The woman and the dog walked through the park. Viewed from afar, their various colours against the vibrant green of the spring grass, they were the picture of contented companionship. Or so the woman imagined.
Christine knew it was foolish, but she felt a well-behaved dog said something about its owner, just as a well-behaved child reflected on its parents. The dog, Tilly, was young and powerful, and she melted Christine to the core when she placed a paw on her knee or ran to the front door in a frenzy of furry enthusiasm to welcome her home. She tried not to take it too seriously – a dog is not a child is not a child is not – but she had to work hard not to flip into crazy dog lady territory.
It was a stunning afternoon. The park laid itself out like a picture book. Charming scene gave way to charming scene. The dusky mauve of the jacaranda shading the old stone walls and dusting the green lawns was too pretty to be real. Christine and the dog were on their way to the oval, which sat next to the bay, and would be dotted with children and other dogs playing alongside the glittery sea. Christine looked up into a a blue sky that grew deeper in colour the longer she gazed.
A black arrow cut across the sun, its shadow blocking the light, almost too quick to catch. Darkness in light, always there. It was just a bird though, crossing her line of sight. Christine saw it plainly when it landed on the grassy slope below her. It was still fluffy with baby feathers, a very ordinary bird. A myna, maybe, so light that the grass barely bent beneath its weight. Christine looked past it, over the road, picking out her path through the park.
She felt it before she saw it. There was a rush of air, a thump, a screech. Two forms collided at the corner of her eye and just at her feet. The dog, ecstatic with success, had the little grey bird in its jaws, wings at a horrible angle, shrieking out its last moments. Delicate as a broken kite.
Knowing it was hopeless, Christine shouted commands to the dog. “No! Tilly! No!” She bellowed, she flailed the lead, she lunged, and the dog ran like a footballer charging for a goal. Darting, feinting, weaving, while Christine was left grasping at air and gasping for breath.
If she had been aware of other people in the park before, she wasn’t anymore. So she failed to notice the woman and child sitting over the lip of the hill, where Tilly ran triumphant, and Christine behind her. The woman was sitting on a low wall, facing down the slope and away from Christine and the dog. A little girl in an outsize school uniform was close by her, clambering over the stones. Neither of them saw Tilly before she rushed them, leaping up to them with her dying trophy.
“Christ!” roared the woman, jumping to her feet and hurling a mobile phone away from her. She unleashed a tirade of expletives down the line as she did. “Fucking shit dog’s got a fucking bird!”
She faced off like a fighter ready to lunge, feet planted square, heavy shoulders tensed, fists bunched and ready. The dog thought it was a game and stopped with paws spread, chest down, tail up and its feathery victim flapping helplessly. You would say she looked proud. Christine wondered, did she read the energy?
The woman lurched forward and the dog leapt back, taunting her, just out of reach.
“Fucking dog! Drop it! Drop the bird! Your owner oughtta be shot!” Her face was twisted with venom, but there was something else too, a raw edge to it, like pleading.
Christine stumbled into the triangle they made and the little girl flew to her mother’s side. Her small face was flushed. She might have been afraid, but the words she was screaming blindsided Christine. “I’m going to strangle that dog! Strangle it! It’s got to learn.” Her voice was shrill and high. Her excitement was mounting, feeding off her mother’s anger. “Strangle the dog!”
The dog didn’t sense danger, but Christine did. This woman was going to mete out justice to her dog, to Tilly. She was reaching for a branch and raising it over her head. She was going to bludgeon her dog to death in front of her, over this tiny bird. “Drop it!” yelled the woman again, to the stupid Tilly. And then to noone, or perhaps to Christine, the woman said more quietly, desperately, “She has to let the bird go. We’ve got to get that bird.”
“Don’t hurt my dog!” Christine had to shout and make her voice firm. She needed to be in control to bring this chaos back to the order of a boardroom. She wanted authority to shake the ground solid again.
The woman raised her stick higher and swivelled to face Christine. She pointed the branch at Christine like a physical accusation.
