“Go away! Stop following me”.
The unkempt dog paid no attention to Emily, waiting until she’d turned before trotting behind her again. She looked over her shoulder and immediately he paused, left paw in mid-air, and, in spite of herself, Emily smiled. Still, she had to lose him before she got to the main road; it would be too dangerous to leave him there on his own—it was getting dark.
She ran, not looking back until she reached the intersection, crossing her fingers before turning around. There he was, with a goofy grin, right behind her.
Sighing deeply, Emily said “Come here then. Come on; let’s see if you belong to anyone”.
The dog edged closer; tail wagging but eyes cautious. He stopped and she moved towards him, reaching to stroke his shaggy head. No collar. His head dipped into her hand and Emily felt warmth spread through her stomach. She pulled away as if burned and pushed her fist into the pocket of her duffel coat.
The dog held her gaze; tail wagging fiercely one moment and drooping miserably the next, until Emily slumped in defeat.
“I’ll take you home but you’re going to the animal shelter tomorrow”. With her hand reaching towards him the dog soon worked out that he wasn’t being left behind and he danced around Emily’s feet.
“Stop! Get down!” Emily twisted away from him and started towards the pedestrian crossing. A moment later she felt a wet tongue slide along her exposed hand. As they waited for the lights to turn green, the duo regarded each other warily.
“I have no room for a dog”. He had one green and one blue eye Emily noticed as he sat there grinning at her, his big tail thumping the ground.
The lights changed and the little green man began his brisk walk, indicating pedestrians should do likewise. Emily sighed as she stepped onto the crossing, the dog keeping close to her heel.
“I have no room for a dog”.
She was still muttering to herself ten minutes later as her townhouse came into view. Tall and skinny, it was a house for a cat. Emily didn’t want to imagine a big dog bouncing up and down her four flights of old English oak and the damage it might do.
“One night and then the animal shelter,” she repeated as she unlocked the front door. The dog dropped his head when he stepped into the hallway and only raised it when Emily called to him to follow her. His toenails clicked against the floor and Emily cringed – hopefully the timber was all it was supposed to be and could withstand animal wear and tear. She shrugged; it was only one night after all.
Watching the dog sniffing around the kitchen she realized she’d have to feed him and gratefully remembered that she had some leftover chicken in the fridge.
“Sorry dog, I have nothing else”.
Emily gingerly put bowls with the chicken and some water down in front of the animal. He didn’t look unhappy as he gulped first at the water and then made short work of the chicken.
Emily rummaged in the linen cupboard for something he could sleep on. Most of her possessions were new, only bought when she purchased the house six months ago, and she agonized over which rug to sacrifice.
Grabbing a blue and grey picnic blanket she folded it and brought it to the kitchen where the dog was sniffing at the corners excitedly. Emily pointed to the blanket.
“That’s your bed. Okay?” she looked enquiringly at the dog but he just gazed back at her and Emily shook her head at her own foolishness. Did she really expect him to acknowledge what she’d said?
“Well. All right then. I’m going to watch TV now”.
She smiled as she walked into the lounge. It had been a while since she’d said that to anyone and it felt good. Although she was happy enough with her own company, having an extra presence in the house changed the atmosphere; in a good way, she decided as she settled herself on the couch. It was only for one night though. It probably wouldn’t be so peaceful if it were full time.
She had just settled herself when her new friend appeared in the room and Emily patted the couch encouragingly. With a cold nose pressed against her ear, she tried to watch her favourite soap. It seemed strange to discover, between doggy-slurps, that her living room friends from Coronation Street, were, for tonight anyway, simply characters on the TV. What a difference it made, having a live creature for company!
That night she dreamed she was safe and warm in someone’s arms and woke up to find the dog draped across her feet.
“Oh well.” She thought, “Close enough!”
“Come on dog. We have to go to the shelter this morning.”
The dog was definitely slinking Emily decided as he followed her to the kitchen, hugging the wall all the way.
“We’ll have to go now. I have nothing to feed you.”
His eyes seemed to plead with her as he tracked her progress around the kitchen.
“This house isn’t suitable for a dog.” Emily flung her hands out as if to ask him how he couldn’t see the truth of what she was saying. The dog’s tail wagged slightly and he nudged her leg with his head.
“What happens if I keep you and you belong to a little child somewhere?”
The dog’s tail wagged more fiercely.
“I don’t want to love you if I’m going to lose you.” The shock of what she’d said hit Emily like a fist in the middle of her chest. She was sure she could feel her heart trying to squeeze its way out of the protective wrapper that had been in place since the untimely death of her husband two years ago. Her breathing quickened and tears that hadn’t been allowed for many months glazed her vision. She sank into the kitchen chair and the dog placed his chin on her lap, gazing at her with those soulful eyes.
“What am I going to do with you?” she asked, fondling his ears. His answer was to squirm with joy.
“I don’t want to take you to the animal shelter but I’m going to feel like a criminal if I don’t. I have to at least try to find your owner.”
Her new friend lifted his head and regarded her steadily.
She patted him again and he tried to drop his head onto her lap once more but Emily was all business now. She used a scarf as a lead to take him to her car. He didn’t need any encouragement to jump into the back seat and immediately sat with his face pressed up to the window. He kept it there while she started the car and reversed out of her drive, so she lowered the window and he immediately stuck his head out, his big goofy grin in evidence as he seemed to enjoy the passing scenery.
Emily’s smile faded as she reached the entrance to the animal shelter and her heart beat a quick tattoo in her rib cage. She didn’t want this; she really didn’t want to go inside this place and give away the first creature that had touched her heart in a very long time.
Taking a deep breath, Emily opened the back door.
“Come on mate; we’ve got to do what’s right. You might have a microchip and you’ll be back with your family in no time.”
