The Doggy Man
Sleep receded and he woke slowly, eyes still closed with sticky sleep, gradually feeling sensation return to his body. He wriggled the toes on his left foot and managed to move his left arm slightly; an awkward sleeping position meant that it was stiff and sore. The pain. Familiar visitor, old friend.
“I’m still here.” He told himself, “Ah well.” Deep, rattling breath. Morning lungs.
Something moved in the corner of his darkened bedroom when he spoke; only a slight movement, causing a feint brushing sound to reach his ears as. At the same time he caught an odour on the air. Without opening his eyes, he inhaled. The scent was musky, strong. He breathed it in the way a crack addict breathes in the first hit from their pipe. This breath was easy, no rattling. He breathed out in a long sigh of relief.
At the sound of his voice, legs pushed and body heaved and with some effort old feet plodded the ten steps from the corner of the room over to the bed.
From another, heretofore silent, corner of the room the same effort led to the same result and now the bed contained three where it had a few seconds before contained only one. For the first time, he opened his eyes on this new day. His two eyes were met by the intense gaze of four others. The odour was stronger now, matched by the strength of the bond between these three creatures; one master, two dogs. The doggy man, who could have cared less for his own life (or the lives of most people he’d ever met) looked at his two aging dogs and knew that he would have to get out of bed and that he would enter into the life of the day, if only for the sake of maintaining the routine for his dogs.
“Right you two tortures, breakfast time.”
On cue the two old dogs became like pups once more. They knew the words. He had spoken these words every morning of their thirteen-year lives. They also knew that minutes after he spoke these words they would be dipping their noses and mouths into the most gloriously stinking food any master ever provided for one of his charges. So, even though they had old, aching bones and soft, flabby muscles, something in their primal brains allowed them, for a few seconds to bounce up and down on the bed.
“OK, OK! Come off it, will youse? It’s not like you’re starved or anything. Youse are no strangers to food. Now, down.”
Good and faithful servants, the two dogs flopped down off the bed and took up an attentive ‘sit’ position, patiently waiting as their master heaved his own old and tired body onto the floor.
He stood tentatively, taking a moment to steady himself against the frailty of his frame. His breathing rattled once more. Gravity took over and fluid sank low into his lungs. His breathing became more difficult. Resigned to the outcome he walked slowly to the bathroom and spent the next ten minutes coughing and vomiting up phlegm. The dogs watched on, curious yet familiar with this routine now- they had witnessed it for the last few months and it had simply become part of the ritual of behaviours they witnessed before they ate. And so, they sat and waited as the doggy man coughed away what he could of the fluid that was slowly killing him.
Teary eyed and light-headed from coughing the doggy man stood, swaying in the bathroom. His chest was clearer but the effort it took each morning to get it that way had been on the rise of late. This morning the muscles in between each rib cried out from the strain of phlegm upheaval.
The dogs watched, excitement growing. They had sat in the same position for all the time the doggy man had been coughing. They had developed many skills and attributes thanks to his training and chief among them was the ability to be patient. And so they waited and watched. They knew he would come through for them. As sure as morning’s sun follows night’s moon, they knew.
The doggy man took a few deep breaths and ascertained that there was nothing more he could do; his breathing was as good as it was going to get. The dogs knew this bit. The bigger dog’s tail twitched ever so slightly in anticipation. They both sat just a little straighter, the muscles in their neck tensing just enough to raise their heads a few centimetres. It would happen soon…
“Alright, all clear.” Verbal cue delivered, both dogs exploded out of the bathroom and raced down the stairs. The doggy man followed them without explosion or race. His two-bedroom terraced house was a small affair and the stairs were tight. Over the years he had come to appreciate the narrow staircase. There was not much room between him and the banister on his left, and him and the wall on his right. For the unsteady morning descent it was good to have something nearby and steady to lean on.
He shivered as he neared the bottom of the stairs. It was cold these mornings. He spent most of his days out of the house walking and so wasn’t keen on the expense of keeping his radiators on throughout the day time. As a result his little house was rarely warm, except for the hour or two he fired the boiler up before going to bed. Truth be told, he didn’t mind the cold. He’d worked in the cold most of his life- first as a builder, then as a bin man. Add to that the hours he’d spent hunting on the mountains and fields around his home. No, he didn’t mind the cold. But his old body did.
