WRITE ACROSS SUSSEX: A Winter’s Tail
by Julia Macfarlane
Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.
Ellen opened her front door and felt the empty silence within as if the air, thickly invisible, had not moved since she left, as if it waited for her presence to part its floating layers. She placed the newly obsolete collar and lead on the hall table without looking at them. She walked into her living room and sighed a long, slow sigh as she gazed through the french windows into the conservatory beyond. She felt dazed by the sense of loss like a diver’s lead weight around her body. Slowly, her gaze focussed and rested on the conservatory’s old wickerwork settee with its faded, sagging cushions. Two years after Jack’s death the indent of his body could still be seen in the right hand cushion and beside it, a smaller rounder dent where Max’s body would lay as he rested his head on Jack’s knee. Ellen had refused to replace the outdated cushions, afraid that if she lost the hollow of Jack, she would be removing a piece of his presence from the house. Now the left hand cushion would become as valuable: Max’s impression and Jack’s, preserved.
A sob erupted from her, a sob from so deep within, it was doubtful it had needed her mouth to give it utterance. She was surprised at the primality of it and another slipped out that was more howl than sob. She sank to the carpet and gave in to the grief, that she had managed to hold in so far today, maintaining a polite calm at the vet’s even as tears had trickled down her face, at which she had dabbed regularly with one tissue after another, silently and efficiently proffered by the vet’s assistant, as if offering swabs to a surgeon. Polite calm as she had insisted that she sign all the paperwork there and then, paid the bill. No, she didn’t want to come back later, it was fine to do it now. No, she didn’t want Max’s body, she was quite happy for the vet to make arrangements. Yes, she would like his collar and lead. No, really she was fine, just give me a moment, I’ll be fine. She would be all right on her own, thank you very much for everything.
When exhaustion had crept in, Ellen finally quietened. She stood up, by habit brushing off the stray dog hairs from her skirt. She rubbed the hairs between finger and thumb and scattered them onto the carpet, as if tossing petals into an open grave. She surveyed the damage to her face in the mirror above the fireplace. Good job I do live on my own these days, she thought and gave herself a sad smile.
She ran her hands and face under the tap in the kitchen and filled the kettle, just enough for one cup of tea. She took the cup into the living-room and placed it beside the phone, at which she gazed a long time before picking up the receiver. She knew before she spoke what her daughter would say, – buck up, mum, in a few weeks why not get another dog for company, or a cat.
The days dragged to the weekend. Ellen had washed and tidied away Max’s bedding into the attic; his basket and dishes to the shed; his toys, lead and collar into the drawer in the hall. All the usual signs of a dog-owning household hidden from view and swept away.
“Why not get a virtual dog, Grandma?” asked Jilly, her face obscured by golden curls as she stared intently at the screen in her hands, thumbs clicking away as she spoke.
“Would I need one of those things?” Ellen asked, smiling, pointing at the small screen.
“Yes, “ Jilly looked up, her eight year old brow furrowed quizzically. How could anyone not want a Nexus 7 of their own? “I have a pet dinosaur.” She showed Ellen the screen where a diplodocus was being fed half a tree by an unattached hand. “Or you could just have an imaginary one, like Harry’s friend, Mikey, do you remember him?”
“An imaginary dog would be perfect, Mum,” agreed Debbie, “No food bills, no vet’s bills, no mess to clear up.”
“Perfect.” Said Ellen and ruffled Harry’s hair.
He scowled and shook his head. “Mikey was real! Just ‘cos you lot couldn’t see him…”
“Of course he was real,” Ellen said. “Invisible’s not the same as imaginary, is it? Now, who’s for cake?”
When Debbie and her children left, with an extra tight hug from Debbie for her mother, Ellen washed up, and settled down in the twilight by the fire. She had switched on the flames and they danced prettily, casting shadows across the room. Ellen looked at the spot where Max’s little body would have lain, slowly roasting in the fire’s warmth and smiled at the thought of an imaginary dog. If she could have any dog in the world what would it be? Not another Jack Russell, too painful to have a Max lookalike so soon; shadows of dogs flickered into being and were extinguished just as quickly as Ellen stared into the flames, eyes half open. A cute little yorkie, pink bow perched on top of its head; a golden spaniel, with floppy ears and waggy tail; a soppy Boxer; a gentle chocolate brown Labrador; a cute Westie with tartan collar. But the images that alternated most often between all these were of an Irish wolfhound. And why not, she thought sleepily. If you were to have an imaginary dog, why not have the one you could never afford to buy or maintain? A beautifully shaggy Irish wolfhound, all pewter curls and comically sad face.
