This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Drug use
“I’ll go when the dog goes,” Rowan says.
Katie’s smile stiffens. What?
Feeble sunlight slants down through the tenement window onto Rowan’s hair as she sits on the carpet. She is like a cat: she’ll sit under any rays. The shadow of her curls dapples over stacked DVDs and the girls’ console games in the TV cabinet. Every now and then she’ll say something like this. Something so bizarre Katie wants to take it as a cruel joke.
It’s her own fault, Katie realises. The speed at which they’d gone from first meeting to moving-in day had to be a record. A strange person comes into her life from out of nowhere, and now she expects things to make sense? She brings the mug with the cats up to her face to hide her frown, but Rowan barely looks. Instead, she tousles the dog’s ears as he lies beside her.
Herby is an older gentleman, a black Labrador with white hairs on his chin. Adopted to bribe the kids to come round more often. His tail thumps the floor in an uncertain manner as he looks from one to the other. Animals are like that. They can sense things coming.
Before Rowan, in the depths of winter, taking him out before work while it is only technically daytime, she tells herself more than once that Herby is going back to the dog shelter. But those soulful eyes—liquid cinnamon under the streetlights, so easily betrayed—and she knows she can’t hate herself that much.
Her girls, Mhari, twelve, and Lauryn, fifteen, have a predictable downward spiral of interest in caring for him. On their visits they take photos of him dressed up in silly plastic hats, or play tug of war on his rope pull, but they aren’t as keen on early morning walks or dog poo bags.
In the end, Katie is grateful for the company of the stoic old boy with the stiff gait. The divorce hadn’t been acrimonious per se, but it had still knocked the legs out from under her. The wine-drunk pleading, fists clutching cushions over chests, him holding her dispassionately as her shoulders heaved, the word ‘why’ heated by tears until it boiled over. Met with a maddeningly neutral, ‘I’m sorry.’ Always the memory of that lurch, that free-fall. She wonders if you can be haunted by your own life as she turns a bag inside out over her hand and stoops while the dog looks on, apologetic.
One morning, Herby lies in long spring grass, chewing a stick with a calculating look at the cows in the farmer’s field. They’ve stopped by the skirt of woods at the foot of the braes to rest him, his hip dysplasia playing up.
“What's his name?” a voice asks, and Katie lets out an embarrassing yelp.
“My god, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there.” When her breathing returns to normal, “Herbert. Herby for short.” Had the woman been standing in the woods?
Merrell trail shoes, dark blue denim, soft heather-purple gilet, and a grey marl turtleneck. Silvering curls, green eyes, slender but tensile. The kind of woman who might do Pilates. A note-perfect rendition of a lady dog walker, but for the lack of a dog.
Then the woman squats, takes the dog’s head in her hands, and looks into his eyes. On standing, says, “I suppose he doesn’t mind.” But before Katie can ask what the punchline is, she adds, “Needs worming though.”
“Yeah? He told you that?” Katie folds her arms. And then realises she is still holding the dangling poo bag. She puts her hands back down, face burning.
The woman snorts, but she points to his lower abdomen. “Look at his belly. Swollen. Worms.”
“I can take care of my dog, thank you very much.”
“Of course you can,” she says with a peal of laughter, and it is as if the sun has come through parted clouds. She sticks out her hand. “I’m Rowan.”
Lying in bed there are two silences. One in Katie’s flat where the girls used to fight over what game to play on the console or what show had to be watched right now or someone would die, a missing sound that is a hole in her heart. The other is the kind where two people have talked so much they don’t have to say anything, just feel the shape of two bodies nested, a hand curled over another, legs knitted; breathe the scent of warm cotton and skin. Katie wonders how those two silences can co-exist, but they do.
Rowan becomes the default caretaker of the flat. Katie goes to work and listens to people complain about the shire council for eight hours a day, and the silly little annoying chores are already done by the time she gets home. The dishes clean, the recycling rinsed and away. The plants watered and Herby walked, his coat glossy.
Is it this that keeps her from asking too much about Rowan? About why someone her age has so few possessions? No family or job or home to speak of? They share a bed, but it’s more than that. Katie is not sure she can afford to lose her usefulness, and this truth chips guiltily away at the edge of her thoughts.
And every time she is about to get serious and not accept deflections, about her life, her past, Rowan offers her a cup of tea, or to go to the shops, and the questions seem ungrateful. She brings money into the relationship too. Groceries appear and she never asks for a handout. And Katie reasons that the rent is the same whether there’s one living here or two.
