Man’s best friend

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When the alarm clock beeped Maurice groaned his customary groan and stretched out like a tiger waking from a snooze. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and blinked several times. Then, with a whoosh of excitement that coursed from the top of his head to the tip of his toes he remembered: Today was his eighth birthday.

He leapt out of bed and ran out of the room and all the way down the stairs into the kitchen. There he found his mother, his father and his baby brother Teddy sitting at the breakfast table waiting for him.
“Happy Birthday Maurice,” his parents said in unison. Teddy just grinned and waved his rattle. “Here,” said his mother, “sit down and I’ll make you a special breakfast before school. Eggs and bacon okay?”
Maurice beamed and nodded as he took his seat at the head of the table where, he couldn’t help but notice, there sat a large box with a ribbon on it. His father smiled and nodded so he ripped off the paper and shouted “yes!” and punched the air when he saw it was the remote controlled rally car he’d been wanting for ages. “Can I take it to school?” he asked,but his father shook his head. “I think it’s best kept safe at home for the moment,” he said.
Maurice kicked his chair under the table in silent protest, but was soon distracted by the plate of fried breakfast his mother had put in front of him. She sat down beside him, pulled her purse out of her bag and fished a shiny pound coin out of its depths. “Here you go,” she said, handing the coin to Maurice, “I know we normally say no sweets at school but as it’s your birthday why don’t you pick up a little treat from the shop at break time.”

As his mother had suggested, Maurice went to the shop around the corner from school during his lunch hour. When he arrived there was a little dog tethered outside. Maurice didn’t know much about dogs but he thought this was what his father would call a Scottie dog-a Scottish Terrier with charcoal grey fur, a long body, short little legs and ears that looked too big for its head.
As Maurice bent down to pat the dog the shop door opened and an old lady came out. She was wearing a thick wool coat even though it was warm outside and she had a scarf wrapped around her head like a turban. The skin on her face was baggy, like it was too big for the bones and sinew underneath, and she had drawn thick black lines around her eyes.
Maurice stood up and the old lady smiled. “Oh don’t mind me dear,” she said, “Colin loves the attention.” Maurice knew it was rude to stare but he couldn’t take his eyes off the old lady. “Colin?” he repeated? “Yes,” the lady said, “it’s a silly name for a dog I know but it was my husband’s name, you see.”
The old lady stopped to cough, and Maurice noted with alarm that when she pulled her tissue away from her face there were spots of what looked like blood on it. “Are you alright?” he asked. The old lady straightened herself up as best she could and forced her withered lips into a thin smile. “Yes,” she said, “I’m fine, thank you,” though Maurice was far from convinced. “What brings you here, anyway?” She asked. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
Maurice grinned and pulled the coin from his pocket. “It’s my birthday,” he said proudly. “I’m eight years old today and so my mum gave me this to buy sweets.” The old lady coughed again and winced in pain. “That’s nice,” she said. Her breath was shallower now and Maurice was scared. What should he do? Call the shop owner? Call an ambulance?
As he was thinking trough his options the old lady pulled a small black coin purse from her pocket and began to root around in it. “Drat,” she said, coughing again. “I’m a pound short.” “For what?” Maurice asked. “For a taxi to…it doesn’t matter.” Maurice looked at the pound coin in his hand, hesitated, then held it out on his palm.
The old woman smiled through her obvious pain and took the coin. “That’s very kind of you little boy,” she said, “what’s your name?” Maurice, who had been told never to tell strangers his name, replied without hesitation, “Maurice Brown.” “And you go to the school next door?” He nodded. “Well Maurice,” the old lady said, “I promise to repay you for your kindness today. Though it may be in a different way to that which you might expect.”
Before Maurice could ask what she meant she had flagged down an approaching taxi and climbed unsteadily into it, coughing and wheezing all the while. Colin jumped in after her and she shut the door and drove off. Maurice returned to school empty handed.
That evening, after his birthday dinner there was a knock on the front door. When Maurice’s father came back into the room he was carrying a large box. “Another present?” Maurice asked. “From who?”
His father put the box down onto the table with great care and handed Maurice an envelope with MAURICE BROWN written on the front in thick marker pen. Inside there was a piece of paper, upon which was written:
Dear Maurice, if you’re reading this it means I’ve gone to a better place, so please don’t be sad for me. When we met today I could tell you were a special little boy. In return for your kindness I would like to offer you first refusal on this gift. I hope you will love and care for it as I have, and that it will bring you great happiness. God bless you, Annie (the old lady outside the shop).
Maurice put the note down and stared at the box, and as he did a scratching noise from inside made him jump. Suddenly he knew what was inside, and began tearing at the wrapping. He opened the box and, sure enough, inside it sat Colin the Scottie dog. When he saw Maurice he jumped up and licked his face, making everyone laugh.
“Can we keep him Dad?” Maurice asked. His dad looked at his mum, and his mum looked back to him. “How could we say no?” she said with a smile. “We’re so proud of what you did today Maurice.” Maurice beamed back at her. “This is the best birthday ever,” he said, and Colin barked his agreement.
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Down by the river

