Story for the season: Christmas in the Kennels

Introduction: It’s a bit of a tradition for me to publish a Christmas story in this festive time of the year, and this year’s no exception. I first wrote this story quite a few years ago, but it’s never been published anywhere, not in print or online. To tell you the truth, I’d forgotten about it in fact until I came across it again in my files just a couple of weeks ago, and thought it still worked pretty well. It’s a story for a general audience, for both kids and adults.

It’s a seasonal story with a difference, told from the point of view of dogs in boarding kennels and was inspired by the fact that when our kids were growing up, we had a lovely dog called Tess, a Border Collie cross(see pic just below) and when we occasionally went down to Sydney for Christmas, she had to go into boarding kennels nearby, as we couldn’t take her with us. The kennels were run by some very nice people who were always kind to the dogs, but Tess was not very keen on being there, she just loved being with us, of course. There were always lots of dogs there, of all sorts, and one day, as we were picking Tess up, the idea for this story jumped into my mind. (Tess by the way also features in my picture book with illustrator Katrina Fisher, A House of Mud , published by Little Pink Dog Books, 2020).

So now, without further ado, here’s the story: Christmas in the Kennels. Hope you enjoy!

CHRISTMAS IN THE KENNELS

by Sophie Masson.

Look, Tess, this is a nice place, lots of space, and those trees, aren’t they beautiful and shady!

You’ll be happy here. There’s lots of other dogs.

See?

Mum, Dad, do you think she understands we’re coming back? She looks sad…

Of course she does. Come on, children. We’re late. Bye-bye, sweet Tess. We’ll be back soon, we promise.

That would have to do, Tess supposed. It didn’t make it much easier, being left behind, but holding on to the promise would have to do. She had little choice anyway. What dog did?

That’s right, my dear, look on the bright side, said a gruff voice from the next cage, where a St Bernard sat with his chin on his paws, looking at her. Tess started, for she had not been aware she’d spoken out loud.

They look like good people, the St Bernard went on, kindly. They’ll be back.

Hmmm, sniffed an elegant black poodle on his other side, if they were so good, they wouldn’t leave you here, would  they, while they went off to their Christmas!

Please, Miss ffrench-French, said the St Bernard gravely, you must be patient and bear our lot with fortitude and show the world the true honour of a dog.

The poodle snorted loudly and was about to reply, when a mournful-looking Labrador broke in. It’s fine to think so, Professor, he said, turning to the St Bernard, but still, you must admit that it is strange. All year, they pet us and love us, but then disappear to this Christmas, and never take us. And I never stop wondering why. What is this place that wants no dogs near it?

I don’t know what it is, said Tess, perplexedly. This is the first time my people have left me here. I think they must only just have found how to get to Christmas.

It’s a place they go to every year, my people, said a Scottish terrier excitedly, they are bidden there by a fat man in a red suit, who you must never, never bark at.

Perhaps it’s a kind of kennel, suggested a timid-looking young spaniel, waving her plume-like tail.

Don’t be foolish, Carla, snapped the poodle. People don’t go to kennels. Only we do.

Christmas is a place wherever people are, said the Professor firmly. It is a place they carry with them, because even the kennel-people talk of it, and they do not move from their house.

Only people? said the spaniel. Not dogs?

Of course not, said the poodle. Whoever heard of dogs going to Christmas? No, it’s a place for people, and people only, whether they stay, or go away.

There was silence for a moment while they all thought about this, then the spaniel said anxiously, But even if people go away, they always come back, don’t they?

You are only ten moons old, Carla, said the poodle, contemptuously, what would you know? They don’t always come back.

Hush, hush, Miss ffrench-French , said the Professor, quickly, but too late.

All at once, a terrible sound tore into the air, a sound such as Tess had never heard before, not a yelp, not a bark, not even a howl, but a shriek, a scream, a veritable ululation of madness and grief.

