‘Not tonight, Ian.’
‘You’re bleeding, I know you are.’ Ian could smell her. Wanted her. He leant over and pulled back the bed covers to expose her bare shoulder. He touched it. Licked her ear. He’d had to learn how to do it gently. This was what she liked. He pressed up against her back. Inhaled more of the deliciously metallic scent.
‘Ian! You know it’s not the right time.’ Melanie pulled down her nightie where it had rucked up at the back. Tucked it between her legs to make the point. She reached down and picked up a book from the floor.
‘Why do you have to read all the time?’ He’d sneaked a look inside one of her novels once. Tore out the centre pages and ate them. They didn’t even taste that good. He couldn’t understand how she’d been able to tell. Why she’d got so cross.
‘I could teach you to read if you like?’
‘What?’ He imagined forcing her. How easy it would be to claw a hole in that thinly stretched material.
‘Mum’s still got some of my old school books.’
‘Seriously,’ he said, ‘sometimes you’re so stupid, Melanie.’ He turned over then. Took most of the covers.
Melanie’s period was never late, so she knew she must be. Didn’t believe it. Couldn’t. She and Simon had tried for almost two years.
She’d bought one of those stick things you wee on from the chemist, and she and Ian watched it together. It was supposed to take up to three minutes for a positive result but the double blue line appeared in under thirty seconds.
‘What do you think that means?’ she said, pausing her digital watch.
‘You’re having a litter, you daft cow,’ said Ian.
And she lifted her t-shirt and looked at her flatish stomach in the bathroom mirror. Her neat braless breasts.
‘Women usually only have one,’ she said.
‘Nonsense,’ said Ian. ‘I’m one of ten.’
‘That’s five quadrupeds and a biped,’ said the sonographer, turning the screen to face them both.
‘What?’ said Melanie. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, in laymen’s terms, that’s five dogs and a baby. It’s perfectly normal in inter-breed births.’ He reached towards Melanie’s belly with blue hospital paper but Ian struggled to suppress a growl, so he passed it to her instead.
‘Just five, you say,’ said Ian, disappointed at the poor return on his seed.
‘This pregnancy will put a huge strain on your body,’ the sonographer said. ‘There are six lives depending on you staying well.’
‘Six, yes I meant six,’ Ian said. Wondered what he might teach such a fragile little human.
Melanie was doing the weekly shop at Tesco, while Ian waited in the car as usual. He knew she hated leaving him there. She’d showed him the petition with pages of scribbles. Almost half a million signatures already, but that Tony Blair wasn’t backing down. Something to do with hygiene had she told him? Something to do with fleas?
It was hot. Too hot, even though all the windows were ajar. Ian passed the time barking at strangers. This last one he’d timed to absolute perfection. Had given some poor bastard one hell of a scare. The man had banged on the glass and tugged on the door handles. Shouted that he should be fucking well put down. Flecked the window with spit. Ian grinned: he’d got away with it, but only because Melanie had locked the car.
A few weeks before, she had tried to get him into the supermarket. He’d walked in on hind legs as she’d said it might help prove something or other. It was terribly uncomfortable, though: Labradors were prone to problems with their hips. Even before he’d entered the store he’d felt the saliva threatening to spill from his mouth. Was it bread? Hot and cakey. Vanillary. Yeasty. Then, more subtly – Melanie would never have detected it – fish, meat, chocolate even. All kinds of multicoloured sweets.
Some woman with a plastic red ball for a nose had startled him. Shaken a jangling yellow bucket in his face. Then an old lady, who looked just like Melanie’s gran, had caught the tender part of his foreleg with the front wheels of her trolley. He’d tried to suppress a howl but the security guard bundled over and blocked their way.
‘My wife is six months gone,’ Ian had argued. He’d even memorised the term multiple birth.
The security guard turned to Melanie: ‘You can’t bring dogs in here,’ he’d said.
‘It’s a high risk pregnancy,’ said Ian. ‘She needs me to push the trolley.’
‘Love, I asked you to move,’ said the guard, ‘and stop that thing barking.’ His right nostril quivered like he was about to sneeze.
