I woke up, yawned, blinked and stretched out my arms. I was pleasantly surprised to feel the warmth of the sun streaming in through the window onto my face and body.
"Well, this is a good start," I smiled to myself. "The weather's been so grey around these parts lately. I could use a little sunshine in my life."
As I stretched out once more, my smile disappeared as I felt the empty space beside me in my big bed. I remembered when it had not been empty, when I didn't have to take a hot water bottle to bed with me and pull the quilt tightly under my body to feel comfortable.
"Ah well, such is life," I mused. "Today will be a better day."
Somewhat determined now, I raised myself up and lifted my weary body from the bed, feeling better even just from the sunshine and my decision that this day would not be like the others. And so, I got up, wondering what the next hours might bring. I had certainly been feeling a little glum and I hoped that the blue feeling would stay away, that I would not cry today. I had been tired and down for much too long and although I felt lonely at night sometimes, I knew that it had been MY choice and that it had been the right thing to do, for me. For a long time now, I had not been doing things for me, merely gleaning vicarious pleasure in the service of others. I knew that this was not a healthy thing to do and that it could make me sick in the end, or I might just fade into oblivion. I had too much light of my own to give. I could not, would not hide any longer.
As I made my coffee, the sun continued to smile on me through the window and I looked out to my garden. Autumn was here now and I knew that there wasn't much time before winter set in. I made a mental note to tidy up later, if the weather was still agreeable. I felt happy, for no particular reason and decided to make myself a nice cooked breakfast. Normally, I wouldn't bother, not when it was just for myself, with no one else to cook for, but today, this day, for the first time in a long time, I felt that it was time to do things for me.
I hummed a tune as my omelette cooked in the pan and I even tipped in a little extra cheese as a special treat and I decided that it was most definitely a day that I might remember fondly, with a smile, on the cold evenings which were just around the corner. I nodded, agreeing with myself, almost as if I was shaking hands to seal a business deal.
I decided to take a walk into town and look in the shop windows. I didn't really want to buy anything, but a trip might continue to lift my spirits. Walking through the centre, I nodded and smiled at the friendly faces of people going by and looked at the wares on display. Funny, for ages I hadn't noticed how friendly people could be when your head was raised and you had a happy expression. Some of the things I saw were very pretty and appealed to me very much.
I really wasn't out to buy anything but then I saw something that caught my eye.
It was a pet shop. I had never noticed it there before and I was curious. I walked over to the window, noticing how the store looked rather run down and deserted, and when I got closer, I saw the paint was peeling, the windows were grubby and the lights flickered a little inside. I peered through the glass, rubbing it with a gloved hand, to get a better look at what was inside. My eyes moved back and forth and I observed that most of the cages and tanks on display were empty.
I heard a bark and jumped back.
It was a dog, not in a cage, but wandering round the shop. It had seen me and was gazing at me, teeth bared through the window.
Normally, at that, I would just have turned and walked away, but today was different. I wasn't quite sure why, but I decided to go into the shop. The door creaked as I opened it and a bell sounded from above as I walked through.
The old hound stood his ground, his long straggly hair standing slightly along his back, as he growled softly at me. I didn't feel afraid. I mean I wasn't scared of dogs, I'd been around them all my life. In fact, I missed the companionship of a dog. The old fella continued to growl at me and my eyes softened as I saw that his tail was wagging, not a lot, but wagging nonetheless.
I crouched down and stretched out my hand slightly, "C'mere, boy."
The old dog bared his teeth and I saw that they were dull and broken. I didn't think that he would be able to do much damage, even if he did bite. I didn't think that he would though, as his tail continued to sway more keenly from side to side.
Suddenly, there was a shout. I almost lost my balance and the dog yelped and cowered back into a corner.
"Seamus!!! You bloody useless creature! Get away from that woman!" Her voice was hard and cold and the dog, Seamus, ran towards her, tail between his legs now and stood at her side. I saw that he was shaking and as the harsh woman reached down, she slapped the dog on the muzzle. Surprisingly, the dog did not yelp or run away, but leaned in closer against her leg, tail wagging almost gratefully from her ministrations.
