Mum did her dalmatian readings on Friday nights after lights out. Neighbours paid two quid a go to stare at Pongo and say what they saw. At first, it was a wine-warmed laugh with her mates. Like Barbara who said her husband worked away but no-one had seen him since the mines shut, and Joanne, who was more gum than teeth and never had a boyfriend. They sat around the dining table that we never ate at since dad left, sharing their smokers cough and mint Matchmakers. I was curled on the settee fake-sleeping, straining to hear above the sound of Dallas in the background.
‘That one near his bum looks like an angry robot,’ said Barbara.
Mum stubbed her fag into the glass bowl with more sharp edges than I could count and breathed out for a long time.
‘Barb. You’re scared of technology. Of the future. Of being replaced. And when you’re scared, you lash out. Instead of being scared of it, be the future, get out there.’
I didn’t understand at the time that you can have more than one feeling at the same time. Barbara’s grief-rage-excitement cocktail just looked like what dad used to call ‘hormonal’. But she took mum’s advice and enrolled on a local computing course and ended up with more money than Ron ever made. She bought her own Nissan Maxima and got a perm. She never mentioned Ron again.
Word got out to the neighbours and the canine Rorschach really took off. When I got in from school, mum would be studying a pile of books from the library, picking out sentences and underlining them in pencil, then typing them up on an electronic typewriter. She’d peel potatoes, staring into the back yard at the orange space hopper I was too big to bounce on, saying things in her funny not-from-Stoke-today voice.
‘You’re envisioning what you want to be’ or ‘the phallus is a symbol of strength’.
The more she used words they didn’t understand, the more they could make it fit just what they wanted. Aunty Jean stopped wearing bras and shaving her legs when she saw a black blob on Pongo’s soft ear as a butterfly – ‘change and freedom’ mum said, dropping pound coins into the zip section of her purse now there were no more pound notes to fold away.
Along the way, it changed from being about what the mind was saying to predicting the future. I don’t know why. Maybe that’s what we all really needed Pongo to be, something more dependable than mines and pottery factories. Something for the future not the past.
It was Mrs Hummings the lollipop lady who started it off. She needed an operation that the women all lowered their voices to talk about, shaking their heads with their mouths in a straight line. Pongo trotted right up to Mrs Hummings and lay his head on her lap. Probably smelt the chippy dinner.
‘Oh bloody hell, look at his ear! It’s a thumbs-up clear as day! Look at the big thumb shape pointing right up Liz, I’m going be okay.’
Nobody said that the thumbs up could look like a thumbs down depending whether you were sitting in front of Pongo or standing over him.
Mrs Hummings was okay in the end, she started speed-walking a few months after her operation and set up a business taking people’s dogs for walks with her niece called ‘Pet Shop Girls,’ which was kind of funny even though they didn’t have a pet shop.
Every Friday night got booked up so mum started doing readings on Saturday afternoons. People were catching the bus up from all the six towns. She even had two old ladies over from Cheshire who took their shoes off in the hallway, oohing and aahing over the scratched Minton tiles like they were in a museum.
On Sundays, I’d take Pongo for a big run across the park, none of this dawdling with women who stopped to gossip or touch flowers every few steps. He went wild for the frisbee, hurtling himself like this might be the last time. We’d run until my lungs burnt in a good way, then wrestle on the grass and pant. I knew it was all pretend, good for mum to have something to do, to feel better about herself. She started laughing more, crying less, sleeping in her bedroom again instead of downstairs. Stopped jumping so much when the phone rang.
I lay on the grass listening to Pongo’s fast breaths, rubbing the soft skin of his ears. His tail flapped happily. I wondered if dad ever thought of Pongo. Whether he missed him. Whether he’d ever come back. On the end of Pongo’s tail, I caught sight of a curve of black that could have been a smile, a wink, a yes. Or the thick black line of a marker pen that crosses out words that you’re not allowed to read because they’re too secret, not for you to know.
Bio: Stephanie Hutton is a writer and clinical psychologist in Staffordshire, UK. In 2017, she was nominated for Best of the Net and shortlisted for Bath Short Story Award and the Bristol Prize. Find her at stephaniehutton.com