I wouldn’t say she was a dog on a mission but she was pretty darn eager to get out. As soon as I knocked at the side door she came running with that inimitable suet pudding gait of hers. I could hear her nose snuffling along the gap between the door and its threshold, filling her nostrils with the scent of outside and then sneezing, toenails pitter-pattering excitedly on the lino.
“Just a minute,” came a tired voice from deep within the house.
People said Meg was an ugly dog. She was part boxer and part nobody quite knew what. Her face looked as if it had been in an argument with a combine harvester. Despite her exuberance, Meg had rolls of blubber across her shoulders and a sagging belly, the work of obese owners who were tired of living. Her best feature was her orange coat, but its gloss was disfigured by a blue gash of shrivelled skin, a legacy from her previous owner who had branded it into her back like the lick of the Devil, by pouring scalding water over her. Meg, of course, had forgiven him, but the sum of these ungainly parts added up to an animal that few people could bring themselves to pat.
“Oh, get out from under my feet, dog. You’ll be the death of me!”
Quite how Meg came to be the pet of two infirm pachyderms I couldn’t say. The old gentleman was amiable enough, I suppose, albeit smelly. At least he didn’t go on about God all the time. Each morning he donned a peaked cap as if it mattered. Now that pyjamas had forever replaced a uniform as his daily garb there was no prospect of walks for Meg from this old postman. He sat flabby in a peeling leather armchair, occasionally wheezing with all the grace of a sea elephant. A window over the kitchen sink was his horizon now and it grew blurrier each day as his last gasp approached.
The wife was healthier in a carbolic soap sort of way although diabetic and disinclined to waddle far, certainly not with a dog. She should have been a nun. She spent all the days God gave her waiting for her husband to die. “The sooner the better,” she would mutter, with a guilty glance up at Jesus hanging on his penny bazaar crucifix over the mantelpiece, “ain’t no use to man nor beast, an’ that’s a fact.”
Meg got to eat most of her owners’ meals in addition to her own and as a result grew as fat as a pig. While the old man coughed up what remained of his lungs in the form of white froth, Meg would lay her head dutifully on his feet and occasionally lick an open sore on his ankle. It seemed to calm him. Such is the lot of the chronically ill and their dogs.
Now I always say a boy and a dog afford each other a good alibi. Without a dog as his companion a boy alone is ill-advised to wander far and without a boy a dog rarely gets let off the leash. As a team they allay mothers’ fears of perverts in parks.
“Can she come out for a walk?” I enquired of the soap nun.
Across two summers and one long winter Meg and I ranged deep into the woods and wide across the open land that bordered our homes. We located hidden springs and found man-height stands of primeval ferns. We shooed clouds of flies off cowpats and silenced the woodpeckers. We tarried under old oak trees and listened to them telling ancient tales to saplings gathered at their feet as the wind whispered its approval, rustling dead leaves and disturbing hidden things.
“She’s fetched her lead,” replied the soap nun, “now then, don’t you go getting lost!” As if we would. “And be back by four, I don’t want to be late for church”. Such is the lot of the chronically God-fearing. With that she ushered Meg out of the door and closed it behind her. Meg rolled her bulbous eyes towards the door in case there was a change of heart.
That day, however, things were different.
As one door closed another one opened. From the house across the alleyway appeared a grey woman, stone blind and ethereal. Everything about her was ashen. A grimy nightdress was drawn about her flimsy body and uncombed locks of grey hair hung down her back. White stockings stretched over arthritic ankles then plunged into pearl pink ballerina pumps that barely touched the ground. A cat poked its nose around the corner of the house and started down the alley but seeing the veils of milk blanking off the grey lady’s eyes, thought better of it. An anxiety of agoraphobia hovered about the woman. I was told that the only time she came out of her house was to carry scraps to her dustbin, feeling her way along the wall with spidery fingers.
As we watched her glide back from her errand, the grey lady came to a halt. She seemed to hover over the concrete path, one hand feeling for the door and the other drifting like gossamer out in front of her. She sniffed the air.
“Another one for the loony bin,” I thought to myself, echoing the general sentiment of people in the area.
A droplet of water formed like melting snow on the tip of her nose and awaited its turn for the big sniff, but the grey lady was otherwise occupied. She was listening for visions. After a moment, a thin sound emerged from the world behind the milk veils.
“I feel,” said the grey lady, her features smoothening, “the presence of an angel.” The snow droplet fell to the ground. “Yes, that’s what it is. An angel”. With that she floated back indoors.
“Blimey Meg,” I told the dog, “I’ve been called a little devil often enough but no-one ever said I was an angel before!” I tugged on Meg’s lead. “Come on girl, let’s go!” She obeyed but I could have sworn I saw a smile flit across her features.
