Top Dog

Fiction
SJ Bradley


This old dog is one of the sweetest creatures I've ever known
Photo Credit: Jeff Moriarty

Sleep came sparingly that first week. Dozing evenings, Lucas heard Lilla and Peepers moving around in the room upstairs. He often woke again when it was dark, hearing the sound of twigs tapping the glass. It made him lousy. What his housemates must think of him, knackered, and too worn out to do any of the things they’d brought him in for. Nobody said anything, but he knew they must think it.

It had a long list, the housing co-op. People wanted in for the security and cheap rent, for the knowledge that you weren’t necessarily thrown out for not paying. Lucas had vaulted them all with his promise to be handy around the house. “I’ve got all of my own tools,” he’d said. Yet now, instead of putting them to use, he spent his afternoons lying on the bed, looking at the insides of his own eyelids, and trying not to think about Shelley being on her own in the flat.

In the mornings he walked the postal route eyes half-closed, muddling the house numbers. A fat-calved woman came thundering out of 8 Carson Avenue to complain about having her neighbours’ mail. “It’s not my birthday,” she said. Lonely, he thought, and with nothing better to do than argue with the postman.

Down by the telephone exchange he discovered a dog. It was an old thing with brindle patches, and a grey-whiskered muzzle. The early morning mist clung to its bony haunches. “Come, come boy,” he said. He reached down to it and the dog, giving him a desperate look, cowered away. Lucas bundled him up, put him in the mail sack, and carried him around the rest of the route. “I will call you Bogle,” he said as he pushed envelopes through the doors. “And you can come live with me in my little corner of Anarchist utopia.”

When he arrived home there was a welt in his shoulder from carrying the sack, and his other housemate Yeurtes was waiting in the hallway. He took one look at the dog and said: “You ought to have called a meeting first.”

Lucas said, “Sorry.” He took the dog upstairs and gave it some biscuits. It sniffed them mournfully, and chewed a small mouthful for a long time. Then it sighed, lay its head between its paws, and looked sadly at the rest of the food in the bowl.

“I’m going to set up the radio, Bogle,” Lucas said. He crouched and shook the receiver gently. The afternoon news came in and out of focus, like a ship passing through heavy fog. “Once I get this working,” he said to the dog, “You and me will be able to listen to Woman’s Hour.” The dog resettled his head and looked at him sideways. “Don’t look at me like that,” Lucas said. “This is the first day of the rest of our lives.”

There was a knock. Lilla came in, wearing a washed-out clown outfit, and carrying a tennis ball. “I’ve heard we’ve got a new housemate,” she said. She rolled the ball along the floor and the dog watched it pass, closing his eyes as it settled into the corner.

“I think he’s pretty old,” Lucas said. With the door open, he could smell the damp from the hallway carpet.

“All the same,” she said, scratching the mutt between the ears, “This is a good dog.”

Letting go of the transistor, Lucas tapped the lid. The fizzing stopped. “There,” he said. “Yeurtes said I had to call a meeting—about keeping a pet.”

“Let me tell you a secret,” Lilla said. She rubbed Bogle’s side. He yawned, and a musical squeak came out. “Yeurtes loves dogs. Don’t worry about it.” She stood. “Well, it’s my turn to cook. See you for dinner.” She went out.

Standing by the stereo, Lucas looked at the bare room. The dog and the radio were the only things interrupting the long lines of the floorboards. Fleas or not, it seemed cruel to make the brute sleep on the floor. He sat on the bed, slapping his thighs gently. “Come up,” he said. “Come, boy.” Bogle watched, as though not knowing what welcome meant. “Never mind,” Lucas said. “You rest. I’m going to have a look at those shelves.”

He went and got the stepladder out of the utility closet. Here he was, fixing shelves for three virtual strangers, and still not knowing where things had gone wrong. A year of sofa cuddling and Shelley had suddenly gone quiet, wearing a look like she was in the distance. The end had come, as he’d known it would—he’d been bracing himself for it—and she’d said: “Don’t feel that you have to move out. You can sleep on the sofa as long as you like.” It had left him reeling, and wondering why, when she no longer wanted to be together, she was being so kind?

Peepers was sitting in the living room window, the last of the ebbing light landing on his shoulders. In the alcove beside him the shelves bowed. Books slid down the gaps at either end.

“All right if I start work on these?” Lucas said.

“Yes,” said Peepers, leaping up. “I’ll help.”

Lucas looked at the jumble. A novella had forced itself a new home between a dictionary’s leaves. Radical gardening pamphlets were squeezed together like takeaway menus. In trying to save the earth, the housemates had used whatever reclaimed wood they could find, and ended up with this mess. The shelves were too short, and had no support in the middle. Never mind: it was easily fixed. He tapped the tape measure against his leg, and felt the familiar excitement that came with the prospect of cleaning up a mess. “Here,” he said. “I’ll show you how to measure up.”

“Sure.” Peepers put his book down on the chair arm. “Take the books off first?” He was up the steps, handing them down an armful at a time. “Careful when you come in, Lilla,” he called through the kitchen arch. “We’ve got books all over the floor in here.”

The front door opened, and Lucas paused. He heard a quiet metallic jingle in the hall. Then the sound of Bogle coming down the stairs in a slow, arthritic thump, one step at a time.

