Dog on a leash in the forest


Second Time Around

by Arleen McCombie from Peterhead, Aberdeenshire

Competition theme: 'Connected'

Six months after Dougal’s death his clone was ready and waiting to be picked up at the airport. Halfway into our hour-long drive there Barbara suddenly put her hand on my arm, gripped it fiercely, and said, ‘No, let’s turn back, let’s not do this.’ As we were driving along the dual carriageway her actions were rather alarming. ‘What’s got into you?’ I said. ‘You were all for this and now suddenly you don’t want to do it?’

 She turned away to look out the window and in a wobbly voice said, ‘I had a dream last night and Douglas was very angry at me.’ Good grief, I thought: for half a year Dougal’s ashes had rested peacefully in a silver casket on a shelf in our bedroom and this was the first time she had had a premonitory dream about him. ‘It’s just nerves,’ I said. ‘Tell yourself it’s just nerves and try to calm down a bit. Otherwise our new arrival might sense the bad vibes and things will get off to a bad start.’

With glum conviction she said, ‘He won’t have feelings like Dougal. And I won’t have the same feelings for him. I don’t think I can fake it, you know.’

At the airport after I parked the car we sat for a minute looking through the paperwork. ‘Why is there a dry-cleaning bill among these papers?’ she suddenly demanded, hot as a jalapeno pepper with me.

‘You know I had a little accident last week and stained my suit,’ I said.

‘Yes, I know about the accident,’ she said. Very cold and sneering. ‘But why have you stuffed the bill among these papers? If I handed it over it that would make me look very stupid, wouldn’t it?’

  We had brought papers to prove to the quarantine people that we were the official winners of the competition and had the right to claim the clone, the ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ prize (the competition organisers clearly didn’t do irony). It was Barbara’s idea to enter, after learning about it on social media back when Dougal was still alive and she was contemplating getting a companion for him. One day she served me my frozen dinner and said, ‘We won’t need to get another red setter.’

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘you don’t thing you could love another one the same, right?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘We don’t need to buy another one because I’m going to enter an amazing competition and Dougal is never going to die.’

He was our third dog and the one Barbara had bonded with most strongly but even I knew this was stretching things too far. Being the constipated lawyer that I am I went online and carefully studied the competition website: the cloning would be done by a biotech company in Korea, a procedure that usually cost over one hundred thousand dollars. Even though it was useless I made an impassioned plea for her not to set her heart on this.

‘Nobody sane would want a replica dog,’ I said.

‘Then I guess you’ve been living twenty-seven years with a crazy woman,’ she retorted.

In the freakish way of these things Barbara won the competition and Dougal died within the same week. The odds of this were so remote I began to believe some higher power was playing dice with us. Cells were removed from Dougal while she stroked his stiff paw, and it was these cells, now multiplied and recognisably canine, that we were about to encounter. We were going to call it—correction, him—Donnie.

  When we got Donnie back to the car he had answered all Barbara’s expectations in the strictly physical sense but she still seemed to harbour a nagging unease. ‘You know what they say, if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck,’ I joked.

‘What are you saying, Angus? It’s not a duck!’ she bellowed. I glanced in the rear-view mirror to check on the occupant in the back seat. He looked back at me with inscrutable dark eyes. If you’re not getting the heebie-jeebies now, boy, then you’re obviously made of stern stuff, I thought.

Dougal had been quasi-telepathic and I wondered if this clone would be the same. In fact, I found myself wondering if the biotechnologists could have engineered it so that this dog could have Dougal’s soul. Driving home I was filled with similar profound metaphysical musings until Donnie made a mess in the backseat—vomit, and not the other kind. He maybe didn’t have a soul but he definitely had a sensitive stomach.

 That first night we got home we presented him with a new blanket, a new bone, but also (by way of a sneaky little test), an old toy of Dougal’s, a rag doll called Po. He looked at the rag-doll as if was an alien life form and then pointedly turned his back on it. Immediately Barbara was alarmed.

‘Why do you think he’s doing that?’

‘Because this is the first time he’s seen it,’ I said. ‘Plus it’s manky, it’s got Dougal’s scent and his old drool dried into its fur.’

‘But that’s his scent and his drool as well. If we did a DNA test it would be the same.’

I didn’t want to debate the science with her.

‘He’s just finding his feet,’ I said. ‘Think about it, it would be weird if he acted like a comfortable old bachelor, like Hugh Hefner in slippers returning to his pad.’

‘Well, this might sound mean but I don’t want him in the same bed with us. Not the first night, anyway.’

She was still trying to placate the spirit of Dougal in his silver casket but as I rather enjoyed sleeping without the strong funk of dog hairs invading my nostrils I just smiled and said, ‘As you wish, dear.’

