Read the story being discussed on Jesse Mulligan’s show on Radio New Zealand on 18 October 2018
The Dog in the Room
by Judith White
You walk up the stairs to the waiting room and sit on the couch. You’re ten minutes early. You don’t like to miss a second of the hour’s appointment. You pour yourself a drink from the water cooler. On the other couch a younger woman is pulled into the deep underground pool of her cell phone. You have learnt that you don’t catch the eye of anyone else waiting here. Like in an STD clinic, there’s an understanding that this is a very private thing, visiting a psychotherapist. There’s an acknowledgement that to come here a person must be disturbed or distressed in some way, that the final desperate decision to try and articulate this with a stranger was difficult enough, and it’s nobody’s business but your own.
So you pull yourself into yourself and wait. There are three therapists in this clinic but you are waiting for Margaret. Margaret with the red frizzy hair, so red and so frizzy and springy that against the light there is a crimson aura that glows like a halo. She wears scarlet lipstick, and always an article of clothing to match, either as an accessory or a swirl of cherry in her blouse or her long and flowing skirt.
You’ve been coming every two weeks for six months. Six months! Margaret understands you and knows so much about you now. All the details of your mother and father and sisters and the man from the rubbish dump. You’ve told her about Michael leaving you. You’ve cried a lot. And since you’ve been coming, your panic attacks have diminished and you’re not drinking quite as heavily. And what’s more — those bewildering hallucinations you used to have, of dead animals lying in gutters or lumped under lampposts. When you peered more closely as you passed in the car or walked on by, they were really just soggy leaves, or workmen’s stuffed sacks, or roots of trees, or whatever. You hardly ever have those now.
It’s time now and Margaret’s door opens. Although you can’t see from where you are sitting, you know it’s her because of the distinctive whirr of the door forcing itself over the carpet. A flushed bald man appears, staring ahead at the ground as he passes. He, too, knows the rules. Your heart rate increases discernibly because, indeed, it’s always unnerving to open yourself up to someone. You never quite know what’s going to come out of you.
Another man appears in the hallway. He’s holding a thick black notebook. He’s looking at you. You look away, but then he says your name.
You jump a little. The other woman is still looking at her phone. The man has long, wavy silver hair, and a messy beard. You don’t know him.
‘Me?’ you say stupidly, not moving from where you are sitting. You haven’t understood, but he’s holding out something to give you. His round blotchy hand. There is nothing in it.
He says, ‘George, George Codling. Come.’
You follow him down the hallway into Margaret’s room. He is tall, casually dressed. A blue open-necked shirt rolled up to the elbows. There is a smell about him — what is it? A stale kitchen smell. Bacon. Bacon and eggs.
He indicates that you should make yourself comfortable amongst the cushions on the couch by the low table, where you place your water by the steadily ticking clock and the box of tissues.
Your own hands grab and clutch each other tightly. You are perched on the edge of the couch. You wait as the man places the black book on the mantelpiece over the empty stone fireplace. He settles himself on Margaret’s wooden chair and smiles at you.
‘Olivia,’ he says again, crossing his legs. ‘I’m George. How are you today?’
‘Where’s Margaret?’ you ask.
His relaxed demeanour falters. He blinks several times.
‘Didn’t they ring you?’
‘Who? No one rang me.’
‘Oh dear,’ he says and he reaches for the book again, opens it, lets his plump finger point down a page. He closes the book, puts it down and sighs.
‘So . . . where’s Margaret?’ you ask again.
‘She ah, she’s in hospital, I’m afraid. I’m sorry, you were supposed to have been notified.’
‘Hospital. Why? What’s wrong?’
‘She was bitten by a white-tailed spider. They think. Her arm.’ He touches his pale forearm. ‘Cellulitis. I visited her last night. Her whole arm, black, swollen like a, like an enormous black pudding. Like a . . .’ and his eyes flicker around the room. ‘Like dog fodder.’
And it’s then that you notice the dog. You jump. There’s a dog across the room, curled at the foot of Margaret’s desk. You stare at it. Or are you imagining it? You cannot be sure.
You turn back to George.
‘Is she going to be alright?’
‘We hope so. She’s on a drip. Antibiotic drip. She was delirious. She didn’t appear to know me. But they think they’ll be able to save her arm. Thank goodness she went to the doctor when she did. But anyway, anyway, what can we do for you?’
