Short story


by Della Galton

I'll get you an Irish wolfhound as a wedding present. I remember saying the words as clearly as if it were yesterday. We were sitting at a table outside Rendezvous, which was a café on the edge of the beach. I'd just been running along the shoreline with Cara, my lurcher, while you sat on the sea wall, waiting for us to finish. "Running's great," you were fond of saying. "I could watch it for hours."

Cara reached you long before I did. You bent down and stroked her brindle head, enquiring casually when I caught up, how it was that I was so much more out of breath than she was. I took a mock swipe at you and that's when you told me that you'd always dreamed of having an Irish wolfhound.

"He'll be a great, grey giant of a dog," you said. "He'll lollop along the edge of the tide, flicking spray everywhere with his paws." You smiled thoughtfully and added "He'll be called Murphy and I shall sit and watch him from my red and white striped deck-chair."

I laughed, and you brushed sand off my forehead and kissed my hair. It wasn't until later, when I'd got my breath back, that I made my promise. We were sipping coffee while you surreptitiously fed Cara, who was beneath the café table, with bits of biscuit. You smiled at me, your eyes bluer than the sea. "So we're getting married, are we?"

I blushed. "Well, one day." You reached across to squeeze my hand. "One day soon."

It was actually a couple of years later, by the time we'd saved up enough. I hadn't forgotten my promise to get you an Irish wolfhound, but somehow we'd ended up with another dog, Lou, by then. She looked like a small black Labrador, all wag and wriggly body, with soft velvet ears and eyes to match. She'd once belonged to a seaside landlady who'd gone out of business and hadn't been able to keep her. Cara and Lou were more than enough for our terrace house, so we decided to wait a while before we got Murphy.

Then the babies arrived, and for a long time after that I was too busy with nappies, then school runs and a host of other things, to think about Murphy. I must admit that I was also slightly nervous about having a dog the size of a small horse roaming around the house when Paul and Sandra were young.

We lost Cara when she was sixteen, and you dug a hole to bury her in the garden. Sandra and I wept unashamedly, while Paul kept trying to reassure us that at least she'd had a lovely life. Lou went to join her friend soon afterwards and we all swore that we wouldn't have another dog. It was just too heartbreaking.

When the children were both at senior school, I went back to work, and although by now we wanted another dog, it didn't seem fair when we were both out all day. Animal rescue centres were starting to sprout up all over the place, so Sandra and I collected jumble for our local one and contented ourselves with walking their dogs at weekends. It was there we learned that it was irresponsible to go out and buy a puppy when there were so many adult dogs needing homes. So when we were ready for our next dog, we went along to see them. They said we could wait for an Irish wolfhound to come into the centre but it didn't happen often, as the breed didn't live very long, so it could be some time. In the meantime, perhaps we'd consider temporarily fostering a couple of older dogs?

This seemed like a great idea, so we were introduced to Jacob and Milly, a pair of thin, scruffy terriers with mischievous bright eyes. "Are you disappointed about Murphy?" I asked as we drove home, with Jacob and Milly trying to chew their way through the dog guard. You smiled and shook your head. "The sanctuary's right, love. We're doing much more good giving a temporary home to dogs that really need one. Anyway, I've a feeling Murphy will just turn up one day. When the time is right."

I nodded, agreeing with you. Except, of course, that we fell in love with the terrible terriers and "temporary" somehow turned into permanent. "Whatever happens, we'll get Murphy the next time we move," I promised. In the meantime, without telling you, I found out there was an Irish wolfhound rescue society and contacted them, filled in a myriad of forms and waited.

Then, out of the blue, you had a stroke. Not a bad one, the doctors said, but you'd need to take things easy for a while. "No different to normal, then?" you joked. I squeezed your hand, but I knew what they meant. You might not have been a great one for exercise, but you'd always worried about things, and worry and lack of exercise were not a good combination.

Today, I finally had the phone call from Mrs. Carter at the wolfhound rescue centre. "We've got a dog we think might be suitable for you," she said. "If you're still looking." "Yes," I said. "I'll come over and see him."

Murphy and I met in Mrs. Carter's back room. He was sitting on the settee - well, covering it actually - and he didn't get up to greet me. He studied me with gentle brown eyes that were just visible beneath his shaggy fringe. I went and sat on the arm of the settee, rather overwhelmed by the sheer size of him, and he put his giant head on my knee. That clinched it. We left together about half an hour later and I breathed a sigh of relief that we'd decided to get a bigger car this year, even though you hadn't known what I was up to because I wanted it to be a surprise. I just couldn't wait to see your face when I walked in with Murphy. Well, actually his name was Clyde, but that was a minor point.

