Awaking for the second time that day to find the birds had stopped their chatter and the sun risen in the sky, I lay in my basket and thought about the mistress. Of course I was sad she was dead. You canít share someoneís life year after year, spend almost every waking moment with them, shadow their every move and be their eyes for them without building a special bond. Besides, itís in my genes. Iím a third generation guide dog for the blind. I was bred for this life, born into it, trained for it. So yes, Iím sad the mistress is dead. But when you live your life in dog years you donít have much time for sentiment, believe me.
Life goes on.
Earlier Iíd woken to the sounds of birds singing from the telegraph wires as a bland sun etched patterns onto the dirt-streaked windowpanes, filling the room with pale, sombre light. I blinked against the pallid sun and tried to stop my ears to the birdsong. It was the same on this day as any other. From the hallway the metallic snap and leafy flutter of the morning post signaled it was time for me to rise and begin my work. Collecting the post is my first chore of the day. Every day, except Sundays. Week in and week out.
Pushing open the mistressís bedroom door I entered, padded to the side of the bed and dropped the letters by her side.
I hopped up on the bed. She just lay there. No sound, no movement. I nuzzled into her.
Finding her lying there, marble cold and pale as hoar frost, with lids closed over clouded useless eyes, I lay down beside her on the bed, tilted my face to the ceiling, and let out a long, resonant howl. I couldnít remember the last time I howled like that. It felt good. I took a breath and howled again. This time the sound caught in my throat and in spite of the empty house it left me feeling foolish. I stopped howling. I moved the letters on to the mistressís stalled ribcage, hopped down off the bed and returned to the kitchen, curled up in my basket, cursed the chirruping birds and dropped back to sleep.
When I awoke again that afternoon, after solemn moments considering the mistressís demise, I realised I was famished. It was dinnertime. I checked the cupboards to find several weeks supply of Pedigree Chum. I wouldnít starve. But I was in charge of the housekeeping now and I had no intention of restricting myself to dog food.
I found a nice fillet of beef in the fridge and embarked upon my first culinary experiment. First I rubbed the steak with garlic and seasoned it with a little salt and freshly milled pepper. Then I fried the steak in sizzling butter, for two minutes either side, before placing it in the oven on a low heat, just to keep it warm. I fried mushrooms and onions in the remaining butter, adding lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and a generous splash of brandy. All that remained was to add cream and parsley, bring up the heat, then pour it over the steak and serve. My old dog bowl had never seen such a feast. I washed the meal down with a glass of cabernet sauvignon. Marvellous!
I must have nodded off shortly afterwards, because when I awoke some time later Ė the sun was beginning to set and the birds to return to their roosts for yet another sing-song Ė I could still feel my meal lying heavy and satisfying in my stomach. Truly, this was the life. No cares, no duties; a life devoted solely to the pleasures of the self.
I felt a weight shift within me and hunkered in the corner of the kitchen as a large, firm turd passed and dropped silently onto the linoleum. A quick sniff and back to the basket. My first day of freedom over, I slept until dawn.
Awaking the next morning, with the sun slanting in through the windows and those stupid birds twittering away again, I heard the post push through the letterbox and drop to the doormat. With a stretch and a yawn I raised myself from the basket and padded into the hall. The post between my teeth, it wasnít until I reached the mistressís door that I remembered she was dead.
Squatting at the end of the bed I deposited a loose and sloppy stool on the carpet - something Iíd never done before! It felt good. But judging by the consistency - porridge - and stench - burnt mince - I concluded my steak in cream sauce had perhaps been a trifle rich.
I returned to my basket, but I couldnít relax. I felt cooped up and restless. I had to get out for a leg-stretch. I began to search for the mistressís keys.
Iíd never been out of the house on my own before. As a guide dog, my life to that point had been one of servitude and duty. If I found the door keys I could indulge in all the things denied to me for so many years. Iíd be free to walk without a harness. Free to wander the streets, ransack dustbins, chase birds and squirrels, bark at old ladies, and mount those beautiful honey-coloured bitches in the park.
Iíve always hated being a guide dog. This is not a criticism of the mistress; I pitied her, but also I resented her blindness. Why should I be denied all the stick-chasing, pond-jumping, anus-sniffing fun just so sheís able to get to the shops and back again? Other people manage with a pair of dark glasses and white stick. Why not her?
Sometimes, walking the mistress to work weíd pass through the park and Iíd see all the dogs running for the sheer fun of it, high on energy and buzzing with freedom, a thoughtless whirr of hair and tails and lolloping tongues, it would strike me deeply. The mistress and I would pass amongst them as though part of a funeral cortege; eyes front, even pace, no time for fun. Then, out of the park and standing on a rain-drizzled kerbstone by the pedestrian crossing, waiting for the Ďbeep-beep-beepí to signal the lights had changed and it was safe to cross, Iíd get this tremendous urge to walk. Just get up and step out straight under a bus. End it all. It would have been so quick and so easy.
But I couldnít escape the guilt. Iím a third generation guide dog for the blind. Itís a vocation. Itís hardwired in my genes. There was always something holding me back from betraying the bloodline. I was born to serve.
Iíd turned the house upside down. Where had she put the keys? There was no sign of them. I lay down on the sofa and began to gnaw and rip at the scatter cushions. It was pleasantly therapeutic, but it was not long until there was nothing left but shreds of material and thousands of bits of foam, all over the room. Tearing apart the mistressís soft furnishings was certainly one way of releasing pent up energy, but it was no substitute for a proper leg-stretch. What to do?
I decided on a bath. Not one of those once-a-year, detergent baths Iíd been used to. This was deep and warm and foaming. As I lay back for a long soak and let the bubbles crowd around me, I could feel the tension ebb from my body. So much so, a small turd escaped from between my hind legs and bobbed up on the surface, pleasingly brown, firm and shiny, amidst the sudsy foam.
