By James Gray
Blatting down the motorway that sickeningly hot August Saturday, I hadn’t noticed how heavy my right foot had become until I saw the tail lights of the car in front getting closer and closer, faster and faster. Brake! Now just inches from the four-by-four in front and with months of detritus flung into the rear footwells – huh, that’s the back seat tidied up – I reckoned I’d just about got away with my deftly executed emergency stop without attracting too much attention. I stole a glance in the rear view mirror, saw the thick swirling tyre smoke and waited for the smell of burning rubber to subside.
A sideways glance. “Sorry,” I said. The peanut butter sandwich now splattered to the dashboard, along with the Coke-soaked wife and the what-the-f*** expression, told me I’d be making up for my deftness later. On any other day…
“Oh, look, hah, traffic’s moving again,” I said.
We exited the motorway and switched off the gps. After three hours of “Hmm, powerful turn this is. Become lost you will not,” I decided Yoda on the satnav was not cool, not even in a galaxy far far away. We had hand-written directions from here on. Go straight on, turn left at the third oak tree, past the old barn, left at the boarded-up cafe and if you reach the house with the green roof you’ve gone too far. Take you five minutes, tops.
An hour later, we turned on to a dusty, pot-holed road with no name and found ourselves on a deserted industrial estate. Reached your destination, you have.
“Now where?” I said.
“The lady said she’d meet us at the gates, supposed to be just past a disused chicken factory. There, there, over there!”
Spying two large mesh gates beyond a group of poor excuses for trees, I edged the car forward, bumping across theMad Max terrain, and pulled onto a dirt verge where the tyre tracks of some heavy industrial vehicle had fossilised under the baking sun. I moved my neck from side to side, eased forward in the seat and peeled my soaking t-shirt away from my back, feeling the chill as it snapped back against my skin. Through the windscreen loomed a large lady, tattered jeans and dirty white t-shirt, waving wildly.
“You can’t park there!” she said.
Oh, bog off.
“Righto!” I said. She indicated towards the other side of the dusty track, about five metres ahead.
Cause that makes so much difference.
I parked in the designated parking space for fear of further gesticulation and my wife and I peeled ourselves out of the car.
“Nice to finally meet you,” I said, offering a smile and a moist hand.
The nice lady marched straight towards my wife and gave her the kind of hug reserved for friends reunited. “Come on, come on,” she said. “I’m sure you can’t wait to see him.”
I took a long, hard swig from a bottle of warm mineral water and leaned against the car.
I’d been hearing tales of the legendary Rocky for weeks, hoping his name was kind of ironic, like Little John, or our neighbours’ Chihuahua, Goliath. But, sadly, his reputation preceded him.
“I’ve made Yorkshire pudding,” she had said. “And trifle for dessert.”
What’s she after?
“Sit down, you look tired. You’ve been working so hard lately,” she said. “Beer?”
“Er, this is nice,” I said, and waded in. After a couple of minutes of clanking around in the kitchen, she slid onto the chair opposite me.
“I’ve been thinking.”
Here it comes.
“You know that animal refuge I visited last week?”
Mouthful of mash, I nodded. Brace yourself.
“Well, there was this one dog…”
And there it was.
“… called Rocky, he’s been caged up for so long, it breaks my heart.”
“Any more gravy?”
“He’s eight years old and so cute and he looks so much like Sienna, you’d love him, I know you would.”
She knew that Sienna, our Golden Retriever mix who followed me around like a, well, like a dog, already had me wrapped firmly around her little, slightly chunky, paws.
Boy, she’s good.
And over a splendid, if unexpected, dinner, she told me all about the mutt. Rocky was an eight-year-old mixed-breed who’d been badly mistreated and who desperately needed someone to love him. And look – pictures! No sooner had she plucked a digital camera from thin air than images of the loveable Rocky were flashing before my eyes.
“Look at those big floppy ears!”
The better to hear you with.
“And those goo goo eyes.”
The better to see you with.
“Look at that smile!”
“Yes, alright, I get the picture!”
Rocky, she explained, had lived much of his life in an animal refuge. Nobody wanted him. But now my wife was determined to give him a chance; you’re never too old for love, she argued. Her plan was to bring him home with us and, with the right environment, rehabilitate him and find him the family he deserved. With the promise that we would rehabilitate and rehome him as quickly as goddamned possible, I agreed.
And over the coming weeks, my consent safely in the bag, Rocky’s full story began to emerge with an oh, by the way here and an I forgot to tell you there. Apparently, Rocky had a ‘bit of a temper’. A few ‘behavioural issues’. Rocky, it seemed, was a fighter, not a lover. Rocky had chewed up and spat out his gum shield and bitten the hand that feeds. My wife had already met a helper from Rocky’s previous refuge with a crescent-shaped Rocky-tattoo to prove it. Oh, and Rocky hated men. Tall men, short men, men with hats, men with beards, men with sunglasses. Men.
