I am lying in the half light of an Autumn Sunday morning, still half submerged in the last weak waves of sleep that are only just beginning to recede, exposing the flotsam and jetsam of a new day for my inspection.
She says, “I’m thinking of getting her some sort of small animal for Christmas.”
I groan inwardly.
I remember I am forty three and a parent to two children, girl and boy.
How did that happen?
I pull the quilt up over my face and breathe the musty air.
Muffled, I say, “What do you mean, ‘small animal’? What sort of ‘small animal’ are we talking about here? There’s an awful lot of animals that fall into the ‘small animal’ category, you know.”
She sighs, rolls towards me, lifts the quilt a bit, says, “Gerbils.”
I emerge from the quilt with a groan of protest. “Gerbils? No no no. I’m not having gerbils in the house. They smell all, gerbilly. Piss and wood shavings. They sleep all day and then go batshit at night in their wheels and they fuck all the time and then they have babies, lots of babies, and just as the kids squeal about how adorable the little babies are the mum goes and eats them. Eats the babies. Right there, in front of the kids. Nom nom. No. No gerbils.”
She says, “A hamster then?”
I grimace. “Hamsters are just fat blonde gerbils really. Bit cuter, but they still stink. I remember my brother had one. He’d thought he’d got it’s leg trapped in it’s plastic ball thing and he came to me all panicked that he’d broke it’s leg, that it was all swollen and horrible. I went and took a look and the hamster was hunched over this massive swollen pink thing and I thought ‘we’ll have to have it put down’ but then it rolled over and the pink swollen thing was it’s massive knackers. It was grinning up at us with yellow teeth, showing us it’s massive knackers. I get flashbacks sometimes. No, no hamsters either.”
She’s quiet for a bit. Then she says, “Rat?”
I say, “Plague. Actually, no. If a rat crawled up out of the bog whilst you were sitting on it, would you want to feed it? Of course not. Then why bring one through the front door, give him a cage and a bed and call him ‘Mister Frisky? That seems mental to me. I’ve shot rats. I don’t think I could entertain a pet in the house of a species that I’ve shot.”
I close my eyes and watch weird fractals explode silently behind my eyelids.
Another sigh. Then she says, “Guinea pigs?”
“Donald Trump. No? Is it just me? They do remind me of Donald Trump though. Don’t the Peruvians eat them? I quite fancy trying that. Actually, no. I wish the Peruvians would eat Donald Trump. Guinea pigs a bit like transvestite rats, aren’t they? It’s rodents again. I think I have an aversion to rodents. Pest controllers control rodents. It’s like keeping pet cockroaches. Madness. How about a tortoise?”
She says, “You can’t pet a tortoise. It’s like having a pet brick. She likes… fluffy things. She wants something to cuddle and pet and love.”
I go back under the covers again. I lay on my side and I close one eye and in the half dark I imagine I am in an enormous cave going deep underground.
From the cave mouth I hear the word, “Rabbit?”
“Vicious little fuckers, rabbits. Kill you as soon as look at you. Remember Watership Down? Exactly. And those white ones withe the pink eyes? Ugh. Hideous. Imagine waking up in the night with that sat on your chest, ready to chew your face off…”
She says, “Love, no-one has had their face eaten of by an albino rabbit.”
“Always a first time. I don’t want to be that Sun headline.”
She sits up a bit and thumps a pillow, possibly pretending it’s my face. “What then? We can’t have a bloody cat!”
I shiver. “Don’t mention the devil’s name! Bird killers, tar shitters, tetanus-taloned hate mongers. Cats are psychopaths and plot your demise…”
“… and you’re allergic to them.”
“Yes. That too. I once copped off with a hairdresser from Alwoodley and woke in the night to find her three kittens had nested on my neck in the night. I nearly died. She had to call a fucking ambulance. No cats.”
There is silence for a while, a silence filled with one word, a small word that I won’t say.
Why can’t I say it? It’s a word that I usually follow with ‘NO’, but why?
I can honestly say that every time the word ‘dog’ is used I have a solid list of reasons why ‘NO’.
Barking at random shit.
Holding warm dog shit in my hand. (I honestly just sicked in my mouth a bit.)
