Category Archives: Short story

The Story of Henry the Third and the Midwinter Miracle in Manchester

HomelessIt was the small dog which first caught her eye that early Tuesday morning in December. Snuggled up next to a homeless person in a grubby blue sleeping bag, sheltering in the doorway of a service entrance to the multi-storey car park. As she approached, quick marching on her way to work, he had raised his grey whiskered chin from his paws to look at her, yawned, sleepily wagged his tail and gave a very quiet, gentle “woof” in greeting.  He had settled back down to rest but maintained eye contact with her as she passed the doorway before cutting diagonally across the road towards the office.

She had noticed him because he reminded her of Harry,  the scruffy little terrier that Dad had brought home the first Christmas after Mum had died. He had  found him  tied to a railing near the canal, shivering and whining and with a message scribbled on a piece of cardboard next to him reading “please take care of me”.  She and her elder brother Mark had adored him from the start and their Dad did not have the heart to take him to the dogs home as he’d originally intended, so Harry became the family pet and lived to a ripe old age. Debbie was convinced that it was Harry’s arrival which had saved her Dad from disintegrating altogether, after months of sadness and the prospect of their first Christmas as a one parent family.

She gave one last look over her shoulder at the stray in the doorway before turning the corner and then suddenly felt guilty that she had barely given a thought to the person in the sleeping bag.  An open umbrella had been positioned in front of their head and shoulders to act as a windbreak against the chill north easterly blowing down the street, and this had hidden any indication of age or gender.  They had been just another anonymous down and out. Debbie had not felt particularly well when she’d woken up that morning but she dismissed her self-pity when she thought of how rough she would really feel after a night on the street.

Working in the city years before, Debbie had gotten used to seeing homeless people in doorways and on street corners, but after fifteen years of commuting to out of town business parks, she had almost forgotten that they existed. They were largely invisible on her occasional shopping trips into town and she had naively thought that it was a problem which was disappearing with the increased prosperity of her home city. When she started her new job back in the centre of Manchester a few weeks before, it had been a shock to realise that  there were still so many people living on the streets. The two recessed doorways next to the multi-storey were obviously a prime location to shelter in, as hardly a morning went by without seeing someone lying there on a pitiful mattress of flattened cardboard. The wooden louvre doors had  “Danger, High Voltage” signs on them and she assumed that perhaps there was some residual heat from a generator escaping through the gaps. She rarely saw the faces of the occupants. This early in the morning they were hunkered down and whenever she had ventured out of the office during the day, or on her journey home in the evenings,  the doorways were empty of people. Often they would leave behind a few paltry possessions, a water bottle, a folded umbrella or a pair of gloves. Whether abandoned or to stake a claim of residency she did not know.

The following morning the same dog and his owner were there again. And again the little dog wagged his tail and woofed “hello”. This time she actually said hello back, out loud, and was rewarded with a raised head and a more enthusiastic tail wag. The body in the sleeping bag stirred a little but Debbie hurried on to work. Both the little terrier and its owner had vanished that evening.

On the third morning the dog was sitting up and looking alert as if waiting for her. She said “good morning” to him and he stood up to wag his tail in greeting. This time, with the umbrella folded up in the corner, the figure in the sleeping bag turned around and peered over their shoulder. It was the face of an aging, world weary woman, wrinkled and grubby with a fringe of charcoal and silver hair escaping her black woollen hat. Large, dark brown eyes stared at her from under the fringe. Debbie smiled shyly but said nothing and marched on by as usual. She was conscious of the woman’s gaze following her as she crossed the street and when she turned the corner out of sight she looked back and saw that, sure enough, the woman was leaning up on her elbows and staring at her.

The next day both dog and owner were sitting on top of the neatly folded sleeping bag and cardboard mattress and facing out onto the street. The woman was sipping what looked like hot chocolate from a steaming paper cup. When Debbie approached,  the little terrier woofed his friendly hello, stood up and took two steps towards her. “Hello doggie” Debbie said, slowing her pace.  The seated woman looked up at her and ruffled the elderly terrier’s ears with her free hand. “Henry likes you, don’tcha Henry?” she said. Debbie stopped and bent down to stroke his head much to his obvious delight. “Well I like him too. He must be good company for you”. It was a statement rather than a question. “Oh he is. Getting on a bit now though en’tcha sweetheart? This one’s Henry the Third. He’s been waiting a long time this one.” Debbie wondered what exactly he had been waiting for, but there was no further elaboration, so she gave Henry the Third  one last chin rub and straightened up to go. She took the opportunity to look more closely at the woman who was still gazing fondly at her pet. Somehow her eyes did not match her face making it difficult to approximate her age. They were dark brown, shining and alert, a young person’s eyes but from the condition of her skin and hair she looked to be in her sixties.  Debbie knew that living rough aged you prematurely and besides, she couldn’t imagine anyone that old living on the streets – weren’t there homes for the elderly that she could have gone to? The woman had a good bone structure and might once have been very attractive, especially with those eyes which were simply mesmerising. When they suddenly flicked up at her, she felt as if they had penetrated her innermost thoughts and she blushed.  “Sorry, I’ve got to go now. Take care of yourself” she said quickly and spun on her heels to cross the road.

