Category Archives: the dogs project

the postcard

Dad must have kept the picture in his wallet for years, he thought when he found it, folded up, creased, stuffed in behind his AA membership card in the first round of sorting things out.
At first, he thought it was a photograph and for one mad minute, he found myself wondering if this was a moment of truth, some bizarre twist in his fathers’ humdrum, everyday life.
A love affair?
A second family ?

And then he looked around the bedroom, the furniture bought when they married, built to last, his father said, the wallpaper, cabbage roses on an off-white background, his mothers’ hair brushes and perfume bottle still center stage on the dressing table, even though the perfume has long dried out, leaving just the hint of a ghost of a scent.

He shook my head, this was not the bedroom of a bigamist, a philanderer and he looked more carefully, more critically at the little picture, discovering that it wasn’t a snap shot at all, but a postcard,a staged, manufactured image of cuteness, a boy & his dog at prayer.

He turned the postcard over, expecting to see a holiday message, a jokey comment, but there was nothing, the card was blank, not sent then. His father must have bought it and for reasons he cannot grasp, kept it carefully in a lifetimes worth of wallets.

The man, the son, middle aged, busy in this careful sorting, ordering of the remains of his fathers’ life is brought up short. He looks again at the picture, the boy is blond, out doorsey, good at sport, the sort of boy who would run through fields with the dog always at his side.

He catches sight of his own refection in the dressing table mirror.
His hair, thinning, has faded, neither grey nor white, just an indeterminate nothing, his eyes, magnified behind vari-focals are weak, watery, his shoulders slump in a characteristic apologetic shape and his mouth, the lips too thin, falls into its usual unspoken apology. He smiles at himself, teeth barred in an approximation of happiness and then shrugs and returns to his careful internal inventory of his fathers’ possessions.

But later, at home, making himself a cup of tea in the tidy, functional kitchen of this boxy flat, his share from the sale of the marital home, he cannot shake the image of the blond child in the postcard.

He is shaken by a thought so shocking, so dreadful,that he has to sit down and he realizes that now the thought is there that he will never be able to completely shift it.

He has a sudden image of his father, standing on a touchline on a freezing February day watching him, his only son, already plastered in mud, pushed down again onto the pitch by bigger, stronger boys from the other team. He remembers, struggling to his feet, peering through his mud encrusted glasses and discovering that his father had gone, returned in disgust to the car to wait out the match.

He can still remember the hot shame of that failure,the silent journey home, buy now, he has another, a new image to torture himself. He sees his father, sitting in the family car, rain hitting the roof, head bowed while he looks longingly at a picture of someone else s’ son, someone else’s life.


Saskia and Eric

What can I say, the boy’s a fool, always has been, always will be.


But, third morning in a row I get served cornflakes for breakfast, no milk, no sugar, I know somethings gotta change. I mean, I like people food, show me a dog that doesn’t and I’ll show you a sad motherF******, but dude, I need meat, dog biscuits, all the good stuff, served in a clean bowl and Eric, wake up call, Bro, 12.30 is not breakfast time.

I’m lying on the couch, looking around, while he sleeps off another Black Ops all nighter, clothes everywhere, pizza boxes in teethering mountains, and yeah, I’ve already checked them out for left over slices, does that make me a bad dog?
On the table there are bits of computers he’s going to fix, right, opposable thumbs are just wasted on some people and books, big, big piles of books.

I’ve got a basket here somewhere, last time I saw it he was using it for dirty laundry, which was nice, for a bit, but man, it got rank and I know rank, I’m a dog, so I upped my place in the food chain and moved on up to the couch, which is the only good thing of her leaving, well, that and the constant supply of take away food containers and his relaxed attitude to washing up. He calls it plate licking, I call it helping out.

But, it’s time to face facts, Eric is not a lone wolf, he is not doing this solitude thing well and much as I like this whole pets on furniture regime and a distinct absence of baths, the cornflake thing has gotta stop.
It’s time I got him a new mate, time to get a grip, time Eric, to get to the Supermarket, the dog park and for dogs’ sake, time Eric, little dude, time to change that t-shirt and make with the laundry programme.

When she was here, paw on heart, we didn’t get on. Too much
“bad dog, off the sofa”
“bad dog, off the bed”
“bad dog, in the bath”

You can the pattern there, but, the place was clean, my bowls were clean, Eric was clean and walk times were regular.
So, I’m prepared to sacrifice the pizza, the chow mein, my end of the sofa and the low level recreational cushion chewing . I’m trying to give that up, but its been emotional here, we’re both feeling it. He plays the guitar, I chew the cushion, coping strategies man, coping strategies.

