Awake from yet another disturbing dream about my life, I slid my legs out from under the duvet, which had surrendered to a physical attack in the night, and placed my feet gently on the floor either side of my black fleece jacket and the puppy sleeping somewhere underneath it. At least I hoped he was still there. I patted the fleece and there was movement and a snuffle.
The puppy was not mine; it was an animal that I was fostering, a little pug of around four months old that had been found futilely trying to scramble out of a tub of quick-drying cement in a nearby quarry. The cement was thankfully still in powder form. The teenagers who found the puppy weren’t supposed to have been there, so many smiley emoticons to them and their finger-in-the-air attitude to be being told what to do by their parents.
Luckily for this puppy and other animals that have been entrusted to my care, my fostering skills are considerably more successful than a lot of other jobs I have done, including but not limited to, bar work, promotions, office temp, sales rep, timeshare salesperson and tour guide. I will never be a tour guide again. I lost a group of 17 elderly tourists when we stopped for lunch on a Greek island, shortly after stepping off an island cruiser. I desperately needed the toilet, and when I came out, I discovered that instead of waiting for me, the group had taken itself off somewhere. It took me the best part of an hour to find them all, holding up the boat and several planned activities.
A tiny pink tongue licked my bare foot and I smiled. I gently pulled the pug from the fleece, feeling how deliciously soft and warm he was. His fur oozed the aroma of scented puppy and I snuggled him into my neck.
Currently, I was taking in abandoned and injured animals from an animal rescue centre and giving them a home until they were fortunate enough to have one of their own, which was a bit ironic, as I wasn’t really of any fixed address myself. I just rented wherever I found myself, usually getting all info I needed about where to stay from regulars at the local pubs. I was always lucky, and I had landed soundly on my feet yet again, this time finding a gatehouse on a large country estate just outside Settle in Yorkshire.
The landlord at the Royal Oak pub in Settle had told me about the Locks wanting to rent out their gatehouse again, and given me their address. I could get their phone number from the telephone directory. Impulsive as I am, I couldn’t be bothered with phoning, so I turned up on my motorbike, a Harley-Davidson 833 Sportster, and on a crisp frosty morning, drove through the huge iron gates to the property and along the wintery driveway to the front door. A balding man, probably in his sixties, opened the door. He had a pleasant round face and was dressed in jeans and a thick Aran knit jumper.
“And you are?”
I had taken off my helmet and shaken out my very long blonde hair, enjoying the look of surprise on his face. Yup, Mr Lock, women ride motorbikes too.
“Hello. I believe you are Mr Lock?” He had nodded and cautiously shaken my hand, free of its biker glove. ”I’m Sam. I was told by the owner of the Royal Oak that you were renting out the gatehouse.”
An attractive woman had appeared at his side. She had short greying blonde hair, a face full of soft make-up and a lovely smile.
“Peter, who is this? Goodness, is that your motorbike, honey?”
I dug out my best smile, which for me was quite a challenge. I didn’t consider there was much to smile about nowadays. “Hello, I’m Sam Riley. Yes, it’s my bike. I’d really like to move to this area for a while and have a look around job-wise.” I smiled again, especially at Lucy. She was definitely the more malleable of the two. “I can pay a deposit and three months’ rent up front, and if you have any odd jobs for me to do, I’ll be only too willing to help out.”
I had scrabbled around in a pocket in my leather jacket and pulled out a piece of paper. “This is a reference from a business partner with whom I do a lot of computer work.” Actually, it was from an ex-boyfriend called Simon, who had willingly provided me with a glowing reference and some headed paper and business cards from his IT company.
And that was that. Having even the most cursory IT knowledge secured my tenancy. The Locks weren’t computer savvy and there was one still sitting in its box waiting to be plugged in and used.
A few weeks later, when we’d got to know each other and decided we liked one another, Peter said he’d give me a reference so that I could foster animals, which is where my true desire really lies. I’m an inveterate animal lover and greenie. I have spent many times in my life tied to trees, railings and 5-barred gates, and many times being cut down from them by angry policemen, only to be arrested yet again for being tied back to them – usually by a willing man who was probably into bondage. I also demonstrated outside a potential fracking site in Surrey until it started to rain.
I was still sitting on the side of my bed holding the pug. I held him up and he looked at me intently with enquiring brown eyes set wide either side of a dark chocolate wrinkled forehead and nose. His ears were tiny flaps and also dark, while his nose was round and flat. The rest of him was an ecru / coffee blend, with his feet a darker colour. The pug’s tail curled exquisitely over his tiny muscly behind, and those stocky little legs could go like the clappers as he’d shown when I first let him out into the garden. Courtesy of his characteristics, he looked permanently puzzled, as well he might, but even after his trauma, he was responsive and loving.
