By Tim Kindberg
The day my dog spoke back to me, I realised how much I had cut myself off from humanity. What he said began a series of events that would change my life forever.
I had been climbing up and down the stairs, collecting papers and small pieces of equipment scattered there, before walking him and leaving for work. And he, as always, lay waiting on the mezzanine between the first two floors, his eyes following me as I passed.
I can’t sit still for long. Someone once told me the house is too big for one person but it isn’t too big for me: I can arrange my papers and equipment neatly in a vertical formation of rooms; and climbing or descending the staircase to visit them seems to settle my spirits.
“Wait a little minute,” I told him. “We be walking soon.” I have always talked to animals, in a dialect I have heard no-one else speak, and which came from nowhere.
I had an important meeting that morning, and I scaled the stairs nervously, trying to remember which papers I would need from the little office on the third floor. As soon as I had brought a dossier back down and placed it in my case, I remembered some notes scribbled the night before, which I had left in a yet higher room. They contained insights, or so it had seemed last night, to offer the men from the South that morning, as may have proved necessary if the meeting did not go as I had hoped.
On my way back down he sat up on his hind legs and watched me with that look of dogs that was almost human.
“In a little minute, old friend. Just am have to be readying. Readying, boy.” I passed him and turned down the flight to where my case lay, holding the notes, which were not quite as insightful as I had hoped. I moved quickly; I would be late if I was not careful.
“You’re looking tired,” he said. “And lonely.” I came to a halt and held the banister rail. Yes, he was right on both counts. I didn’t turn to look but waited for him to address me further. Sometimes you hear words you have always known would be said.
“You’ve let yourself go,” he said. My shirt was not ironed. There was a grease mark on my trousers. Unkempt hair splayed down my neck. It was as though I could hear myself thinking, being honest with myself for the first time.
“There is a mission. And you will go along with this out of curiosity because I am talking to you. You could not possibly fail to comply with a dog who talks to you.” I could see his logic, but I resisted it at first.
“A dog who talks to me?’ ” I repeated. “But you’re my dog,” I still could not turn. What would I see? Black lips. A pink tongue. Incisors. Talking. And it was a dog voice, unmistakably: a gruff suppressed howl of a voice that was barely contained, with overtones of a whimper, like an instrument, a saxophone blowing for the first time with the breath of a novice player. Or could this be his natural voice, and had he spoken before?
I carried on down to my case. He followed. I was going to be late and still I had to walk him before I left. Anger rose in me.
“How did you learn to talk and why are you talking to me now? Don’t you know I have an important meeting to go to? I still have to feed you and walk you. Just stop it. I’m not interested in what you have to say.” He didn’t answer. My dog stood at the bottom of the stairs and looked at me with a confidence I had not seen before. What happened yesterday? Rose, who I paid to exercise him while I was at work, had dropped him back just after I returned. She hadn’t mentioned anything unusual.
“Let us go,” he said.
“Isn’t it for me to say that to you? I’m your master.”
“Where is your meeting, and what time?” Was that a snarl in his voice or just the way he spoke?
And so I rang Rose to tell her not to come, and took him out.
We walked in the rain for a few minutes so that he could relieve himself and then I took him back to the car. I half expected he would want to travel in the front seat but he went in the back under the hatch, like the old dog I thought I knew. He was silent during the journey. My hands on the wheel seemed to belong to someone else, someone who might plausibly be driving his dog to work before engaging in a “mission”. We were both wet from the rain. My case lay beside me. I couldn’t think whether I had put my notes into it before I left, with the insights that might be enough to satisfy the men from the South. My face appeared in the rear-view mirror. “Tired” and “lonely”, he had said, and “You’ve let yourself go.” I needed to hear more. I parked in the underground lot. He was still invisible behind the back seat. The instrument began to blow:
“Come back as soon as your meeting is over. Then we’ll start.”
The men from the South wore suits of an intimidating cut, as always. Their agenda exceeded the terms I had agreed with them. As I gave my presentation, they sat impassively with jackets unbuttoned. One asked a question of his colleague, who answered obliquely. I looked over at my empty place at the table. The note had crumpled when I shoved it into my case. The insights were creased and certainly unequal to the turn the meeting had taken. I found myself trying to remember whether I had opened the car windows to let in air. He hadn’t been walked and he would be hungry. Evidently his mission took precedence. But why was he letting me attend this meeting? Why not insist we left at once – to wherever he wanted to take me? Perhaps it was out of consideration for me, despite everything. I thought of yesterday when I took him for his evening walk, how he had seemed content to sniff at the bushes and street corners. Surely I should drive him home and act as though he had never spoken.
The men from the South regarded me, awaiting my response to an insightful point I had not heard.
I stopped just outside the car park and waited for his next move, with the engine idling. “Take me to Grrewowon Park,” he said.
“To which park?” The noise of the windscreen wipers did not help, but I simply could not make out the guttural and stifled howl of the crucial word.
“Grrewowon Park.” There are so many small parks in my neighbourhood and beyond, where Rose might take him for walks. I picked what I thought was most likely.
“Jarrow Park?” He raised himself up and I met his eyes now in the mirror. Evidently my guess was incorrect. There was a terrible blankness on the face of this transformed creature, my dog. His diction, though unmistakably canine, had been intelligible so far. Why did he have trouble with this one word?
