Authors: Tanya Landman
For Fred, the original King
of Charisma, and (of course)
Hobson and Sally
O’Flannery switched on the TV and perched nervously on the edge of the sofa. It was her husband, Dermot’s, first live broadcast and she desperately hoped it would all run smoothly.
Things hadn’t been easy at home lately, but all that would change now. She could go part-time at work; get the dog she’d always longed for; maybe they could even try for a baby!
Kathleen shivered with apprehension as the title sequence began. She hoped Dermot felt calmer than she did. Her heart was in her mouth and she thought she might actually be sick with fright.
Then suddenly there he was: his handsome face filling the screen, looking cool, calm and collected, reading the local news headlines as if he’d been doing it for years. Kathleen felt a surge of possessive pride.
A second later, the crash of breaking glass diverted her attention. Someone had hurled something at the back door! Vandals, probably: kids chucking dustbins around as usual. She’d better sweep up the glass. If she did it quickly she could be back in time to watch Dermot’s next link. But halfway to the kitchen, Kathleen froze. It wasn’t vandals. It wasn’t kids mucking about.
It was a burglar. In the room. Here. With her. A masked thief swinging an iron crowbar. Before she had time to scream, Kathleen O’Flannery’s plans for a rosy future were shattered.
Swiftly, the intruder searched the house for valuables, running from the crime scene just as the news drew to a close.
“That’s all for now, folks.” Dermot O’Flannery looked into the camera and winked: that would be his trademark, he’d decided – the quirk that viewers would come to know and love. “Thank you and good night,” he added, wondering if his wife was watching.
Kathleen was indeed staring at the screen. But her unblinking eyes would never focus on her husband’s face again. By the time the credits rolled, Dermot O’Flannery had become a widower.
name is Poppy Fields. I’m not a big fan of science fiction, to be honest. Time travel, wormholes, pandimensional beings? None of that stuff appeals to me. But during the last summer holidays I had the distinct feeling that Graham and I really had slipped into a parallel universe. Not literally, of course. We hadn’t been abducted by aliens or anything. It was way weirder than that.
We’d landed on Planet Dog.
The break had only just begun, but Back to School window displays were already breeding in the shops like gerbils. Every time I went into town I got a horrible prickle of unease. The new school year was looming on the horizon like a mountain that had to be climbed. I did my best to ignore it: I was determined to have a long, lazy summer. My mum, Lili, is a gardener, so she was busy mowing people’s lawns and weeding their flower-beds. In theory this left me free to do whatever I liked – i.e. not very much at all. We were in the middle of a heatwave and I was planning to sleep late, eat ice cream and vegetate on a lounger in the garden. I reckoned the toughest decision I would have to make all summer would be whether to lie in the sun or sit in the shade. But it turned out that fate had other plans.
It was all Mrs Biggs’s fault. She’s our Not Very Observant next-door neighbour. When Mum’s working she sometimes asks Mrs B to keep an eye on me. This is less of a problem than you might think: the woman spends all her time watching daytime TV. She’ll occasionally bang on the wall during an advert break, and I’ll bang back to reassure her I’m still alive, but that’s as far as it goes. And if she’s watching a film or one of her favourite soaps, she won’t even do that. However, this particular August, Mrs Biggs chose to trip over and break her leg. Mum and I were having a barbecue at the time, so we heard the muffled thud followed by the horrible groan and the indignant yapping. Never slow to respond to a drama, we rushed round immediately and Mum administered first aid while I called an ambulance. The paramedics arrived in a wail of sirens, and before long Mrs Biggs had been carted off to be X-rayed and encased in plaster.
We were left with Bertie.
Bertie was None Too Pleased about his owner’s apparent abduction. He sat on the doormat and stared at Mum and me as if assessing our weak points and considering How Best to Attack. He wasn’t a big dog, but he still managed to look fairly threatening.
“I told her we’d look after him,” said Mum nervously.
“Yes … just while she’s laid up. You won’t mind walking him, will you? It’s the holidays, after all. It’s not like it will interfere with your school work. We owe it to her really, after all the times she’s looked after you…”
So that was it. I was officially volunteered as Bertie’s Exercise Supervisor; his Personal Trainer; his Attendant and Servant. I had to walk him twice a day, armed with a pooper-scooper and antibacterial poop bags. (Let me say right here and now that until you’ve dealt with a bag of warm dog poo you don’t know the meaning of the word “gross”.)
Maybe, if Mrs Biggs had possessed a cooler animal, I wouldn’t have minded quite so much. An Alsatian, say, or a Rottweiler. A bull terrier, even. Something slightly menacing; something with a bit of street cred. But no. Bertie is a Pekinese.
If you’ve never encountered one of these before, let me explain. He’s got bulgy eyes that look as if they might pop clean out of his head if you squeeze him in the wrong place. His nose is squashed up like he’s been rammed into a brick wall, and his legs are so short they’re entirely concealed by a vast amount of fur. Frankly, he looks more like a hairy maggot than a mammal. Cute, I suppose, if you like that kind of thing. I can’t say I did, at least not to begin with.
You might think that his size and general lack of awesomeness would give him an inferiority complex, but as far as Bertie’s concerned, he’s the King of Charisma. Which is just as well, because before the summer was out Bertie’s Impressively Large Ego had literally saved my life.