She found herself thinking about Henry’s owner later that morning and wondered who she was and how she’d come to live on the streets. What had happened in her life to make sleeping rough her only choice? Aside from Henry’s resemblance to Harry, part of the fascination, she knew, came from the fact that the woman had the same piercing eyes as her Mother. Debbie had been only six at the time that her Mummy had died, just a few short weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. In truth she could barely remember her and had always been a little jealous of Mark who, being three years older than her, was able to recall much more about the beautiful woman with the big brown eyes. Most of her own memories came from family photographs.

That evening at home, Debbie retrieved a large dusty cardboard box from the top of the wardrobe and parked herself on a beanbag in the lounge beside her husband, Jon. She had told him of her encounter and the memories it had stirred and he suggested looking through the old photographs in the box. She enjoyed showing Jon pictures of her Mum and  reminiscing about her childhood.  One of her favourite photographs was of the whole family grinning broadly next to a huge Christmas tree. Her Mum was holding Mark’s hand and resting a chubby baby Debbie, on the other hip. Dad had his arm around her shoulder and they both looked young and happy. Her Mum was very pretty with the same dark, exotic eyes as the homeless woman.

There were lots of Christmas photos in the box, which was no real surprise as Dad modelled himself on Mr Fezziwig each December and their house had always been full of family and friends. The only time there had been a gap in the photographic records of Christmas was that first year without Mum, but thereafter the photos resumed and Harry the rescue dog made several appearances.  These days everyone congregated at Mark and his wife’s and Dad maintained his tradition of photographing the family beside the Christmas tree. It was generally a riotous affair as Mark and Laura had four children under the age of ten. Debbie used to wonder how much more chaotic it would be if she and Jon had been able to have children of their own to include in the fun…

The rest of that weekend was spent in a flurry of preparations for Christmas and Debbie set aside all thoughts of the “dog lady” as Debbie came to refer to her, to focus on wrapping presents and writing the last of the cards. Only when Monday morning came, all too quickly, did she remember Henry the Third and his owner. The weather had become a lot chillier over the weekend and Debbie took a detour on her way down from the station to buy a hot chocolate from Costa Coffee. On impulse she bought two, a large Danish and a sausage roll, intending to provide breakfast to the woman and her dog.  She walked quickly to the car park, wondering how the homeless woman survived outside overnight in the sub-zero temperatures.  When she reached the doorway and found it empty it was almost a relief, hopefully  this meant that the dog lady had found space in a hostel overnight to avoid the worst of the cold. There was someone else in the second doorway just a little further along though, a young man just beginning to stir and pack his things together so Debbie walked over and handed him the spare hot chocolate and the pastries instead. He seemed so grateful and surprised that she actually felt guilty that she was not helping more. “Do you know what happened to the older lady with the dog?” she asked. He shook his head. “Sorry miss I’ve not seen her. Don’t know anyone like that but I’ve only just moved to this patch”.

She wondered what his story was too and how he had ended up sleeping in a doorway in minus 3 degrees. Her feeling of guilt notched up again and she spontaneously opened her shoulder bag to take out her purse. “Here, make sure you get a hot meal down you or try and find a hostel or something” she said handing over a twenty pound note. He beamed at her “Awh thanks miss, you’re an angel! Happy Christmas!”. She watched him as he gathered up his meagre possessions and hurried down to the far end of the street, where a number of cafes and sandwich shops were located.  Just as she was about to cross over to the office she caught a glimpse of the dog lady with Henry the Third at the same T junction, heading in the direction of the city centre. Well at least they are alive and well, she thought and reluctantly made her way to work.

