Winner - Mensa North West Short Story Contest 2018.
Pat was mildly surprised as he returned to the van to see a small dog waiting by the kerb.
“Hello, little fellow”, he said kindly reaching down to scratch the top of its head, “do you live local?”
The dog, a lively Jack Russell, was so friendly that all Pat’s professional caution was eclipsed in a natural reaching out between two beings who rejoiced in a mutual encounter of personhood. It looked well cared for and was not showing any signs of that wariness animals display when they have been mistreated by human beings. It must live in one of the nearby houses, he thought.
The dog put up no resistance when Pat lifted it into his arms and retraced his steps to the house he had left moments earlier and whose owner was still standing framed in the doorway where she had come to see Pat off.
“Excuse me, Mrs Bentley. Do you know this dog or who he lives with?”
Mrs Bentley was carefully closing the door behind her with her foot, as she didn’t want Trinket wandering off again so soon after the kind man had brought her home.
“I’ve never seen him before. I don’t think he lives round here”.
“Not to worry”, Pat smiled. “I’ll take him back with me and see if we can’t find his owner”.
“He just seemed to be there when you were walking up my path with Trinket”, Mrs Bentley commented. “Thank you again. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t found my cat so quickly”.
“Goodnight then. Glad to have reunited you two".
Somehow, it had seemed wrong to put the dog in the back of the van as he would normally do. Sort of disrespectful. As he drove home the Jack Russell sat contentedly in the foot well on the passenger side.
Each time Pat glanced to check it was okay, the dog’s friendly little face turned towards him as the tail waved gently as if to reassure him that all was as it should be. Somewhere in the back of Pat’s mind there was a sense of something extraordinary going on. A little voice that seemed to be saying: “You’re the one that is supposed to find them – but this one found you”.
Pat had set up “Lost Companions” while he was a student at Carrington University. It had seemed a good way to fill his free time doing something that had nothing to do with human psychology and had all started when he’d read a notice in a shop window offering a small reward for the return of a missing Spaniel. That first job had been easy, as he recalled students in his halls of residence returning from a night’s drinking with a new companion they seemed to find amusing. He had simply encountered the dog in question in the common room, where it lay forgotten now they had sobered up and dispersed to lectures.
The owner had been so pleased to be reunited with Daniel the Spaniel that they had asked no embarrassing questions that may have led to Pat having to spill the beans on the drunken antics of fellow students. In fact, a tenner had been added to the original twenty pound offer, though the delight of the owner and Daniel at being reacquainted had seemed enough reward in itself.
As he had pocketed that £30 Pat had realised that here was a way to augment what he was earning from his evenings as a bar tender come glass collector in the Waddling Duck. Soon, using local knowledge he had gleaned since his fresher’s week induction and from fellow students, the local radio station, free papers picked up on bus journeys, conversations in the Duck and the long walks he took along neighbourhood byways and towpaths when he needed to think, he was reuniting dogs, cats – and on one occasion an African Grey Parrot – with human companions who seemed to miss them enormously.
Newly graduated, Pat was ready to earn a living in his field and had job prospects looming from two teaching hospitals and a residential school for children who were considered to have challenging behaviour, Pat had been sure when he handed Trinket over to Mrs Bentley that this would be the last job he would do as “Pat Rescue” as some folk had affectionately come to refer to him. As he pulled up into the drive of the small house he had been renting for the last eight months, Pat walked round to the other side of the van to let his unexpected new client out.
“Come on, let’s get you fed and watered”.
The next day, Pat would take the Jack Russell to the animal sanctuary where they could check his microchip. Once it was established where he came from, Pat would return him and “Lost Companions” would have done its last reuniting of a pet with its human.
Stacey bid the district nurses goodnight before locking up and returning to her grandmother’s bedside. Gran looked so peaceful as she lay propped up in her bed deeply asleep now that all her night time meds had been administered and her oxygen tubes and drips had been adjusted.
As Stacey leaned over to place a kiss atop Gran’s brow, the doorbell chimed.
“That’ll be the district nurses back”, she said, though there was no-one listening. “They must have forgotten something”.
As she opened the door, Stacey was mildly surprised to see a young man standing on the stoop with a small dog in his arms.
“I’m sorry to call so late”, the stranger said. “Would have been here sooner, but I had a job interview and...”
“Hello”, Stacey was saying as the Jack Russell began to wriggle in Pat’s arms, clearly pleased to see this young woman. Pat realised she was talking to the dog and not him.
“I’m sorry”, she said next, looking at Pat. “Can I help you?”
“Well, this dog seems to know you and I’m guessing you are its owner – but it’s all so puzzling...”
