You, Me, Them, It by Mark Barlex

Photo by Amber Kipp on Unsplash

Sadie is missing. Of course, we’re worried. We’re worried about the busy road and the railway line. We’re worried a stranger might find her. We’re worried for the stranger.

We know she’s gone because she’s a presence and when she goes – whenever she goes – she leaves a gap where she isn’t. Also, she’s torn another hole in the fence between our garden and Mr Egerton’s next door. Knowing she can tear an opening that large in something that apparently robust and secure is alarming. That we have to go and find her again is depressing and exhausting.

Driving slowly around the neighbourhood, Kate and I know we were not properly prepared. This is not what we had in mind.

At the bottom of the hill, among the big houses and gardens, a man stands at the end of his drive. As we crawl past him, he waves.

“Have you lost a large, white dog?” he asks.

“Yes,” says Kate.

The man says, “I’ve got him cornered in my shed.”

“Her,” says Kate. “She’s a her.”

The man says, “I’ve got a spare lead in the house. I’ll pop it on her and bring her out.”

“Don’t,” says Kate, quickly. Then, “Sorry. She’s… unpredictable. I’ll come with you. I’ve brought her lead.”

I park. Kate follows the man up the drive. I see him open a gate next to the house. He and Kate disappear. I wait, listening to the traffic from the road at the top of the hill, where we live, and the ripple of leaves in the trees down here where it’s quiet. These are big houses, with big gardens. One of these might suit Sadie.

And here she is, jogging happily next to Kate; mouth a quarter open, dark-pink tongue curling out and to one side. The man follows five paces behind.

In the car, Sadie lies flat on the back seat, her big, angular head on her paws. The man squints at her through the window.

“What is she?” he asks. “Some kind of wolf?”

All dogs are descended from wolves. Some more recently than others. The little blue handbook given to us with Sadie at the animal sanctuary said, Husky-German Shepherd Cross. The young man who walked her out to the car said, “Definitely wolf,” and smiled and laughed.

He showed us how to tickle her ears, the way she liked it.

“Enjoy your wolf,” he said.

He knelt down.

“‘Bye puppy,” he said. “Be nice.”

“Puppy?” said Kate as we drove away. Sadie seemed to fill the back seat.

“She’s huge.”

At home, we walked her through the house and into the garden. Late afternoon in April. Turning cold. The sun fading beyond the trees. Sadie silently patrolled the perimeter, grazing her cheek against the six-foot larch-lap and chain-link fence we put up to keep her safe.

At night, as agreed, we shut her in the kitchen, but she shrieked and wailed so loudly and persistently that Kate took a pillow and a blanket and the cushions from the sofa and slept with her. At dawn, I went down to take over. Kate was reading a book by the window. Sadie lay on the floor, stretched along a thin band of sunlight. As I entered the room, her ears rotated mechanically towards me.

Sadie had another night of thrashing and wailing in the kitchen. I sat with her. By morning, she was calm, as if she’d made her point. She ate everything we gave her. She re-explored the garden. At the little green pond in the far corner, she plunged her head under the surface. I shouted, “No!” and she pulled it out.

“She listened,” I told Kate.

“She ran out of air,” Kate replied.

That evening, Kate said, “Look,” and held out her phone.

She showed me an image of a tall, white dog with a sharp face and long, almost brittle legs.

She said, “Apparently, this is a timber wolf.”

“And?” I asked.

“Is this what we’ve got?”

I looked again. Sadie had the same tapered muzzle and browny-yellow eyes, the same thick, triangular ears, the same rough mane of fur around her throat and shoulders.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

I thought Sadie was smaller, and instead of laying flat and down, her tail curled up. Her legs were thicker and her head was bigger, in proportion to her body.

“She’s not a wolf,” I said.

“She’s not far off one,” said Kate.

We took Sadie into town. People scratched the top of her head and asked what she was and where we got her from.

“She’s a wolf,” Kate told a small boy on the riverbank. “She followed us home. She ate my sister.”

Later, walking up the long hill towards the house, Kate said, “People should ask before they touch her. She’s had a difficult past.”

