MAN'S BEST FRIEND
‘Don’t worry Miss Frost of course I’ll look after them.’
‘Thank you Mark I know you will. It’s just that they’re such delicate little creatures.’Mark bundled his client’s two scrawny Chihuahuas into the back of his white transit van and feigning a big, bright smile, drove off. Miss Frost was still at her front gate when he approached the T-junction so he tooted the horn as he turned the corner to reassure her that all was okay.
‘Tinkerbelle! Sugarplum! Shut the fuck up!’ he yelled at the yapping dogs once he was on the open road. He put on a CD – heavy metal – and turned the volume up high to try and drown them out. But the angry music only made the animals worse and they provided a howling accompaniment all the way home. The dogs like to listen to music in the evenings, Miss Frost had told him when she’d run through their various likes and dislikes. Mozart and Bach were favourites. Sod Mozart, he thought, ramping up the decibels until it hurt even his own ears.
‘For small dogs you’ve got big lungs,’ he said as he pulled up outside his squat and lifted them out.
He could easily carry both of the dogs in one hand but he was glad he was wearing gloves because they kept nipping at his fingers and it was clear they weren’t playing. The Chihuahuas were sisters and identical to Mark’s untrained eye but Miss Frost swore that they had very distinct personalities and must be treated as such.
He plonked the dogs down in his room. He’d only been looking after them for half-an-hour but already he felt worn out. He lay down on his mattress and slid one hand underneath. Ah, that was more like it, he thought, pulling out a thick wad of notes. Counting it always gave him a buzz. Kissing the money, he replaced it and got up to make some food.
Miss Frost had provided him with some fillet steak for the Chihuahuas’ supper but he put that in a frying pan for himself and opened a can of dog food for them. Who gave dogs the best steak? He seasoned his own meal while watching the sisters pick over the pink meat. Was it his imagination or was there a look of disgust on their snooty, extraterrestrial little faces?
After he’d eaten, he attempted to read a chapter from Miss Frost’s latest romance. A signed copy no less. That was where she’d gone tonight, to a book reading to promote it. He got as far as page four but its rapid development from the lovers’ first encounter to his “throbbing manhood” and her “aroused sex” repulsed him. Soft porn for frustrated housewives. He hurled it across the room, narrowly missing Sugarplum. Or was it Tinkerbelle? There it could stay, unlike Miss Frost’s home which was obsessively clean and tidy. In fact he was amazed she had dogs. Somehow dog ownership didn’t equate with someone who was forever fiddling with her bowls of lavender pot pourri and lacy antimacassars.
He would take the dogs out for a pee later. He wasn’t going to risk calling their names and being overheard. With names like theirs, they deserved to be kidnapped.
Mark cleared his throat before knocking on Miss Frost’s door. It was 2pm the following day, the appointed time at which he was due to return the dogs. He put on a sombre expression, which wasn’t difficult given that he’d dozed rather than slept all night, their high-pitched whine continually breaking through into his subconscious. Still it was worth it. Surely two dogs meant double the reward money?
‘Miss Frost, I’m afraid I have some bad news…’
‘Come in, Mark.’
It was hard to read Miss Frost’s face as he unlaced his boots then padded along to her big kitchen with its Aga and scrubbed pine table. Mark still felt confident – the fact that she referred to Sugarplum and Tinkerbelle as ‘the girls’ surely meant she saw them as her surrogate children?
‘Sit yourself down and tell me all about it. I’ll stick the kettle on.’
He put his head in his hands but then realising he was overdoing it, shifted his position and talked to her while she bustled about with cups and saucers.
‘It’s like this… I stopped to do some shopping on the way home yesterday. I took the dogs out for a brief stretch and then put them back in the van. Someone must have been watching because when I came back ten minutes later, the door of the van was wide open and the dogs were gone. I couldn’t believe it.’
‘Oh,’ she said, turning to face him.
‘They’re pedigrees, you see. People recognise their value. It’s a bit like wearing a Rolex out and about.’
‘Oh,’ Miss Frost said again.
She switched off the kettle and then slowly replaced the crockery in the Welsh dresser.
‘I think this calls for a little celebration, don’t you?’
She went over to a walk-in larder and after rustling about for a moment, came back with a bottle of Baileys and two liqueur glasses.
‘There you go, Mark,’ she said, filling the glasses to the top. ‘Cheers!’
Mark winced at its sweetness – he was a real ale man – and there wasn’t even a convenient pot plant to tip it into.
‘Cheers,’ he said, flatly.
‘I’ve always been more of a cat person – funny how the world divides into cat and dog people, isn’t it? My sister left me the girls in her will so I could hardly turn them away. But gosh, it’s been so nice and quiet without them. Their hairs go all over the place. They get into my computer. Everywhere. I have to rub baby oil on their coats every day to try and stop the shedding.’