Yeurtes was standing by the front door, a chain-linked dog lead in his back hand. “Now look, I don’t want to preempt tonight’s discussion,” he said, waving his big, bear-like arms. “So don’t take this as an indication of my opinion one way or the other.” Standing by the foot of the stairs, Bogle wagged his tail slowly. “But I found this lead in a skip and thought that if the house meeting decided that the dog was allowed to stay‚Ķ” He trailed off, lifting the hand holding the lead.

“If,” said Peepers. He twisted around to Lucas, winking. “If.”

Lucas had never had a pet. Not even an old, ailing one like this, one close to coughing its last breath. His old landlord said that their fur and claws ruined the furniture—in a house where the sofa looked like it had already been through a house fire.

Loping into the room, the dog settled its hind legs down by the bookshelves, and looked up at Lucas expectantly. Walking around the table, he scratched it behind the ears. “It looks like you might be able to stay,” he said. “You lucky, lucky thing.”

*

Lilla suggested that Bogle could be a working dog. Earn his place by mousing the vermin, or keeping out intruders. But the dog had a clement temperament, and was not good for either. He allowed mice to run over and around him, and hardly looked even when they scampered over his paws. Strangers to the house were greeted with a sad look and a resigned whimper, a combination that said, “Why are you in my seat?”

Lucas took the dog with him to work. He was spending too long in his thoughts, and liked to have the company. It was a good way, he’d decided, for it to get the daily exercise it needed.

Taking the hound slowed him. For one thing it couldn’t go any quicker than its rheumatic joints, and for another it was a nice dog, and people would stop to pet it. He met a lot of women that way. Even joggers would slow, come to a stop, and scratch Bogle’s thin head. “What’s his name?” they’d say.

“Now you are really earning your keep,” Lucas would say, after another smile from a pink-flushed lady in Lycra.

They were coming out of Carson Close one morning when Lucas saw a woman half-chasing down the street after three dogs. There were two tan spaniels and a blotched one, all tongues lolling. Bogle leapt forward, tugging at his collar. His tail whipped hard against Lucas’s leg. It was the only time Lucas had ever known him excited. He had no idea the old man could be so strong; it left a burn in his palm. “Steady on,” he said.

The woman laughed on her way past. The sun caught her eyes like light landing on the sea. “Bet he keeps you busy,” she said. She went by, in the direction of the park.

Lucas decided that it wouldn’t kill the occupants of Carson Drive to not get their bills for another hour. “Come on, Bogle,” he said. The two of them ran down the road after Bogle’s new friends.

The park lay behind a short stone wall. Beyond a square of grass used by the local boys for cricket was a bench, and after that a slope of dandelions and wildflowers. Lucas took up a spot on the seat, and watched the spaniels gambol on the hill.

Bogle lay in a patch of daisies, legs folded under him. The younger dogs ran for sticks, darting past with their ears flowing in the wind. The old professor looked like he was having the time of his life.

The woman was standing under a tree, the shade speckling her broad face. She was older than he’d first thought, he saw, with a wedding ring on her left hand. “Oh well,” he said. She was throwing treats, the dogs snuffling the ground for them. He watched the blotched dog snout the earth. When it moved away he saw a familiar head behind the stalks. Blonde, unkempt, and smiling at somebody lying on the ground beside her.

He stopped himself from calling out. It was none of his business now, where Shelley went, and what she did. Hand in pocket, fingers touching the edge of the kibbled dog treats, Lucas kept staring, looking for the other head to rise. He wondered who it was, and waited for the sting to start.

Bogle appeared, putting his jaw on Lucas’s knee. His eyes contained a world of sadness, an expression that disappeared as soon as the biscuits came out. Lucas let him lick them from his palm, and glanced at the top of Shelley’s head. She was giggling in a way he hadn’t seen since the day they’d first gone out. Seeing her so different like that—it was like looking at a stranger.

The dog harrumphed, tacking its paws on the concrete. “I know, dog,” he said. “We’ll go and do the rest of the post soon.” Bogle set his nose to sniffing Lucas’s trouser pocket. “You’ve had your lot,” Lucas said.

He looked again, saw her face disappear downwards. The sight of the green made him think about the garden at home, about Lilla’s raspberry canes fruiting at the front of the house. More would be ready for picking today, hot pink and ripe, perfect for fruit crumble. The dog licked his trousers, leaving a trail of damp over his knee. “Man’s best friend, eh?” he said, trying to wipe it dry. It was no use: the trail was already setting, and the trousers would need to go in the wash. “Couldn’t have brought you home if I’d been in the flat, could I?” Lucas scratched the lone triangle of fluff behind Bogle’s left ear, and thought about rigging up a clothes drier. A wooden one that could lift by a pulley away from the floor, and stop the mice making nests of their drying clothes. “Come on, beast,” he said, getting up. “You and I have got work to do.”

pencil

SJ Bradley is a writer from Yorkshire, UK. Her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies, and in 2013 she was shortlisted for the Willesden Herald International Short Story prize. Her novel, Brick Mother, will be out from Cinder House Press & Dead Ink Books in early 2014. Email: sjbradleybooks[at]gmail.com

Print Friendly, PDF & Email