Lost and Found

 

‘Mummy, why is the gate open?’

I immediately abandoned the shopping bags and spun around, grinning, to look at the six-year-old boy. It was the first time that my foster child had called me ‘Mummy’ and it filled me with sudden hope. Sam was standing next to the side gate, his brown eyes earnest in his small, upturned face.

‘The wind must have blown it open,’ I said, swinging the gate closed and returning the bolt. ‘Come on, let’s bring in the shopping together.’

But straight away he turned his back on me, heading towards the house. Disappointed, I collected the groceries out of the car on my own. Once inside, Sam vanished into his bedroom, firmly shutting the door behind him – as usual. I sighed with frustration, and then felt immediately guilty. For the training that we’d received as foster parents had made it perfectly clear that foster children take a long time to form an attachment with their new family and Sam had only been with us for a few short months. Besides, our home was his third since his mother had relinquished him a year earlier, and our caseworker had warned us that progress with Sam was therefore likely to be particularly sporadic and slow. Nevertheless, I still often found myself wondering if Sam was ever going to bond with me.

I wandered outside to give my dog Panadol his weekly bone. I called, waiting for the cocker spaniel to appear from his kennel. Oddly, there was no response. I searched the entire garden but couldn’t find him. Then, with a sickening jolt, I remembered the open gate. I raced into the street, frantically scanning the road and footpath, then hammered on neighbours’ doors. However nobody had seen him; it seemed as if my dog had vanished without a trace. I went back inside, to work out what to do next.

Panadol had been my best friend for the past twelve years. In fact, he’d been part of my life for even longer than my husband Matthew. On the day that my parents had given him to me, I’d had a raging headache and taken the puppy back to bed with me. Half an hour later, I’d been woken up by his very loud snoring, to discover that my headache had completely disappeared. Straight away I decided on his name, and from that day onwards, Panadol always managed to make me feel a whole lot better, no matter what the ailment.

Indeed, I’d grown to rely on him. When my mother had died from cancer, I’d found my dog’s constant presence by my side extremely comforting. A couple of years later, I had sobbed my distress into his fur once more, after being told that I could never have children, and of course he’d been with me for those difficult months when I agonised about whether to foster a child or not. I needed Panadol with me, and the thought of life without him filled me with terror.

I immediately grabbed my car keys and handbag.

‘Sam!’ I shouted, through his closed door. ‘Panadol’s gone missing.’

‘Good. That dog smells.’

‘Hurry up. We have to go and find him.’

‘I’m not coming.’

‘But I can’t leave you here alone.’

‘Mum did. It’s okay.’

‘I won’t be long,’ I promised, and raced out.

I was in the driveway, when I came to a rapid halt. What the hell did I think I was doing? Sam’s mother was a hopeless drug addict who used to go out to score – just because she left a little boy on his own, did not give me permission to do likewise.

‘Hey, Sam,’ I called. ‘I’m still here.’

He didn’t reply. I picked up my laptop and posted a photo of Panadol on Facebook and on a couple of local websites, and then waited. Although my friends responded with kind messages, there was no news. I was almost hysterical by the time my husband arrived home from work.

‘Don’t worry,’ Matthew said, ‘I’m certain that he’ll turn up soon.’

We were seated around the table, eating dinner.

‘But surely he should have come home by now,’ I wailed.

‘That dog has gone for good,’ Sam stated suddenly.

‘Why on earth do you say that?’

‘Because he hates this place. He hates you.’

It was more than I could bear. I burst into tears and rushed out of the room, leaving Matthew to take care of the boy for the rest of the evening.

 

Panadol didn’t come home that night, or the next, or the one after that. Each day, when Sam was at school, I continued my desperate search. I interrogated all the neighbours within six blocks; I put up notices in local shop windows, on light poles and at the vet’s; and I rang the pound. I continued to post on Facebook and the websites. The side gate was left permanently propped open, in the hope that he might return of his own accord. Every night I put his dinner out for him, and whistled, but there was never the sound of running feet and in the morning the food in his bowl was untouched. Sometimes I’d find myself expecting to see him in his usual spots, until I remembered. At other times, it was difficult not to despair.

