Winter Dogs

He had not expected to be here watching her again. She hadn’t called him in years, but here he was sitting in a white-lace dressed chair, with a single rose slotted down the back. He watched Lily dancing with her father, just this once and only because it was her wedding day. She swayed gently back and forth, the same brown curls as always, the same fascination with dark eyeliner and silk gloves. Did her father know about these beautiful qualities in his daughter? He had been absent for so long. He looked longingly at the glass of vodka and coke at his elbow, abandoned there along with mini-heart glitter and a pair of fake eyelashes.

He couldn’t.

Tommy kept his eyes on Lily, whose belly pressed at little too tightly against her wedding dress. Tommy could almost hear the baby inside, perhaps wondering why the DJ played ‘Jingle Bells’ six weeks before Christmas and who the daddy really was. He had tried to steer Lily away from such antics, but you could only whisper so much into the girls’ ears before they closed themselves to you. Strange things happened around these girls, his girls, his Lily. They all had different names for him, to Lily he had been ‘Tommy’ and he felt ‘Tommy’ wrap around him like the bridal shawl slung haphazardly across Lily’s back. Lily had been six years old and missing her army father, so Tommy had stepped into that man-shaped void. She had made him do forward-rolls in the living room, hold ceremonies for wounded teddy-bears and when it came to her teen years, they had nibbled at each other, tentatively and curiously. He had seen all the father of the bride had not. Tommy should be used to this by now. Tommy had been there, he was sure of it, in the back of Lily’s mind when she rode her first man. Tommy was the only man who would ever be perfect in her eyes. He couldn’t tell her: she commanded him, she made him perfect, but he could watch and obey. After the wedding, he went to visit Maisy. Maisy was only four years old, but wide awake and calling to him, rattling the bars of her cot. He wasn’t Tommy to Maisy, he was Bear-Bear and as Bear-Bear his duty was to sit outside her window and do little dances in the apple tree, which she could just see if she craned her little neck. Maisy wore a Tigger onesie, her bird-bony body shivering in the half-light. Her father had forgotten to give her the thicker blanket and she had grown cold while dreaming of Bear-Bear no doubt. Of course she dreamed of him. All the girls did at her age. Bear-Bear had been in the suburbs of a country he didn’t know for four or five days before he had found himself outside Maisy’s house, where she had been playing outside, unsupervised and laughing as she dug into the earth, ripping up daisies and grass as she tried to find the buried treasure. He had knelt down and pointed to her chest, his fingers brushing her breastbone. The treasure is in here, he had told her. She had patted his face and gave him his new name. Bear-Bear watched as she started to cry and point at him, her little delicate fingers clenching and unclenching, he could feel the bruises under her pyjamas, throbbing living things that spread over her skin like a leopard’s spots. Maybe she would grow up to be deadly. Bear-Bear could barely remember his own father. They had lived in some harsh nook of North Wales, the wrong side of Snowdonia for employment. He remembered sitting by the door, watching the snow pile up and up until even the dogs refused to go out. They sat together and saw the world beyond the dog-flap disappear under a thick white curse. Winter dogs. All the men became winter dogs in one way or another he had decided, somewhere between Lily, Sammy and Charlotte, they work in a unit only so long as the weather is good. When the weather turns, when the hard work sets in, they run or hide. But they never avoid it, side-step it, see it coming and run into their children’s arms. They become the cold. Bear-Bear watches now as Maisy’s father bursts in, eyes red and raw from sleep-deprivation. He slaps her without even thinking about it. Bear-Bear knows these things, he can see the lack of cogs turning, the cold beneath the man’s skin. He’ll leave soon, but not before Maisy had learnt about a winter dog, not before he’s broken a few bones. Bear-Bear has been around long enough to anticipate a father’s flight. When Maisy is quiet and sobbing under her scrap of a blanket, Bear-Bear comes in and climbs into her cot. Maisy immediately reaches for him, curls up against his chest and babbles nonsense into his ear, the warmth of her breath