There are dog people, and there are cat people, and Marta Koning was one of the former.
Quite how anyone discovers this about themselves is a mystery. Up until she came to London in 1962, Marta would have said she was probably a cat person: she was fastidious, wary and solitary to the point of obsession. That was, until she came to live with the ghost of the Hellhound.
Nobody knew what breed the Hellhound had been, but there was some German Shepherd in there.
“Fearsome,” said Mr Meager. “A walking weapon.”
Mr Meager, her downstairs neighbour, had never walked the Hellhound, and as a result the dog stayed in the small concrete back yard, pacing up and down until it dropped dead. Yet the Hellhound still went on pacing back and forth.
Marta was spending a few months in a rented flat in Camden Town, giving recitals and recovering from a failed love affair. But whenever she began to practice – and a professional concert pianist must practice daily, just as an athlete must train – the Hellhound’s howls rose to an intolerable volume.
None of the other neighbours seemed to hear it, but this was probably because, fifteen years after the War, Germans were still the enemy.
Marta rang Mr Meager’s bell.
“You must do something about your dog.”
“I’m in Hell, too, believe me,” he whined.
“Your dog needs exercising,” she said.
“But it’s a ghost,” he answered.
Marta met his shifty eyes with her own stern gaze.
“So? Why is it haunting you?”
“It’s a Hellhound.”
Marta said, decisively, “If you will not do this, I shall.”
She whistled. The next moment, the hall filled with menace, growling like a thunderstorm. The floor was spotted with ectoplasmic drool. Meager sneered.
Very bravely (because the hands of a concert pianist are particularly precious) Marta put out her fingers for the Hellhound.
“Listen,” she told the Hellhound. “I will walk you twice a day, but you must not bite and you must come when I whistle. Understood?”
The Hellhound rumbled. Marta began to feel its huge invisible head, touching deep scars around its muzzle.
“You poor creature,” she said.
No wonder it was angry. Her fingers found the place to scratch between its ragged ears, and it sighed.
Marta addressed the ghost. “We are good, yes?”
The Hellhound moaned.
“Keep it,” said Mr Meager, muttering “Bitch”, or maybe “Witch.”
The Hellhound followed her out of Mr Meager’s flat. She could hear its hard claws clicking on the pavement as they walked together. Cats lolling around on top of walls turned fuzzy with fright. Very young children, however, asked to pet the “big doggie” before their mothers, filled with apprehension, snatched them away.
The Hellhound followed her everywhere, a great, black, brooding presence. It parted the long summer grasses in the park like the wind, and when she returned home at night after recitals, its clicking claws kept her company.
All summer they roamed through parks and past bomb sites, for although London had not suffered like her own city, its War wounds were still visible. The Hellhound no longer howled all night, though it snored at the foot of her bed, rumbling with the sound of a Tube train deep underground. They developed an understanding. It roamed freely, perhaps hunting for ghostly rabbits, until she whistled,
“Come!” and then it came galloping towards her until she felt its great rudder-like tail banging rhythmically against her legs. Even its coat felt softer.
The Hellhound lay under the grand piano, and showed a particular appreciation of Romantic composers. Those who heard Marta’s rendition of Beethoven at the Proms that year claimed that, among the wild applause, they had heard the baying of a gigantic hound. The feeling of love is often indistinguishable from that of fear, and many found themselves unbearably moved by her performances.
Marta grew very fond of her canine companion, and her feelings were returned. Occasionally, when reaching to scratch its invisible head, she was met with a hot wet flannel of a tongue, licking her fingers. But the Hellhound, despite this, did not seem happy.
“What is it, my friend?” Marta asked it.
It sighed as gustily as the autumn winds that were now blowing the October leaves off the trees in the park. The nights grew longer, and darker. She wondered whether, when she returned to Berlin, the Hellhound would accompany her. If not, she realised, she would miss it, because this is the thing about dogs: they give you their whole heart, and then it is impossible not to give yours in return. Somehow, Mr Meager had never discovered this.
“Nasty man,” her upstairs neighbour told her. “Treated that poor dog something cruel.”
October was almost over. Marta went as often as she could afford it to hear other musicians perform before she left London. She was walking back one night from the Wigmore Hall after hearing a wonderful young tenor called Edward Evenlode sing Schubert, when she became aware that she was being followed by a man. She walked faster, and crossed the road, but it was no use.
The attack, when it came, sent her sprawling painfully onto the cold pavement. It was clear what the man intended to do next. In desperation, Marta whistled. There was a rushing clot of darkness, and a shriek of pure horror.
Her assailant was struggling against something. It snarled and ripped, and she knew that the Hellhound must have him by the throat, for his body was shaken like a rag. She whispered,
In an instant, the man was dropped, then ran for his life. Marta, still stunned, heard new footsteps coming towards her on the pavement.
“Hallo – hallo there, are you alright?”
It was Edward Evenlode. When she saw his anxious, friendly face, she knew she would be safe. “Miss Koning? Are you alright?”
“Danke,” she gasped, struggling up.
“Let me take you somewhere. Look, there’s a pub.”
When she had stopped shaking, Edward insisted on hailing a taxi, and getting it to drive them both to her front door. Before getting back into the cab he asked Marta whether he might, just possibly, call on her again the next day.
“I hope you do not mind dogs?”
“Love dogs,” he said cheerfully.
“Good,” said Marta, although when she put out her hand in the darkness there was no Hellhound.
“Funny thing,” said Evenlode, “For a moment, there, I did see a dog, chasing that swine down the alley.”
“That was my Hellhound,” Marta said, and she was sad until she discovered that she was not a cat person at all. She told him about her haunting, and he, being a musician too, believed her.
“My darling, I will give you a dog as a wedding present,” said Edward. “Better tell your neighbour his ghost has gone.”
But no Mr Meager answered his bell.
“Has he left?” she asked.
Her upstairs neighbour looked at her in amazement.
“Left?” she replied. “He died two years ago.”