Dogs have their own body language. You may have noticed the ‘play bow’ that they do when they’re in the mood for some boisterousness. They have a ‘follow me’ signal too: after making eye contact, they lift both forelegs off the ground at the same time, turn and plonk them down in the direction they want another dog to follow. I mention this because, well, you’ll see.
When I stepped off the train at Honeybourne I was ready for a short walk to my aunts’ cottage. Aunts Hattie and Hannah are my Mum’s twin sisters who run their ‘herb-oil by post’ business from their cottage, growing most of the herbs in their long garden. Mum describes them as ‘slightly fey’ because they seemed to know some things before they were told and behave mostly as a single unit, although Hattie is the talkative one. I’ve always found them lovely and friendly and the cottage is completely welcoming and relaxing. As I said, I was ready for a brief walk – Honeybourne is as small and picturesque as its name suggests – but the dog seemed to be waiting for me.
It was some sort of Labrador cross, standing erect just outside the station as if to attention and staring at me intently. It turned as I have described, looking back to make sure I was following. It was an easy decision to make; I have visited my aunts several times and the dog was going my way, or I was going its. After a couple of turns to the left we arrived at my aunts’ timber-framed cottage. It was a mild winter’s day and the iron-studded door was open, letting herby smells escape onto the lane. The dog trotted in.
“Oh, hello dear,” said Hattie, “I see Barney has brought you here safely. Good boy!”
“Hello Hattie, hello, Hannah, you’ve never had a dog before; how did he know what…”
“Oh, he’s a very clever dog, aren’t you Barney,” interrupted Hattie, “now I’ve made up your room so if you’d like to unpack and use the bathroom, I’ll put the kettle on.”
It wasn’t a very long journey from Birmingham, changing trains at Worcester, but the bathroom was welcome, and so was the promised tea in the kitchen, making me ready for the the gentle interrogation which I expected.
“Now, dear,” said Hattie, “tell us your news.”
The dog, Barney, walked slowly and sat behind Hattie’s chair, looking at me with its head slightly cocked to one side, as if listening.
I did my best to ignore it.
I paused and looked at the kitchen table. Hattie and Hannah waited patiently.
“Well,” I sighed, “I’ve done something stupid.”
“We’ve all done that,” muttered Hannah. She got up and quietly placed a packet of tissues on the table, just within reach.
“Go on dear,” said Hattie.
“You remember that Rob and I divorced?”
“Yes Carol, we were sad but these things happen. At least there were no children.”
“Well I always wanted them but it never happened. I suppose now it’s a blessing. Well, anyway, Rob left me the house and I didn’t want to hide away so I carried on visiting our local, mostly with my friend Kath who’s in a similar situation, which is how I met Keith.”
I paused again. “Could I have some more tea please?”
“He was charming, well he was… and, well, I was lonely. We were married – it was just the two of us and witnesses.”
My chin trembled and I couldn’t hold it in any longer.
“I feel such a fool,” I sobbed, “It seemed reasonable for him to move into my house but as soon as he did, he changed. ‘You’d better get used to it’, was his constant response and within weeks he’d moved his father into the spare bedroom. ‘No sense in my dad paying rent’ he said. He didn’t even ask me.”
I saw Hattie and Hannah’s lips tighten in unison.
“Well you can’t stay with a man like that,” said Hattie. Hannah nodded.
“No, we’re divorcing but…”
My aunts waited.
“But Keith wants half the value of my house in settlement.”
“And where is Keith living now?” asked Hattie, coldly.
“Still in my house. I can’t bear to stay there with him and his father.”
“In Kings Norton, isn’t it, beside the canal.”
“Well you stay here and rest as long as it takes, Carol,” said Hattie, “make yourself comfortable; I’ve got some old photos of us and your mum as girls, and some of you as a baby. We’ll have a look after dinner.”
The next morning, after a much-needed evening of wine and friendly chatter I came down for breakfast.
“Where’s Barney,” I asked.
“Oh, he’ll be out and about somewhere, I suppose,” said Hannah.
I’ve always loved the Worcestershire countryside even in the depths of winter and, having been invited to stay ‘as long as it takes’, I took advantage of my aunts’ hospitality to walk the beautiful lanes and byways for days on end. Each evening though, I would ask where Barney had got to and my aunts always gave the same reply: that he was, ‘out and about somewhere and don’t you worry about him’.
One evening, about ten days after my arrival – I think it was a Tuesday – Barney walked in as though he’d never been away. He went straight to his food and water and then slumped in front of the fire.
I was out walking on the following Thursday when my mobile phone rang. It was Hattie.
“You’d better come back, dear.”
The police were waiting for me. Keith and his father had an accident. It seems they may have had too much to drink and fallen into the canal. They died of hypothermia.
“There isn’t much to add,” said the constable, “According to a witness, they made friends with a dog in the local pub. It kept weaving between their legs. They’d had a few and thought it was hilarious. About half an hour before closing time they left and the dog went with them.
We think they might have tripped over and pulled each other into the water.”
Of course I tell myself that it was just a coincidence but I can’t shake off one thought. That Tuesday when Barney came back: that was the first time his food had been put out since he disappeared.