by Moira Brown

Email: Shellwing40@aol.com

Monday afternoon. Skies blue, but with a few small bruised clouds issuing a hesitant warning. The weather is balanced on that knife–edge between summer and autumn, the air still clinging a lingering warmth, but tip it over slightly and the September breeze will start teasing the leaves from the branches of the trees. The Common is quiet today. The noisy rush of exuberant, brightly clad children has disappeared. The kids are back in school now, sober grey and maroon-uniformed figures sitting chastened behind scarred desks. So, I have this expanse of green in the heart of the town all to myself, save for one or two old men nodding off on sparse park benches.

We used to come here often on summer evenings, but those days have vanished like the children. I still come, but simply to enjoy the late afternoon peace… and perhaps, if I'm honest, delay my return to an empty house. I have no regrets about telling David to leave, but I do miss another physical presence around the place. I dread coming home to hollow silence and having to rely entirely on myself all over again. But these feelings are not enough for me to wish him back. When trust is gone, love's wounds cut deep and painful. I don't see how they can ever be mended. As for the loneliness, perhaps I should get myself a dog or cat. My childhood was littered with a joyful clutter of pets – cats stretching sleekly on sunny windowsills or curled contentedly on beds; excited dogs bounding downstairs to greet me with skittish rapture. When David and I married, I'd always imagined we would have pets one day, but he'd put his foot down. He didn't want to come home to chewed-up or clawed furniture, cope with the mess animals make or the responsibilities they burden us with – and it wasn't fair to leave a dog alone all day anyway. He had a point about the dog, but I did miss the unconditional love and trust a pet brings.

I hear a dog's bark now – not too far away from where I'm walking. Ahead of me, on my left, I see a swift flash of movement beneath the big horse chestnut where David and I used to sit. A large dog is trying to jump up the trunk. His barks sound frantic. There is no one else around and I approach to see what is wrong. When I'm within a couple of yards, he stops barking, turns to look at me, bares his teeth and growls low in his throat.

"Easy, boy… easy. I'm not going to harm you."

I take a couple of cautious steps nearer and stretch out my hand slowly, palm upward and open to show he can trust me. He’s a long–haired German shepherd, a noble breed, but this one looks far from noble. His once–thick coat is matted and dirty and every rib is etched starkly against his emaciated body. I take another step forward. The dog makes a sudden dart at me, snapping. I retreat hurriedly. He slinks back to the tree and stands there, staring at me suspiciously.

Two yards seems to be the nearest I’m going to get to him. Commonsense tells me he could be dangerous and that I should go on my way, but my heart reaches out to the animal. He prowls around the tree, still eyeing me with distrust and snarling.  Several times he looks up into the branches and lets out a despairing howl. I try to see what he's looking at, but I'm too far away. As if in answer to my upward gaze, a puff of breeze suddenly parts the leaves and I catch a flash of red and yellow. Then the leaf-curtain swishes shut again. Could someone be up there? There is no sign of movement, no sound. No. More likely to be a ball or kite abandoned from the summertime. It doesn't make much sense though. Why would a stray dog be interested in a toy? He looks far too miserable and hungry to be interested in play. Perhaps he thinks there is some kind of food up there?

This last thought reminds me that I had been on my way to the pond to feed the ducks. I have a bag of bread in my hand. I inch forward towards the tree and sit down. Maybe if I place myself on a level lower than the dog he'll feel I'm less of a threat. It seems to work, for he stops snarling, ignores me and then resumes his abortive attempts to scale the trunk. The next time he looks in my direction I throw a piece of bread towards him. He jumps back, startled, then edges toward the bread, sniffing. We stare at each other for a moment before he rushes forward, snatches the bread and gobbles it, his watchful brown eyes never leaving mine. His distrust is palpable. It hangs in the air, thick and sticky as treacle.

As I put my hand in the bag to find another piece of bread, a stronger gust shakes the tree and the leaves sweep open in a widening arc. I jump up, gasping at the sight of a body hanging over two stout branches, its red and yellow sweatshirt caught up in thinner twigs higher up. It is the body of a young man. His head rests on one branch, the face towards me. The eyes are open and staring, and I’m almost certain he’s dead. The wind dips and moves on and the tableau is hidden from view again. I fumble in my pocket for my mobile phone, call the police and ambulance and also explain about the dog.

