Boodle had it down. Whenever there was food — or even the slightest inkling of food — he parked his furry tush at the big one’s feet and cranked up the routine. Head at its most fetching angle; one eye narrowed down to nothing, the other enlarged till it was huge, Bambi-like, sparkling and irresistible; right ear cocked up and backwards, as though to protest the brutality of a world in which food might not be willingly shared. At the end, before he secured his little something, the tip of his long pink tongue popping out in gratitude.
He had been on loan for a week. The long-haired one also loved the routine, but was determined to stick to instructions.
‘No titbits! He’ll get tubby, then we’ll be in trouble.’
The big one unwrapped a fried-egg and hash brown sandwich, watched the tracking-eyeball-show with every bite.
‘Oh, come on. It’s only a bit of egg!’
It was only the leftover breakfast milk, as well, and an extra sardine or two with dinner. The routine was working beautifully.
He seemed to require lots of exercise: morning whizz, run around the park opposite the house before work, big evening walk on the links (with much ball-throwing and hoarding, No take —
only throw being Boodle’s philosophy) and midnight tootle round the streets to accomplish any remaining business. The first few nights were uneventful. The Sproodle met other dogs during trips to the park, or hare-brained antics on the links, but on Friday something seemed to come loose in the city and all manner of hounds emerged.
A few minutes after midnight they left the stair. The entry-phone was buzzing and crackling, though no one was around. He tapped it and it went silent. Boodle was at the far end of the leash, sprinkling a hedge, and then they were off on the now-familiar route — end of the road, cross over, back down the opposite side past the unlit park, out to the main road and along through Boundary Square, then round the corner and in. As they were nearing home, they passed an odd-looking bloke with an elderly pug. They shuffled by and were replaced by a tall man in a leather vest. He had what looked like a Border Collie on a tight leash, alongside a free-ranging Husky. Boodle sidled over to the Husky and began the bottom sniffing do-si-do of getting-to-know-you. The Collie skulked, casting inscrutable looks at its master.
‘Evening,’ the man said.
The big one nodded.
The man nodded in turn, and they were on their way.
The next night they passed a brown-and-white Corgi, two more pugs and a glossy, unidentified black beast that tore by dragging a startled young woman. Waiting on Boodle’s pleasure, he saw the Collie-and-Husky combo approaching.
‘Getting to be a habit,’ leather-man said. ‘You, me and the midnight boys.’
Tonight, the Collie was chasing the Husky through the man’s legs with a series of yips, stopping only when his owner pulled him up.
‘Max — stop it! Too smart for his own good, that one. Husky’s Tony, by the way.’
The big one pulled Boodle up so the orange street light sparkled in his fur.
‘Boodle. Don’t ask.’
On the way in, the phone crackled again. He buzzed; must have forgotten his keys.
‘Ye-es?’ said the long-haired one.
‘Buzz me in!’
‘Sure. Did you know you can hear night-birds tweeting through this thing?’
When they got settled, he asked her what she meant.
‘While I was buzzing you up, you know — through the entry-phone. It captures the surrounding noises. You can hear them.’
He eyeballed Boodle, hoping that prodigious final slash hadn’t made it over the airwaves. He resolved to find out, but the next night had a terrible stomach-ache and lay on the settee instead.
‘I’ll take him,’ the long-haired one said. She jangled the leash and Boodle leapt to all four paws at once.
Twenty minutes later the buzzer rang. He groaned and staggered to the entry-phone.
‘Forgot my keys, this time.’
He waited, but there were no claws or steps in the stair. He heard a voice — leather-man, he thought – then the long-haired one laughing, a few feet away. Now she’d pointed it out, he heard bit of tweeting too, the jingle of leads.
‘Join us, comrade!’ said a new voice. It was sharp, low and powerful, darting through the ancient wires like mercury.
‘Naw — got it good, man.’
The other voice went away for a second.
‘ — it good? What do you mean?’
‘Fats feeds me anytime I want, Fur loves me up something super. No diets or sheep. Heaven, man.’
‘Have you no shame? Think of your forebears, sir — your ancestors! They didn’t struggle for you to slide into gluttony and indolence. Woofers of the world unite!’
Then the long-haired one buzzed and they came up to the flat. Boodle slunk into the kitchen for a drink; she flopped down on a chair.
‘You wouldn’t believe what happened! That leather-vest bloke, two dogs? Got the leads tangled with Boodle’s and they went round in circles, yapping their heads off!’
‘Did they?’ She looked at him. ‘I feel a bit better. I’m going to make myself something to eat.’
He got the pan heated up, melted butter and split open the last of the morning rolls on the cutting-board. He heard her say goodnight, then the click of the overhead light and the pattering turn-around of Boodle settling on his bed. The big one slid two perfect slippery eggs into the waiting mouth of the roll.
He sat down by the lamp. All he could see was the white plate on his knees, ribbons of steam curling up out of sight, then the bottom of two paws, trembling fetchingly, a great moon-eye pining for attention.
The big one looked out into the darkness, where illuminated windows, dotted here and there, shone like small beacons of hope, and tore the roll in half.
James Roderick Burns’ fourth collection, Height of Arrows, is due from Duck Lake Books in 2020. His work has appeared in American Tanka, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and Modern Haiku, as well as a short fiction chapbook, A Bunch of Fives. He lives in Edinburgh and serves as Deputy Registrar General for Scotland.