Former relationships could be classified as patterns repeated, shouting matches inherited from parents, the way it was meant to be. Rowan is so far outside these traditions, it feels wrong. She neither disparages nor complains. She never pushes back, so Katie feels unbalanced.
She tells Rowan everything about her parents, the divorce, the kids. A bottle of wine on the sofa on a weekend watching Strictly Come Dancing turns from a trashy nothing into Katie laying out her life on the walls and ceiling like she’s mapping constellations. Over there, age ten, the first time her mother told her she was getting fat. Up there, the time her father stormed out and no-one heard from him for three days until he staggered back in, fuming of alcohol, with chunks of vomit on his shirt. Just there, in that dark corner, where she held a newborn Lauryn in hospital and realised she was alone in her marriage. But it is a one-way flow. Rowan bundles up the strangled sobs and sways with her slowly, and there is a sound like leaves in the breeze, but it is just her whispering shh, shh.
But she never shares herself. It gets to the point where Katie wants to provoke the answers out of her. So, she provokes.
People say things like this to test each other’s love. How far they will go. Questions like, ‘Would you die for me?’ They know how the script should run. Not because they’ve ever thought what it is that they're asking.
Rowan’s past, where she is from, is a closed door. It is nothing more than a feeling, but it seems like prying to ask, ‘Are your parents still alive? What work do you do, have you ever done?’ It’s like asking if she’s ever committed murder. If someone won’t share it with you, there must be a good reason, mustn’t there?
Instead, one Saturday afternoon in March, she asks, “How long do you think you will stay?” It’s just to tease. She wants her to worry. She wants her to trip on it, so she can catch her. She wants her to say, ‘As long as you want me to.’
But she doesn’t. She says, “I’ll go when the dog goes.”
Patterns repeat, chase each other around like leaves decorating the rim of a bowl. Mhari and Lauryn shouting at her because she is a rubbish mum. Telling her mother who laughs in her face and says she just has to live with it. Husband who has a new wife already, shutting her out of her children’s lives. Them choosing his house because it is always so neat. So much bigger. Amy is so young, so full of energy. She even cleans their rooms for them.
And the girls hate Rowan. Whispers of words like ‘old’ and ‘weird’, eyes that say, ‘What does mum see in her?’ and the practical impossibility of telling anyone angrily trying to grow older by force of will that age is as meaningless as bodies are for telling who a person truly is. About the slippery shape of love and companionship that morphs with you as you change. That a childhood of trying to fit in, camouflaging yourself against a shared normality may well be reversed when you hit a magic turning point, but she can't tell them how long that will be.
Mhari is easier. She is still young enough to trust adults. Lauryn hardly comes round anymore. She always has an essay, or friends to see, and Katie wonders when her daughter learned how to make her lies so effortless.
The aftermath of that question with that answer is a cold bed, a turned shoulder. Not from Rowan. She seems confused at the anger. She and Herby had both looked at Katie’s tirade with the same eyes.
Katie’s parents are of the ‘mustn’t grumble’ generation. The one where talking about feelings is a sloppy indulgence from the telly that is weakening children and degrading the nation. Their way to deal with pain is to try to turn it outwards. Back on the one who gave it. Anger is better than sorrow.
But by morning her rage has evaporated and left her feeling stupid and bereft. Rowan brings her tea in the mug with the cats and doesn’t demand an apology. When Katie starts to make those noises, she holds her finger up, poised, an intake of breath. She shakes her head.
“No need, darling,” she says, a small, rueful smile on her lips. “No need.”
If Katie isn’t at work, they walk everywhere. A trip to the supermarket on the edge of town is an opportunity to find a sheep track up the braes, wind their way between saplings planted to stabilise the slopes, put a pebble on the little cairn up top. Rowan shows her a dripping moss waterfall she hadn’t known existed, despite living here all her life. She feels the soft humidity that the breeze blows from it and something lifts, something she hadn’t known she was carrying. This is my life now, she thinks. Katie’s walking boots grow comfortable. Herby loses weight and ambles along much better, snuffles in the grass, and rolls in sheep shit like a new dog.
In the skirt of woods at the foot of the braes, where they first met, Rowan pulls Katie into the lee of a broad-boled oak to hide from a downpour and they giggle, and, inevitably, end up kissing. She hasn’t felt so here, so now, since she was a teenager. The countryside soaks in and mixes with the smell of her—salt, loam, sap, skin. Katie feels like she can slide into the tree bark soft as butter, pulling Rowan with her. They could stay here, inside the heartwood, rising, ebbing with the seasons. If she wants.
