I had left for work this morning with no pet to my name, but I was now the confused owner of a malnourished and depressed dog. I vaguely remembered the events, but not the reasons for doing them – like a bad decision made while drunk. As I was walking home from work, with my jealous mind imagining Elizabeth with another man – she had said that she loved me, but wasn’t in love with me – I suddenly found myself in the middle of a group arguing over a rug in the road. The rug in question was in fact a scruffy black and white collie, its body so thin that it looked like a hairy xylophone. Its wild eyes stared upwards at the people towering over it, but as it focused on me, I realised that those eyes were utterly familiar; they were mine. I stepped back a pace, disorientated as if I had just jumped off a merry-go-round, and accidentally backed into the dog’s owner, a greasy pudgy woman wearing a stained t-shirt.
In a daze, I apologised and half-listened as the woman brought me into the argument; her neighbour had passed away the previous week and she had inherited his dog, which had taken to escaping her house in order to lie in front of traffic, causing a daily confrontation with angry motorists. Without a thought, I offered to take the troublesome dog, and carried it home to place on my kitchen floor, where it had remained since. I gathered a couple of old jumpers and made a bed in the spare room, amongst the hastily-stacked archive boxes, then went shopping for some dog food. I could have done without the extra expense; Lizzie’s bombshell had forced me out of her – our – house and into a shabby ground-floor flat, with all the financial responsibilities to go with it. She had said that it wasn’t my fault – it was hers. I was not going to be able to make it to the next pay day without financial help, and was avoiding that conversation with my parents until the last minute.
Later, I stood on the back door frame, smoking a precious cigarette and starwatching. The dog hadn’t moved an inch despite my attempts to feed it, and I was guiltily choosing a place in the threadbare garden to bury it. I sipped at some cheap whiskey, and fought the urge to text Lizzy again. Despite her generic reasons for the break-up, I knew that I had been replaced – her online status had jumped from relationship to single to relationship again within a fortnight. That hurt more than anything that she could have said to me.
With a whine, the dog lowered its head and, amazingly, dropped a mobile handset from its mouth. Gingerly, it pawed at the phone repeatedly until it started to play a video clip. Slamming its head onto the phone, the dog barked in desperate joy as it listened to the sounds. Several seconds passed, and there was silence once again.
I felt numb with bewilderment; what on earth had just happened? I had no idea there was a mobile phone in its mouth. I flicked the cigarette into the night and crouched in front of the dog. It didn’t move in response to my approach, so I slowly reached out, pinched the end of the phone and pulled it away carefully. The dog watched my every move but didn’t resist. It was a cheap abused handset; on the back was a grubby white label with a phone number written on it. I pressed a button and the phone sprang to life, listing a number of media files. Was she cheating on me before we finished? I pressed the OK button on the first file.
It was a small but tidy front room, details obscured by the low-resolution screen. A door opened; a woman entered, dressed for a wedding. People off-screen made appreciative noises, then the owner of the phone started to sing in a rasping tone:
“Here comes the bride, all dressed in white, here comes another one, all dressed in bubble gum!”
The bride scowled at the camera. “Oh dad, please.”
The phone swung round to show a healthy-looking version of my dejected dog. “Come here Laddie! Come look at my beautiful grand-daughter before she gets married!” The real dog yipped in response to his name, but I paid no attention and continued watching the events on the phone.
As Laddie approached the bride, an older woman shouted. “Murve! Get that bloody dog away from Angie’s dress!”
“He’s only wanting a look, for God’s sake woman!” Murve’s hand tussled the scolded Laddie reassuringly, then the clip stopped. The now-named Laddie had scooted up to my legs and was looking in fascination at the handset. I scrolled down to the last clip.
Laddie was now sleeping on Murve’s lap, an old beige blanket thrown over him. I could hear something in the background, then suddenly realised that it was the sound of someone crying. “I love you Laddie,” Murve whispered. “I love you so much. You are my everything.” The clip continued for a few seconds, nothing but the sleeping dog and the sobbing man. Suddenly, Murve groaned “I don’t feel well again Laddie. Oh God, Laddie!”
At my feet, Laddie let out an ear-piercing howl and I dropped the handset, the battery skittering underneath the cooker. Laddie grabbed the remains of the phone and scurried into the spare room, whining as he disappeared into the darkness. Had I just seen the moment that Murve died? I shuddered. She didn’t even want to try and work things out.
The next morning, I stood on the back door frame, having my ritual morning cigarette when Laddie limped past me. The animal had whined and barked all night, and I half-expected my new neighbours to be having words with me at some point today. I hadn’t slept either, partly because of the noise and partly because of my love-sick mind running wild. She had once said that we would be together forever. Laddie appeared from behind a sad-looking bush and trembled his way back to bed. He never looked up once.
