I stand at the bar, scanning the line of locally brewed beers, squinting without my glasses, trying to check their names as well as their alcohol percentage before the barman comes my way.
The pub clock said 25 past, or thereabouts. I‘m due to meet my friends at half past.
Tugging at my wrist, their leads now stretched taut, Minnie and Lottie pull me away from my scrutiny of ales to their own intimate inspection of potential scraps by a nearby barstool.
As their leads remain taut, a tripwire for passersby, a gentlemen arrives, clearly intent on the bar. I jerk their leads to reign them both in, so as to let him by. He thanks me as he passes and then stands next to me, also waiting to be served. I order myself a pint, around 4.5%, and he orders a round. As I wave my phone at the contactless terminus and I feel their leads tighten again, I realise the gent is Mr Richard Hawley.
We stand at the bar and he enquires about my dogs – their names – ‘this is Lottie, this is Minnie’, and their breed – ‘both miniature schnauzers’. He tells me he has two of his own – a cocker spaniel and a sheep dog, and how his kids are growing up now. Then, as if wielding a sharpened knife to the thin veneer of a casual pub conversation, Hawley asks me if I think a dog’s personality changes over time.
I start to tell him how Lottie has gotten more and more anxious over… then I stutter here…’the years’, whilst Minnie has gotten more and more chilled. I want to say it’s as if Minnie knows that we need her to be loving, adorable and needy, to fill an aching, cavernous gap, but I don’t. He says how chilled he thinks they both are, compared to most dogs out in a pub. But, that said, how, even if there was a fight going on in the pub, his two dogs would lie asleep, under his seat.
Then my friends arrive and greet me with Friday night hugs. And as Hawley bids me goodbye, he gently touches my arm, as though he knows more than he’s letting on.
We find a quiet corner and the mid summer Friday evening sets as we laugh and catch-up. After a couple, we head home via the sinking twilight of Bingham park, so Minnie and Lottie can stretch their salt and pepper legs.
A little later, as my home-alone supper warms itself in the oven, I water the sun drenched garden and listen to Hawley’s ‘As the Dawn Breaks’ through open kitchen doors, Minnie mooching around the garden, Lottie decamped to the sofa.
You see, the story I really wanted to tell Hawley (and that I only thought of after, as so oft is the case) was how I’m convinced that Lottie has gotten more anxious because, even after 3 and a half years, she’s still waiting for Beth and Izzy to come home. She’s anxious because she senses their absense in our house and she doesn’t know why. She smells them, but they’re not here. She misses them. Misses their adoration, their snuggles, their bear hugs, the treats and the titbits – like when Iz famously fed Lottie a whole slice of pizza just to herself. She misses the game where I’d call her and Izzy would call her back – the sweet stupid competition of who loved her the most.
The story I really wanted to tell Hawley is that I think Lottie is still waiting for them and doesn’t understand why they’ve not come back home. That she doesn’t understand where they’ve gone or why they’ve not come back. That she’s increasingly anxious because she’s still waiting, still holding on, for that moment when they finally do come home. That moment when she runs to the door to greet them, to paw them and leap on them, squealing with doggy delight.
I stand in the midst of our thirsty Friday night garden and spray it much-needed water. I listen to Hawley’s ‘As the dawn breaks’ and I cry.
I cry, not knowing that, about the same time the following night, I would be watching the life ebb away from Minnie’s glistening black eyes and start to question why I even try to attempt to make sense of Before and After.