Wolves of the West

an excerpt

"Heathens." George O'Driscoll leaned on the balcony rail, observing with barely disguised disdain the tourist masses, their heads bent over cases or faces staring up at tiny dinosaur skulls on huge dinosaur necks.

"They pay your salary." Rory Carter's chirpy voice-perpetually chirpy except at times of high passion or drama-sounded over his shoulder.

"Not any more since we've waived the admission fee. It's all grants or sponsorship and such nonsense now, or so I understand." George's face indicated that he might not really know what he was talking about. "And I suspect the people who dole out the funding are as heathen as this mob. Wouldn't know a plesiosaur from a plasmid."

"But they're here to learn, George." The voice of reason spoke again. "Perhaps they'll have more of an idea when they go home. Grant them that." Rory surreptitiously drew his finger along the back of his friend's hand. "Still smooth. The crowds you so despise will be long gone, at home loading the microwave with Sainsbury's meals, by the time the fun begins."

* * *

The chairman rapped the table with his gavel. "I bring this meeting of the Western Lycanthropes to order." Anyone observing the handsome, studious faces around the table would have felt there was no apparent disorder to deal with. The only indications that this wasn't some dry, departmental meeting came from the occasional, anxious glances which the participants cast at the windows, where a bank of clouds obscured the night sky. That and the fact that their clothes were neatly piled behind their chairs, ready to be claimed the next day.

"Gentlemen, we begin with a paper on the Red wolf, Canis lupus rufus."

Rory's mind began to wander. He'd heard many a paper-scientific, historical, literary-over the years, as the committee had sat waiting for the leaden English skies to clear. This one didn't enthuse him. Not like the occasion when someone had presented a cogent-if only in their eyes-case that Esau had indeed been one of their brethren, which would explain the hairiness. A thesis countered by another member who'd sworn blind that Esau had been a Neanderthal. Harsh words and blows had ensued, turning to snarls and bites as the moon had broached the clouds. Things rarely got that exciting.

Well, Rory reflected, casting a surreptitious glance around the room, we're hardly an exciting bunch. Most of his associates worked in museums or universities, although one particularly enterprising lad had secured a job behind the meat counter at Harrods. That was one way of mixing business and pleasure. Given that those present shared more than just the tendency to be influenced by the full moon, it might have seemed surprising that none of them were employed in the entertainment industry. Yet, while it would be easy to hide your sexual inclinations in a profession awash with the gay and eccentric, how could you take the stage as Romeo if the lunar calendar didn't work out? You might find yourself appearing more like Chewbacca.

"Long term analysis of mitochondrial DNA..." the speaker droned on.

Rory looked out at the dark, lowering sky; not even the brightest moon could penetrate that yet. There'd be plenty of wet commuters, scurrying home under hats and umbrellas. Still, a community of likeminded-or like skinned-people could find worse places to live or work. If only the little patisserie sold pain au pate de fois gras or the French ice cream shop produced a monthly batch of chicken and raspberry ripple, it might be well nigh ideal. There was also the positive advantage that when the full moon coincided with a Chelsea home game, you could travel home and no-one noticed the difference.

Whether local house prices would be quite so buoyant if anyone realized how many of the flats off the main road were occupied by those of a lycanthropic inclination, was unlikely. There would always be the worry that, no matter how well bred these creatures were, they might frighten the au pair, who'd head back to Croatia, or wherever, leaving no-one to look after little Georgina.

At least their sexual orientation would be less of an issue, its significance reducing as you got further west, where the rainbow flags flew proudly. There was another community of similarly inclined-in both senses-gentlemen down South, who benefited from the same open-mindedness of their neighbours, although no-one was sure what the reaction would be should these men take to Brighton beach in all their hirsute glory. Maybe the little old ladies would just think someone was exercising a pack of particularly shaggy greyhounds. Anyway, the Wolves of the West regarded their southern brethren with disdain, convinced they were common, plebeian and too fond of fish and chips.