The ranger from the council suggested that I check the nearby animal shelter, and so one morning I made my way to the Stray Dogs Refuge.

‘I’m here to find my dog,’ I explained to the woman in the office. ‘He’s a cocker spaniel, about this big.’ I showed his height with my hand. ‘White and tan. Is he here?’

‘Was he microchipped?’ she asked briskly.

‘No.’

‘Then you’ll have to go out the back and look for yourself.’

Although I’d heard barking while I was in the office, I wasn’t at all prepared for the dreadful din that bombarded me the instant I opened the door that led to the enclosures. Every dog in the place seemed to be barking, or yapping, or howling, or yelping. It was deafening. I listened carefully for a minute, but couldn’t distinguish Panadol’s bark from the general racket.

I found myself standing inside a long corridor that was totally enclosed in wire mesh. On either side of the path, there were yards. I looked into the first pen to see seven big dogs wandering aimlessly around on the concrete floor, growling intermittently at each other. When they saw me, they rushed in a frenzied pack to the gate. Some were pedigreed dogs, while others were crossbreeds. The smell of urine, faeces and disinfectant almost made me vomit, but I managed to walk on. No matter what, I had to find Panadol.

I looked into pen after pen. It seemed to take hours. There were yards for large male dogs and others for large female dogs. Then there were the enclosures for the smaller dogs, also divided up according to sex. The puppies had special cages, as did the sick and injured dogs.

Finally, there were no pens left to examine and I returned to the office.

‘He’s not here,’ I said miserably.

‘Try again in about a week’s time.’

I nodded. ‘By the way, you know the labrador in the second yard on the right—’

‘Number?’

‘Pardon?’

‘What’s the number on the dog’s tag?’

‘I think it’s 160.’

‘Yes?’

‘Why is Friday written on the gate to his pen?’

‘That’s the day that all the dogs in that pen get assessed.’

‘Sort of like an expiry date?’

‘Call it what you like,’ the woman said and shrugged her shoulders.

‘So what happens to the dogs after that?’

‘Some are claimed by their owners before the time is up.’

‘And what about the others?’

‘A number of them are moved into the adoption pens, to be put up for sale.’

‘But you have over a hundred dogs here and yet there are only ten dogs in the adoption pens. Where do all the rest go?’ I asked.

The woman began to eat a sandwich.

‘They surely don’t get put down,’ I stammered.

‘We have new dogs brought in continually.’

‘You mean to say that all those dogs are killed?’

‘What else can we do?’

‘There are some beautiful ones out there – can’t you even try to find them homes?’

At this, the woman became angry. ‘Listen, we do what we can! We deal with 20,000 dogs in this place every single year!’

‘But this is terrible,’ I cried, appalled. ‘Those poor dogs.’

‘If you are such a dog-lover, why have you been so careless with your own?’

‘It wasn’t me who . . .’ I began and then stopped.

‘It’s always someone else’s fault,’ she snapped. ‘And then it’s up to people like us to mop up the mess. Now, if you don’t mind, I have a job to do.’

Simultaneously reprimanded and dismissed, I slunk out the door to return to my car. I rested my forehead against the steering wheel. I knew that the woman was right – it was my fault that Panadol had gone missing. I had relegated him to the backyard when Sam arrived, on advice from the caseworker. Against my better judgement, I had steeled my heart against Panadol’s attempts to rejoin us inside. It had been a huge mistake.

Later on, I went back to the Stray Dogs Refuge to check if Panadol had at last made his way there. He hadn’t. This time I also looked for the slobbering labrador and the little white dog that shook like a leaf. I searched for the kelpie cross, with the sad smile on her old grey face and for the dachshund who had lost his bark. They were all gone. In fact, I hardly saw a dog I recognised. Over a hundred dogs – gone. A new lot of dogs, a different hundred dogs, looked into my eyes and begged me to claim them. I walked through the mesh corridor, with tears running down my cheeks. This time I didn’t bother speaking to the woman in the office – there wasn’t any point. I already knew that all of those dogs were most likely dead. Moreover, I had realised that Panadol, my own beautiful dog, was lost to me forever.

