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Woman with a White Pekingese

The women in her family have always shown dogs. They keep pictures of the dogs on the wall beside the staircase, a line-up in thick, bubble-like glass. The pictures are hung in a series of black oval frames. When she was a child she would look behind the sofa and through the hall door and see them there, hanging silently like a row of pinned beetles.

 

The pictures go back to sepia prints from the start of the last century, the first being her great-grandmother’s prize-winning Pekingese, Cob. In these the dogs look athletic, their eyes small dark buttons. The pictures become gradually more detailed and colourful as they descend the stairs, ending in a series of young dogs that look like goblins, illustrations for a hallucinatory children’s book.

 

Beneath each one her mother cuts out a small square of paper and pins it to the wallpaper with gold pins. These squares document each dog’s achievements. Damson’s best of breed. Maggie’s best in show. Deano, agility champion. Ugly Maura who never won anything but did once rescue a mouse from drowning in a rain-filled bucket.

 

The family’s usual photographer is dead by the time she wants pictures of her own dog, Marie. She has to find a new one on the internet, one whose website is shaped like an unfurled scroll. The cursor becomes a white quill and the photographer’s name is scrawled out in an animation at the top of the page.

 

He has a studio above a stationary shop in the centre of her town, and wears double-lensed glasses that make his eyes spill across his face. He calls the dogs things like ‘arrogant’ and ‘stately’, and chews the edges of his fingernails to scabs.

 

He pulls down a screen over a metal set of drawers and the dogs sit in front of it. The first screen depicts a pink sky and white clouds, and he tries others: a castle on a hill, a rainbow, plain colours, dark so that the subject stands out like in an oil painting. She doesn’t get a say in Marie’s background: he gives her a Japanese garden. His camera has a long orange feather pinned to the top, so that Marie stays still watching it. Then he brings out other feathers, blue and green, which he holds out like a bunch of flowers to make Marie look slightly left, slightly right.

 

In in the final picture, Marie looks over to the left. Marie’s pure white fur brings out colours that gently move her. Peach, pink, pear-green. Once it was hung, she liked to think that Marie was looking at something on the wall, something no one else could see.

 

*

 

12.00 p.m.

 

She remembers the photographer while eating noodles in the arena cafeteria. She had already decided that this year’s dog show would be her final dog show, but she is surprised by how much it does not want her to stay. The noodles are greyly congealing in their polystyrene container and Marie whines and paws at her leg. The man behind the counter looks very tired and keeps splashing mashed potato on himself when he serves it. A couple at the table next to her, both in formal pink shirts and blue jeans, argue in furtive voices.

 

She picks out a few strands of noodle and a piece of carrot and drops them to the floor, and Marie is quiet.

 

Why oh why would you call him your great love though –

 

Because he is –

 

How is he –

 

He’s helped me through some very –

 

Baby, baby he’s a dog –

 

Under the table a small white face lowers onto two paws. She starts for a second, wonders if Marie has got loose, before realising its fur curls tight against its skin, rather than hanging in a fringe like Marie’s.

 

There’s a hollow knocking on the Pyrex window next to her, and a face she recognises. Ella always wears pink frosted lipstick that makes her teeth look especially yellow, but she smiles widely and her voice has a quality that makes dogs look instantly up at her with fondness. Marie recognises the face too, and pulls her out of the cafeteria to greet it.

 

Ella squeals when she sees them both. Ella pulls her in for a hug, smells of Yves Saint Laurent Paris. She has a poodle, Belle, silver and black. Belle pulls on the lead as she gets close to Marie, her sleek body suddenly inelegant and desperate. The two dogs sniff at each other. Belle becomes fixated on a piece of noodle stuck in Marie’s leg fur.

 

I think she can smell something, Cath.

 

Just cafeteria smell, probably.

 

Oh.

 

How are you?

 

Fine, Cath. Have you been placed today?

 

Not yet. You?

 

Best bitch.

 

I’ll say.

 

Funny. Saw David around the stalls.

 

Did you?

 

Oh yes. Is he well?

 

Yes. Very well. Your husband?

 

Fine.

 

Belle rolls over onto her back, crushing the elaborate pom-pom of hair on her shoulders.

 

Belle, no. No, Belle. Belle, stop.