At last she roused herself for bed, checked the external doors, and switched off the fire. As she clicked the living-room door shut, she whispered, feeling slightly foolish. “Good night, Seamus” and laughed at her own stupidity.
The room was still dark when Ellen woke the next day. The glowering sky promised a day of rain. Ellen headed downstairs to fortify herself with breakfast before risking disrobing for the shower. As she opened the fridge for orange juice and milk, she heard a noise so familiar that it was a second before she registered that it should not have been there. It was the click of claws on the kitchen lino. She whirled around, expecting to see Max’s wagging body coming towards her, that, despite the impossibility, somehow he had made it home again. She saw only an empty kitchen and shook her head at her own silliness. Maybe for years she had heard that noise and it had been, all the time, only the radiator pipes warming up. She switched on the radio to fill the room with people noise.
The day dragged. One person in a house makes very little mess and Ellen’s household routine was more schedule than need. Her lunch consisted of tinned soup, sliced bread and too many digestive biscuits. Mid-afternoon, thoroughly bored with her own company, sick of the winter gloom, and shamed by her biscuit indulgence, Ellen decided to boil some eggs for a healthier tomorrow. With the timer set, she settled herself in the living-room, daytime TV and lamp switched on to dispel the premature twilight and began to read the paper.
She was awoken with a start by the feel of a cold nose nudging her hands in her lap, and the sound of the timer running down. Her nose filled with the smell of boiled dry pan. She staggered into the kitchen, wiping sleep away and picking up her oven gloves, and thrust the pan under the cold water tap. There was no real damage done, the eggs were edible if blackened and the pan would live to boil again. But the memory came back to her of that cold nose in her palm and she rubbed her right hand with her left, wondering what had caused that sensation. It had felt like a big, cold nose, not a little Jack Russell nose, more a big dog, a very big dog – Irish wolfhound size. She thought but refused to say it out loud “Well, Seamus, if it was you – well done.” Instead she said firmly into the air: “That way madness lies.”
Ellen arranged a day of lunch and light shopping with friends for the next day. It was not good to be rattling around an empty house, with nothing to do but imagine things. It was dark again by the time Ellen put her key in the lock, and entered the hallway with two M&S bags hanging on her arm. She paused inside once the door had shut the winter’s cold behind her. The hall was warm, but it was more than that. The house felt occupied, welcoming, as if a friendly presence waited for her in the next room, like it had done when Max was still around; in a moment his happy little body would nudge open the living room door to welcome her home with a lick and a fuss. Don’t knock it, Ellen told herself, accept the warm glow instead of the empty loneliness she had become accustomed to.
In the early hours, Ellen awoke in bed feeling cold and realised the sheet and duvet had slipped away from her, leaving her front chilled and her back as warm as if another living body was snuggled against it. Not fully awake, she turned in bed and attempted to pull the duvet back across her body. It resisted as if a weight held it back. She froze, and took several shallow breaths before she dared to pull again. There were two soft thumps to the floor on the other side of the bed followed by a larger bump, exactly the sound of two feet, or paws, reluctantly hitting he carpet followed by the rest of its body. The bedding flew across as if it had been released from a weight. She rallied herself after a few moments of panic before she dared reach out a hand into the icy cold dark to pull the overhead cord that switched on the light. She surveyed the room; there was nothing and nobody in the room but her. Taking a breath, she looked under the bed but its inky blackness could have hidden anything. Finally Ellen whispered, trembling and hesitant, into the under-bed void : “Is that you, Seamus? This is not funny. Stay down. Keep off the bed.” She sensed, or remembered, the feeling of a dog wagging its tail, shamefaced at being caught out. “I have gone mad,” she muttered, falling back in the bed. She switched the bedside radio on at low volume and left the light on for the rest of the night. When she finally awoke, later than usual, she convinced herself she had imagined it all, looking under the bed with confidence that the space was empty, and feeling foolish, examined the duvet cover for non-existent paw marks and dog hair.
It was not the sort of incident that Ellen could tell anyone about but as she recollected it in the cold light of morning streaming through the kitchen window and with a reviving pot of tea in front of her on the small, kitchen table, she knew that before she had been fully awake, she had been feeling (dreaming?) the sense of companionship that comes from the shared warmth of two bodies in a bed, even if one was only that of a pet. If this was the way her insanity was going, maybe she should go with it, just let her imaginary pet ease the loneliness. She gazed out of the window, through the steam rising from the china mug, and she heard again the click of claws on lino and a heavy head rested itself on her knee under the table. She did not look down but said, eyes staring straight ahead so as not to break the spell: “OK, you win, you can stay.”