Down by the river all was quiet, save for the occasional beating of runners’ feet against the stony ground some feet away, or the call of dog walkers whose pets had strayed out of sight. One such pet – a cocker spaniel with a pronounced limp – was here now. His wet nose pressed into the leaves he inhaled deeply in an attempt to track a scent that was too faint for his old nose to detect. With a snort the old dog gave up and limped off.

But it would not be long before another, younger canine would be successful in its quest to track the scent. It would sniff at the damp soil beneath its feet, dislodge it with a paw, slowly at first but with increasing fervour once the scent became stronger. The surface soil brushed aside, it would inspect the object protruding from the earth with something close to reverence, if dogs were capable of such an emotion. And once the finger was licked clean the dog would bark, it’s owner would come, and her screams would shatter the early evening peace into a million irretrievable pieces.

But for now, at least, down by the river all was quiet.

Past Post: A Hard Life

Lucy was asleep on the sofa when Barbara returned from her shopping excursion.

“Hellooo!!” Barbara trilled, “Luceeeee!!”

She sighed and rolled over, making sure she kept her eyes tightly closed so as not to attract attention. If Barbara thought she was asleep she would hopefully leave her in peace. No such luck. For today, it transpired through Barbara’s muffled shouts from the hallway, was the ladies’ bridge afternoon, which meant that Lucy would be fully expected to join in the festivities.

Unable to ignore Barbara’s incessant crashing and banging any longer, she slowly stretched out and peeled herself off the sofa with a heavy heart. Walking into the kitchen, she saw Barbara unpacking several hefty shopping bags. The purpose of this particular shopping trip, like so many others before, had been to purchase ‘nibbles’ for the occasion – a concept that seemed to have been well and truly lost on this particular group of ladies, given the amount of food they systematically shovelled into their cavernous mouths at any one sitting. Lucy often thought it quite a feat that they managed to get the food anywhere near their mouths, such was the amount of blubber surrounding their big pink faces.

Sitting down by the table, she surveyed the pots of brightly coloured additive-laden dips, multi-pack bags of crisps and hugely calorific boxes of cream cakes. Her heart sank even heavier in her chest and she let out an almost imperceptible sigh.

“Oh! Lucy!” Barbara detected her presence and spun around to face her. “You look such a mess!” she gasped, “and the bridge girls will be here in half an hour – what on earth are we going to do with you?”

Barbara, oblivious as always to anyone’s feelings other than her own, continued to berate Lucy without pausing for breath. “You haven’t time for a bath now so we’ll just have to fix your hair and hope for the best. What a shame! I so wanted you to look pretty for our guests!”

Pretty. Lucy couldn’t care less if she looked pretty or not. She just wanted to be treated with some respect. Why was she expected to perform like a circus animal every time those big pink ladies came over? She was sick of being paraded around like a toy.

“I’m six years old!” she thought to herself, “Not a baby!” Crossly, she turned on her heels and stormed out of the kitchen, pausing briefly to cast a mournful look at the cream cakes. How could Barbara gorge herself on such delectable foods when all she fed Lucy was tinned food and leftovers? Whenever Lucy expressed an interest Barbara would say, “You can’t eat this, it’s bad for your digestion.” It really was despicable.

Three hours later the bridge ‘girls’ had gone, leaving a trail of crumbs behind them, trampled into the carpet. Barbara, slightly merry after two glasses of Babysham, was finishing the washing up and singing to herself. Lucy was standing behind her, glowering. Having been forced to watch them devour every morsel on offer, she had almost reached the end of her tether. And if only she could talk she would say so. There was really only one thing that could save the situation and prevent her from walking out for good.

And, at that moment, a miracle happened. Casting aside her rubber gloves on the draining board, Barbara spun around and smiled broadly. “WALKIES!” she warbled. And in that very instant, all was forgiven.