“Getting bloody soft, you are.” He spoke out loud to chastise himself. Speaking thoughts out loud was one benefit of not sharing his house with another human being. “Cold never bothered you when you were hunting hares up on Divis, did it? Ten hours up there in any weather never took a fizz out of ye. And now look at you, shivering on the stairs. Catch yourself on.” His chastisement did nothing to stop his shivering and so he admitted defeat at the bottom of the stairs and reached out for his walking jacket. He pulled the heavy waterproof on over his pyjamas. Twisting his body so that it entered the jacket, his eyes fell on the door- on the letterbox in the door to be more precise. From there, his eyes traced a line to the floor. No letter on the ground. Part relief, part frustration ensued. Some day soon a letter would arrive. And then? Well, then he would know. But not today.
Walking along the short hallway towards the kitchen he caught his reflection in the mirror that hung on the wall. Heavy grey beard; roughly chopped short hair (he did it himself- no use paying for something so utterly unimportant); blue paisley pyjama top; and a dark green and brown camouflage jacket.
“You’re a looker, my old son.” He rubbed his beard; thin and wrinkled face underneath. “Wonder no woman snapped you up.” He managed a wink and a derisory snort at himself in the mirror, turned away and moved into the kitchen. Dishes sat in the sink; from when exactly he wasn’t sure. He had a policy of doing dishes as a job lot every four or five days. Another benefit of single life; no-one to nag about untidiness. And he took untidiness to new heights. Well, it wasn’t that he was untidy as such. It was just that he wasn’t tidy either. He had come to realise (mainly from being in other people’s houses) that where some ranked tidiness high on their list of priorities, for him it was an irrelevance. Tidy or not, he didn’t care. So in a few days’ time he would do the dishes. And then the kitchen would be more or less tidy. However, as he stood there, the kitchen was untidy.
“It is what it is.” The dogs looked up at this comment, unsure of what it meant for them; it wasn’t one the set of commands they knew so well. He noticed them looking at him. “Sorry boys. Alright, where’s the food.” This the dogs recognised and they walked straight over to the cupboard underneath the dish-filled sink and sat down. “Good boys.” He reached into the cupboard and took out a large plastic bag filled with dry dog food and two silver dog bowls. As the dogs began to salivate beside him, he poured food into each bowl. Taking the bowls with him, he walked over to the back door leading from the kitchen out into his small back yard. “Now for the good stuff.” He opened the door and walked out, followed dutifully by the dogs, one at either side of him. He went to the corner of the yard and stood at a two-gallon white barrel that sat against the wall. The barrel reeked. It emitted the foul odour of death. The scent wafted on the air all around the barrel, even on this cold day. He didn’t notice it anymore. While others would gag, he simply took the lid off the barrel to expose the sloshing, green soup of sliced cow’s stomach- tripe. He lifted a small cup off the ground beside the barrel, dug it deep into the stink and drew out a portion. He sloshed it into one of the bowls of dry food and set it down. The dogs looked but didn’t move. He repeated the process and put the second bowl of dry food and tripe on the ground. Not a move from the dogs. He stood to attention.
“Dogs…wait…dogs…get it!” Two wet noses and slobber-filled mouths dug deep into the morning meal. The doggy man looked at them. A smile crossed his lips. His dogs were well fed and well kept. “That’s all that matters.”
A voice, “Jesus, man! What are you wearing?” A neighbour looked down on him from their open bedroom window. “Height of fashion for the doggy men, eh? Camouflage and paisley jammies? Jesus!” The neighbour moved away chortling and closed the widow with a thud.
“People.” The doggy man said, his smile gone.
Food bowls hosed out. Check. Dogs rested for half an hour. Check. Blue paisley pyjamas exchanged for a pair of questionably washed jeans and a red checked shirt. Check. The doggy man was ready to go on patrol.
“Dogs.” Four seconds later and they were at his side, looking up to him for their next move. Looking at the bigger dog, “Get the leads.” The dog turned and walked slowly over to a wicker box on the floor. He bent his head down and gently lifted two short leads with his mouth. Once secured between his teeth, he brought them back to his master.