Possibly. It was an assumption. There were few clues in the little blue handbook besides her name and breed; veterinary history – inoculated, spayed; age – 12-18 months; temperament – Determined. Inquisitive.

“Who decided to call her Sadie?” I wondered.

“Her, probably,” said Kate. “What do you think Determined means?”

Many things. Stubborn, contrary, disobliging. Confrontationally indifferent.

In the garden the next morning, we told Sadie to sit; she didn’t. We told her to lie down; she wouldn’t. We told her to come; she refused.

“Can she actually hear us?” Kate asked.

Presumably. When we spoke – shouted – she stared emphatically in the opposite direction, but her big, bear ears swivelled reflexively towards us.

“Maybe she was trained in a different language,” I offered.

“Which one?” said Kate. “You think she speaks German? It wouldn’t surprise me.”

In the park, we let her off the lead. We couldn’t remember why. It probably seemed logical. She erupted away from us.

Kate shouted at her to come back. She didn’t.

I chased her, pathetically, and not for very long. She performed frantic, furious circuits at astonishing speed, weaving between cyclists, vaulting playground equipment.

On her fourth or fifth lap, I diverted her towards Kate, who waved her arms and shouted, amusing Sadie enough to make her momentarily slow down. I snatched at Sadie’s collar and re-attached her lead.

At home, still flushed, Kate said, “It’s called ‘recall’ and she hasn’t got any.”

She held out her phone again. “I looked it up. Dogs with recall come back when they’re told.”

“Could we teach her?” I asked. “What’s German for ‘recall’?”

Abrufen,”said Kate. “I looked that up too. Or you could just shout Hier!

Sadie lay on her side in the doorway.

“Sadie!” Kate shouted. “Hier!”

Sadie rolled up onto her feet and trotted towards the kitchen.

“OK,” said Kate. “When we’re out, don’t take her off the lead.”

“We can work on that,” I said.

Two mornings after the adventure in the park, Kate got up, made coffee and toast, fed Sadie, let her out into the garden, and watched her surge across the lawn towards the shrubbery in the far left-hand corner, knowing, she said later, she was unlikely to be coming back.

Kate stood in on the patio outside the kitchen door. She drank coffee, ate toast and called to Sadie in English and German.

Nothing. Seagulls overhead. The hiss of traffic on the road in front of the house.

Kate put her shoes on and padded across the garden. Behind the shrubbery, a section of wire fence had been peeled back far enough to make an opening roughly the size of a large dog’s head and shoulders.

Kate woke me up. I searched the garden.

“I don’t think she’s hiding in a bush,” said Kate.

“I’ll look inside,” I said. “She might have gone in again.”

Kate said, “I don’t think she’s gone back to bed.”

Later, after retrieving Sadie from Mr Egerton’s garage (“Oh, this is your dog?”), we took stock.

Kate concluded, “She can’t be off the lead.”

I said, “We can’t leave her alone in the garden.”

“I will have to go to work at some point,” said Kate. “So will you.”

“Could we leave her in the kitchen?”

“I’m not sure I trust her,” said Kate. “She’s not really an indoors dog. I can see her hunting elk. Or caribou.”

“Elk are caribou.”

“No,” said Kate. “They’re not.”

Sadie needed training. Victor came recommended. He was tall with large, thick hands. I took him through the house and into the garden. Sadie was skimming the section of fence nearest the road, probing for weaknesses. Kate watched.

Victor stood silently in the centre of the lawn. He stared straight ahead.

He said, “Can you see what I’m doing?”

“No,” said Kate.

“I’m ignoring your dog.”

“We could do that,” Kate told him.

“Ignoring her shows her I’m in charge,” Victor asserted. “She has to come to me.”

He strode back towards the house.

Sadie stopped examining the fence and jogged after him. At the point where she caught him up, Victor turned quickly and walked back to the centre of the lawn. Sadie followed. She drew alongside him. Victor turned again. Sadie stopped. Victor walked towards the shed near Mr Egerton’s. Sadie sat down, lay down, then got up and jogged over to where Victor was now standing. He held out his hand. Sadie sniffed his palm. He made a downward motion.