‘Look, mate, you’ve got to be joking. She’s not supposed to be doing any heavy work.’ Ian dropped down on all fours so his belly felt less exposed. Tried to get purchase on the slippery floor.
Melanie laid a hand on his neck even before the hackles had formed a stiff angry ridge along his back. ‘It’s okay, we’re going,’ she’d said, trying to flatten them before the guard felt intimidated and called for help. Ian had known she was trying to placate him. Had felt her capable fingers teasing the tension from his haunches, as the growl dissipated in his throat. It had only happened twice before. The last time was when some pissed up arsehole had knocked over her wine in the beer garden at their local pub. Animal welfare had visited their little garden-flat and issued her with a warning. All he’d done was show his teeth.
Melanie’s waters broke in the pet food aisle. She was hovering over the puppy milks as she wasn’t sure how they’d take to her breast. Was a little bit afraid of their needle sharp teeth. She’d meant to ask at her last ante-natal but there was so much to take in that she still didn’t know half of it. The library at the university was no good either: breast milk was either a perfectly nutritious alternative or highly damaging to newborn puppies’ just formed bones. Mostly, it seemed to depend on whether the specialism was canine or human. She’d heard about some kind of interbreed milk in the development stages, but that wouldn’t get a licence for at least a couple of years.
It felt like an elastic band suddenly twanged inside her. Water soaked her knickers and dripped from her crotch. The pain was incredible. She’d been warned that when there was more than one it could happen ever so quickly, and that the contractions might be unbearably strong.
Melanie drove fast. Ian could hear her deep-breathing her way through the pains.
‘Pull over,’ he shouted. But she seemed only to drive faster. When she slammed on the brakes for a red light, he lost his balance and caught his ear on the dog grille that separated him from the back seats.
‘Shit! You okay?’ she shouted, his yelp seeming louder in the confines of the car.
‘Sure,’ he shouted back, rubbing his ear on the upholstery. ‘Just you concentrate on getting us to the hospital.’
‘Home,’ she said. ‘My hospital bag.’
And Ian said, ‘Go straight to the hospital!’
But she turned right towards the flat instead of left towards the ring road. And he couldn’t do a thing as he was trapped in the boot. The dog grille was contentious in the early days. Melanie had wanted to get him a special harness so he could sit with her in the front, but even as a pup his hips had ached if he sat up straight too long.
‘I’m happy back here,’ he’d assured her. But she’d said she didn’t want him feeling like she was keeping him prisoner: theirs was a partnership after all. Didn’t she know the statistics, he’d argued. If there was a crash, his untethered body might easily crush her. He’d heard of it happening to some other poor woman: when Melanie left for work at 8:45 each morning, she always left the telly on BBC news.
Ian didn’t need numbers on a clock face. By the time they arrived at the flat her contractions were less than five minutes apart.
‘Let’s get you inside,’ he said.
‘My hospital bag,’ Melanie sobbed as Ian pulled the keys out of the ignition with his teeth. ‘My hospital bag!’ she screamed, doubling over, as he gently tugged at her skirt to encourage her out of the car.
The first born was a shock. Melanie thought it some kind of monster. Thought it might be dead. She’d learnt CPR a few years before but couldn’t even see a face on the little thing she deposited on an old cream blanket on their bedroom floor.
Ian was brilliant. Had known exactly what to do. At first she thought he was going to eat the jellied mess that had fallen from her.
When she was ten she’d been given a hamster that no one knew was pregnant. She’d been the only one to see its tiny pink babies. Wanted so much for them to grow into a little family. If Mum and Dad wouldn’t let her keep them all, she could give them, as Christmas presents, to her friends. Seeing dear sweet Pip gorge on her own flesh and blood had haunted Melanie for years afterwards. Pip was sent back to the pet shop. Melanie had never wanted a replacement. Not before Ian.
‘He’s for protection,’ she’d told her friend, Jed.
