It is half past six on a snowy Christmas Eve, and the doorbell rings.
‘Woof!’ barks Suki excitedly. ‘Woof, woof, woof! Woof, woof, woof!’
The chorus of ‘Suki, shut up!’ from various quarters of the large detached house makes no difference. Barking, the dog races so fast down two flights of wide stairs to the big front door that she skids on the tiles in the hall and bangs into the door, nose first. This has been a thrilling day for her. The smells of cooking – all day! The titbits of dropped food on the kitchen floor, including a whole rind of bacon! The exciting arrivals of rarely seen family members, who all seemed pleased to see her! Above all, the regular cry of ‘Suki, shut up!’ from every quarter (she loves to get a reaction when she barks).
When the door is opened, a young woman is revealed on the top step, carrying a suitcase and a bag of gifts. She smells very nice, as if she’s been rolling in roast chicken. Suki goes to this stranger without hesitation, and sits looking up at her with appealing brown eyes.
‘Hello?’ says the big woman who seems to run this place (she also does all the dog-feeding, so is quite an important figure in Suki’s world).
The stranger, smiling, reaches out a hand. ‘I’m Alex,’ she says, pleasantly. And then her face drops. ‘Oh no. You were expecting me for Christmas? Didn’t Tom tell you?’
‘Well… er. Oh dear,’ says the big woman. She seems confused. She wipes her hands on an apron, and then runs fingers through her hair. ‘I mean, sorry, but no. He didn’t.’ (It occurs to Suki, as she observes this scene, that perhaps she should know this big woman’s name by now. Sandra? Shirley? Nathalie?)
Back at the awkward doorstep scene, the unexpected Alex is not abashed. She pulls a face. ‘Do you know,’ she says, ‘I suspected as much when no one collected me from the station. It’s quite a long walk when you’re carrying a bag of presents.’ She looks down at the dog. ‘And I’ve been so looking forward to meeting you both, and the children, but especially Suki! Can she have her present?’
And before the still-bewildered big woman can reply, Alex has torn open a parcel and is holding a large bone-shaped rawhide treat. It would be nice to say that Suki takes it politely, but in fact – being a dog – she snatches it and bolts up the stairs, where she spends the next 20 minutes under a bed, chewing the treat to ribbons in a state of bliss.
By the time she gallops back down and pokes her head into the living room, the unexpected Alex is sitting on a sofa having a glass of something fizzy and conversing with the other guests. All are boringly swapping names. (‘Hi, I’m Peter.’ ‘I’m Alex.’‘I’m James.’) Suki whines. Why do humans set such store by knowing names? More to the point, why are they wasting valuable eating time, when there are snacks in little bowls scattered tantalisingly around the room?
Hopeful of another bacon rind, she trots to the kitchen. Pushing open the door with her forehead, she finds the big-woman-who-seems-to-run-this-place talking in urgent whispers with the big-man-who-is-here-mostly-just-in-the-evenings. She listens, but without interest, because dogs don’t care much about human words other than ‘treat’, ‘dinner time’, and ‘walky-walks’.
‘Did she actually say she’s a friend of your brother?’ asks the big man, hurriedly getting ice from the freezer. ‘She could be anybody!’
‘She knew Suki by name,’ the big woman points out. ‘And you know what Tom’s like. Always giving our address to people on his travels. Imagine it from her point of view, coming for Christmas and finding out he hasn’t told us. Apparently all her family are dead. Tom’s very kind.’
‘He’s spoiled, more like. This is my house, don’t forget!’
‘I mean, our house. You know what I meant. I meant, it’s not Tom’s!’
‘That’s no reason to call it yours!’
Suki sniffs the air. Not much food activity here. She turns, hooks the kitchen door with a paw and pulls it open, then trots to her fleecy dog bed next to the radiator in the downstairs loo. Inexplicably, she is suddenly very tired. The Christmas Eve party hubbub in the living-room provides the perfect backdrop to a profound doggy snooze, especially when someone opens the piano and the assembled company starts to sing a Christmas carol.