Wormhole

According to the weekend’s Argus newspaper, a concerned member of the public made a report to Brighton and Hove City Council after seeing a wormhole to another dimension in the middle of a residential street. Yes, you read that right: A wormhole. To another dimension. Whoa.

The anonymous person made an online report in which they stated: “I was recently walking my affenpinscher (a toy breed of dog) around the Hanover area of Brighton when I noticed that a wormhole or vortex has opened up on Montreal Road.

“On closer inspection it seems to be some kind of portal to other times, places and dimensions.

“I would have investigated further but I was concerned my little dog would be sucked into it.

“Is this meant to be there? At first I believed it might be part of the Brighton Festival but I believe it could be a hazard to the general public. I look forward to your response.”

It’s hard to say which bit of this report I like the best. Perhaps the bit where the mystery reporter sees fit to explain his/her breed of dog – given that a portal to another realm had just revealed itself to them, you’d think such specifics were irrelevant. Or maybe the bit where they thought it was part of the Brighton Festival – if the organisers could summon up a wormhole as part of the entertainment my guess is they’d have more important things to be getting on with than organising exhibitions.

But the adventure didn’t end there, oh no. Despite the potential risk to both (wo)man and dog, the mystery reporter bravely ventured back to the scene of the aforementioned wormhole and filed a further report claiming: “It seems to have got worse – it is now emitting an unsettling yellow light and a large snake appears to be emerging from the wall.

“I am concerned this is a passage to another time or dimension, and if this snake is anything to go by, I’m worried what else may emerge from the wormhole. Can anyone suggest a course of action to take?”

To clarify, a giant snake emerges from a wormhole in a residential street in the south of England, and the only witness present decides that, rather than call the emergency services, they will write a letter to the Council for advice?

Imagine if they’d done that in Ghostbusters when Zool, the Gatekeeper and the Keymaster were running around causing havoc. Something tells me things would have turned out very differently.

…I hope they’d contain creatures like this one, spotted in Trafalgar Square on Queens Day a couple of years ago.

Raw

Why do they say that the air is crisp, as if it were something that one could bite into, that one could touch? The air’s no crisper than the sun, though that at least would burn you to a crisp if you could get close enough to touch it.

It’s funny what thoughts pop into your mind, unbidden, after a traumatic life episode. Here I am, lacing up my boots – the ones with the dodgy soles that let the water in, which are really altogether pointless as it’s almost always wet outside – and instead of thinking about what’s happened I’m ruminating on the physical qualities of the air and the sun. I suppose this could be called a ‘coping mechanism,’ in which case I should probably be glad of it. Lord knows I’d rather think about the air and sun than all the other jumbled mass of thoughts and emotions that are swirling around in the background of my mind.

I call Betty and she tears into the room with her trademark boundless enthusiasm. Betty is a cocker spaniel. She’s brown with white splodges of various shapes and sizes that look as if someone’s used her as a canvas to try and recreate a Jackson Pollock painting. She’s named after the landlady at the bed and breakfast where we got engaged. With hindsight that’s ridiculous, but when we bought her we were sickeningly in love and blind to sense.

I’m walking down the road now, treading the path that’s been so well trodden over our ten year marriage. The tarmac’s hard and unforgiving beneath my feet. Betty’s straining at her lead; she may be an old girl but she’s got more life in her than I’ll ever have. But I won’t let her off the lead until we’re on the footpath. Can’t risk anything happening to her – she’s all I have now.

Charles Reginald Harper (prefers to be known as Reg).

Likes: Arguing (loudly), snoring (ditto), mustard on rare roast beef, red wine, cherry jam, walks in the country, art (except, ironically, Pollock) and obscure foreign literature.

Dislikes: People not agreeing with him (always), his wife (most of the time).

As we veer off the road onto the footpath – Betty scrambling over the muddy terrain as if her life depends on it – I run our last argument through my mind. It was over nothing, as always, something as inconsequential as him not having done the dishes. But then it wouldn’t have killed him to do them, would it? Once in the whole damn marriage?

But I digress. His not doing the dishes aside, all of those silly, petty arguments aside; he was a good husband. It’s funny how it takes something like this to make you realise the good things about a person, to see them in a light that has been dimmed for far too long.

Still. We walk on, Betty and I, through the fields of corn that sway in the light breeze like lovers clasped together in a slow dance. I remember then the dance of our wedding day, the way his hand rested on my waist, the reassuring weight of it.

