The first week of the summer holidays was wonderful. I finally had some much-needed alone time, time to read books that I had accumulated since September. I lay down in my sunny garden with my dog, Fred. He’s half-Westie, half-poodle. A Westie-poo, the woman at the rescue place said when we bought him. He’s a mutt, said my now ex-partner.My ex didn’t like Fred.
My ex also didn’t like that I worked in a rough school. By rough, he meant “state”. He said I didn’t have enough ambition. I had ambition, I told him, I want to be a great teacher. I’d like more money, who wouldn’t?, but I was comfortable earning what I was on now. You need to get your life together, he said towards the end. I can’t go on living like this, as if we were destitute.
During the second week of the holidays, I had a coffee with a colleague. It was awkward. I realised that, when we got on at work, it was when we were talking about work. I talked about books and Fred and relaxing, she talked about her family’s adventure holiday and how she didn’t want to see another book until September. I got home, despondent. I told Fred about it. The weather was getting hotter and I was finding it difficult to sleep. Fred stayed in the shade. I told him that he was more intelligent than humans.
By the time the third week rolled around, the news was screaming about heatwaves and temperature records. I stayed in the shade, like Fred. I talked to him. He listened, head cocked to one side, as if he was on the cusp of understanding me. I was chatting away to him one evening, fanning my sweaty red face with a magazine, gesturing to the TV.
‘And he shouldn’t even be in government, he’s bloody inept. Anyway, Freddy, what do you want for dinner?’ I was still looking at the TV. Children playing on the beach. Glad I’m not in charge of them, I thought.
I looked at him. He was looking at me, tongue out and panting a little. It must have been someone on the telly. But I played along with it.
‘Oh chicken, do you? All right then! Let’s see if we’ve got some.’ I walked into the kitchen and he followed. I went to the cupboard I keep all of his food in. His tail was wagging. I looked through the cupboard. ‘Ooh there’s a fancy Chicken Supreme.’
‘That does sound fancy!’
I froze, not looking at him this time. Someone was playing a joke on me. It wasn’t fair. I suddenly felt exhausted. I could think of a million people it might be. My ex-partner, my ex-partner’s new partner, any number of the kids I taught, a neighbour. Why couldn’t they leave me in peace?
I checked the house then, did a recce. It was a small house, but it felt bigger now that I was on my own. My ex’s presence took up more space than I’d realised and my things looked lonely. I checked under the bed, in my wardrobe, behind doors, like I made my mum do when I was little and afraid of monsters. I switched the TV off. Fred followed me as I searched downstairs. His little legs struggled to get up the stairs, so he never bothered. He watched and waited for me. There was nobody else in the house.
I shut the windows and made sure the doors were locked, even though I knew I would be stifling in a few minutes. I went back to the kitchen. My phone and laptop were off. I was alone.
I looked uneasily at Fred, who was watching me. I got him a plate for his Chicken Supreme.
‘What was that about?’
I turned around.
‘I didn’t hear anything, and my hearing is much better than yours,’ said Fred. ‘I wouldn’t worry.’
I stared at him.
‘What?’ he said. ‘Do I have any duck poo on me? I know that you hate that.’ He licked at his paw, wiped his face on it.
‘How can I suddenly understand you?’ I said, eventually.
‘I don’t know,’ said Fred, sitting down. ‘Maybe you just started listening.’ His voice was the same pitch as his barks. Usually he barked a little as I was getting his food ready, but now he was talking instead.
‘I’ll get your dinner,’ I said.
‘Thanks very much,’ said Fred. ‘What’ll you be having?’
‘I’ve not decided yet.’ I opened the tin and emptied its contents out onto Fred’s plate.
‘This smells great!’ he said. ‘Thanks!’
I set the plate down and he gobbled it up. I felt hot and queasy. I fanned my face with my hand. I’d need to reopen the windows.
In no time at all, Fred had finished his meal.
‘Aren’t you having anything yourself?’ he asked.
‘I’m not very hungry right now.’
‘Cool. I’ll be in the sitting room waiting for you. Let’s not watch any other dogs on TV tonight though, yeah?’