"Get away from me, you stinking dog!" The woman kicked him away with her leg and Seamus sat, looking at her, drooling a little with his tail brushing the floor.
"My god," I thought, "That poor dog. I can't leave him here. Look how thin he is, I bet she doesn't take care of him at all."
As I watched, the dog began to shake and the woman seemed incensed and shouted once more, "Go to your bed, you mangy mutt."
The dog, dropped his head and walked towards a grubby old plastic bed in the corner of the shop. It was almost hidden from view, unless you knew it was there. Seamus turned and settled down on the soiled covers, his matted coat dull and greasy.
"Hey, why are you being so mean to that poor dog?" I felt angry now.
"Dog? Pfft, that's being generous. He's nothing but a useless bloody mongrel.
"Oh, come on, he's just a dog. You shouldn't treat him so badly."
As she turned to face me, I noticed her pregnant belly and my anger began to subside a little, assuming that her mean disposition was due to a cocktail of hormones, I remembered how I'd felt when I was in that same position. That was, until she spoke again.
"Badly? You think this is treating him badly? He's the most pathetic animal I've ever encountered. It seems the more I ignore him, the more he demands my attention. You know, I've tried to re-home him, but who would want an old, worn out creature like this. Look at him!" She turned, her sharp features in profile and held out her hand, gesturing at the dog. In response, he raised his head and I could see his tail wag slightly, hopefully.
All at once, I saw his deep eyes and caught a glimpse of the noble animal he once had been and perhaps could be again given care and love and attention.
"I would take him..." The words were out of my mouth before I knew what I was saying. What was I doing? I felt sorry for the animal and wanted to help him, but was I really ready to open my home to him, open my heart to him?
"I'd be glad to be rid of him. You're welcome to him," she snapped. "He's no use to me anymore. You know, he used to be a good dog once, faithful, a good companion, but now…" her voice trailed off and I put my hand into my bag to find my purse.
"Oh, don't give me any money, you're doing me a favour, taking him off my hands." She reached under the counter and produced a slightly mouldy, leather lead and handed it to me. "He's all yours."
I took the leash and slowly walked over to Seamus. I crouched down and he whined almost imperceptibly as I pushed my fingers into his hair, found the metal hoop on his tatty collar and clipped the lead to it.
"Come on, boy," I whispered, gently tugging the lead."Let's get you home."
He resisted for a moment but got up. I placed my hand on his back and stroked him, a little shocked to feel his bony spine through the dull hair. He followed me and as I opened the door, the rusty bell rang above it. He turned and looked back at his old mistress but she was already lifting a box down from a shelf behind the counter and didn't turn to watch us leave. She stroked her fecund belly and suddenly turned towards us.
"Good luck with him, you'll need it."
I never responded, just pulled the wretched animal through the open door and let it fall closed behind me, rusty bell sounding a dull jangle once more as it clicked shut.
As soon as we'd left the shop, the dog's demeanour changed and I was gratified to see his tail move from side to side as he walked with me. I wondered if I had the things I needed to home a dog. I had that big stoneware bowl, that would do for a water dish. There was an old comforter in the spare bedroom, he could use that as a bed until I had the time and money to replace it. I still had a bag somewhere with Shep's old lead, brush and collar. Any old bowl would do to feed him, for now, but I would need to buy him some food.
As we walked the streets, we did attract some looks from passers by. Some regarded me with what almost felt like disdain, perhaps assuming that I was the cause of this animal's ill health, others gave us pitying looks, others looked right past, not seeing us at all.
Nearly home now, I stopped outside the corner shop, crouched down and spoke to Seamus. "It's ok, boy. I'm just going to nip inside and buy you some food." I scratched behind his ear and fastened his leash to the hook outside the shop window. He looked at me with quizzical eyes, but sat down nonetheless as I left him and entered the store.
