A Social Animal – By Graham Bruce Fletcher
At eighty-four, Henry wasn’t much of a mixer. He neither sought nor offered friendship. He was, nevertheless, good with groups. He’d been a Headmaster. He’d also been a man of action; a Commando during World War Two, awarded the Military Medal.
Although an elderly man living a mainly sedentary life, he was still quite fit, despite his continual pipe smoking. He wasn’t sure why he’d agreed to take over the Book Group when the young woman from the Council asked. Perhaps his sense of duty; to continue to make himself useful.
Every Thursday evening he’d endure two pipeless hours in the Library, and, refusing invitations to share a pint, would cut across the park to his flat. Readers often offered to drive him home. He always refused. He didn’t wish to be obliged to invite inquisitive people into his rooms.
The park was locked at sunset, but he knew where teenagers got in and out after dark, and could still manage the climb. The small effort was far less exhausting than going the long way round. That tended to make him breathless and gave him tight pains across his chest.
Sometimes he passed groups of youths up to no good in the park, but they never bothered him, nor he, them. The one thing he disliked was the way he’d arrive home to find dog-dirt on his sole. He could never understand why people kept dogs. He judged pet owners feeble-minded; mawkishly treating animals as children. Irresponsible too. If they kept animals, then they should keep them; not let them roam free. Some dogs seemed to live almost wild in the park.
Before he retired from teaching there’d been a woman; a colleague. She kept a cat. At least they were useful, to keep down mice, and didn’t crave attention like dogs. But he broke off that relationship when the cat took to sitting on his feet as he lay in the woman’s bed. He had no need for companionship; female, nor feline.
A cold, crisp Thursday night. The young collarless Alsatian skipping around his feet was a pest. The pathways were slippery enough, without an animal doing its best to trip him up. Halfway across the park a railway cutting sliced deep into the ground, and in the spill of halogen light from its gantries Henry saw a short stick on the grass.
He decided to throw it. Perhaps the dog would chase it. They were stupid that way. But then it would probably bring it back and expect him to do it all again. Henry raised the stick, the dog bouncing in anticipation by his side.
Dispassionately calculating the best strategy, he threw it over the stone wall, to the railway line about eight metres below. Without hesitation, the dog followed. Henry heard the yelp as the tumbling dog finally hit bottom. With grim satisfaction, having eliminated an enemy, he picked up his pace, almost marching from the scene of his crime. He hardly felt his feet slide out from under him.
Lying on the tarmac path, pain burned in his elbow and the top of his thigh. He reached with his left hand to clasp his right forearm through his overcoat. It was broken. Despite his wartime scrapes, he’d never broken a bone before.
He decided to roll onto his left to get back onto his feet. His right leg refused to follow, and a grating pain seared in his flank. He collapsed, lying flat on his back, and adjusted his cap beneath his head. He couldn’t just lie there. He had to shout for help.
He wished he’d brought his pipe. He never smoked outdoors, but tonight he’d’ve made an exception. If only to warm his hands. His thin leather gloves were scant insulation against the frost beginning to set hard around him.
The two lads were a welcome sight. They’d heard him calling, and now they were coming towards him at a canter. They looked strong. They could probably carry him to the wall and get him over it for the ambulance. There’d have to be an ambulance. No going home tonight.
“Ah – ye drunken owld gadgee! Fallen ower, hev ye? Well, let’s see what yees’ve got!” sneered the shorter of the two. Henry had no idea of his age; couldn’t see his face.
“I’m not drunk. I slipped on the ice. I’m afraid I’ve broken my leg. Could you help me get to the road, please, for an ambulance?” Henry pleaded, sure the boys were only teasing, and would help, once they saw the true nature of his injuries.
The taller boy reached into Henry’s overcoat. “Why divn’t ye use yer mobile phone?” He pulled out Henry’s wallet.
“I don’t have one.” replied Henry, taken aback by their unsympathetic attitude. The boy was looking at the contents of Henry’s wallet in the screenlight of his own mobile.
“Thirty quid?” he said incredulously, as if he’d been made an unacceptable offer. “Got credit cards?”
“No, I’m sorry. Look – please take the money, as a gift for helping me in my predicament, but please, could you help me get out of the park?” Henry was beginning to hear himself whining. He’d never whined before in his life.
The kick between his legs was utterly unexpected. Henry was surprised it didn’t seem to hurt as much as it should. Perhaps he was already numbed by the cold. He felt curiously detached as the second boy walked around him, circling his prey.
“Eeh, ye poooer owld git!” the boy sneered. He drew back his foot, aiming at Henry’s right leg. “Where does it hort? Is it this…”
Henry didn’t hear ‘leg’. A burst of pain, so intense he could almost see it, knocked the breath from him; his scream; an involuntary rattling interruption of the gasp opening his vocal cords.