“It’s not the dog’s fault this happened. Owners, I’m sorry, owners have got to control their dogs. You’ve ruined her now. You’re going to have to get a muzzle for her cos she’s got the taste of blood now. Next time it’ll be someone’s cat, or worse, a kid. And you’ll have killed your dog.”
Christine said nothing. The dog, distracted, turned its head momentarily and Christine managed somehow to clip on the lead. Tilly relaxed her grip in indignation, just enough for the torn and feathered scrap to pull free and flap lopsidedly up into a tree and out of reach. It was very badly damaged.
The woman dropped the branch and walked to the tree, looking for the bird.
“And I just lost that job. Thanks a bunch.”
The child was still repeating her violent refrain, but quieter now, bloodlust fading.
Christine pulled the dog away, walking fast back into the ruined afternoon. Her heart was beating fast and she was shaking. The dog trotted ahead, lead jangling cheerfully, while Christine tried to calm her breath.
What had she just seen? The broken pieces of events lay still now, where they had fallen in Christine’s mind. After the fear and resentment was the picture of a woman whose child shouted strangulation, whose job was lost, whose luck was low as it could go.
Christine walked blindly for a bit, thinking about the phone the woman had hurled from her ear and the employer at the other end. She thought of the dog too. Was the woman right? Had she crossed the line between trusted companion and threat to small children? Snippets of stories of dogs put down for biting humans flashed through her mind. She looked at her guileless dog and tried not to imagine the final visit to the vet and the final, wakeless sleep.
By now she was walking along one of the roads that cut through the park, and heard a car driving up behind her. She pulled the dog’s lead and stepped aside to let it pass. Instead it stopped and she heard the driver’s door open. Without looking, she knew it was the woman with the foul mouth and the messed up kid. She felt a thrill of fear.
“Hey!” yelled the woman. Christine tensed and she kept walking with her face turned to the front. “Hey!” the woman yelled again, and ran up to her.
Christine spun to face her assailant, calculating that it if came to a physical contest her number was up.
“Hey!” shouted the woman a third time, catching up to her. She wore khaki pants and a floppy t-shirt; flip flops on her feet. She was devoid of elegance in her ugly clothes, but she wasn’t angry anymore. Her face had the hard look of someone used to defending themselves, to pushing through alone. She looked like the woman her child might become, if left without love.
“I’ve been looking for you to tell you. You’re going to have to keep that dog on the lead now. For its own good.”
She paused, and then, “I’ve worked with animals, right, so I know. Some owners don’t control their dogs. It’s fucking stupid and cruel. They shouldn’t be allowed. You’ve got to train dogs, keep them under control.”
Christine felt irritation struggling up through a general feeling of surprise. Then she saw the little girl watching from the car window. It was a red car, a Commodore station wagon, not new. It had P plates. Maybe the woman had lost her licence and was getting it back. Untold chapters of disasters past.
“I’m sorry about your job,” Christine said. “Is there anything I can do? Can I call them back and explain what happened?”
What she should do, she thought, was to call the authorities and report the little girl’s familiarity with strangulation, but what would anyone do?
The woman shrugged. Just another speed bump on the dirt track of her life.
“I’m a carer,” she said, reflectively. “They won’t have me back now, not for that old bloke. Good work too. And it’s not easy to get, casual care work.”
A carer! A carer for some old man! Christine tried to keep her face still.
The woman suddenly thrust her hand towards Christine.
“You ever need a dog walker,” she said, and passed Christine a paper with a number on it. “I’ll look after her.” Her voice was treacle over sandpaper.
The dog briefly looked up from snuffling the gutter and looked back again.
Then the woman walked back to her daughter and her old red car, and drove off through the park.
The dog turned back to Christine pushed her snout firmly against Christine’s leg. “Come on!” it meant. “Let’s walk!”
Christine’s hands were still shaking she realised, as she put the card into her pocket. She walked back up the path to home, under the old trees and over the emerald grass. She tightened her grip on the lead and looked up for reassurance into the beautiful, still-blue sky. A dark shape flitted across the sun. It cut the light for a second, almost too fast to see, and then it was gone.