|Ten Minute Tales|
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a different Ten Minute Tale* every day
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The Big Issue
by Jean Gill
‘Why doesn’t he run away?’ Alun pointed at the dog lying on a stripy blanket in the shoe-shop doorway. The brown mongrel and its owner looked back at him. Neither seemed too willing to waste energy on answering the question. Behind the man and his dog, Alun could see his own reflection shimmering like a ghost among the pairs of shoes, which were stacked in pyramids like a fairground game. If he had a stone with him and chucked it with a bit of spin at the black lace-ups bottom left, he could probably knock the red sandals smack into the bum of the shopper bending to pick up some trainers. Alun’s image put its arm back down by his side and his thoughts returned to the question. If nobody answered him at home, he just kept on asking.
‘Why doesn’t he run away?’ he asked again. The man’s legs were stretched out in front of him, open, bent at the knees. His arms rested easily on them and he lifted his right hand now and then to take a slow drag. When he lifted his arm, Alun could see a hole in his trouser leg and the frayed ends of a woolly grey sleeve. Some kind of hat lay on the stripy blanket, with a few coins in it, but the man didn’t seem to be making much effort to get attention from the passers-by. The dog was lying down, its head resting on crossed front legs. Its eyes guarded the hat and followed the passing shoppers, returning to Alun without much interest.
A second pair of deep brown eyes focused on Alun and the man spoke. ‘He’s a good dog.’
‘Why don’t you sell The Big Issue?’ was Alun’s next question.
‘Why don’t you?’ asked the man, in that same slow drawl as if speaking were just another pointless effort. This answer was not nearly as satisfying as the first one and Alun had just opened his mouth to explain why the man should sell The Big Issue whereas Alun obviously had no need to, when the man spoke first.
‘I gotta go somewhere. Will you look after the dog?’
Alun imagined sitting on the stripy blanket by the dog while the man went shopping. It would be just the same as waiting for his mother, who was taking so long that the man would probably be back before she came. He hoped none of his friends were in town but it would be worth it to talk to the dog. He could say it was a sponsored something. You could get away with anything if it was sponsored.
‘All right.’ Before Alun could sit down on the blanket, the man had stood, the dog following his movements with its head cocked, fully alert, and the blanket had been folded up. The man took a length of string out of a pocket, tied it round the dog’s neck and gave the other end to Alun. The dog listened to the man, whispering something in the dog’s ears, which drooped immediately.
‘I’ll be here again next Thursday,’ he told Alun, and disappeared. The dog stood by Alun, waiting for something to happen and Alun stood by the dog, the string clutched tightly. The usual drift of couples, families and kids passed, chattering, but there was no trace of the man. Just as Alun thought his heart would burst from panicked beating, he saw a familiar face – not the man but his mother. This was as bad as it could be.
The argument was still going on in the kitchen and Alun could hear his mother’s voice, shrill and angry, ‘You just encourage him,’ and then the lower, more dangerous tones of his father, ‘He’s only 11, Anne. If you want, we’ll take the mutt straight to the vet and finish it off. It’s half-starved anyway and there’s no pain… just one injection and that’s it’.
There was a silence as deep as a dog’s brown eyes. Alun sat on the cold patio stone because he thought the dog would feel more at home with someone sitting beside him. The dog gave no sign of feeling anything. It lay beside him in the same pose it had kept on the blanket. If Alun had been braver he would have sneaked a blanket out of the airing cupboard, but one memory of his mother’s face when he had tried to explain to her what had happened and he knew the dog would have to lie on the cold stone, at least for now. The silence lasted longer than he could hold his breath, which was a bad sign and very unlucky. He had told himself that if someone spoke before he breathed again then everything would be all right. The next words were spoken too quietly for him to hear but it was his mother’s voice. Alun smoothed the dog’s short fur, noticing how silky the forehead and ears were compared with the thickness of its back. He wondered how the dog’s weatherproofing worked and considered how it would be to have a friend like this, who just sat beside you and thought doggy thoughts.
It was his mother who came out into the garden. Alun was reminded of those films where you saw two characters locked in mortal combat, then you couldn’t see them anymore and it was only when the victor emerged that you knew who had won. Except that with his parents there wasn’t a goody and a baddy, and it depended what you wanted as to who you wanted to win. And it was always his mother who told him the verdict, whoever had won, so that meant nothing.
‘I’m disappointed in you Alun.’ This was nothing new. ‘You’re old enough to have a sense of responsibility. I can’t believe you talked to a stranger at all, never mind bringing home a stray.’
‘He’s not a stray.’ A glare from his mother shut him up.