 

I don’t think she understands.

 

She does. She does. Look at her ears, she’s listening. Belle, please could y-

 

An announcement on the speakers. Mostly crackle.

 

A photographer walks past and snaps a series of Belle and Marie, making clucking sounds to get them to look at the camera. He does not even glance at the two women.

 

*

 

In a doctor’s waiting room, Cath reads an article about sea-wolves in British Columbia. She reads that they were once normal wolves, but had evolved over centuries to live on beaches and coasts, rather than on plains and in forests. They are remarkable swimmers, as a result, and possess a unique intelligence honed from having to find ways to crack the shells of shore-creatures and judge the moving of the tide. There are glossy pictures of them, sleek between the currents of the sea. Over a double-page spread is a photo of the pack on the beach. One has its paw up over an orange crab, its claws held defensive in the air. Another shoves its snout into a wig of seaweed. One stares at the camera directly, its grey fur gleaming amber against the sea. In the background, on the cliff that swings around the left of the photograph, a hulking black bear cowers hidden against an ash tree.

 

When she gets home she remembers the article as she forks out mackerel into Marie’s food bowl, the smell of salt and brine lingering in the kitchen. Marie looks up at her with a look of complete desperation, like her organs will pack up and fail if Cath doesn’t put the bowl on the floor.

 

Every time she thinks about it she hears the cracking of the shells between the wolves’ teeth, their heads bowed to clean out the soft flesh, and she gets a thought in her brain that she should open the nearest window and throw Marie straight out of it.

 

*

 

12.25 p.m.

 

She combs Marie’s hair, keeps finding drops of noodle broth staining it pale yellow. She gets the stain out by running oil over it and rubbing it between her fingers. Marie thinks she is playing and snaps at her.

 

Marie is the only white Pekingese she has ever seen that isn’t Albino. When Marie was born she had a double page spread in the London Reform Pekingese Club newsletter, a tiny pale seal-pup-thing cupped in Cath’s hands. She was described as The Future. Cath remembers getting the pictures back and being shocked at how ancient her hands looked in comparison to Marie, how ungodly and unpure were her dirty fingernails.

 

She has been assigned a small pink box in the centre of the arena. The boxes are lined up in a grid formation, each one given to a dog and their handler. When she arrived, a young woman gave her a pink ticket and sent her here. The larger dogs sit within the box, so that it acts like a den or cave, keeping them calm. She has a small fold-out table for Marie to sit on, one of her husband’s jumpers draped over the top, and she sits in the box herself. It keeps her calm, she admits.

 

A man stops near their box. He stands unnaturally, fiddling with his phone. She sees him tilt his body in a way that suggests he’s taking a picture of Marie.

 

Excuse me?

 

Is this Maura?

 

The man licks his lips and leaves a thin layer of saliva.

 

No. This is her granddaughter.

 

She’s a real winner.

 

I hope so.

 

My wife always loved Maura. Always a shame she never –

 

Cath stops listening, pulls a hairclip from her hair and piles a layer of Marie’s fur on top of her head. She starts brushing out the underlayers, pressing them back on themselves so that they lift. The man looks at her quizzically, like he has just asked a question. Cath notices the green rosette on his jumper, a low-status winner of the Utility group. His dog, a Bedlington terrier, looks forlornly up at him.

 

Did you know that? Bedlingtons used to hunt rats in mines. They still could, if they wanted to.

 

He bends and ruffles the bobble of curly fur atop the dog’s head.

 

May I take a picture? My wife loves Pekingese. And a white one. Phew!

 

Ok.

 

He takes a few, and looks at her. His mouth twitches.

 

What?

 

Could you…. Not be in the picture?

 

She steps aside, her comb upright in her hand. Heat rises to her face.

 

*

 

1.05 p.m.

 

A message on the Tannoy carries echoes through the arena.

 

Pekingese, Ring 5.

 

Marie is sleeping and Cath is holding up a pocket mirror, applying lipstick and backcombing her hair into waves.

 

The linoleum is pea-green and magnifies the sound of the dogs’ claws and short legs pattering. She scratches the inside of her palm with the long nail on her ring finger. Her favourite shade of pink, already chipped.

