One Dog Too Many
This is a true story. Actually, it’s a confession – I’ve had this on my conscience for twenty years now and it’s time to say – to the woman with the predilection for white – I’m sorry.
Twenty years ago, in March, I was expecting a baby; expecting it quite imminently. It is a wearisome time, that last week or so; you have done all you can do in the baking and brewing line and it’s time to see the fruits of your labours. Moreover, frankly, nine months is a long time to go without a gin and tonic.
We had a Yellow Labrador, in those days, Ben; an adorable, intelligent, faithful and well-behaved dog who had genially adapted himself to slower and slower walks over shorter and shorter distances, commensurate with my gradually growing girth. He eyed me with a certain doleful foreboding, it is true, a doggy sixth sense perhaps forewarning him that his life – his place in the pecking order – was looming liable to radical review. By the end of February he was lucky to get to the bottom of the Avenue and back, but on this particular day – a pleasant, spring day in March – I had taken him much further than my walrus-waddle had recently allowed. We had gone down the Avenue, through the estate, past the school and into the valley, a wildish strip of green-belt, semi-wooded, with a brisk river and a maze of footpaths. It was pocked with sucking, peaty bogs and had become, unfortunately, a favourite site for fly-tipping, but it was, in that suburban area, the closest thing we had to countryside. We walked for an hour. We walked, to tell the truth of it, too far; enticed by the glint of sun on the water, the shy showing of primroses amongst the trees, the joyful flight of birds across the pale sky. Who knew, I reasoned to myself, when I would enjoy such unencumbered freedom again?
When it was time to turn for home, the slog back up the muddy slope, past the school and through the estate suddenly seemed a trek on an epic scale. I was exhausted at the thought of it. The sun disappeared behind a skimming of grey cloud. The wind grew chill. The dull ache in my back got less dull.
That’s when he came bounding out at us. An exuberant Retriever, black, full-grown but in that skinny, skittish stage, with all the manic, bouncing energy of a puppy which has unexpectedly found itself with the size and strength, pace and potential of an adult body. He was gangling and elastic and unpredictable. He took the awkward stile with the ease of a thoroughbred, tore over the tussocky vegetation and raced in circles round Ben with a wild and frenzied look in his eye; inviting, luring him to join in with adventures of doggy derring-do.
He had clearly had – for a dog – the most deliriously happy of days. He was out for a start. His outness, and his joy at it, were uncontained. The untrammelled exhilaration of not being in – in a house, in a car, in a kennel, even in a garden – was manifest in his continual darting and dashing, his springing and leaping, his chasing and racing round and round in glorious, unrestricted, liberated circles.
And he had had, it was evident, the kind of escapades which delight a dog’s heart. He had burrowed, he had dug, he had sniffed and rolled and licked and wallowed until his doggy senses were drunk. He was high. He was a dog in canine ecstasy – consumed by it – any shred of logic, any tiny residue of training he had ever possessed had entirely vacated his remembrance leaving only the sheer, mindless thrill of unalloyed pooch-ish rapture.
His eyes were wild, rolling and stupid with amazement; his slack mouth had a barmy, lop-sided grin with a lolling tongue so surfeited with sensation that he could not keep it contained within the precincts of his mouth. It drooled silvery slobber. One ear was inside out and it was this that lent him the most speaking look of a dog unhinged. The feathery fur on this rakishly worn ear and over that half of his bony, domed head was thickly smeared with some viscous, green slime; dark and unguent, riddled, probably, with busy bacilli exuding foetid goo. It matted the fur of his neck and down one shoulder and covered his collar – he was not a stray, then – just visible beneath its glutinous glaze. His muzzle and the other side of his face was slick with the greasy remnants of some food residue foraged from a bin-bag and silvered with shining trails of his own saliva. His hindquarters were stiff with a heady cocktail of greenish cow-pat and blackish bog, his belly crusted with river-silt, the feathers of his tail intricately knitted with prickly twigs and long tendrils of clinging weed.
The smell which came off him is almost impossible to describe. At once putrid and brackish; a potent brew of animal, vegetable and mineral, it was the odour of something long-buried and in the middle stages of decomposition suddenly unearthed. It combined the rotting, ancient smell of primordial peat-bog and the ripe piquancy of fresh ordure. It had a sweet, cloying fermenting vegetable tang. It was that sour, stomach-turning, stink of food-gone-bad. It was the feral hum of wet, unspeakably filthy dog.
Ben, with admirable self-control, resisted the lure of the new-comer and padded doughtily beside me as we made our way up the path. The Retriever described bouncing, lunging circles around us. Every so often he lowered his chest and stuck his rear end up in the air, his caked, laced tail wagging enticingly in universal doggish for ‘come and play’. I hoped that if we ignored him, he would go away.
He didn’t. He followed us across the road and through the green-walks of the estate. Passers-by gave us sidelong, critical glances. ‘It isn’t mine,’ I wanted to tell them. I trudged wearily on. The dog ran boisterously through gardens, it chased a boy on a bicycle, it barked at a rabbit in a hutch, it barked at me, it growled playfully at Ben. It bounded suddenly into the road and caused a man in a car to swerve and sound his horn. The man frowned and shook his head at me through the window of his car, and mouthed his opinion – which was less than complimentary – concerning my fitness in even the fundamentals of animal-supervisory.
