‘He followed me home, Mum,’ ten year old Tom said with a grin. ‘Can I keep him?’ He shut the front door and put his schoolbag down. ‘Honest, he was sitting outside school on the path. He was just, sort of, waiting for me. Please?’ He turned and patted the Irish wolfhound lying on the floor next to him.
‘It must belong to someone,’ Phoebe said. ‘We can’t look after him. There’s no room in this flat for a great big dog.’
‘I can keep him in my room, he won’t get any bigger than this. He won’t eat much—’
‘You’re joking! It’ll be wolfing down half a ton of steak every day.Wwhere do you think they got the name?’
‘No. It’s bad enough in there as it is, every time I open a cupboard, jars full of stick insects fall out. And after the last time I opened your sock drawer… that disgusting caterpillar thing… no more animals. My nerves can’t take it.’
He tutted and rolled his eyes. ‘It’s a giant millipede, not a caterpillar. Oh, come on Mum, the dog’ll be company for you when I’m in school. He’ll protect you, as well. Please?’
As if on cue, the dog let out a deep, resonant, bark.
‘And you can shut up,’ Phoebe said. ‘What do I need protection for? In case I suddenly find the flat’s full of wolves? It’d only take one to fill the place up. Something to keep the wolf from the door, that’s what we need.’
The dog rose onto its hind legs and put its front paws on her shoulders. It rested its chin on the top of her head.
‘See, he likes you,’ Tom said, grabbing a handful of the dog’s fur and pulling him back down. ‘How can you resist those big brown eyes?’
‘Quite easily. I’ve had lots of practice.’ Especially with blokes who think that being a widow means I’ll fall flat on my back, she thought. I’m good at getting rid of unwanted males.
She bent down and read the tag on the dog’s collar. It had an address, a phone number and a message.
‘”My name’s Finnegan. I live with my big sister, Marlee Grant and my Daddy, Oisin Grant”. Yuck, how twee. I hope the engraver charged…Oysin? Ohsheen? Whatever it is—by the word.’
‘It’s “Usheen”. I know, ‘cos Marlee Grant told me.’ Thomas said, wrinkling his nose up. ‘She’s in my class. But she hasn’t been in school all week.’
Phoebe rang the phone number. No reply. ‘I hope they haven’t gone on holiday and just left their dog. He probably came to school looking for them. Come on, we’re taking him round there. Race you to the bus stop.’
It was dark by the time they arrived at the large detached house on the other side of town. The dog stood by Tom’s side.
‘You see? Finnegan wants to stay with us. He didn’t run to the door, scratch to get in or anything.’
Phoebe rang the doorbell. Nothing. She rang the number on the dog tag. She heard the phone ringing in the house. No reply.
Tom scrambled up onto the garden wall and peered over the fence on top. ‘Curtains are open. It’s all dark in there.’
Phoebe pulled at his coat. ‘Get down. Neighbours’ll be calling the police.’ She wrote her name, phone number and ‘Come and get your dog’ on a bit of paper and shoved it through the letter box.
‘They’d better come back soon. Or I’ll have to get the RSPCA to pick him up,’ Phoebe said, as she eyed the shelves of dog food in the supermarket.
Tom dropped a lead into the basket. ‘Mum, no! What if Marlee comes to get him and he’s gone? The RSPCA might give him to someone else. Or even…’ He bit his lower lip.
Phoebe ruffled his hair. ‘OK, chuck, he can stay—for now. But I’m keeping all the receipts. This is costing a fortune.’
She wondered what the landlord would say when he came to collect the rent. They’d have to stash the dog in a bedroom, she was pretty sure they weren’t meant to have pets. But Mr Lewis wouldn’t mind—would he? He’d just laughed, that time when the hamster had crawled onto his shoulder and made him spill his tea on the battered sofa. ‘Boys!’ he’d said, rolling his eyes and dabbing at the mustard-coloured cover with a handkerchief.