“Are you coming?” said a voice from beyond the mesh gates.
“Right with you,” I replied. I threw the empty water bottle on the back seat, tried in vain to knuckle the sweat from my eyes and headed through the gates.
The second I stepped into the yard beyond it was as if someone – the nice lady, most probably – had instantly yanked up the volume on Canine Chants Volume II. From the slightly irritating but still fairly easy-listening yap to full-on death-metal braying. And yet that was nothing compared with the overwhelming smell of dog, which conspired with the heat and dust to make my stomach tighten.
I stared across the concrete yard at the row of cages which tapered into the distance, their once green frames now badly rusting and, swatting my way through a cloud of flies, I approached one of the cells at random. All three of its occupants launched themselves at the cage door, a twelve-legged beast clamouring for food and attention. I began walking the row of tiny cages, working my way along like a warden at Alcatraz, and saw that each one housed two to three dogs, depending on their size. By the time I had walked the length of Broadway and back, my wife and the nice lady had begun handing out treats to the hungry mob, which was now more vociferous than ever.
“So where is the little fff…fella?” I asked.
“First cage,” said my wife, nodding towards the end of the row as what looked like a dirty grey mop head snatched a biscuit from her fingers. With her free hand she gave me a few dog treats from her pocket and said, “You can try giving him these, but I don’t think he’ll take them.” Maybe he’d prefer my fingers.
I walked towards the end cage, absent-mindedly shaking the biscuits in my hand like the guy off the coffee advert before realising there were several pairs of hungry eyes following me. I stopped shaking the coffee beans.
At last I reached the final cage. You’re kidding me, right?
On the digital camera’s tiny screen he had been proud and stout, muscles bulging, chest rippling, roaring like the MGM lion; my memory had zoomed right in on those gnashers, those crazy eyes that said I’m registered as a lethal weapon and I’ll bite your face off soon as look at you, pal. I kneeled down for a closer look at the legend that was Rocky.
From behind the safety of the cage door he looked about as menacing as the Cowardly Lion. Put ‘em up, I’ll fight you with one paw tied behind my back. Barely knee-height, he had a golden coat and fluffy white chest, and when I saw those teeth I could swear he was smiling at me. As I stood, he began to jump, jump, jump about two feet in the air each time, grinning from floppy ear to floppy ear. He stopped to shake off the excitement, his paws skitting across the wooden floor of the cage with each thundering oscillation of his body. When he’d finished he looked right at me and exhaled with pride. He stood to attention, ears pricked so sharply and the lines of his body so angular that he looked like an origami figure that had been neatly and deliberately placed inside the cage.
“How about something to eat, mister?” I said, and carefully offered a biscuit through the cage. My wife was right, he wasn’t at all interested in the biscuit. I withdrew my fingers quickly. Rocky, with his head now down and angled to one side, approached the front of the cage and, still flashing those pearly off-whites, rubbed his head against the door where my hand was. I ventured a couple of the less important fingers through one of the wire squares and gently touched his head. He rubbed hard against them. He sniffed them and I flinched slightly when I felt his nose, cold and wet.
As I crouched down and continued to rub the top of his head, I noticed that one of his ears had been sliced through, a very neat, straight cut about an inch long, as if someone had simply taken a pair of scissors to him. He had a scar on his nose, and one of his eyes was cloudy, his sight obviously impaired, and I considered how much he’d been through. How he’d been maltreated and re-homed countless times before winding up here, just another bum from the neighbourhood.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Cute, huh?” said my wife.
“Actually, yeah. I reckon he and Sienna would make a great pair.”
The nice lady waddled over and entered Rocky’s cage, clanking the door shut behind her, and attached a long lead to his collar. When she came out, she handed me the leather strap, and Rocky immediately began trotting off towards the gates. Running out of lead, he jerked to a halt and looked back at me, and then back towards the gates. I followed; he obviously knew the way. He showed me round the industrial estate, sniffing every tuft of grass, stopping periodically to urinate, turn half circle to urinate again for good measure, and after about twenty minutes we returned to the compound having completed our first walk together.
“Well that wasn’t too bad, was it, Mister Rox?” I said.
One of the refuge helpers arrived with a transport box and before Rocky knew what was happening, he’d been bundled inside. I forgave him the snarl and the bared teeth as the door clapped shut, and the helper and I lifted him onto the back seat of the car for the journey home.