He left the kitchen and went into the living room, probably jumping up onto the sofa where my ex didn’t like him sitting. He nearly sat on him a couple of times and then lost his temper because dogs shouldn’t sit on sofas, you daft woman. He’s not a person!
I filled a glass with ice cubes and topped it up with tap water. I held the glass to my forehead. I looked out of the window. The grass was turning to straw. I opened the window, felt the scant breeze. Maybe the dog really was talking to me. I drank the water. I’d rather talk to the dog than most of the friends that sided with my ex.I’d rather talk to my dog than anyone else I could think of. I decided to go with it. It wasn’t like I had anything else to do.
I felt hungry again. The thing I liked best about living alone was that I didn’t have to acquiesce to anybody else’s tastes. It was wonderful! I hadn’t lived by myself before. I had the means to make what I wanted and to enjoy it, watch whatever I wanted to watch on TV and no-one could criticise me for it.
I mean, the dog might. Now it could talk.
I had a steak in the fridge. My mouth watered for it. I had some salad. No more watercress for me, oh no! My ex didn’t like my penchant for iceberg lettuce, but he’s not here! We always had watercress with steak. I hate watercress. So poncey.
I cooked the steak to my liking, with no-one breathing down my neck. It didn’t matter how I used to cook it. Too bloody was gross, as was too grey.
I saw a little head pop up from the sofa as I arrived in the living room.
‘That smells nice,’ said Fred.
‘I know! I might save you a bit.’
‘Yes, at the end though.’
‘Oh cheers, that’s really nice of you.’
I switched the TV on and watched Fred eyeing up my steak. ‘I know it’s yours,’ he said. ‘But I just want to grab it and eat it myself!’
I laughed and we settled in to watch some TV. I watched mindlessly, like I knew I wasn’t supposed to do but I did anyway, and, before I knew it, I’d nearly finished my meal.
‘Um hem,’ said Fred.
‘Oh, sorry,’ I said. I cut the remaining bit of my steak into small pieces and gave them both to a grateful Fred.
‘Yum, thanks,’ said Fred. ‘Can I lick the plate?’
‘If you like,’ I said. I put the plate on the floor. My ex hated that.
Fred was really going at the plate, ravenous for the bloody juices. I could hear my ex’s voice in my head. That’s disgusting. We eat from those.
After Fred finished, he hopped back onto the sofa for a hug. He buried into my side, finding a place just so, and I stroked him as we watched TV.
‘I feel so relaxed,’ he said.
‘You’ve had a lot to eat.’
‘Ah, not too much,’ he said. ‘Could you rub my belly?’
I laughed. I stroked his belly and we watched TV. Eventually, I realised that he was sleeping. I was tired too, though I hadn’t done much that day. I felt like I wanted to be away from the dog for a bit. Maybe I was a bit under the weather. Maybe I’d wake up tomorrow and the dog wouldn’t be chatting to me. He’d be barking again. I unfurled myself from him without waking him. He was deep in sleep now, limbs twitching. I switched the lights off and he didn’t peep.
I got into bed that night and resolved to go and see some actual human people. Maybe the doctor. I lay down and slept.
The next morning, I was woken up by barking. Maybe I’d dreamt that the dog had been speaking to me. I laughed. Imagine the dog really speaking to me!
I got downstairs and Fred was waiting for me.
‘It seems hot today,’ he said. ‘Might be worth getting our walkies in early.’
‘Our walkies?’ I said. His speaking again didn’t scare me, I realised.
‘Am I mispronouncing it? And yeah, our walkies. I don’t go on my own, do I?’
I flicked the kettle on. Instant coffee. My ex hated instant, but I could never be bothered waiting for a bloody cafetiere. They both tasted the same to me. I sprinkled enough instant coffee granules into my favourite mug, no need for the extra washing up by wasting a spoon, and made my coffee, splashing some milk powder in there. I like the taste. My ex hated milk powder. Everything that I did, everything I am, my ex hated. Why bother to stay with me for that long, then?
