Lucky Jack

by Polly Garland




A thick mist swirled up from the estuary and enveloped the old river bridge.   Not the new one, which carried the heavy traffic out of the town, but the ancient stone bridge that had been there, rotting away, since the Middle Ages.

I leant against the signpost where the road that ran along the river met the narrow span.  

"I'm going to do it," I said out loud.   "Really I am.   Tonight."

I lit a cigarette, the last one in the battered packet, and reflected grimly that poverty was a powerfully persuasive way of cutting down.   It was cold, the fog bringing an icy atmosphere up from the sea.

"I'm just unlucky."   I thought how easy it would be to walk out into the centre of the bridge and leap into the black, fast-flowing water.

It was very dark.   At intervals, old-fashioned lights provided some illumination, but in the gloom and the mist, the light was feeble and ineffective.   I finished the cigarette and threw the butt into the water.   Huddled my coat collar up around my neck and wondered where I would sleep tonight.   Wondered if it was worth making the effort when with one leap I could be free of all this misery.

Something touched my legs in their threadbare trousers and I swore aloud.   It wouldn't be the first time I'd encountered rats on these streets.

I looked down.   A creature leaned against me, then wove through my legs.  A dog.   A nondescript black dog.

"Go away."   I flapped my arms.   "Go on, shove off…"

The dog sat in front of me and looked up into my eyes.   It stared, its eyes a clear amber in the street lights.

"Buzz off!   The last thing I need is a bloody canine companion."

The dog silently lifted one paw.   It didn't bark or whine, or even touch me.   Just lifted the paw, then let it fall.

Oh dear.

It was time to find a place for the night.   I walked away from the bridge.  I wouldn't die tonight.   Not with those weird yellow eyes fixed on me.   I moved back towards the town centre, aware that I had a shadow.

"Go away.   Git!"

The wretched dog slunk back into the shadows, but when I looked again, there he was, padding after me.

"I'm not going anywhere, you know.   Don't have a home, not enough money for a room.   You've backed a real loser, mate.   I'm bad luck."

The dog trotted determinedly behind.   I was heading to a place I knew; quite comfortable as these things go.   It'd be a miracle if no one else had got there before me.

Behind a skip, outside a supermarket, it was sheltered and dry.   There was a security light around the corner, so it was illuminated, but not too bright.   Best of all, food that had expired that day was occasionally chucked out here.   I reached in and pulled out a packet of sandwiches.   Ham.   I was aware of the dog still staring at me, and cursing my sentimentality, rootled around until my fingers touched a second pack.

"Cheese and pickle do you?"

The dog regarded me solemnly, but the tip of his tail moved slightly.   We settled down to eat.

Afterwards, the dog didn't slink away, as I'd hoped.   He didn't lie down to sleep.   He just stared at me as if he wanted to talk.

Something made me say, "What's your name?   You must have a name."

His eyes bored into mine and his ears twitched.

"Well, if you're going to hang around, I'll have to call you something.   Jack?   Yes, you look like a Jack.   So that's what I'm going to call you."

The dog wagged his tail properly, and settled down, his head on his paws, watching.

I don't know at what point during the night the dog curled up next to me, lending a warmth and comfort I hadn't experienced since I'd walked out of my life eighteen months earlier.   But when I woke up, his even breathing and his solid presence reassured me.

The next morning, I made another half-hearted attempt to shoo him away.   He didn't flinch, his curious eyes didn't waver.   We walked round the town and I began to think that Jack was bringing me luck.   Shopkeepers gave me food, a few passers-by handed me money.

At one point, we actually passed my old home.   The sight of the place where I'd been both happy and then so betrayed usually depressed me for days, but somehow having Jack to share it with made it more bearable.

"That was my house," I told him.   "That's where I lived with my… my wife…"

He turned his head, waiting.

"But she found someone else," I said, "and I couldn't handle it.   Started to drink, left my job, lost everything.   Everything."

Jack walked along, somehow negotiating the passers-by without taking his eyes from mine.