I pressed my nose to his tiny flat one and scratched him under the chin, “I wish I could get my hands on that scum who chucked you away like a piece of rubbish. I’d shove them in a barrel of quick-drying cement and turn on the tap.” But I knew that as so often happened with abandoned animals, the dumpers were likely to be long gone. I doubted I’d ever bump into the morons and I struggled to comprehend the type of person who could do such a thing. Sometimes I lay awake at night and wondered about humanity and cruelty to animals. It seemed to me that half the people on the planet were either destroying or finding some obscure use for nature, while, thankfully, others were doing their best to save it.
The animal rescue centre provided cages and paid me a nominal amount for the animals’ upkeep. All animals were microchipped and if they were old enough, had been spayed or neutered and had been through various medical check-ups and flu jabs. If the animals came to me with a name, fair enough. But for rescue animals like this pug, I never gave them a permanent name – that was the prerogative of the new owners. Anyway, giving them names made everything too personal for me and the wrench was all the harder when they were taken away; apart from which, the new owners probably wouldn’t like the names I’d chosen.
I looked out of the window at the daffodils. It was now the end of March, my six-month lease was nearly up, and it was time for me to move on again. There was something I needed to do.
I walked into the kitchen and turned on the kettle, fed the little pug and checked my mobile phone. No messages. Feeling a bit lost, I returned to the window and stared at the Locks’ house and grounds, at the topiaries, fountains and trees. Some builders were working on constructing a new conservatory to adjoin the main house. Knowing the Locks, it would be the quintessential conservatory – wicker chairs and geraniums all over the place; a haven of peace and relaxation.
I loved Yorkshire, the people I’d met, the scenery and the humour. But my life was tied up to, well, a tree actually, and the fear of someone discovering what was in it.
So I had given notice on the gatehouse, which had upset the Locks, especially Lucy, who loved having me around. I knew that it wasn’t the tenant’s money they needed from the gatehouse, it was having someone on the property as extra company for them, lighting a fire and keeping the place aired out. They had even paid me for the jobs I did for them, including showing them how to turn on the computer. Eventually we’d progressed to setting up email addresses and googling. Let’s face it, I wasn’t going to turn my nose up at the money, but it was just that they really were over-generous about how much to pay for everything, and I ended up refusing to accept any more. It was too much.
I knew that the Locks adored me too, this strange woman on a motorbike. A daughter they’d never had perhaps, even though I was thirty-four? They also said they were sad to see me go and that I must keep in touch, and if ever I wanted to move back there, well, they didn’t think they would be letting the gatehouse to anyone else just yet. I sipped my coffee and wondered at myself. Talk about hoof a gift-horse in its mouth.
There was a movement at my feet and I smiled. I wondered who would eventually give the pug a home. He was the last foster animal left and I’d already given Libby, the owner of the animal rescue centre, the heads-up on my impending departure.
I phoned her.
“Sam? I don’t want to talk to you.” The disappointment in her voice was touching especially as we had become friends. “Can’t I persuade you to stay? What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing, Libby. You know that.”
“Well, you did tell us you were a bit of a wanderer, but I really thought you might have enjoyed Settle and fostering the animals.”
“I have and I do. But we’ve already discussed this. There’s something I need to do, and someone I need to see.”
“Yes, okay then. Well, I knew you were on your way when you decided not to take the Spaniel. How’s the little pug doing? I suppose the little mite had better come and stay with me. Mind you, I’m walking on fur as it is”.
She wasn’t wrong there; Libby never said no. She would take in just about anything that walked, jumped, crawled or flew. People in Settle said that was why her husband had left – there was no more room for him.
“Yes, I know. I’m so sorry. When can I bring the pug round?”
“I’ll pick him up. You can’t bring him on that flying machine of yours, he’ll have a heart attack. And anyway, where would you put him”?
“In the front of my jacket. He’ll be okay.”
I could feel Libby recoiling, but I had to smile. After all, she used to walk around with a cat on her shoulder until it died of old age and practically fell off.
“Sam, I can’t get to you until the day after tomorrow. And leave the pug in the house, will you? Don’t you dare take him on that motorbike.”
“I won’t”, l promised her.
I’m not very good at keeping promises. I looked at the tiny pug and wondered. He watched me with interest, the front of his face a maze of soft furry wrinkles. I reckoned he already trusted me. Well, what about seeing if he had the aptitude to become a biker dog. Some dogs did. If he showed even an iota of fear, I’d abandon the idea forever.
I inclined my face to him, “How about it then, puggy? Fancy a ride?”