By the time Rocky had been with us a few weeks, we had become pretty adept at reading his moods, and we soon learned to let him approach us rather than the other way around. Though still difficult to read at times – he never wagged his tail or pricked up his ears to acknowledge a sound – we knew for sure that shifty eyes meant we had to give him a wide berth or risk a trip to the tattoo parlour.
We gave Rocky the space and the peace he needed to begin his recovery from years in the refuge, creating an area just for him in the kitchen-dining area, which was separated from the rest of the house by a transparent glass door we now kept firmly shut. Although indifferent, the happy-go-lucky Sienna accepted him straight away, and Rocky showed no signs of aggression towards her. But it was a different story with the cats. Realising that Daisy, the youngest of our three cats with a shock of white fur, was quite happy to stare him out through the glass door, watching him bark til he could bark no more, we quickly patched up the bottom half of the glass door with brown paper.
After an assessment by a professional dog trainer who left with shredded trousers and his tail between his legs, it was clear Rocky would need some considerable time before he could trust anyone again. And that meant he would be with us some considerable time before we could even think about rehoming him.
Summer turned to autumn turned to winter. The snow came and Rocky embraced it. After months of indifference towards one another, he and Sienna began to play in the snow, charging each other like two sumo wrestlers. Weeks had passed and despite a marketing campaign which stopped just short of TV ads and giant billboards – Rocky’s advert appeared in every publication from Woof Magazine to Dogs Illustrated, was stuck in every supermarket and shop window in the neighbourhood, sent to every e-mail address we could possibly think of – he even had his own Blog, for heaven’s sake – there had been not a single enquiry. Not one.
Then, in late January, a phone call. A young couple looking for a dog with exactly Rocky’s profile. Despite his age, despite his history, they were interested. Having managed to persuade the dog trainer to come back with the assurance that Rocky was now much better behaved and significantly more trusting – and with the promise to double his fee – we worked out an intensive schedule for the next few weeks so that the couple, Chris and Jane, could get to know Rocky before taking him home.
Then the day of the great rehoming arrived and, after some persuasion with a few morsels of sausage, Rocky was soon perched on the back seat of Chris’s Golf. Hands shaken and backs slapped, the moment we had been working towards had finally come. It was time to say farewell to Mister Rox. I looked at him through the rear window, saw his expressionless face, one good eye, one cloudy, staring back. We had done what we set out to do. Job done. Mission accomplished.
“Bye, mate,” I mouthed. “Take care of him, yeah?”
“Don’t forget he likes to nap quite heavily in the afternoon, so he goes a bit quiet after lunch.”
“I know,” said Chris.
“He likes his last walkies around seven in the evening and after that he should be quite playful for an hour or so before he settles down for the night.”
In that moment, I didn’t dare look at my wife.
Chris and Jane approached the car from either side as my wife and I watched, arms folded. Chris moved to grab the door handle, and my first thought as he recoiled from the car was he’d got an electric shock off the door. But then I heard the muted barking as Rocky flung himself at the rear window, all teeth and crazy eyes, claws scratching at the glass in answer to the call of the wild. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.
I’d never seen such a transformation. Not one of us could get within three feet of the car without sending him into a blind rage. It was as if he no longer recognised any of us. We left him for a few minutes, then half an hour, an hour, and each time we got within spitting distance of the car, Rocky exploded from the rear seat. We called the dog trainer; he advised us to leave him overnight to calm down. Great! But in the end we had little choice. I’ll never forget the look on Jane’s face.
Chris and Jane left by taxi that evening and as I watched them drive away I knew that, despite all the hard work, all the effort, the only reason they’d be back would be to collect their car. And right there and then, I made a promise to myself and to Rocky.
Early next morning we returned to the car, not knowing what we would find on the rear seat. I watched my wife peer through the rear window.
“I think he’s sleeping,” she whispered. Hoped he was sleeping. She reached to open the driver’s door and Rocky raised his head. The two of them made eye contact, and then Rocky lay back down. She slid into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition. The sound of the engine seemed to soothe him and the two of them sat there for some time. I fetched some of his favourite sausage and between us we coaxed him out of the car, up the driveway and into the garden. Once through the gate, he flopped on the ground, scratching his back on the grass and kicking his paws in the air. He stood, shook off the excitement, panted and grinned at us.
It seemed Rocky had spoken. And now he had my attention, I was listening. After Chris returned later that day to fetch his car, sans pooch, I made my promise to Rocky. With the evening drawing in and despite the damp, cold air, we sat together on the front steps of the house for a while. Rocky put his head on my lap and looked up at me with his good eye. I stroked his head and, as his tail began to wag furiously, said, “Come on, mate, I think it’s time we went walkies, don’t you?”