“It certainly is”, the young woman said, a note of caution in her voice. “I don’t know this dog and I don’t know you...”
The Jack Russell chose that moment to leap down and patter into the house.
“Wait there!” The young woman ordered Pat. “I’ll fetch him for you”.
As the door closed in his face, Pat’s head was reeling as his brain tried to fathom what the last twenty four hours could possibly mean.
With no sign of the door opening again, fifteen minutes later Pat turned to get back in his van so he could get a pad on which to write a note for the woman whose evening he’d disturbed. As his hand reached for the gate, Pat heard the door open behind him.
He turned and smiled at the young woman then looked down to where the small dog stood at her side. It looked for all the world like these two belonged together in this house.
“Look, it’s getting on for ten o’clock and you turning up like this … I’m going to have a brew. Would you like one?”
“What brought you here tonight?” Stacey asked, placing two mugs on the coffee table and taking one of the armchairs.
“The dog”, Pat replied. “You see, I found him – well, he found me – last night”.
He went on to explain about his role reuniting missing animals with their owners.
“The thing is, when I dropped him off with friends at the animal sanctuary this morning on my way to a job interview, the idea was that they’d hang onto him, check his chip and I’d pick him up later and return him to his owner”.
“Go on”, Stacey encouraged, a note of something Pat could not quite make out in her voice. Was that curiosity or was she as bewildered by him by this crazy situation?
“Well, when I went to collect him, they thought I was playing some kind of joke on them. Students do have a reputation for that sort of thing, I guess.
It took some convincing to get them to tell me what they had found”.
“Which was?” Stacey asked with a calmness marked by that odd note of something else.
“Since 2016, every dog in Britain is required by law to be microchipped, though chipping itself has been in use since the late 1980’s...” Pat fell silent. He wasn’t sure how to tell Stacey the rest of it. She seemed to sense his hesitancy.
“When the dog came in”, she began, “It was if it knew this house. He went straight to the room where my grandmother is sleeping and lay down beside her. My first instinct was to shoo him away and get him back to you, but then something strange happened...”
It was Pat’s turn to fill a silence.
“Something strange?” he asked.
“Yes”, Stacey responded. “It was if he was expected. I can’t explain it. My grandmother has been ill for a while now and I moved in here eighteen months ago so she could be cared for in her own home, the house she and my grandfather had bought together a year after they were married. My own mother grew up in this house. I’ve known this house as a second home since I was a child. There was something in the way the dog was around me and around this house that seemed familiar. As he had sat down beside her bed, my grandmother turned her head towards him as if she knew he was there. She didn’t open her eyes. To all intents and purposes, she was still asleep...”
As another silence unfolded Pat looked up in time to watch a huge tear fall from Stacey’s eye.
“I’m sorry”, she said. “There’s something happening here that I just don’t understand”.
“”No, I am sorry”, Pat reassured her.
He wanted to fold an arm around her, but it would be so inappropriate from a stranger who had invaded her world such a short while ago. “I didn’t mean to come here and upset anyone. To be honest, I was just so curious”.
““Curiouser and curiouser”, said Alice””, Stacey quoted and they both laughed. Pat, maintaining the happy note of silence, recalled another cherished line of good literature:
“”But Lancelot mused a little space; He said, "She has a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace...””
“It’s late”, he said eventually. “I’d better be off. I’m sorry to have disturbed you. Better find the dog and leave you in peace”.
Stacey knew where the dog would be found – right beside her grandmother’s bed. Pat hovered by the door of the sick room as Stacey went in to retrieve him.
“She looks so peaceful”, he told Stacey as she handed him the pooch which, despite seeming reluctant to be leaving, maintained a respectful dignity in the presence of the sick old woman.
“Before you go, you must tell me why the animal sanctuary thought you were playing a prank on them”.
“You’ll think me silly...”
“Not sure I will”, Stacey gave him an encouraging smile.
“Perhaps it was them playing the prank on me. They told me the dog was chipped in 1997 to this address and that his registered owners were called “Pedersen”. But of course, not only was it extremely unlikely that any dog would live more than twenty years, but you only have to look at this fellow to see he’s only about three years old. Goodnight, Stacey. Thanks for the brew. I hope your grandmother is okay...”
So preoccupied was he as he made his way back to the van that Pat failed to notice Stacey still staring after him in disbelief as he pulled away from the kerb.
That night, Pat slept fitfully. He dreamed of a slender boat gliding down a gently flowing river towards the turrets of a citadel, a small Jack Russell dog drifting alongside on the back of a graceful swan. He himself seemed to be standing on a bridge and as the boat drifted beneath him, he gazed down upon the beautiful still form of a figure that looked like, yet was not, Stacey. Like Ophelia, the still figure was bedecked with flowers.