“Good lad.” He bent down and secured a lead to each dog. “Let’s go boys.” The doggy man led the way to the front door, opened it, walked outside and dropped the leads. The dogs waited as he closed and locked the front door. The doggy man turned from the door and looked around at his street. It was lined both sides with small boxy terraced houses fronted with beige block. The street was long and narrow. There were cars parked outside most houses on both sides. This made it almost impossible for cars to drive up and down the street and led to arguments and falling out most days of the week. Not that it bothered him. Firstly, he didn’t drive. And secondly, to fall out with people you first have to get to know them; so no falling out for him.
Lifting the leads, he moved off at a slow but steady pace, dogs either side at a half step behind him. The day was fresh, cool but bright; perfect. His feet craved the soft feel of grass and his eyes craved wide open space. His mind craved his own company and the avoidance of all others. He judged that the park would be quiet enough at this time of a Saturday morning. Five minutes later he reached the gap in the park fence that he had been using as an unofficial entrance since childhood. Beyond the gap lay his place, his territory; a doggy man’s playground.
The grass sparkled with the last remnant of early morning dew. Paths cut the park into distinct areas- football pitches gave way to small patches of wild meadow set alight with yellow, orange and blue flowers springing up above the unruly grass. Beyond these areas, here and there stands of trees shot up, providing cover for amblers during the all-too-frequent rainy times and for late evening alcohol drinkers who wanted to hide the shame of their drinking away from prying eyes.
On this bright Saturday morning, though, the park was all but devoid of amblers and ramblers. He had entered the park at one of its highest points and this gave him a view over most of the space. The doggy man breathed a sigh of relief as he saw that he was unlikely to have to exchange pleasantries with anyone this morning. The sigh caught in his throat and he began to cough. For a second the breath left him completely- is this it? he thought- only to return in the form of a rasping belch-like cough. A few seconds later he spat heavily onto the ground, wiped his mouth roughly with the sleeve of his coat, shook his head in disgust at himself and this illness, and walked on. Making a statement on the world, the doggy man stepped off the path and onto the grass. He refused to walk the path around the park. He preferred to cut his own way through. He often looked at others walking on the path with disdain. They had no sense of adventure at all. No. He rarely stuck to anyone else’s path.
The softness under his foot issued a welcome to him. He stood for a few seconds, feeling his weight push him slightly down into the grass, down into the ground, into the earth. A thought struck him; he’d soon enough be in the earth. He looked back involuntarily to where he had coughed and spat a moment before.
“Enough” he said out loud. He mentally swatted the thought away. That day would come, but it wasn’t today it seemed. “Right, dogs. Let’s go.” One on his right, one on his left he moved slowly but steadily across the grass, making towards a clump of trees and hedges in one of the wilder parts of the park. The dogs sensed where they were going and their short stubby tails lifted higher- a sign of excitement and alertness. They knew that they soon would be working and they lived for this. The doggy man recognised the signs of their excitement. He reached into the deep, cold pocket of his coat and retrieved a heavy stuffed cloth duck. It was coloured in the familiar brown, blue and grey of a mallard. This duck had seen some action and, even though he had trained his dogs to be soft mouthed and not to tear at the duck, inevitably it was a bit the worse for wear. Still, it was dirty and smelly and that helped the dogs find it. Once the dogs had sight of the duck, their excitement grew even more. Tails now fully erect and wagging furiously from side to side, they bounced as they walked; still staying true to their position at the side, and just behind, their master- but ready now. A cold and wet walk over the dewy grass later and they came to the edge small wooded area.
“Wait here.” The dogs stopped on a sixpence. The doggy man went into the heart of the trees. He looked back to make sure the dogs could not see exactly where he was going to bury the duck under leaves and twigs. He made a couple of false drops- pretending to bury the duck. Eventually he chose his spot and buried it. He then went to two more spots, again pretending to bury the duck. He wanted the boys to work this morning. Beginning to wheeze and feel short of breath from the bending down and getting up, the doggy man made it back to the edge of the trees and his faithful charges. They looked at him. At that moment, he knew that nothing else existed in these dogs’ lives- only this moment looking at him, awaiting the familiar command. He allowed himself to stay in the moment with them. This is why he had dogs. This is why, from the time of being a young man, he had preferred the company of dogs over people (he used to joke with people that if his house was on fire he’d carry his dogs out and his family in- this was before he came to understand that he would have no family of his own. Once that realisation struck home, he stopped telling that joke). The dogs had the ability to live in the moment and environment in front of them. It was as seductive to the doggy man as a drug. He looked back at the dogs, their four eyes fixed on his two eyes and those two eyes fixed upon their four. Bad breathing be-damned. Coughing his lungs up every day be-damned. Human beings be-damned. He was alive in this moment. He had his dogs. And he knew what he had to do next.
