Whenever he looked down, there it was with something else in its mouth – a shoe, a sock, some old papers. It was a hot listless day, the air in the room hardly moved, shafts of sunlight forced their way in through the half open curtains, while outside the pavements baked and people walked around with barely concealed irritation. Though he knew he should tie the dog up to punish it for stealing, he felt he had hardly enough energy to take the objects from its soft mouth and set them down next to the bed. It wasn’t even his really, he’d inherited it when his first wife took her kid and left him with the dog and not much else. It came up to him again, this time with a slipper it had found from god-knows-where, its tail thumping the floor. It never tried to chew the things, it just sat with them between its paws. He didn’t know what it wanted with them, but the heat had made him too tired to even think about it. He turned from his side onto his back, so he wouldn’t have to look into its eyes.
Above him a bluebottle buzzed near the ceiling, making random patterns against the peeling wall paper. The dog nosed him on the shoulder, and he turned his head to look at it for a few seconds, as its tail continued to hit the ground and the long pink tongue lolled out of it’s mouth. What did it want from him? He turned all the way onto his other side, so that he was facing towards the wall. Behind him he heard the dog slide to the floor, above he heard the sound of the fly still buzzing around. Sometimes it flew further away, sometimes it came back toward him, though he didn’t think in terms of the fly going further away or coming closer, just in terms of the sound being louder or quieter, that was all.
After a bit the noise of the fly stopped, and all he could hear was the dog breathing and a car passing outside every few minutes. Just as he was relaxing and thinking he might sleep for a while, the dog started those short barks that seemed to punch through the air and into his head. He didn’t move, hoping that it would get bored if he ignored it.
He remembered when his ex-wife, Kayleigh, had bought it back from the rescue home. She said it was just a mongrel but she’d fallen in love with it. He said he thought it had some retriever in it, and she’d laughed and asked what the hell did he know about dogs anyway? It was true, he knew nothing about dogs; he had never owned one and never wanted to. For a few weeks she’d fawned over it, but she soon became tired and barely took any notice of it anymore, except to complain about the amount of food it ate and the doggy smell when it came in wet from the garden. Sometimes it would go to the cupboard where all the dog things were kept and start barking. Barking like it was doing now, and he felt as if it was going to make his head explode.
He stopped trying to go to sleep, rolled over and looked at it. It barked again. He got himself up into a sitting position.
‘Shhhh,’ he said. ‘It’s too hot.’
He stood up and walked to the sink, and the dog followed him. He let the water run until it was cold, and then filled a glass and drank it down, and it felt good on his dry throat. He hadn’t realised he was so thirsty. He poured another and drank that too. It barked again. That was what it had been like when Kayleigh had been around, but she’d been able to ignore it and carry on with what she was doing. Eventually he’d take it out, because at least the change of scene distracted it from whatever it was after. He was always too much of a pushover, Kayleigh used to say to him.
‘What do you want?’ he said. It looked at him expectantly. ‘I don’t know what you want.’ He saw that its bowl of water was empty, so he filled it and set it back down on the floor. The dog went over and lapped at the water for a long time, lifted its head and walked over to him, water draining from its mouth all over the lino. He sighed, but didn’t bother to go and get a cloth. He figured it was so hot the water would dry soon enough. Now it had had a drink, perhaps it would let him have a few minutes peace.
He went back to the bed and slumped down gratefully. He might as well sleep, he didn’t have anywhere to go. He was still trying to find a job, something at night when the dog would be sleeping so that it wouldn’t chew the place up. You worry too much, Kayleigh would have said. She was probably right. If he didn’t worry about it, he wouldn’t have to get up and get dressed during the day and go down to the park or the woods. He could have a nice quiet time.
He closed his eyes, but as he did so the dog barked again. He’d fed it earlier, he just filled up its water bowl, and it was still barking, still looking at him with those brown eyes, brown in the midst of all that black hair, like the flash of a coloured stone at the bottom of a river. Once when he was a kid, he’d been taken on holiday by some group and they’d gone into the countryside and walked and walked until they’d came to a river, right at the end where it went into the sea. They weren’t going to cross it, just going to look and turn back. But some of the other kids got undressed, so he’d got undressed too and started to wade in.
