Where the wild roses grow
February 21, 2016 § 13 Comments
A short story written some years ago when I lived miles from anywhere with working collies who slept on my bed, a pile of anarchist sheep with strange shaped horns who liked to go walkabout in the night, and some little black Celtic cows…
and an overactive imagination…
‘That’s what I’ll do,’ I said, as I slid a finger up his backbone and made the short, black fur stand on end. His tail twitched, and Gus’s claws slid out of his front paws as a warning. ‘Don’t you see?’ I crooned, putting the flat of my hand on his neck and smoothing the fur back into a shine. ‘Bertha knows everything. She’ll tell us.’ The tail relaxed into a question mark, and the grey slit eyes stared into mine like two empty mirrors.
Gus wasn’t mine. He wasn’t anyone’s really, but he hung out with me when he had nothing better to do. I’d been telling him about the plan because thinking out loud made it clearer in my head. I was going to need Bertha. She was brighter than me, so I was going to follow her around ’til she showed me what she knew. Dogs were clever, and she was a border collie which put her at the top of the smart pooch list. Her nose was one of the cleverest bits about her, and she could sniff out the chocolate biscuits Dad squirreled away for special, even though he never hid them in the same place twice.
Bertha was one of those dogs that pleased herself. She belonged to whoever had what she was after. Sometimes she was my dog if I had something nice in my pocket, then she’d be Mum’s if it was walkies time, but mostly Dad was flavour of the month. The reason was simple: she liked being in the back of his pickup with her head stuck out of the tractor cab window catching flies and keeping an eye on things. That was her job when she wasn’t rounding up sheep. Dad said she wasn’t Mum’s anymore since she’d buggered off. ‘Abandoned us’, he said, squinting as if the sun was in his eyes.
All Bertha did these days was go off on what Dad called one of her adventures, and he said there was nothing he could do to stop her. ‘It’s not as if I haven’t tried,’ he complained. If he locked her in the house she drove him crackers with her howling, and if he tied her up in the barn, the neighbours complained the racket echoed down their valley like she was stuck in a tunnel. ‘She’ll stop running off when she gets used to how things are,’ he said, pinching my cheek a bit too hard. ‘Or if she’s really stupid she’ll find herself looking down the barrel of a shotgun. Either way, we’ll have to put up with it.’
It had been all right in the beginning. By the beginning I mean when we started having two in our family instead of three. Bertha was all over me. She waited the other side of the back door when she heard the school bus stop at the bottom of our drive, ready to lick my face clean and knock me over. She was nearly as big as me when she stood on her back legs, and our eyes got so close I could see two little faces grinning back at me. But I knew it wouldn’t be like that forever, because I was still growing, and she wasn’t.
I thought it’d be easy following Bertha around, but it turned out she was smarter than I thought. She kept giving me the slip. Gus tried to help by waving his tail around like it was one of those snakes that came out of its basket in India when someone played a tune, but that didn’t work. I thought he was giving me clues so I’d follow where the tail pointed. Sometimes I thought I was getting somewhere, but the tail kept changing its mind.
What Gus and I did find out was Bertha spent a lot of time hanging around the dustbins standing on her back legs and pushing them over. She wriggled inside and rummaged ’til she found the leftovers. All you could see was a black tail with a white tip waving about; but we could hear her: it was the only time she ever made noises like a pig. Her liking the dustbins explained why she smelled so bad, but it wasn’t her fault – it was Dad’s because he kept forgetting to fill her food bowl. She took to digging holes in the compost heap too because that was where the grass snakes lived, and Bertha knew how good they were to eat.
So far my plan wasn’t working – all I’d found out was where she went scavenging. But after Dad put padlocks on the bins, I found her digging up the garden. He said he didn’t care – the garden had been Mum’s business. Bertha uprooted dandelions and ground elder that Mum would have hoed out anyway, but then she started on the rose bushes. Mum wouldn’t have been happy about that. Then Bertha found it – and with her nose covered in soil and dribble, she presented Dad with one of Mum’s old gardening gloves. Sometimes I thought Bertha knew how to smile. ‘Look what she’s got,’ I grinned. ‘Isn’t she clever?’
Dad pulled a face and threw the stinky glove in the bin. ‘She lost that years ago. No use to her now, is it?’
‘But Dad, she’s only trying to help find Mum.’
‘I know where she is,’ he said crossly. ‘Living the high life with that new fancy man.’
Gus got bored after that and spent his days sitting on the doorstep stretching out each leg and cleaning himself over and over, but Bertha kept on hunting. Every day for a week she took one of Mum’s shoes in her mouth from the pile in the porch and trotted up close to the garden fence. She went round and round the edge for what seemed like hours, then disappeared when I turned my back. But I knew she was up to something. And she knew I knew.
On Saturday she took one of Mum’s red sandals in her mouth and began doing her round -and-round game again. When she thought I wasn’t looking she slunk through the gap in the fence to the sheep field. This time Gus and I followed. Bertha made herself small, flattening her ears, her tail trailing along the ground. She got to the barn, had a quick look to see where I was, and veered through the big barn doors. Then she did something weird, she went straight out through the back door. She was trying to throw us off the scent – but I ran hard leaving Gus behind, and spotted her squeezing through the five-bar into the sheep field.
Again, she kept close to the line of the hedge trying to look like she wasn’t there. Then I lost her. But there was only one place she could have gone – the old coppice wood where the barn owls lived. ‘Bertha!’ I shouted. ‘Bertha. Come out!’ But as usual these days, she pretended to be deaf.
I plunged into the overgrown wood, I’d never been there by myself as it gave me the creeps. I didn’t like it. It was dark. I stopped to listen. I could hear my heart. Gus’s tail was flicking. Then I heard it. It was like breathing – but faster – like someone was running too hard. I crept closer. It was an animal noise – something was grunting.
Pushing through the rose brambles, the smell reminded me of Mum’s perfume and made me want to cry. The thorns tore at my clothes and ripped at my skin. I licked my wrists and tasted my blood. ‘Bertha. Bertha!’ I yelled. ‘Where are you?’ The grunting stopped and Bertha yelped. There she was – between two hazel bushes, her tail wagging with excitement, her behind spattered with dirt. Bertha was digging a big hole – and around the hole were Mum’s shoes. The shiny black fur on Gus’s back rose, and he spat.
What have you got there, girl?’ I whispered. The smell of roses still filled the air, but now it mingled with something sharper, stronger. It was a nice smell at first – and then it wasn’t.
Bertha howled and wagged her tail; Gus slid into the undergrowth. She’d found what I’d been looking for.
Image courtesy Charis P Sallo