Everyone agrees that last summer Katie shelled the peas beautifully, though she was rather slow and lunch didn’t happen until well after two. It was a gorgeous day, the family all together for once. And why should time matter so much? Maria thought as they finally sat down at the table outside. Yet it does: the world rushes past like a train, going somewhere else and soon out of sight; it leaves people like Katie behind.
Katie is eight. Sometimes Maria thinks she notices a little improvement, but this could be wishful thinking: perhaps it’s just that she, Maria, has grown used to things, and how Katie is doesn’t bother her so much anymore, and maybe that’s the real improvement. How much does Katie remember? Maria asks herself, and what really goes on in there?
“You’re coping so well,” Malcolm says.
“Maybe it’s easier, her not being my own.”
“You could just as well say the opposite,” he points out. They are truly doing their best, and they lose themselves in each other’s eyes.
Summer’s long gone. It’s mid-winter, and Katie stands by the glass doors of the delicatessen. She can’t read the green and gold writing, but she can smell a rich sweetness that has an undertone of rotting in it, too, like laundry hampers; and she can see the whole cheeses and the jars of peaches and the piles of sausages and the open boxes of chocolates. Bottles, too, everywhere, stacked in pyramids, glittering.
She is to wait outside, because if she went inside she might knock something over: she gets too excited and shop assistants are very impatient at this time of year.
They won’t be long. “Stay right here,” Daddy said. “Don’t move an inch.” An inch is hardly at all.…
Christmas music seeps into the street from the shops. There are no cars, but more people than she’s ever seen. The windows glow and shine, everything is paintbox new and the air bristles with women’s fragrances and spices. People in bright coats, singly, in groups, criss-cross the cobbled streets.
Opposite Katie, a machine turns in the window of the coffee shop, slowly browning beans. A bell rings each time the door opens or closes, and every time it does the smell of coffee rushes out and the ears of a dog tied next to the sign that Katie can’t read twitch and point. He is a medium-sized dog, mainly brown; he has a huge tail, dark blotches over his eyes, a crimson tongue. He sits sloppily on his haunches; his penis, half-erect, lolls between his legs. He fidgets, scratches, sees or smells something, and stands, forgetting for a moment that he’s tied. He tugs at the leash, stops, surprised. His tail points behind him like an arrow. Katie watches. She knows what he is. She learned the word months ago when someone’s father brought one into Field House. Yesterday, they asked what she wanted for Christmas and she said it: Dog.
A couple leaves the coffee shop. The man is tall and thin and the woman is little and bright, with a shiny nose. They stand for a moment, while the dog jumps and pulls and sniffs at them. They pat its head absently and look at Katie, her puffy face and small eyes behind the enormous lenses, her straw-blond hair in thin braids. She’s wearing pink track-suit bottoms and a lime-green puffy jacket. They shrug, unhitch the dog, and walk away.
Katie desperately wants to follow the man, the woman, and the dog; she feels the tug of it but remembers how Daddy said, “Don’t move an inch.” She chews the woollen fingers of her gloves. She stamps her feet to keep them awake. She wants to go closer and look at the chocolates in the display, but if she does that, one thing will lead to another and she’ll be inside before she knows it. “Just look at all the people,” Maria said. There are lots. Some of them have been past two or three times. Beyond the lights of the street, the sky goes violet, then black.
The dog returns, with the woman at the end of the leash. She tells the dog to sit, but it won’t. It sniffs Katie’s shoes. The woman crouches down.
“Still here? Are you all right? ” she asks. Her cheeks are pink and her eyes glitter with promise, like the lights in Christmas windows. “Only you were here last time we passed, half an hour ago.” An earring with feathers dances from one ear. Katie doesn’t talk to strangers, but she nods. “Sure? ” the woman says. “Is your mummy in that shop? ” Her mummy lives in France now, and Maria is here instead, but Katie gives nothing away. She looks down at the dog. Breath pours from its mouth. Its brown eyes look back at her, slightly wicked. Its hot tongue slithers and quivers. The woman waits, still crouched down, while Katie strokes its head.
“He won’t bite,” the woman says. Katie feels the skull through the soft hair, the silky ears; she sinks both her hands into the rougher coat on the neck, buries her head there, too. The smell is just how the dog looks. Dog. When she looks up, the owner breaks into a smile.
“Katie? ” Maria calls from behind. The rest of them—Dad, Maria, Ben, Paul, Eliza—are waiting by the other door.
“Bye,” Katie says into the dog’s ear, and squeezes hard, forgetting the woman it belongs to, and hurries after her family. The dog’s owner watches them: sees the tall man and the elegant woman, their many bags, the set of three ordinary children clustered around them, the fourth—something wrong with her—following several steps behind. Her shoulders are hunched up; her head hangs down. Normally, the woman thinks, with a kid that age, you’d have to keep an eye on her. But that one knows she’s got to hang on to them, and they know she knows. She’s following them, the woman thinks, shocked, the way a dog does.
Maria has a black coat with a fur collar, and she smells of lipstick; Dad has an overcoat, Ben has a yellow anorak, Paul has a blue one, Eliza’s is brown. They have been buying Christmas presents in Brighton, where everything glitters and somewhere is the sea: Katie remembers that. Pennies dance on it and balls bounce and sand gets in your mouth and the water draws a line wherever it touches you. In the summer, you go to the sea. But in winter, at Christmas, you stay at home in the cottage—though the sea must still be there, waiting until next year? “Of course,” Maria said. It doesn’t go away, but it is cold and grey, and all of the people on the beach have gone.