 

Opposite her a women massages the back of her Skye terrier, and wears a hoodie bearing a close-up of the dog’s face. Cath recognises her. At one of her first shows the woman had bought her a jacket potato from the cafeteria. The woman never won anything, but she came back every year. Once she said to Cath, if I had one wish, I’d wish my dog could speak to me.

 

Her shoulder is knocked by someone walking towards Ring 5. She looks out and says Excuse me, but the figure walks by. Someone in a grey suit. She follows the lead down to the small animal shuffling beside him.

 

Another Pekingese, white as Belle. Perhaps whiter.

 

Her phone buzzes in her pocket. Her mother.

 

Cath,,

 

She looks up and the white dog is gone. She waits for the next message to come through.

 

Cath – DO NOT 4get 2 carry cubes of cheese. CUBE OF CHEESE xx

 

Her mother had been the one to discover Cath’s way of training: coaxing dogs into doing certain actions with food. Cheese was best, although mackerel or carrots were also popular. Pieces of boiled egg, too, though these made her pockets smell.

 

She rushes a message back.

 

Have u heard of another white Pekingese? One is here this year. X

 

She presses send and some primal feeling sparks off in her stomach, making her want to run.

 

*

 

When she is at school, she reads a long poem about a man who leaves his home to go to sea, and only comes back decades later. His dog is the only thing to recognise him. Of course, she thinks.

 

*

 

1.15 p.m.

 

The ring is on the other side of the vast arena hall. The sounds of the crowd echo into the curved, iron-beamed roof, which reminds her of the rib cage of some fantastic creature. She sees the other white Pekingese again, glimpses between the legs of some children, in the gaps between another row of pink boxes. A train of dachshunds weaves through the spaces in front of her. She hears the owner say to a bystander, ‘this breed used to hunt rats in Bavaria.’ She sees the white Pekingese again and follows it so closely she almost walks into a woman in a green knitted cardigan, cradling her Dalmatian like a giant baby.

 

He’s having a rest. She says to Cath.

 

*

 

Her husband bought her Maura, Marie’s mother, with the money from his first book advance. He had trussed up an old cardboard box with tissue paper and ribbon and left it on the kitchen table. When Cath entered the room he plunged his hands inside and pulled out Maura, her tiny black paws whirring like bicycle pedals.

 

When she first met her husband, in a bar by the canal in the centre of town, he lit up when she mentioned her family’s dogs. He called her his show pony, his best in show. She did not tell him about the rest, the hours of waiting, the house in nowhere so the dogs could run free, the years scheduled by the dogs’ mating, the smell of dog shampoo in a tin bath, the way a dog penis feels when it rubs against your bare teenage leg.

 

Maura was pure toffee-coloured, her fur sitting thick on her head like a bonnet. When she finally decided to show her, Maura lost: according to the judges she was bow-legged and had an incorrect wedge-shaped head. Cath had bought a new suit for the occasion, a red tweed suit and a silk shirt, the most expensive thing she’d ever owned. She never wore it again.

 

*

 

1.30 p.m.

 

She knows that look. They’ve all perfected it. Darling, I’m so happy for you. So happy I could just knock my teeth out with a hammer. So happy I could climb into a coffin!

 

There are gigantic screens erected over the top of the stands around the arena seating, and the face is everywhere. The judging for American cocker spaniels is finishing and the winner, a tri-colour with an ugly swollen head, sneezes constantly as it is placed on the podium. The camera zooms in on its hazel eyes and as soon as it does the animal turns, filling the shot with auburn and black hair.

 

Cath strains to catch a glimpse of the other white Pekingese. Every flash of white in her vision causes her to jerk involuntarily towards it. And because she’s looking, suddenly everything seems white. Teeth, shirt collars, pearl necklaces, old people hair, dandruff.

 

The man in front of her turns and watches her, asks if he looks nervous.

 

Cath says, no.

 

Marie stands up on her back legs, her pink tongue curling up towards her teeth.

 

*

 

When her mother first began dying, she asked Cath to go and buy her a sleep robot. In the shop the sales assistant looked sympathetically at her and led her to a row of what looked like grey stones. They had speakers attached, she saw when she got close. The assistant explained that they played sounds to lull the listener to sleep: rain, tide, heartbeat, breathing.