"I'm a loser, boy.   You should go now.   Bad luck."

Impassively, the dog moved closer and touched my hand with his nose.

That night, I went again to the bridge and leant over the parapet.   Jack, silent at my feet, leant against me.  I no longer wanted to jump.

We found shelter behind the skip again.   There was no food there, but I'd acquired enough cash during the day to afford the unaccustomed luxury of chicken and chips.   As we ate, I found myself wondering what had driven Jack onto the streets.   My own case was simple: a faithless wife, a weakness for alcohol and an inability to face up to circumstances.   But what about this strange, self-controlled animal?

"What's your story then, Jack?" I said as we huddled together. "Did you have a loving home as well?   Did it go sour?"

His amber eyes glowed, and I felt as if some intelligence, some information was passing between us.   I might not have understood the narrative of his life, but I sensed the pain.

And so the two of us became friends.   My depression began to lift; I found labouring jobs during the day and at night acquired a room in a hostel where the warden turned a blind eye to Jack sneaking in.

One evening we were walking back to the hostel down the main street.   Passing the Golden Lion Pub, we heard an altercation, and Jack, quite uncharacteristically, started to growl.

A couple were arguing outside the building.   He was a big, tough looking man, dressed in jeans and despite the cold, a thin tee-shirt.   His head was shaven and the muscled arms were covered in tattoos.   He'd got the woman up against a wall and was speaking to her in a harsh, urgent voice, while she cried helplessly.

Before I knew what had happened, Jack launched himself at the man, grabbing his arm.

"What the…"   He whirled round, while I got hold of Jack's new collar and hauled him back.  

The thug's face changed as he saw the dog.   "Oh, it's you, is it?   Dirty little mongrel."  He made as if to hit him.

I stepped forward.   "Hey, no need for that. The dog didn't like the way you were talking to the lady."

"The dog never liked anything I did.   That's why I threw him out."

Jack was growling savagely, quite unlike his usual self.

"You threw him out?   This is your dog?"

"No, I can't stand the scabby beasts.   He was my girlfriend's dog.   Tried to come between us from the very first day I moved in."

I was intimidated, but fascinated by this glimpse into Jack's past.   "But if he was her dog…"

He gave me a hard look.   "Look, I made it clear to the brute that there was no room in the house for the two of us."

He aimed a kick at Jack, who was still growling ferociously.

"In the end, the silly cow was so upset at losing the mutt, she chucked me out as well."

Jack gave a tremendous wrench, and managed to dislodge my hand from his collar.   He launched himself at the man, who planted a savage kick at his ribs.   Jack veered off, squealing in pain.

Something awoke in me.   Anger?   Disgust?   The glimmering of a new self-esteem?   I lunged forward and landed a punch right on the man's chin.   He went down heavily, rolled over in the gutter, groaned and lay still.

The woman he'd been berating took the opportunity to scurry away.   She glanced at me over her shoulder, her face smeared with tears and make-up.   "Thank you.   Thank you so much.   He's a bully…"   

The brute was beginning to come round.   I felt brave, but not suicidal.

"Come on, Jack, let's get out of here…"

But the dog was ahead of me, prancing along the pavement, looking back every now and again to make sure I was following.

I pursued him to the outskirts of the town, to a small house with a neat garden.   Jack went up and gave a series of short, peremptory barks, then scratched on the door.  After a while, it was opened by a young woman.  She looked at the animal in astonishment before falling to her knees.

"Jack!   Jack…"   Her arms went around the dog and she sobbed and laughed at the same time.   "I thought I'd never see you again.   That evil man said he'd drowned you in the river…   Oh Jack!"

Then she saw me.   "You must have been looking after him.   How can I ever thank you?   Please, come in…"


It was much, much later, after Carol and I had settled down in blissful happiness, the two of us and our much-loved pet, that it occurred to me to wonder: How had the dog understood it was safe to go home?

And how on earth had I known that his name was Jack?

©2008 Polly Garland

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