Where did we go wrong? Somewhere along the journey of our lives together we took diverging paths. I’m not sure either of us knew it at the time, but by the time we did realise it was too late to go back; weeds and thorns had grown across the paths behind us.

When we return from our walk I unclip Betty’s lead and pour myself a scotch; his favourite drink. I sit in his favourite chair and look out across his favourite view. And then it hits me. A tidal wave of grief that I have hitherto suppressed rises up and catches in my throat, emerging as a roar of emotion. Or should that be a raw of emotion, because that’s all I now am – raw.

I don’t blame him for leaving, how can I?

I just wish I’d had the chance to say goodbye.

I took this picture yesterday in East Stratton, Hampshire. It was the inspiration for this story.

Charlie

When I walked through the front door tonight I heard the funny clunk-whirring noise of the cat feeder (which my flat mate reckons is really a dog feeder, given its propensity to deposit such enormous servings of food into the dish twice daily that it could feed the entire neighbourhood’s population of felines in addition to our own precious moggy, Charlie).

Shortly after the feeder finished dispensing its gargantuan haul a familiar mew rang out from the kitchen. Right on cue, Charlie appeared in the doorway, his expectant face looking up at me, asking for I-know-not-what with his characteristically plaintive little cry. Of course I pandered to him, stroked his little tabby chin and fussed over him intently until his cries had subsided. This cat, you see, has got us wrapped entirely around his little paws – and he knows it.

From the moment Charlie came into our lives last year we were besotted. Just a tiny (but boisterous) kitten when we got him, we’ve watched him grow into the handsome (if somewhat spoiled – but we’ve nobody to blame but ourselves for his upbringing) chap he is today. Since parting ways with his manhood (my boyfriend says we have emasculated him, but what were we to do – let him fight to the death with the local tom cats? I don’t think so – he’s far too good to meet that kind of end) and venturing into the great outdoors he’s taken to the life of a domestic cat like, well, a domestic cat. He wants for nothing and is treated like a king – and why not? He is the apple of our eyes, and at the end of a long day in the office there is nothing nicer than cuddling up on the sofa – stroking cats has health benefits, don’t you know?

So anyway, back to tonight. After fussing over Charlie he followed me into my room, jumped up onto my bed and settled down onto my knee. Five minutes later he stood up, regarded me with distaste, turned on his heel and – without so much as a backward glance – left.

Here lies the crux of tonight’s post.

Before you assign me to the crazy cat lady bin, allow me to explain. My aim was never to wax lyrical about the wonders of my pet in particular (though I appreciate I’ve inadvertently done a fine job of that), but rather to extol the virtues of all cats when compared to dogs. Don’t get me wrong, dogs are amazing in their own floppy, cutesy, poochy way. It’s hard not to melt when they look up at you with those big brown eyes, tongue lolling to one side of their mouth as they attempt to coerce you into venturing outside for a freezing walk in the park.

But, crucially, the one thing cats have which dogs just don’t is independence – by the bucket load. Whereas dogs can’t be left for too long by themselves without turning into emotional wrecks, cats just come and go as they please. Whereas dogs love their owners unconditionally and would selflessly (or stupidly) throw themselves in the path of an oncoming truck to save their owners’ lives, cats would just as likely turn the other cheek and walk on by.

When a cat invests time in its owner they feel pathetically grateful, and rightly so – there are a million and one other things kitty could be doing besides deigning to be manhandled by a human. Dogs, on the other hand, can never get enough attention. They are like hyperactive children with attention deficit disorder. Why have a pet that invokes such feelings of guilt? Why not have a pet that’s content whether you’re there or not, just so long as there’s food and water and a nice comfy sofa to sleep on?

Perhaps I’m painting a bad picture of cats with this post. I’m sure they do love their owners unconditionally underneath it all, but what I love about them is their surliness, their unpredictability and staunch refusal to do what is asked of them. They will love you, but they’ll do it on their own terms. And I don’t know why, but I just find that pretty cool.

Something tells me I won’t feel the same if I ever have teenagers…

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Our little Prince!

Mary

The snow fell in fat flakes onto the ground, obscuring all that lay beneath. A dog nosed in the undergrowth near a mound of earth cloaked in white, digging up wet leaves with its paws, trampling what little grass had managed to poke through the thick covering above. The dog sniffed, its nostrils flaring as it seemed to catch a scent of something that excited it, but a distant whistle from its owner bid it come, so it turned on its heel and ran off.

