Roxie

Unaccompanied children will be fed espresso coffee and given a puppy

Dad laughs.

“Alex,” he says, “can you imagine your Mum’s face if you came home with a puppy?”

He ignores the sign and joins his friends on the grade six rock climb, leaving me to tackle a simple grade three.

As soon as he’s out of sight a man carrying a flask and a basket appears.

“Drink this,” the man says.

I take the flask and raise it to my lips.

“Bleaggggh,” I say spitting out the strong, black coffee.

“Not your cup of tea?” says the man. “How about this?”

He lifts the lid of the basket and pulls out the most beautiful animal I have ever seen.

The pup looks at me with big, sad brown eyes. I feel the warmth of her tongue as she licks my chin. I hold her while she butts against my face. My finger traces the border between her black and white fur – one eye buried deep in darkness, the other like an island in a sea of sunlight. I lift her one black paw and rub my thumb across the pink softness of the pads under her feet.

“What’s that?” Dad says.

“A puppy.”

“I can see it’s a puppy,” says Dad. “But what the heck are you doing with it?”

I tell him. He doesn’t believe me.

*

“What’s that?” says Mum. Her face is angrier than I’d imagined.

“It’s a puppy,” says Dad.

“I can see it’s a puppy. But what the heck are you doing with it?”

“It’s Alex’s,” says Dad.

“I don’t believe it,” says Mum. “I let you take him out for one afternoon and you come back with that. What were you thinking?”

Mum shakes her head and points at the puppy, “Where did you get it?”

Dad tells her. She doesn’t believe him.

“Just take that thing back.”

“But Mum…”

“No. I’m not having it.”

Mum stops wagging her finger in front of Dad’s face and points back out of the front door.

“Go on.”

*

We go back to the climbing rocks like Mum told us to. The rocks are all empty. We accost a couple of dog walkers. They know nothing, so we head back to the car and find a note slipped under the windscreen wipers.

A dog is for life, not just for climbing. Puppies teach responsibility. No returns accepted.

“Oh great,” says Dad. “What on earth are we going to tell your Mum?”

Mum’s guarding the front door. Roxie barks an excited welcome. Mum growls as she pulls opens the car door and demands to know why we haven’t given the dog back.

Roxie stops barking and shrinks into my lap.

Dad passes Mum the note.

“What’s this supposed to mean?” Mum says, waving the note at Dad. “Is this some kind of joke?”

I can tell Dad doesn’t want to explain. He hasn’t mentioned the sign about unaccompanied children. He hasn’t mentioned leaving me on my own.

“It’ll be good,” says Dad. “It’ll teach responsibility.”

“You could certainly do with some of that,” says Mum, and then she laughs.

“And there’s your first lesson,” she says pointing.

It wasn’t Roxie’s fault. She was scared and didn’t like being trapped in the car. I open the car door and she jumps out, but she doesn’t run away. She lies down and waits for me.

My wet trousers stick to my legs and Roxie’s wee has left a pale outline of my bottom on the car seat.

“Alex,” says Mum, “put the dog in the conservatory and get yourself cleaned up.”

“You,” she tells Dad, “clean the car.”

I come down from the bathroom to see Roxie eating some chicken and Mum spreading out an old blanket. Dad is still cleaning the car.

I can’t sleep tonight. I keep thinking about Roxie. I hope she is happy in the conservatory. It gets cold in there at night. Mum and Dad are still in the kitchen – I can hear them whisper-shouting.

*

In the morning I run along the landing and down the stairs. I’m surprised to see dad in the kitchen with a cup of tea and Roxie is lying at his feet.

Mum and Dad fell out with each other last month and now dad sleeps at Grandma’s. He only comes to the house to take me out at the weekend. He usually waits in the car and honks his horn. He’s never comes into the kitchen.

“Is your mother awake?” dad asks.

I shrug.

“Well, take her some tea and this newspaper. If she’s asleep just leave it on the bedside cabinet.”

I see Mum looking down at us from on the landing.

“I brought you the paper,” says Dad.

Mum blinks in surprise, pushes her hand through her hair and pats down a bit that is sticking up.

“What are you doing here?” she says.

“I brought Roxie some dog food,” says Dad.

Roxie’s ears stick up and she lifts her head off the floor. She already knows her name. I squat down and scratch her under the chin. She sniffs me and licks my face.

“Here, she likes this,” says Dad. He hands me a rubber bone that already has chew marks on one end.

“And I’ve got some bacon. I could make you a full English breakfast.”

Mum yawns and nods.

“Why don’t you have a shower,” says Dad, “I’ll get it ready for when you come down.”

Dad whistles as he grabs a frying pan and turns to Roxie.

“Do you like bacon? Do you? Do you? You do, dont you?”

Roxie barks and wags her tail.

*

“Right Tony, see you in about half an hour,” says Dad. He clicks off his mobile and strokes Roxie. She lifts her head slightly and then rests it back down on my lap.

Mum stands in the door with her arms crossed.

“So I guess you’re off then.”

“Urrh, What?” says Dad.

“Don’t you Urrh What me?” says Mum. “What’s it today? Drinking at the golf club, football in the pub?”

“Tony’s lending us a dog lead. He’s got a special harness because Roxie’s so young. I thought, perhaps we could take a walk along the canal? What do you think Alex.”

“Can I mum?”

She pauses, she frowns and then she smiles. “I’ll make you a picnic while you get dressed.”

I find a note in the picnic.

Dogs are social animals and need to live with their pack.

*

Dad comes every morning before school. He creeps quietly up to my room, helps me get dressed and we tiptoe downstairs making shushing noises at Roxie.

It’s like she understands. She doesn’t bark. Dad says border collies are the cleverest dogs in the world.

Dad always wanted a dog when he was a boy, but he couldn’t have one because he lived in a flat. Other people in the flats had dogs, but Grandma said it wouldn’t be fair to have a dog without a garden.

Dad tells me stories while we walk. He tells me about things he got up to – he was quite naughty when he was my age. Yesterday he showed me how he stole apples by snagging them from trees with his scarf. We didn’t have a scarf but Roxie’s lead worked just as well. We saved one apple and cut it into bits for Mum to have with her breakfast.

As soon as I see the time I know something is wrong. It’s half-past seven. Dad has forgotten. I run out and almost trip down the stairs. I hear scratching at the kitchen door. Roxie jumps up.

“Where’s Dad?” I ask her.

She wants her walk. I can’t. I’m not allowed to take her on my own.

I see a note on the kitchen table.

A dad is for life. Not just for weekends.

Roxie hears a noise and turns her head. I follow her gaze up to the landing.

Dad’s coming out of Mum’s bedroom.

“Time to get dressed,” he says. “We need to take Roxie out.”

I spot Mum’s hand on Dad’s shoulder and hear her whisper.

“I’ll come with you.”

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