They sneaked the dog out of the flat for walks after dark, or very early in the morning, keeping to the shadows like spies. Phoebe wished the Grants had chosen a Chihuahua, as Finnegan dragged her along the road.
The dog barked as Phoebe and Tom led him into the vet’s surgery.
‘Finnegan James, is it?’ the vet said.
‘It’s Finnegan Grant, we’re just looking after him.’ The dog sat next to the examination table.
‘He’s eating and drinking,’ Phoebe said. ‘I’ve never actually seen him sleep, he seems full of go. And that’s just it. He never has–er–gone. Not once. And we’ve had him nearly a week.’
‘You mean, he’s constipated? Poor old Finnegan, let’s check you out.’ The dog held out a paw. The vet shook it, then prodded the dog’s stomach. He listened with a stethoscope. He took the earpieces out, blew down them, wiped them on a tissue and replaced them. He dabbed at the dog with the chest piece end.
The vet’s brow furrowed. ‘I can’t pick up a heartbeat. Odd, he’s not overweight. I’m going to have to do some x rays. I’ll try without a sedative, he seems pretty laid back. Do you mind hanging on in the waiting room for a bit?’
Half an hour later, he called them back in.
‘Ha ha, very funny. Have to hand it to you, you had me fooled,’ he said.
‘What?’ Phoebe said.
The vet frowned. ‘Get away with you.’
‘We don’t know what you mean,’ Tom said. He clutched Phoebe’s arm. ‘Oh no, is there something wrong with him?’
‘If you really don’t know what I’m on about, then you’re the victims of the biggest wind-up since Big Ben’s clock. Look!’ He clipped the radiograph onto a light box on the wall. ‘I couldn’t get a heartbeat because he hasn’t got a heart. Or anything else–he’s some sort of very sophisticated replica.’
‘Now you’re winding me up.’ Phoebe said.
‘No, I mean it. Animatronic, could be, like they had in the flicks before they invented CGI.’ He pointed at what looked like the inside of a radio, all wires and strange looking electronic bits and pieces. ‘Incredibly realistic. You say it eats?’
‘Damn right he does,’ Phoebe said. ‘Won’t touch the supermarket’s own brand dog food either, it’s got to be the good stuff.’
The vet cupped his chin in his hand. ‘Hmm. Well, there’s a passage leading from his mouth to a reservoir–here, do you see?’ he pointed again. ‘But nothing leading out. Must have a gadget in there that breaks the food down to… a gas or something. Amazing.’
‘Uh-uh, he doesn’t fart, either,’ Tom said. ‘Yuck, imagine! Our flat’s tiny, he’d fill it right up.’ He held his nose. ‘Perhaps he does and we just don’t smell it. What do you think, Mum?’
Phoebe frowned and mouthed at him to shut up.
‘Amazing!’ the vet said again. ‘Did your friend get it off the internet? Hope there’s not a lot of these android dogs about, ha ha, be putting me out of business.’
‘So he’s some kind of–dogoid? Wonder what’d happen if we didn’t feed him?’ Phoebe said when they got home.
‘Mum! You’ve got to. It might work like some kind of power source, instead of a battery. I don’t know how androids work. Or dogoids.’
Tom set his mobile phone on the top of the bookcase in the corner of the room. ‘I’m going to make a video of him. Send it into that Funny Pets programme. You stand up.’ he ticked the different moves off on his fingers ‘I’ll get him to put his paws on your shoulders, you fall over. Then I’ll trip over you. Then Finnegan can—’
‘No way! You can do your own stunts.’
The doorbell rang. Phoebe put her finger to her lips and gestured to Tom to put Finnegan in the kitchen. ‘Shut the door properly,’ she whispered. Tom did as she asked, ran to the sofa and sat down.
A fat, greasy-haired man in his thirties stood at the door. Darren Lewis, the landlord’s nephew.
‘My uncle’s had to go into hospital,’ he said, his eyes moving from Phoebe’s face, to her legs, and back up. ‘He sent me round.’
‘Come in,’ Phoebe said. ‘The rent’s all ready.’