She sipped her drink while scrutinising Mark over her horn-rimmed spectacles.
‘Would you like a refill?’
Mark shook his head a bit too vehemently.
‘I just hope they don’t give their new owner too much trouble. They can be very mischievous and they’re such long-lived dogs too. Sixteen years or more.’
‘I’m sure he – or she – will cope,’ said Mark, trying to avoid his client’s eyes which he suspected conveyed a hint of mirth.
Miss Frost’s expression about ‘turning the dogs away’ had given Mark an idea. He asked around in town for the nearest dog refuge and then drove over to it. There, he encountered a lump of a girl in khaki dungarees and rubber boots dishing out the inmates’ evening meal.
‘I came across two sweet little Chihuahuas in the park the other day,’ he shouted over the sound of the yelping dogs.
‘Yes… I think their owner must have dumped them. I’ve put notices up and knocked on people’s doors but no one knows a thing. Can you take them in? I’m out at work all day, you see.’
‘Haven’t you heard of the recession?’
‘I’ve got over fifty dogs here and it’s just me looking after them. That’s a lot of shit to shovel. I have to turn dogs away on a regular basis whose owners can’t afford to keep them. I’m overwhelmed.’
‘So am I.’
‘Look, come back in a month or two. We might have managed to rehome some of them by then.’
Mark walked out of the shelter, his tail between his legs if that was possible in a human being. He felt the girl had derived pleasure from saying no. Probably one of those animal rights nutters who liked to throw their weight around when it came to dealing with people, he thought dryly. Everything had been so easy last time round. The nice fat reward money, the hiring of some sad sack in the pub to go and collect it along with the return of the dog. Why was this town giving him such hell? It was as though there was some kind of conspiracy against him. Time to move on, Mark reflected as he drove off. Maybe time to even take a break from his current scam. A week or two in the sun sounded nice and he had the money. He was a free agent.
But then he remembered the dogs. They negated any holiday. Even a camping trip to Cornwall would be ruined by their diva-ish demands. The thought of abandoning them some place, as so many other hard-up dog owners were clearly doing, went through his head but he quickly discarded it. He believed in karma. Sort of.
Mark stopped off at the gym. The dogs would have to hold on pee-wise. Sod them. Anyway he couldn’t work out at home now with two sets of scampering paws under his feet. He jumped on to the treadmill and boosted the speed and incline until all his muscles were straining and sweat was running down his back. He liked to exercise till he felt the rush. He shut his eyes and tried to visualise all the powerful endorphins spinning around his body waging war against the negative effects produced by those two pint-sized monsters.
After a shower and a beer, he felt calmer. He hadn’t realised quite how much it had all been getting to him. He’d once learnt from a wildlife documentary that small dogs could easily be carried off by a large bird of prey. That’s what he would do with the pair of them. Tonight after their last supper, he would leave them out in the back garden and hope they might provide a tasty meal for a passing owl. Cruel, yes, but then nature was cruel and surely it wasn’t as brutal as euthanasia? Anyway it was all Miss Frost’s fault. If only she’d put up a small reward for their safe return all this would be unnecessary.
Yes, that was his plan. After the dogs had been disappeared he’d take some time out and then try his hand elsewhere. A change of scenery was what he needed. A new town: a new set of pet owners. He liked witnessing the trusting look on their faces when they read his fake testimonials confirming what a wonderful person he was. Life was good when you were a rolling stone. How people lived in the same place all their lives was beyond him.
It was strangely quiet back at the squat. He walked up the overgrown garden path, kicking a few bits of trash out of the way. He thought they’d be barking their heads off, wanting kisses or cuddles or whatever else bossy toy dogs demanded. At least the rest of his building was empty so he had no neighbours to annoy.
Opening the front door, Mark heard their paws scurrying over the bare floorboards. There they were, the little minxes, their heads cocked to one side, their big saucer eyes full of expression.
‘Hello you two. What have you been up to then? Walkies?’
He felt almost charitable towards them now that he knew the end was nigh. Maybe they were quite cute really.
He walked into his room and immediately realised something was wrong. Shreds of paper lay all over the place and his mattress was askew. He raced over to it and thrust his hand
underneath. There was nothing there. The little bastards had tugged out his money and turned it into confetti.
He spun around and looked at their trembling bodies. Miss Frost had told him they shivered when they were excited or stressed. Stress. He’d give them stress.
With his booted foot, he went to give one of them a kick but the dogs were too fast and darted out of the room and up the stairs. There were two floors above him. They could be anywhere.
Cursing, he walked out, not bothering to shut his front door. Then he climbed into his van and drove away without giving his temporary home a backward glance.