The Back of Black Dog
It was September 1942 when I saw the black dog enter our house in Victoria Road. The telegram that thousands were receiving all over the country had arrived at our door.
The gulls keened through the wet sunshine and the 24-hour industrial toil of the Mersey rumbled in the background as usual, but both were eclipsed by our muted sobbing and the rustle of the paper in my mother’s trembling hands.
My sisters and I crowded Mother, lightly touching her, anxious to be there to catch her should she faint, hold her if the emotion overcame her. She was a small woman but resolute. We were worried this news would defeat her, but in spite of the strain she wouldn’t succumb.
She raged against the news: ‘No Herr Hitler. You’ll not have one of mine.’
Father chewed vigorously on his empty pipe, his face turned to the wall. He shuddered and for distraction fingered the family of three ebony elephant ornaments that trumpeted across the mantelshelf either side of the clock.
He didn’t think I saw him scrunching his eyes tight.
Mother continued: ‘Rubbish and lies. What do they know? I’d know if he was dead and I know he’s not. I’ll believe it when I see his body.’
My sisters and I weren’t as strong. We had to turn away from her when our despair got the better of us. For a moment the black dog stepped slavering into the centre of the room.
‘And you won’t believe it either. Not until his cold body lies here in this house. Now there’s work to do tidying this place. He won’t want to come home to a mess. Nora, put the kettle on. Brenda brush this chair, he won’t want to sit in a dusty chair and Dorothy, polish those elephants. He loves those.’ Then, almost whispering, ‘I’m going to give them to him for his own house, when he settles down with a wife.’
I took one of the elephants off the mantelshelf. As far as I could remember, they’d always been there. The legend said they must always face the door to prevent bad luck entering. They hadn’t stopped the black dog but, at least for now, it was shackled in the shadows.
Father threw a moist eyed glance at mother and left the room.
They were fine elephants, heavy ebony, shiny black and smooth with real ivory tusks. In the following weeks the black dog was omnipresent, snarling in the dark corners. I polished the elephants vigorously everyday to keep it at bay. I polished in hope and defiance for us all and especially for my brother. Brenda cleaned Reg’s chair as devotedly, and every time Nora made the tea from that day on, she set out an extra cup, ready for him, when he came home.
Everyone was waiting and hoping. No one allowed themselves bad thoughts. We relied on our collective will to repel the black dog.
Several weeks had passed under this dark weight, when I opened the front door to find Mick Hodges, my brother’s childhood friend and army buddy, on the doorstep. He stood there noticeably older and thinner than I remembered him. Straight backed in his brown army serge and red beret.
I remembered Mick and Reg as mischievous, likeable lads and in my mind they remained lads, however much they thought they had grown into tough soldiers.
‘Hi Dotty, alright? Is Mr. King in? Could I have a word?’
This wasn’t what I expected. No preamble, no distress over my brother, no ‘how are you all coping?’
Brenda and Nora joined us at the door. “What is it?”
‘It’s Mick, he wants to see Dad.’
Brenda shot off to fetch father who arrived head up, intently portraying inner strength.
‘Alright our Mickey, good to see you lad, what can I do for you?’
‘I need you to come with me if you would.’ He didn’t seem to be quite the Mick we knew. He was amongst his own now but he was deflated and there was a certain nervousness about him. The war seemed to be besting us all.
‘What is it lad?’
‘I’m coming too,’ I determined. Father was confused. He looked from Mick to me and back again like a cat wondering where its mouse has disappeared to.
‘What is it Mick?’
If Father said I couldn’t go or if it was all deemed men’s business, I’d have to stay, but something was going on and I wanted to be there for my father. Mick took the cue, ‘OK Dot, get a coat.’
Brenda and Nora looked on questioningly.
‘I’ll let you know as soon as I know something. This had better not be more bad news Mickey Hodges. We’ve had enough of that lately.’
We started walking, the empty street pale and quiet in the autumn sunshine.
Mick’s answer stumbled over a chuckle, ‘It’s not bad news Dot, but it could be a bit of a shock and we’re mindful that we don’t distress your mother.’
By now we had walked the short distance to the Victoria Arms public house.