Jed had laughed. Said he didn’t think this big softie would be protecting anyone. Wanted to know if she’d heard off Simon. And she’d said, no, she hadn’t seen him in over six months. Not since she went and stayed with her parents for the weekend, while he emptied out his stuff. She had seen him again though, just that one time. He’d let himself in the gate one evening and crept round the back. Ian had noticed before she did. Made one hell of a racket at the patio door.
‘Let me out,’ Ian had demanded. ‘Do it. Unlock it, now.’ She’d placed her hand on the phone. Dithered. Who should she call? Her parents? The police? She didn’t realise until much later that this was the first time she’d heard Ian’s voice.
She did it, of course. Did as Ian told her. And he bolted after Simon like a bloodhound after a fox. She could hear him snarling; snapping. He made a deep and awful noise. Not one she’d ever associated with her lovely lolloping boy. She dashed upstairs and ripped open the spare room curtains. Watched him chase Simon out the back gate and up the drive. Right to the end of the road. When Ian turned back he was rabid. Drooling. Had a wildness about him that frightened her. Thrilled her. Made her wonder whether she might not let him back in.
Even as she saw Ian’s teeth rip into the little thing’s grey-blue flesh, she was too stunned to stop him. Afterwards, it made her wonder whether she’d be the kind of mother who stood and watched her child fall through an open window without pulling him to safety. The kind to let him step out in front of a speeding car. Fall off a cliff. Drink a full bottle of medicine. Would she be the one to switch on the washing machine not realising her baby had climbed inside?
Then a miracle happened. Once Ian had nibbled away the blubbery sheath, a slick mewling puppy began to show itself. Ian showed her how to lick its nose and mouth to clear the mucous and stimulate breathing, and she placed her lips as he’d directed her and sucked the warm fluid free.
The second little puppy waited till the first was safely delivered and cleaned before it took its cue to arrive. Ian stepped in again to tease away its sack, and together they cleaned their second little boy – black and tiny – almost identical to their first-born son. The third and fourth births echoed the first two: another matching set of boys. Then a fifth: another son. Ian broke each of their little blue sacks and tenderly helped them into the world. Though afterwards he told Melanie it was usually the job of the bitch.
When the sixth little head began to crown, Ian let out a soft growl.
‘What?’ said Melanie. ‘What’s wrong?’
And Ian shook his head. Pushed her hand towards the bulge that was beginning to appear between her legs.
‘I can feel the head,’ she cried. ‘Oh, Ian, I can feel our baby coming.’ And she knew she must pant before pushing for the shoulders. Knew she must remember to feel for the cord. And it was Grace. And she was beautiful. Their tiny perfect baby girl.
Of course, Grace is the only one left now. Melanie never replaced Ian. Not with a husband or a dog. She’s missed him less and less as the years have passed, but wishes he were here with her now. Waiting is always so much harder when you’re doing it alone. She’s always hated hospitals, yet hasn’t a real reason to: all of hers died at home.
It was Grace’s tenth birthday party the day Ian passed on. Her birthdays had always been difficult in the pre-school years. One of the dogs would end up muddying a princess costume, or stealing a chicken drumstick from unsuspecting hands. Henry didn’t stop jumping up until he was six, so some poor toddler would nearly always get knocked over. And Rufus had such a sensitive tummy for a Labrador. Even though Melanie would give Grace’s friends strict instructions not to feed him, there was always someone who couldn’t resist it when he begged, so politely, for just one, or two, or maybe three Jaffa cakes. Melanie hadn’t known, at first, how dangerous chocolate could be for dogs, but after that first time – the injection at the vets, the induced vomiting – she’d always kept a block of charcoal in the bottom of her bag.
By the time her children were ten, the boys had slowed considerably: preferred their baskets by the fire to a hoard of rowdy of kids. Melanie had known she was soon going to have to make a terrible decision, when it came to Ian, but that morning she’d busied herself with party bags and balloons, jelly and ice-cream, and a white-iced sparkly cake. The men had just been to set up the bouncy castle, when she’d heard whimpering coming from Ian’s room. He preferred his own space by this time, and wasn’t at all bothered by the whir of the washing machine. Sometimes, he’d made his bed in a pile of dirty clothes. Hadn’t been able to climb the stairs to their bedroom for easily three years.