"The mitochondrial DNA indicates..."

Rory had heard a seemingly endless number of papers that droned on about this seemingly fascinating stuff. One of them had been in the long list-and it was a very long list, every full moon for over one hundred and fifty seven years-of scientific theories accounting for their condition. Somehow certain individuals had absorbed-by process unspecified, perhaps it was the biological equivalent of a tea bag-wolf mitochondria, which reacted under the rays of the full moon to initiate a process of metamorphosis. As a rationale it had something to be said for it, better than the theory that aliens had spliced wolf DNA into his genome when he was a baby. Or that his dear mama had been frightened by wolves when he was in utero.

Something made it happen, though. Night of the full moon, even when the photons couldn't fully penetrate, the changes began. Rory's skin was downy now, had been since the sun neared the horizon-his teeth ached, his bones were coiled as if to leap into action. Like a sprinter awaiting the ‘B' of the bang. George was tense, too; he sat, unmoving, face drawn, eyes straying to the window every few minutes.

"Gentlemen," the chairman's voice interrupted the speaker, much to everyone's relief. "It begins."

Every face turned to watch the tattering clouds allow the first rays through. The downy hair thickened, altered its structure, losing human traits and adopting lupine. Rory recalled, with pain, a boring talk about the microscopic changes that could be observed at each point-much more interesting to watch those same changes as they affected his lover. George's handsome face was metamorphosing now, the fine-looking nose lengthening, the jaw thrusting forward to join it and make a muzzle.

Please let it go all the way tonight.

They'd both wanted that. It was a hope they articulated each month, a hope so often thwarted by the vagaries of the English climate. Weather that, no sooner had they begun the great change, swathed the moon in cloud again to leave them half-formed, mongrel. Fit only to haunt the museum deploring-half in human tones, half in wolf speak-the general ignorance of those who trod its hallowed halls. To bay politely at the hidden moon, raising only a disdainful reply from the local dogs, and to walk home in shadows, hugging the darkness.

Tonight they wished to experience the rare ecstasy of a full transformation, to race through the museum's corridors on all fours, horrifying the security men. Or at least letting them pretend to be horrified. To wander home through the streets, cocking a leg at lamp posts and scaring the hell out of the urban foxes. Stopping off at The Taj Mahal restaurant, owned by Mr. Khan who knew all about werewolves-and werebears and weretigers-to feast on chicken carcasses. Snuggling up to the bag lady at West Brompton who tickled behind their ears and said that they were such lovely Alsatians.

"Ah-oooooooooooh." George threw back his head, muscles straining and moving, the well-bred baying turning to a deeper, wilder note. As the rays of the moon breasted the curtains, illuminating him in quicksilver light, the great change took effect. George, now metamorphosed into Frost, leapt onto the table, transforming as he sprang to land on all fours-a magnificent, bright eyed, sleek pelted beast. If wolves truly had alpha males, which had been a topic of at least three papers, then Frost was the dominant member of this group. He was taller by a handbreadth than any other individual. Stronger, wilder and more daring.

Rory felt the wolf-blood course; the dozens of changes began as the rays of the moon hit him, too. Soon he'd be at George's side and they'd bound off together, Frost and Ice, side by side as always. Two legged or four legged. First floor flat or hall of the Earth Sciences department. Elegant pine bed or marble floor. Making love gently to the music of Vaughn Williams or mating roughly to the sound of howling filtering through from the Science Museum. Wolves were said to be monogamous and even some possessors of the pink pound achieved the same fidelity, shape shifters or not. Rory Carter and George O'Driscoll did not break the mould.

A huge, rough tongue drew itself over Ice's cheek-a wolf kiss, a symbolic gesture of love that was constant in spirit whatever corporeal shape the soul wore. Ice reciprocated the gesture, long and lovingly, before the pair sprang off through the door.