People don’t seem to notice Betty much in the daytime. But when night falls she glistens blackly, slithers up my arm, crawls across my neck, to perch on my shoulder with her whiskers tickling my earlobe. You know how sometimes a laptop pop-up when you’ve watched too much of a series in one sitting asks if you’re still there? When I feel Betty’s saliva pooling on one of my collarbones I know it’s time for us both to go to bed. She watches as I brush my teeth, fascinated. I have no qualms undressing before her now, having long ago given up trying to get her to leave my bedroom. She’ll only scrape at the door, making me feel guilty.
I’ll lie there listening to her softly snoring at the foot of the bed. The rhythm does not send me to sleep; instead I wait in the darkness for her to snuffle and splutter. It’s very difficult for me to switch off and not worry about her. She is not in the best of health.
In the days she is quiet, well-behaved. She performs her best trick, getting lost behind me. I walk ahead, wondering if she’ll jump out and startle me, knowing all the shortcuts around the blocks as she does. I see other walkers chatting to acquaintances in the park. Betty is yet to make any friends, or help me make friends. She is not menacing, but people either ignore her, or give her a wide berth if she’s being playful, straining at the leash I’ve learned to hold in a very tight grip.
We come back home and I hang her leash on the hook, letting her roam free again. She heads straight to her drinking bowl, nails skittering across the floor. I think how different that sound is to when I’m unable to sleep; an almost insectile clicking. It fights with the ticking of my wall clock for my attention, the sounds magnified in the gloom.
When I first got her she would bark constantly. The slightest thing would wind her up and make her go. No matter how many walls I put between us her yelps would pummel my mind and so I let her sleep on the bed before my grey matter turned completely to dough. The neighbours would reach into their eye bags to shoot me looks of weary irritation the next morning while we set about our business. From my own dark circles I’d send what I hoped were pitiful, placating glances while suppressing a petulant cry of “it’s not me – it’s her.” Or sometimes I’d go for a tiny apologetic wave that became a tucking of a lock of hair behind my ear when all it succeeded in was making the recipient turn away, focussing all their attention on unlocking their cars or putting out bins. After particularly gruelling nights, I baked the sets of neighbours both sides a batch of bone-shaped cookies, leaving notes in describing how Betty had helped and she was very sorry about all the noise. With a splotch meant to look like she had signed off with a paw print. They ate the cookies and left the containers on my doorstep but never a return note. Never acknowledging the cause of our collective misery.
It’s not like I asked for her. She just turned up on the doorstep one day.
As previously mentioned, in the daytime she usually doesn’t demand so much attention. But it wasn’t always so. Before I trained her, she was a little nightmare. I almost considered renaming her Blasphemy, so often did she have me cussing at some idiotic ruinous thing she had done.
I like to start my weekends by writing in a journal, listings things I’m grateful for. My best friend Suzanne suggested it and, perhaps sensing my reluctance, bought me a pad with ‘make every day count’ written on it, underlining a picture of a rainbow. I stuck it in a draw. Then one sleepless, nails a-clacking night I started writing in it to grumble about how tired I was and sort of took it from there, really. Betty thinks my writing implements are brightly coloured sticks longing to be gnawed.
After she loses interest in that tug of war, I move on to yoga. Suzanne cannot take credit for that idea. My GP suggested it when I complained of my aching back and cracking joints. When I assume the bridge position, Betty likes to pretend she’s at Crufts and I’m an obstacle to either run under or jump over. I gave up doing tree pose after she tried to cock her leg on me.
In the evenings I sometimes like to play on my acoustic guitar. I don’t sing very well. Sometimes Betty will howl along. Which had me in hysterics the first few times but then I wondered if she was maliciously trying to drown me out, relegating me to backing singer while she took centre stage.
Occasionally I like to take a bath before bed. I make an event of it – candles, oils, soothing sounds playing from my mobile, a magazine that always ends up damp and curly no matter how careful I try to be. If I’m in there too long, Betty will rest her snout on the bath’s rim and gaze at me with those doleful eyes as if wondering why I’ve decided to become half fish. I see my nakedness reflected in her eyes and find fault with it even in that warped miniature form. I get her to leave by phoning the landline from my mobile.
I tried knitting, as a way to occupy the hands wanting to harm me, to give my scattered thoughts some direction. It works up until the moment Betty decides she’s a cat after all, and bats my balls of wool around the floor.
Me and my shadow. This black dog only I can see, that I’ve had to accept is a part of me. Small enough to fit on my shoulder, pressing down with all the weight of the world.