“Sit,” he said.

Sadie rolled onto her side.

“Nearly,” said Victor.

For an hour, Victor worked diligently. For short periods, at the start and end of the session, Sadie seemed interested enough to follow him from part of the garden to another. But mostly she ignored him, resuming her inspection of the fence, breaking into occasional jogs or sprints, digging repeatedly, methodically, in a flower bed.

Victor charged us more than we’d expected. He said, “Obviously, this will take more than one session.”

When he’d gone, Kate said, “He’s not cheap.”

“Our dog is still in the garden,” I pointed out.

“Under the constant supervision of three adult humans.”

Between sessions, Victor was happy to field calls.

“It’s part of the service,” he told us.

He was driving when I called him to say Sadie was jumping up at me.

“Ignore her,” he said. “She’s testing you.”

She stopped jumping up and started urinating on the floor. She was a big dog. There was a lot of urine. Kate thought she might have been storing it up.

Victor was encouraged. “It’s a sign of submission,” he said. “She’ll probably stop.”

She didn’t. Over the next week, while we waited for his next session, we called Victor when he was in the pub, at the vet’s, on his way to another client, on the filling-station forecourt.

“I shouldn’t be using the phone next to diesel,” he said. “But go on.”

Sadie was howling (“She’s a dog,” Victor pointed out. “They do that.”); she wouldn’t stop howling (“She’s still a dog.”); she wouldn’t get into the car (“Make her.”); she wouldn’t get out of the car (“Maybe she’s confused.”)

He was watching football on TV when I told him that Sadie had cornered, caught and dismembered a rabbit in the garden.

“That’s not good,” he said softly. I imagined his eyes following the game as he spoke.

“It was horrible,” I told him.

Victor said, “Am I right in thinking Sadie is your first dog?”

“Yes,” I said, “Why?”

He said, “I’m not sure I would have started with her.”

Sadie lived two lives. In public, on display, she was an object of fascination, of show-stopping near hysteria. She was our achievement, our success and fortune, a thrilling slash of apparent wilderness on a small-town high street.

At home, she exuded boredom and menace, restlessly patrolling the house, drifts of cream and pale grey fur accumulating in the corners of rooms. In the garden, the rabbits fled. In their absence, she tore branches off the fig tree and left them stripped and splintered across the lawn.

And she escaped. Once, twice, three times a day. She ripped holes in the fence, dug underneath it, used a wheelbarrow as a vaulting horse to jump over it. She barged open the side gate and ran. Her muzzle was a crowbar. Her paws were like shovels.

“Why doesn’t she like us,” lamented Kate. “We’re good people. We’re doing our best.”

We found Sadie darting in and out of driveways on the long hill down to the big houses, loping across the park, splashing in the river at low tide. Kate and I cornered her against walls, fences and hedgerows. Sometimes we were joined by neighbours. Once, a party of tourists pitched in, interrupting their picnic lunch by the river to help.

“Sadie enjoyed that,” I said. The tourists waved as they climbed back onto their coach.

“They should do a headcount,” said Kate. “I think she picked off a straggler.”

Mr Egerton phoned. Sadie was in his garden again. “You should build a concrete pound and lock her in,” he opined. We didn’t think we were quite at that point yet.

Kate said, “You know she only ever craps on his side of the fence?”

Sadie tore duckweed out of the pond, spread it over the lawn, and tossed it back in again. She spent an afternoon out of reach under a bramble bush, eating and regurgitating a pound of butter she stole from the kitchen, less and less coming up each time until, six rounds into the ordeal – ours, not hers – she kept it all down. We never found the wrapper.

When she was frustrated, she gave short, whining howls that sounded like words.

When she barked, she let everything go, bouncing and roaring at arbitrary provocations: a man and a wheelbarrow, a waiter clearing an outside table, an elderly woman in an electric blue raincoat.

“Fair enough,” said Kate.

We bought a heavy-duty harness and attached Sadie’s lead to that instead of her collar.