While I wait for them to come, I study the dog. He is lying down now, whimpering. His eyes look sad and haunted… filled with a history I am no part of. I suppose the person in the tree might have been his master and I know that with the staunch loyalty of animals he will guard this tree and his master with his life if need be. I wonder why the man is up in the tree and what happened to him. Perhaps he neglected and abused the dog, but, right or wrong, that’s where the creature’s trust lies. Dogs are like that. Unlike me, their choices are limited and rest on the instinct that binds them to the person who feeds them. I throw him another piece of bread but he ignores it, as if sensing a crossroads has been reached and something irrevocable is about to happen.

The ‘something irrevocable’ turns up soon in the form of two policemen, two ambulance men and a man from the RSPCA. Before the body can be attended to (for it seems the man is in fact, dead), the RSPCA officer, armed with a looped leather strap on the end of a long stick, makes several attempts before managing to slip it over the dog’s muzzle and get a collar and lead around its neck. He comes over to speak to me, dragging the wildly twisting animal, while the policemen bring the body down from the tree and the ambulance men load it on to a stretcher. The dog howls pitifully, pulling against his restraint and shaking his head as if tormented by a swarm of angry wasps.

“What’ll happen to him?”

The officer shrugs. “We’ll look after him, of course, but this one is in a bad way and will probably be impossible to re-home. We may have to put him down.”

I feel my eyes brim with tears. The policemen come over to interview me and the RSPCA man starts to walk away, dragging the howling dog, who is trying desperately to dig his feet into the ground.

“If we could have a word, Miss…”

“Sure. What do you think happened to the young man?”

“It’s Danny Cope. Well-known drug addict who lives in this area. We’ve found all his paraphernalia in his pocket. Maybe climbed the tree and overdosed up there. The post-mortem will give us a better idea. Now, if you’ll just let us know how you came to find him…”

I am starting to explain to the policemen when a sudden scuffle erupts behind me. The dog, wriggling free of his leash, streaks past and heads for the bushes. I make to run towards it.

“No – leave him be. He’s dangerous.”

“But –”

The RSPCA man places a reassuring hand on my arm. “Don’t worry. We’ll get him later. He’ll probably come back to the tree. I’ll have a look for him tomorrow.”

At last, the men go away leaving me with my thoughts… a confusion of concern for the dog mingled with fury at David’s infidelity and regret for all I have lost. It’s getting late now, and I decide to go home. The ducks will have to wait for another day. As I near the road leading from the Common, a rustling sound makes me turn around sharply. The dog is trotting several paces behind. I stand still and he sits down. I turn again and walk on, conscious of four feet padding behind me on the pavement.  I throw the rest of the bread to him, but he ignores it and keeps following me all the way home.

A familiar figure is standing by the door. My heart flutters with panic and I struggle to keep my voice even.

"David! What are you doing here?"

"I came to pick up a few things." His eyes flicker past my accusing gaze and he notices the dog. "What's that mangy animal doing here?" He takes a quick step towards it. The dog turns and flees.

Anger surges in me. "Why did you scare him away? He's a hungry stray and was just starting to trust me –”

"I thought he was going to attack you," he butts in sulkily. "Anyway, you can't take in a stray. Far too much work… especially now you're on your own…” His voice tails off and his face floods with guilt. "Look, Emma, I hate the way things have been left between us –”

"Whose fault is that? I don't want to hear any more excuses. Take what you need and then go." I open the door and he trails in behind me. I'm still furious at him for frightening the dog away. Trust is such a tender vine and it doesn’t take much to snap it. I doubt if I'll see the animal again.

In a while, David comes down the stairs, carrying a holdall. "Emma, please give me another chance. It was a silly mistake. It didn't mean anything… honestly. Do you really want to throw away ten years of marriage?"

"I don't trust you."

"But you can. It'll never happen again, I promise."

"Promises are empty words. You'll have to do better than that. Just go."

Shoulders slumping and feet dragging, he walks away down the path. Longing sweeps through me, but I can't take him back… not yet. I start shutting the door and suddenly, the dog appears, standing some distance down the path, looking wary, but seemingly prepared to give me another chance. Maybe it's simply the lure of a good meal that has brought him back, but somehow, I have the feeling that his fragile trust goes deeper than this. Maybe he sees something in my eyes worthy of that trust and he's prepared to take a risk with me. I think of David's face, full of guilt and sadness. At least that's a start. Maybe one day soon…

"Wait there, boy," I say to the dog. "I'll fetch you some food and we can start getting to know each other."

©2003 Moira Brown

Moira would love to hear what you think of her writing - email her now