Later that evening, as she was navigating the hordes of commuters and late night Christmas shoppers on the approach to Piccadilly, she saw the woman again. They passed each other going in opposite directions as they crossed the same busy road. Debbie looked over her shoulder to double check it was her but she had disappeared, lost in the scores of people milling along.

She did not find anyone sheltering near the car park the next morning or the morning after but as the week progressed and she was out and about the city centre, she caught sight of the dog lady and Henry several times. They were usually too far away to talk to and if ever Debbie turned to walk in their direction, they seemed to melt into the crowds, almost as if the woman sensed her approach and wanted to avoid her. Maybe she thinks I’m stalking her, Debbie mused to herself, only half-jokingly, but then it occurred to her that perhaps it was the other way around. It was a little strange that she kept seeing the dog lady wherever she went, having never noticed her in the previous few weeks.

Thursday was Christmas Eve. She finished work at lunch and walked into town to finish off the very last of her Christmas shopping. As she made her way back to the train station through the back roads and laden with carrier bags, it began to sleet and she broke into a trot whilst struggling to juggle her bags and button her coat with her two free fingers. When her phone began ringing in her pocket and she tried to extract that too, she was utterly distracted and stepped out onto the zebra crossing without noticing the black VW Golf speeding down the road towards her. A furious barking to one side her made her look up and she leapt backwards onto the pavement, stumbled, dropping several bags and her phone, and landed in a rather undignified heap on her bottom. The speeding car barely slowed and was gone straight over the crossing and around the bend in a blink. Dazed and in shock it took her a moment to recognise Henry the Third at her feet, wagging his tail and snuffling at her feet. The face that appeared at her side was that of the dog lady, her dark, beautiful eyes peering at her with concern. “Are you alright Debbie?” she asked. “Yes… yes, I think so. Thank you” she stammered in reply and then puzzled “How did you know my name?”. The woman held out her arm to help pull Debbie back to her feet. “It’s there, plain as day” she pointed at the security badge still dangling on a lanyard around her neck, under her unbuttoned coat,  identifying her as “Ms Deborah Moffat”.

“You need to take better care of yourself young lady, you wouldn’t want your kids to be without their Mum at Christmas would you?” the dog lady gently chastised her.  Debbie paused, suddenly overcome with emotions. “I don’t have any children” she replied, swallowing back the tears. Or a Mum either, she thought. “No?” the woman said gazing directly into her eyes “Maybe by next Christmas eh?”. Debbie bit her lip and felt her shoulders begin to shake as the tears came. The dog lady put an arm around her shoulder. “Come on love, you’re in shock, let’s get you a nice cup of tea and a sit down”. Debbie allowed the dog lady to pick up her bags and phone and to lead her by the elbow to a café on the corner. Henry the Third dutifully followed and sat outside the door while his owner sat Debbie down at a table and presented her with a steaming  mug of tea. “Here you go pet, get that down you and you’ll soon feel better”.

Debbie was suddenly very embarrassed “I’m sorry” she said, drying her eyes with a napkin “I feel such a fool. And I haven’t even thanked you for saving me from being run over”. The dog lady shrugged “That wasn’t me, it was Henry. He’s been looking out for you.” Debbie did not know how to respond to that and just said “Oh…right.” Her scepticism must have shown on her face because the woman leant forward and took her hand. Her deep, dark eyes were piercing and Debbie felt as if the woman was peering into her very soul. “I know it sounds strange, but believe me you’ll understand one day”. Debbie turned to look out of the window at the aging dog sitting quietly and obediently just outside, watching the world go by. It had stopped sleeting but the skies looked heavy with snow clouds. When she turned back to look at the dog lady, she noticed how tired and old she really looked. A little of the gleam seemed to have gone from her eyes and the resemblance to her long dead mother seemed to vanish.

“Listen, what will you do over Christmas? Do you have anywhere to go? Maybe I can help?” Debbie asked. The woman sighed and smiled “You are your mother’s daughter alright” she said mysteriously. “Honest love I’ll be fine; I’ve got a bed in the Baxter Street hostel till the 27th. . But they don’t take dogs… If you really want to help me you could look after Henry for a couple of days? Just till I’m free again?”