Although it wasn't an aisle I'd frequented in a while, I knew where the pet food was. I picked up a four-pack of meat and a bag of biscuits, choosing a premium brand over the cheaper, generic ones.
"I didn't realise you had a dog?" Said Daniel, the young man who worked in the shop on a Friday.
"Yes," I responded. "I've adopted him. He's a sad old thing, but we'll see how we get on."
I handed over the money and Daniel gave me my change then lifted the counter to come out. "Is it okay if I come and see him?" He asked.
"Of course," I smiled as he followed me outside.
When Seamus saw the young man with me, he growled and I noticed that his hackles were up.
"It's okay, boy, Daniel's just come out to say hello," I whispered as I unhooked his leash. "This is Seamus."
Seamus immediately moved between Daniel and I, standing, as if to say, "Leave her alone, she's mine."
As the young man reached over to pat my new dog, I saw that Seamus' ears went back, a sign that he was not happy.
"God, he's a skinny old thing, isn't he?" And he reached into his pocket and produced a small treat for my dog. Seamus sniffed it, but never took it from his hand.
"Yes, he is. I'm sure I'll soon have him back in shape though. You'll not recognise him in a few weeks, I'll bet!"
"Right, I better get back inside. Good luck with your new dog."
"Thank you. See you later, Daniel."
It only took a few minutes before we were at my gate. I opened it and Seamus obediently followed me through. He stood beside me, looking up expectantly as I unlocked the door.
"Welcome to your new home, Seamus," I said as we went inside.
I unclipped his lead and he wandered off, sniffing around, while I went to the kitchen to sort out the things my new companion was going to need.
I filled the big stoneware bowl with fresh water, fetched the comforter and folded it into a makeshift bed for him. "That'll keep his bony body comfortable," I thought to myself as I poured some biscuits into a large baking bowl and opened a tin of meat for him.
When Seamus heard the tin opener, he came back through to the kitchen and sat down beside me, tail wagging briskly.
I was heartened by his reaction and I placed the food on the floor. He looked at me, tongue hanging out and I told him that it was okay, to eat his dinner, realising that I too was hungry. I glanced at him, greedily munching his food while I prepared a meal for myself.
After we had both eaten, I decided that Seamus needed a bath. His coat was dull and grubby. I wondered if it was a good idea, if perhaps it might cause him stress, but he seemed quite happy as I lifted him into the tepid bathwater and wet his coat with warm water from the shower head.
I didn't have any dog shampoo, so I just had to use some of my own. My stomach tightened as I massaged the liquid into his lank coat, feeling every bone in his wee wretched body. I swear that he was grinning though, enjoying the attention. You know the way that dogs grin, right? His was still rather matted and I thought, "What the hell," and squeezed a big blob of conditioner onto him and massaged it in. Damn, he was smelling better already. I knew that human products weren't really suitable for dogs, but this felt like the right thing to do given the circumstances.
All rinsed now, I lifted him out of the bath, noting the grubby dark rings around the tub, mentally making a note to come back and clean that up later.
I'd already lit the fire in the living room and by now it was blazing merrily in the grate. I put a large towel down on the floor, in front of the fire, and sat down, Seamus between my legs, rubbing him dry with a smaller towel. He seemed happy and didn't seem to mind as I took a dog brush and comb and tugged the matts and tangles from his coat. The wet dog smell was almost cancelled out by the delightful aroma of jojoba and ylang ylang.
As his hair dried, I could see a sheen there. I smiled, he was starting to look like a proper dog again. His clean hair had more bounce to it too, so he didn't look quite so thin or old. I pulled him close to me, cuddling him and I kissed the top of his head. "You're a good boy."
My own clothes were wet after all of this and I went upstairs to change into my pyjamas. When I came back down, Seamus was stretched out on the rug in front of the fire, sleeping. One of his back legs twitched and I idly wondered if he was dreaming of chasing rabbits…
I made myself a hot chocolate and sat down on the sofa with my book. The dog woke and moved away from the fire. He sat at my feet and leaned against my leg and I absentmindedly stroked his soft hair, feeling happy, enjoying having someone to keep me company.