“Go!” One word blew the stillness of the moment apart. The old dogs summoned up all of their strength and all of their innate genetics and began to hunt. Noses to the floor they set off into the trees, cutting across the ground like two flamenco dancers setting the dance floor on fire. The doggy man watched. A small tear formed in the corner of his left eye. He wiped it away and watched the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen.
THE END OF THE WALK
Half an hour later, the dogs were panting heavily, tongues hanging low out of their mouths. Steam rose from their sweaty fur. They lay content at his feet and he looked on equally content. “Come on, let’s go home.” The dogs heaved themselves up off the grass and followed as he slowly walked away. They did as they were bid, he thought to himself. He had had to do others’ bidding of late. He hadn’t done so with the enthusiasm of his canine companions, mind you.
A neighbour had found him slumped over a garden wall a month ago. He had taken a coughing fit and blacked out. Kindly and all as she was, the neighbour was also forceful. Taking advantage of his light headedness she had bundled him into her car and driven him to his doctor- a man he had not seen in a very long time. And so it began; he knew what it was to feel like a dog. She had ordered him into the surgery and he had obeyed. The doctor told him to sit, and he obeyed. The doctor, having sounded his chest and poked and prodded him for twenty minutes, told him to go to the hospital. And he obeyed. There, he met another doctor who told him to sit. Sit he did. This doctor told him to spit. Spit he did. Two x-rays and a blood test later and he was released back home. That had been a month ago. They told him they would write to him with the results. He didn’t need a letter to confirm what he knew, though. And he wouldn’t be told to sit or spit again.
“Right dogs, back on the lead.” He had reached the gap in the park fence. The dogs duly stopped and he put the leads back on to their collars. He allowed the dogs to go through the gap first and then he began to go through himself. He put his head out and stopped. Down the street. Walking with purpose. The post man. Saturday. Of course. The post was late on a Saturday. He took a deep, rattley breath of acceptance and watched as the postman turned into his street. The dogs look back at him, unsure of what was happening. They never stopped here. They never went back. The smaller dog whined slightly. The noise shook the doggy man out of his stare. “It’s ok. Things will be ok.” He told the dogs. He told himself. “Let’s go.”
His steps were unsure now. His breathing became laboured as anxiety attempted to up the breath per minute count. He was just 100 yards from home now. There was no sight of the post man. Perhaps he hadn’t delivered anything to his house He hadn’t’ delivered anything for quite some time. Yes, that was it, he thought. He didn’t come to my house. For a brief moment he considered not going home yet. He caught this flight reaction early and doubled down on his resolve to complete his journey.
Key into door. Dogs sat. Leads off. Doggy man pushed the door open. Dogs sat. Doggy man told them to go inside. Dogs obeyed and made for the water bowl in the kitchen. Doggy man went inside and pushed the door shut. Reluctantly, he lowered his head to the floor.
“Today is the day, it seems.” A brown envelope with a hospital stamp looked up at him, daring him to pick it up and view what it contains. A sudden blood rush left him dizzy and as he bent down he almost fell. Still, his hand reached out and felt the smooth paper. He straightened up and leaned heavily against the wall of his tight hallway. He closed his eyes and ripped the envelope open. As he did, he felt a familiar thud on his leg. His dogs had joined him and the bigger one was pawing him. The dogs wanted petted. “In a minute. Good boy.” He whispered.
Fumbling now, he pulled the letter out of the envelope and read from the top down. The logo: Cancer Centre… The greeting: Dear sir… The content. He read it once. He read it again. A third reading to be sure.
See your GP
No further action.
A deep rattley sigh emanated from his fluid filled lungs. He slumped down the wall and into the slobbery kisses of his friends. They thought he was playing. Maybe he was. He was certainly smiling.
“Looks like we get to keep going. Good dogs.”