Your heart is beating furiously. You start to gulp at the air. You’re a fish in a bucket. No. No you’re not. Breathe. Breathe.
‘Does she know you’re here, I mean, if she didn’t recognise you?’
He smiles and nods reassuringly. ‘We were colleagues,’ he says, ‘before I retired. And now I stand in for her in emergencies. Well, I haven’t had to for a while. Yes, it’s been a while.’
You glance quickly at the dog again. It hasn’t moved. Perhaps it’s a large grey-brown bag. Yes, this man, George’s bag. A leather bag with a handle. Oh, God, what’s real? You grab your glass of water from the table, knocking over the clock which clangs as it falls, but as you try to catch it you spill your water on the carpet and over your jeans. A dark puddle spreads around your shoe, as if you are leaking. You pick up the clock, ticking like a cold hard heart. You replace it carefully. Your fingers, you notice, are trembling. You sit on them.
George is watching you, unhelpfully, his foot wiggling at the air. ‘Don’t worry. It’s just water. So how can we help you today?’
You say, ‘Oh um, I don’t know.’
You’re at a loss. This man, his very being, is absorbing something from the room. While he is here, it is not Margaret’s place any more. He uncrosses his legs, shifts in his seat. Suddenly there’s a dull thump and a movement by the desk. You gasp. The dog is a dog. It’s licking the bit under its tail, under its leg, with a big grey juicy tongue.
You say, ‘It’s a dog!’
‘Sorry,’ says the man. ‘Yes, I thought you’d seen him. Franco. He’s harmless, don’t worry, a lovely dog. But he’s old. I don’t like to leave him all day. Does he bother you?’
The dog stands up. Its legs seem stiff — it moves with a kind of slow-motion goosestep, its head bobbing with each step, its mouth open in a silly smile. It makes its way over to George, ignoring you. It stares into his face, his eyes. There’s something that pours from the dog into George and back again. It has made the pained journey from the desk to the man purely for this ethereal sustenance. George holds the dog’s chin in his palm, rubbing around its rubbery lips with his thumb. You feel like an intruder. It’s a private moment. Then it’s broken, and George comes back to you. The dog suddenly sits down, just dumps itself down, letting itself go in a tumble of rigid bones in a sack of brindle hide. It drops its head onto the carpet, lifts its whiskery eyebrows, and swivels its eyes to look at you, its corrugated body a hairy motor, pulsing.
‘Anyway,’ says George. He leans over and picks up the black book, peers into it briefly and closes it again. Puts it on the floor.
‘Anyway, Olivia, what can we do for you? Are you familiar with dogs?’
‘No, I know nothing about them at all,’ you say. ‘There was a dog called Rhubarb next door to us when I was a kid. It was good at catching tennis balls. Every Guy Fawkes it would come over and hide under my bed.’
‘Don’t get me started about Guy Fawkes,’ says George. ‘The animals hate it. It should be abolished. So how long have you been seeing Maggie?’
‘Pardon me, Margaret. I do hope she’s alright.’
The dog spasms suddenly, jerks into the air, spins around and bites furiously into an itch in its flank. Then it plods back to the desk where it lies down again.
You’re still clutching your glass. It’s empty. You’ve spilt it all. You place the glass on the table, taking care to avoid the clock.
‘So what is it that you talk to Margaret about? What is it that brings you to her?’
‘Oh, well . . .’ You look at him. You look at each other. He has three greasy stains down the front of his shirt, one under the other. It definitely is bacon you can smell.
You say, shrugging, ‘Well, I um, get anxious. I feel . . . lonely.’ You immediately regret stating this so bluntly.
‘Ah, yes,’ says George. ‘It’s a common ailment in this day and age. We are consumed with material things. People don’t look after each other. I tell you, though, there’s nothing like a dog for company. I don’t know what I’d do without old Franco here. Eh, boy? I presume you live alone? Do you? Do you live alone?’
‘So, what happened there . . . by choice or . . . ?’
‘Um, well my partner of twelve years left me. Three years ago.’
‘OK OK, hmmm. Any reason?’
‘Only that life was too short. So he told me.’
‘OK OK, fair enough, I suppose.’
‘It didn’t seem like it at the time, I have to say. Nor does it now.’
‘So what does it feel like now? Have you thought of getting a dog?’
‘That’s ridiculous. I wouldn’t know where to start. I know nothing about dogs.’
‘It’s easy,’ he says. ‘There are rules. You just have to follow the rules.’