She took an envelope out of her bag and handed it over. Lewis clutched it in his fist, ‘love’ tattooed on the knuckles. He sat down on the sofa next to Tom and spread his legs out. Tom moved as far away as he could without falling on the floor.
Lewis counted the money. ‘All there. Right, I’ve got some other business with you two.’ He pushed the envelope into his pocket and turned to Tom. ‘Got a dog, sonny?’
Tom looked down at his feet and kicked at the leg of the sofa.
‘Mind me uncle’s property, Lewis said.
‘Look,’ Phoebe said. ‘We haven’t got a dog.’
‘I’m talking to him, not you. Well? Where’s your dog?’
‘Haven’t got one.’
‘You sure? Neighbour said he heard one. You know pets aren’t allowed.’
Right on cue, Finnegan barked. Tom ran to the kitchen and stood with his back to the door. Lewis knocked him over as he pushed him aside and wrenched the door open.
‘You’ve been telling me porkies, haven’t you, lad?’ He lurched inside. ‘Jesus Christ, what’s that? A fucking horse?’
Tom staggered to his feet. The barking got louder, followed by growling. Lewis came out.
‘Bastard’s vicious. Should be put down.’
‘Oh sorry, so sorry, sit down again. I am so sorry.’ Phoebe felt her face grow hot and her hands shook. The sofa creaked under Lewis’s weight.
‘It’s OK, Mr. Lewis sir, the dog’s not real! It’s a–sort of robot.’ Tom said.
‘What, K-9 off Dr Who, is it? Do me a favour, do I look like a fucking dalek? Piss off, son. I wanna talk to your mum.’
Tom went into the kitchen. Phoebe stood up.
‘Get back here.’ Lewis pulled her onto the sofa next to him. ‘I know your sort. You’re gagging for it, aren’t you?’
Phoebe watched his fingers, ‘HATE’ tattooed across the knuckles, move up her leg. Her throat tightened. ‘Stop that,’ she croaked.
‘Come off it, girlie. Wanna be evicted? Poor single mother. Poor little lad. Sitting in a shop doorway, dog on a bit of old string. Big aaah.’ Lewis stood up. ‘I’ll be back tomorrow, when your lad’s in school. You’d better change your tune. Think the old bitch next door slipped on a fucking banana skin?’
Tom came out of the kitchen and picked up the phone.
‘Forget it,’ Lewis snarled. ‘Plods don’t dare come round here.’
Tom shook his head. ‘Not going to phone. I’ve been—’
Phoebe stared at him and mouthed ‘No.’
‘Been videoing you.’ Her brave, reckless boy.
Lewis lunged, grabbed Tom’s arm in one hand and prised his fingers open with the other.
The phone fell to the floor. As Lewis raised his foot to crush it, Finnegan leaped out of the kitchen and vaulted over the sofa. With a howl, he knocked Lewis backwards, cracking his shaven head against the floor. The dog pinned his arms down and gnawed his shoulder. Lewis’s shouts changed to screams.
Tears streaming down her cheeks, Phoebe hauled Finnegan off him and kicked the phone under the sofa.
Lewis clutched his shoulder, blood oozing between his fingers. He dragged himself upright and staggered down the stairs. Phoebe heard the street door slam, a car door, and a revving engine disappearing into the distance.
Phoebe hugged Tom. ‘You OK?’ He nodded, wiping his nose on the back of his hand. He ran to the dog and flung his arms round his neck. ‘Love you. Don’t care what you are. You saved us.’
‘From trouble we wouldn’t have had if he wasn’t here. But maybe he’s done us a favour. Let’s see.’ Phoebe poked her arm under the sofa and pulled the phone out. She prodded a few buttons.
‘Still working. Right, we’re going to the police. I think they’ll be interested in what’s on the phone. And we’re taking Finnegan with us.’
‘Oh Mum, no! Not after what he just did! They’ll take him to Battersea, then—’
Phoebe smiled. ‘It’s OK. We need protection on the way. But he’s coming straight back with us, once we’ve finished.’
