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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The wretched dog
slunk back into the shadows, but when I looked again, there he was, padding
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.
pickle do you?"
The dog regarded
me solemnly, but the tip of his tail moved slightly. We settled down to eat.
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.
me say, "What's your name? You must have a name."
His eyes bored
into mine and his ears twitched.
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
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.
my house," I told him. "That's where I lived with my… my
He turned his
found someone else," I said, "and I couldn't handle it. Started to
drink, left my job, lost everything. Everything."
along, somehow negotiating the passers-by without taking his eyes from mine.
loser, boy. You should go now. Bad luck."
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?
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
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.
the…" He whirled round, while I got hold of Jack's new collar and hauled
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
never liked anything I did. That's why I threw him out."
growling savagely, quite unlike his usual self.
him out? This is your dog?"
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."
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.
end, the silly cow was so upset at losing the mutt, she chucked me out as
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.
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.
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…" 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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