The morning after Mrs Biggs’s accident, Graham and I reported for Walking Duty. I’d roped Graham in to help because I didn’t have a whole lot of experience in the dog-handling department and felt in need of moral support. Graham wasn’t a dog expert either, but, being Graham, he’d done his background research. He’d gone straight to the local library after I’d phoned him and borrowed armfuls of books on the subject. By the time we arrived on Mrs Biggs’s doorstep the following morning, his knowledge of Canine Management, Dog Breeds and Training Techniques was second-to-none.
We rang the doorbell to let Mrs Biggs know we’d arrived but then used the spare key to let ourselves in. As Mrs Biggs was encased in plaster from thigh to toe, she couldn’t get off the sofa without a monumental amount of effort. Bertie clearly thought I was Personally Responsible and glared at me accusingly the second I stepped into the lounge.
“Now, dear,” said Mrs Biggs, “Bertie’s all ready to go. Looking forward to a nice walk, aren’t you, Bertie? Oh, and you’ll need to pop into the vet’s on the way back. Bertie’s out of his eye-drops. I’ve phoned to let them know you’re coming.” She handed me some cash from her purse and then picked up Bertie’s lead.
was taking him for a walk, Bertie was ecstatic, chasing his tail in circles and huffing like an excited piglet. When Mrs Biggs handed the lead to
, however, his expression changed to one of Extreme Resentment. He sat down, leant hard against Mrs Biggs’s plastered leg and point-blank refused to move.
Graham, armed with inside information, took over. He clicked his tongue and said, “Walkies!” with all the authority he could muster.
Bertie gave him the dirtiest of disgustingly filthy looks and refused to budge.
“Oh dear,” said Mrs Biggs fretfully. “Now don’t be difficult, Bertie. You need your exercise.” She smiled encouragingly at us. “You’ll just have to carry him a little way. As soon as he knows you’re taking him to the park he’ll be fine.”
She was lying.
Graham carried Bertie along the road while Mrs Biggs watched from her front room. As soon as we turned the corner he put the dog down. Bertie sank onto the pavement like a deflated beach-ball. He wouldn’t move a millimetre.
“I thought dogs were supposed to like walks,” I said crossly.
“Yes, I rather had that impression too. I suppose he hasn’t read the
Complete Dog Maintenance Manual
.” Graham gave me one of his blink-and-you-miss-it grins.
The only way to get Bertie to the park was to carry him the entire way. We took it in turns after discovering that, for a small animal, he was surprisingly heavy. I half suspected he was putting on weight as we walked. When we finally got to the park gates we set him on his feet again, and to our immense relief he trundled off happily enough. We were a bit reluctant to let him off his lead in case he made a bolt for home, so we sort of trailed along behind him. To be honest, now
for a walk.
Bertie isn’t what you might call the athletic type. He bumbled along, stopping to pull up a weed here or prune a twig there, which he then held gripped between his lips like a gangster’s cigarette stub. Every time we encountered daisies he carefully bit their heads off. As we ambled behind the Incredible Gardening Pekinese, Graham and I found ourselves entering a parallel universe: Planet Dog.
Graham and I had both been to the park hundreds of times before, but it was only when we were there with Bertie that I discovered the strange and interesting fact that dog owners inhabit a whole different world. I’m fascinated by human behaviour and I’d noticed before that the people who visit the park can generally be split into distinct groups. You’ve got the mothers with small kids who hang around the playground during the day, and when they go home for tea, the same area becomes taken over by gangs of teenagers. There’s the football crowd who play matches at weekends, and the old folk who gather around the bowling green and the café. And then there are the dog walkers. The people in the other groups are all locked up in their own worlds and don’t chat to anyone else. But the dog walkers have clearly never been told: “Don’t talk to strangers”.
We hadn’t been there more than ten minutes before we’d met at least a dozen new people and their dogs. While the dogs sniffed noses (and various other parts of each other), their owners made polite conversation with us. They all knew Bertie – he was like a Canine Celebrity – and did double takes when they saw us escorting him and not Mrs Biggs. We had to explain about her broken leg over and over again.
The first dog we met was Jessie, a shaggy, yellow animal that was so big and bouncy she almost knocked me off my feet. (“A fine example of a golden retriever,” Graham assured me.) The young man walking her – or more accurately racing/romping/playing/rolling-about-in-the-grass with her – had similarly shaggy, yellow hair. He looked like he ought to be surfing off a sandy beach somewhere in Hawaii or Australia.
The next dog we encountered was Sam, who gave Bertie only the most cursory of sniffs before turning his attention back to the ball that his owner – a wiry, athletic woman – was throwing for him. (“A Border collie. They’re excellent for obedience work,” Graham told me, “but they need an awful lot of exercise.”) Then we came across a small Spanish woman with a large Great Dane named Hamlet, followed by Gertrude, a long, thin dachshund who was accompanied by a short, fat man. When we turned the corner we found a confused elderly gentleman standing in the shrubbery. He was smartly dressed (despite the heat) in a flat cap, tweed jacket and bow tie, and was carrying a collar and lead but had no other evidence of dog ownership (i.e. no visible dog). “Have you seen Byron?” he asked anxiously. “My beagle’s picked up a scent. Lord alone knows where he’s got to now!”
“Erm … no,” I replied. Without another word the man disappeared into the bushes in search of the runaway.
“What’s a beagle?” I asked Graham.
“Hound,” he said, as if that explained everything. “Originally bred for hunting rabbits,” he added. “From what I’ve read, he hasn’t got a hope of calling him back if the dog has smelt something interesting.”