Our walk that day took us through an uncharted part of the woods. Being a bitch, Meg was ill-equipped to cock a leg and anyway the number of trees that stood along our path made it impossible for her to christen them all. In an attempt to overcome the problem she had perfected a squat-and-run technique that gave her the impression she’d done her duty while hardly interrupting her progress. As a would-be rock star might strum dazzling riffs on an air guitar so Meg, in lieu of urinating, air-peed.
These walks were good for Meg. Despite her corpulence, she was all the better for the exercise. Running free, she enjoyed chasing scents and doubling back to catch the ones she’d missed.
That day, with me in tow, she lolloped after a chaffinch along an untrodden path that wound its way between bramble banks and abandoned us in a clearing which was overrun with dead bracken and pine needles, spiky to the touch and unpleasant underfoot. It was noticeably cooler here and joyless. It took a moment for my eyes to focus. Beyond the clearing I saw a barbed-wire fence penning in a forlorn regiment of conifer saplings. Standing in line as if awaiting their fate, they had an air of Belsen about them. Here and there in front of the fence stood stacks of sticks piled together tepee-style.
Stopping neither to sniff or air-pee, Meg skirted past the sticks at speed, her body leaning away from them like a double-decker bus taking a reverse camber corner. When she reached the last stack of sticks she dropped suddenly to the ground and froze, hackles raised. Not a yard ahead of her snout sat two furry forms.
I have never been one for killing things without good reason. If you don’t intend to eat it, why kill a spider when you can cup it in the palm of your hand and put it outside? I doubt a dog reasons this way; it does not possess the arrogance of its masters, who sit in judgement upon God’s creatures, administering death upon a whim. To a dog, furry things are good to eat, despite the bits of fur that stick in your gullet and make you cough up. Food tastes better the second time down anyway.
“Heel!” I yelled. Not that she ever did.
Rather than clamp her jaws on the furry creatures, Meg suet-puddinged rearwards, her awkward rump not designed for movement in this direction. I saw shivers rippling across her withers. Unmistakably, she was scared.
The furry forms got clumsily to their feet and stood stiff-legged, pert and swaying. Meg backed off further. Odd that she should be so fearful of them, it was as if she knew what was coming. She inched her fat body further away from the creatures then stood up to turn tail. But it was too late.
Whoosh! A seething, spitting, snarling whirlwind sprang from beneath the stack of sticks straight at Meg, bowling her over, clawing at her eyes, ripping her ears, filling the air with shrieks of hatred. Then, in the manner of the great predators of the plains, it went for the neck, sinking its fangs into the sleek orange coat, enclosing Meg’s windpipe in a stifling grip of death.
Here was a creature that could kill animals much bigger than itself. It was a mighty feral cat, twice the size of any domestic tom and five-fold as fierce, green eyes ablaze with malice, muscles rippling. It crouched to one side of Meg’s body, jaws locked on her neck, panting slightly, waiting for her to die. A shudder went through Meg’s body and then she lay inert. Still the cat did not let go, betraying the guile of the experienced killer, patiently ensuring that for this prey there would be no miracle resuscitation and flight to safety.
I had never witnessed death before. What possible use was a suburban boy raised on homework in such a situation? Panic-stricken, the only thing I could think to do was grab the cat’s tail and try to drag it off Meg. I resolved to stalk the cat, terrified of what it might do if it saw me.
First I turned up my coat collar to protect my windpipe. Then I crouched, feeling around for a stick, not taking my eyes off the creature. I would feel a little braver thus armed, I would do my best to drive off the cat and recover Meg’s body dead or alive. What were the old postman and his soap nun wife going say? They were never going to believe this story. But I had to do something.
Then it saw me. Its eyes narrowed into missiles of hate. From between its clenched teeth it let out a growl of which a black panther would have been proud. Inch by inch it manoeuvred its hind quarters into position as a launch pad. Clearly, if I was going to stand any chance I had to act right away. “Let’s go!” I shouted.
“Stay where you are boy,” hissed a cold voice behind me, “don’t move”.
This, I’m afraid, is where the story gets rather hard to believe. I can imagine the comments, “he’s been at the gin bottle again”, “distance lends enchantment” and other niceties. Such is the lot of the storyteller.
A hand gripped my shoulder and spun me round. What I saw was a mother’s worst fear. I was face to face with the pervert of the woods. Dirty hairs like cockroach legs sprouted from his ears and wriggled when he spoke.
“So,” he said, spittle flying from his thin lips, “you have brought us meat”.
When the sound of this rasping voice reached them, the scrawny saplings in the Belsen plantation cowered and shed more dead needles. The hand released its grip on my shoulder and transferred itself quickly to my throat, where it began to squeeze, while its counterpart traced a path down my chest, bound for where it was not wanted.
Now I expect you have all experienced that odd summer phenomenon, the swirling black thunder cloud that threatens much but passes over, leaving the ground parched and cheated despite the electric air and cloying heat. It was such a cloud that passed over the clearing that day, as forbidding as a prison gate but bone dry. Except, that is, for four solitary raindrops that fell from the sky like the droppings of an invisible creature overhead. Four drops to change the shape of things.