‘So, this walk,’ said Fred. I told him that I’d check the weather and, low and behold, they were saying that this could be the hottest day of the year. It was ten past seven now. I wasn’t a lie-in person, which was for the best. It would make the return to teaching easier in September.
‘You’re right,’ I said to Fred. ‘We should go before 9-ish really, as soon as possible.’
‘I’ll meet you by the door,’ he said.
‘Well, I need to get ready first mate,’ I said, half-way through my coffee.
‘What’s wrong with what you’re wearing?’ he asked and I laughed. I had never been outside in my pyjamas. Whenever my ex would see somebody in their pyjamas in a supermarket, particularly if it was a woman, he would huff around the supermarket and whinge about it on the way home. Fred tilted his head to one side and asked why I was laughing. He said he was being serious.
‘It’s frowned upon to go outside in your pyjamas,’ I said, finishing my coffee.
He tilted his head to one side. ‘The human world is strange.’
‘You’re not wrong.’
I didn’t bother with showering or make-up, I could do that when I got back. I grabbed a banana and ate as I walked upstairs. I changed into my tasteful long beige shorts and a navy tee shirt and brushed my teeth.
When I got downstairs Fred said ‘finally! You were ages. And you look the same!’
I ignored this. I grabbed his lead and he kept jumping up, trying to grab it. ‘Yay! Walkies,’ he said. ‘Are we set?’
‘We are.’ I grabbed my bag.
‘Let’s go!’ He clawed at the door.
The heat hit us as we walked through the door. ‘Not a massive walk today, mate,’ I said. ‘It’s hotter than I thought.’
We walked. Fred said things like ‘wow! What’s that smell!’ a lot. He was very easily distractible. I hadn’t fully noticed this before. I mentioned this to him.
‘There’s just so many cool things on walkies,’ he said. ‘Don’t you agree?’ He turned around, tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth.
A man I’d seen before but had never spoken to walked past us with his Doberman. ‘Morning,’ he said.
‘Morning!’ I replied. He’d made me jump.
‘I talk to my dog too, only place I can get any sense!’ he laughed. Our dogs were sniffing each other.
‘New friend?’ said Fred. ‘I love walkies.’ His tail was wagging all over the place.
The other dog woofed. I could only understand Fred.
‘You’ve got the right idea getting the dog out early,’ said the man. ‘I hate seeing dogs out when it’s very hot. It’s cruel.’ I nodded and agreed.
I heard Fred say ‘ow! Back off.’ I intervened, telling him to heel. He obeyed me, first time. The man was impressed.
‘Wow, you’ve got a real connection with your pup,’ he said. ‘It’s as if he actually listens to you.’ I looked at Fred and realised that he couldn’t understand what this man was saying. Fred and I could only understand each other. ‘Dogs really are man’s best friend – I mean woman’s!’
‘Can we move on now?’ said Fred, who looked wearily at this man’s dog. I nodded at him. I said that I should go.
‘Nice chatting with you,’ said the man.
‘What was he yapping about?’ asked Fred.
‘Said you and I have got a special connection,’ I said.
‘Yeah that’s what the dog was saying. I think that they were both jealous.’
I turned back and watched them walking away, straining from each other. ‘Yeah, they did look kind of miserable.’
‘What shall we do now?’ he said.
‘We should probably get back,’ I said. ‘It’s getting hotter.’
‘Okay,’ said Fred.
When we got back, Fred slept. I opened the back door and went out into the garden. Maybe I should take up gardening, or some other hobby. I couldn’t just stay in my house all the time, talking to my dog. You’re looney.
I emailed a few colleagues and friends, suggesting that we meet up. Even though I didn’t feel a big connection with some of them, I would have some space away from Fred for a while. But I knew that I didn’t have the courage to tell anybody that I was holding conversations with my dog. Who could I tell? It wasn’t the sort of thing that other people wanted to hear.
Kate Lunn-Pigula has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Nottingham. Her writing has been published by Litro Online, NewMag, The Honest Ulsterman, Other People’s Flowers, Bunbury Magazine, For Books’ Sake and Thresholds, amongst others. She blogs infrequently at www.katelunnpigula.wordpress.com and Instagrams @katelunnpigula.