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My Best Boy

This will come as no surprise to my friends but in a frenzy about the coronavirus early on, when I rushed to the store to stock up, I bought dog food, poo bags and treats. That’s it. No toilet paper, no hand sanitizer, no canned beans. If the apocalypse arrived, I felt, we would be completely prepared.

Because I love my dog. Of course, I love my dog. It’s an old story, old as domesticated grey wolves brightening the lives of nomadic hunter-gatherers 15,000 years ago. Though I doubt paleo dog-love looked anything like the current canophilia happening in my house. Those wolves probably didn’t have a personal doctor, daybeds in every room, a morning snack of almonds munched in happy unison with their owner.

My dog is a small, hairy Cavalier King Charles—of course he is–who sheds so much his fur floats like hay bales through our house. But my god he is cute. Archie is the pineapple of my eye. He is the spoiled youngest sibling of my two older children and is indulged in a way they have never been. He gets fed when he bangs on his bowl imperiously; his stack of treats is bigger and more expensive; he features more prominently on my Facebook page.

The irony is that I bought Archie for my children. I found him second-hand from an online ad. His owner, the mother of a teenage boy who had bought Archie for his girlfriend at a pet shop in a grand romantic gesture, had to sell. The girlfriend was no longer, the boy had moved out and the mother already had a dog and a full-time job and was not prepared for a puppy.

The reason he’s become ‘my’ dog is that he refused to imprint on my children. It is a common problem among mothers I am told. These dogs are not dumb, they know who is in control of the pantry. Archie ignores my children and follows me from room to room, his chestnut eyes intent, questioning, adoring. As a mother of older children, I am naturally flattered.

On the night Archie arrived, he walked into our kitchen and immediately set up the habit of getting away with things my children never could by lifting his leg to the wall and giving it a good squirt. He never did that again, so I’d like to think it was his way of saying hello. He was only seven months at the time. He soon learned to sleep on a new bed, not make messes, accept everyone’s cuddles, eat a new brand of food, come when he was called. In short, be a good boy. Which he is. Usually.

We got lucky. But he got lucky too. An estimated 1.2 million unwanted dogs are euthanized in the States each year. Millions are abandoned at holiday time by owners too cheap to pay for pet sitting. How vulnerable these little beings are. They pass through our lives, slaves to our whims and natures, leaving only memories of worn collars and love. So I try my best to deserve his love. And of course, he is cute.

The joy and fascination with which I interact daily with my dog is undercut by the worry that such kindness and patience should probably be shared with other humans, say other people’s children. After all, in the US, more than 1 in 6 children experience food insecurity while in 2019, the pet industry was worth more than $75 billion. Though I am not a huge participant in this new economy—Archie’s bowls are cast off plastic childrensware and his balls are tennis rejects—I do feel guilty about owning a pet because I know it takes a certain type of freedom, income and time.

But I could never give up this love. Raising children is too often about the future, about all the things I or they must do to be better, brighter, more successful. But life with a pet is a series of contained moments. Like the one I’m having right now. Archie and I are both wet from running around the block in the rain before coming back, happily panting at the exertion and shaking our coats in the hallway.

Now a computer rests on my lap, a cup of tea steaming on one side of me, Archie on the other, snoring like a sputtering propeller. It is so satisfying, so uncomplicated, so filled with love. Archie is a gift for which I am completely responsible.  Which is why when I glance over at my stockpile of Gourmet Beef and Vegetable Nuggets and the Turkey Fillet Prime Treats, I know that we are prepared.

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THE STRANGER by Nina Killham

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I have no idea how he got in but there he suddenly is, leaning on my kitchen counter, jelly belly sagging over his jeans, a tattoo chaining his neck, lips plump and greasy.

“You right, mate?” he asks.

How did he get in? I do a quick swing of my eyeballs around the room, past the kitchen table piled with school crap and abandoned in muted fury—like I know anything about cosines–the overflowing recycling bin, the empty hand sanitiser that for the life of me I cannot find a replacement for. Did the kids leave the back door open? How many times have I told them? How many times? I sigh. Well, however he got in, the main thing to do now is to get him out again, as quickly as possible. Maybe, if I pretend I don’t see him, he’ll go away. I open the fridge and lean in, looking for my next snack.