 

After this, it seemed to take an enormous amount of effort simply to get through each day. In a daze, I drove Sam to school and picked him up afterwards. I continued to make no headway with him, as he stayed locked away in his room for most of the time. On the occasions when I discovered that he had wet the bed again, I washed the sheets without fuss and carried on with all of my domestic responsibilities, as if on automatic pilot. I managed to keep the books up-to-date for my husband’s business. Nothing seemed to have changed. But every night, Matthew would anxiously study my face when we got into bed and ask how he could help. I’d just shrug my shoulders, before switching off the light; I was aware that I was drowning but I had no answer to give him.

Then suddenly, when I was in the shower one morning, I realised what I needed to do. I went back to the Stray Dogs Refuge. I looked in three pens, and then in the fourth I saw her – a black labrador cross. She was standing quietly, with her nose pressed through the mesh. When the other dogs realised that I was there, they rushed towards me, pushing her out of the way as they barked and jumped at the gate. She lay down on the concrete floor and rested her head on her paws. She kept her sad, pleading eyes fixed on me, as if she knew that she was at the end of the road. ‘Hey beautiful doggie,’ I whispered. She wagged her tail gently at the sound of my voice.

Eventually, after all the arrangements had been made, I was allowed to clip Panadol’s old lead to her collar and remove her from the pack. She sped down the corridor with me in tow, past the other pens, past all the dogs headed to the death chamber. I couldn’t look at them. They were barking frantically, desperately, and I wanted to block my ears against the noise. I had rescued one dog. It wasn’t much, but it was all I could manage.

 

To my surprise, Sam looked horrified when he saw our new dog.

‘It’s not a puppy,’ he said.

‘She’s still young. She’s only a year old.’

‘Why is it inside the house?’

‘Because she lives here,’ I said firmly. ‘This is her place too.’

I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. Sam scowled at her, and then at me, before retreating to his room.

Matthew wasn’t pleased either.

‘Meet our new dog, Lucky,’ I announced cheerfully. ‘I rescued her.’

‘Maybe not so lucky for us,’ my husband said sourly as she repeatedly leapt up on him, leaving dirty marks on his clothes.

Frankly, I couldn’t believe how destructive one dog could be. Panadol had never been like that. Lucky chewed up shoes, books, anything and everything that caught her fancy. I had no idea what was wrong with her. The kinder I was to her, the worse she became. One day I watched her pull the sheets off the line, the ones that I had just washed after Sam’s accident the previous night, and realised that I needed help. I brought Lucky inside and rang Dr Tom, a vet who provides advice over the radio.

‘Don’t you realise that she’s bored!’ he shouted. ‘You need to get another dog!’

‘But I don’t want another dog. I’m having enough trouble with this one.’

Well, that was a mistake. He shouted even more loudly.

‘It’s not about what you want, madam! It’s about what your poor dog needs! You must walk her three times a day!’

‘I don’t think that I can manage that.’

‘You got the dog! It’s your responsibility to look after her properly!’ he barked into the phone, then hung up.

I looked around to discover that Lucky had totally shredded the flyscreen door in an effort to get outside. I decided to take her for a walk. Maybe Dr Tom was right, perhaps more exercise would do the trick.

However, by the first corner, my arm had begun to really hurt. Lucky pulled all the time and I could barely manage to stop her from rushing up to every cat, piece of rubbish, tree, person or other dog she saw. I gave up, turned around and headed back to the yard. From the kitchen window, I watched her excavating one of my precious garden beds, and realised that I should never have bought her. No wonder she’d been in the dog shelter – she was way out of control.

 

A few afternoons later, I noticed the door to Sam’s bedroom was wide open. I peeped in, but there was no sign of him and neither was he anywhere in the house. Finally I discovered him outside, way down the end of the side path. The little boy was standing on the bottom railing of the gate, hanging on with one hand, while he tried to shift the heavy bolt with the other. Lucky was tied to the fence and her excited squirming at my approach alerted Sam. He spun around and the instant he saw me, his face flushed scarlet and he jumped off the gate.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ I demanded as I untied Lucky.