Father laid a firm hand on Mick’s arm and quietly but forcibly said, ‘Spit it out lad, the wife’s fragile after the telegram about our Reg but we can take it, whatever it is.’
‘Can’t you guess?’
‘Don’t play with us Mickey and who’s we?’ I said.
‘Alf and I.’ Alf was the landlord of the Victoria Arms.
‘You see that telegram wasn’t entirely accurate, it shouldn’t have been sent. They should only send them if they’re sure.’
‘If they’ve seen the body?’ I asked. ‘He’s alive isn’t he? Like Mum always said. Where is he?’
Mick pointed at the pub door. ‘In the saloon. We couldn’t just let him waltz into your place and risk Mrs King thinking she was seeing a ghost. We don’t need any heart attacks when we’ve so many bombs.’
I burst through the door. Reg was propped against a bar stool, dimpled smile and glistening eyes, illegal rationed pint in hand. The same brown army serge, red beret folded into his epaulet. He looked horrifically worn but I could still see the boy in my brother. He stood up.
I threw myself on his neck and clung on tighter than I’d ever held anything. I wept into his shoulder for what seemed like a full five minutes. I mussed his hair and finally pushed my face away from him to get a better look. I managed to speak a little.
‘You’re losing your hair. You’ve got a little bald patch here.’
‘That’s the damn helmets. They rub something chronic. Look I need to prop myself on this stool if that’s alright.’
‘Why, what’s the matter, are you hurt?’ I fussed.
He rolled up his trouser leg. Small flecks of embedded metal shone like Christmas tinsel in his skin.
‘I stood on a mine. They’ve got the most of it out. That little bit won’t cause me any problems. It just needs a little time to heal.’
‘He veers off course when passing a magnet, that’s all,’ Mick joked.
I thought I may see the funny side one day, but not now.
‘Mickey, where were you when this happened?’
‘Right beside me as always, he copped it as well but in the head, so no serious damage, eh?’
I realised Mick had kept his beret on since arriving. He removed it slowly to reveal a nasty, untidy scar, running three inches across the top of his part-shaven head.
I gasped and felt a sharp pain inside of me. ‘My god, they are just boys and they’re going through this.’ I thought. ‘What are we asking of them?’
‘He was unconscious for three days after that.’ Reg piped up.
Mick grinned self-consciously, ‘Just sleeping.’ Then he changed the subject. ‘Dot, you’ve got ten minutes to get home and prepare your mum and sisters; then we’ll bring him in.’
‘I need to finish my pint first,’ Reg winked.
Father spoke for the first time. He crossed to Reg, shook his hand and simply said ‘Well done boy, well done.’ Then turning to Alf, ‘I know it’s outside of hours but any chance of a half, I think I need it.’
‘Special dispensation for war heroes and their families George, and no bugger warden or copper would dare object.’
At home I rushed out the news without preamble to Brenda and Nora. They whooped and cried and then we dragged mother out of the kitchen and sat her down in the front room. ‘Why are we in the front room, have we got guests coming?’
Smearing tears from our cheeks, Brenda and I knelt either side of her armchair and took a soft hand each.
‘Mum, you need to prepare yourself for a bit of a shock.’
‘Now don’t be silly, tell me what’s going on.’
‘The telegram, you didn’t believe it, did you?’
Nora set us each down a cup of tea.
‘I didn’t and I still don’t,’ her eyes were alive. ‘And you’re about to tell me he’ll be coming through that door any minute now.’ She was nodding excitedly, confirming her own conviction.
I’d left the door on the latch and the three men quietly stepped into the room. There was a reverential silence that reminded me of church; everyone was giving thanks, grinning and sniffling with relief.
Reg broke the suspense: ‘Any chance of a cup of tea?’ He picked mum up, her little legs flailing and kissed her.
‘You’re still a silly fool Reggie King, put me down.’ He kissed her again and set her back in her chair, then slumped down in his. He banged the arm, there was no dust.
‘This could do with a bit of clean.’ He looked up at the mantelshelf, ‘and I reckon those elephants could stand another polish.’
Three cushions hit him with more force than anything Herr Hitler had thrown at him. Everybody cried, although some more openly than others and I saw the back of the black dog as it fled out the door.