An hour later and Debbie pressed the doorbell on her own front door, being unable to find her keys with one hand clutching a half dozen shopping bags and the other carrying a scruffy Jack Russell cross under her arm, looking for all the world as if it was his rightful place.  She was somewhat surprised to see Mark opening the door. “Have we got room for one more on Christmas Day?” she smiled at him as he lent over to pat the dog’s head. From the hallway she heard Dad calling “Is that our Debs?”. He appeared at Mark’s shoulder and gasped “bloody hell it’s another Harry!”  She smiled “No Dad, but he does look like him doesn’t he? This is Henry the Third and he’s staying for Christmas. Come on let me in you two it’s freezing out here”. They made way for her to enter but she noticed that both Dad and Mark fell silent and their smiles had faded to confused and thoughtful frowns. Putting Henry and her bags down and peeling off her coat and scarf she looked from one to the other. “What’s the matter? Is everything alright?” she asked “And why are you both here at this time anyway? I wasn’t expecting you till later.”

“Oh we were just returning Jon’s electric screwdriver. He’s just popped out to the corner shop by the way – you’ve run out of teabags” Mark sounded a little distracted.

They all walked through to the kitchen and sat at the table. Henry followed and settled himself at Debbie’s feet. She watched both Dad and Mark staring at the dog and took a deep breath. “If you’re wondering where he came from, well…he sort of saved my life”. Their expressions of confusion changed to ones of shock and concern as Debbie recanted the tale of her encounters with the dog and his real owner and her narrow miss with the car at lunch time.

“So I felt it was the least I could do really and it’s only till Monday”. She stroked Henry’s head and he looked up at her adoringly and thumped his tail on the wooden floor. She glanced from Mark, who looked like he’d seen a ghost, to Dad who was frowning and pale. “Well it’s the damned-est thing” he muttered, almost to himself. Mark and Debbie both looked at him and waited for him to continue. “Harry…well Harry was actually a Henry too. I…I didn’t ever tell you the full story because you were both so young and to tell you the truth I was a bit ashamed of myself”. He paused and looked from Debbie to Mark to Henry and back again. “The truth is – I stood by that canal seriously contemplating throwing myself in because I just couldn’t face the world without your Mother. I’d been so wrapped up in my grief that I’d been neglecting both of you.  Your Grandma and Grandad had practically taken over looking after you anyway and I just thought you’d be better off with them than me, I was a broken man…Then, just as I was about to jump in I heard a little bark and a whimper from under the bridge. I don’t know what made me go and look but I did…” Mark concluded the sentence “…and you found Harry”. “Yes, but the weird thing is that the note actually said “My name is HENRY, please look after me”. I didn’t ever tell you his name because I thought it was a bloody silly name for a dog. I know we always said Harry was a rescue dog but I swear it was him that rescued me rather than the other way around”.

There was a thoughtful silence in the room and Henry, seeming to sense that he was the centre of attention gave a small woof and stood up. Debbie picked him up and sat him on her knee, where he settled himself contentedly, chin on paws.

“It gets even weirder I’m afraid” Mark broke their reverie, “although I didn’t realise it at the time. That Easter I went camping in the Lakes with the boys from Uni do you remember?” Debbie and Dad nodded and waited to hear what could possibly make this story any stranger…”Well one night we came back from the pub and it was freezing cold so I brought my camping stove inside my tent to warm up and.. I fell asleep.” Debbie looked horrified “Mark you idiot!” she cried. She knew that people had died from carbon monoxide poisoning doing exactly the same thing. He looked suitably embarrassed…“I know but I was a bit pissed. Anyway, the thing is, I woke up just after midnight when this dog started barking furiously right outside my tent. Woke the whole bloody camp site up. I had a stinking headache and felt a bit sick but realised what I’d done and turned the stove off. When I unzipped the tent to see what all the commotion was I saw this dog that looked a bit like Harry and this woman with a backpack across the field. A few of the other campers had woken up and were shouting at her to shut the dog up and bugger off so she called to him ‘HENRY! Come here boy!’ and they disappeared down to the woods. The name didn’t mean anything to me until today – I was just glad his barking had woken me up”.

Debbie’s heart began pounding and her head was spinning, the dog lady had called him Henry the THIRD and said he had been waiting for a long time…waiting for what she had wondered but now she knew…he had been waiting for her, to save her, in the same way his predecessors had saved Dad and Mark, even if they hadn’t realised it at the time. Who the hell was this mysterious woman with the big brown eyes? She began to feel faint and the last thing she remembered before passing out was Henry jumping off her knee to greet Jon as the front door opened and he called “Hello!” down the hall.

