The Last Family in England: First Few Pages
Dogs like to talk.
We are talking all the time, non-stop. To each other, to humans, to ourselves. Talk, talk, talk. Of course, we do not talk like humans. We do not open our mouths and say things the way humans do. We cannot. We see the harm this causes. We know words, we understand everything, we have language, but our language is one which is continuous, one which does not stop when we decide to close our jaws. During every sniff, every bark, every crotch nuzzle, every spray of a lamppost, we are speaking our minds.
So if you want the truth, ask the dog.
Not that humans always hear us. Not that they always think we would have anything worthwhile to say. They command, we listen. Sit. Stay. Walkies. Here. Fetch. That is all the conversation we are allowed. All that most humans can cope with.
But we are not deterred. I mean, other breeds may get pretty pissed off about the situation and sometimes have to resort to a language humans can understand. As for the Labradors, we are willing to wait. And besides, we get to learn more this way. We get to sit and listen to it all. We hear the lies and smell the truth. Especially in Families.
After all, who but the dog knows the whole picture? Who but the dog can sit and watch reality unfold behind each bedroom door? The role play in front of the mirror, the whimpers under the duvet, the never-ending interrogation of their hairless bodies? We are the only witnesses.
And we are there when they are ready to pour out their hearts. When they are ready to reveal their unspoken loves.
We are always there. Listening to everything and talking our silent words of comfort.
When I woke up this morning it was as if nothing had happened.
For those first few hazy moments I felt almost normal, the way I used to feel, before the Hunters had come under threat. But as the empty shoes by the back door slowly slipped into focus, a wave of nausea passed over me. Everything came back. Most of all, the pungent taste of blood returned to my throat, and I craved the time when I didn’t realise exactly what it cost, to keep the Family safe.
Then, following the fear, there was a strange sense of relief as I remembered what was going to happen today.
As I remembered I was going to die.
We are on the pavement outside Nice Mister Vet’s when Adam crouches down next to me.
‘I’m sorry Prince,’ he says, his hand resting on my collar. ‘This is all my fault.’
I try to tell him that everything, in fact, is down to me. But of course, he doesn’t understand. He pushes the door open and everyone looks around as the bell goes. Adam walks towards the desk, but no one is there. While we wait, I feel the attention of every other dog, marking my scent.
I can smell another Labrador, behind me, but I don’t turn to look. Instead, I glance quickly at those dogs sitting with their masters along the far wall. A three-legged Alsatian. A Border collie, biting air. An Old English sheepdog, laughing to himself from behind a shaggy veil of white hair. There is a cat too, hissing from behind her cage door.
Surely nobody can know why I am here, it is too early.
Another scent floats over towards me, sick-sweet perfume.
The woman behind the desk is now here, although I cannot see her.
‘It’s, er, Mister Hunter,’ Adam says, before gesturing to me. ‘With Prince. We’re due at half nine.’
The woman flicks through pages. ‘Mister Hunter. Nine thirt-’ She stops, suddenly, and leans over her desk to get a closer look. Her face is a vast expanse of hairless flesh, painted orange. ‘Shouldn’t he have a muzzle?’ The voice is now tight with anxiety.
‘He’s fine,’ Adam says, offering a weak smile to some of the other humans in the room. ‘He’s been here before and there’s never been a problem. He’s always been . . . a good dog.’
There is a silence. But it is not really a silence at all, because sounds of pain and distress are making their way from the next room.
‘We have a muzzle here,’ says the woman.
‘Oh.’ I sense he wants to defend me further, but doesn’t know how.
‘Only it’s the policy, you know, for dangerous dogs.’
She hands Adam the muzzle and he crouches down again, this time offering no sympathy. I don’t blame him though. Not at all. He will never be able to comprehend any of this.
The muzzle is tight around my nose and blocks out smell.
‘Right,’ Adam says. ‘Come on, boy.’ I can sense that he is close to tears, but he is just about holding himself together.
He sits down in the only available chair, placing me directly next to the Labrador whose scent I had picked up before. I can tell she is young, younger than me, and that she is not seriously ill.
‘Duty over all,’ she says, sniffing the side of my face.
‘Duty over all,’ I sniff back, through the muzzle, hoping for no further interaction.
She sniffs me some more, then sits back down. ‘You’re the one,’ she says. ‘Aren’t you?’
‘I don’t understand,’ I tell her, although I am worried that I do.
She looks around, to check none of the other dogs are listening: ‘You’re the one who broke the Labrador Pact.’
I swallow. I want to lie to her. I am going to lie to her. But she will realise I am lying and then there will be more questions. And there are a lot of other animals here, holding up my death. The interrogation could go on forever.
So I tell her the truth. I tell her: ‘Yes, I am.’
I look at her face. She looks as though someone has just yanked her tail.
‘Why? What made you do it?’
‘It’s a long -’ Before I have time to finish, the door opens. The bell rings. It’s a Springer spaniel, yanking his master forward.
The moment he spots me, he starts to bark: ‘It’s him! It’s him!’
His master tries to calm him down. ‘Shush, Murdoch! Shush!’
But of course, Murdoch pays no notice and carries on barking. ‘It’s him! It’s him! The one who broke the Labrador Pact!’
The other dogs are now joining in.
‘It’s him!’ barks the three-legged Alsatian.
‘It’s him!’ yaps the Border collie.
‘It’s him!’ chuckles the Old English sheepdog.
Murdoch is now playing to the crowd. ‘The Labradors are in crisis! The Pact is a joke! Dogs for dogs, not for humans!’ He starts to choke on his collar. ‘Pleasure not duty!’
‘Pleasure not duty!’
‘Pleasure not duty!’
‘Pleasure not duty!’
The cat is circling her cage in fright, hissing more violently than before.
‘Could everyone please keep their pets under control!’ says the woman behind the desk. But despite the efforts of the humans, the barking just gets louder.
‘Can’t you see?’ says the Labrador next to me. ‘Can’t you see what you’ve done? The Springers will think they’ve won! Labradors will start to lose faith! There will be anarchy!’
As if to illustrate her point, Murdoch slips his lead, jumps up onto the desk and starts licking the paint from the woman’s orange face.
‘I’m sorry, I never meant to betray the Pact,’ I say, as much to myself as my fellow Labrador. ‘But there was no other way.’
‘No other way?’
‘The Pact wasn’t enough.’ I turn and look at her and then at Adam, who is attempting to shield my ears from the noise.
‘But why?’ Although she is inevitably upset by my blasphemy, I can see she genuinely wants to understand. And, as the noise and chaos continues around us, I realise for the first time that there may still be hope for the humans.
With that thought in mind, I begin to answer her question.