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Max the bulldog started to rise. Charlie waited at the door and willed strength into his bowed legs. They shook and wobbled beneath him until he was up, a Zeppelin on toothpicks.
“That’s it, Maxie baby.”
Max looked proud and sheepish as Charlie pulled on her boots, signalling it was time for his walk.
[private]Come on, boy,” she said, crouching and patting her knees. He gathered his breath in sobs then started out towards her, his tortured, barrel body swaying from side to side. He crossed the kitchen with one break for air and stood at Charlie’s feet, head bowed.
“That’s my boy.”
In the half-minute it took, she had grabbed her bag and phone, scooped Leo from his high chair and slid him into the sling at her chest. Charlie held the flat’s front door open for him and he waddled past with a glance up, tongue lolling and eyeballs rolled back.
She crossed the corridor, pushed the down button and the old lift groaned then chimed. When the doors opened, Max lumbered inside. She pressed ‘Ground’ and stepped back. He turned to face Charlie, licked his pendulous jowls and gave a snort as the doors shut.
Charlie always took the four flights of stairs – lifts made her hyperventilate, and the baby weight was taking forever to shift.
“Bouncy, bouncy, bounce,” she sang into Leo’s ear. It took her just 45 seconds to reach the ground floor and squat to a crouch as the lift shuddered to a standstill and its doors opened with a =‘ding’.
Max lumbered to meet her, wagging not so much his tail as his hind quarters.
The three of them walked out into the bright sunlight and took their well-trodden route over a grassy hummock to the wood. Charlie shook her head, luxuriating in the breeze and the smell of cut grass.
Leo wrinkled his nose then coughed a hiccup of sick down her T-shirt.
At just twelve weeks, Leo was a replica of his father, right down to the bald head and double chin. Charlie’s husband, Kyle King, ran Kingmakers, the most successful estate agent chain in the Borough of Wandsworth, from an office that looked like it had spilled from an issue of Elle Decoration. When he wasn’t bullying his way into new markets or revving up his staff, he only had time for football. He played centre-half for the local semipro Saturday League side, and had been meting out punishment to quick-footed strikers for nearly 20 years. But at 36, his time was nearly up. His ignoble belly stretched the team’s crest on his shirt out of shape. He’d been injured the best part of the last three seasons, and he couldn’t bear the fact his body was packing up – a betrayal that had turned him mean.
It was less than 30 yards to the wood, and Charlie stood in the canopy’s shade, mired in darkening thoughts. Max had caught up with her, and his frowning face searched hers. Charlie snapped out of it. She patted Max’s jellied haunches, and he leaned into her leg, letting her take some of his weight. Leo’s little hand reached out to him too.
“Come on Maxie, let’s keep going.”
Max was Kyle’s dog originally. He’d won him from a teammate in a bet, and Max was still a puppy when Charlie started dating Kyle. They’d met at a club at the start of summer, six years ago. Kyle was out with the team after a black tie dinner to celebrate winning the league. Charlie was there for a friend’s hen night, and she was drunk and spilling out of an ill-fitting school uniform.
But she wasn’t what she seemed. Although she’d been a glamour model since leaving school at 16 – doing topless work but never more than that – she was shy. This was always a source of ironic fun to her friends, who took great delight in making her blush with their tales of sexual conquests. They were the ones who wouldn’t let her leave the house that night without hacking inches off her skirt, and pulling buttons off her blouse that she would have done up. They were the ones who’d put double and treble shots in her vodka, lemon and limes. They were the ones who got chatting to the boys from the football team.
They hadn’t spoken much. All Charlie could remember was clinging onto him when the slow dance came, and Kyle being gentlemanly when she was sick in the taxi. Kyle was disappointed that he never saw her in that school uniform again.
She was a heart and soul girl, and she moved into his flat a fortnight later, where she met Max, who didn’t like her at first. His basket sat on the kitchen’s marble floor and whenever she entered he would growl. It was only after six months, when Kyle went away for a week on business, that relations thawed. She took Max for regular walks, threw sticks for him and let him play with other dogs – things Kyle never did. She put cottage cheese on his dog food, and started brushing his teeth regularly. When Kyle returned he told Charlie she’d make Max soft with her silly ways, so her treats became their little secret.
Three spotty, wisp-chinned teenagers, on their way to the park with chips for lunch, sniggered as they passed.
“Jesus, are you taking that dog for a walk or a roll, missus?”
“He should be in a zoo!”
“I bet you can see him from space.”
Charlie couldn’t help it.
“Good luck getting girlfriends with those pizza faces. And next time you shave, boys, try standing closer to the razor.”
Max turned and looked at her, and Charlie shrugged.