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about…
Suki is asleep instantly, dreaming of rabbits, even before the famous poor man comes in sight, gathering winter fu-U-el.
An unspecified amount of time later (dogs not being able to read clocks), Suki wakes to find the hallway dark, the house silent and the unexpected Alex – curiously – tiptoeing down the stairs, with her coat on, carrying her suitcase. It looks heavier than it did when she arrived.
‘Here, Suki,’ she whispers, and opens the kitchen door. Suki follows, her tail thrashing. The woman opens the fridge and brings out a large enamel dish of meaty titbits – sausages wrapped in bacon – ready for cooking. She crouches down and sets the dish on the floor. ‘Happy Christmas,’ she says fondly to the dog. ‘And thank you in advance for my lovely Christmas, too.’
Greedily trying to choke back two pigs-in-blankets at once, Suki ignores her.
‘You don’t remember me from the other day, do you?’
The woman evidently wants to tell a funny story about how she spotted Suki’s name on her collar-tag a couple of weeks ago outside Waitrose, and dreamed up a devious scheme – a scheme that involved daringly robbing an occupied house on Christmas Eve.
There is also something about having overheard an argument in a shop about whether someone called Tom – travelling abroad – would ever get in touch about Christmas. But compared with such vast quantities of raw meat, this stuff is not riveting. ‘People really shouldn’t have their pets’ names printed on their ID tags,’ the woman continues, sweetly. ‘Their vets advise them against it, but they just don’t listen.’
Then she softly shuts Suki in the kitchen and opens the front door to a male accomplice wearing a dark balaclava, a figure-hugging black outfit, and quiet, crepe-soled shoes.
It’s a little while before Suki is satisfied that she has finished all the food, and licked every trace of it off the dish. She raises her head. She feels, uncomfortably, the need to expel some waste quite urgently. So she scratches at the back door and then, having failed to make it open, she decides to summon assistance. ‘Woof!’ she barks. ‘Woof, woof, woof! Woof, woof, woof!’
This is later described as Suki ‘raising the alarm’, but the reality is that it’s more in the nature of a toilet emergency. Still, she does manage to wake everyone up. This (it turns out) is both a good thing and a bad thing.
‘Oh no, my bracelet’s gone!’ yelps the big woman on waking (and quickly grasping the nature of the situation).
‘Mummy, my Xbox!’ wails one of the three smaller people of the household, who are – to Suki’s mind – taking a preposterously long time to grow any bigger.
‘My Rolex!’ groans the big man. ‘Call the police at once, Julia!’
‘Call them yourself,’ retorts the big woman, crossly, running down the stairs. ‘It’s your house, remember!’
‘Julia, this is hardly the time…’
‘Oh shut up, shut up, Charles!’
‘All our presents have gone!’ gasps one of the smaller people, in the living room, bursting loudly into tears.
Suki takes no notice of all this minor, secondary drama, of course. She is too busy barking to be let out of the kitchen.
‘Why didn’t she bark while all this was happening?’ the dazed family members ask each other, bewildered. ‘That dog always barks.’
But by now she has been let out into the snow-covered garden, where she squats in relief on the lawn. Ah, Christmas! The most wonderful time of the year.
Inside the house there is early-Christmas-morning wailing and shouting, which is very exciting; she can’t wait to go back inside and join in. She does remember the unexpected Alex outside Waitrose taking a look at her name tag the other day, because she smelled of roast chicken then, too. Thinking about it, the woman probably works on a rotisserie counter! (Which is where she probably overheard all that stuff about Tom…)
‘We knew nothing about her, Julia!’ wails the big man. ‘And you let her in!’
‘So this is all my fault?’
‘Yes. It is!’
‘Then that’s it, Charles. I’ve been meaning to say it for weeks. I want a divorce!’
Her comfort break over, Suki happily trots back inside the house. Happy Christmas, everyone! With the entire household up and about, it can mean only one thing. She stands next to her food bowl and pats it, pointedly, with a paw. ‘Time for breakfast?’ she thinks, hopefully.
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