I need to get him out there, out in the world, I kick hard, right onto his butt, there’s a groan, a mumble, a general movement. Lets back it up with some sharp barks and then onto face licking.
Dog breath, does it every time.

He’s up, we’re good to go and lets face it, I need to go, really need to go.

Out the door, catch sight of myself in the mirror, do the puppy eyes, yeah, I still got it.

Eric’s lost a bit of weight in the last couple of months, needs a hair cut, shave, he’s working that vunerable soul look.
Ladies, here we come
We are a killer combination, fragile and fabulous.
We can’t miss.
Clean bowls, regular meals, happy days, here we come.

When the dog dies….

She wonders what will happen when the dog dies.
This dog, the third or fourth they have had together, has been a good one, challenging enough as a puppy to ensure that there was always conversation, projects, minor domestic disasters. The time he ate the washing powder, the destruction of any shoes left lying around, the little accidents in the first few months. All of this has filled the silences, kept them busy, given them something to talk about, when winter evenings stretched ahead of them and bed time seemed a million miles away.

The walking has helped, this dog has been energetic, bouncy, it has been quite legitimate to leave the house for 2 , 3 hours at a time. She knows that she has used the routine to escape when staying would have meant speaking, articulating the distance between them and she suspects that her husband has also used the dog and his routines as a way of managing a marriage gone stale, gone bad, turned rank and sour.

And of course, the dog has become the receiver of conversation, the recipient of secrets, his floppy spaniel ears pricked, head tilted to one side as each of them choose him to tell him about their day, their tiny disappointments, their even smaller achievements.

Her husband, his return as predictable as his leaving each morning for an office where, more and more, he finds himself side-lined, confused and resentful has a ritual which unchanging signals the beginning of their evenings together.

Brief case is left at the bottom of the stairs, cuff links and keys dropped just a shade too loudly into the fruit bowl on the dinning table and then a tiny pause, which she fantasies filling with a scream
“Just bloody leave it, it doesn’t matter” as he carefully re-arranges the fruit bowl so that it is exactly centered on the table.
Some days, she has taken to moving it, so that the bowl, green, ceramic, ugly, a wedding gift from an elderly aunt, his aunt, tethers on the very edge of the table. On other days, she fills it with mad objects, potatoes, clothes pegs, tiny china frogs. He never comments.

Then he makes his way upstairs and standing in the kitchen, she hear him moving around the bedroom, suit off, wardrobe open, the rustle of clothes hangers, suit carefully hung up. A pause,then a small thud of shoes being dropped to the floor as he sits on the bed to complete his evening transformation. She knows that later when she goes upstairs, in winter to turn on the electric blanket,in summer to ensure that the window is open,she will find his socks, pants, vest all left close to, but not actually in the washing basket. A tiny reminder to her that hers’ is the marginal job, the part-time hours, the proximity to home, the laughable take home pay all re-inforce her status as housewife, a carer for him, the house and of course, the dog.

And then he re-appears, neatly ironed jeans, a casual shirt, ready for the next part of the day.
Sometimes when she irons these jeans, she presses so hard on the fabric that her knuckles whiten and her wrists ache with the force she uses.

Then it is dog time and the dog, as used to this routine as she is, emerges from his basket, a little stiff now, a little less bouncy, but still eager. Her husband kneels, strokes the dogs ears and the litany begins
“Best boy, good dog, clever fella, does the big boy want to go walkies then?”
The dog shivers with pleasure, with anticipation, his face split open in a huge canine grin, his attention torn between his master and the lead hanging up on the hook by the mirror in the hallway.

“30 minutes, Yeah?” says her husband and she mumbles something indistinct from the kitchen, they both know that dinner will be ready at the same time each evening, this dialogue is simply another part of the evening ritual.

Ironically,she has found that as local authority cuts have made her job at the local library more and more part-time, almost a non job, that this half hour, where he is home, but not truly home, has become precious and on the rare occasions when truly terrible weather has kept him and the dog indoors, she has felt cheated, bereft of the loss of this tiny last gasp of solitude before the routine of dinner, television, bath and bed time.

She hears the door close behind them and opening the cutlery draw to set the table, she wonders again, what they will do when the dog dies.


Fern ( who may be using another name) & Sasha

It’s not a great photo, not really, all a bit blurred, out of focus, but the police said they needed one that showed her face clearly and the nice policewoman liked this one, liked the dog, said it might catch people’s attention, they might look harder, because of the dog.