 

*

 

The more I meet people, the more I love my DOG. Her mother had a cap with this emblazoned on in silver felt.

 

*

 

1.58 p.m.

 

The judge’s jacket reminds her of the wallpaper at her mother’s house, turquoise and cream stripes. She walks around the green linoleum of the arena and feels her shoes squeak. She looks for her husband in the audience, the stage lights reflecting off his pink head. Most of the seats are empty, dark like the gap of a tooth.

 

The lead is thin and wiry and each time Marie breathes it sends movement up to her hand.

 

She can judge Marie’s mood this way, whether she can run faster than normal or is stubborn. The knowledge is something she always had. Her husband liked to tell people about it parties, as though she had some secret talent. Often men would say back to him that Cath was projecting and couldn’t tell a thing. Then her husband would say, I suppose that is true.

 

She waits in silence as the judge runs his hands over another Pekingese, chocolate-coloured, moving its legs like a wooden doll. The Pekingese seems perturbed by the act, craning its neck back to sniff the judge’s hand.

 

In the stalls she sees a small white face emerge, followed by a slug-like body. She looks hard, wanting to recognise the dog’s owner but the light changes, suddenly, and they fall in shadow. She hears clapping.

 

The judge walks toward her, smiling, extending his hand, and she feels the lead in her hand jerk as Marie instinctively begins to move forward. The judge’s hand feels dry and tight, like the hand of a ghost, and he pins a red rosette to the lapel of her jacket. She wonders if he does this to everyone, even the men, but he is walking away again now and the audience are starting to leave. The man who asked if he was nervous is talking to her, asking for Marie’s pedigree name. Her feet on the ground feel sure and solid, like walking on a thick path of snow.

 

*

 

Her mother watches television in bed. She doesn’t live at home anymore but Cath picks a black dog hair from the cream bedsheets, finds a small brown whisker embedded in the carpet, things she must have carried with her somehow.

 

Cath curls up under the covers next to her mother and they watch her mother’s favourite video on the television at the end of the bed, an old recorded live performance of a man with various puppets. He stands in front of a velvet curtain, baby blue, the light pricking the silver of the microphone into white. (He died the same month as Cath’s father, which they both know but do not mention.) The man’s puppets are a gangly monkey, and a giant baby bird. Each one talks to him with great intimacy, like they are in league against the audience.

 

Do you know why I like this? Her mother says, morphine softening her body to butter. Those puppets talk to him like the dogs used to talk to me.

 

Cath turns and says, what? But she is already asleep.

 

*

 

2.08 p.m.

 

A mother and son approach her as she combs out Marie’s fur again. The child is sweet-looking, with a shock of black hair and freckles. The mother speaks softly, asks if her child can ask Cath a question. Cath nods. The boy points to Marie, and says, does she think that she is human, or does she think that you’re a dog?

 

Cath says, both.

 

*

 

2.42 p.m.

 

She sits waiting for the next announcement, for the decision of Best of Breed to be made. The title is between Marie and a black male Pekingese named Fuwari, full name Fuwari Yoshikawa Find Me on the Mountainside Denbo. Fuwari’s owner feeds cat-shaped treats to Marie and makes kissing noises, stroking her head and singing in a language she doesn’t understand. Fuwari stays close to his owner, and she is surprised by how rejected she feels.

 

*

 

About a month after Maura had her first litter, she died. An infection in the womb. The puppies were old enough to survive, luckily, and Cath’s mother’s dog, a bullish silver Pekingese named Tyrell, became their stern role model. Tyrell played with them, disciplined them, but refused to sleep with them, turning to a puddle of mush when Cath’s mother slept and demanding to lie over her neck. Cath didn’t want to sleep with them in case she rolled over and crushed them during the night. If the puppies were left alone, they would grow too anxious and begin to eat each other. So she wrapped a towel around a hot water bottle and a ticking clock, and placed that in their basket. The puppies slept, and when she took it away in the morning they held onto the towel with their teeth, and whined for hours.

 

Her mother says, I know how those puppies feel now. I know how Maura must have felt too.

 

*

 

3.15 p.m.

