He’d been watching the dog on and off all morning. It lay in the grass with its head slumped on it paws, and it would have been a sad sight were it not for the fact that it didn’t seem scared or forlorn. It seemed to understand that at some point its owners would return.
Every time someone walked by it would raise its head in anticipation, then, seeing only a stranger, it would slump and the waiting would start over.
Beth joined him at the window.
‘Is it still there?’
She sipped at her coffee and leaned forward to take a better look.
‘Strange, the way it’s just sat there quietly all day like that, don’t you think?’
It was not a word he would have considered using with regards to a dog.
Loyal, yes. Or energetic, brave. But strange? He couldn’t figure out how she came to that conclusion.
‘You think so?’ he asked.
She faced him and he thought he saw her shrug.
‘It hasn’t made a sound all morning. Not a bark or a whimper. You’d think it would complain more.’
He could have explained to her that it was just the way dogs were, that it had no control over its reactions. Everything was just instinct with dogs. All it could do was sit there and wait and believe.
But when he thought about that it made him want to touch it, comfort it.
‘It’s just being a dog,’ he told her.
‘Should we do something, maybe? Give it some food, or a bit of water?’
She was already heading to the kitchen, not waiting for a reply, and he listened as she rummaged around opening cupboards, running the tap, filling a bowl with water.
The fridge door squeaked and he heard her flick open a Tupperware box and dish out scraps of chicken she had saved from last night.
He stayed by the window and watched the dog.
It looked well cared for, not the kind of dog that would be abandoned.
No doubt the owners would be back. They must have forgotten it. Tied it to the tree and then gone off to do something, forgetting they’d taken it with them.
Do people do such a thing, he wondered. Forget their dog?
Apparently they did.
And he imagined them coming home, walking in the door and calling its name.
‘Hey, buddy! Hey, Sam!’
Panicking when they didn’t hear it pattering down the hallway, all wagging tail and goofy grin before realising suddenly, ‘Sam! We forgot Sam!’
He watched as Beth crossed the street. She was talking to it, using that chirpy voice people have for animals.
‘Hello there, boy. How you doing? You want some chicken?’
The dog all over her at once. Licking her face as she bent down. Ignoring the bowls, such was its need to be touched.
‘Poor thing,’ he muttered, before he could stop himself.
He watched them together.
The dog tangled itself around her, and kept jumping up to lick her face as she tried to wriggle free.
The bowls lay toppled and ignored on the pavement, affection winning out over food and water.
Beth laughed, then gave up and lay on the grass, abandoning herself to the dog’s attentions, and he felt a pang inside, something close to joy as he watched them. It had been a long time since he had seen her like this.
He’d long ceased believing happiness would return. Oh, something close to it would come, he was sure of that. But only something close, not the real thing.
And yet, here it was – joy, pure and simple. And all you needed, it seemed, was the courage to walk towards it.
‘My God,’ he whispered, and he turned away from the window and headed to the kitchen.
He was sat at the table drinking a cold beer when he heard them come in.
He knew she wouldn’t leave the dog outside. The way she had laughed as she played with it told him that much.
The dog loped into the kitchen ahead of her and scuttled around sniffing the floor before spotting him and stopping in its tracks.
He leaned towards it and held out his hand.
It hesitated, cocking its head, unsure of him, so he tried the chirpy voice.
‘Come here. Come here, boy!’
And it bounded then, paws landing on his shoulders, tongue slathering, whimpering with pleasure.
Beth stood in the doorway, watching him and laughing.
He tried to push the dog away but it kept coming at him, its tail thumping the table, rat-a-tat-tat, like a drunken drummer and it took him a moment to understand that he should simply give himself over to it.
Later, he watched it as it lay on the kitchen floor, dozing in a ray of afternoon sunshine that filtered through the window. It was nice to see how settled it looked, how at home it seemed. It was comforting to sit there and watch it like that. To enjoy a simple thing.
Perhaps this was what they had needed all along? Maybe he’d been wrong. Perhaps chance could bring things your way just as easily as it could snatch them from your grasp.
And it was as if the dog somehow sensed what he was thinking. It raised its head and looked at him, as if it was nodding in agreement, saying, ‘Yes. Yes, that’s exactly how it is.’