After the bath, I shook myself down and lay in front of the electric heater in the living room, my coat glossy and fragrant. If only I could get out the house and show myself off to all those excitable bitches in the park. Iíd continue my search for the key tomorrow.
My thoughts returned to dinner. I was starving. A quick check on supplies revealed a choice of steak again, sausages or burgers. I opted for the sausages, delicious though the steak looked; variety is the spice of life after all. After the richness of last nightís supper I opted to grill, rather than fry the sausages and knocked up some mashed potatoes and gravy. To drink, I cracked open an ice cold can of lager. It was a little gassy maybe, but invigorating nevertheless.
I settled down to my meal in front of the television, with all the bars of the electric heater full on. My first ever TV dinner. I found some football on ITV and settled down to follow the match. It wasnít long before I started to drift in and out of sleep, lulled by the heat from the fire, another bellyful of fine food and the hypnotic ebb and flow of the chants from the terraces. An early night was in order, but breaking with tradition I decided to sleep in the living room, though I did haul in my basket from the kitchen. I love my old dog bowl and basket.
Next morning I awoke to the curtained murkiness of the living room.
I cocked an ear. There was no birdsong.
I roused myself and went to the hallway. The post was already lying there, looking strangely forlorn, or so it seemed to me. The mistress received a huge amount of post. She had a massive network of family and friends and those that couldnít pop in to see her would send her Braille-typed letters, which she would read in bed each morning, with me in faithful attendance. I remember how weird it seemed, even to me, to watch her sitting upright in bed, hair askew, wonky eyes rolling like a lunatic, as her fingertips passed calm and intelligent over the pages of her correspondence. Sometimes she would comment on their contents to me, or she would chuckle or laugh out loud and once she broke down in such torrents of crying, I had to hide my head under the bed with embarrassment.
Of course, I was separated from my kith and kin long ago. Not long after weaning I was taken from my mother with my two brothers and each of us was pressed into service. Not seen hide nor hair of them since.
I had a shit by the doormat. Solid and tangy - signifying a healthy constitution - this put me in somewhat better spirits.
I had to get out of the house. What was the point of freedom, if all it really meant was good food, TV, warm baths and electric fires? A dog needs to run free too. I turned the house upside down looking for the mistressís keys. By the time Iíd finished the place looked like a crime scene. But still not a sign of those keys.
At least Iíd expended some of my energy, but this situation had to be resolved. I supped from a can of lager as I considered my next move.
I took a breath and began to bark and howl and yelp as Iíd never done before. I jumped up at the front door, chipping flakes of gloss paint with my scrabbling paws. I leapt at the curtains in the living room, tearing them down and bringing the curtain rail away from the wall, causing the living room to fill with the fine mist of ancient plaster dust. Hot saliva sprayed over the windowpanes, as they rattled in their frames.
I could see passers-by looking in, but none of them came to my aid, I suppose to them I was just another crazy dog. They couldnít see I was in need of rescue from my prison.
Ultimately, it was Mrs Macintyre, the mistressís next-door neighbour, who came to my aid. She would visit the mistress a couple of times a week and would often run errands for her, she had even taken me for walks on the odd occasion. She must have known straightaway that something was wrong; I doubt sheíd ever heard me bark before. She began to bang on the door shouting for the mistress. When she realised there was something wrong she disappeared out of sight Ė I was watching from the living room window Ė to return several minutes later with a man Iíd never seen before. Then, inexplicably, they both started to bang on the door and shout for the mistress, as though perhaps she had been struck deaf as well as blind! Eventually, and with some reluctance I thought, the man backed away from the door, signaling with his arm for Mrs Macintyre to retreat, while he took a run up and launched himself, shoulder first, at the door, from which he rebounded like a tennis ball, landing in a heap on the floor. He picked himself up, gingerly rubbing his upper arm. Mrs Macintyre said something to him, I couldnít hear what, and he waved her back once more and hurled himself at the door again, this time his other shoulder taking the brunt of the force. I heard the splintering of wood and ran to the hallway. The man had partially taken the door off its hinges. Fresh air wafted into the house and I let out a whimper. Seconds later the manís boot came crashing through as the door leapt completely from its frame and landed, lopsided, into the hallway, giving off a rich clean scent of wood shavings.
Mrs Macintyre rushed by me with the stranger in tow. They were too preoccupied with finding the mistress to pay any attention to me as I bolted for the open door.
Down the pavement I ran, flat out. I could feel my ears flapping against my skull, my tongue hung loosely from my opened jaws. I was free. All I could think of was to run. I reached the end of the road and just carried on running. I didnít know if I was running away from my past life, or running to meet my new one.
As soon as I stepped out onto the road it hit me and punched me sideways into the gutter with the dull thump of flesh and bone against onrushing metal. I took the impact on my shoulder, neck and head. I heard the cracking of bones and as I struggled to stay upright I felt the pads of my paws ripping against the road and my claws tearing from their joints. Only as I lay there with my tongue hanging out tasting the greasy, oil-stained tarmac did I see the bus cruising down the road. I closed my eyes to the pain and felt a glorious, tingling warmth seep through my body.
Amidst the noise of passing traffic I heard a high-pitched Ďbeep-beep-beepí, which sounded to my ears like the strangest kind of birdsong. It was a sound Iíd heard many times before, but somehow I couldnít place it. It stopped as abruptly as it had begun and I opened my eyes to the sky expecting to see the birds up above me, but there was nothing except a network of empty telegraph wires stretching across the sky in every direction. Lowering my gaze, I saw the fading glow of a traffic light as it made its inevitable journey from green to amber and back to red.
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