She’s not sure if she wants that. Not yet.
“It just sometimes feels a bit … manipulative.” She doesn’t often talk to Sharon at work, but today something’s buzzing inside her, like all her doubts about Rowan have reached the requisite pressure to escape.
Sharon stirs her coffee, and she’s trying to be diplomatic, Katie can tell. “Everything I’ve heard, communication is the answer. But I mean, I don’t know. I’m no expert myself. Look, got to get back to it.” She leaves the kitchen. Katie checks the wall clock in the kitchenette. God, she’s been going on about it all break. No wonder Sharon fled. And now Katie feels stupid, exposed. What would everyone in the office say if Sharon blabbed? She thinks about updating her CV.
And she wonders why she doesn’t have any female friends outside of work and family.
Every day, more plants suddenly appear in the flat. It has become lush, jungle-like. A spider plant that had been limping along since she’d first got a cutting at university is now trailing smaller versions of itself down the bookshelves. Ficus, peace lily, Swiss cheese plant, yucca. Even the gift basket orchid Lauryn got her for her birthday blooms with perfect, velvety petals.
Rowan basks in the green glow, and Katie thinks she can ignore things a little while longer, because look how beautiful she is. How full. Maybe Katie can’t be happy but at least someone can.
Mhari comes after school to take the dog out. Katie doesn’t find this out until she gets home from work at half past five, sweating and cranky.
“I was surprised, but of course, you want to encourage this type of thing,” Rowan says, drying soap suds off her hands with the tea towel. “Nice summer’s day.”
Humid and horrible for people who have to work, Katie thinks, then chides herself. Not Rowan’s fault.
“How long have they been out?” she asks. What on earth had made Mhari come get the dog? She hardly ever …
“About an hour?” Rowan says. “Hour and a half?”
The little crack. There, in her trust. “You didn’t ask her to come round, did you?” Rowan’s eyebrows raise, her head tilts back. “Sorry, I don’t know why I said that.” Katie slices a finger through the air. “Scratch that one from the record, M’lud.” She hopes the joke can make up for the darkness, but then there is a booming rumble across the braes. “Was that thunder?”
Katie rushes to the window to look out above the roof of the tenements opposite. Huge clouds thrust up into the empty sky, a summer storm piling in off the Atlantic. She gets her phone and leaves Mhari voice mails. The minutes drag by, each one scratching her chest. “You ring me the second you get this, or I swear to god …” Why does she pour her anger into the messages when it is really worry? It starts to rain heavy, hurled, streaking drops. Katie runs to get her waterproof from the box at the top of the closet.
The key in the door and her youngest daughter tumbling in, wet strands across her face. Katie with her arms already reaching for her but pushed away. “Mum, there was lightning, I’m sorry!”
“What is it? What’s wrong? Where are you hurt?”
The look of desolation on her face. “Herby ran off.”
They pile into Katie’s neglected Clio which takes a few spluttering tries to start.
“Dogs can bolt like that,” Rowan says loudly, and Katie knows she means it well, but that isn’t how you speak to kids.
“It’s not your fault," she says to Mhari, who is cringing in the back, her teeth showing, face scrunched up in distress. Katie faces front again and starts the wipers, trying to discard the feeling she just saw her younger self.
They drive up the little roads that wind up the braes to the farmlands on top. ”Go up there,” Rowan says, tugging at her sleeve. A little lane. She might have missed it through the curtains of rain.
Potholes and puddles. It is single-track, with an overgrown hedge on either side. If someone comes the opposite way, she has no idea how they will pass each other. Or how she could reverse in these conditions without crashing. Twigs and leaves reach out to scratch at the paintwork and slap the side mirrors.
“There!” Rowan has already opened the door by the time Katie reacts. She saw the shape on the side of the road but assumed it was a discarded rug.
Rowan bundles Herby into the back seat with a crying Mhari and says hoarsely, “Hit by a car. Vets, now.” She cradles Herby’s head on her knee as Katie does a million-point turn and by some miracle doesn’t get bogged in a ditch. Rowan rocks and wheezes over Herby. Mhari cries loudly. Katie drives as fast as she can with that performance in the rear-view mirror catching her peripheral vision. It is all she can do to keep on the road.