“Anything good?” he asks.

I open my mouth to respond but shut it tight–do not engage–and pull out the roast lamb we had last night for dinner. Slice or two of that with some mayo, two slices of rosemary sourdough, some lettuce, and my life will be complete.

I feel the tickle of his fingers on the back of my neck. “I said, Anything good?”

I put the lamb back. I’ve lost my appetite. I squeeze around him and sit down in the living room. I can hear the kids in their rooms, talking to their friends on Skype. Maybe Netflix will keep me company. The missus is in the garage jogging through the alps on the new exorbitant running machine she insisted we buy before she went mad from not being able to go to the gym. After one particularly expressive day on her part, I gave in. So here I am, alone, unloved, except for the goon who has plunked his nasty ass right down next to me.

“What are we watching?” he asks.

Don’t get me wrong, by this time I am desperate for company. A month of lock-down will do that to you. Oh, yeah, you can still go to the shops, but by this time I am terrified of catching anything. I approach stepping out for some milk like a soldier crawling along the Kabul-Kandahar highway. Everyone has become so jumpy, hands snatching back if they came within an inch of each other. People, now having to standing in line just to get into Coles, are getting pissy if you zone out in podcastland and get too close. The look they give you. That Stand back, motherfucker, I’ve got kids to feed!

So I hightail it back to home. Home. Never gave it much thought before. It fed me, kept me company in the evenings and on weekends. When I was there. But a lot of the times I wasn’t. I was busy, very important. Spent my lifetime in meetings, and strange hotels with shame-tingling TV cable channels. My second home was an airport, and a bar. Yeah, a lot of bars where the light was syrupy golden and the drinks were paid for by the company and the company was, if not dazzling, at least convivial. Knew the difference between a concessional and a non-concessional contribution and didn’t yawn like a cheetah when you told them what you did for a living. Superannuation. It’s going to keep you in chocolate biccies, baby, when your teeth are falling out is how I like to put it. Many a conversation has died a gritty death around the words pre-mix strategy and conditions of release. Well, they’ll know when it matters, believe me. If they’re lucky. My Mary, she still doesn’t know the what an allocated pension is. And is proud of it.

I’m the cheetah now, padding around the house, poking my nose into teenage bedrooms and getting an earful for my efforts. I force myself twice a day to walk around the block, dragging the pudgy spaniel who has already been walked by Mary and is in no mood to move. I’m addicted to endless doomsday podcasts, corona this corona fucking that. How many are dead, that is what I always want to know, first thing in the morning, like it’s fucking Christmas and the answer is underneath the tree.

Everybody going on about how it’s time to refuel, recalibrate like we’re fucking tires out of alignment. Read, they urge. Be creative. Ha. I pick through the stack of books that I have put by my bedside in a bout of self-deception and then just stare at the first page for about five minutes before my hand reaches of its own accord and taps that bloody blue bird on my phone. What the hell is going on out there? Help! Save me from myself. Talk to me, somebody. Please.

So yeah, I’m desperate. I flick through the TV choices: House of Cards, season three, what a fucker that lead actor turned out to be, but man he is good. That twitchy thing he does with his cheek when he gets angry, scares the shit out of me, I would have done anything he asked. Love The Americans who, just whenever you are getting too moist about what good guys the two are, murder some innocent bystander with a deadly neck-breaking snap. Mary and I flesh out our entrenched TV habit with a couple of Nordic Noirs with their sick rape/murder/dismemberments.

I glance over at the guy who by now has oozed himself onto the couch next to me and is nodding enthusiastically at one of the Nordic Noirs with its preview of the little blond number all sliced and diced.

“That one,” he says, raising his finger and grinning.