When they were little, Fern and Jason, I used to worry about them, worry that they’d be taken from me, that somehow I’d loose them. It wasn’t just the usual stuff, road accidents, childhood cancers. Deep down, I was convinced that someone would steal them, drag them kicking and screaming into a white van, lure them into a family saloon with promises of kittens or sweeties.

I tried to keep them safe, lectured them on stranger danger, didn’t let them hang around parks or shopping centres, made sure I always knew where they were.

And as they got older, bigger, the fears receded, I began to relax, sure that my children were safe now.

But it would take just one newspaper story, one teary interview with a parent clutching a battered cuddly toy for the fear to grow again and I would have to ring them, check that they were safe, ask them when were they coming home.

Because then, i still believed that the worst thing that could happen was for someone, a bad person, to take your child from you.

But I was wrong, because this, this is the worst thing.
No-one took my Fern from me, my daughter took herself away from me and there was nothing I could do to keep her safe from that.

On the 1st of September 2011, my daughter Fern got into her car, drove towards work and no-one has ever seen her since.

I can write this sentence down, I can even say it out loud, but I cannot hope to explain what that sentence actually feels like, what it is to live with that sentence, day after day, after week,after month.

I didn’t start worrying when she was an hour late, even two hours late. A late meeting, I thought, drinks with her colleagues. I pretended to myself, even as I clock watched, that everything was fine.
I rang her mobile , switched off.
I gritted my teeth and rang her brother, it’s hard to have a black sheep child when you only have two children, but Jason has worked hard for this, seems proud of this status.

He sounded surprised to hear from me, even more puzzled by my question, no he hadn’t seen Fern, no he didn’t know where she was or what she was doing. I could visualise the face he was pulling throughout the brief conversation, mouthing something to Her, that woman he lives with.

Suddenly, i thought that Fern might be trying to ring me, to explain what had gone wrong, I cut short the stilted conversation with my son and sat, looking at the phone, willing it to ring.

It was almost a relief when midnight arrived and i could admit to myself that something was terribly, terribly wrong.

I had my first conversation with a police officer, i ignored his patronising tone, a 25 year old woman doesn’t come home to mummy. I knew what he was thinking, but pushed on, finally receiving a half hearted commitment to check with the traffic police and contact the local hospitals.

I sat all night in darkness, periodically trying her mobile, still switched off. At one point, I became convinced that it was my phone that was at fault and dug around the dining table drawer for my ancient and rarely used mobile and listened to my own phone ring in the hallway.

The next morning, I rang her office to be told that she hadn’t been to work for 2 days and that they hoped she would feel better soon.

I rang the police again, made a fuss. I think they only sent someone round to shut me up and it wasn’t even a real policeman, just one of those pretend ones,the ones you see on bicycles wearing lots of hi viz gear.
But, give him his dues, he listened, took some notes, suggested that we check her room. I looked at him blankly, did he think she was hiding up there?
Because, of course , I was still thinking of some outside agency, a kidnapping, road accident, instant amnesia, but I nodded and we both went upstairs, the dog, subdued, confused, following us.

He was very kind when I broke down, made me sweet tea, asked if there was someone he could ring. I just stared at him, my worlds greatest mum mug held carefully in both hands.

Her bedroom was neat, but amongst the neatness, gaps.
Her suitcase missing, contact lens solution absent from her dressing table, her stuffed rabbit toy gone.
The almost policeman patted my hand, said it wasn’t uncommon , sometimes people just needed a break from their lives, said they usually came back a few days later.

But she didn’t.

Time passed, the nice police officer, by then I had a proper policeman, well policewoman, the one who talked about the photo, the dog photo, told me about support groups, Internet forums.
I joined them, talked to other families, but no one could explain why Fern, my Fern would do this.

At first, I ignored the dog, ferns’ dog but then I felt guilty, what would happen when, never if, she came back and the dog looked neglected, unloved.

I started taking her for walks, met this group of people, the 7am, the 6pm dog walkers, they all knew Fern, recognised Sasha.
I know them all pretty well know, they never ask directly, just ask how things are and I say the same and then we walk around the park together. Twice a day, 7 days a week while I wait for Fern to come home.


The Centrefold, his dog and me.

It takes a really long time for every other Thursday to come around, from break time, I’m on tenterhooks, just wishing the day away and of course, Thursday afternoon is the worst lesson, double history with Mr Turner. He sits at the front of the room, reading out the history book and we’re expected to write it down and the mad thing is, we do.

Even the scary girls, like Maria and Lisa, the ones who listen to John Peel and like bands like Southern Death Cult and once pierced another girls’ ear in the toilets with a safety pin during a wet lunch break. We all write down what he dictates.
I keep looking at my watch, wishing the paws of Truelove Bear to move faster, to actually reach 3.30 and home time.