When she came to on the sofa in the lounge, Jon was kneeling next to her holding her hand and Mark and Dad were stood behind looking concerned. He stroked her forehead. “Are you alright sweetheart?” he asked. “Yes, yes I’m fine now honest, I think it was all just a bit of a shock”.  She spied Henry at the bottom of the sofa as he stood with his front paws on the cushion and tried to peer at her. Mark sat himself on the arm at the end. “Jon suggested we go to the Baxter Street  Hostel and talk to this woman – see if we can’t find out more about what’s going on”. Debbie nodded “ok” and forty minutes later they were sat in a car outside the hostel on Baxter Street, not entirely sure what to do next. They did not even know the woman’s name…

“I’ll go in – it might look a bit heavy handed if we go en masse” Debbie proposed. The others agreed and she climbed out of the car, up the steps and through the glass doors at the entrance. “Can I help you?” asked the bearded man at the front desk. “I hope so. We’re looking for an older lady who said she was staying here over Christmas, about 60, dark brown eyes, black woollen hat, owns a dog called Henry?”

“Ah. That sounds like Pam. She used to come here a lot.  Are you a relative?” There was something in the tone of his voice that rang alarm bells. “No – just a friend. We’re looking after her dog for her”. “Is your surname Moffat?” Debbie nodded. “ Well I’m sorry Mrs Moffat  I’m afraid I have some bad news, Pam died  earlier today. The police found her down near Deansgate station.” Debbie held on to the desk for support. “But that can’t be right I saw her just hours ago!” she exclaimed. The man looked doubtful but sympathetic. “I’m so sorry Mrs Moffat but there was a positive ID. The police brought us this letter though” he began to rummage through the drawers in his desk. “They said she’d written a note specifically asking them to leave it here for collection. Ah – here it is” and he handed her a slightly tatty and aged looking cream envelope addressed to “The Moffats, Care of Baxter Street Hostel”.  She stared at it in silence, too stunned to speak. “To be honest we weren’t sure anyone would come for it.” The man confessed. “Are you ok? Do you want to sit down? Or can I call anyone for you?” “No, you’re alright thank you, my family are just outside”. She smiled weakly at him and bid him good-bye.

She sat back in the car and looked at the expectant faces around her. “Well?” asked Jon. “She’s dead. The guy said she died this afternoon but she left us this.”  Debbie showed them the letter. “No way!” said Mark in disbelief. Dad took the envelope from his daughter, opened it and began to read:

Dear Bob, Mark and Debbie,

You do not know me and I’m sure you have lots of questions. I will not be able to answer them all but let me tell you how many years ago a beautiful young woman saved my life. In those days I was a drinker, that’s how I ended up on the streets in the first place. One day I sat half drunk and shivering with cold on the pavement near Victoria, the rain pouring over me. I held out my hand to beg for money and everyone ignored me. Hundreds of people must have walked straight by and dismissed me for being the worthless wreck of a human being that I was. I didn’t even look up at them anymore, I just sat soaked to the skin with my palm held out for change, thinking how pathetic and desperate I had become and how heartless and unforgiving the world was. I decided that I’d had enough, that I didn’t deserve to live anyway and that I would get up and walk down the rail track until I found a train going fast enough…

 But just at the moment when I’d hit rock bottom I suddenly felt a warm hand in mine and this voice asking if I needed help. When I looked up I saw the kindest face with beautiful brown eyes looking at me, actually seeing me as a human being and not some piece of trash. She smiled at me and helped me up, took me out of the rain to the café on the station. She said her name was…” at this point Dad began stammer and to choke back tears “…her name was Glenys Moffatt”. There was an audible intake of breath from Mark and Dad seemed incapable of speaking so Jon took the letter and continued to read aloud. “She was so nice to me. She paid for my tea and a plate of hot food. She talked to me as if I was a real person. She wasn’t patronising or nosey. When I asked her why she was helping me she said she’d just found out she was dying and wanted to do some good in the world before she went. She said I’d looked as if I had the weight of the world on my shoulders and  that she wanted to show me that there were still some decent people in the world. When I asked her if she was frightened of dying, she said no, but she was sad for her family, for all of you because she wouldn’t be around to look after you and keep you safe. She showed me a photograph of you all and you looked like the loving, happy family that I’d never had.

 When your mother took leave of me she gave me some cash and her umbrella and held my both of hands in hers and told me to take care of myself. I promised her that I would and that I’d look out for you when I could. I vowed to myself that I’d do what I could to protect you. I came from a family of travellers and had inherited a sort of 6th sense from my own mother so that I had a knack of anticipating danger.