‘He’s no good, that dog,’ Sam shouted back.

‘I’ve told you a million times that Lucky is a girl. Anyway, that’s beside the point. I want to know why you are trying to open the gate.’

Sam faced me, his hands on his hips.

‘The dog wants to go home. He doesn’t want to stay here anymore.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘You aren’t his mother,’ he screamed.

‘Of course I’m not Lucky’s mother, I’m her owner.’

‘I hate you!’

‘I don’t care. I’m ordering you to never go near that gate again,’ I roared. ‘I’ve lost one dog already and I will not lose another!’

Suddenly Sam dropped to the ground and lay face down on the path. He began to bellow, his arms and legs flailing furiously. I stood there, not sure what to do. I thought about ringing the caseworker, but realised that my mobile phone was still back in the house. So I just watched him.

I could see that he needed his mother to comfort him. I wasn’t his mother; in fact, I was never going to be anybody’s mother. Waves of sorrow washed over me as I looked at someone else’s little boy cry out his pain and frustration. I started to sing softly to myself, one of my favourite sad songs, by Snow Patrol. I got to the chorus: ‘If I lay here, if I just lay here, would you lie with me and just forget the world?’ and realised that Sam had quietened. I sat down on the ground next to him. Continuing to sing, I reached forward to rub his back. At first he flinched but then, to my surprise, he seemed to relax. Eventually I stopped singing and noticed that he was breathing deeply. I wondered if he was asleep.

‘Do you want some milk?’ I whispered.

Sam rolled over and sat up. The poor kid had stones embedded in his face and his cheeks were streaked with dirty tears. We walked inside together, with Lucky trailing behind, and he let me clean up his face with a washcloth.

Sitting at the kitchen table, he barely had the energy to drink his milk.

‘Lucky can’t go back to her place. This is her home now,’ I said. I knew I had to make a few things clear while I had the chance.

Sam simply looked at me, his shoulders drooping.

‘We want her to live here. She belongs with us now. We want to love her and we want to look after her.’

‘But she’s very naughty,’ he mumbled.

‘Yes, she is, but it’s not her fault. She’s had a tough time beforehand, and this means that we have to love her even more.’

Although there was no response, I could tell that he was really listening.

‘Can you help me look after Lucky?’

Sam thought for a moment, his face very serious, before nodding.

‘Should we take Lucky out for a walk now? Do you think that you could manage it?’

He nodded once more.

So we set off around the block, with Lucky straining on the lead, exactly as before, but this time we made a detour to the leash-free park.

Later on, I gave an account of our adventure to Matthew.

‘We found a tennis ball and threw it for her. Lucky really enjoyed that, didn’t she?’ I turned to Sam, who nodded enthusiastically. ‘It took her a while to understand that she was meant to bring the ball back to us, but finally she worked it out.’

We looked at Lucky, who was serenely asleep on her bed in the corner, for a change.

‘For what it’s worth,’ said Matthew, ‘I’ve never been a fan of the name Lucky. Can we pick a better name, one that isn’t a reminder about her past?’

‘Like what?’

We were both looking at Sam, but he remained silent.

‘I like the name Hilary,’ proposed Matthew.

I shook my head.

‘Dora the Explorer?’ he suggested.

‘No way! We don’t want to encourage her to roam.’

Then Sam spoke up quietly. ‘What about Wendy the Wonderdog?’

‘Mmm. What do you reckon, Matthew?’

‘I like it.’

‘Me too. So it’s Wendy the Wonderdog from now on. Let’s hope she learns to grow into her name!’

At this, Sam giggled.

It was the first giggle that I’d ever heard from him. I knew then that he’d turned some kind of a corner, and simultaneously realised that I too had turned one of my own. I looked at Matthew, Sam, and of course Wendy the Wonderdog, my own little family, and laughed out loud with joy.

 

© Liezl Shnookal 2018