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Type
Fiction

VU Short Story Prize winner: Dog story

1

We left the dog on a highway once. It was the middle of summer, a week or so until Christmas and we had been arguing. We were supposed to drive down South to visit some friends of yours who’d just had another baby. You’d talked about the baby for weeks, showing me pictures. I think now maybe that is what you wanted – to father a child with your name. At the time, though, you only talked about getting out of the city.

‘But we don’t live in the city,’ I said. ‘If we did I wouldn’t spend an hour in Bridge traffic twice a day.’

‘You know what I mean,’ you said. ‘It’ll be good for us to get away. All we do here is sit around and drink.’

I wanted to point out that, actually, I went to work, and that most of those empty bottles were yours, but it was already going to be a long drive. Also, there was some truth in what you said. In the winter, it had been romantic to hole up in this house by the beach, drinking whiskey in the evening by the fireplace. But in summer, morning came with the after-taste of guilt, as we woke dry-mouthed and red-eyed when my alarm went off.

‘You don’t have to come if you don’t want to,’ you said, but I knew you didn’t mean it because without me you’d have to take the train.

By the time we left, the afternoon air was thick with heat. King, at least, was happy, with his head hanging out the back window, saliva from his tongue flying out into the hot wind. We suffered, sweltered, and the sun burned the bridge of my nose and all down my right arm.

We must have kept arguing because what I remember next is pulling into a service station on the Princes Highway and slamming the door, my bare feet slapping against the torrid pavement. When I came back from paying for petrol, the car was empty – you’d probably taken King out for water.

I stood squinting into the sun, warm metal keys in my palm, hair stuck to the back of my neck with sweat. I thought about leaving you and driving back to the city alone, the sun setting over the highway in all the violent colours of fire, with a heat that would linger long after night had fallen.

The vision faded when I pictured the house, and sleeping alone in the dark, cool rooms where the sun couldn’t reach. I walked back into the petrol station to use the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face from the rusted taps. When I reached the car again, you were sitting in the passenger seat drinking a can of Coke. Without talking, I pulled the car away from the station and turned us back towards the highway. We drove for almost an hour in silence, both our eyes fixed on the middle distance, before we realised we had left the dog behind.

He was still there when we returned, lying in the shade in front of the shop and waiting. When he saw the car, he barked once in salutation and began to wag his tail. Dogs are much more forgiving than people, but the incident confirmed my belief that we would have been terrible parents.

I drove us home with your hand resting on my knee, and how I wanted to dig my fingernails into the back of your hand to make some mark. When the sun finally set that evening, the sky fell a dull shade of purple, the colour of an old bruise.

 

2

I get your email about the dog in April, when I am living in the new place. I’ve been here at least four months now, but I still call it that, the new place. There are boxes lining the hallway outside my room, and I’ve only unpacked the things I’ve needed – a few clothes, the coffee percolator, my laptop, a winter coat. The rest I’m managing to live without.

Your email reads more like a telegram. There is nothing in the body of the message, just one line in the subject box, no pleasantries, no punctuation: the dog died.

You always used to call the dog by the name we gave him, King – he was never just ‘the dog’. I don’t know whether the email is an invitation, or simply a death notice. I had forgotten how cold you were in writing, and it made me miss your voice. Months have gone by since we last spoke and I’ve long since quit the habit of writing you those emails I never sent, those electronic love letters that collected in my drafts folder, addressed to no-one. When I wrote them, I still remembered everything: the smell of the wooden house after rain, the colour of the shadows on the beach at dusk, the rush of waves heard from your bedroom.

After a moment the sounds of the city outside filter back in. The new house is bordered by a main road on one side and a train line on the other. I lived by a railway when I was younger, too, and as a child I could fall asleep in the evenings lulled by the rhythms of the trains in motion. I can’t anymore; I lie awake at night listening to the tide of traffic, trying to pretend it is the sound of the ocean.

When I call, you answer with a voice that is low and thick, probably with drink. I listen to your breath for a moment and hear how it catches with each inhale. I wonder if you have been crying, but I say nothing. Afraid you’ll recognise me by my breathing, I hang up.

 

3

When we met, we liked the symmetry of each other’s ages. Written down – 24 42 – it looked like a palindrome. It was winter then, and you were living by the beach in the old house that looked out over the promenade.