 Glenys was a remarkable woman who restored my faith in human nature. I never saw her again after that day  but I thought of her often. I stopped drinking and even lived in a real house every now and again although I never really settled in one place.

 My dogs kept me company and I knew that they’d be useful in my mission to look after you. Bob – I didn’t expect you to keep Henry the First and thought I’d reclaim him from the Dog’s Home but I’m glad he stayed with you in the end and that you looked after him so well. Henry the Second was a livewire and would never have settled in a real house so I kept him with me. As for Henry the Third, well he has had to wait a long time to look after your baby Debbie, but if you could make him cosy and comfortable for the last year or so of his life that’s all I ask.

 I can rest now, knowing that you don’t need me anymore and that I have paid my debt of gratitude for your lovely Mother’s kindness. Bless you all and take care of each other.

 With warmest regards

Pamela O’Reilly

 P.S. Remember to stay off the mulled wine, pate and soft cheese Deborah Moffat!”

All four of them sat in a car, sniffing and wiping their eyes. They looked at each other and smiled through their tears. “Does she mean what I think she means Debbie?” Dad asked. She looked into Jon’s eyes and put a hand on her tummy. “I don’t know… but nothing would surprise me after everything else that has happened”. She had been feeling unusually tired recently and very off colour in the mornings…

Debbie smiled to herself, snow began to fall and Henry the Third woofed from the back seat, wagging his tail. Christmas was coming and this year would be the start of a new era.

Advertisements

Party Animal (a short story)

OK so I’m a little late for a seasonal story – sorry folks! I simply ran out of time. Next week I thought I might tell you about the process I went through to write it as it was actually an interesting exercise… if you’re a bit geeky like me anyway ;-). Please read, hopefully enjoy and do feel free to give me your constructive criticism.

—————————————————————

She stared despondently at her screen and sighed deeply. The file was there alright but the time stamp confirmed her worst fear,  that all of the changes she had made to her presentation since lunch were lost and gone forever. The application had stalled and crashed just a few minutes ago and failed to auto-recover her file. She wanted to cry but swore quietly under her breath instead.

“You alright Jen?” Matt enquired, peering at her from over the low partition that separated their desks. “Not really. I’ve just lost three hours worth of work and it’s my own bloody fault – I hadn’t saved it for ages. Colin needs this by tomorrow morning so I’m going to have to stay late. Again.” He grimaced sympathetically just as his phone started to ring, “Bummer. Gotta take this call, sorry Jen”

She exhaled yet another deep sigh and gazed out of the window. All week it had rained relentlessly and  the heavy,  leaden skies matched her mood.  This was just another in the series of crappy events that she had endured over the last couple of months.  Her Dad’s cancer returning, the sale on the flat falling through, an important meeting missed through a cancelled train and one row after another with Phil about her working hours. On one occasion he’d even gone so far as to accuse her of turning into a “boring bitch”.

She felt utterly stressed out. Her daily run usually helped her to unwind but even this was proving to be a challenge recently. As if dodging potholes and dog shit wasn’t enough in these dark autumnal mornings, last week she’d collided with a speeding cyclist as he careered around a corner and cut straight in front of her, and just this morning on the edge of the common she’d been attacked by a stray dog.  A huge thing that looked like a German Shepherd had suddenly bolted out of the trees and leapt at her, snapping at the forearm she had held up instinctively to protect her face. She was preparing to sprint for it when suddenly, inexplicably,  it stopped snarling at her, lowered its ears, whimpered and ran off.  She examined her arm. It had barely touched her really, leaving more of a scratch than a bite, but she was badly shaken and more wound up than ever.  She should have known then that today was going to be a waste of toothpaste and one that would have been better spent  at home in bed.

Another sigh. She turned back to her laptop to focus upon re-writing her lost material. Over the next few hours Jen concentrated on the task at hand, looking up now and then to say goodnight as colleagues left for the evening and the office gradually emptied.  At a quarter past seven and alone bar the cleaner, she hit SAVE for the final time, attached the file in a covering email to Colin and clicked SEND with relief. As she was closing down her laptop the sudden thrrrum of her mobile vibrating on her desk made her jump. She could see it was Phil calling and not knowing what mood he would be in, tentatively pressed the ‘Accept Call’ icon.

“Hello babe. Are you still in the office?”, he sounded cheery and she could tell from the background noise that he was in a bar somewhere.  “Just finishing up now” she replied. “Good. Listen, I’m sorry I was such a tosser last night. Come and have a quick drink – I’m with Mike and Jo in The Blacksmith’s Arms ”.