‘Ian, is that you?’
‘I’m okay,’ he’d whispered. ‘Is everything set up for Grace’s party?’
Though he hadn’t known how to interact with his daughter in those early days when a zealous kiss was enough to send her into hysterics, in time, Melanie would come to find little Gracie in Ian’s basket each morning, his paw slung around her delicate little waist. The first time it happened Melanie had been terrified at Grace’s empty bed. She’d raced downstairs and rattled the front door in case the baby had been stolen or had managed to get out and toddled off. Just as she was checking the low window in the hall, she was knocked to the ground with Ian’s full weight crushing her chest.
‘It’s me,’ she’d only just whimpered in time, feeling his hot breath on her face, poised to rip open her cheek.
‘For fuck’s sake, Melanie,’ he’d snarled. ‘You scared the shit out of me!’
But when she flicked on the light and he saw how badly she was shaking, he nuzzled against her legs in apology, though his hackles were not so speedy in their retreat.
‘Grace,’ she’d whispered. And Ian had led her to their sleeping daughter, curled up like a little dog. Melanie sank to her knees, still trembling, and he waited for her to fit her body around their daughter’s, then he picked up the blanket he’d thrown off only moments earlier, and spread it unevenly over them with his teeth. Once he’d detected Melanie’s slowing breaths, he settled himself on the kitchen flagstones, positioning his body between his women and the door.
Somebody coughs: a man with his arm in a sling. He gets up from the plastic bench and squirts gel into his hands from a machine on the wall. The woman opposite Melanie pulls a scarf tightly around her face, and Melanie finds herself wiping her hands on her dress. There’s a small boy playing in the corner: one of those brightly coloured helter-skelter things where you feed plastic beads along an endless rope. Melanie takes out her phone and clicks on the Facebook icon. Clicks her status bar without actually posting anything. This act alone, so full of potential, is enough to lurch a thrill of adrenalin. She scrolls, instead, through the posts of her friends and colleagues. Acquaintances. Somebody’s posted a video of a Mastiff sucking a dummy, and somebody else a Chihuahua in a pram. There’s a selfie with a woman kissing a pug, and an Instagram of a fat sausage dog in two pairs of wellies. Mostly, it’s impossible to tell whether they’re interbreed or pure-breed. It’s not so much of a thing any more.
Melanie stops a nurse with a clipboard. ‘Excuse me? My daughter, Grace. Is there any news?’
‘Not long now,’ says the nurse. ‘Don’t you want to go in?’
‘She’s . . . she’s pretty independent,’ Melanie tells her, waiting for the look.
‘I know what you mean, I’ve got one just the same.’
Melanie feels a sudden urge to cry. She hopes the nurse doesn’t try to say something sympathetic. Doesn’t touch her shoulder or anything like that.
‘Grab yourself a coffee and a sandwich,’ the nurse says. ‘I’ll come and get you when it’s time.’
‘What time is it,’ said Ian. ‘Feels like I’ve been sleeping forever.’
‘Are you up to some breakfast?’ Melanie asked.
‘Always,’ he grinned.
‘Don’t try to move.’ She offered him a mouthful of porridge smeared on her fingers. He’d licked a little then refused the rest. But still she hadn’t realised he might go downhill so fast.
‘You’d better get on,’ he said. ‘Tell Gracie I’m sorry for missing her birthday party.’
Melannie allowed herself a stab of jealousy for all those other young mothers whose only burden of care was a couple of rowdy kids.
‘Don’t be silly, she knows you’re not well,’ she said, kissing his head and stroking him gently; avoiding the bony prominences where he was sore to the touch.
Melanie picks up a bridal magazine: it’s that or Italian for Beginners. She thinks, again, how much easier it would have been if Ian had been able to speak in a language other people understood. That way she wouldn’t have had to keep translating for him. Wouldn’t have always had to be his advocate. Wouldn’t have had to put up with her mother over-enunciating at him, the way she would with deaf people or foreigners. Always asking her, ‘Is Ian thirsty?’ or ‘Does he want a biscuit?’ Of course he wants a biscuit, Mum, he’s a bloody dog.
