I am sitting in a lawn chair, in the day’s last square of sunlight. There is a book on my knees, but I am not reading it. The puppy we’re looking after for friends appears at the garden door with a shoe in its mouth. It runs past me, ears flapping, belly skimming the grass. A few seconds later it runs past me the other way, this time with a sock. The shoe, I noticed, was not my shoe. But the sock is definitely mine.
It has been going on for a week, this wholesale displacement of footwear. I am used to it now.
But I had forgotten what it is like to worry about something small and alive: whether it is homesick; whether it has run out the front door; whether I am going to step on it; whether or not it has eaten a dishwasher tablet. The worry is all-consuming, and I am out of practice.
On its third pass the dog diverts from its route, runs up my shins and dives into my lap. It is absurdly pleased to see me, as if I have been away for years, instead of just here, in this chair, for over an hour.
“Yes?” I say. It spits out the sock to concentrate on scratching one ear. Then it reaches up and takes a bite of my beard.
“This is not acceptable,” I say. My wife appears at the back door.
“Hello!” she says, in the special low, friendly voice she reserves for animals. The dog, still hanging from my beard, rolls an eye toward the door, and then back up to me. It lets go, backflips on to the grass and runs towards my wife.
“What have you been up to?” she says. The dog leaps into the air like a salmon.
“It ate the heel off my trainer,” I say. “And it’s hidden one of my flip-flops.”
“Oh dear!” my wife says, charmed. The dog scratches furiously, hind leg thumping against the floor.
“And it’s allergic to something,” I say. “Possibly us.”
“It might just be anxiety,” she says. “I’m taking it to the vet this afternoon.”
“The vet?” I say, thinking about returning a dog to its owners with a medical history.
“Come on!” my wife says. The dog follows her back into the house.
The puppy is prescribed some pills that it takes uncomplainingly. Our actual dog is so starved of attention that today it will submit to any treatment, including being sheared with an electric trimmer, which it hates. The dog sits on the garden table, lip curled in a sneer, while my wife runs the trimmer over its back.
“You really want to bite me, don’t you?” my wife says. The puppy chases the tufts of hair that float away on the breeze.
“I might use that on my beard after,” I say.
“It’s for dogs,” my wife says. “I ordered it from a pet supplier.”
“It has a drawing of a dog on it,” I say. “What’s the difference otherwise?”
“There!” my wife says. “Don’t you look lovely!” The dog looks at me. I look at my wife.
“You can’t take this dog out looking like that,” I say.
“What do you mean?” she says.
“Give me the trimmer,” I say.
That evening the two dogs fight on the sofa while we watch TV, the puppy taking tactical advantage of the dog’s still incomplete haircut. Eventually they tire, and all is quiet. The news starts. As I watch, a white feather drifts across my field of vision. I turn to see the puppy chewing the corner off a sofa cushion.
“Uh-oh,” I say. The puppy coughs. Feathers fly from its mouth.
“What are you doing?” my wife shouts. It becomes clear she isn’t talking to the dog.
“Me?” I say.
“You can’t just let it destroy things!” she shouts, snatching the cushion.
“I didn’t give it my permission!” I shout. Oblivious, the puppy crawls into my lap and falls asleep. I wonder if it will miss me when it’s gone.