Once Ellen submitted to her “madness” it became easy. Seamus became so much more real to her. She settled down to watch evening TV, and would sense the warmth of Seamus’s furry body resting against her legs, shaggy head on her lap, eyes blinking from the hair across his eyes, as she softly caressed behind ears that were really there to her touch. If she didn’t try too hard, she would see the shape of him from the corner of her vision. She heard him scratch at a door if she closed it and when she rose to open it, would feel the air move as he wove his way in, tail slowly waving. His head rested on her knee when she ate, not begging for scraps, just there. She began to save him the last bit of her biscuit, daring herself to drop it for him, not surprised if she failed to find it later when she vacuumed – why would she – he had eaten it, she had heard the wet sound of his mouth snapping it down. One morning, she brought out one of Max’s favourite tennis balls out from its hiding place in the hall drawer and threw it into the living room. “Go fetch, Seamus!” she called and felt a rush of air as her invisible dog rushed to chase it. It came as no surprise to her that the ball appeared in different places in the house each day after that.
When Debbie and the grandchildren visited one weekend late in March, Debbie commented on how well her mother was looking. “I’m doing alright,” Ellen responded, smiling from her favourite armchair, feeling the pressure of Seamus’s weight against her right knee. When she thought nobody was looking she stroked the spot behind his ears. Harry caught the gesture and nodding slowly, shared a smile with her. The next weekend, he brought a bone-shaped dog biscuit, which he slipped into Ellen’s hand. “For your dog,” he whispered. She nodded her thanks to him. “He’ll love it,” she whispered back.
After she had waved them gone, she checked her reflection for obvious signs of madness. There was none that she could detect – was that not a sign of madness that you believed you were sane, she wondered.
One morning when spring sunshine flooded through the windows, Ellen decided to brave a walk around the park. She had avoided it since Max’s death. On a whim, she dug in the drawer for Max’s old red leather lead and stuffed it into her anorak pocket.
The sun was warm on her face although the shade still harboured winter’s chill. She strode along, enjoying the familiarity of the bushes and trees, noting the new buds and shoots. A woman in a smart red coat smiled at Ellen at the edge of the park. “Is that your dog? He’s a beauty.” Ellen looked behind her and heard the rustling of something substantial in the bushes to her left. “Er, no, I don’t actually have a dog.” The woman’s smile stiffened on her face and she darted an involuntary glance at Ellen’s quilted pocket where the lead handle protruded. Ellen’s hand touched it and she reddened and moved on quickly. Once she had rounded the corner of the bushes, she peeked back until she was sure the woman was out of sight. “Seamus!” she whispered. “Get out of there now!” The bushes rippled as if a large tail was wagging goofily beneath them but nothing appeared. “I’m going home,” she hissed. “You’d better follow me - quietly.”
Once back inside, she flung the lead onto the hall table and ripped off her coat. “Fool! Idiot!” she muttered, and headed for the kitchen. As she waited for the kettle to boil, telling herself this madness had to stop, she heard a distinctive scratching of paws asking to come in at the front door. “Go away!” she called out. “Enough!” The scratching stopped.
By five o’clock, as darkness began to fall, she relented and left the back door open while she made her dinner. The only thing that entered was the cold. After a few moments, she closed the door and dragged her way into the living room, feeling sadder, older and lonelier than ever. She sat in her armchair and closed her eyes. Immediately she felt a large paw land in her lap; she opened her eyes and saw eyes gleaming sadly into hers. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Hello, old friend, I’m glad you’re here. Just let’s keep it between ourselves, okay?” A shadow of a shaggy tail swept the carpet.
Her birthday fell on a Saturday and Ellen decided to host lunch for friends and family. The conservatory doors were opened for the first time that year; the sun’s strength finally enough to warm the air. About a dozen of Ellen’s friends had arrived and were twittering like birds when Jilly and Harry rushed through the door, overexcited and squealing. Ellen surreptitiously hung her hand over the arm of her chair and patted Seamus’s invisible head to calm him. Geoff, Debbie’s husband, a friendly bear of man, entered the room, carrying a large cardboard box which he placed at Ellen’s feet. “Happy birthday, Ellen,” he boomed and bent to kiss her cheek. “Open it, open it!” shrieked the children. Ellen bent forward to lift the flaps of the box - and lifted out a squirming, snuffling, straw coloured pup, his whip of a tail whirling like a helicopter blade as it struggled to lick Ellen’s chin. The others in the room broke into delighted sounds as Ellen lifted the pup high to show them. She was unable to stop the tears that overfilled her eyes, unable to say whether they were from the shock of the new dog, or the sight of a crooked grey tail disappearing into the shrubs at the end of the garden, unseen by everyone except Ellen.
And perhaps Harry.
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