28th January

Man and Beast

Off the bus, she overtakes them making their way towards the High Street. It’s the dog that first attracts her attention, a sprightly black and white beast with alert ears and bright eyes. The man, grizzled and weathered and using a stick, is probably much younger than he looks. He is wearing several layers and has a pack slung over his shoulder. The dog stays close to the man’s side, on an invisible leash of – it’s clear at a glance – utter devotion.

‘What a bonnie dog,’ the woman says as she falls in with them. ‘What is she?’

The man eyes her – suspicion followed rapidly by appreciation. Years have made him expert in assessing the motivations of people who engage with him.

‘Collie and Jack Russell and a bit of Staffie and something else, no sure what,’ he says. ‘D’ye like dogs?’

‘Oh yes,’ she says. ‘Is it all right to clap her?’

‘Aye, she’s fine.’ At the corner of the street they pause and the dog lets herself be stroked, but always with an eye on her master: I’m only doing this for you, the look says.

‘She’s lovely.’

‘She’s my darling. And clever, tae. Goes everywhere wi me. I’m a traveller, ken.’ He assesses the woman again, then adds, ‘A Gypsy. No wan o thae New Age travellers.’ His hand goes towards the dog, who lifts her head to him. Only a true Gypsy, the woman understands him to mean, would have a dog like that.

They go their ways. She glances back at the man and his dog, her heart lightened by the encounter. She is thinking of how, sitting at the back of the bus, she’d had to admonish a young lad for having his feet up on the opposite seat. Grudgingly he’d removed them, but without looking at her, his attention focused on his phone. Three, four times after that, she’d seen his legs twitch, seen the shift in his slumped posture preparatory to the feet going back up. But each time he’d remembered, kept them on the floor, like a puppy learning. He was still on the bus when she got off. She wonders where his feet are now.

Reader: Marianne Mitchelson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Piano: Kit Downes
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