‘And we’ve said no to a dog often enough. But,’ she sighed deeply, ‘your Dad thinks it’s a chance for you to show whether you can look after a pet. We’ll try to take him back next week but if you ask me, this con-man just wanted rid of the poor thing, and you’ll have had enough so we’ll take it to the dog’s home then and they’ll do what’s best.’
It was only three days since the dog had moved in but Alun could not imagine life without it. He didn’t have to look down to know that the dog was at his side, following his every move, listening to his every word. The string had been abandoned straight away when it became clear that the dog was not going to run away. Quite the opposite: the dog wouldn’t run on its own at all. It sat, lay, walked beside Alun, slept where it was told to, and it would even run – beside Alun, if he ran. It was not something he could say to his parents but Alun knew there was something wrong; the dog was just too good.
Day 4 was Sunday, one of those autumn days when the sun gave a last burst of heat and the garden flickered gold. Alun’s Dad stopped digging, groaned and stretched to ease his back. He idly threw a stick for the dog, shouting, ‘Fetch,’ and Alun watched as the dog’s eyes followed the stick, while its body stayed rock-still, in its usual working pose.
Dad shook his head and frowned. ‘We can’t have that on a weekend. Anne?’ he called Alun’s Mum and went off into the house, emerging minutes later. ‘Come on, we’re off to the beach. Bring the string, just in case.’ Alun, his mother and the dog did as they were told, the back of the car being just another shop doorway as far as the dog was concerned. It didn’t wince as Alun’s Dad sang along with the car radio, not even when his Mum joined in.
You could always smell the sea, before it appeared as a glint behind a field, hiding with the twists of the lanes and totally invisible from the carpark. Alun cricked his neck round to watch the dog. Perhaps this was its first time. Alun sniffed as if it was his first time; if you covered wet clothes in mud and salt, you still wouldn’t come close to the freshness of the wet tang, with a hint of metal and machine from the small railway line which hugged the coast. Had he imagined it? Alun kept watching and sure enough, the dog’s nostrils were flickering, twitching with interest, and the fine, straight hairs on the back of its neck were standing up, as if in a breeze which only the dog could feel.
The walk started sensibly, feet and paws moving as in a perfect fire drill, all straight lines and regular pace. Then Dad started zig-zagging and walking backwards, making Mum laugh until she skipped into pigeon steps and wrote his name in huge letters in the sand. Alun veered off his parents’ course towards the low breakers, starting to run, his movements shadowed by the dog. They ran into the waves, Alun stopping as the waves lapped the calves of his wellies but the dog continuing to splash in deeper until it was forced to swim. ‘You’re out of your depth,’ Alun told it. The dog carried on swimming. ‘Dad!’ Alun yelled, suddenly afraid, and his father, holding a stick, was suddenly at his side.
‘Fetch!’ The stick was thrown just in front of the dog’s nose and retrieved without hesitation, the dog doubling its clumsy paddles to turn around and bring the stick back. When it reached the shallows, it dropped the stick in front of Alun, wagged its tail and gave a sharp bark. He was slow to understand and the dog nudged the stick with its nose, wagged its tail and barked again.
‘Go on, throw it,’ his Dad told Alun, and the games began in earnest. In its excitement, the dog turned somersaults in the incoming waves. Even when the dog rushed out of the sea to shower Alun’s mother with seawater as it shook itself right beside her, even then there was just shrieking and laughter, as his father encouraged the dog to chase his mother. It had been a long time since Alun had seen his parents playing.
“We’ll call him Sandy,” said his mother on the way home and Alun started to hope that they might keep the dog.
But the man was there the next Thursday, just as he had said.
‘Where did you go?’ asked Alun, despite his mother nudging him. The man just shrugged. ‘Were you ill? Are you better now?’
The man looked at him steadily, ignoring his mother, who hovered anxiously beside Alun, not sure of the social rules. ‘I wanted the dog to have a holiday. He’s too young to understand this life.’
‘You’ve got to give Sandy back, Alun.’ His mother was impatient to get it over with but no longer because it was what she wanted.
Alun smoothed the dog’s head and sent it back to the blanket with unspoken love. Man and dog greeted each other with a touch, a lick, a tail wag and a smile. ‘If you sell the Big Issue, my Mum would buy one, wouldn’t you Mum?’
‘Maybe,’ she said.
‘So you will sell it then,’ Alun persevered.
‘Maybe,’ said the man, and he turned his attention to the dog, dismissing Alun and his mother even before they turned to go.
© Jean Gill
*The Big Issue is a newspaper sold by homeless people on the streets of the UK as part of the process to help re-integration into society.
*length may vary!
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