 

She phones her mother outside the venue, where a group of pigeons have descended on an open bag of crisps. She tells her about Marie winning her group, about Fuwari’s owner shaking her hand with tears in his eyes. Her mother congratulates her and she feels still for a moment, despite Marie pulling hard on her lead to be nearer to the birds.

 

How is St. Mary’s? Cath asks.

 

It’s good. Daffodils are out. The foxes come out at night.

 

How are you feeling?

 

Fine.

 

Her mother breathes out heavily.

 

I’m glad Callie did so well.

 

*

 

Congratulations!

 

Thank you.

 

So pleased for you.

 

Thank you.

 

You’ll be competing in the Toy final?

 

Yes.

 

And who knows from there.

 

Yes!

 

Beautiful coat.

 

Thank you.

 

Really lovely.

 

Thank you.

 

Your mother is here?

 

Yes.

 

And your husband?

 

Yes. Yes.

 

*

 

She is eight and Callie is eighteen months and she trains the dog before school, using black pudding. Callie has endless attention. They spend an hour in the field behind the house sitting and standing, sitting and standing. The rain drizzling and the light licking at them. It is a fine art. She imagines taking Callie to agility trials and winning, to a movie audition and winning. Training Callie makes her feel good, makes her think, I am good. Callie trails her to school like a guard dog, sleeps at the foot of her bed. At night she dreams of Callie growing wings and flying her across the night sky, the rivers winding below like thread.

 

*

 

3.45 p.m.

 

She wants coffee. She can smell it – vaguely – beneath the usual dog show smell of hairspray and dog, and deserves it with sugar for winning.

 

She walks by a glamorous woman in a pink suit, holding a microphone with a spongy yellow top. She stares and trips over her own feet, to which the women shoots her a hard glare. She notices the woman has terrible eyeliner on, a black line going around her whole eye like a zero that makes her look mad and terrified.

 

You were in the shot then.

 

Sorry. My dog pulled me.

 

Not very good behaviour.

 

Are you talking about me or my dog?

 

The woman turns away, flicks her fringe out of her eyes ready for another take. The man behind the camera waves his hand and the woman starts talking with a wide smile.

 

She realises she is still in-shot and slowly edges out of it, then turns and carries on walking. She walks by a stand selling swaddling mats for dogs, another selling tiny hair straighteners. The man on the stand spots Marie first, her waddling mass of wild hair, and tries to catch her eye.

 

Don’t, Cath says.

 

*

 

It is winter and Callie trails her to school like a pale shadow. She loses sight of her, sometimes, until her docked tail appears above a series of low shrubs, or she bounds out of the trees. The snow muffles the sound of her calls and so she devises a series of hand movements for when Callie is in her line of vision, a flick of her wrist for Stay, or waving her hand a certain way for Go.

 

She reads that dogs can see the earth’s magnetic field, which she imagines in her head like a haze of blue on the ground.  She wonders how her movements look against it, if her limbs blur into it like a long-exposure photograph, if Callie can truly tell her apart from a tree or anything else that holds her shape.

 

*

 

4.20 p.m.

 

She drinks her coffee while sitting in the pink box, Marie sleeping on the table in front of her. The coffee burns her tongue raw with the first sip. She thinks that someone has stolen one of her hair clips and scans the crowd for it, a flash of silver.

 

The St. Bernard occupying the box next to her has returned from the ring and sits on the floor, his cavernous head resting against her thigh. He rolls out his tongue from the side of his jaw, his loose jowls leaving a smear of spittle against the pink wool of her trousers. She pushes him off, leaving a wet string of it suspended between them.

 

She looks up at the dog’s owner, expecting an apology.

 

‘He likes you,’ says the owner, smiling.

 

*

 

5.00 p.m.

 

She doesn’t see the white Pekingese again until after the Toy Group judging. This takes place in a bigger ring than the first and is busier, with one dog from each breed in the group and their handlers. Some of them even have fans, like a tiny fawn-coloured Chihuahua followed by a gaggle of children and cameras. She bends down and caresses the inner down of Marie’s ear, and Marie leans into her hand. She feels a deep sense of gratitude to her, for the way she never takes her body for granted, for how ravenous her love always seems to be.

 

The competitors are lined up behind a green curtain, waiting to be called out onto the arena stage. It is dark and filled with sound of dogs panting.