He woke in a sweat. Beside him, the Jack Russell lay wakeful and sentient almost as though they had emerged from the dream together. After lying awake for some time Pat finally drifted off to sleep again. This time he stood on the shore of a long, narrow estuary that gradually widened towards the horizon. Beside him, a small dog followed his gaze out across the rugged scenery as, together, they watched the flames of a hungry fire devour a long ship that the currents were slowly taking out to sea through the inlet.
Again he woke. This time, his trained mind began to throw up conscious conclusions in regard to the subconscious realm that was communing with his psyche through the medium of dreams. He rose to make coffee. It was almost daybreak, no point in trying to sleep again.
As he waited for the kettle random words and phrases flashed in his mind:
At that moment, the phone rang.
“Hi sorry to ring you so early...”
“Well, I was sorry to call on you so late last night. How are you Stacey?”
“We need to talk”.
“Is everything okay? How’s your grandmother?”
“We’re both fine. The district nurses are with her now doing her morning routine”.
“Look, it’s difficult to get away from here for long. I pop out to the shops and such when the nurses are around in the afternoon...”
“Why don’t I come to you? Are you free this evening?”
“If you wouldn’t mind. There are a few things I need to look into today – but it would be good to have a little company over dinner. Are you vegan? Vegetarian?”
“Unlike most of the students I went to Uni with, I’m afraid I’m a bit of a carnivore – but I’m happy to eat whatever you like. Shall I bring us a takeaway?”
“No. I need to do something to occupy myself while I’m watching gran. I’ll cook us dinner”.
“Can I bring anything?”
“You had better not show up without that dog”, Stacey said. “See you around six?”
“Jack” was clearly delighted when Pat pulled up that evening outside the house that Stacey now shared with her grandmother. He had to admit that he was himself rather pleased at the prospect of seeing Stacey again.
“Come in you two”, she said. “We’ve a couple of hours before the nurses come to do their evening chores”.
“Thought you might like these”, Pat said handing Stacey a couple of books. “You seem to be fond enough of Dodgson to be able to quote him”.
“How thoughtful! I love Lewis Carol. The Annotated Alice! I’ve been meaning to read this for ages”.
“Martin Gardner’s commentary on the text and the insights he offers into the puzzles offers a whole new dimension to Alice and her adventures. This edition contains all of John Tenniel’s original sketches too. Jeff Noon’s Automated Alice is a fantasy novel in which Alice travels to a future Manchester. Noon’s Civil Serpents are creepily amusing”.
The lamb was tender and the whole meal delicious, perhaps more so because Pat was pleased to be in Stacey’s company once more. Despite the aroma of the meat Jack, as Pat had got to calling the dog, showed more interest in being next to the old woman’s bed.
The dishwasher loaded, Stacey and Pat settled down with coffees in the living room once again.
“So, we need to talk?”
“It seems to me”, Stacey began, “that you and I each has a part of the same conundrum. I’ll tell you my part if you tell me yours”.
“There’s not much more to add”, said Pat. “Jack seems to have been chipped before he was born. But it is also curious that he seems so at home here – and yet you don’t know him. The whole things seems incredible”.
“Last night”, Stacey began, placing her mug on its coaster, “you mentioned the name Pederson”.
“Yes, that was the person who registered the dog that was chipped in 1997. Maybe someone removed that chip and then placed it in...”
“Shut up!” Stacey said, not unkindly. A smile brightening her face that seemed to light Pat’s whole being. “My name is Stacey Robinson. That’s the name my Mother and Father gave me. My Maternal Grandfather, however, was called Lucas Pederson. My Grandmother, who lies sleeping close by and whose name you part share, is called Trisha Pederson”.
“What are the chances?” Pat blurted out.
“Of you being called Patrick and my Grandmother being called Patricia?”
“Of a chip being removed from your grandparent’s dog and replanted in Jack years later!”
“Stop calling him Jack. That’s not his name”.
Pat looked so confused that Stacey knew the only way to continue the conversation was to call the dog.
“Alrik!” She said gently.
Right away the dog came to her side.
“It’s okay. I can tell him now”, Stacey said ruffling his fur. Alrik, seemingly satisfied that his personhood was again intact, went back to his station beside the sleeping Trisha.
“But yesterday you said you didn’t know him”.
“I didn’t. Or, for all the reasons you have stated yourself, I thought I didn’t. But when you mentioned my grandparents name as you were leaving, half-forgotten memories flooded back and the reason for your call last night fell into place”.