I was tired now and decided it was time for bed. I took my empty mug to the kitchen, Seamus at my heel and I patted his bed, "Come on, boy. You can sleep here tonight." He obediently lay down and whined ever so softly, looking up at me as I switched off the light and made my way to bed.
I fell asleep, feeling content for the first time in ages. I dreamt of walks with my new dog, along the loch side, him chasing the ducks and coming back to me, looking proud of himself…
I awoke during the night to a scratching noise and for a fleeting moment I feared that my house had been broken into. Then relieved, I remembered my new pet. He was whining and scratching at the door. "He must need out," I thought to myself, reluctantly throwing the warm bedclothes back and stepping into my slippers.
I opened the bedroom door and Seamus began to lick my hand. He followed me downstairs and I opened the back door, to let him outside. He quickly did his business and came back. He would not settle on his own bed though and I yawned, relented and patted the empty side of the bed, giving him permission him to come sleep up beside me. Quick as a flash, he hauled himself up, lying down and closing his eyes. I swear he actually snuggled in and I soon drifted off to sleep with my new companion beside me.
The next morning I awoke to a wet slobbery kiss from Seamus. He nuzzled my face and I laughed, "Okay, okay. I'm getting up!"
It was another beautiful day and I opened the back door, letting the dog run outside while I made coffee for myself and biscuits and meat for him. The door was open wide and I could smell autumn in the air, the scent of woodsmoke drifting into my nostrils. I loved this time of year and it was so much the better for having someone, even if it was only a dog, to share it with.
Once I was dressed, I got Shep's old collar and lead and put them on Seamus. Now that his coat was clean, he actually looked quite smart and we were soon parading along the road. Again, I found myself smiling and nodding to passers by. Today was going to be another good day. I could feel it, with dog by my side and the hazy autumn sun shining on my head.
We headed to the small loch and I threw bread for the ducks, while Seamus ran around, fetching sticks and sniffing out the place.
I accidentally dropped the bag that the stale bread had been in, I bent to pick it up and when I looked up and I couldn't see him. I called out his name, but there was no sign of my dog. I immediately began to worry until I spotted him, on the far side of some trees, sniffing the skirt of a young girl. I could see her shooing him away, but he ignored her and continued to paw and whine. It seemed that the more she pushed him away, the more insistent he became. I called him and he turned and looked at me then turned back to the girl. She by now had turned her back on him and was walking away and Seamus, almost reluctantly loped back towards me.
I patted his head and fastened his lead back onto his collar and we began to walk back home.
And so, for the next few weeks, this was how it was. I enjoyed the company of my new pet. It gave me something to look forward to in the mornings. We would go out and explore the local area together, and do you know, I think we looked good together. I had taken him to the local vet where he had been examined and looked over. The young man could find nothing physically wrong with Seamus and I was heartened to see that he was starting to put on a little weight. His coat remained glossy and his appetite increased.
He did seem to have a tendency to chase after young women, but he always came back to me, so I would just smile to myself, laughing at the strange antics of my new companion…
At night, he rarely slept in the kitchen, preferring it seemed to lie on the bed beside me, which I in truth found comforting and it got so that I would cuddle into him and fall into safe easy dreams with Seamus' warm body on the bed beside me.
My friends liked my dog too. At first, they couldn't understand what I was thinking, taking on an older, neglected, 'problem' dog, but as they saw how happy we were together, their attitudes soon changed and the two of us became a bit of a fixture. His personality began to shine through.
Then one day he was quiet. He had chosen to lie in his bed in the kitchen the night before rather than take his usual spot beside me and when I offered him his breakfast, he merely looked at it and turned, his back towards me… I scratched my head, wondering what was wrong and after a few days of this, I decided that I should take him back to the vet, just to make sure that he was alright.