Mary had never been fond of dogs, but as she watched it leave she felt a pang of sadness. It was so bitterly cold even the thought of sharing body heat with an animal was an appealing prospect. A flash of red caught her attention. She squinted through the falling snow and saw a tiny figure in the distance, weaving its unsteady way across the vast expanse of field between them.

It took Mary several moments to realise the figure was a small child, and by that time it was almost upon her. She grimaced. Her dislike of dogs was on a par with her dislike of children, and in her current situation she was not disposed to tolerance.

As the figure drew near Mary saw it was a little girl, not more than three years old, four at most. Her red duffel coat had a fur-lined hood and matching red mittens that hung from her sleeves on lengths of elastic. They bounced up and down as she ran, dancing in the air as if marionettes on a stage. Her blue plastic wellington boots, too big for her small frame, made her progress ungainly.

Breathless, the girl stopped. Up close Mary could see she had a cherubic face, with rosy cheeks, pink bow lips and porcelain skin. A lock of curly blond hair had escaped from her hood and was dangling in front of her nose, which twitched in irritation. She blew it away with a concerted snort and looked at Mary. “Hello,” she said, unblinking.

“Hello,” Mary replied. “What are you doing out here all by yourself?”

The girl shrugged. “I ran away.”

“From who?”

“My mummy.”

“And why would you do a silly thing like that?” Mary scolded the girl. “She’s probably very worried about you.”

The girl frowned as she considered the implication of her older companion’s words. “But she was horrible to me,” she said at length, her jaw set in defiance.

Mary sighed and patted the bench. The little girl obligingly climbed up beside her. “I’m sure she didn’t mean to be horrible. Sometimes people say things that they don’t mean in the heat of the moment.” A memory came to her then; a heated exchange, doors slamming, raised voices. She felt a lump form in her throat but carried on. “I’m sure your mummy loves you very much.”

“She doesn’t,” said the girl, folding her arms across her chest. “I’m not going back.”

“Oh?” said Mary, raising an eyebrow. “And what will you do instead, exactly?”

The girl shrugged. “I don’t know. Find a new family, probably.” She chewed on one of her mittens.

“Do you think new families are easy to find?” Another pang, another memory of issues unresolved, words spoken that could never now be taken back.

The girl shrugged again.

“Well I can tell you from my own experience that they’re not.”

The girl looked up at Mary. “Did you run away?” she asked, her brown eyes searching.

“Yes, in a sense, I suppose I did.”

“What happened?”

Mary took a deep breath. Was she really about to tell a child what she had never been able to tell an adult?

“I had an argument with someone very close to me, a long, long time ago. We never spoke again. I think it was the biggest mistake I ever made, but it’s too late to go back and change it.”

“Why too late?” The little girl shivered and nestled into Mary’s side. Without thinking she wrapped a protective arm around her, catching herself in surprise.

“Because that person – my mother – died.”

The girl’s eyes widened. “How?”

“In a terrible accident, the day after our argument. So you see, you really must go back and find your mother. You don’t want to have the same regrets as me do you?” The girl shook her head, her face solemn.

The sound of frantic cries sliced through the air like a knife, distant at first, then louder, more insistent. Mary turned to see a woman running towards them. “Alicia!” she screamed upon seeing her daughter, and flung herself down onto her knees in front of the bench to scoop her into a tight embrace. “Where have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere.” She examined her daughter’s face, smothered her in kisses. “You must be freezing.”

“I’m not freezing, mummy,” Alicia said. “The nice lady was keeping me warm.”

Alicia’s mother looked around. “What lady?”

The girl turned and pointed to the bench beside her. A look of incomprehension crossed her face. “She was just here…” Her little voice trailed off.

The woman’s laugh was pure relief. “Of course she was darling.” She kissed her daughter on the top of her head and stood up. “Come on darling, let’s go home.”

“But…” Alicia stared into the space where the old lady had been, her mouth open. She cast her eyes about her one last time before turning to leave.

Mary watched them walk away. She looked down at the white-topped mound before her and wondered how long it would be before someone found her body, lifeless beneath the snow, exactly as she had fallen. Her life for so long had been solitary, it seemed ironic that in death she had, for the briefest of moments, found companionship.  It was time to go.

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I can think of no better image to accompany this post than the title image of this blog. The day before this picture was taken was a complete white out, and my boyfriend and I scuba dived in the lagoon though we could barely see two feet in front of us. When we returned the following day in gorgeous sunshine we were gobsmacked by the scale and beauty of the place. it was so calm and serene, so utterly and unequivocally beautiful.