In the reception area, Mhari clinging tighter to her than she has in years while they wait for Herby’s assessment. Rowan, rain still dripping from her curls onto the back of her neck, dark red around the sills of her fingernails, staring into space.
Katie has to phone the girls’ dad to explain what had happened, where Mhari is. She can’t say much but kisses the top of her youngest’s head in apology for pouring salt in the wound.
The vet in scrubs. “It does look like he’s been hit by a car or similar. We’ve sedated him. We just have to see if there’s swelling on the brain.” She looks kindly at Mhari. “That means he’s sleeping. You should all go home. We’ll let you know as soon as there are any updates.”
They stay seated after the vet leaves, still not speaking, just bathing in the horrible aftermath. Then Katie realises Mhari might want to stay with her overnight for a change, and the self-loathing for being glad about this spurs her to get up, get everyone moving.
Over the next three days, Rowan looks stressed and shrunken, almost translucent with worry. They wait in a house that seems to have no air left in it, just sad little reminders in the form of dog toys and beds, indentations in the sofa lined with shed hair.
Mhari stays over in her room for the first time in such a long time that Katie frets over how baby everything looks in there. They grow up and change so fast, but Mhari seems content enough with her pink princess bedding. But not with everything.
While Rowan watches the news, an absent shell, Mhari pulls her into her room and whispers, “But did you see her, Mum?” And Katie knows what the matter is but can’t admit it. She shakes her head.
“When we went to get Herby. It was weird, Mum.” How she knew where to go. How upset she was over a dog, one she didn’t even own. How upset she is now. Mhari pleads with her eyes and Katie knows this is a fork in the road for them, for her daughter’s trust in adults. But she does it anyway.
“I don’t know what you mean.” She shuts the bedroom door as she leaves.
Herby is finally allowed home and Katie lugs his fat arse up the close stairs. He has a plate on his skull and a bald patch with stitches, and he is very tired for many days, but he wags his tail at them and soon shuffles around the flat with the dignity of a veteran of a canine war.
Mhari goes back to her dad’s to stay but visits in the afternoons with Lauryn to fuss over Herby. They treat Rowan with cordial distance, and she is quiet too, but at least there is a détente.
Sharon at work sheepishly notes that she looks a little tired, asks if everything is okay at home. Katie gives her a brittle smile and says, “Fine, thanks.”
The vet bill is another small heart attack, lying in wait on the kitchen table with the rest of the post. Rowan surprises her by placing a pile of wrinkled, small denomination notes on the table before going back to cooking dinner.
Katie sits back in her chair and blinks. “Where did you get this?” She’s going for politely curious, but it sounds like an accusation.
Rowan stops stirring whatever’s in the wok on the cooker. She leans against the sink, arms folded, while the food simmers. For once, she’s defiant. “Never you mind.”
“But I’ve never seen you with money.”
Rowan lifts a packet of prawn crackers from the countertop and shakes it. “So, what, do you think I’ve been shoplifting?”
“No, just that, you never talk about money, I don’t see you getting money out of the bank, so—”
Rowan is banging the cupboard doors now, muttering, “Shopping fairy must have been,” as she wrenches open the fridge door and brings out a bag of vegetables.
“Stir fry all right for you?" she says loudly, and then presses her lips so hard together they nearly disappear.
Katie smoulders for a minute, then, “Yeah, fine.”
As Rowan’s rinsing the baby corn and carrots, Katie says, “Money doesn’t just appear out of thin air.”
Rowan snorts, back still turned. “Yeah, it kind of does. Just ask the government.”
“What’s that got to do with—” This is spinning out of control.
Rowan adds sauce and turns the heat up. She says to the tiles behind the cooker, “Just take the money. I haven’t stolen it. I don’t steal.”
Katie dissolves a little. “But then where … have you been begging?” Rowan spins and her expression is like she’s been slapped. “Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but we could ask my parents for money or …”
Rowan turns back and tends the wok again. “It’s not me who needs the extra funds,” she says.
Katie wonders if she’s shacked up with a drug dealer.
“Thanks,” she says quietly.
As Herby recovers, the girls come over more often to take him out, and even Lauryn makes an effort to be civil. Her eldest is still taciturn and distant, but surprises everyone by mentioning Glasgow Pride, how they should go next year. Rowan says it is a nice idea but is noncommittal.
Katie is glad that for all the horrors of being a child these days—what with dick pics and cyberbullying—‘your mum is a lesbian’ is less of a problem than it was.