She hesitated just long enough for him to spot the chink in her armour “Come on! You know you want to. Just a couple of beers and we’ll be home before bedtime, promise”. Before she could reply she heard Jo and Mike in the background, shouting “Jen! Come out! We miss you!” Jo was one of her dearest friends and she hadn’t seen her or Mike for ages. The idea of a large glass of shiraz was tempting. “Ok give me 30 minutes and I’ll be there”. There was a collective cheer at the end of the phone as she hung up.

Closing down her laptop, she grabbed her coat and umbrella and headed out into the rain, reflecting upon how much she had changed. These days she rarely went out on a “school night” though once upon a time she had been a stereotypical party girl. The life and soul of their social circle, she had always been up for a night out drinking, dancing and partaking of the (very) occasional illegal high. Her demanding job, her Dad’s illness and her own diminishing ability to recover from a hangover as she was getting older had led her to cut down on the partying. Maybe she ought to get out more though. She certainly felt that she needed a strong drink after her shitty day.

Two and a half hours and five strong drinks later she felt much more cheerful and nicely fuzzy around the edges. It was lovely to catch up with Jo and Mike. She’d missed them too and had forgotten how much Mike made her laugh. Phil had been right, she had been turning into a boring bitch recently and she’d forgotten how much fun it was to spend an evening in the pub with her mates. She watched him now as he somewhat drunkenly regaled the others with one of his anecdotes. It was a shaggy dog story that she had heard him tell many times before, but it still made her smile.  Stifling a yawn, she looked at her watch and grimaced when she realised how late it was getting. “Babe, we need to go, I’ve got to get up early in the morning” she nudged him.  “Aw come on Jen it’s only 10 o’clock – just one more!” he pleaded.  “I’m knackered and if I drink any more I’ll be rough tomorrow” she argued. “I know what you need…” he put his arm around her shoulder and lowered his voice “…a little pick me up”.  He reached in to his inside jacket pocket, pulled out a small tin innocently labelled ‘mints’ and shook it near her ear.

Phil had always been a bigger fan of recreational drugs than she was, even at the height of her party going days. “Absolutely no way! I’ll be up all night and I have to go to work in the morning”. “Suit yourself” he shrugged “you’re no fun anymore” and proceeded to pop one of the tiny white pills into his mouth.

Jen was furious, she knew she’d never get him out of here before the last train now.  Ever the peacemaker, Jo tried to come to the rescue. “Just have a diet coke hun and you can still get the 10.45 train after that”. She nodded ok and Jo went to the bar for another round, while Mike tried to lighten the mood again by making small talk about their plans for Christmas.  Excusing herself she fought her way through the throng to the ladies, where she splashed water on her face and gazed at her reflection.  The lovely warm tingle of alcohol was dissipating along with her anger, but adrenaline was still making her heart race. She was beginning to feel off colour and ached slightly all over.  Obviously not used to drinking so much on an empty stomach she thought.

Snapping out of her introspection, she headed back to the bar and took the bottle of coke that Phil was holding out to her.  She sipped at it slowly, watching as Phil became more and more animated and talkative, spouting juvenile rubbish as he tended to do when he got high. Jo and Mike finished their drinks and made their excuses to leave, politely declining Phil’s suggestion that they move on to the new club around the corner.  Jen hugged Jo goodbye and whispered “Am I really being boring?” as they clung together for a few seconds. “Of course not – Phil’s just being a pratt” she reassured her and they giggled conspiratorially.

As soon as her friends left Phil disappeared to the gents and Jen downed the remains of her drink  quickly so that there was no excuse to linger when he came back. He seemed to be gone an age though and she became increasingly conscious of the ‘flu like symptoms she was feeling. She really was starting to feel unwell. Her heart seemed to be racing ever faster rather than calming down and beads of sweat were forming on her forehead. All of her muscles were beginning to ache and she felt incredibly tense, almost wired. Swirling around the dregs at the bottom of her coke bottle she suddenly had a horrid thought, one that solidified into certain knowledge when she spotted Phil swaggering towards her and grinning inanely . “Feelin’ happier babe?” he winked at her.