We settle back and watch in silence for bit, but I start feeling like something is missing. Like a beer: cold and soothing. Naturally, I offer him one—I’m not a dick–and he nods, not taking his eyes off the knife slicing through the pale virginal flesh. In the kitchen I rummage in the refrigerator. We have plenty of beer—I practically took a tow truck to Dan Murphy’s so that is no problem. I just had to find it behind all the other food we’ve also stashed up on: smoked salmon, for Christ’s sakes, coming out of our ears. And Mary upped our ice cream stash by several factors just in case the kids go without a sugar rush for two hours. “But they’re bored, darling, we need to do something.”

Mary has taken to starting every evening with a glass or three of champagne like she’s the mistress of some stone manor in the fox-run wilds of England. We keep telling ourselves that we are saving oodles by not going out to cafes and restaurants and movies and whatever else we seem to fill our endless time with. So we can indulge. And no, I haven’t lost my job yet. I’m keeping to myself the rumours. Which I heard last night at Jeff’s place.  I told Mary I was walking the dog but went straight round to his place. He lives alone, no control freaks in his household. And yeah, Matt and Blue were there too and their alibi dogs. And we had a beer. So shoot me. And that’s where I heard the rumours about the lay-offs. Jeff was freaking out, snot and tears everywhere, and so we took turns patting him on the back. We’re not complete assholes.

No need to worry Mary just yet. Let her keep swilling the champers. I might make the cut. You never know. So yeah, I can spare a beer for the mess taking up space on my couch, watching the Swedish murder scene with way too much attention. I hand him a cheeky microbrew I’ve discovered down the Peninsula and a bowl of peanuts too, just to keep him busy.

“You ready,” he asks, his hand like a limp rag as he dips it into the peanuts.

“For what?”

“For the end of the world…”

“Don’t be an idiot.”

“…as you know it.”

Mr. Drama Prince. No. I say. All these people going on about how nice the world is, so quiet you can hear the birds and all the bunnies swimming in the canals, and everyone being matey and pole dancing on balconies, and chatting with friends you haven’t thought about for twenty years (there was a reason, mate). No, I prefer it like it was before. Give me smog you can chew on any day. Give me the sweet sweat of a stranger. The packed nonsensical lives of a teenager. The complete disinterest of your common man. Hand me over consumption and petty squabbles fixed up over a picnic in the park. Give me love with too many people for your own and their good. Tight Coles aisles and the eye rolling and the bad breath. God, what I would give for a bout of someone’s bad breath riling my day. Or fresh food markets with the barking vendors and the crushing crowd and the bright fleshy root vegetables piled high like tarts showing their tits. Give me heaving humanity in all its glory.

The stranger raises his eyebrows. “Too late now, mate. Should have made your predilections clearer.”

“Would it have made a difference?”

He thinks a moment. “Nah, not really.” He raises his empty beer bottle. “Another for the road?”

“Dad?” It’s Tim, finally coming up for air, his face pouched with boredom, his body slack from lounging all day at the computer. His eyes are slits, barely registering the moocher on the couch.

“Your kid?” The stranger says. Master of the obvious. I nod, unease creeping into my guts.

“Get some breakfast and go for a bike ride,” I bark at Tim. His eyes widen at the thought of so much activity. “Now,” I insist. I want him out of the stranger’s eyesight.

“Yeah, yeah, OK.” Tim pulls his face back from the open door and closes it.

“Nice kid,” the stranger murmurs. “Pity.”

I want him out. Now. No more beer. No more savage television. Time to go. I have been welcoming enough.

He nods his head in agreement. “Yes, yes, you have.” He heaves himself up from the couch, patting his pockets. “Got everything? Probably not. Oh well, onward and onward.”

He holds out his hand for a shake. “No hard feelings, mate.”

I ignore the hand and open the front door for him to leave just as Mary appears, the lead attached to the dog in one hand, her iPhone attached to earphones in the other. Who’s that?” she says, eyeing the grease ball disappearing down our path.

“No one,” I say.

She nods then puckers her forehead as she places a hand to my clammy cheek. “Oh, mate,” she says, “I can’t believe you let him in.”

 

 

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