s ears flattened once again when it smashed.
“Bullseye,” she said.
Cousin Frankerston glowered. “You’re going to regret that, Bernice!”
“Gee, is that the time?” Clifford glanced at a watchless wrist. “I should probably shoot off. I have badminton on Fridays.”
“You’re not going anywhere until you return my horse vase!”
“Return it? It’s smashed to bits, you raving jollocks.”
A whining sound distracted them, and they turned to find Rodcliff squatting above the freshly broken vase. Bernice squealed as the G-hound exploded torrents of suspiciously cumquat-coloured bowel complaints all over the shattered pottery and carpet.
“Heaven’s hipsters!” Clifford lurched backwards to avoid the spray. “What are you feeding that hound?”
“Just spaghetti ’n’ meatballs!” Bernice frowned at the mess.
“What of it?” Cousin Frankerston snapped. “There’s nothing wrong with feeding an Italian Greyhound heaping helpings of tasty spag.” He pointed at the tormented carpet. “Look at the consistency of the excrement explosion—he’s been gobbling up copious quantities of cumquat jam, I’ll wager!”
Clifford paced around in a circle and chewed his fingernails, saying he never would have left an uncovered bucket of cumquat jam lying around if he thought an innocent IG-hound might come to harm. His eyes met Bernice’s when she side-stepped in front of him, and he yelped in terror. Cousin Frankerston shared his horrified expression.
“I—I’m afraid I must dash, Miss Swanveneer.”
“But we were having such a nice time!” Bernice grasped his lapels, her tears forming rivulets through the solidifying jam on her cheeks. She had spent so much time worrying about her face in the past, she knew at once her hideousness was responsible for the sudden change in Clifford. “It’s because I look severely deformed, isn’t it? You’ve just noticed and now you can’t unsee it.” She buried her face in her throbbing jam-hands and sobbed. “I knew this would happen!”
“Not at all, dear.” Clifford placed a reluctant hand on her sticky shoulder. “But it does suddenly look as though you’ve been stung by about one thousand bees.” He hurried to the coatrack and donned his hat. “And I ain’t no beekeeper!”
Bernice yowled as he sprinted out the door. She slipped in the carpet catastrophe on her way to the mirror, but she was too upset to be revolted by the addition of dog doo to her slimy glazing. She screamed at the sight of her swollen face. If her eyes were any puffier, she would have been blind. Rodcliff finally stopped sleeping and rushed over to comfort her as she fell to her knees. She wrapped the loyal G-hound in a hug. Cousin Frankerston stood in stern silence nearby.
“Bernice, you’re getting jam on the hound.”
“Don’t speak to me!” Bernice shouted. “I hate you!”
“Didn’t I warn you that this would happen?”
That much was true.
The next morning at breakfast, Cousin Frankerston enjoyed his horse pictures in blissful silence. Bernice’s face was still swollen, and there was no suggestion that it would ever improve. The silver lining on what seemed like a very black cloud was that she now wondered why she had ever worried about her old face.
After studying the same Palomino for about forty-five minutes, Cousin Frankerston finally turned the page of his crinkled tabloid. Bernice glanced up from her toast—this time she had passed on the jam—when he groaned.
“What is it?”
His eyes lifted to hers, wide and furious. It was Clifford’s latest Italian G-hound poem. Her heart bolted as if to catch a rabbit when he slid the tabloid across the table. The poem read:
Miss Swanveneer’s ‘Italian’ Greyhound.
A dream of sprinting through the night
—bounding at the speed of light.
The first owner I will never truly know
—though I might have liked to be her beau.
A bee-stung face and the devil’s itches
put out the fire in my britches.
Don’t feed your ‘Italian’ G spaghetti,
as appropriate as that may seem.
I wish I could these events forgetti,
and don’t buy Frankerston’s Face Cream.
Bernice scrunched up the tabloid and tossed it at Cousin Frankerston’s head. He picked it up and tossed it at her head. They went back and forth for about five minutes, before he scowled over his eggy soldiers.
“Look what you’ve done! Is it your endeavour to bankrupt me?”
“What I’ve done?” Bernice pointed to her face. “What about what you’ve done? If I went to tea with Joseph Merrick, he’d be the looker.”
Cousin Frankerston slammed a fist on the table, rattling her nerves along with the teacups. “Nonsense! You’ve always looked like that. Why do you think I test all my creams on you free of charge? It’s because I feel sorry for you.” He picked up a slice of toast, before placing it back down on his plate. “Now I’m too furious to eat the Colonel.”
“I—is that true, cousin?”
“What you just said?”
“If anything other than your disappointing genetics is responsible for whatever’s going on with your face, it’s almost certainly the fact that you were drowned in twenty jars of organic fair-trade cumquat conserve. Everybody knows cumquats cause irreversible damage to the skin.”
“I didn’t—didn’t know that.”
“Either way, it has nothing to do with my groundbreaking creams.”
Bernice abandoned her breakfast and rushed to the nearest mirror. Her bulgy face—something which had looked so alien that morning—was suddenly familiar, as if it had always been like that. She apologised to Cousin Frankerston at once, and he promised not to throw her out on to the street. The only condition was that she must tell no one about the cream incident.
“But if I’ve always looked like this or it was the CJ, then what is the cream incident?”
He blinked at her. “What cream incident?”
They forgave each other at once and even hugged, despite the fact that Bernice hated hugging family members because to her all physical contact—even a handshake—felt vaguely sexual. He kindly allowed her to move into the cellar, where she would be less of an eyesore. She became accustomed to the darkness quickly and soon preferred it. Not only was she too hideous to go outside, but Clifford’s latest poem had become so popular that it was impossible to leave the house without someone yelling, “How’s your carpet?” or “Where’s your ‘Italian’ G-hound?”
Her only consolation was that Rodcliff was a devoted and loving hound, just like all other Italian Greyhounds because they are the best dog by far. She changed the hound’s name back to Giovanni, but her revenge on Clifford didn’t end there. So inspired by her perfect and very Italian G, she began writing her own IG poems and sending them to the tabloid. Her poems gained such traction that Clifford was soon pushed out of the spotlight, and within three months everyone had forgotten the name Gingersnap.
The new leading dog poet was Milton Beesting, and “his” poems were enriched by the complex genius of a true tortured soul. His most famous poem was called The Love of an Italian G-Hound, and it read:
—grey as the clouds in my mind.
With nobody else is time better spent.
No better friend a man can find.
Whether my face is deformed or not
—or stung by a vicious bee—
she cares less than a jammy jot.
She loves me—the unloveable—for me.
Like the G-hound chases the hare,
I chase my childish dreams.
And in pursuit of becoming pretty and fair,
I use Frankerston’s Face Creams™.
So take that C.V. Gingersnap
—the man who made me frown.
Your pockets are boring and your poems are crap.
There’s a fresh dog poet in town.