 

The woman behind her brushes her terrier’s coat so that it fans out around the dog’s body. She brushes it until it shines heavenly, like the inside of a shell.

 

This breed used to hunt rats, you know. The woman says, to no one.

 

Cath is called to run around the edge of the ring by a young man in black, who has a headset glued to his ear. He muffles something and pushes his hand hard against her shoulder, makes some gestures to someone or something at the other side of the ring. He nods, and pulls the curtain to one side, pushing her beyond it.

 

The curtain has fallen over Marie, who couldn’t pass through it fast enough. Cath stoops down and fixes her hair, and Marie jumps up a little. Cath sees that the floor is scattered with flecks of black material, leftovers from the police dogs demonstration. A group of officers had set the dogs on a man dressed as a burglar, while ‘Bad Boys’ played overhead. She saw it on one of the screens.

 

The other breeds follow her. Three variations of hairless breeds. Two kinds of Chihuahua. A barrel-like pug at the back, who Cath can hear snorting. A Maltese, whose feet walk so fast under such long hair the dog looks like it is floating. A man’s voice announces each breed and the audience claps and cheers. All of the handlers bring combs from their pockets and brush out the dogs’ coats, moving their paws so that the animal stands in a specific, identical way, with its head tilted upwards and its feet set back.

 

She doesn’t recognise the judge, a thin man in a three-piece maroon suit. She smiles at him and he remains blank. He motions for her to start walking around.

 

At the edges of the ring are television cameras, and she feels the weight of eyes on her. She has perfected this way of walking, slow enough for Marie’s short legs to keep up, quick enough to get some movement in her fur.

 

She watches the judge at the far end of the ring. He nods, writes something down. She knows that nod. It’s good. Her heart surges forward. She sees a woman at the front of the crowd, clapping passionately as Marie walks.

 

The lead suddenly tugs at her hand. Her smile falters. Marie has decided she wants to sit down. The judge looks up, cuts her down with his glare. She pulls the lead gently, smiles faux-sheepishly. What can you do? Charming. Pekingese are expected to have character. Titters in the audience. Marie going nowhere. She pulls the lead again, harder this time. Marie adjusts her legs, sits down more fully. Cath pulls again. Hard. She hears the yelp from deep in Marie’s throat. She hears it echo across the floor.

 

*

 

She wonders if her husband will notice her on the TV. It has only been a week since he moved out. That was not the surprising bit. The surprising bit was when she presented him with an idea for how they could split custody of Marie, a spreadsheet she’d made and printed off (with Clip Art to keep the tone friendly) and he said, actually I’m not bothered at all. Keep her.

 

*

 

6.00 p.m.

 

She cries in the car park. It is her last dog show and she really, truly expected to win.

 

*

 

It is winter and Callie trails her to school like a pale shadow. The woods are out of bounds after someone died there, buried in a heap of snow, so she follows the road, the car lights amber and red against the dark. She practises their hand movements. Flicking her wrist, Stay. Moving her hand, Go. She is distracted by something. She can never remember what. A squirrel or a hunk of snow falling from a branch. She puts her hand up instinctively, and Callie follows her order by running into the road.

 

*

 

7.00 p.m.

 

The roads out of the arena car park come immediately to the countryside, where the roads are dark and winding. Cath sees dark shapes at the edges of the road but cannot make out what they are.

 

*

 

The man with blood on his hands asks her angrily if the dog is hers. She looks down as Callie’s eyes roll in her head, as something dark grows over the pit of her stomach.

 

No, she says. I’ve never seen her before.

 

*

 

She and her mother played a game at dog shows. They asked a handler for every breed what their dog’s temperament was like. They got a point every time the handler said ‘loyal’, ‘intelligent’, or ‘characterful’. They got ten points if the handler said ‘loves everything and everyone’. They would end up with so many points each that the game became boring. The game became to find a single owner who didn’t say any of those things.

 

*

 

8.05 p.m.

 

The last time she sees it is in the motorway service station, when she is deciding between a strawberry and a chocolate milkshake. The white Pekingese shuffles out of the toilets with its owner. The owner is a kind-looking young man, a teenager with red spots covering his chin and a lot of hair gel. He carries a brown paper bag with grease staining the bottom. She waves to him, points to Marie and then to his own dog. He smiles awkwardly at her.