And for the briefest of instances he imagined something had shifted, some change, some long awaited movement towards the future.
Was it possible to get to that place? To a time, when things seemed to come so easily?
But outside he could hear voices. The past hour they had walked up and down the street calling the dog’s name. Not Sam, but Rufus, and he felt Beth stroke his head as if he was the dog.
‘I guess I better tell them he’s in here.’
‘Yeah, I guess you better,’ and he smiled at her for the first time that day.
‘It’s a good name for a dog that, Rufus, don’t you think?’ she said.
But they were already walking out the door and all he caught was a last glimpse of Rufus’ tail.
There have been many little deaths along the way. Small moments that should have meant nothing. The big events never catch him out, he can prepare for those, knows they’re coming.
But folding laundry, or buttering toast? Why do simple things like that catch him unaware?
He has to stop himself sometimes. Because he looks for it more and more now, seeks it out even. The places where grief can hide. He does this even though he knows no good can come from it.
And though she has never said that he is punishing himself, he knows this is what she thinks, that he is too hard on himself. Knows too that he is the one who has placed the question between them.
‘How can I ever be trusted again?’
But she trusts him. She is willing to start over. She is still prepared to wait for him.
And there are times when he thinks he can do it. When he thinks, ‘Get over it, Andy. You can get over it.’ Almost believing it.
Until it happens again. He butters toast, folds laundry and falls back into a past he feels may never even have existed.
In the dream he is outside the house looking in.
A comforting family scene is unfolding inside, the three of them seated round the kitchen table eating dinner.
The windows have steamed over so he cannot see the finer details. It’s as if a fine veil has fallen over his eyes, separating him from the scene in front of him, leaving him aware of his isolation, aware that this little scene is only something he can look upon. He cannot walk into that kitchen and take his place at the table.
The morning after, he feels empty, as if it is he who is the ghost. And though another day has started and life clatters on all around him, he feels he is not part of it, lost as he is in that moment in the past, in that moment which holds him spellbound.
It is the split second before the accident, the moment when things can still take a different turn.
They walk side by side along the riverbank and when Luke slips, this time he is not sitting further up the embankment, but there to grab his arm and stop him falling.
They pause for a moment as a tremor of shock shudders through them, then laugh.
‘Whoa, you almost went in there, Lukey!’
Walking back home, to the kitchen, to dinner, the three of them together again, they are unaware that in a split-second happiness such as this can be lost.
They live for ever after, never knowing this.
This is the moment he awakens. Luke’s name on his lips, though he never shouts it out.
But the dream is like a welt. A scar upon his heart. Not visible. But there just the same. Proof, if any were needed, that time flows in only one direction, that there is no returning to the moment before the wound was made.
Scars form. Wounds harden. But they do not heal.
The afternoon sunlight fell on the spot where the dog had lain yesterday.
He had come into the kitchen and sat at the table waiting to see it.
He understood the foolishness of it, the danger. He was looking in the wrong direction once again, looking backwards to a moment that could never be recaptured.
But as the sunlight poured into the room, he understood what it was he had caught a glimpse of yesterday. The first indication in all these years, that a little bit of happiness really could be found again.
It was elusive perhaps. As fragmented as particles of light. As simple and honest as a dog. But if he stretched his arm into the sun he could feel the warmth and he could catch it this time, if he wanted to.
He was certain of it. He could catch it, hold on to it, and never let it go.
JENNIFER HARVEY is a Scottish writer now based in Amsterdam. Her writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in various publications in the US and the UK, including: Carve Magazine, Folio, Fjords Review, Bare Fiction, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Lonely Crowd, as well as various anthologies including the 2014 and 2016 National Flash Fiction Day anthologies. She has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize (2014, 2015) and the University of Sunderland Short Story Award (2016), and her radio dramas have won prizes and commendations from the BBC World Service (2016, 2009 and 2001). In 2016, her Young Adult novel was longlisted for the Bath Children's Novel Award. She is a Resident Reader for Carve Magazine. You can find her online over at jenharvey.net or follow her on Twitter @JenAnneHarvey