The catch in her voice belied her cheery words.
The young girl inside was friendly and informative. She would get a vet to check if he had a microchip and then they would hold him for a period of time until he was either claimed or adopted.
“And if neither happened?” asked Emily.
The girl blushed and with a sad expression confirmed Emily’s fears. He would be put down.
Emily took a seat and waited for the vet. The dog sat across her feet, every now and then looking up at her as if to make sure she was still there. It was nearly an hour later when an elderly man with snow-white hair, bottle end glasses and a big smile appeared. Emily instantly felt that her charge was safe. The vet introduced himself as Hamish Wright and invited them to come into the examination room.
“So let’s see. Do you have a microchip my friend?”
The vet produced a scanner and passed it over the neck of the dog a few times.
“Bad news and good news” he said to Emily. “Bad news, he doesn’t have a microchip. Good news, he doesn’t have a microchip”.
The vet’s thick lenses magnified the twinkle in his eyes as he grinned at Emily.
“I do take it that is good news?” he asked and Emily nodded; a big smile on her face.
“Yes it is. Most definitely! I’m only asking for trouble but for some reason it feels like he’s worth it. What do I do now?”
“I could say that we’ll keep him here for seven days in case his owners come looking for him but if they haven’t bothered to microchip him, experience tells me they won’t be looking. Just to be on the safe side, we will register him as being a found dog but you can take him home and we’ve got your number if anyone looks for him.”
Emily’s face was hurting from the unaccustomed smiling but she didn’t care. As the two of them returned to the car she asked the dog what he thought his name should be.
“Should we wait for a while? Until the seven days are up?”
Her heart sank at the prospect of having to give him away. Loss was a physical pain that she had become used to over the past couple of years; the prospect of having to go through it again filled her with fear.
She pushed the thoughts firmly back into the box where she kept all the emotions she found it hard to deal with and turned her mind instead to shopping for her new friend.
The journey back was interspersed with quick excursions to a pet shop and the supermarket for dog-related supplies and once home again Emily set him up with a proper basket in the kitchen and a rug in her bedroom. While he was eating from his giant bone shaped bowl she surveyed her previously immaculate and nothing out of place home.
He’d had an argument with a toilet roll and bits of tissue floated around the hallway. It had rained and the kitchen floor was covered in muddy footprints and there was a faint smell of wet dog, but Emily still smiled.
And then the phone rang.
She knew instinctively that it was about the dog and reluctantly picked up the receiver. The voice on the other end sounded young and strong. He sounded like a man who would own a big golden-haired mutt.
“Hi there. My name’s Owen and I believe you might have my dog.”
Emily wanted to cry. She didn’t actually believe she could stop herself from crying until she heard herself say in a businesslike manner
“I probably do. When can you collect him?”
Her limbs dragged and her heart sat at the bottom of her stomach. At least she hadn’t named him. She wouldn’t be able to grieve for him if he didn’t have a name.
When the doorbell rang tears sprang to Emily’s eyes. She couldn’t do this. The doorbell rang again and she realized that she had no choice.
The man standing there smiled hesitantly as if he wasn’t quite sure how he would be received.
“Hi. I’m Owen. We spoke on the phone?”
Emily nodded and stood to one side to usher him in. She was powerless to speak.
“I can see you’re upset,” Owen said and Emily nodded mutely.
Suddenly there was an ecstatic barking from the kitchen and the dog skidded into the hallway before leaping madly around Owen. Man and dog spent a few rapturous moments getting reacquainted and Emily felt a smile tug reluctantly at the corners of her mouth as she watched their antics.
Finally, Owen took a lead and collar from his pocket and slipped it over the dog’s head. He held his hand out to Emily and with a deep breath she took it.
“Thank you for looking after him. My children will be so happy to have Charlie back.”
“Charlie? It suits him.” Emily had found her voice and then, sternly “Why is he not micro chipped?”
Color crept up from Owen’s neck and he pulled Charlie a little closer to him.
“My fault. We only got him last week from a farmer who had never bothered to do it and I was supposed to take him to the vet but I had a meeting at work and I forgot. That evening my son took him for a walk and let him off his lead in the park. Charlie saw a rabbit and ran off after it and didn’t come back. It was probably too soon for him to find his way home.”
Emily decided to let him off the hook; she could see that he was embarrassed.
“Let me give you the toy I bought for him – he seems to like it.”
By the time she’d returned to the hallway with the rubber bone, Owen and Charlie were standing outside the door.
Emily dropped to her knees to give Charlie a hug and got slobbered over in return. Blinking back tears she got to her feet and held out the bone to the dog. He grabbed it in his big jaws and Emily knew there was no reason for them to stay any longer.
She looked into the sympathetic face of Owen and shrugging helplessly she said
“He got to me. Look after him won’t you?”
Owen nodded seriously.
“We will of course and thank you again for all you’ve done for him.”
Emily watched them until they got to the end of her short driveway and then closed the door. Leaning back against it she could see the empty basket in the kitchen. She was dissecting her feelings as though they were flies on a lab bench. She thought she’d feel much more upset, but there were no tears waiting to fall.
Her experience of loss had led her to expect desolation. Instead she felt hopeful, but what did she have to look forward to? And then she realized that she wouldn’t, no she couldn’t, go back to where she’d been before Charlie had come into her life.
The change had come about so quickly but Emily knew with a deep conviction that it was permanent. Two years was long enough for such sadness, it was time to take her life back. She said a silent prayer of thanks to whoever had sent Charlie to fix her.
Slowly she walked to the kitchen and stood looking down at the basket with its red and green tartan mattress. A smile played around her mouth. On reflection, it might have been a bit small for Charlie. However, it would be a perfect bed for a smaller dog. A dog much more suited to a townhouse.