It was different with her boys, though, easier somehow. There wasn’t even a hint they were interbreed. Even though she’d loved them all desperately, there was no getting away from it, they were just normal dogs. It didn’t make the pain any easier, though, when their time came. In quick succession it happened less than two years after their father. Malcolm died first, then Ray, then James, Henry, then last of all, Rufus, which was ironic, considering he was always so poorly. Grace found it so very difficult to make the transition to secondary school.
The bouncy castle was a godsend. Ian lay in his basket listening to the children squealing and laughing. Daring one another: who could bounce highest, do the neatest somersault, the best backflip. He’d had a good life. A good woman. Five strapping boys and then there was Grace. The spit of her mother: peach-cream skin and bright green eyes. Only ten years old and soon to be fatherless. He wished more than anything for a few more years. Not because it didn’t feel like his time. He sighed as he imagined her dressed from head to toe in white. His stomach hurt. More than he’d ever have admitted to Melanie. He could feel it swelling. The fluid inside him stealing space from his lungs.
After the cake had been cut, wrapped in paper napkins, and slipped into party bags, Melanie went to check on Ian. She’d had to wave the final child off by herself as Grace was fed up with her guests by then.
‘Jesus Christ, Ian.’ she kept saying. Wasn’t sure he was conscious as she ran for the phone. She and Grace kept vigil until the vet arrived, and the news was as she’d known it would be. It wouldn’t be long, either way, but it would be better for Ian if the vet helped him along. She’d shown the boys in one at a time. Taken them to their father and then led them quietly out. It had been for her benefit really. And Grace’s. The two of them sat either side of him, Grace holding onto one of his paws while Melanie stroked his ear. They’d tried not to look at the vet getting on with his work. Had watched Ian’s struggling breaths. Watched them weakening. Lessening.
Grace had wept. It was more of a howl.
Melanie had only ever heard her daughter make that feral noise one other time. It was the evening before Grace got married: they had each had a couple of glasses of good champagne. Melanie had wanted her to have a proper hen do, but Grace said she could bring over a bottle if it really meant that much.
‘Remember when Dad tried that Bucks Fizz?’ Grace had taken a swig of her drink and done an impression of Ian: first a puzzled look. Exaggerated sneezing. Coughing. She’d pretended to spew champagne, just as he had from his nostrils and mouth. Grace started laughing. Melanie had too. Carried on laughing longer than she needed to; as long as she could keep it going.
Melanie closes the magazine on her lap and remembers how Ian had turned to her, shaking his head. How he’d said: ‘You lot must be completely crazy. I can’t understand how you drink this muck.’
Melanie had been going to tell this to Grace that night, but hadn’t wanted to break her daughter’s laughter. Hadn’t wanted to patronise her. Grace might never have been able to hear his actual words but there was no doubting she’d understood her dad. Grace’s laughter came even harder. Tears streaming down her face. And then she wasn’t laughing. She was pulling her knees up and wrapping her arms around them, as if holding herself in a hug. The noise she’d made was primal. Like all the sadness she’d ever felt was tumbling out in a single moment. Melanie had touched her daughter’s arm. She’d wanted to place her own arm around Grace’s shoulder, but had been too afraid Grace would pull away: stalk off to her room, as if the years had suddenly rolled back.
Exquisite. That was how Grace had looked in her wedding dress. Delicate but glorious, like spring blossom before a storm. It belied how tough she was; how stubborn. When Grace dug her heels in about something it was if it really were a physical thing. Sending her to her room, as a child, hadn’t worked as Melanie could never get her out again without picking her up and dragging her limp body which became impossible as Grace grew. Melanie always blamed Ian for that. Said it was because Grace had seen how he pushed against the side of his basket and pretended to be dead when it was time to go to the vets. Ian never seemed to understand what a challenge it was to parent her. Was simply thrilled that he’d passed on his spirit in such a tangible way. Melanie had carried a photo of him in her pocket on the wedding day so that he could be there too when she walked their daughter down the aisle.