“Remember not to talk to strangers, Katie, love,” Maria says as they climb into the new silver car.
“Dog,” Katie replies.
“Please. But no, darling,” Maria says. “We told you that yesterday.”
Though, after all, there is a dog in one of her parcels, a small one with downward flopping ears. It’s too smooth, it doesn’t move, it isn’t warm, and it has no smell. Katie hits it over the back of a chair. And it doesn’t yelp, either, but Katie empties herself of the sounds of her disappointment and rage, pushes them out, her mouth an O, her eyes tightly shut, her fists hammering. She must wait in the little room until she calms down. Maria called Matron, who said that would be best.
“Otherwise we’ll have to send you back, but we don’t want to,” Maria told her. Daddy, with the white beard stuck on, stood behind Maria and nodded to show that he agreed.
There’s a sofa in the small room and a desk, and all the bits of furniture and knick-knacks that don’t fit in anywhere else. The window that looks out onto the big garden is wet, and the paint around it is mouldy because no one comes in here; it’s so cold you can see your breath, but when the heat comes on the radiator smells like something sicked up.
Katie stands stone still in the little room while her heart runs away with her. It gallops, she clings on, just; it almost shakes her off. It bangs and bangs at her until it seems to fill her up, and she wants to escape it; but it’s inside her, the banging—not a noise you can hear, but a thing you can feel.
Ben calls from the other side of the door in his flat boy’s voice: “Are you ready to come out, Katie? We don’t like you being in there, but Dad says you must calm down.”
Her heart runs even harder. There are footsteps, doors closing, and she’s alone again, which is better. She looks out of the window at the brown, frosty grass. Then comes another knock, the door opening just a crack.
“Please understand,” Maria says. “How could you have a proper dog, because who would look after it? But the toy dog is nice and you could tell him secrets and stories.…Come on, Katie, love, we want you to be with us. We’re going to play games.” Katie turns away. Her heart has paws; it trots on.
“Malcolm, it’s our fault,” she hears Maria say. “We shouldn’t have asked her what she wanted. You should never—”
“We can only do our best,” Daddy says. Then they’ve gone.
She can hear, distantly, the cries and shouts as they play the Christmas games. “Your family loves you very, very much,” Matron said before Katie left, because she didn’t want to leave, she never did: she felt safer at Field House. “You’re very lucky to have somewhere to go for your summer holidays and for Christmas.”
Perhaps it will be summer soon. Things are better in summer. Katie stands stock still, just as she did when she was waiting outside the shop, and stares through the window. At the end of the garden is an old broken fence and then a field, just clods of chocolate-brown earth dappled with old stubble and crisped with frost. The sun is bright and low, everything underlined with shadow. Nothing moves. The sky beyond the garden is very blue.
And then an animal appears in the garden, as big as a wish. It freezes a moment, looking carefully in all directions. Nothing but its head moves. It pulls the cold air into its sharp muzzle, patched with white. Its brushy tail thrusts back after it, straight and still. Then it lowers itself and with a jerk twists onto its back, rubbing its skull and its pointed ears on the ground. It stretches, rolls over, and for a moment it seems to look right at Katie. She takes a slow step closer to the window, and now the red dog stands on all four feet, facing toward the house. It gnaws briefly at its front leg, then turns and makes for the gap in the fence that leads to the field.
The window won’t come open, and Katie gives up because she doesn’t want to lose sight of the red dog. It crosses the field, trots this way and then that, never in a straight line. Sometimes it disappears into the shadow patterns on the ground and then reappears somewhere else. She’s pressed close to the window, watching where it last was, when the door opens again.
Her heart is quite steady now.
“Hello, soldier,” Daddy says. He has taken off the white beard. He holds out his hands. “Are you all right now? ” he says. “Come play with us. We’ve really missed you.” She nods and follows him into the living room. He doesn’t have to turn around and check that she is there.
“All over,” he announces. “Ceasefire.” It’s very hot. There is a white plastic mat for the hands-and-feet game on the floor; balloons are stuck to the ceiling. Maria is lying on the sofa. Eliza and Paul are playing the game. Paul looks at Katie from underneath an armpit, his face red and upside down.
“You can join in next,” he says. But Katie doesn’t like the hands-and-feet game.
“Outside? ” she asks, walking toward the picture window. Everyone falls silent. “It’s cold, Katie, love,” says Maria, holding out her arms.
“Coat—” Katie says. Everyone waits a minute, and then without saying anything Daddy fetches Katie her coat and her pink wellingtons. Everyone watches while he helps her put them on, and then they open the sliding door for her.
“Don’t go far!” they call, then close the door against the cold.
“She can’t,” Maria says. “That hedge on the back field has grown right over the top of the gate.”
Katie runs around the side of the house to where she saw the red dog. She finds the place where it flattened the dry grass and points herself the way it went. The red dog has a hot, deep smell; she’d know it anywhere.
“It really is getting better,” Maria sighs. “We are getting the hang of this. Trial and error. Coping strategies.” She sits up and takes a sip of sparkling wine. Malcolm squeezes her shoulder.
“I know it’s not easy,” he says, as Katie stumbles on up the hill, her face cold, her body warm, smelling the red dog—not knowing, yet, about the hedge.
This appeared in the December 2014 issue.