And Tess saw that what she had taken to be an bundle of dark rags left in the empty cage opposite, was in fact a dog. A pitiful, shaking beagle, with a dull coat and thin legs and haunted eyes.

Tess was shaking too. She stared at the beagle, the dull coat, the haunted eyes. The terrible shriek rent the air again, and the same pain was on everyone’s faces, the pain of a big dark empty world, an endless space of lonely abandonment.

We can’t do anything, whispered the Professor sadly, nothing at all. You see…

But a woman was coming towards the dogs, rattling keys, tutting, and so he fell silent.

Now then, Bess, said the woman, opening the beagle’s door so that Tess saw the other dog was not even locked in; now then, Bess, what’s upset you this time, sweetie? And she got down on her knees, and gently patted the beagle’s shuddering head, and made her lie down on the little blue rug in the cage, and then she left. Once again, the beagle lay limp and listless, just like old clothes on the floor of her cage. Tess could not take her eyes off the pitiful sight.

 Her people left her here two moons ago, hissed Miss french­ French’s haughty voice. They left her here, and they didn’t come back.

Weren’t they good people? breathed Carla.

They seemed like good people, said the Professor heavily. I was there when they brought her. They  fussed  over her, petted her, said goodbye with many promises. But they didn’t come back . And they still haven’t come back.

Silence, while they all digested the awful fact, then Tess whispered, But why, why hasn’t someone else come to take her? Why is she still here?

They’re kind-hearted people, in the kennels, said the Professor gently . They tried to find her a home–they even tried to adopt her themselves. But she won’t leave her cage: you can see she’s not locked in. She won’t leave the rug her people left for her. she thinks that if she stays here, in the same spot, with that same rug, that they ‘ll be back one day. She can’t bear to go anywhere else, not even out in the yard, in case they do.

But, said the Labrador with a sob in his throat, they won’t be back , will they…

No, said the Professor sadly, I’m afraid they won’t. They can’t. He whispered something to Tess , then to the poodle , then down the line , and as he spoke, the same look flashed on all their faces , even the poodle’s. They were nearly all quiet, though; all but the spaniel, who lifted up her muzzle to howl in fear and pity, for she was too young to keep silent before the mention of death. But everyone gave her such a glare that she subsided, twitching.

It was not a pleasant night, that night, for Tess; and the next day was grey and damp and gloomy. But the kennel-people seemed cheerful enough, they hummed under their breath as they hosed out the cages and let the dogs out to run in the yard. Tess ran a few paces, more from habit than conviction; the other dogs did the same, all but Bess, who sat in her cage crouched over her blue rug.

Well, my friends, said the kennel -lady, when she’d herded them all back in, we’ll give you an extra big feed today, because I’ll have no time tonight. She seemed excited, and hummed whilst filling the dishes, and in her hurry to get back to the house, forgot to lock the shed where she kept the dog food.

The rain came in the afternoon, drizzling at first, then thick grey ropes of it. The dogs were all in their cages, chins on paws, looking out at the rain, talking softly of this and that and watching the glow of the kennel-people’s house, lit up already for the dark afternoon. Their keen eyes could see busy shadows passing across the lit windows and their sharp ears could hear cheerful noises, and somehow, it made them all feel strange, jumpy, even a little excited. Only Bess did not move, hunched in her corner.

The rain eased towards night, then stopped altogether as the big white moon began to rise in the clear sky over the trees. The dogs ‘ chatter eased with the rain and stopped in joyful wonder at the sight of the moon, and peace descended on the kennels, a strange deep hush that was made up of  tiny sounds, like the noisy silence of the sea.

All at once, ears pricked, heads turned, hackles rose. There was another sound, not made of moonlit night, but of something different. Tess sat bolt upright. A whisper.

Human. Rough, young. Normally, she would have barked, loudly, but tonight, she did no such thing, just rose stiffly to her feet and peered in silence at the people out there. A girl, a boy, stumbling a little; the girl round­ bellied, with a lovely face the colour of honey and long dark hair, the boy thin, pale, pinched face, sad blue eyes.

