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The Power of a Small, Shaggy Mongrel

(Page 3 of 3)

"The warden had a funny look when I turned up with a dug," Rob goes on. "Aff with yon beast, he tells me. No dogs here. The dog sat between us, looking up at him and then at me - I've never seen such eyes. I thought the warden was beginning to weaken, he wasn't going on with his Aff dug! `All right, you can keep it,' he says at last. `A dog might teach you manners - I can't, no one can.' Look at his tail wagging - he knows we're talking about him."

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ON my last day of duty at the Centre, when I go along to the dining room for the final clearing up, the familiars are sitting in their usual place. They are enjoying another privilege, lingering over a last cup of tea, before they, too, head out into the bleak winter day. Instead of their silence or hostile taunts and jibes, there is a flood of talk.

Benjy has suddenly said that he might find a job today, while something even more startling happens. Sam, who has always sat in impenetrable silence, suddenly clears his throat as if in preparation for speech.

He stretches out his hand, hesitates, withdraws it, then reaches out again, while the strangest croaking voice emerges, rusty from lack of use. "Can I pat the wee dug?" he asks. "He won't bite?"

"Gie him a paw, Gladd," says Rob. Sam begins to stroke the dog, gaining confidence, repeating under his breath, "Good wee dug," while over his thin face comes something like the shadow of far away and long ago, a memory dredged up from childhood.

"I mind a blind old woman up our close who had a dog that led her all over the town," says Big John. "That dog was wiser than any human being."

"That wouldn't be difficult," Meg sneers.

While they linger over their talk, I too linger so as to hear them. Rob is cutting up sausages for Gladd. "Just see him!" he exclaims proudly. "I used to twist everything, now the dog gives me a look that means, Yon's no' true, and I say, `You're right, Gladd, it isn't.' "

It is time for them to leave. They trudge out into the gray November morning with its wisps of fog only beginning to clear. They all head off in different directions. I wonder what their existence is like beyond these walls.

Big John has a comical swagger belonging to better, braver days. Meg buttons up her shabby coat, pulls a frowsty felt hat down over her ears as if clad in the highest fashion. Benjy is grinning; Sam wheezing after so much strain on his vocal chords.

The warden and I watch them go. "Mind," the warden calls after Rob, "Behave or you know what'll happen." Rob waves to him, gives a sudden, unexpected smile, and vanishes off down the street, whistling to his dog. Like a brown shadow, Gladd follows close behind.

"Surely they're all a little happier?" I ask.

The warden, who during his long service has witnessed more of the seamy side of humanity than most, considers this.

"It's a funny thing," he replies. "For years I've worked with them and I couldn't claim much success, perhaps none at all. Then a dog - a dug! - comes along and in a few weeks does more than I've done in years. It's humbling - but for a pessimist like me it's like a gleam of hope. When you give up hoping you might as well give up living. There's my answer to you," he says.