“Reardon Park?” Yes, his ears pricked up. The smell of wet dog increased in a waft as he sat back down.
“Let us go,” he said.
If I complied, would he open up and say more about me? Would my sole companion have more opinions to share? I wanted to hear about myself, the honest truth.
Without thinking, I said “Just a little minute, then. We be going walkies soon.” How foolish I suddenly felt. But which was worse: to talk to him as I had done before he spoke to me, or to acknowledge that he was really speaking to me and abandon all my old ways with him?
We parked and walked the last few hundred metres into a pedestrianised area. I had never been to Reardon Park but he knew the way, turning confidently at each narrow intersection. Rose must bring him here. When we reached the edge of the park I found a spot out of earshot and said “This is Reardon Park, I take it. Now why are we here? I’ve told my assistant we’ll be back by one o’clock. I have to return. Why don’t we just have a nice walk then I’ll drop you at Rose’s?”
He did not look at me or answer but yanked me towards the statue in the centre and stopped by a bench with a clear view of the rest of the park. And there we sat. People walked past and smiled and their dogs sniffed but he paid little attention. His head followed every sign of someone entering from the narrow streets around. Every few minutes he would shift so as to view the opposite side.
Of course, I thought; he was looking for another dog, a special dog – that’s it, he’s in love! He’s driven to find her and he needs me to help.
“We must talk,” I said to him. “I have things to say to you and you to me. I really want to go back to work soon. I think I understand what has happened. I’ve not experienced it myself but you’re obviously looking for another dog, and you want to see her badly. Let us go back and I’ll ask Rose. I’m sure if I mention how interested you’ve become – and don’t worry, I’ll do so discreetly, I won’t mention we’ve been here, I’ll just ask why you seem rather distracted nowadays – she’ll twig and we’ll ask her to help find your new … friend.”
I would have continued but if he was listening he didn’t show it. Sitting on his hind legs with his large tail curling along the ground from his rear – somewhat comically, I couldn’t help thinking, despite the circumstances – he carried on staring at the fringes of the park.
And this continued for the next three days. You would not be able to tell that my dog was the slightest bit unusual but he was cold to me. The next morning, as he lay on the mezzanine, I readied myself for work. Or so I hoped; that this would end, and I could return to my routine. As before, he let me pass a few times while he remained silent. Then the creaking saxophone blew. Again I stopped mid-step with my back to him, my heart twitching.
“It’s always the same with you, “ he said. Yes, I thought, I like to know that not much will change.
“You don’t see what is in front of your face.” Didn’t I? Certainly I had no inkling that this would happen. Had there been signs? Had I been taking him for granted? And if he was in love, why was he uncharitable to me? I had read that love opened the heart.
Once again he made it clear that we must go to the park. This time he wanted to leave at once. I phoned work and Rose, to tell them that I had decided to take a few days off for personal reasons. We went to Reardon Park and watched from the same bench by the statue. But still he did not find what he was looking for.
On the next morning he said, the fifth time I passed him, “not much longer.”
“What do you mean?” He didn’t answer. It was becoming harder and harder to think of him as my good companion of just days ago. I wished there was someone I could speak to about my talking dog – as if they would believe me. It was tempting to construe his words – and what for the first time I understood to be silence – as if they were human, as if silence were a snub and brevity were curtness. But when I listened to his tenor saxophone syllables it was equally plausible that more was beyond him: that three dog words were equivalent in effort to a hundred human words. I felt pity for a moment. Without turning, I went to fetch his lead and he followed me. Once again we waited in Reardon Park but did not find what he sought.
Then on the third morning since my dog first spoke to me, he said nothing at all. I walked up and down the stairs as usual, organising some notes I had written in the evenings. For life beyond had not stopped. Once again I would have to meet the men from the South. When he still had not spoken the first few times I passed him, I invented reasons to traverse the stairs again. But he remained in silence. I opened the front door with resignation and we left into the bright morning.
Once again we sat by the statue and once again he turned this way and that. And for several hours while many dogs entered the park and eventually sniffed past us, none received more than a glance.
Then suddenly my dog wagged his tail. I looked in the direction of his eager gaze but I saw no dog. I looked and looked. There was only a man entering in the distance. My dog turned to me and for the first time spoke while facing me.
“Goodbye,” he said. He ran away in an arc, not towards the man but first to mingle with a group of dogs and their owners in the middle distance. Then he headed towards the man, who greeted him. I sat and watched them leave. I never saw my dog again.
Since that day I have considered every word my dog spoke to me. I try to sleep more and pay more attention to my personal appearance; I bought a new suit of a quite distinctive cut. I believe this has improved my negotiations with the men from the South. They look at me differently now. Yesterday I took some insights to offer them on neatly folded paper, written in the office just above the mezzanine. And I shared one with them. There was a pause, which I take to be a good sign.
Tim Kindberg lives in Bristol, UK, where he runs a start-up company developing interactive physical-digital hybrids for the Arts and the creative industries. He’s also a director and occasional editor of Magma poetry magazine, and is writing a dark novel for children set in Marrakech. He has a computer science textbook, scientific papers, a chapter about David Bowie, and a few poems to his name but this is his first published fiction. www.champignon.net