This is the place, Sal. I worked here once. The dogs were cool. There was a shed…it was dry, warm.

Oh, Tone, why don’t we just ask at the house? They’ll help us…and the dogs…I’m not sure about the dogs…Oh Tone, I’m afraid. I wish we could…

Tess could see the girl’s frightened brown eyes flashing over the kennels, the dogs silent and tense in their cages, listening but not barking at the intruders, not yet.

You know they’d call the cops, if we went to the house. And dogs are cool, repeated the boy. They’re kind. Not like people. Come on, Sal. You’ll be safe there, I promise. There’s hot water there, I remember. And spare blankets… I’ll help you. I won’t leave you.

There was a strangeness to his voice, thought Tess. A roughness that might turn fierce, that might be frightening, but with a timid tenderness in it , something not quite sure of itself, and deep underneath , a fear, a fear that all living creatures know well, the aching fear of loss. Held by the strange silver night, and the things she heard in the voices, Tess stayed quiet and, like the others, watched as the boy and girl made their way to the shed and disappeared into its darkness. Now the dogs stirred. We should bark and alert the kennel-people , whispered Miss ffrench-French. They should not be here, those people. They are intruders.

No, they’re just poor strays, said the Labrador, quietly.

Strays should go to the pound, Gelert, snapped the poodle.

Miss ffrench-French, said the Professor, that is not a fate to wish on one’s worst enemy. And that girl is carrying a pup in her belly, if I’m not mistaken.

All the same, sniffed the poodle, they should not be here. But despite her stern words, she did not bark, or yelp, or draw any attention from the brightly-lit house to the dark shed. Like the others, she waited, uneasily still in the moonlit night.

No-one took any notice of Bess, sitting huddled in her corner, almost as still as before, but with her ears twitching, feebly, once or twice.

Do you hear that, whispered the spaniel, presently, her body trembling all over. That noise, oh , what is it?

It’s the pup, said the Labrador, with his eyes huge in the moonlight. It’s the pup, coming. I remember when…

Spare us your stories, snapped the poodle. Oh, it really is too bad. We should bark. Someone should come, to help that girl.

We could help, said the Scottie excitedly, jumping up and down on the spot. We could do something …something, er…something really useful.

Oh, and what do you propose, my dear Jock? said the poodle with heavy sarcasm, silencing the Scottie.

The spaniel turned towards the Professor. Oh sir, what do you think?  What can we do?

Don’t call me sir, said the St Bernard, rather glumly. Professor is my title. Er…my dear , I think Miss ffrench­ French is right. We should bark, and alert the people in the house. I think it is the only thing to…

But all at once, a new voice interrupted him. An odd voice that sounded cracked or rusty, as if it had been left out too long in the rain.

My rug, said this voice. It’s a baby’s rug.

The dogs all turned in amazement. Bess was standing at the wire door of her cage, and she had a limp blue thing in her mouth. The rug.

After a while, the Professor said, gently, That’s a lovely thought, Bess, but a rug won’t do anything…

Then from the dark shed came muffled screams, and then a tiny, thin cry. That little cry was like the opposite of Bess’ shriek, before. Tiny as it was, it seemed to fill the whole world. It resounded in the dogs’ ears like fear, and like joy. Tess felt the mystery of it tingling in all of her being, so that she wanted to lift her muzzle to the sky and cry her heart to the moon. And she saw that the others did too.

No, said the cracked voice of the beagle, don’t do that, my friends. Tess looked at the beagle and saw that her haunted eyes were filled with the mystery too, and that the mystery, somehow, had reached her sooner than the others, and caused her to stagger up onto her feet at last. You’ll frighten the baby, and the mother too, if you howl, went on the beagle. My people always said I must be quiet, near the baby. They all stiffened at those words, but the beagle’s eyes were not mad with sorrow now but calm and determined.