He remembered how deep the water was, almost up to his chest, so cold it hurt, and he remembered feeling the current pulling against his legs each time he took a step. About half way across he’d looked down and seen something golden. He tried to pick it up with his toes but couldn’t get a grip, so decided to dive for it. He wasn’t much of a swimmer, but he ducked and found himself under the water trying to reach down and get whatever it was. It was peaceful down there and he realised he wasn’t cold anymore and though he couldn’t find the golden object, it didn’t seem to matter. Around him the water made the light flow, like the river was endlessly unspooling itself. Then, suddenly, he found himself yanked up and his head came out of the water.
‘What do you think you’re doing you little shit!’ It was one of the leaders. He had waded in after him and was now dragging him to the side, breathing heavily and with a look in his face.
He was drifting off to sleep, thinking about how nice it was being in the water, when the dog barked right in his ear and jumped up on top of him and stepped in his groin. ‘Get off you bloody thing,’ he shouted, clutching himself and pushing the dog off the bed. It slipped down onto the floor, rolled and came upright and jumped up at him, and he pushed it off again and it barked over and over. Right, he thought, he was going to do something right now, he’d show Kayleigh he could make a decision. He got up and pulled on some shorts and an old shirt, and went and got the dog’s lead, then took it out to the car. He opened the door, and the heat hit him full in the face, like when you open an oven. He recoiled, but then shoved the dog in and went round and got in the other side.
At the wood, he pulled off the busy road into the small car park and they both got out. The dog immediately went sniffing around, and then came back and jumped up at him as he got a tennis ball out of the boot. He held it up, so the dog couldn’t get to it and walked purposefully up the hill to where there was a small pond. As he walked the dog side-stepped in front of him, jumping after the ball, but he wouldn’t throw it. Not yet. The breeze that they’d had in the car was a faded memory, and as he strode up the hill his skin prickled uncomfortably in the heat. But he was determined, the apathy of earlier gone, and he didn’t let up. The trees opened out when they got to the pond, which had a film of green weed on the surface and a few ducks paddling at one end.
The dog had stopped jumping now. It was sitting with its eyes fixed on the hand that held the ball. He knew what would happen when he threw it into the water. The dog would leap after it, but it wouldn’t bring it back. It would swim about in the water, and then find the muddiest corner and root around it in, smelling whatever was there, seeing if it could find some old rubbish or leftover bread someone had been feeding the ducks. Sometimes it took him ages to get the dog back when it was time to go. He showed the ball to the dog and then launched it as far as possible into the water and the dog was off like a shot. Three short bounds and it hurled itself into the pond. He turned and walked swiftly back down the path.
At the car park, he opened the car and got in immediately, ignoring the heat that had already built up inside. He pulled off jerkily and out into a small gap in the traffic, causing the nearest car to brake and its horn to blare. He didn’t mind, he even put up his hand to apologize. He had a wonderful sensation of freedom.
A couple of miles up the road, he pulled over into a layby to enjoy the feeling. The car was empty and quiet. He had made a decision, he had acted. He could lie in bed as long as he wanted, he wouldn’t have to go out everyday in the heat or the rain or the cold, tramping for miles, throwing the ball again and again. After ten minutes of enjoying the peace he turned the engine back on. He didn’t have any responsibilities, any ties. He looked over his shoulder, and saw there were no cars coming. He looked the other way, and saw a car approaching and then go past. He put the car into gear and pulled out.
Back at the car-park, he turned off the ignition and got out. He could have gone anywhere, but he had come back here. He didn’t know why, it was as if some invisible force had pulled him back. Miserably he walked up the path to the pond, and when he got there he saw it, the one thing that was holding him back, the millstone around his neck. And he could have got away, he’d almost done it, almost escaped. Not that the dog knew anything was up, it came bounding over to him like he’d been away for five minutes, like it always knew he’d be back. The bloody thing just took it for granted that he’d be back.