During the night everything was perfectly silent downstairs. Silent as a crypt, according to Barbara. She woke up several times, gripping me on the arm again, saying it was ominous. ‘What do you think he’s up to?’ she whispered. The way she spoke, in hushed accents, she made our new arrival sound like the son of Damien below. ‘I’m going to get one of those cameras so that I can watch his movements. Why on earth didn’t you think about getting a camera?’

I groaned quietly as I realised that in the interests of research Donnie was going to be subjected to 24-hour surveillance. At six o’clock the next morning Barbara was finally asleep but I padded downstairs in my dressing-gown and noticed the door to the kitchen was slightly ajar. The wind, or a malevolent paw? Peeking round the door jamb, I half-expected to see an elaborate sacrifice laid out on the tiled floor. Much to my relief, though, there was just a small yellow pool of liquid waiting for me.

Two dark apologetic eyes looked up at, as if to say: An accident, couldn’t help it, sorry.

‘You and me both, pal,’ I winked back. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell her upstairs. She doesn’t tolerate accidents.’

For the rest of the week Donnie tried to settle in while remaining a source of stubborn and unwarranted suspicion to my wife. On our walks to the park he revealed an aversion to water and wouldn’t get anywhere near the pond. He didn’t like whooping children either, and he wasn’t an explorer like Dougal, eager to go questing off into the bushes. Two walkers stopped us and said, ‘Oh, we didn’t realise you still had your dog.’ At that moment Barbara stepped in decisively and said, ‘Actually, this isn’t Dougal, this is a clone.’ I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or not when she said this. It seemed she had finally given up on her fantasy of Dougal living forever, but on the other hand it was also a way of distancing herself from Donnie, keeping him at arm’s length. He was a curiousity to be admired by others, but not a four-legged friend she found it easy to embrace.

Until the day when things mysteriously shifted.

She was away that day on a course and I was looking after Donnie, with the aid of the camera trained on him in the kitchen. Midway through the morning, my head full of mergers, I glanced up from the computer screen only to realise that the camera had gone blank. Had Donnie decided he’d had enough of being under surveillance? Rattled, I left the dining room and stomped off to find him but he wasn’t in the kitchen as I’d expected. It was the same story in the living room and the nook where we kept hats and boots. Finally I trudged upstairs, murder on my mind. The door to our bedroom stood ajar; with a decisive hand I pushed it open and then I saw it—a scene of absolute horror.

Dougal’s casket had been tipped over and now a pile of grey ashes was decorating the carpet. Pleased with his efforts at interior design, Donnie wagged his tail at me, dark eyes flashing an appeal to join in. OH-MY-GOD I shouted, more for my own benefit than his. Frantic, I got down on my hands and knees and began trying to scoop Dougal up. Donnie saw what I was doing and suddenly had the brilliant idea he would try to help by snorting up his predecessor, using his nostrils as a hoover. Bit by bit the lines of fine grey ash disappeared under my helpless gaze. At the end of ten minutes there was no more Dougal, just an empty casket, like the pillaged tomb of a saint. Only one thought now gripped my mind: an internet search wouldn’t tell me where I could get a substitute for ashes, would it?

  To my amazement people all around the world seemed to share my exact predicament. Try baking soda and put some brown or black food dye through it, someone had posted on a forum. With the zeal of a man who had never realised the many uses of baking soda and food dye, I raided Barbara’s cupboards. Donnie then watched as I began recreating Dougal’s earthly remains on the kitchen table. ‘You know, you were once an experiment,’ I told him through gritted teeth.

  That evening Barbara returned home, her antennae feverishly twitching for anomalies. Something about the gleaming surfaces of the kitchen worktops excited her suspicions. ‘Are you covering up for some culinary carnage or something, Angus?’

After the day I’d had it seemed only right Donnie should take some of the blame so I told her he had put his dirty paws on them. Instead of her usual finger-wagging she turned to look searchingly at Donnie.

‘You know, I had a strange feeling driving back here.’

Oh no, I thought.

‘It felt like Dougal was in the car and he was telling me that I haven’t been fair on Donnie. I’ve been freezing him out, haven’t I? It might be time for him to sleep upstairs in his basket with us and put Dougal’s ashes downstairs. Or maybe we should just scatter them?’

I could barely believe it when she announced the next morning that I would be helping her scatter baking soda off the cliffs at the weekend. She’d already decided on the spot for the ceremony. It was blustery that Saturday and Donnie stayed in the car while Barbara and I ventured to the cliff edge. She took one handful of the baking soda and I took another. The wind flung it unceremoniously back in our faces, stinging our eyes and faces.

‘Gosh, it tastes funny, doesn’t it? Who would have thought Dougal was such a salty old dog!’ she said, her eyes tearing up.

I looked back at Donnie watching from the car. He looked like an old soul, like he’d been here before.

Who would have thought it, his eyes seemed to say.