The dog didn’t want to go with the man. I could hear him trying to be friendly, trying to encourage her gently to come to him. But I knew she wouldn’t. She was still my dog. She was whining for me. My father shouted angrily at her, like he always did, and he must have grabbed her hard by the neck to put the lead on her because she yelped. I felt it too.
Then I heard her scampering up the stairs; she must have slipped her lead which she did sometimes if it wasn’t put on properly. Only I put her lead on properly. She never slipped her lead with me. It had to be fastened on the third hole which seemed too tight, but it wasn’t. That’s if you knew her but my father didn’t know her. He’d put it on the second hole which was too loose. She was outside my bedroom door sniffing, sniffing, as if she knew she was drawing in her last ever big scent of me. But I couldn’t open the door to her because I knew if I did, I would never let go of her again. Like the time I held her tightly under the kitchen table and my father shouted at me to let go of her so he could beat her for chewing his shoes. I held on to her, covered her with my body and my father kicked me and kicked me until my mother said “Stop! You’ll break his back.”
My father began shouting, angrily, for the dog to come back down. She ignored him, as she always did. She wasn’t his dog. She was my dog. She nudged the bedroom door with her nose, as she did every morning until I let her in and on to my bed. But not this time, not ever again. My father grabbed hold of her, and she squealed. I could hear her claws scraping on the lino as she was dragged across the landing and down the stairs. She barked, which she never did in the house. It was not an angry bark. It was not a bark to ward off another dog which she sometimes did when she was out walking with me. It was a bark I had never heard before. It was a bark that would stay with me for the rest of his life.
Later that evening the van arrived to take us to the train station. My father loaded the suitcases into the back of the van, one for each of us – my father, my mother, my sister and me. That’s all he said, sternly, that we could take with us. Everything else, furniture, tables, beds, clothes, bikes, games, books, was left in the darkened house.
“Are we going on holiday?” my younger sister asked excitedly. No one answered her. I sat on a suitcase in the back of the van, my face pressed hard against the cold rear window. It was the same van – my uncle’s van – that had brought us to the new overspill estate only two years earlier, where I’d sat in the same place, my new puppy held tightly in my arms.
Everyone had been excited about moving to the new modern four-bedroom house with its inside toilets, bathroom and hot water and a bedroom each for me and my sister. But I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay with my friends in the terraced street. I couldn’t see what was wrong with the old house. But what’s wrong with this house? I asked my mother. I like it here. It’s a slum, she told me, but I had no idea what a slum was. The puppy was my mother’s idea, something to take my mind off things until I started the new school and made some new friends there.
When my mother told me we were leaving the new house to go and live with my grannie in Ireland I pleaded with her to take my dog but she said my father wouldn’t allow it. My grannie’s house was too small and besides she didn’t like dogs. When we have our own house can we get her back? She never answered. I knew then I had to let her go.
The man had come around the week before to have a look at the dog. He brought his daughter with him too. I’d just returned from walking her and they were sitting in the living room waiting for me. “What’s her name?” asked the girl, eagerly. Bella, I told her. “Stella,” said the girl. “I like that name.” I said nothing. Later, I saw the man give my father money which he put quickly into his trouser pocket. Afterwards he went to the pub, like he always did. When he came back later, he was drunk as he always was. I heard my mother say, “You spent it all?”
The last walk was the hardest. “Don’t be too long,” my mother had said. “And don’t bring her back wet.”
Bella was excited, walking along by my side, always on my right-hand side, nudging my leg with her snout, twisting herself inside out and looking up at me, her eyes as deep and black as ponds. I let her off the lead and she ran straight for the stream, as she always did. She stood in the middle of it and looked back expectantly, eagerly, at me. It was just another day, another walk in the woods. Throw the ball she was saying. Throw the ball and I will fetch it like I always do. And you will throw it again and again until your arm aches and then you’ll say come on Bella and we’ll go and walk through the woods and I’ll walk by your side, always on your right-hand side, twisting myself inside out and you’ll keep looking down at me and smiling. And you’ll sit for a while on the fallen tree where you carved our names and I’ll go and sniff at things but never too far from you. I always like to know where you are. I keep an eye on you. Even when you’re out I sit on your bed and watch through the window for you coming home, waiting for you to appear round the corner and I see you looking up at me as I’m looking down at you and you always smile and wave to me. And I scramble down the stairs and you come through the door and bend down and I lick your face and you kiss me on the head and then we go out together, always together.
When we came back from the walk my father shouted at me for being out too long and keeping the man waiting. But I wasn’t listening, I never listened to him. I heard what he said but it didn’t register anywhere with me. It was just noise, angry, heavy noise like an engine being revved, over and over again.
No one had told me why we were going to Ireland to live with my father’s mother, but I thought it had something to do with debt. I wasn’t quite sure what debt was, but I’d heard them talking about it and it didn’t sound good. “We’re in so much debt,” my mother said. “We’ll never get straight living here.”
