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'Will you be all right now, Miranda? Miranda
?' I slowly surfaced from my reverie.
'I said will you be all right now?' repeated Clive, my builder. Would I be all right now? I considered the question. I wasn't at all sure that I would. 'It's just that I've got to be in Barnes by five,' he explained, as he began to gather up his emulsion-spattered sheets. 'So if it's all the same with you
' I banished painful thoughts and forced myself to concentrate.
'Oh. Yes. Of course. You want to go.' I glanced round my new workplacemy new workplace and my new home too. In three weeks Clive had transformed six St Michael's Mews from a semi-derelict shell into a smart office with a small living space on the floor above. The estate agent had negotiated a reasonable rentreasonable by Primrose Hill standards at leaston condition that I refurbish it myself.
'Thanks, Clive,' I said. 'It looks wonderful.'
He pursed his lips judiciously, then pressed a crumpled hanky to his neck. 'Yeah
well, I'm pretty pleased myself. I've checked the electrics,' he added as I reached for my bag, 'and I've been over the roof again and it's sound. Is there anything else needing doing?'
I scribbled out the cheque, sinkingly aware that it represented the last of my savings. 'No. I don't think so. It all looks
great.' I surveyed the newly egg-shelled walls and gleaming skirting boards, and flicked the downlighters on and off. I raised then lowered the green micro blind and tried the drawers in my new desk. I examined the joins in the new wooden flooring and made sure that the security locks on the windows all worked.
'Have you got enough bookshelves?' he asked as he packed away his paintbrushes. I nodded. 'Well then, if you're happy with it all, I'll be off.'
I glanced again at my final checklist. 'Actually there is one last thingthe sign.' I picked up the ceramic plaque I'd had specially made and handed it to him. 'Would you put it up for me?'
'Sure.' We stepped outside, shielding our eyes against the glare of the midsummer sun. 'You can't start your new business without this, can you?' said Clive, affably. He pulled a pencil from behind his right ear and made rapid marks on the walls; then he began to drill, a slender avalanche of pink brick-dust drifting to the cobbled ground.
'Got enough punters?' he enquired as he screwed in the plate.
My stomach did a flick-flack. 'Not quite.'
'Don't worry,' he reassured me. 'You will. There. That's it, then. All done.' He took a step back as we appraised it. 'Perfect Pets', it announced, above a stylized drawing of a dog on a psychiatrist's couch. Beneath, in smaller letters: 'Miranda Sweet BVSc, Animal Behaviourist'.
Clive beeped open the doors of his van. 'I know a few people who could do with your services,' he said as he slung his equipment inside. 'My neighbours for a start. They've got this Labrador. It's lovely, but it's barking mad.' He shook his head. 'Literally. Barking. That's all it does, all day.'
'Poor thing. It's probably being left on its own for too long so what it's doing is calling its humans back.'
'I dunno what it's doing,' he shrugged as he opened the driver's door. 'All I know is it sends me and the wife up the wall. Anyway, give me a bell if you run into any problems Miranda, otherwise.' he got behind the wheel, '.good luck. Take care of yourself,' he added solicitously as he ignited the engine. 'You take care now.'
'Thanks, Clive.' I smiled. 'I'll try.'
Clive swung right out of the Mews onto Regents Park Road, then tooted twice in cheery valediction and was gone. I glanced at my watchit was ten to four. Daisy would be arriving soon with Herman. She'd been looking after him for nearly a month. She'd been wonderful since 'it'as I had now come to think of ithappened. Without her, I don't know what I'd have done
As I wiped the paint splashes off the windows I wondered how Herman would react to being with me again. Apart from the odd visit I'd hardly seen him, so he'd probably be cool and remote. He'd make it quite clear that he felt I'd neglected him, which of course I had. But I hadn't been able to cope. It was the shock. The Never-Saw-It-Coming-in-a-Month-of-Sundays unexpectedness of it all. Not just the end of my relationship but the way it happenedthe knowledge that I'd got Alexander so wrong. As an animal behaviourist you have to be able to read people as well, but with him I'd clearly missed something big.
As I scratched at the glass with my thumbnail I glanced at the other businesses in the Mews. There was the cranial-sacral therapy centre at the far end, and that aromatherapist at number twelve. There was an osteopath two doors down, and a hypnotherapist at number ten. With a chiropractor directly opposite, and a Chinese herbalist at number nine, St Michael's Mews was an oasis of alternative therapeutics and was therefore the perfect location for a business like mine.
I'd discovered it in late April. Alexander and I had been invited to have dinner with Mark, a TV director friend of his, to celebrate the end of Land Ahoy!, a lavish period dramaa bit like Hornblowerin which Alexander had had his first starring role. And now I thought, with a dragging sensation, of how it would soon be screened. Would I be able to bear watching it? Would I be able to bear watching him? No. The thought of it made me feel sick
Anyway, Mark had booked a table at Odettes, in Primrose Hill, and Alexander and I had arrived too early so we'd gone for a walk. As we strolled up the hill, hand in hand, we talked about how Land Ahoy! might transform his career, then as we walked back down we discussed my work. And we were speculating about where I might have my new animal behaviour practice, and what I might call it, when we suddenly turned into St Michael's Mews. I was struck by the tranquil atmosphere, and by the fact that it didn't look polished and affluent, like so many London mews do; it looked Bohemian, and slightly unkempt. Then, above the door of number six, I saw a 'To Let' sign. It was as though I'd been hit over the head.