You had the rough hands of someone who had spent a long time by the sea, and your blue eyes always seemed bright and watery. That is how I think of you now: bright eyes in a weathered face. Memory exaggerates the creases around your eyes and the lines at the corners of your lips.

That winter we collected driftwood from the beach every evening, when the twilight cast blue shadows across the white sand, the dog dragging the biggest pieces home in his mouth. I learned then that the years you had over me had taught you skills I’d never needed, like how to make a fire that would keep burning. We spent long nights in front of the fire casting tall shadows on the walls, listening to rise and fall of the ocean outside, as steady and familiar as a lover’s breath.

 

4

You call me the following evening and tell me that you have King’s ashes in a wooden box, that you’ll be scattering them by the beach on Sunday morning.

‘The vet said it was his heart,’ you say. ‘Too small for a dog so big.’

‘And he would have been old,’ I say. ‘Probably ten or eleven when we found him. What’s that in dog years? Seventy-seven?’

I remembered the morning we saw King on the promenade, sitting on one of the wooden benches and staring out at the sea, like a human. He was so big that from far away we thought he was an old man in a winter coat. When we got closer, he got up and wagged his tail as if he’d been waiting for us. His fur was mixed with colours of sand, chalk and dust but his muzzle was pure white. When I reached out to pat him, he pushed his wet nose into the palm of my hand, then gave me his paw. I scratched behind his ears and asked him those useless questions people ask of animals, What’s your name? Aren’t you beautiful? Who do you belong to? Neither of us had seen him on the beach before.

‘Anyway,’ you say, ‘I thought I should tell you.’

‘Do you want me to be there on Sunday?’

‘It’s up to you. I just thought you should know.’

That was how you’d always been with me: reaching out and then pulling back, never asking me for anything I might not want to give. You can stay if you want to; you can leave if you want to leave.

 

5

Sometimes, under pale morning skies, I drive out to other beaches to watch the day dawning. Today I park the car by Waverley Cemetery and walk down to the lookout between Bronte and Clovelly. I want the edge of a cliff, where the city falls away and there is nothing but sky above and sea below. There is a danger in these tides that we never had to worry about at your beach, where the water barely rippled beyond the shore and in summer it felt like swimming in warm milk.

No matter where I stand, buildings and apartments always rise up on the fringes, on the peripheries. I wonder if the people who live in them look out at the ocean and see in it a reminder of all the sadness, chaos and beauty of the world: of falling in love, of grief, hope, dreams, memories. Or if after a while you stop noticing the agony of the landscape, if you just get used to it.

 

6

In dreams, time is glassy. At first, I’m skating in the middle of a frozen sea. I think I see your face below the surface, with lips of blue. But when I slip, the surface fractures and I realise that it’s made of glass, not ice. All the hours that have come between us lie stacked below, like a series of windowpanes, and when I fall I shatter days, weeks, seasons.

When I wake from these dreams I expect to see cuts on my hands, and my bed to be filled with jagged shards and grains of sand.

 

7

On Sunday morning I dress for a funeral. When I drive across the Bridge, I remember the day we went sailing on a skiff you borrowed from a friend. I sat on the edge of the boat tasting the salt on my lips and letting the sun burn my shoulders. I became hypnotised by this image of the city reflected in the water, streaked with sunlight. We stayed until dusk when lights around the harbour began to blink on, and the warmth of the evening seemed to promise that everything could be born anew with the summer. I think now: if only we could have stayed sheltered.

I arrive before you and wait on the pier. Looking back down the beach, I see you walking towards me in long strides, strands of grey hair falling in your eyes. Before long, our time apart will eclipse our time together.

I look down at my hands – white in the cold, with rivers of blue veins. So many times I had searched your palms, still young enough to believe that love made a mark that was indelible.

You never talked about your other girlfriends. All I knew was that your longest relationship had been with a painter – I’d found a photo of the two of you together once. You told me then that you had lived with her for ten years and when she was angry at you, she would paint your condemnation across the walls. I didn’t know how to love like that – in bold gestures. My expressions were small: a folded love note buried in a jacket, or a drafted email, addressed and sent to no-one.

