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The Power of a Small, Shaggy Mongrel

(Page 2 of 3)

"Are you allowed to keep a dog in the Centre?" I ask.

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"The warden lets me keep him if he's well-behaved - and I am. He thinks he might have a good influence."

Hearing his name, the warden looks round the door. "Mind what I've told you, Rob," he says.

Rob ignores him and marches off down the corridor with the dog at his heel. I hear shouts coming from the dining room, "Here's the dog! The dug! Good dug!"

The next morning when I go to the dining room, I see at once that something quite new has happened. The most familiar of the inmates are sitting together: rowdy Big John, always ready for a fight; rancorous Benjy, who probably hasn't held a job in a long time; bitter, sharp-tongued Meg; silent Sam; and Rob with the dog sitting close to him. Gladd may accept all the others, but he is Rob's property and Rob his. "Funny the people who talk to you when you're out walking, because you've got a dug," Rob is sa ying.

Instead of their usual bickering, the inmates almost defer to the dog - he is the center of the group, wagging his tail at every mention of his name - thump, thump. "Why did you call him Gladd?" Meg keeps asking - the origin of his name has evidently taken her fancy. She repeats over and over, like the words of a song: "Geordie, Larry, Allie, Dougie, Davie," and then she asks, "Do you keep in touch with them?"

Rob pauses. "Since we left home, we've drifted apart."

The word home suddenly stirs the air, like the working of a magic spell, some subtle sorcery, calling up a half-mythical age before these people became what they are now. They sit silent for a moment, lost perhaps in old memories of parents, family affections, more hopeful times.

"I'd not call this place home," Big John says at last.

"It's the best we've got, the best we deserve," Meg declares caustically, adding, "I wouldn't like them to see me here."

All at once Big John screws up his large, lined face, reaching back, trying to recall something he once knew. As it comes to him he gives a rasping laugh, more of a cackle than a laugh. "There was a pome we learned at school," he says, "that we had to recite to the teacher. Robbie Burns' `Twa Dogs' it was." I wonder what he remembers. Does he see a small, grubby boy in a crowded city classroom, a youthful, very different self? "I only mind the last line," he says. "When up they gat and shook their lugs, Rejoiced they were na' men but dugs."

"That's good," says Meg. "Dugs are best."

"I mind the night I found him," Rob says. "I was walking near the big houses over there, the fog thicker every minute. I began to have a queer feeling that someone or something was following me. I kept looking round, uneasy, but I didn't see a thing.

"Then this beast comes out of the mirk and takes hold of my jacket, not to bite me, mind, just to attach itself to me. I couldn't shake it off. Awa' home, I said, but it wouldn't budge, almost as if he knew I wasn't up to any good.

"He was right too - I was hoping that in the fog I might nab something. Here he was, a stray beast, with no home."

"Just like me," says Benjy drearily.

"It's a wonder you could keep him," Big John says.