‘Will I have to go in the witness box? With all those wiggy lawyers asking me things?’ Tom said, as they walked back through the street door of their block.
‘No, but I will–shh!’ She heard voices from the floor above, outside their door. She stopped in her tracks and pulled Tom to a standstill. Putting her finger to her lips, she pressed her back against the wall. They crept upstairs, the dog behind them, till they were round the corner from their flat.
‘You stay back here.’ Phoebe lay down on her face.
Tom squatted down next to her. ‘What’s the matter? Tummy ache?
‘No, shh! And keep the dog quiet. Sounds like there’s two of them. But they won’t be looking down, they won’t see me.’
She peeped at floor level round the skirting board at their door. A dark haired man in his thirties. A girl Tom’s age.
Finnegan strained forwards, tail wagging. Tom let the lead slip and the dog ran round the corner barking.
‘Hiya, Finnie.’ The girl grabbed the dog’s face between her hands and kissed his nose. ‘Hiya, Tom’s Mum, we’ve been waiting ages for you to get back.’ She put her tongue out at Tom.
The man looked down at Phoebe.
‘I thought you were my landlord,’ she said, red-faced.
‘Do you usually fall on your face when he’s around?’
‘Don’t be so bloody stupid. I suppose you’re Oisin Grant.’
He nodded. ‘And you must be Phoebe. Thanks for looking after our dog. How much do I owe you?’
Phoebe stood up, red-faced, brushing dust from her clothes.
‘You and your pretend dog have got me into big trouble. And now you swan in like I’d been dog sitting for the odd hour. Where the hell have you been for the last week?’ She unlocked the door. ‘You’d better come in.’
She shut the front door behind them and shoved a handful of receipts at Oisin. He took a wallet out of his pocket and sat down on the sofa. Tom and Marlee sat on opposite sides of the table, glaring at each other.
Oisin ran his finger down a till receipt. ‘Dog food. Oh dear. You didn’t have to feed him.’ He handed Phoebe some money.
‘Don’t be stupid, of course I had to feed him. I didn’t know how else to keep him going. What do you do–give him a tenner and tell him to go to McDonald’s?’
‘Sorry,’ Oisin said. ‘You weren’t to know. You mentioned trouble. What’s Finnegan been up to now?’
Phoebe told him about Lewis. He frowned and his voice went quiet.
‘I am so sorry, I feel terrible. Finnegan gave us the slip, jumped out of the car as we were leaving for the airport. Holiday flights wait for nobody.’ He shook his head. ‘But if I’d thought for a moment that might happen, I’d have run after him.’
Phoebe shrugged. She found herself smiling. ‘Well, Lewis won’t be hassling anyone for a while. I reckon the police were looking for something to arrest him for. Now they won’t need to stitch him up. But I have to hand it to you for going on holiday during term time. How’d you get that one past the head teacher?’
‘Oh, I just used my roguish charm,’ Oisin said, smiling back at Phoebe. Nice teeth. Perfect. She felt something flutter in her stomach and her heart raced. ‘Actually, I told her it was the only time I could get off work, didn’t see much of Marlee usually, single parent, you know the score.’
‘Yes. Where did you get the dog?’
‘I design robots, for the car construction industry,’ Oisin said. His eyes were swimming pool blue. ‘I put the dog together as a bit of fun in my spare time. Just like the real thing, but he runs off solar power. Doesn’t need sleep. Doesn’t need food or drink, but there’s a disposal mechanism in case he chews anything he shouldn’t. Or gets fed.’
‘Making robots? Beats stamp collecting, I suppose.’ Phoebe said. His hair was so black that she almost expected to see ink dripping from the ends. ‘I’d never have known he wasn’t real, if it hadn’t been for the vet.’
‘Yeah, I suppose the lack of a heartbeat was a bit of a giveaway. Bet he thought you were having him on.’
‘Something like that.’ A question nagged at the back of Phoebe’s mind. ‘How did you find our address? I didn’t put it on the note. Did you also invent some sort of backwards phone book?’ She moved closer to him. Just to be sure she heard his reply.