“You see, I was only three years old when my grandfather died. Alrik was just a little older. He died in a road traffic accident just two weeks before my grandfather suffered the heart attack that killed him”.
Pat had gone very quiet.
“You are surprised I’m talking about him as if this is the same dog. I know. This all seems strange. I wouldn’t have believed it myself. But back then, Alrik and I had been playmates. The little girl I was seemed sure she would never forget him. But of course I did. In time, like my beloved grandfather, he faded in my memories – and yet was somehow always present there and in my heart. They say that those who once love can never be fully parted”.
The doorbell rang.
“That will be the nurses”, said Stacey as she rose to let them in. While the district nurses went about their tasks Stacey made everyone coffee.
When the nurses, Linda and Alyson, had taken their coffees into the sick room to enjoy while they cared for their patient, Stacey and Pat resumed their conversation.
“My Grandfather loved that little dog. It was he who named him Alrik – which means noble leader. My grandfather, if you haven’t guessed, was Danish. Of course, there was someone he loved much more”.
“Your grandmother”, Pat stated so matter of factly that Stacey felt emboldened to continue her side of the conundrum.
“Yes. My grandparents were not religious people. They were, however, very spiritual people. When Granddad died, all the adults agreed with Gran that he deserved an honest send off. Something that told his story truthfully and with humour. Gran insisted that we bypass the usual offer for such occasions and find someone who could bring a dignity to her husband’s funeral and was willing and able to draw on fruit from the whole orchard rather than a single tree. After you left last night, I felt drawn to go through her paperwork and came across a copy of the service, complete with Rumi quotes, Celtic Christian prayers and a eulogy that told my Grandfather’s story. Here. Look at the committal”.
She handed Pat a folder.
“Look at the final page”.
Pat quietly read the last few paragraphs before the final piece of music – Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyrie”.
Next to the word Committal in bold, the celebrant had written:
“Lucas, we are none of us sure exactly what comes next. While faith assures us there is a heaven beyond the stars where loved ones are reunited, science reveals that, when we come to lay it down, the carbon in our body’s returns to the stars from which we borrowed it billions of years ago. In your own Norse tradition, there is a legend that says that at the end of a souls journey it is the animals it knew in life that come to show it the way home across Bifröst, the rainbow bridge that leads to the feasting halls of the gods.
So if Alrik is there with you now, follow him home.
Go with our love for who you were. Go with our gratitude for the way you lived. Go knowing we will never forget you. Go in awareness that threads of you abide in the DNA of those who remain and others yet to be born. Go with our good wishes for all that is yet to be..."
“There really are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophies”, Pat said with feeling, as he gazed in wonder at Alrik who Stacey had called to them while the nurses dealt with Gran. The spell that seemed to have been woven on some invisible loom between them was broken as Linda and Alyson came in cheerfully.
“All done!” Said Linda.
Alrik rose and pattered into Trisha’s room.
“Your grandmother was asking for dinner”, Alyson said with a smile. “Still not quite with us, she seemed to have found her appetite”.
“I expect that was the aroma of the lamb I cooked earlier”, Stacey explained. “I’ve not really bothered with cooked meals for so long. Maybe the smell of cooking stirred her memories”.
“Well, it was roast beef she wanted”, Linda said. “See you tomorrow”.
“Beef roast”, your Gran had asked for”, Alyson corrected her colleague. “Beef Roast” she had said, but then she seemed confused as she added: “But I don’t know the way””.
The folder fell from Pat’s hand.
“Wait!” cried Stacey, as the tears began to fall. “Please, will you come with us and check on her one last time?”
“But of course dear”, uttered a startled Alyson. “Whatever is the matter...”
“She’s gone”, Said Linda as the four of them huddled round Trisha’s bed.
Pat placed an arm around Stacey while the nurses checked for vital signs before ringing to get a doctor out to confirm what they already knew.
“Where’s the little dog?” Asked Alyson suddenly.
“He can’t have vanished”, Linda said. “He went in here as we came out - but come to think of it he wasn’t in the room when we came back in just moments later and there is nowhere else he can be”.
“Bifröst”, said Stacey. “He’s showing Gran the way home”.
“Beef Roast?” Linda and Alyson looked at her questioningly.
“No. Bifröst – it’s a Norse word”, Pat explained. “Bifröst is the rainbow bridge that spans the space between Middle Earth, where we mortals live out our lives, before rising far above the highest branches of the world tree Yggdrasil into the halls of Valhalla, where friends gone before are waiting to greet us at a great feast where stories are shared”.
A calm settled on the house as four somewhat wiser people waited patiently for the doctor to arrive. For two of them, a new story was about to begin that would ever be rooted in a far older saga.