The first raindrop landed squarely on my forehead. I hardly noticed it at first; I was too busy struggling for breath. It felt viscous, that’s all, and strangely calming. As it trickled down my face it increased in volume and found its way between the pervert’s fingers. When the liquid touched them it turned to a dust as brown as the dead bracken beneath our feet. The man yelped.
The second raindrop scored a direct hit upon the feral cat’s muzzle where it too turned instantly to brown dust which, judging by the effect it had upon the creature, was as toxic as ant venom. The cat released its grip on Meg and feverishly clawed at its own head. It swore and spat and ran in all directions before heading straight for me.
The third drop fell on the pervert’s face.
“What the …?”
The rest of his words died in his throat as his mouth clogged up with brown dust. Worse still for him, the raindust soldered his eyelids together. It was as if a mortician had applied cyanoacrylate glue to them. Unable to see or talk, the man fell writhing to the ground, dragging me down with him. In his agony he became caked in a layer of dead pine needles. But he held on to me.
The final drop landed on the Devil’s mark on Meg’s back, where it gleamed brighter than a diamond in an footballer’s ear. Liquid channels of iridescence coursed from the drop and criss-crossed Meg’s shiny fur, lighting her up like a Christmas bauble. Suddenly she sneezed and came back to life.
Meanwhile the feral cat was upon me. Its eyes were wild and the lacerations on my arms from its claws swelled up in great welts which bled profusely. Still the blinded pervert hung on to my windpipe and held my face close to his. The last thing I remember was seeing the cockroaches in his ears pedalling furiously. As I drifted into delirium I heard Meg barking.
I came round to a calmer scene. My neck was free and the feral cat was gone. Meg was licking the welts on my arms and neck, her tongue as soothing as silk. I looked into her deep brown eyes and was struck by how kind and wise they looked, like cathedral windows through which centuries of insight could be glimpsed. She seemed pleased to see me. The stump that passed for a tail was wagging with such vigour that her whole rear end wobbled from side to side like a Christmas jelly.
Struggling to my feet, I looked around. Although the feral cat was nowhere to be seen the pervert was still there and he was crawling towards me, pointing an accusing finger my way.
He’d managed to tear his lips apart. “The needles will get you,” he hissed, getting ever closer. He stretched out a hand to grab my foot but Meg got there first.
The pervert turned towards the sapling’s fence and dragged himself towards it then sat up and pointed at the trees one by one as if they were his servants.
“Needles!” he shrieked.
“Shed them! Now!”
A rustle of wind passed from sapling to sapling. They were whispering to each other.
“Fire your needles!”
At last the trees did as they were bid. A shower of darts thickened the space that separated the saplings from the pervert.
“Not at me, you idiots! Get the boy!”
He was too late. Insolence was in the air. Soon his body was covered in sharp needles. Rivulets of blood streamed from a thousand wounds on his face and bubbled as they met the raindust clinging to his chin.
Gasps and sighs were coming from the Belsen saplings. The sounds coagulated into a continuous sucking noise which before long started to beat like breath. With each beat the pervert found himself sucked a few yards closer to the trees. It was as if the Belsen saplings were intent upon revenge. When the pervert realised what was happening he began to scream.
Meg barked. “Let’s get out of here” she seemed to say.
Which is what we did.
When we got home the soap nun was tapping her foot impatiently. “Where do you think you’ve been all this time? And what’s that brown dust you are both covered in? It smells like death!” I thought it best not to try to explain. Meg drank long and hard from her water bowl then flopped down at the postman’s feet, where she began to lick amiably at the sore on his ankle until her eyelids drooped and she fell asleep.
And that, I’m sorry to say, was the last I ever saw of her. Teenage pursuits and exams took precedence for several months until one day I learnt that the old postman had died. Once more I knocked at the side door, expecting to hear Meg’s snuffles and pitter-pattering toes but all was quiet. “Just a minute” came a voice from within, a tinge of relief in its timbre.
“Oh, it’s you,” said the soap nun, the carbolic smell stronger than ever. “She’s gone you know. Died the same day as ‘imself”.
Then the soap nun, coming closer, said something very strange.
“Duty’s done, you see. God’s work.”
With that she stood back with a knowing look on her face and folded her arms so that dimples showed in them. As I tried to fathom her meaning, my mind drifted back over Meg and I’s adventures together, the rolls of fat across her shoulders and the Devil’s mark on her back. Our miraculous escape from the pervert and his feral cat seemed unreal and the four drops that had turned to raindust positively far-fetched.
“Sent to help him over, she was.”
God believers with dimples do come up with the oddest ideas!
Then, as I stood there contemplating the soap nun’s blotchy complexion and remembering Meg’s cathedral eyes, what the grey lady had said came back to me – “I feel the presence of an angel.” Yes, those were her very words, much to my amusement at the time. Slowly it dawned upon me that it was not to me the sightless woman was referring. It was Meg.