It was another two years before Grace announced she was pregnant. Melanie hadn’t known whether she ought to be excited or terrified. She’d tried to talk to Grace about the risks. How you couldn’t always predict complicated things like genetics. But Grace hadn’t listened, of course. She’d said that she and Tim would love it no matter what. Melanie had wanted to tell her that wasn’t the point. That wasn’t it at all. She’d wanted to tell her daughter that it takes its toll on a mother; burying her children. How it’s not supposed to be the order of things.
‘Melanie, isn’t it?’ says another nurse. ‘Your daughter’s asking for you.’
‘Asking?’ says Melanie, smiling at the way it sounds. ‘Has she? . . . is it okay?’
‘It’s a healthy baby boy,’ says the nurse.
‘Healthy?’ says Melanie, ‘Really?’
‘Five fingers, five toes,’ laughs the nurse, leading her down the corridor and through a door with a sign on it: Delivery Room.
‘Grace, your mum’s here,’ says the nurse. ‘I’ll be back to check your blood pressure so no wild parties while I’m gone.’
‘Melanie!’ says Tim, hugging her warmly. ‘I’m just grabbing us a sandwich if you’re okay here.’
‘Congratulations. To you both,’ Melanie squeezes his hands and watches him out of the door.
‘This is Jacob, Mum,’ says Grace, as Melanie steps closer. She nods towards the sleeping baby in her arms. ‘We’re calling him Jacob Ian.’
Melanie can hardly believe it, her only daughter, a mum. Grace looks radiant. Exhausted, but in a wonderful way. It’s as if this is what she’s been building up to all along. It seems to have softened the sharp corners of her smile. The anxiety drains from Melanie too quickly, and she has to sit down on the edge of Grace’s bed.
‘Well, Jacob Ian, it’s so very lovely to meet you,’ she says. She lifts the sleeping baby from her daughter’s arms and is about to bend forward to kiss him, but reaches for Grace’s hand first; holds it for a few seconds. For just long enough to meet her daughter’s eye. Despite the softness of the kiss, baby Jacob’s eyes jolt open. They’re such a dark blue it’s obvious they’ll go brown. He opens his mouth to scream and he looks just like Grace when she was a newborn – when Ian had tried to pick her up. Then, instead, he starts to grumble. It’s a whinging noise, not even a real cry.
‘Pathetic isn’t it?’ Grace grins. ‘If that’s all he can manage, I’m not even going to hear him when he wants his feed.’
It’s a mewl. Mewling. Jacob is mewling. Melanie feels a pulsing in her ears. Midnight blue eyes. Two pink ears. Soft cheeks. A snub nose: Grace’s nose. Grace’s. Baby Jacob, sensing her discomfort, let’s out a demanding shriek.
Grace giggles: ‘That’s better, son. You go for it!’
Midnight blue eyes. Two pink ears. Soft cheeks. A snub nose: Grace’s nose. Grace’s. Midnight blue eyes. Two pink ears. Soft cheeks. A snub nose: Grace’s nose. Grace’s. Midnight blue eyes. Two pink ears. Soft cheeks. A snub nose: Grace’s nose. Grace’s.
Melanie attempts a smile. She doesn’t dare to speak. And that’s when she feels it underneath his baby grow. A gentle but unmistakable prickling: a soft angry ridge all the way along Jacob’s newborn back.
Rhoda Greaves is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Birmingham City University and Co-Editor of Short Fiction Journal. Her short stories have been commended or listed in several prizes including the Bridport Short Story Prize, Manchester Fiction Prize, Frome Short Story Competition, Bristol Short Story Prize and the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award, and her work has been published in various literary magazines and anthologies including Long Story, Short, Litro, Short Fiction, The View for Here, Cake, the NFFD anthology A Box of Stars Beneath the Bed and the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology (volume 9).
You can read more of Rhoda’s previously published stories below:
Dead Dogs’ was published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology (Volume 9)
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