I had never heard them shout at each other before coming to the new house. Now that’s all they seemed to do, shout at each other or not talk to each other at all. “Ask your father if he wants his tea,” my mother would say. “Why can’t you?” I’d reply. She never answered. That’s how it was, one shouting at me, the other not speaking to me. I wondered if this was what it was like for other children, but I had no way of knowing if it was because I didn’t know how to ask about such things. And besides I had no friends.
Bella always knew if I was sad or unhappy. She just had to look at me and she knew. I couldn’t hide anything from her. When I heard the man at the door, I felt my stomach jump like it did when I went over a hill unexpectedly on the bus. I didn’t want Bella to see me upset. And I didn’t want to upset her. I didn’t want her to remember me like that and so I just kissed her gently on her head, like I did every night before I went to bed. She licked my face tenderly just as she did every night before I went to bed and I went quietly, quickly, upstairs to my bedroom and shut the door. I had thought about running away and taking Bella with me, but I didn’t know where to run to. All I had was here. I felt as if I had let her down, let her go too easily. But what more could I do? How could I fight back?
The girl had said she would write and tell me all about Stella and her new life. I didn’t say yes or no. I just stared at her blankly. “I can send you pictures too,” she said, smiling. “If you like?”
“That’d be nice, wouldn’t it?” my mother said, cheerily. I said nothing. What was I supposed to say?
After they left, my father slapped me across the head for being rude and fucking ungrateful. Somewhere I felt it, but it didn’t hurt me like it used to do. The way it would sting my ear, leaving it hot for hours afterwards.
It was warm. Stations flashed by. I couldn’t sleep. I wondered if I might never sleep again. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw Bella. The view from my bedroom window as the man dragged her down the road and away from the house. She’d writhed and wriggled, turning herself inside out trying to slip her lead again. But the man had put it on the third hole, even though it seemed too tight. She was looking up at my window. I was sure she could see me. Yes, she could see me. But I didn’t like to think what she might be thinking. I didn’t want her to think I didn’t still love her. I did still love her, more than anything in the world. I would always love her. Eventually the man lost patience with her and slapped her hard across the head. But still she struggled, tried to free herself, to come back to me like she did whenever I called her name. I called for her . But there was no way back. “Don’t do that!” I roared, “don’t hurt her!” But the man couldn’t hear me. And then they were gone, around the corner, out of sight. She was not my dog anymore. She belonged to someone else, someone who had hit her hard on the head. And I could feel that pain alright; I would always feel that pain.
I worried that in time she might disappear completely from my memory too and even saying her name might not bring her back to me. “You’ll get over her,” my mother said, trying to comfort me. “We all have our hearts broken at some time, but they mend, eventually.” Not mine, I thought. I vowed to myself that I would never have another dog. I knew, even then, I could never love anyone like I had loved her, and no one could ever love me like she had loved me. “He’s a soppy sod,” my father said. “It’s only a dog for Christ’s sake.”
When we boarded the ferry for Ireland, I sat outside . “Don’t go near the edge,” my mother warned me. But I did. I took no notice of her.. The dark waters frightened me, like walking through the woods in the evening might have done without Bella by my side. I could go anywhere with her by my side. My hand reached down by my side, my hand side because she always walked on my right side, turning herself inside out, nudging my leg with her snout, and for a moment I was sure I felt her there again beside me. But it was my own leg that I felt, not the dog.
I sat back down on the hard, wooden bench and the cold nipped and gnawed at me. I curled into a ball to keep warm, like Bella did sometimes in her bed. I wished that I was back in my own bed with Bella beside me, snuggling me, keeping me warm and safe. “That dog shouldn’t be on your bed,” my mother would tell me. I caught Bella’s scent again on my coat sleeve and put it up to my nose, inhaling deeply. Yes, it was her, , but it wasn’t her. It was only a scent of her and it was fading fast in the cold air even as I smelt it, just like the faces of my friends in the terrace street had faded too.
Bella would forget me. She would lose my scent. There were other scents now to fill her senses – the man, the girl and everything in between. And if I ever saw her again, which I knew I never would, she might not recognise me, might not see me as she had once had, walking along by my side, always on my right-hand side, nudging my leg with her snout, twisting herself inside out and looking up at me with her eyes as deep and as black as ponds. I would be just another boy like any other boy she might meet on her walks. There would be nothing to distinguish me from other boys, no scent to attract her to me.
On my first day at the new school, a boy I sat beside said to me “You smell of dog,” Another laughed and said “Dog is god, the other way around.” I said “Dog is god,” The boys laughed and didn’t speak to me again. But I was happy to smell of dog. I liked nothing more than to smell of dog.
Daniel Kearney is the authorof two books on pastoral issues – ‘Childhood Bullying & Adult Bullying’ –published by Redemptorist Books. He has written several articles ranging from academic theology to travel writing. He is currently completing a travel book: ‘Walking Through a Landscape – Finding rest for the soul on an ancient path’ –which recounts his journey on the Chemin de Compostelle pilgrimage route in south west France.