She was not born on Remembrance Day, although I remember the day quite clearly. It was the day that Bill died.
His six closest friends and family traipsed into his cottage in a mournful procession, but by that stage he could hardly speak. It had seemed strange to me that we weren’t greeted by his black Labrador, Tia. But then dogs have their own way of grieving. The two of them had been inseparable as she followed him like his sleek, silent shadow.
I leant over Bill’s rasping body, wrapped in a crocheted bedspread. Shakily he gestured to his bedside table and I picked up a crumbling cardboard box. Gingerly I lifted the lid to reveal three war medals. He made some guttural sounds, mouthed repeatedly. I strained my ear towards him, but I could not decipher what it was that he was trying to say.
I moved back and gave an anxious look to Simon, his son, but he just gave a bewildered shrug.
It was his granddaughter who first heard them. A strange, high pitched yelping.
As Bill drew his last breath the sound became louder, more insistent.
We all stood still with our heads bowed in respect, too overwhelmed to register anything outside that moment.
Outside a field of poppies stirred in the gentle June breeze. I imagined Bill’s soul slipping through the corn field, brushing against the crimson petals and then taking flight.
I felt a small, insistent tug on my arm and I looked into the large olive eyes of Bill’s great granddaughter, Maria. “Come to the kitchen,” she whispered.
We heard the little whimpers before even the door was open. There on the hearth lay Tia, surrounded by six sausage like puppies wriggling and writhing.
So it was that we each received a puppy for remembrance, with Bill’s son also keeping Tia. I decided to call my lively little black puppy, with her twitching inquisitive nose, Poppy.
Now a year on, I decide to walk through Bill’s field once again. I park my car in a nearby lay by, then we cautiously crossed the busy road. Bill used to complain at the road kill, when reckless drivers regularly ran over birds, rabbits, even a deer.
Poppy is tumbling ahead of me, twirling through the corn. I call her back and she hurtles towards me, her tail thumping.
My fingers sink into her soft fur and I gently rub her chin. She nuzzles closer, her toffee eyes beseeching me for more.
Then off she bounds again; leaping like a deer over strands of corn, sniffing unusual smells and jumping backwards at the whirring of a pheasant’s wings.
I think of Bill’s rheumy grey eyes and soft smile. I used to listen for hours to his tales of endurance in battle, wrapped up as stories. Yet each time he heard an explosion: a car exhaust, a champagne cork or even the popping of some logs on his fire, and he would flinch, turning into himself. His eyes would stare intently forward, his body rigid. Tia would lean her wise head on his lap and wait patiently. I would creep away, afraid to disturb his silent reverie.
Now he has given me a puppy to look after and who also cared for me. It was Poppy who helped me through when I dealt with the wrenching cramp like pain of divorce. As I felt the door slam on my past, she would nuzzle her damp nose on to my lap and lift her soft padded paws over me. I found comfort in leaning my head against her gentle warm fur, knowing that she would never desert me.
Then there was the night of the burglary. Poppy had alerted me with her feverish barking, but they had still managed to steal all of Bill’s medals.
I stood shivering in my nightie as the wind blew through the broken window. I clasped the empty battered box, turning it over in my hands. Poppy barked an angry tirade at the retreating figures and I felt Bill’s loss once more.
Bill always used to say, “A dog’s loyalty will never falter.” I feel the watery June sun warming my arms. Poppy bounds around me in circles, keen to play. I try to hug her, but she wriggles free, keen to keep moving. She flits after a rabbit, then comes lolloping back, with her tongue hanging out.
We clamber up a hill, relishing the warmth and our freedom to roam. Poppy sniffs the air and I drink in the moment, me with my dog.
I run down the hill with my hair flying out behind me. Poppy jumps against my legs, barking excitedly and with her tail whirring.
We are breathless with happiness as we wind our way back through the edge of the poppy field. And then it happens. Without warning. They are hunting pheasants. The gunshot echoes around the valley. Poppy’s eyes widen in horror.
Then she bolts. Futilely I call out. But she can only hear the throbbing fear in her head.
Blindly, recklessly she races through the field. Without a backward glance she slides between the hedgerow, hurtling straight towards the main road.
I scream her name. I bolt after her, stumbling clumsily in her wake.
The traffic noise booms louder, screeching nightmarishly and reverberating around the valley.
“Poppy!” I scream. Yet I know it is too late. “Poppy!”
I stand at the gate and stare.
In the middle of the bend I see another road kill. Another death that would not be noted. A strangled scream is stuck in my throat.
I creep towards the hunched over, matted fur. A scarlet rosette of blood encircles the body.
Another rabbit. So where is Poppy? I look across the road.
There she sits by my car. She looks up with liquid brown eyes that know she has done wrong.
I kneel down and wrap her in my arms. A dog’s loyalty will never falter.
About the Author
Linda Flynn has had two humorous novels published: Hate at First Bite for 7 – 9 year olds and My Dad’s a Drag, for teenagers. Both won Best First Chapter in The Writers’ Billboard competition.
She has six educational books with the Heinemann Fiction Project. In addition she has written for a number of newspapers and magazines, including theatre reviews and several articles on dogs.
Her short stories with Bridge House include: two adult stories, To Take Flight, in the Going Places anthology and I knew it in the Bath in Something Hidden, as well as The Wild Ones, for teenagers in Devils, Demons and Werewolves. Two children’s short stories: The Secret Messenger and Timid Tim were included in Hippo-Dee-Doo-Dah.