“Did you spike my drink?” she demanded although she knew that she didn’t need to wait for his reply, his face said it all. “You absolute arsehole!” Enraged now and heart pounding she picked up her coat from the back of the chair and, ignoring his protestations, stormed out of the bar. It had stopped raining, but she still ran down the street until the pounding in her chest became unbearable, then slowed to a quick march instead. She couldn’t believe how irresponsible he was and asked herself why she had stayed with him for so many years. Nor could she believe how utterly tense and physically awful she felt. She had never had quite such a bad reaction before and began to worry that there was something seriously wrong with her.

A sudden agonising cramp in her stomach caused her to stop and double over in pain. She slumped against the wall next to her, panting hard. Another wave of cramp hit her, this time in the backs of both legs. “Shit” she breathed aloud. What the hell was happening to her? She became aware of a couple, walking arm in arm towards her and laughing. She made an effort to stand upright and start to move. The laughter stopped and she looked up to see the couple staring at her as they walked by. There was no sympathy or concern in their eyes, if anything they looked slightly scared. They probably thought she was a junky or a weirdo.  Not surprising, she thought, there were enough of them  around.

She took a few tentative steps forward, edging her way along the darkened offices and shops to the corner of a dark alley, when another wave of pain began to spread from her chest out across her whole body. She turned into the alley and braced herself for the agony to come. And come it did. Intense spasms and cramps seemed to be ripping her apart. She bent double again only to arch back quickly when a spasm tore up her spine, causing her to cry out in distress. Leaning backwards with her face turned to the skies, she noticed the last of the rain clouds drifting apart to reveal the October moon in its splendid entirety. “How beautiful” she thought, even as her tortured body wracked yet again. Her scream turned into a primal howl and everything  went black.

When the world came back into focus, Jen knew that everything had changed. Instead of pain and sadness and fatigue she felt energy, strength, vigour and an alertness unlike anything she had ever experienced, pulsating through her entire body. And what a body it was; lean, powerful and perfectly designed to hunt and kill, she was magnificent. Somehow it did not surprise her at all to realise that she was no longer human. It thrilled her. It made sense now, the dog by the common was no ordinary dog and the reason it had turned tail and fled before inflicting any serious harm was because the sun had just crept  up over the rooftops in the east. But the scratch had been enough to draw blood.

All of her senses were heightened; the cacophony of noise was startling to begin with. Human voices from all around, laughing, talking, shouting. A cat somewhere hissing at a rival, rats rummaging in the refuse bags at the back of a Chinese takeaway. The constant background hum of road traffic, distant overhead aeroplanes and the rattle of the underground,  bombarded her with sound. She sniffed the air and easily distinguished the smells of petrol and carbon monoxide, the remnants of yesterday’s fish and chips discarded in a gutter, someone smoking a spliff, someone else throwing up and then…Phil, close by. His aftershave and his own unique body scent, delicious.  She suddenly became aware of how very hungry she was.

Jen padded out of the alley and looked down the road towards the station. She knew he had gone that way and set off after him. There were still a few people around even on this quiet side street but she ignored them.  Some instinct told her that these people were irrelevant and that her quarry was the one who had somehow angered her and hurt her, although she could not quite recall how or why. For the most part they ignored her too, and went about their own business. The one or two that did stare at the unusually large “dog” stepped by cautiously, sensing that it was something to genuinely fear. Completely focussed on following Phil’s scent she did not intellectualise what was happening to her or what she was doing. Her sense of power, instinct and sensory perception overruled everything.  She had never felt more alive, supremely confident and utterly ruthless.

When finally she spotted Phil ahead, meandering casually across the road and cutting through another back street, she speeded up, stalking him until she was just a few feet behind. The dark, narrow lane was empty and Phil’s footsteps echoed off the cobbles, still wet from the rain. Whether he heard her or somehow merely sensed her presence she could not tell, but he stopped and turned around slowly to face her, fear and horror spreading over his face. His reaction excited her and with a low growl, she took two steps nearer. She was aware of feeling very, very hungry and his scent was so irresistible. He stepped back, stumbling and almost falling as she crept closer and closer, snarling all the time. The smell of his fear added to his usual body scent was intoxicating and saliva began to drip from her perfect, glistening teeth. He was muttering quietly, whimpering “Jesus, God! No!” but the words were meaningless to her. Then, with all human emotion left behind with her shredded clothes in the alley near the pub, she pounced, knocking him over onto his back. With her huge paws on his chest and yellow eyes staring into his terrified face, she sank her jaws into his throat, cutting off his final scream, and gorged herself.

Bitch she may be, but boring? Not anymore – the party animal was back.