‘Simple. You don’t let a dog go through a door before you. Don’t let it sit on your lap, don’t let it sleep in your bedroom. Basically, you let it know you’re boss. Never let it eat before you. Don’t give it chocolate. It’s a pack animal and you have to be top dog. You take it for walks. Those are the rules. And then you look after it and it will look after you.’
‘Oh,’ you say. ‘What if it runs away?’ You tell him that ages ago you read a story by Guy de Maupassant in which a priest explains why he chose to live a celibate life. When he was a young boy he had a puppy that he loved more than anything in the world. It was killed in a road accident. He was inconsolable. The suffering was intolerable. And so he became a priest because he couldn’t bear the thought of loving someone only to have to endure the pain of loss again.
George laughs. ‘That’s a good one,’ he says. He scratches his beard. His beard continues into his shirt, curling shiny pins of hair. ‘Anyway, tell me, what are you feeling now?’
You start to tell him, reluctantly at first. You are furious that he is so dismissive of Michael leaving. You tell him that. Fair enough, he says. You tell him that there was nothing at all to suggest that your relationship with Michael was going sour. It was basically perfect. You never fought, it was a very even relationship, no lows, no highs, just a smooth day-to-day chugging along and you both were even thinking of—
‘Excuse me.’ George interrupts, his hand a halt sign in the air. You wait.
‘I just want to tell you that it helps me to listen if I close my eyes.’
‘I can concentrate more, you understand? And I have a theory that it’s less inhibiting if I don’t look at you.’
‘Oh, OK,’ you say. You continue to talk as George sits there with his eyes shut, his hands on his lap, his thumbs twiddling slowly round and round each other, like mice on a treadmill. And then the mice stop and his hands flop loosely, and your words flow from you like a river, releasing the dam, opening up the zip of yourself, telling him everything and more, more than you have ever thought of telling Margaret. You use all the metaphors, you throw in a fusion of mixed metaphors, you’re mixing a cake of all feeling, your life is a desert, you’re a pathetic dot in the void, you’re drifting in a dinghy in a sea so flat and vast that there is no horizon, and you know that somewhere there’s a whirlpool about to suck you under but really, what you’d really like, is to run freely across undulating hills under a warm sun, and there is no more to say and then you are running across hills and you dream there’s a dog alongside you, a cream fluffy stereotypical dog, a lifelong companion, with a wet pink tongue flying out from the corner of its mouth, and its tail streaking like a . . . like a tail trying to catch it up . . . and its faithful eyes are locked into yours, and together you just are. And meanwhile the dog in the room, Franco, has made its way over to you. Is nudging you. You open your eyes. The dog has heard every word, and it understands. It stands beside you, softly panting, with that all knowing smile and its old grey tongue. George is asleep of course. Franco noses into your hand that you’re holding out tentatively. You move your fingers over the hard skull, find the spongy ears, and scratch around their base and then under the chin.
‘Franco,’ you say.
George snorts, a loud intake of snore, waking himself up, startling you. He rubs his eyes, his face, looks around uncertainly, sees Franco.
‘There you go,’ he says, ‘hmmm.’
The dog lifts its heavy old head from your hand. You swear it’s smiling. It really is. Then it trudges back to its place by the desk.
‘Anyway, so bite the bullet,’ George says, pulling an ear. ‘Take heed of what your partner said. That’s right . . . What was it? Life is too short. Very wise. You never know where the white-tailed spiders of life are lurking. Don’t be miserable. That’s my advice to you.’ He picks up his black book. Opens it, looks at it, closes it.
‘Ah well, Olivia, oops the hour is up, sorry. But really it makes no difference. Another hour’s over, the past is over. You’re lonely? Get a dog. That’s the now. The future. If the dog runs away, get another one. There are more dogfish in the sea. There are more men in the sea, you get what I’m saying? But face the loss only when it comes to it.’
He stands up, wearily it seems. You stand up, too. You feel like laughing, yes you do.
‘Hopefully,’ he says, ‘Margaret will be back soon. Off you go then. Go well, um . . . Olivia. Good as gold.’
He opens the door that sighs like a man replete, and you walk down the hallway. Downstairs, as you leave the building to the world outside, you see a man walking a dog. Its little legs are skittering along the pavement beside him. They look like a contented unit.
You think, this is how it could be.
‘The Dog in the Room’ © Judith White, published in Good Dog!: New Zealand writers on dogs, Vintage, 2016