‘Wish I had. But no, I just checked the electoral register. There are two Phoebe James’s round here. One’s aged 90.’ He took her hand. ‘The other’s a breath of fresh air.’
Marlee rolled her eyes. ‘Da-ad, stop being soppy. I want my dog back.’
Tom frowned and his mouth turned down. ‘Can’t you just make another one? Mum’ll pay you. I want to keep Finnegan.’
Phoebe opened her mouth to speak. Oisin held up his hand, palm towards her, and turned to Tom.
‘Sorry mate, I’d make you one for nothing if I could, but no can do. Can’t get the parts. Not round here, anyway.’ He and Marlee stood up. Phoebe fought back an urge to block their way to the front door.
‘Tea? Something to eat? You don’t need to be going right now, do you?’ She wasn’t bothered, of course, but Tom would be sure to want a few more minutes with the dog.
‘I don’t want to take up any more of your time,’ Oisin said. ‘But you can both come and see him, take him for a walk. Saturday, 2pm?’
Phoebe nodded and breathed out. Tom took the lead off its hook by the door and gave it to Oisin. He clipped it onto the dog’s collar. Strong hands. Clean nails.
‘We’ll come and collect you,’ Oisin said. ‘It’d take ages on the bus, especially at the weekend. That way we’ll have more time together.’
‘Goodbye Finnegoid,’ Tom said. ‘See you soon.’
It was hardly soon. It wouldn’t be for five whole days.
Late on Thursday evening, after Tom had gone to bed, there was a knock at the door. Phoebe’s heart banged as she looked through the spy-hole. Oisin, a bunch of white roses in one hand, the other behind his back.
‘I know it’s late, I hope you don’t mind,’ he said. ‘Marlee’s sleeping over at a friend’s. She’s left me all alone. I just couldn’t wait to see you.’
Phoebe giggled. ‘Don’t mind a bit. Can’t have you getting lonely. Come in.’
He shut the door. Phoebe took the flowers into the kitchen. Oisin stuck his head round the door. ‘And I thought you might be thirsty.’ He held up a bottle of champagne.
Phoebe got out a couple of cardboard cups, left over from Tom’s birthday. ‘Sorry, Spiderman is the best I can do. Not much call for champagne round here.’
‘Have to see what I can do about that.’ He filled the cups and passed one to her.
‘Cheers.’ She took a sip. ‘Aren’t you going to have any?’
She topped her cup up. ‘Well, you’d better get a move on, before I drink the lot. Hang on—what are we celebrating?’
He took the cup out of her hand and put it next to his, on the table.
‘You tell me.’
Phoebe put her hands on his shoulders. She leaned up and kissed him. She took his hand and led him out of the kitchen and across the living room. Towards the door with the sign saying ‘Mumy’s room’, that Tom had made in Reception Class.
Oisin put his arms round her and whispered into her hair.
‘That’s cute. But what about Tom?’
‘It’d take a brass band to wake him up.’
‘Good job I left mine at home. Let me show you what I did bring.’
They shut the door.
The morning light burst through the thin curtains. Phoebe opened her eyes. Oisin lay next to her breathing slowly, eyes closed. She doubted he was asleep. She snuggled up to him, smiling as she remembered the night before. It hadn’t been a complete surprise to find that he didn’t have a heartbeat either. But… a considerate boyfriend who can’t get drunk? Who never gets tired? What’s not to like?
She looked at the clock. Good. She put her arm round him and whispered in his ear.
‘Babe. Happy Friday. I don’t have to get up for another hour.’
Oisin turned towards her, opened those blue eyes and smiled.
Author Bio: Judith Field lives in London, UK. She is the daughter of writers, and learned how to agonise over fiction submissions at her mother’s (and father’s) knee. She’s a pharmacist working in emergency medicine, a medical writer, editor and indexer. She started writing in 2009. She mainly writes speculative fiction, a welcome antidote from the world she lives in – and after all, who knows the true nature of reality?