Except that when I got home, it was Sandra, not you, who met me in the hall. Sandra, white-faced and serious, her voice trembling as she said, "Dad's had another stroke, Mum. Paul went with him in the ambulance. I said I'd wait for you."

Five minutes later we were on our way, with Murphy still in the back because there wasn't time to introduce him to the terrible terriers. In the hospital car park, I wound down the windows for him and we raced into the foyer. You were in a private room at the end of the ward, all wired up to bleeping machinery. Paul was holding your hand. It was bad. I could tell it was bad when, without raising your head from the pillow, you smiled bravely. A crooked smile, as only one side of your face still worked. "I'll be all right, darling. I love you. Everything will be fine." The words seemed to pour out inanely, and your eyes told me that you knew it wasn't so. It wasn't going to be all right. Not this time.

An hour later, in a little room, a doctor told me the same thing. The stroke had been severe. One half of your body was completely paralysed. I listened with the tears falling down my face. It seemed so unfair. You were too young for this. You were only fifty-two.

It wasn't until later, when Sandra went in search of coffee and Paul said he'd drive me home to get an overnight bag, that I remembered poor Murphy. We were walking across the car park when Paul remarked, "Mum, tell me if I'm seeing things, but there appears to be an Irish wolfhound in your car." I squeezed his hand. "That's Murphy. He's a wedding present. A bit of a late wedding present." Then I cried again, although I'd thought there were no tears left.

On the way home, as Paul drove, I told him about my long-ago promise. We were just over halfway back when he glanced at me and said, "Are you saying that Dad doesn't know that you've got Murphy? He still doesn't know?" "That's right. He was supposed to be a surprise." "Well then, I think we should introduce them, don't you?" "What, you mean now?" He looked at me for a moment, then at Murphy, who seemed quite happy in the back, and said, "Yes, I think now would be good. I think we should go back to the hospital."

So we turned round again and did just that. In the car park, I said, "How are we going to get him in there? Dogs aren't allowed in hospitals and we can't just sneak him in." "Leave it to me," Paul said, and strode off purposefully. A few minutes later he was back. "Come on, I've OK'd it. We have to go in a fire escape round the back. A nurse is going to meet us."

We followed the very nice nurse along a deserted hospital corridor. Considering he'd only just met us, Murphy wasn't in the least bit fazed. He trotted along beside Paul, his claws clicking on the polished tiles, as though he did this sort of thing all the time.

Outside the door of your room, the nurse motioned for us to wait. Then she beckoned us in and shut the door behind us. Sandra sat in a chair by the bed, her face serious. Your eyes were closed, but as we approached, they flicked open. "Meet Murphy," I whispered, watching the astonishment spread over your face. Then you smiled again, that strange half smile, and stretched out the hand that still worked to stroke Murphy's head. He took it as his due and laid his great head against your chest. You beckoned me over.

"Remember Cara?" It was obviously an effort to speak and I had to bend my head to catch the words. "I dreamed I saw Cara." There was a brightness in the blue of your eyes that belied the frailty of your voice. I nodded, but it was a long time before I understood what you were trying to tell me, because those were the last words you ever said. You died soon afterwards, with Murphy's great head still on your chest and me holding your hand.

Two years on, the grief has numbed into something more bearable. I spend a lot of time walking on the beach with Murphy and the terrible terriers. Jacob's arthritic now and Milly's getting on, but they both still love coming here and Murphy treats it as his second home. I've often thought about your last words. I think you were trying to tell me that you wouldn't be alone. That you were going to join our beloved Cara and Lou. You see, I remember something else you said about Murphy - about how he'd just turn up one day, when the time was right.

Neither of us knew it then, but perhaps he was always meant to be my dog. I certainly couldn't have managed without him. All through the long, dark days he's kept me company when everyone else seemed far away. Even now, on the beach, he walks sedately by my side, although he isn't on the lead. Every now and then, his ears prick up as if he can hear something, a voice on the breeze, and he cocks his head on one side. Then, like a pup, he springs into action and lollops along the tide, flicking spray everywhere with his great grey paws - just as you once predicted he would.

Somehow I don't feel so alone when he does that. I fancy that, on some other beach, in some far-off, sun-soaked land, where people and dogs live for ever, Cara and Lou lie in the sun. And with eyes that are bluer than the sea and the faintest of smiles on your face, you sit in your red and white striped deck-chair and watch over us all.

Printed in Woman's Weekly.

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