Dogwood

CHAPTER ONE

There are bluebells in jam jars and the sweet smell of rolling tobacco which spins the room out of control and takes me heady and giggly into another world. It is Rachel’s room not mine, I live upstairs.

I’ve not known her for long but she has a dog and I’m trying to come to terms with them. I’m drawn to her and the confident way she rubs his fur up the wrong way and cradles his muzzle in cupped hands, bringing it so close to her face it makes my ears ring.

‘Monica?’ She says, as that is what I like to be called now that I have run away from the fragile crisp-thin world I inhabited. ‘I’ve got parsnip wine or strong cider. Or do you prefer tea?’ What should I say? Would it be polite to choose the obviously home-made wine? Could it be stronger than the cider which I know would loop me into early evening drunkenness? Or do I preserve the sensible me and accept tea? I search her face for clues. Whatever I decide she will have to leave the room with its moss green walls and yellow velvet drapes to enter the kitchen and this would leave me alone with the dog. Am I ready?

‘Monica?’ She says again. This time it is a question demanding a decision. But I am dumb. I move my hands like a mime artiste to lighten my muddle. I wave them up around my shoulders and wiggle my head hoping that I have in place a smiley ‘I don’t mind’ expression. The dog looks at me suddenly and quite knowingly. I can see in its half raised brow, as it turns its head in my direction a stare of utter disdain. So I make up my mind and say ‘It’s ok, anything.’

As Rachel leaves the room, I stand. I am big. A Homo sapien that walks on two legs, but carefully not to over step my position as visitor. I simply move around showing off my size, my humanness, my authority. After all this is what I’ve been waiting for, just him, his thickset shoulders and me, alone in a room. No words, no sound at all but for the shuffles of movement and wispishness of breath. My heart is pounding in my chest but I pace casual and seemingly distant in the spicy sandalwood smell of Rachel’s room.

She has been away a long time. Far longer that I had expected or been prepared for. I turn on him and look straight into his eyes. He is lying by her chair but when our eyes meet he sits, ears half-cocked and I try to remember what I am supposed to do.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Good dog.’ And encouraged by this his tail flops soundlessly on the carpet a couple of times. I am pleased I have accomplished something. I have not, as yet, transmitted my fear. I look away again so that he enters the fuzzy, I’m not bothered’ world of my peripheral vision. I am showing him my detached profile but I am also trying to distract myself, for I know if I spend more time in eye contact with him my fear will explode like a stone through a pane and every sliver of glass will melt into that cold panic sweat. I stand quite still and catch him lying back on the carpet his head down again on his front paws, I feel good, like a lion tamer, exuberant and in charge but I find I cannot move an inch. I am rooted to the spot as Rachel enters the room.

We drink tea comfortably, her presence has thrown the dog off my scent and I can relax. We chat about teaching and Ofsted and our respective disciplines. She rolls up and lights a thin tight little cigarette that goes out repeatedly as we talk. She shows me a picture of her boyfriend who sells antiques from a stall in the town centre, but also travels around to auctions all over the country.

‘It’s really good of you to offer to baby sit,’ she says. ‘Miles is very good, he’ll go to bed when you tell him. Anyway Rusty will look after you both.’

She bends down so her nose is just a few centimetres from his. ‘Won’t you darling?’ She rubs his cheek and manhandles his ear.

‘Oh,’ I say alarmed, ‘aren’t you taking him with you?’ I hadn’t for a moment imagined she would leave the dog behind.

‘I can’t take him to the cinema,’ she laughs but there must be something in my face that alerts her and she quickly looks concerned. ‘Is that all right with you Monica?’ Her head tilts and comes forward to find my eyes. ‘He’s very sweet honest. He won’t give you a bad time, he’s very well behaved.’ She has not guessed at my fear, has not seen inside my soul where the dog scars lie and I feel ashamed now that I have appeared so shocked.

‘I’m sure it will be all right,’ I say quickly, already making plans to shut him in the kitchen, the hallway, the child’s bedroom, anywhere. Almost reading my mind she says, ‘He sleeps on Mile’s bed, so he won’t trouble you after bedtime.’ I finish my tea as she again lights the squashed little butt in her mouth.

‘Friday,’ she says, ‘Seven OK with you?’ The dog follows us to the door. I notice then he is quite old, his head drooped and his jowl flecked with grey hairs.

‘Nice dog.’ I say bravely. ‘My grandfather had a dog called Rusty. Same colour.’

            ‘Yeh?’ she says.

***

           The translucent grey –blue morning light wakes me again and again from four o’clock onwards.

           I have dreamt. I dreamt I entered a room and lying in the folds of discarded clothing sat three large grasshoppers. They seemed posed to leap so I threw the corner of the sheet over them. I was not frightened. In fact I’ve never been scared of insects. However the moment the sheet settled on these creatures they jumped in unison, dog-like and snarling, gripping my sleeve so close to the skin that I felt the outer edge of teeth against my flesh. This mass, for that is what it had become, shook my arm, so crazed and angry that I had no power to either stop it or knock it off. I don’t recall the moment it let go but it came at the same time as I recognised that I was dreaming and that I could take charge and snap awake. But this surge of insect-dog was too quick for me, it moved to my groin where it thrashed and twisted. I fought the thing with my half conscious mind. I fought to move one muscle but my body was a stone wrapped in cotton wool, unworkable and ungovernable. The clever tricks of sleep sent me up blind alleys. At one stage I thought I was free. I felt my hand clasp the cool sheet beside me but the buzzing of anger still raged around my belly and I knew I had been duped by the cunning layers of sleep. Eventually I surfaced springing open-eyed into my bedroom, a dull agitation echoing around my groin.

How obscene that the dog dreams have crept their way back into my other night pictures, taking new forms and flattering themselves that I might not notice. I thought I was rid of them. I shall have to be on my guard now.

The dog dreams started when the tangled snake and lizard dreams stopped. It was like a new chapter of the night. The pillow a tomb under my head which they smashed through and jangled my sleep. Most of them remain very tangible partly because I wrote them down. I wrote them differently then, more as pure fact in short crisp sentences, stick insect words. I shall write them now as they should be told. Perhaps this will lay them to rest.

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