Victor approved.

“A good choice,” he said.

“I’m going to buy roller skates. She can pull me into town,” said Kate.

“I wouldn’t,” said Victor.

After his second session with her, he wondered if Sadie had made slight progress.

I said, “I’d like to get to the point where she walks behind me and I can leave her outside shops.”

Kate laughed.

Victor said, “One thing at a time.”

In the park, loping on the lead next to Kate, Sadie was bumped and sniffed by a chocolate Labrador working in tandem with an elegant, muscular, grey Weimaraner. Sadie cuffed the Labrador around the muzzle, then turned stiffly towards the Weimaraner. She set up a low, constant growl.

Two or three seconds passed, then, according to Kate, “She just… exploded. Noise. Ears back. Teeth out. The full works.”

Panicked, the Labrador and the Weimaraner scrambled away. One end of Sadie’s lead was attached to her harness. The other was wrapped around Kate’s wrist. Sadie shot forwards. Kate was jerked off balance and dragged across the grass. She got herself upright and managed to straddle Sadie’s shoulders, pinning them between her knees, gripping her collar to hold her back.

“Were you scared?” I asked.

“Embarrassed,” she replied. “And alarmed. And not in control. Actually, yes. Our dog can be terrifying.”

Three more things happened.

We found Sadie’s harness in three chewed, wet pieces – two large, one small – at the bottom of the stairs.

She broke a kitchen chair. We couldn’t work out how.

She ransacked the weekly shop for a packet of bacon. I tried to snatch it out of her mouth. She flicked her head and turned her back.

I tried again. She worked herself under the kitchen table. I reached under. She growled. I squatted down to look at her. She’d pinned the bacon between her big, square paws and was tearing at the plastic wrapper.

“Give it back,” I said.

Her left ear rotated towards me. Her growl rose a semitone in pitch. It filled the heavy air between us.

I leaned towards her. Her top lip curled back over her teeth. Her eyes looked past me. I moved back.

Kate watched from the doorway.

She said, “This isn’t working.”

We walked to the riverbank. Sadie stretched out in the deep grass. She rolled onto her back and swung her legs in the air and yelped and whined. She snapped lazily at the shadow of a bird flying overhead.

I called Victor.

“Take her back,” he said.

“You have her,” I said.

“No,” he said, “I’m sorry. Really.”

It’s a two-hour drive to the sanctuary. Sadie lies on the back seat with her big, snowy head on her paws. After an hour, we stop to walk her.

“We could just let her go,” I said. “Wouldn’t she be happy out here?”

Kate says, “No. She’ll starve.”

I imagine Sadie dirty, emaciated, shot at by farmers, mangled by a truck. We load her into the car. She wriggles from the back into the driver’s seat. I tap on the window. She moves across to the passenger side.

“Fine,” says Kate. “I’ll go in the back.”

At the sanctuary, we drive down the stony track to the car park. Kate walks Sadie to the office. I follow with Sadie’s dog-bed, her food bowl and her blanket.

The woman behind the desk says, “What’s this?”

I say, “I did phone.”

Kate lets Sadie off the lead. She pads up and down the room, her nose grazing the floor.

The woman asks, “What was the problem?”

I say, “She was a bit too much for us.”

Kate says, “Ha!” Her eyes widen.

I say to the woman, “I’m sorry.”

The woman says, “It happens.”

In the car, Kate puts her hand on my arm.

She says, “I’m sorry too.”

I manoeuvre the car onto the concrete track. After a hundred yards, Kate turns round in her seat. She looks back down the track. 

“Oh God,” she says.

“What?” I ask.

She faces forward again.

“Drive,” she says. “Or, drive faster.”

“Why?”

“Sadie’s following us,” says Kate.

She turns round in her seat again.

“Maybe step on it?” she says. “She’s catching up.”

She locks her door.

About The Author

Mark Barlex began writing in 2021 after completing several courses in creative fiction at City, University of London. You, Me, Them, It is his first publication. He’s currently working on short stories, flash fiction and the outline of a novel. He lives and works in London.

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