Ali and Nikki are going to Andys records cos they reckon that the boy who works there looks a bit like the singer in The Jam, but its Thursday, so I shake my head, grab my bag and I’m gone.

I’ve got a whole routine for every other Thursday, straight into the newsagents, I don’t even need to ask, Mr Pritchard sees me coming and has it ready for me, I look quickly at the front cover, just to see who’s on it and then I think about sweets. I used to like strawberry bonbons or sherbet lemons, but now I usually get aniseed balls, not because I like them much, but they remind me of that wedding we went to when my uncle said I needed a drink to match my dress and got me Pernod and black currant, my mum was furious, said I was far too young, got me a coke instead.

When I get home, there’s nobody in, because my mums still at work. It’s funny, when I was in Juniors, nobody had a mum who worked fulltime and didn’t have a dad at home, but now I’m in 3rd year Seniors, there’s loads of them, I reckon by the time I get to 6th form we’ll be laughing at the weird ones who have a mum at home and a dad who goes out to work.

I go straight upstairs, put the magazine on the middle of my bed, shove Rainbow Bright and Truelove to one side and put on the tape from last weeks top 40, it’s a good one, hardly any talking and I got the writing on the label just perfect, no mistakes at all and the Dexies are still number 1.
I watched them on top of the pops and I reckon their look is easy to do, I could use my school plimmies and buy dungarees a couple of sizes too big.

I’ve got my own way of reading Smash Hits, I like the interviews cos they ask really sillly questions and then I check out the lyrics, sometimes that’s good cos they have a song you really need to know the words to and then last, cos I save it to last, is the poster inthe middle. The one you can pull out and put on your wall. So far I’ve got the Stranglers, The Jam, Adam Ant, Kevin Rowlands and the one with the mental hair from the Human League.
The best posters are the ones where they are looking at the camera, so it’s like they’re really looking at you and i can imagine that they’re in the room with me. Adam Ant is the best cos he’s got lovely eyes and he looks a bit sad too.

This week the poster is someone new, he was on top of the pops a couple of weeks ago, although he’s only number 28.

The photograph is a bit different, it’s a real close up, his eyes are looking out of the picture, I quite like his hair, it’s a bit like Paul Wellers and I like him, so I take the staples out carefully and I think about where to put him. I reckon I can shift Kraftwerk over a bit cos I’ve gone off them.
I have to be careful, cos my mum only decorated the room last year and she had to use 2 days holiday and I’m only allowed to put posters on one wall and not use Sellotape, cos it leaves a mark.

I step back when I’m finished, yeah it looks alright. I wonder if he’s in the top 20 yet. I decide to take the Kraftwerk poster down if there’s another poster of him next time.

I quite like the dog too.


Sandra and the boys

He never really liked them, not really. Although he said he did and he certainly liked the attention. 3 big dogs, walking to heel, big furry minders.
“yeah” he’d say
“attack dogs, trained, kill you on my say so”
And the dogs would look at him and then turn away, eyes fixed on me, tails wagging in unison.
They were just part of the whole package, CCTV, baseball bat leaning on the wall by the front door. Ready for some invasion, desperate to be the man who saw off some scumbag robber.
As if anyone was ever going to rob us, I mean really, we had nothing, ancient TV, CD player he found for a tenner at a car boot sale.
He spent more on security than he ever spent on the house or me for that matter.
Everything in the house was as tired as battered as our marriage. I felt about as attractive as the dingy sofa, sagging cushions, unfashionable fabric, yeah that pretty much was me to a tee.
But the dogs, the dogs had the best of everything, fresh meat, big leather collars, food bowls scrubbed out every day, coats brushed till they shone while he watched whatever sport was on the telly and moaned about our lack of Sky Sports.
When we sat on the sofa, the dogs would watch him, vigilant, noticing his every move
“yeah”, he’d nod, satisfied
“they know whose boss”
And he’d pat the nearest, not noticing the tiny flinch, the move away.
His hand just that bit too heavy.
The same way he never noticed my flinch when he touched the back of my neck, his hand just that fraction too heavy on me as well.

He wasn’t a bad man, not really, just stuck in a life he hadn’t planned, didn’t want and it made him angry, made him lash out and there was no-one else to lash out at, so he lashed out at me and the dogs watched, carefully.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I was a battered woman or anything. No late night visits to A&E, no arguments with cupboard doors, well, not many and no-one at work ever asked why I wore so many long sleeved tops, polo neck jumpers, why I jumped if someone slammed a door too hard.