The Retriever responded to no commands; neither sit, nor heel, nor wait nor stay. He just dug up people’s flower beds and savaged the laundry which dangled from their washing lines, leaving livid green and black smears where it brushed his grimy coat. The effort, of just getting home, let alone of trying to control an ill-disciplined dog, was almost too much. ‘Go away,’ I shouted. ‘Go home.’ I pointed, resolutely, in the direction we had come from. The dog looked a little woebegone for a moment, then lay down on the pavement and rolled onto his back. His belly fur was stiff and tufted. He smelt like a drain. I was almost at my wit’s end.
Then a car drew into a nearby driveway and a woman got out. She gave me a knowing, sympathetic look. ‘Got out again, has he?’ she asked.
I could have hugged her. ‘Do you know where this dog lives?’ I enquired, grasping at the possibility of at last getting rid of it.
‘Oh yes,’ she said, pointing to a house two doors down.
I reached down to the dog, still recumbent at my feet, and grasped his oozing collar. ‘Come on,’ I said, hauling him to his feet. His fur was tacky and saturated. He left a dark, dank patch on my coat where I kept him pressed against me. Close to, the stench of him was even worse, pungently evocative of rank garbage and fetid swamp and fermenting manure.
I left Ben sitting at the end of the driveway. It was getting late in the afternoon, by now, the cloud cover had thickened and the spring-like day was quickly reverting to dark, wintry night. There was a car in the driveway and a light in an upper window. I rang the doorbell and waited under the little overhanging porch for the dog’s appalled, grateful, frantically worried owner to open the door.
But there was no reply.
I rang the bell again, and knocked, smartly on the door. The dog, sensing the end of his adventure, began to twist and pull in an attempt to get away. His eye rolled in its caked socket. He was strong, and his resistance to being confined again was stronger still. His collar was spongy and slick; I wasn’t sure how much longer I would be able to hold him.
I dragged him round to the side of the house where there was another door. There was no bell but I knocked on it loudly. Actually I pounded on it. The dog, sensing my weakening ability to cope with the situation, began to tug violently. In a matter of moments either my hand or his collar would give way.
It was wrong. I know it was wrong and to this day I am appalled at myself for having done it. I would be indignantly angry at any stranger who did it to me. I don’t condone it, even given the situation I found myself dealing with, I condemn it, strongly.
But there it is.
I tried the door handle.
It was one of those PVC doors with a handle on each side and telling myself that the dog’s owner was in the shower, perhaps, or on the telephone, or doing something which prevented them from coming to the door, I tried it and the door opened.
It opened into the kitchen, a room characterised by Arctic white units and an immaculately white tiled floor. The appliances were white; the tea towels and the oven gloves dangling from white hooks on the white melamine cupboard housings were white. Through an open, beautifully glossed white door I could see a comfortable living room. A leather suite the hue of palest vanilla ice cream had milk-white cushions scattered against a pearl-white faux-fur throw and was perched on an expanse of carpet the colour and texture of raw meringue. The walls were as smooth and unblemished as the icing on a wedding cake.
I lifted the dog by the collar and pushed him into the kitchen. His reluctance was very clear; he held his paws out stiffly in front of him; they left twin skid-marks across the spotless floor. I released my grip on his collar and put both hands on his matted, stinking rump. A grey, gritty paste like the scrapings from the most malodorous sewer oozed from his sodden coat and stained my fingers as I pushed him firmly into the house. Keeping one hand in position I reached with the other for the door handle. My hand made a dark smear on its pristine surface.
And it was just at that moment – as I began to close the door, as I released my hold on the wayward dog, when I had, at last, got rid of it for good – that another black Retriever appeared in the doorway which led to the living room.
He was identical to the dog under my hand, the same size and shape and age. But this dog was glossy and clean and dry. His coat was brushed, his feathers fine silken wisps. He was the yin of the filthy dog’s yang, the positive of its negative, its utter, total reverse. At the same time it would have been possible – it would have been easy, in fact – to have taken them for brothers. It would have been understandable, forgiveable, indeed, to have mistaken them for the same dog. He looked intrigued and rather surprised.
I closed the door and went home.
“I have been writing stories since I could hold a pencil,” says author Allie Cresswell, “and by the time I was in Miss Singleton’s junior 2 class I was writing copiously and sometimes almost legibly.
“It was at this time that I had the difference between fiction and lies forcefully impressed upon me, after penning a long and entirely spurious account of my grandfather’s death and funeral. Miss Singleton had permitted it as being good therapy for bereavement whereas in fact it was only a good excuse to get out of learning my multiplication tables (something I have never achieved).
“Clearly I was forgiven. For my next birthday I asked for a stack of writing paper and my parents obliged, it being more easily obtained and wrapped than a pony.
“A BA in English and Drama at Birmingham University was followed by an MA in English at Queen Mary College but marriage and motherhood put my writing career on hold for some years until 1992 when I began work on Game Show.
“The novel was written in snatched half hours here and there, mainly for my own pleasure and interest, and took until 2005 to complete. Since then I have written Relative Strangers, the Lost Boys Quartet and Tiger in a Cage.
“In the meantime I worked as a production manager for an educational publishing company, was an educational resources copywriter, a bookkeeper for a small printing firm, the landlady of a country pub in Yorkshire and a small guest house in Cheshire and the proprietor of a group of boutique holiday cottages in Cumbria.
“I am currently teaching literature in the community alongside full time writing. I have two grown-up children and one and a half grandchildren, and am married to Tim. We live in rural Cheshire.”
Thanks, Allie, for a great story, all the funnier for knowing it’s TRUE! I am delighted to feature you on my Friday Fiction this week.
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