I crossed over the stone floor to the back door and the little pug followed me. I then quickly walked outside and closed the door behind me. I looked back through the window, and he trotted over, gazing up at me, his face a tiny dark blob.
I sat on the bike and walked it over to the window so that he could see me on it. Then I went back into the gatehouse and picked him up. He looked at the motorbike through the window then at me, ’so?’
Back outside again and I sat astride the bike with him in my arms. The pug looked down at the engine, but that was all. He wasn’t really interested in motorbikes. In other chapters of my life, I’d been around cats. A cat would have investigated the whole bike from top to bottom to check if it was suitable. Not the pug. He was more interested in me and what I was going to do next. I was making a friend for life.
I started the engine and gravelled a few revs. The pug looked at me in bewilderment at the strange sounds, but his heartbeat remained regular and his eyes were bright with anticipation. He snuffled.
I kicked the stand out from the bike and walked the bike forwards. My jacket was draped over the back of the seat, so I sat the pup in between my legs while I pulled it on. It was a black leather jacket with a large zip and wide lapels, which I’d had for about nine years; the leather had become soft and forgiving. I gently placed the little pug next to my chest and pulled up the zip so that he was firmly secured, but not squashed. He seemed content enough.
I didn’t know whether I was reassuring myself or the pug when I said, “Let’s go for a little ride, shall we? If you don’t like it, we’ll turn round and come back.”
As far as I was concerned, riding the Harley was a panacea for just about everything that happened to me in life, never mind how bad. It always turned my world the right way up. Well, almost.
I put on my helmet and started the motorbike, waiting to be clawed in the face by scrabbling paws and legs. But the baby pug seemed quite comfortable in his little mobile den. He sat very still, taking it all in and looking up at me every now and then.
I kept reassuring him, “Just a little ride. Not far.”
I turned him sideways, which meant he could look out of the jacket and at the world in general. He made another snuffling sound that I took as a sign of approval and licked the underneath of my chin. He wasn’t at all bothered by the machine. In fact he was more interested in a starling that was also investigating the bike and he yapped at it. The starling flew away with a screech. The pug looked up at me satisfied.
I laughed and pulled up the zip a little further on my jacket until he was all but covered, with just a tiny peephole to look through. Suddenly he turned to me, a round little face with big eyes and a concerned look on his face. He was thinking of that tub of cement. I bent down and touched his forehead with my nose.
I set off slowly, just in case of an adverse reaction, which might mean having to clean up dog pee from the inside of my jacket, or something worse. I pulled the jacket further up around the pug’s face to protect his eyes and ears from the wind, and then a couple of hundred yards down the road stopped the bike to do a quick check on my cute passenger. The puppy looked up at me and grinned, so I set off again, winding a slow but otherwise enjoyable motorbike ride around the roads of Settle and Giggleswick.
Eventually, it began to grow dark and I could feel the clammy cold pressing against my jeans. I turned the bike for home, such as it was, and the pup nestled against me quite happily. If he had been a cat, he would have been purring for his country.
Back inside, with a small fire burning tenuously in the grate – I wasn’t much good at making fires – I watched him thoughtfully while he gobbled down a plateful of dog biscuits. The pug had already been neutered. Libby had put out alerts and made phone calls to all the vets and farms in the area, but no-one had come forward to make a claim on him. Surely no-one would go to the expense of having the dog neutered and then throw him away like rubbish into a tub of quick-drying cement? I mean, if it had rained… it just didn’t bear thinking about, and the thought made me feel sick. Of course, I supposed there might be a little girl or boy crying their eyes out somewhere waiting for him to come home. Equally, he could have jumped out, or maybe fallen out of a car, but no-one had come forward and reported a dog missing. There had been no collar lying on the ground by the cement tub, or in the surrounding area. Libby and I had gone back to the quarry with a couple of the kids who’d found him. Nor had he been microchipped. If only pet owners would do that. Just a tiny microchip underneath the pet’s skin with the owner’s details on a database. What could be simpler? It took seconds to do. Then if the pet got lost, a vet could scan the microchip’s unique number and find its manufacturer, who in turn could check for the owner’s details on their database. Anyway, after April 2016 it was going to be compulsory for all animals to be microchipped, and a damn good thing too.
“You’re a mystery”, I told him. He stopped eating, glanced at me and snuffled. When I said nothing more, he carried on eating. He certainly had a healthy appetite, but he wasn’t wolfing his food down like some famished stray. I was pretty sure he’d had a home before.
Later, I poured a glass of Chardonnay that I’d found on special offer at the local Co-op and sat with my jeans-clad legs stretched out in front of me, resting on the coffee table. The pug lay upside down on my knee, his legs wide open as if he was in a state of surrender. He slept soundly, no doubt knocked out by his first excursion on a Harley. Every now and then he swallowed and made a smacking noise with his dark brown chops, which made me giggle. He would raise his head and look at me with those anxious eyes, and I’d stroke him just to show I wasn’t laughing at him, merely enjoying his company.