The vet examined him thoroughly and could find nothing wrong. He suggested a few things to try, but nothing seemed to work. He wasn't interested in the tasty treats I prepared for him or the new surroundings we visited. He wouldn't even chase next door's cat anymore, no matter how she taunted him.
My dog's coat began to take on that lifeless, dull quality again and in truth, he seemed depressed. Dogs can get depressed, right?
We would still go out for walks, but Seamus just tagged along, a few steps behind me, as if he didn't care where he was.
As we sauntered into town one day, Seamus began to whine and pull and tug on his lead. With no particular destination in mind, I let him lead me and was not entirely surprised when we found ourselves outside the grotty wee pet shop from whence he'd come. He whined and scratched at the door, but as I looked in the window, I saw that the shop was quiet. There was a sign on the door saying that the shop was closed. I patted my dog's head and he looked up at me, eyes sad.
He wanted to go back to his old owner? Was that it? She didn't want him, she had made that clear.
I took Seamus home but for the next few days, he just would not settle. He scratched at the door, he became destructive, chewed my slippers, messed the floor, dug up my flowers in the garden. It pained me to chastise him, but I had no choice and to limit any further damage, I took to shutting him in the kitchen at night. I missed him sleeping beside me. I'd grown both fond of him and used to his weight on top of the covers beside me.
One evening, when I tried to get him to settle, he simply would not. I tried reading to him, thinking that my voice might soothe him as it had before, but he just paced around the room, as if looking for something he could not find. Where I once felt settled with him in my home, I now felt uncomfortable, as if our time together had just been a vacation, a transient few months and nothing more.
Although he was still with me, I began to grieve. I knew that I was losing him. He was more distant than ever and any weight that he'd put on soon disappeared and despite the fact that I still groomed him every day, he began to look haunted like the dog I'd encountered back in the autumn. Thin, scruffy and sad.
One night, just after the new year, I awoke to hear Seamus howling downstairs. I sighed and pulled on my robe as I made my way down.
He was scratching at the door to get out, there were deep marks in the paintwork where his claws had been digging.
I unlocked the kitchen door and pulled it open and no sooner than I had, he was out, like a greyhound from a trap. I stood shivering in the doorway, my breath a mist as it met the cold night air. Waiting a few minutes for him to do his business I was now cold and I called him back inside. There was no response, nothing. I called again, but still there was nothing. I pulled the door to and went back inside and pulled on my boots, gloves, a hat and a coat.
I called my dog again as I went outside but there was no sign of him, apart from a line of pawprints in the snow. I followed the trail and to my dismay it led out of the garden, the gate had not been properly closed. It was the middle of the night and there was no one around apart from me, a lost, middle-aged woman looking for her friend, her canine companion.
I knew where he was going.
With a heavy heart I went back inside my house, picked up my car keys and headed back outside.
Without really having to look, I drove along the deserted streets, aware of the trail of footprints on the pavement beside me.
I pulled up outside the grubby pet shop and got out of the car. I could already see Seamus, lying on the step outside the locked door. I lifted the blanket from the passenger's seat and got out. I walked over to his huddled form and leaned down to stroke him. He never moved, never responded at all and I curled my fingers under his chin. Nothing. I put my hand on his shoulders and gave him a gentle shake. Nothing. I placed my hand under his chin and lifted his lifeless head up.
"Oh Seamus, you poor, poor little guy," I whispered as tears began to fall from my eyes onto his cooling body. I lifted up the blanket and placed it over him, crying hard now, sobbing, I stroked his head. I got up and walked back to my car.
He was at peace now.
I walked past the pet shop a few weeks later and peered in the window. I saw the woman again, this time she looked happy, rocking an infant in its pram with an almost beatific expression on her face. I never went in, it made me too sad to think of my lost dog and I had nothing to say to her anyway…
I cried many tears over Seamus, our time together was all too short and I realised that he was never really mine…