 

She follows him into the car park, thinking that she should strike up a conversation. She remembers being that young, attending the dog shows, the youngest person competing by half a century.

 

He looks over his shoulder, spots her and speeds up. She realises she is speeding up too, her walk becoming a rigid trot. His dog turns towards her, sees Marie and pulls him backwards, but he carries on walking. He pulls his car boot open, bundles the dog inside and walks over to the passenger seat.

 

The car leaves, the top of the white dog’s head bobbing in the back window.

 

She looks at the sky, streaked dark. The clouds are lit from within. She thinks they look sort of like bones.

 

*

 

8.27 p.m.

 

Cath’s phone buzzes. A message from her husband, something about returning a suitcase.

 

*

 

8.53 p.m.

 

On the car radio, she hears a name she recognises. The man with the puppets, and the baby blue curtain. One year since he died. They announce an auction of the man’s puppets. She thinks suddenly she should buy one, could present it to her mother as a surprise. Then the price: a house deposit, 10 holidays, a third of what she earns in a year.

 

Then she thinks about how the puppets are probably still full of him, his dead skin cells forever jammed in the folds of the puppet’s body, pieces of his fingernails and his palms, scabs from where he might have cut himself in the garden or peeling potatoes, knuckle hair. The thought makes her shudder.

 

They play a clip of one of his shows, one she recognises. In her head she delivers the punchline a beat before he does.

 

*

 

9.15 p.m.

 

She stops to have a cigarette at the edge of the motorway. Marie sniffs around in the undergrowth. They are standing at the edge of a field, which slopes down to a section of marshland below. In the marshland is a dark pool broken by islands of mud and grass.

 

The light is dying and the lights of the cars shimmer hazily. The traffic seems to be slowing down up ahead as though deadened by congestion. Marie digs at something under the wet leaves, then suddenly stops and looks ahead, every muscle in her small body tense and alert. Cath thinks about climbing into the car and leaving her there, how long it would take Marie to notice she had gone. A shape moves in the corner of her eye and she looks out.

 

Four white egrets stand in the marsh. One bends and its neck shuttles down something in the water, a mudskipper or beetle. One scratches at the space between its wing and breast. Another shakes out its feathers, like a dog emerging from a pool. The other stands still.

 

Marie emits a quiet bark.

 

The four birds take flight, their legs trailing behind them. Cath thinks that she’ll be able to see where they go, four white shapes against the dark trees, but they disappear quickly, into thin air.

 

*

 

She shows a middle-aged couple around her mother’s house. She tells them about the litters of puppies she has raised there, and the couple laugh and coo. She doesn’t let them look under the stairs, where the dogs were all born, because shit has stained the skirting board a dank orange.

 

*

 

9.23 p.m.

 

Marie is in the front seat and says, there were five egrets, I could smell the fifth one hiding in the grass. She rests her snout on her feet, and falls asleep.

 

Her phone shows a message from her mother, asking about the show.

 

*

 

9.44 p.m.

 

Another message from her mother, this time about Callie and has Cath seen her? And when will Cath be home from school?

 

*

 

10.20 p.m.

 

A missed call from St. Mary’s.

 

The traffic is slow and the car is still.

 

She closes her eyes and listens to the rain pile up against the window. She wonders if the rain will pass before she has opened them.

 

*

Here is the dream she has. She returns from holiday in winter. The field behind her house is covered in snow. Her nose runs and she can feel it slowly turning to ice above her lip. The windows in the house are dark and she knows instinctively that it is empty, colder inside than it is here. She gets closer and realises that the snow is moving, that the land is really the body of a thousand dogs, all sleeping dogs waking up to the sounds of her footsteps. She snaps twigs under her feet and her mouth erupts in steam. Each breath wakes up a new dog from the earth. They shake their fur and underneath they are white. The air is filled with whining, with barking, with the ground snapping at her heels.

 

She feels herself being pulled downwards. They are so happy to see her.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Elizabeth O'Connor holds a PhD in modernist poetry from the University of Birmingham. Her poetry has been published by Guillemot Press and SPAM Zine. She lives in Birmingham.

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