They waited for him to regain awareness, standing either side of his chest. They casually kicked his ribs alternately, like passing a ball between one another. Henry realised they intended to kill him. ‘Alright!’ he decided. ‘Just make it quick, no more pain. Just oblivion.’ He had no reason to prolong his life. Nothing special to live for. He watched the first boy step a pace back to take a run at him – like a rugby player taking a place kick.
Inexplicably, the boy simply disappeared. Then there was a rage of animal snarling and human cries of pain. The other youth ran away.
The dog had burst from the shrubs and seized the lad by the ankle, teeth slicing his Achilles tendon. It shook its head vigorously, tearing flesh before releasing him and making a second lunge for his thigh. Henry heard the boy hopping away, the dog in pursuit. There was a brief silence. The old man lost consciousness.
Warm moisture on his face revived him. Help at last! He opened his eyes. It was the Alsatian. Blood on its muzzle. Had the dog come for revenge? Having survived its fall, was it back to finish him off? Had it only attacked the boy because it wanted his prey to itself? The Jerries had used Alsatians as attack dogs.
Henry saw the wagging tail. The dog sat and whined. It offered a paw. “Stupid dog!” thought Henry. The dog burrowed its nose under Henry’s body. It seemed to be urging him to get up. “Go away, dog.” said Henry, “Can’t play with you.” The dog lay on his left, its warmth seeping through Henry’s overcoat. Henry felt tired. He began to cry. He hadn’t cried since childhood. And he wasn’t entirely sure why he was crying. Not from pain, nor self pity. He wormed his left arm around the dog, pulling it closer to him. Purely for warmth. The dog began to howl as Henry slept.
In the hospital they said ‘his’ dog was being fostered by the local Animal Sanctuary. He said it wasn’t his dog, but they just diagnosed traumatic confusion. They told him he should be proud. His dog had undoubtedly saved his life.
He had plenty of time to reflect in hospital. The fractures of the radius and ulna healed quite quickly, but the head of femur took a little longer. Physio and assessments.
The woman from the Animal Sanctuary was, Henry thought, typical of her kind. Completely deluded, covered in animal hair. Her quilted jacket smelled like a zoo. But she was pleasant enough. Henry felt he ought to be polite, even if he didn’t share her views.
When she asked the dog’s name, he had no idea why he was so swift to answer ‘Aslan’. Thinking about it later, he concluded his mind must have made some subconscious connection between the dog’s mane-like ruff that had warmed him as he lay awaiting death, and the way everybody persistently told him the animal was his saviour. Reading, of course, not religion. God was another foolish delusion, akin to imagining animals feel emotion. He could respect instinct, but not sentimental anthropomorphism.
Having named the dog, not quite understanding his nagging vsense of indebtedness to the animal, he decided it would probably be less awkward to accept when, on his discharge from hospital, the woman from the Sanctuary offered to drive him home to be ‘reunited’ with Aslan.
He was, frankly, extremely angry about the press coverage. “Faithful Pet Saves Mugging Victim” was both an intrusion and a lie. It didn’t matter. He didn’t care about public opinion. The dog was ‘overjoyed to see him’, said the newspaper. So it seemed. Henry understood none of it. The sanctuary provided a collar and lead, and a supply of dog food.
Alone with the animal, Henry wondered what to do. He could say he couldn’t manage; ask the sanctuary woman to find Aslan a home. Apparently he was a young dog, only two or three years old. That probably explained his recovery from his broken ribs, which the sanctuary thought were caused by the muggers. Henry, knowing their true origin, felt ashamed and guilty. He bought food and water bowls at the pet shop. A dog basket, in Aslan’s size, was unacceptably expensive. Besides, the dog took to sitting by his knee as Henry read in his armchair.
Another unwelcome intrusion was the way the dog coughed and sneezed whenever Henry lit his pipe. Grudgingly he took it as criticism and gradually weaned himself off his pipe. Henry expected to miss his one self-indulgent pleasure, but was surprised to find himself equally relaxed stroking the dog’s ears as they sat together.
Henry borrowed dog behaviour books. He concluded Aslan had selected him as ‘pack leader’ through some kind of inexplicable aberration in the dog’s psyche. He refused to countenance any notion of love existing between them. In either direction. He just felt responsible, that’s all.
His health swiftly declining in his eighty-seventh year, Henry offloaded some of that responsibility back onto the woman at the Animal Sanctuary. She got volunteers to walk Aslan every day. Henry found himself curiously pleased when Aslan returned after these brief absences. As if he missed the dog! Foolish. Sentimental delusion.
The morning Henry didn’t wake, Aslan peered up from his usual position at the bedside and, for the first time, jumped onto the counterpane, forbidden territory for him.
Getting no response to his licks; feeling the cold stiffness of the old man’s flesh, he stopped in the kitchen for a drink at his bowl before sliding the patio doors open with his muzzle. Easily leaping the wall of the tiny garden, Aslan returned to their first meeting place.
The sun was bright in the park. There was life in the old dog yet.