That night, my best friend Matt called. “The cure for a broken heart,” he said, with the wisdom of all men everywhere, “is a loose girl and lots of beer!”
“I really don’t feel like it,” I countered, frantically conjuring up an excuse. “I think I have flu.”
“Rubbish! Stop wallowing in self-pity.” The problem with best friends is that they cannot be put-off by half-assed excuses. The truth was that I wanted to wallow in self-pity. I didn’t want pity from others, help, or even loose women. We were going to call our firstborn Obe.
“Sorry – maybe tomorrow night.” I hung up and looked at the pile of love letters on the kitchen table and picked up the first one, a pink A5 sheet covered in her delicate writing. It smelled faintly of her bedroom, and I savoured the flashback, of lazy Sundays waking up in her arms. How could she turn her back on me so easily? I wanted to hate her so much. Fighting back tears, I went to check up on Laddie.
He was shaking softly, still staring at the incomplete handset. I considered holding him for support but was afraid of catching something. I vowed to take Laddie to the vets for a check-up once my bank balance showed more than double-digits – if it survived that long, which was a big ask of both of us. She always brushed her hair after we made love. The dog looked up at me and whined.
“Don’t give me that,” I muttered, “I have my own problems.”
Two days later and I was contemplating making that call to my parents; I was out of money, out of cigarettes, my electricity meter was almost empty, and I had a fortnight to go before payday. I was on my knees thanks to that woman. My phone rang and I muted it; I didn’t want any supportive male bonding. She said I was the best. A few moments later, it rang again and in a flash of impatience, I pressed the green button. “What?”
“Coming out?” Matt’s cheerfulness grated against my melancholy soul.
“Come on mate, stop wallowing!”
“It’s not healthy, that’s why!”
Why wasn’t it healthy to wallow? The only way I could be happy was to clutch hold of the remnants of my happier past, just like Laddie. Why deny myself that pleasure? In fact, why deny Laddie that pleasure too? Without another word, I hung up and knew what I must do. For both of us.
I fished the phone battery from underneath the cooker, and then took the remains of the handset from underneath Laddie’s sleeping body. I transferred all the videos across to my laptop; there were simply loads, my collection of love letters looked paltry in comparison. Was that a measure of love? I converted the videos and burned them to my only blank DVD, omitting the clip of Murve’s final moments – that was too distressing, even for me. Watched by a now-awake and shivering Laddie, I setup my old portable TV and DVD player next to his bed, inserted the disk and pressed the Repeat All button.
Laddie raised his head slowly as the first clip started, then with strength he clearly didn’t possess, struggled to the screen. I returned to the kitchen to start my own cleansing; I poured some cheap whiskey into a dirty glass, put on a swing CD that Elizabeth had bought me, and scattered some tea lights around the kitchen. Surrounded by moving shadows, I spent the night immersed in the letters from Elizabeth, warm and safe in her flitting words of love, then burnt each one of them until I was left with a table of ashes. She couldn’t wait to get me out of her life. Eventually, with the whiskey bottle depleted, my hands covered in ash, and the candles extinguished by the dead of night, I swallowed my pride and called my parents.
The next morning, I sat drinking a tea – with fresh milk – smoking a cigarette pulled from a full pack and contemplating the small pile of money my parents had brought over. Never be afraid to ask for help, they had said; I hadn’t been so grateful in all my life. A weak Laddie appeared from his sanctuary, nibbled slowly at the bowl of food I’d put down, then returned to his bed. I heard Murve singing.
Laddie appeared more frequently over the next few days, eating whenever I put food down and going outside whenever I opened the back door. The DVD continued its Murve marathon 24/7, but I fancied Laddie looked stronger every passing day. Then, one unusually bright morning, I was eating breakfast when I felt something nuzzle against my leg; it was Laddie. He looked at me sternly as I stared in surprise. Then I understood; he was ready to move on. I rubbed his head tentatively, then called the vet.
From that point on, Laddie accepted me as his master, but we both knew that his heart was on loan; Laddie would always be Murve’s dog. Over the years we tussled, walked, ran, played and slumbered together, but every couple of months, Laddie would look at me with a small whine to let me know that he needed a night alone with his memories, and his DVD. I would spend those nights meeting friends and family – the people that I loved.
Laddie died 2 years later, on one of Murve’s nights. He passed away curled up in his bed of old jumpers, in front of my old TV, with his master’s voice echoing around him. As I carried his frail body in his blankets, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.