I lay back and looked into the flames, or more specifically one flame, as my recent log-building attempts had managed to put out most of the fire rather than ignite it.
I thought of France.
I enjoyed going across to Europe. The Channel Tunnel was an absolute godsend, although I’d taken the ferry enough times. I didn’t really care which; either way meant I could take my motorbike over for free.
Over the past few weeks, I’d decided that I was going to ride down to see Simon, leave some bits with him, and go across to France for the summer. On the other side I’d do what I usually did – ride around, stay at camp sites, get some part-time work and maybe look up a couple of old contacts. Ironically, I always managed to save money on these trips, as I’m not a big spender or someone who enjoys hotels. I find the atmosphere in them false, all this dressing up for dinner jazz, to say nothing of being ridiculously expensive. Anyway, I didn’t have the gear or the will to dress for dinner or any other event for that matter. Apart from my motorbike leathers, my body was happy being clothed in faded jeans and t-shirts. But I did carry a pair of denim shorts in my bag, and I even owned a little black dress. When I was travelling, that lived with Simon.
I stroked the pug slowly, thinking. I always sent earned money back to my bank account in England, so that when I returned I had enough for a deposit and six months’ rent up front just about anywhere I chose. Mostly, I hung around France for the summer, but on occasions I’d stayed for the winter, drawing money from my English bank account as and when I needed it. A lot of the part-time jobs paid cash, so I kept the euros as spending money and paid the campsite fees in advance. I also stocked up with food and wine, took the motorbike into garages for any necessary repairs, and that way I was never burdened with carrying too much cash around. I was content enough. I didn’t have many friends, but only because I like my own company. I find people either confuse me or irritate me. I can’t bear time-wasters, snobs, or even worse, brain drainers weighed down in self-pity. Of course, I’d met some great people, and it seemed that most of them lived in Settle.
However, I needed to make two trips, the first one a recce of sorts. I have a secret. It is obscure to say the least and I doubt anyone would believe me if I told them. On the other hand, if anyone found out, I could probably go to prison, and it is the main reason why I didn’t want to get too close to anyone – I wasn’t sure I’d be around long enough and for all I knew, I might talk in my sleep.
My motorbike was the epitome of freedom. We were practically attached at the hip. I felt I could escape and go wherever I wanted. I always fixed a strong green canvas holdall just behind me on struts that had been welded on by a friend. The bag, which was waterproof, lay securely across the back of the bike’s seat and contained my jeans, a tracksuit, a bikini, the denim shorts and that clingy black dress for those ‘just in case’ occasions – with a pair of black heeled shoes. I also carried a 2in1 shampoo, two expensive moisturisers (I did look after my skin), a toothbrush and a razor. There was other stuff too, such as a needle & cotton, a torch, plasters, some antiseptic lotion, headache tablets and a screwdriver. Everything was the smallest available in its size and most of it still unopened. Underneath all of that I carried a rope and some fish gut. In one of my zipped pockets was my trusty Swiss army knife.
The campsites I stayed at tended to be remote and preferably hidden from main roads – off-the-beaten-track kinds of places. But even I have my limits, and I made certain to choose ones with good ablution blocks and a local shop for immediate provisions. Otherwise, I could always find a supermarket somewhere, or quite simply, I just ate out. I didn’t know of anywhere on planet Earth where you couldn’t find a café, restaurant or pub.
Also, there were times when I did crave company, never mind how fleeting.
I looked down at the pug. He was still upside down on my knee, his head now tilted towards the warmth of the one flame that was flickering for survival.
I shifted my legs. The pug was getting heavy. “Right, puggy, bedtime. Come.”
A range of mmphs, yaahs and saliva noises followed a botched attempt to upright himself in an elegant way. He grappled at my jeans and I yowled. “Aaargh! Get your flipping claws out of my leg.” I pulled my legs up from the coffee table and he fell through them to the tiled floor, which brought on a barking fit as he glared at me with hurt eyes.
“Flipping heck, puggy.” I rubbed my leg with one hand and stroked his back with the other. Then I started laughing. Pug was offended, but his expression was so cute that I picked him up and cuddled him. I got lots of licks and all was forgiven, and it was then that I made a decision. I smiled. Drinks all round.
“Okay, little dog. Will you be my pet? We will go to church and get married.” He stared at me, knowing that I was saying something serious that affected him. “I am going to call you… hmm… Pug! How about that?”
His stocky tail vibrated with approval and he accepted my proposal. “Grrmmph.”