‘Crossing Over’ by Catherine Storr
If she hadn’t been fond of dogs, she would never have volunteered for this particular job. When her class at school were asked if they would give up some of their spare time towards helping old people, most of the tasks on offer had sounded dreary. Visiting housebound old men and women, making them cups of tea and talking to them; she hadn’t fancied that, and she wasn’t any good at making conversation, let alone being able to shout loud enough for a deaf person to hear. Her voice was naturally quiet. She didn’t like the idea of doing anyone else’s shopping, she wasn’t good enough at checking that she’d got the right change. The check-out girls in the
super-market were too quick, ringing up the different items on the cash register. Nor did she want to push a wheelchair to the park. But walking old Mrs Matthews’ dog, that had seemed like something she might even enjoy. She couldn’t go every evening, but she would take him for a good long run on the Common on Saturdays, and on fine evenings, when the days were longer, she’d try to call for him after school some week-days. She had started out full of enthusiasm.
What she hadn’t reckoned with was the dog himself. Togo was huge, half Alsatian, half something else which had given him long woolly hair, permanently matted and dirty. Once, right at the beginning, she had offered to bathe and groom him, but Mrs Matthews had been outraged by the suggestion, was sure the poor creature would catch cold, and at the sight of the comb, Togo backed and growled and showed his teeth. It was as much as she could do to fasten and unfasten his leash, and he did not make that easy. The early evening walks weren’t quite so bad, because there wasn’t time to take him to the Common, so he stayed on the leash all the time. Even then he was difficult to manage. He seemed to have had no training and he certainly had no manners. He never stopped when she told him to, never came when she called him, so that every Saturday, when she dutifully let him run free among the gorse bushes and little trees on the Common, she was afraid she might have to return to Mrs Matthews without the dog, confessing that he had run away. Mrs Matthews did not admit that Togo was unruly and difficult to manage, any more than she would admit that he smelled. It was only a feeling that she shouldn’t go back on her promise to perform this small service to the community that kept the girl still at the disagreeable task.
This particular evening was horrible. She’d been kept later at school than usual, and
although it was already March, the sky was overcast, it was beginning to get dark, and a fine drizzling rain made the pavements slippery. Togo was in a worse mood than usual. He had slouched along, stopping for whole minutes at lampposts and dustbins and misbehaving extravagantly in the most inconvenient places, in spite of her frantic tugs at the leash to try to get him off the pavement. He was too strong for her to control, and he knew it. She almost believed that he had a spite against her, and enjoyed showing that he didn’t have to do anything she wanted, as if it wasn’t bad enough having to go out in public with an animal so unkempt and anti-social.
They reached the zebra crossing on the hill. The traffic was moving fast, as it always did during the evening rush-hour. She would have to wait for a break before she could step off the pavement, especially as, in the half dark, she knew from her Dad’s
comments when he was driving, pedestrians on the road were not easy to see. She stood still and dragged at Togo’s lead. But Togo did not mean to be dictated to by a little schoolgirl, and after a moment’s hesitation, he pulled too. He was off, into the middle of the on-coming traffic, wrenching at the leash, which she had twisted round her hand in order to get a better grip. She threw all her weight against his, but she was no match for him. She thought she felt the worn leather snap, she heard the sound of screaming brakes and someone shouted. She had time to think, ‘What am I going to say to Mrs Matthews?’, before her head swam and she thought she was going to faint.
She found herself standing on the further side of the road. She saw a huddle of people, surrounding stationary cars. Two drivers had left their vehicles and were abusing each other. As the crowd swayed, she saw the bonnet of a red car crumpled by its contact with the back of a large yellow van. She saw, too, a dark stain on the road surface. Blood. Blood made her feel sick, and her head swam again. She hesitated, knowing that she ought to go among the watching people to make herself look, perhaps to try to explain how Togo had pulled, how she hadn’t been strong enough to hold him back. Someone should be told whose dog he was. Someone would have to go and break the terrible news to Mrs Matthews.
As she was considering this, she heard the siren of a police car and the two-note call of an ambulance. She thought, ‘Perhaps someone got badly hurt in one of the cars, and it’s all my fault.’ Her courage evaporated, and she turned away from the accident
and began to walk, on legs that trembled, up the hill towards her own home. She thought, ‘I’ll go and tell Mum.’ But then she remembered how much Mrs Matthews loved horrible Togo, how she talked about him as her only friend, and how dreadful it was going to be for her to open her front door to find a policeman telling her that her dog was dead. Besides, the policeman might say that it was all her, the girl’s, fault. She had to go first to Mrs Matthews’ house, to break the news gently, and also to
explain that she had tried her best to prevent the accident.
She found that she must have been walking really fast, which was surprising, considering how much she was dread-ing the ordeal in front of her. She had reached the grocer’s and the newspaper shop at the top of the High Street almost before she’d realized. She saw Sybil Grainger coming out of the newspaper shop, and she was ready to say, ‘Hi!’ and to pretend that there was nothing wrong, but luckily Sybil seemed not to have seen her. She turned the corner into Grange Road, relieved that she hadn’t had to carry on a conversation. Grange Road also seemed shorter than usual; now she had to go along Fenton Crescent till she reached the small side street where Mrs Matthews lived, in one of the row of little old cottages known as Paradise Row.
Her heart beat furiously as she unlatched the small wooden gate and walked the short distance up to the front door, rehearsing exactly how to say what she had to. She lifted the knocker. As it came down on the wood, it made a hollow, echoing sound.
Extraordinary. From the other side of the door, she heard something very much like Togo’s deep, menacing growl. She must be in such a state of nerves that she was imagining impossible things. Or perhaps when she felt faint out there in the road, she had fallen and hit her head and been concussed. She felt her scalp, under the straight, silky hair, but she couldn’t find any tender spots. She waited. Mrs Matthews was
arthritic and always took a long time to answer the door, and there was no hurry for the message she was going to receive.
Steps came slowly, dragging a little, along the passage. The door opened, and she braced herself for the shock she was about to administer and the scolding she was certainly going to receive.
But when Mrs Matthews looked out, she behaved in a very peculiar way. Instead of saying immediately, ‘Where’s Togo?’ she asked nothing of her visitor, but bent forward and peered out, looking up and down the short row of cottages, as if she were searching for something or someone who might be com-ing or going in the street. Her head with its thinning grey hair was so close that the girl stepped back, opening her mouth to begin her explanation. But what she saw in the passage behind the old woman stopped her from uttering a sound.
At the further end of the passage was a dog. Togo. Togo, whole, apparently unharmed, his collar round his neck, and the end of the broken leash still attached, dragging behind him.
For a moment she thought he was going to spring forward and attack her. Then she saw that, instead, he was backing, shrinking as far away as he could get. He was making a curious noise, not a howl, nor a growl, but a sort of whine. She noticed that he was trembling. She had never seen Togo tremble before. He was showing whites round his yellow eyes and the short hair round his muzzle was bristling.
She started to speak. But Mrs Matthews appeared not to have heard her. She was turning back to calm the terrified dog. She was saying, ‘Whatever’s the matter with
you, Togo? Think you’re seeing a ghost?’