She offers to take Rowan on a girly day out. Not quite an apology or a thank you for the whole Herby situation. “Well, yes, hair’s getting a bit straggly I suppose,” Rowan says as she pats at her unruly mop. They book a visit to a local salon, and Katie could never have imagined doing something like this so close to home only a year ago. Her girlfriend. In this town. Together.
They wear matching tartan scarves and take paper cups of coffee through the park to wade through the autumn leaves on the way to the appointment, and Katie is determined that the money incident never happened, as if willing it could make it so. But as the beauty technician buffs their fingernails, Katie suddenly notices how squiggly and dendritic the veins on the back of her lover’s hands are. She has a vision of an undertaker painting coral pink on the nails of a corpse.
After a couple of days, the charming boy-cut that Rowan got at the salon makes her look so much like Katie’s mother she can’t unsee it, and their sex life falls into dormancy.
Then one morning Herby doesn’t come to get his food when she pours it in the bowl. She calls him, then goes to look for him. He’s still lying on his bed, tail thumping the carpet weakly. He whines and tries to raise his head.
“It’s okay, boy,” Katie says and falls to her knees beside him. “Stay down. Stay down.”
She takes the day off work. She’ll have to deal with this. Somehow. The vet had told her he didn’t have long but she’d kept it to herself. The girls had been so happy. And Rowan …
Rowan emerges from the bedroom, face still smooshed with sleep in the oversized, moth-eaten T-shirt she uses as pyjamas. Katie waits for her to come over, ask why she isn’t getting ready for work. But she just goes into the bathroom then back to the bedroom. She closes the door behind her.
“Fuck,” Katie says to herself and punches a cushion. But quietly, because she doesn’t want to alarm Herby.
Rowan does emerge, not so long after. By then, Katie has debated sending the girls texts and telling them to come over after school to say goodbye and checked how her bank balances might fare against another vet’s bill, but Herby’s pain is becoming more evident with each passing moment.
“I’ll take him,” Rowan says. Katie turns her head. Rowan is dressed how she was when they first met. As if it is already decided.
Katie makes some noises about taking him to the vet, perhaps there is something they can do. She feels something tightening in the back of her throat. But Rowan just says, “I said I would. I’ll take him.”
Katie feels the edges of the world pulling in around her.
Rowan puts her set of house keys, on their ring, in the centre of the table. She squats and scoops up Herby. “Could you get the door?” she says, voice only a little strained though Herby isn’t a small dog.
Katie rises, somehow, and opens the door. Rowan takes one last look at her on the landing. “Yeah, ta,” Katie says faintly, and as Rowan’s footsteps recede down the concrete steps, and the close door bangs, she shuts her flat door and slides down the wall to curl up, her cheeks on her knees.
The girls are slow to get over the shock of their dog disappearing without a chance to say goodbye. She says she would have texted them, but they were in school, she didn’t want them upset all day when there was nothing anyone could do. She explains how much pain he was in, but they don’t want to believe it. So, they turn their hurt and confusion outwards, onto her. And Katie understands. She knows how it feels to have your legs kicked out from under you.
She tells them, not that they truly care, that Rowan left because the relationship wasn’t working out, and part of her assumes that as the truth, tries to forget that she did exactly what she said she would. She calls around the shelters and hospitals sometimes, but privacy laws dictate that all she can do is leave a message, and there are never any answers.
Katie doesn’t hear from Rowan again. No vet’s bill ever arrives, either. She deletes her browser history because she is embarrassed. All the sites that have any information about fair folk and dryads are limited or childish. And she feels stupid for even thinking that way.
She doesn’t walk as much. Without a dog to drag her outside, she spends a miserable, stifling winter staying in. But as spring returns, she laces up the walking boots and heads to the skirt of trees at the foot of the braes, dreading it, but unable to stop herself. She leans against the broad-boled oak and looks up through the bright green budding leaves.
She tries to open herself to the world again. To not let her sorrows drown her, but let them flow out, rise like humidity, dissipate into the dance and sway of the wind in the branches.
She hears a happy bark, off in the distance and could swear it was Herby, but it could be any dog about his size. The thought comes of him running around the fields beside Rowan, then the two of them disappearing into the woods, boughs bending down to embrace them.
She rests against the tree and feels tears on her cheek as she looks up through the branches; the sky, broken up into little windows. She could fall back into the bark like it was made of butter. But not yet. Not yet. She closes her eyes and hears Rowan whisper, shh, shh, but it’s just the breeze in the leaves.