melting his own coldness. Bear-Bear strokes her hair and sings to her until she falls asleep, before climbing out of the window and seeking out the next girl, his next caller. The pull of a child is what calls most winter dogs home. Whether it is the home they started in with is entirely beside the point. To him, he can feel their hands before he sees them, he can smell their perfume or baby-odour just before he feels himself falling away, falling into a new place, maybe even a new time. It hasn’t happened yet, but Bear-Bear likes to think of those things between visits. To his surprise, it is an old lady. She is curled up in her bed, hooked up to so many machines it is obvious even to someone like him that she won’t be leaving it. She was talking to the room, but now she’s talking to him. ‘Never...never came back.’ Her hair is wispy and thin, her limbs pull her down and keep her tucked up in too many blankets. She has a mole on her left cheek, the grease of a meal coating her lips. No one has bothered to clean it off. ‘You never came back’ the old lady opens her eyes and for a moment, the man who is still Bear-Bear thinks she can see him. ‘I have’ he tries to say, but that isn’t how this thing works. He can’t speak to them, he can’t touch them unless they want him to and even then it isn’t a real touch. It’s all imaginary. ‘Daddy...’ the lady mumbles. So now he is Daddy, that’s a name he’s had before. It’s nothing new, nothing so totally special, but it draws him to her and he sits beside her. He can’t remember her face. Daddy has a brilliant memory for the girls he’s helped, but he can’t remember this one. She’s not speaking English, it is a musical sing-song language with cavernous depths that draw him in, making him lose the breath he hasn’t got. It is Welsh and he remembers how he used to speak it too. As the bedridden caller falls asleep, he looks at a birthday card with a fine film of dust covering the glittery butterfly on the front. Neve Hound. Neve is thinking about her father on her deathbed. Daddy thinks she is the most beautiful girl he’s ever visited. He can feel the needles in her skin and the blurring images around her head that disorientate him. Despite wanting to stay, Daddy feels himself pulled away by another girl. Neve is asleep and her call isn’t strong enough to keep him there. He’s with Lily again, it is her wedding night. He is lying between her and the man she married. He’s Tommy again, his arms and legs forced to mimic her husbands. She wants Tommy, the idea of Tommy to turn into her husband. He grips onto her thighs as he drives into her, nibbles her neck and gasps her name. Tommy can feel everything the man is doing to the girl, how is it rocking the baby, how Lily is hoping the timing will be close enough for her new shiny husband to believe the baby is his. When it is really Tommy’s, the man who she decided would be her Tommy. He abandoned her like her father did, different circumstances, same dogs. Tommy shivers as he is released from her grip as her husband comes and topples off her. He drifts for a while. All his charges are asleep or peaceful. Little Yui in Tokyo rests in her father’s arms after a fitful night, she won’t be needing Tommy much longer now her father is paying her attention. Crystal who works the streets in Moscow has drugged herself into oblivion, she can’t tell who is real and who isn’t. Nana in Nigeria is dozing on the sofa with her children around her, eating chicken-gumbo with the hot smell of cayenne, paprika, cumin and thyme thick on their breath. He returns to the Neve, who is the only one awake. She’s not calling for him, but as Daddy he lies at the bottom of her bed and curls around her arthritic feet. They used to waltz and cha-cha down in the local halls, they wore little white socks in church as a child and beige flats when her grandchildren started popping into the world. ‘I’m sorry I left you’ Daddy whispers. He knows this is his daughter, but he doesn’t have the luxury of remembering her properly or the reason he left. He isn’t granted that knowledge, he knows he doesn’t deserve it. Karma doesn’t forgive. ‘But you didn’t’ the words tumble out of the old woman’s lips, so quietly that they could have been a draft. Maybe they were, because when Daddy’s looks his baby girl is fast asleep, near death, and this is how a charge ends completely. He’ll get called back time and time again, an imaginary father or friend or son or lover, but once they are dead so are their voices. Voices that call out, howl out, for the winter dogs who shrank into the cold.