“Best I could do at short notice,” she said.
For the first few years Max was a happy, healthy dog, but as Kyle’s injuries became more frequent, and he spent more time at home with some part of his body elevated, they began to comfort eat. It started with crisps and sweets, but then Kyle developed a taste for Max’s dog biscuits, and soon they were going through a couple of kilos a week together, beached on the sofa in front of the TV. The fatter Kyle got, the more he struggled with fitness, and the more often he was injured. Whenever he was sidelined, he’d drop his fifteen stone of ill-temper onto the sofa and send Charlie off on chores for him if she wasn’t working.
This clashed with the time his father retired and his brothers had decided to take Kingmakers public against Kyle’s wishes, and in the space of a fortnight he went from charismatic sales director who took four-hour client lunches to rich but perma-stressed director. The charming, loveable rogue disappeared beneath an extra layer of fatty skin. His shirts began to last just a month as sweat rings yellowed their armpits, and grey hair flourished at his sideburns and nape like a forest fire. Where before it was a smile that creased his eyes, now it was a frown. Then two years ago he’d broken Charlie’s nose at the football team’s end of season party, for ‘looking at another man.’
That broken nose ended her career. She had it re-set, but after the bruising went it was still wonky. Soon afterwards she caught a cold, and was in the pet shop buying Max’s favourite dog biscuits when she sneezed, and a bullet of blood and gristle hit the floor. Charlie rushed home clutching tissues to her face, and was shocked to see in the mirror that her nose had flattened. Her managing agent told her to call him when she didn’t look like a boxer, but Charlie was phobic about surgery. She learned to live with the look and the breathing problems that came with it.
A Labrador puppy scampered up to Max, rounded him several times and bounced up and down with excitement. Max suffered the indignity of being sniffed between his legs, but growled when the pup began to yap. It didn’t need telling twice, and ran back to its owner, who waved an apology to Charlie.
When Charlie fell pregnant she grew huge, and Max blew up from a fat dog to a circus act alongside her. He’d press himself to her stomach, and lick her stretched skin. She fed her cravings at odd hours, and he would sit, stare, and quietly groan.
Her pregnancy coincided with the housing market crash.
“We’ve stopped looking out the window in the morning so we’ve got something to do in the afternoon,” Kyle would tell her without humour. She’d catch him staring absently at her bump with the kind of look you get on holiday when you start to think you might have left the oven on at home.
Leo arrived early, and for the first few weeks he cried more than he slept. Kyle spent less and less time at home. He told her a hostile bid had been made for Kingmakers, and he was pretty much sleeping at the office. Then he started staying out overnight at weekends ‘with team mates’. He didn’t seem as stressed any more, and his youthful swagger had returned. It pointed to one thing, and Charlie knew but didn’t ask.
Max stopped walking by a felled, rotting tree trunk off the main track. He buried his face in the wood’s rich scents, and shifted his weight back and forth between his paws, readying himself: he was long past cocking his leg, and was reduced to lowering his hind quarters like a bitch. When Charlie glanced back, he looked away in embarrassment. Charlie smiled and waited patiently. He rose to his full height again, and went through the motions of back-scraping to bury his business but succeeded only in shuffling his paws.
“Ger-gee,” said Leo.
“That’s right, doggy,” laughed Charlie.
Because he’d started to wag his tail at their laughter, Charlie thought at first it was a slip or loss of balance when he flopped to his side. She was next to where he lay in one bound.
“Maxie baby, what’s wrong? Are you tired?”
The way his tongue fell into the dirt told her the truth.
“Oh Maxie,” she said, and tears spilled down her cheeks onto Leo’s head, who looked up quizzically. She stroked his fur as his fast, shallow breathing slowed, and came to a halt. When she kissed his square head goodbye, and unbuckled the collar that carried his name tag, Leo began to cry too.
After minutes of staring down at Max’s motionless body she stood up, and stroked Leo’s head, then looked to the heavens. Shafts of golden autumnal light were breaking through the leaves, and they fell on Max where he lay. Leo felt the warmth of the light on his face too, and stopped crying.
“It’s over,” whispered Charlie finally, and she took her mobile phone from her pocket. Kyle received her text while he was out for lunch with his secretary.
Max died durin walk. Sorry. He’s just off track at entrance to woods. Pls come get him soon as u can. Am takin Leo + goin 2 mums. Not comin back.[/private]
Rob Ganley grew up in Coventry and now lives in Teddington with his wife and son. He is a magazine editor, but writing fiction is his first love. His work has appeared on Bartleby Snopes and Liars’ League, and his novel The Hypnotist’s Wife reached the Bestsellers Chart.