The Power of a Small, Shaggy Mongrel

THERE are certain mornings here in Scotland when I wake with a sense of oppression. Then I remember: It is my week for voluntary duty at the Centre in the nearby town, serving breakfast to the down-and-outs there. I leave just after dawn, driving from the green countryside, and enter a bleak townscape hit hard by the recession. A steep cobbled street leads down to the Centre where the warden, familiar after many years, opens the door for me. He has a world-weary look that seems to say: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here."

The old building may be repainted, new linoleum laid, new appliances added to the kitchen, but sometimes it seems as if nothing essential changes. The same distinctive smell hangs in the air, one of poverty, misery, unwashed clothes, damp, and despair. Our routine, too, never alters - we begin at once to stir the vast pot of porridge, spread bread, make toast, fry eggs and sausages. We rush along to the dining room to ask who wants corn flakes instead of porridge, who would like jam, and to ask the warde n how things are. We hear the invariable reply: "Not much different".

One of the laws of the Centre, as inviolable as those of the Medes and the Persians, is that the inmates must be served first. The outmates make their bed under a railway bridge, on a park bench slumped in some shadowy corner, or in a run-down building.

I always dread the Monday morning atmosphere in the dining room. The men and women sitting around the tables have gray faces filled with self-disgust. Some are aggressive, resentful, glowering at the volunteers who hand them their plates. They are slumped in apathy and gloom, some with a sense that life has let them down, others with a dim realization that they themselves have misused life. The tables are awash with tea, egg yolks, lumps of congealed porridge. I have not been in the Centre since the summ er months, and I wonder if perhaps the inmates will glare at me a little less, but it seems unlikely. The bleak November day increases my sense of failure and my inadequacy to communicate with these people.

I return to the kitchen and put down a plateful of leftovers, sausages, half-eaten eggs, crusts. If only there were a dog to eat up all these scraps, I think. And then suddenly, rising up from nowhere like the genie of Aladdin's lamp, there is a dog. It's a shaggy brown mongrel with flopping ears, a steady brown-eyed gaze, and mixed ancestry - a touch of collie and some Labrador, perhaps. It has a very definite presence. I assume the entrance door must have been left ajar, and the dog has been drawn in b y the odor of cooking.

As I go to put down the plate of scraps, a fierce voice calls sharply: "Yon's my dug - I'm the only one to feed him." The voice belongs to Rob, one of the inmates who's always in trouble. I try to avoid any disagreement with him. No one would wish to get on the wrong side of Rob. He stands there, glowering, one hand on the dog's collar, the other ready to grab the plate if I dare disobey his orders.

"What's his name?" I ask.

"If you really want to know," he says, "I called him after the first letter of my brothers' names - Geordie, Larry, Allie, Dougie, Davie. Work it out. I'm told there's only one `d,' but I'm glad my dug's got two - he deserves it. Come on, Gladd." He motions to me, "Leave yon plate to the side and I'll feed him later."

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

"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.

"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."

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.

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