'This would be perfect,' I'd said, as we peered through the cracked windowpane into the dusty interior. 'Don't you think so?'
'Well, it's a good location.'
'And there's that pet shop over the road, and loads of people round here have animals, and the Hill's just a few yards away. This would be the perfect place for my new practice,' I reiterated happily.
'Then you should call it Perfect Pets.'
I hadn't imagined for a minute, as I'd stood there exclaiming over its suitability and writing down the estate agent's number, that it would soon also be my home. I'd only recently moved in with Alexander and we were very happyin fact, so happy that we'd just got engaged. We'd planned to stay in his flat in Archway for the time being, then buy somewhere together, later on. But, just over a month ago, 'it' happened, and, overnight, everything changed.
I went back inside, inhaling the citrussy aroma of fresh paint, and continued unpacking. I don't have much stuff. I've no furniture because I've never owned my own place; all I have is my clothes, some kitchen things and my books.
From one box I pulled out The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, and Lorenz's On Aggressiona classic text; Readings in Animal Psychology by Justin Lyle, and Why Does My Rabbit
? by Anne McBride. I unpacked all my thirty or so books on animal behaviour, and all my old veterinary textbooks as well; and as I arranged them on the shelves I thought, yet again, how glad I was that I was no longer a vet. I'd always wanted to be onefrom about the age of eight onwardsI never considered anything else. I studied veterinary medicine at Bristol, then practised for five years, but disillusionment soon began to set in. I don't quite know when it started, but it crept into my soul like damp, and I'd realized that living out my childhood dream wasn't going to be quite as fulfilling as I'd thought. It wasn't so much the long hoursI was young enough to copeit was the constant emotional stress.
Of course it was wonderful to make a sick animal well. To see a cat arrive in a bad way, its family in floods, and to be able to put that cat right. But too often it wasn't like that at all. The way people expected me to produce miracles, the hysterical late-night phone callsI couldn't sleep. The way some peopleespecially the rich oneswould complain about the costs. But worst of all, I couldn't stand it when I had to put an animal to sleep. Not so much the very old ones, or the terminal casesmy training had prepared me for that. No, it was when people asked me to put down young, healthy animalsthat's what I couldn't take. That's how I got Herman.
I was working in East Ham as a locum, and one morning a permatanned-looking woman of about forty came in with this miniature dachshunda smooth-haired black and tan male, about a year old. It looked worried, but then dachshunds always do look worriedit's their natural expressionas though there's just been a stock-market crash. But this particular dachshund looked as though the world was about to end, which, in fact, it was. Because when I lifted it onto the table and asked what the problem seemed to be, the woman said that it had just 'savaged' her child and that she wanted it to be put down. I remember looking at her, shocked, and asking what exactly had taken place, and she explained that her five-year-old daughter had been playing with it 'very nicely' when it had suddenly given her a 'nasty nip' on the hand. When I asked her whether the child had needed stitches, she admitted that she hadn't, but said that the 'vicious little bugger' had 'drawn blood'.
'Has he ever done such a thing before?' I enquired, as the dog stood on the table, radiatingappropriately, as it happenedan air of tragedy.
'No,' she conceded. 'It's the first time.'
'And you want me to destroy it?'
'I do. Otherwise it could happen again, couldn't it, and it could be worse next time. I mean, you can't keep a mad dog, can you?' she sniffed. 'Not with kids about. And if it isn't my kid, it could be someone else's, and then I'll end up in court.'
'I do understand your anxiety, but did you see what happened?'
'Well, no. I mean, not as such. I heard Leah scream, then she comes running into the kitchen, crying her little eyes out, saying the dog had bitten her hand. It just turned on her,' she added vehemently'like that!'she clicked her taloned fingers by way of demonstration. 'It's probably got some bad strain. I never wanted a dog in the first place, but my husband got it off a friend of a friend. He paid four hundred quid for it,' she muttered bitterly. 'And they swore that dachshunds are good with kids.'
'Well, they usually are good with children. They're very sweet-natured.'
'Look, I'm not taking no chances, and that's that. It's not biting any child of mine and getting away with it,' she added indignantly.
'But there are rescue homes, I feel it's unfair'
'But who'd want a dodgy dachshund? My mind's made up,' she said, as she snapped open her handbag. 'You just tell me how much.' And I was just about to go and consult the Principal Vet because I really didn't want to do it, when I noticed that the dog was whining quietly and shaking its head. I lifted up its ear flaps and looked inside. Embedded in its left ear was the broken-off end of a child's knitting needle.
'Jesus' I breathed. Holding the dog firmly, I gingerly removed it, then held it up. 'This is why he bit your daughter.'
The woman stared at it, mutely. 'Oh. Well
as I say, she was playing with the dog, wasn't she? She was just playing. She's only five.'
'But can you imagine how much that must have hurt?'
'He still shouldn't have bitten her though, should he?'
I felt my jaw slacken. 'What else was he supposed to do? Write her a solicitor's letter? Ring the RSPCA? He's a dog. He did what any dog would do.'
'There isn't a but! That's dog behaviour. If we annoy them enough, they'll probably bite. What would you do if someone stabbed you in the ear? I imagine you might react!'
'I want it put down,' she insisted, jabbing a bejewelled finger at me. 'It's my dachshund and I want it put down.'