When you reach me, we won’t touch. You will be holding King’s ashes in a wooden box with both hands, and I will only be able to look at it out of the corner of one eye. You will ask me if I want to say something, but I won’t know how to account for seventy-seven dog years, seventy of which remained unknown to us. We will stay mostly silent as we watch the ashes get caught in the wind.

 

8

Afterwards, we walked along the beach at the edge of the water, sinking into the sand a little with every footstep. You told me then that you were selling the house, and I realised how much I’d been hoping to go back there – as if the past was still there gathering dust, waiting for us to unlock it.

‘I found some more of your things in the move,’ you said. ‘You can come over and get them now, if you like.’

I drove us back to your apartment, which was small, neat and white – a modern place, with an open kitchen. I recognised a few pieces of furniture from the old house – the worn leather couch, an antique sideboard with painted angels on the doors that you’d repaired that winter, and the rug that King had scratched up and I’d come to think of as his. I wondered if I got close enough if it would still smell like dog. Most of the fittings I didn’t recognise, though, as if you’d gone to Ikea and deliberately bought things that had no past.

I sat on King’s rug while you made me a drink – gin and something sweet.

‘Since when do you drink gin?’ I asked.

‘It’s all that’s here,’ you said. ‘And it’s better than nothing.’

You joined me on the floor and we raised our glasses in tribute to the dog, without clinking them together.

‘Poor old King,’ you said. ‘I wish I could have given him a proper backyard burial, you know? Like we did for the family pets when I was a kid. I would have, if I’d still been at the old house.’

I should have said something – reached out and touched your hand – but the distance between our bodies felt impossible to cross. You seemed so much closer in dreams, even behind the layers of glass. Something about the apartment had been distracting me, too, and I realised then it was because it had no smell. No scent of sandalwood, salt, or dog. No smell of wood, or fire. I began to have the feeling this wasn’t your apartment. All the white doors and cupboards were conspicuously shut, and I was sure that if I looked inside them I’d find women’s things.

I closed my eyes to avoid seeing things that couldn’t possibly belong to you and turned my face up towards you. I leaned in close enough to smell the gin on your breath and pressed my lips against yours. You put your hand on my shoulder, but it wasn’t the touch I wanted, not the touch of a lover, but a halt.

‘What?’ I said. ‘Isn’t this why you wanted me here?’

‘I don’t know what I wanted,’ you said. ‘But it’s probably not a good idea.’

‘Oh, because suddenly you’re too old to make mistakes? Whose apartment is this, anyway? Whose bottle of gin?’

You raised your eyebrows at me, but said nothing until I reached the door.

‘Wait,’ you said. ‘Wait. Don’t you want to get the things you came for?’

I didn’t. If I hadn’t missed them after a year, I didn’t need them. Before I slammed the door I said something that I shouldn’t have.

‘This is what did it, this place. Animals hate change and you never should have moved him into some stranger’s apartment.’

On the way home, I swore to myself that I had loved the dog more than I had ever loved you. But lying in bed that night, I wondered if a dog could die of a broken heart, if it was my fault for leaving. When I was a child and my family dog had died, my mother told my brother and me that it had gone to dog heaven. I think that in dog heaven, if there were such a place, we would still be asleep in the old house with King dreaming on the end of the bed.

 

9

A few weeks later, I was down by the water watching the sun rise above the headland when I felt my heart grow calm and my breathing slow to match the rhythm of the tide. It occurred to me suddenly, that I was going to be fine.

I thought about the time we took King to the mountains. It was August. The trees were bare and skeletal, laced with thin webs of ice, and there was frost on the ground in the morning that cracked under our hiking boots. The dog ran ahead of us, but his bones must have been brittle from the cold. He ran straight for the lake and dived in before we could stop him. The temperature of the water made his body freeze, and he turned on his back, legs stiff in the air. It stopped his heart. You waded into the water up to your knees and dragged him out, wrapped him in your coat. I watched you breathe air from your lungs into his and push on his chest. Where he went, in his dog dreams that drifted him away from earth and life for those few minutes, we would never know. But it didn’t matter, because he came back to us. We called his name and he came back.

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Madelaine Lucas is a writer and musician based in Sydney. A recent graduate of the University of Technology Sydney, her work has appeared in Island magazine, Vertigo, and several volumes of the UTS Writers’ Anthology.

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