But Bess, said the Professor, humbly, at last, you know we only wanted to mark the birth of the child.

I know that, said Bess, but they don’t. And they’ll be frightened. And you’ll alert everyone in the house.

That would be for the best, then, grumbled the poodle, and almost jumped back in astonishment when Bess replied, quietly, Why, so it would be, Miss ffrench-French. But later. Later. For now…

And she pushed at the wire door of her cage. It opened, and she stepped out. She picked up the blue rug and trotted off towards the shed. They all watched her go, in an aching silence. Only the poodle spoke.

Well, really, the ungrateful chit, after all we’ve done, you’d think she’d think of us…

Hush, Miss ffrench-French, said the spaniel, not timidly at all. And so determined was her voice that the poodle subsided without another word.

Tess stood behind the wire of her cage in the moonlight and watched the dark space at the mouth of the shed. She was thinking of the human pup in there, of its parents, and of her own people. Her people had little ones too, though they were not so small as that unknown one in there, and she had never seen them very small. But once, she’d had a pup herself; a little black one, with white-pointed ears. He had tumbled over her, and she had let him bite her ears, and her tail, and put up with his frantic barking, and his foolish tricks, for he was her pup. In time he had grown up, and gone away, and for a while she had missed him, and howled.

But after a time, she’d grown used to his being gone. Now, she remembered him again, his bright mischievous eyes, and the white points on his busybody ears. Somewhere in the world, he was, and perhaps had fathered pups of his own. The thought made her tail twitch, and her ears prick, and her body fill again with the tingling sensation that was like fear, and like joy.

Look, said the Professor, look, my friends…

And there was Bess, and the boy beside her. He staggered a little, his pale face was no longer pinched, but somehow puffy, his blue eyes shone with the bright strangeness of tears, and his voice trembled with a tenderness that was no longer timid, and no at all rough.

Oh dogs, dear dogs, he whispered, she’s so lovely, so lovely, like you wouldn’t believe!  So lovely, like her mum. So lovely, our little daughter. He paused for a while, then went on, An’ dogs, I think I’d better…I think we’d better go down to the house . She…they need proper care. They’ll call the cops, maybe, and then, well…His shoulders sagged. But otherwise it’s not fair to my love. Not fair to our little one.  No more runnin ‘, see? No more. No matter what.

The moon shone on his face, and there was a smile on it, growing and spreading. And it was as if the moonlight itself was in that smile, as if it grew from it, and filled the whole of that place. He reached  down to Bess, and stroked her ears, and he said, almost as though he was speaking to himself, Christmas…it’s Christmas. Never meant much to me, before. But I’ll never forget this one. Never.

The dogs watched him go, running towards the house, with Bess at his heels. Their sharp ears heard his knock, the surprised voices at the door, their keen eyes caught the succession of wary, then astonished, then urgent expressions on the faces of the kennel-people, caught in the yellow flood of light at the door. They saw how the people came hurrying across the lawn and into the shed to fill it with soft exclamations, and warm cries of delight and concern, with Bess making soft sounds, her nose pushed into the boy’s hand, and he was stroking her, his face filled with light.

The dogs stood there at their wire doors and watched the girl and her baby being helped gently, oh so gently, towards the welcoming house. They watched not in silence, this time, but with a chorus of joyful barks and shouts and yelps and howls that filled the moonlit night and made the people shrug a little, and smile, but not tell them to hush. And just as the people disappeared into the full yellow light of the house, the spaniel said, thoughtfully, Did you hear what he said, before? He said it was Christmas.

All eyes turned to the poodle, sitting silent on her haunches, staring up at the moon. Tess saw that Miss ffrench-French’s elegant nose twitched slightly, and her groomed black sides moved in and out rapidly, as if she’d been running. But when she spoke, the poodle’s voice was very quiet, and soft.

Yes, Carla, she said. That is quite right. It is Christmas, right here amongst us, in the kennels.

Text and photo copyright ©Sophie Masson.

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