A right fucking burden.
Cruel to leave them alone all day.
A pretty fucking good list, I reckon, a list to dampen the fires of any pet ownership ambitions, but is it the actual reason?
Something stirs in my mind.
I stare into the deep cavern of my bed cave, breathe stale air, pick the lock of something in my mind…
It’s winter, proper winter, not like the shit winters of nowadays. This is a winter of three foot icicles hanging from fucked gutters, ice on the inside of your bedroom window, milk bottles sprouting frozen milk like a long, yellow-white worm, snow deeper than your knees.
My brothers and I are making snowmen in the garden, lobbing snowballs at each other, taking it in turns to make one of us cry by going too far.
Our dog is bouncing through the snow on her short Jack Russell legs, snapping at snowballs, ice clinging to her fur.
Ou breath hangs in the air like smoke, our cries and laughter are instantly smothered by the silent snow, thick flakes start to fall and we catch them in our mouths where they crackle on out tongues.
I hear screaming.
A yelping, horrible screaming.
I run through the snow, past the garage, down the drive, look past the gate that should have been shut, past the high walls of snow shoveled against the paths by the snow plow.
A car is in the middle of the road, exhaust fumes lingering in the dead air, the driver’s door open.
In front of the car our little dog is lying in the road, it’s back legs shattered, face pouring blood, and she is screaming, looking at me and screaming.
I join her.
I scream too.
My huge, capable father thunders past me, tearing the padded jacket from his back, my mother hustles after him calling for me to go inside, go inside, my father scoops the broken dog from the frozen road, wraps her in his jacket and they get into the car, a maroon Austin 1800 with registration SWL 661J.
They are gone.
I stumble inside and go up to my room, freezing tears covering my face, thin chest heaving with huge sobs that will not stop, and I kneel by my bed and pray harder than I’ve ever prayed before, pray to a God I am terrified of, a God so real to me then, and I know there’s a fucking good chance my prayers will be answered, and I pray…
Let her die. Let our dog just die.
I had never seen anything in that much pain before, never seen such terror and pain in the eyes of a living thing, and I didn’t want her to suffer, I just wanted it to stop, snuffed like a candle, better to be gone than to endure such agony.
Kill her, God. Kill our dog.
Hours later my parents returned.
My mother carried my father’s jacket.
There was something in it.
My mother explained that there was nothing the vet could do, they’d given her powerful painkillers but my mother couldn’t bare to have her put down.
They’d brought her home to die.
They made her bed up in the dining room, by the radiator where it was warm. It was dark outside by now so they kept a little lamp on, so she didn’t have to die in the dark.
She had water, and her toys with her, and we all said goodbye.
we left her to rest and sat in the other room with the telly on, not watching it, waiting for our little dog to die.
My mother kept checking, we all kept waiting.
It snowed again.
No-one sent us to bed.
And then the door creaked.
It opened, so slowly.
And our little dog crawled slowly in.
My mother rushed over and gently scooped her up and the dog pushed her tongue between her broken teeth and licked my mother’s face.
The dog recovered, and lived for another ten years.
I never stopped feeling guilty for praying for her death.
And that’s the real reason for not wanting a dog.
Would I be able to scoop a dog in my jacket from a frozen road? Could I bare to see terror in their eyes and pray for them to live, rather than pray for them to die?
Then I remember I’d seen all these things in my children’s eyes, I’d been the huge father lifting the terrified little one from the ground when it needed me most. I’d been calm when I needed to be calm, strong when I needed to be strong.
I imagine striding along the moors on a morning, the cold on my face and the sun just rising over the reservoir, feet finding paths in the heather and ahead of me the little dog bounds, nosing the path for rabbits, fur ruffled in the wind, sniffing the air, grinning a dog grin with it’s pink tongue lolling like a slice of stolen ham.
I imagine warm fires and soft snoring from the rug. I imagine the pulling on a lead, I imagine talking out loud when we are alone knowing I won’t get an answer, no answer other than love.
I push myself up from the covers and lay back against the pillows.
She lies next to me with an expression of mild exasperation, and I say to her,
“Let’s get a dog.”
And so we are getting a dog.
Don’t tell my daughter.
It’s a surprise.
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