And besides, i had the dogs, some nights when things went badly wrong, afterwards, I would lie on the sofa, the bloody sofa, dogs wrapped round me, their weight a comfort, my hands deep in their fur, finding warmth when I felt so cold.

He liked me to walk the dogs, would watch us leave the house
“no-ones going to mess with you, not with them around you”
And then he’d go back to the TV, his beer, the match.

When things have been a bit bad for a long time, it takes something really bad for you to notice, to realise that a line has been crossed.

So, the day i couldn’t make it to work, couldn’t cover up the damage, couldnt face the world, I knew something had to change.

I sat for a very long time, staring at the front door, the dogs staying close, unsettled by the change of routine.

And then I heard his key in the door and me and the dogs all sat up straighter, poised.

And as he entered the room, I used the word, the attack word.
I wasn’t really sure what would happen, if they would actually do it.

But they did it, all 3 of them, moving towards him, fast, focused and for a minute, he didn’t quite know what was happening, thought it was a joke, almost a smile on his face.

And then the dogs were on him and he wasn’t smiling anymore and he was shouting.

I stood up, walked towards him, counting in my head
1 2 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10
And then I called the dogs off.

I saw him yesterday, I was out, walking the dogs and he saw us, started walking towards us.
I stopped and the dogs stopped at my heels.

He looked at me and he looked at them and then he crossed the road.

I’m buying a new sofa when I get paid this month.

The cat lady and her dogs

People only see what they want to see. i watch them walk past, their eyes slide over me, take in my sign, the dogs, my sensible haircut, comfortable shoes, a stout anorak and their thoughts are so loud, its like a shout.

They’re the straightforward ones, never give a donation, don’t make eye contact, keep walking, sometimes even do that shuffle thing so that they don’t have to come too close.

Then there’s the other ones, they’re more complicated, their thoughts are more muddled, more about them than me

They’re nearly always women, often a little younger than me and they usually give some money, but they try not to engage, don’t speak to me, keep moving even when they drop some coins into the box.

But the ones I like are the other ones, the ones who have time, no-where special to go, no-one special to see. They stop, pet the dogs ask about the cats, they fumble in their pockets, dig out a few coins, tell me about their pets, especially the dead ones, the lost ones, the ones who made them feel loved, special, needed.

They share their stories of love and I try my best to play a special tune for them, give them something to warm them, to keep the cold of their lives at bay.

And I feel lucky, happy to help.

The dogs snooze, they know the routine, up early, see to the cats, load up the shopping trolley, remember the flask and the sandwiches. Don’t want to waste good money on expensive shop bought food, I don’t understand all these people rushing by with their huge paper cups of coffee, a nice flask of mellow birds, milky sweet coffee, just the ticket.

I play, the dogs sleep and we make some money and then home.

The cats are pleased, they gather around us, waiting for food, a cuddle, time on the couch.

I know all their stories.
The kitten shot with an air gun
The big ginger, left in the house when the family moved on, it took a week for someone to notice his cries, another 2 days before anyone did something.
The black and white female, too hungry to feed her kittens, i found her in a box surrounded by her dead babies.
The tiny tortoishell, still covered in scars where someone poured lighter fuel over her.

I know all their stories.
The ones who can’t be touched.
The ones who scratch.
The ones who hide, creep around on the outskirts of the rooms.
The ones who remember their pet lives before they fell from grace,lost their cuteness, got replaced.

I start opening tins, Eric, the nice man in the pet shop, does me good deals, knocks the price down if the tins are dented, throws in a couple of boxes of biscuits, helps me load up the trolley. A kind man, understands about the cats, their needs, does what he can to help.

The cats are hungry, they fill the work surfaces, pawing at each-other, at me, too many of them remember being hungry, I don’t get angry, just try and feel them quickly, make them happy.

The dogs wait, patient, they have never been hungry or worried, they trust me to feed them and besides they know all too well how mean these cats can be.

Later, i count up the money, £8.53, a good day, a whole case of cat food, maybe even a box of own label biscuits, especially if Eric finds a box with a bit of a dent, a corner ripped off.

I find a bit of room for me on the couch, squeeze in beside the cats, feel their warmth against me. I love to look at them, never get bored with it. I didn’t bother to replace the television when it died, why have a telly when you can look at the cats.

I think about what I can have for tea, nice boiled egg, slice of toast, i don’t need to eat much, toast and milky coffee can keep me going all day.

I sit with the cats, my cats, dip my toast in my egg and consider how good my life is,how lucky I am.

People see what they want to see and mostly they don’t see anything at all.