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A Dog's Life
Or When It's Time to Emigrate

by Liesi Jobson

Up down, up down, in and out, in and out. Jezebel is restless tonight.
     Although her eyes are bleary with the milky sediment of old age, she still reads my body language. She can't see to chase the hadedahs as they pluck their elegant way through the compost heap, or the neighbour's cat prowling around the cockatiel's cage. It is two years since she could hear the birds squawking in hysterical anxiety or the newsboy's bike delivering the latest rape statistics.
      I am sure she did not register the shots going off in the neighbourhood. Until recently, she could still hear gunfire, which, like fireworks upset her. She barked at explosions and the wail of the mielie seller.But now she is too deaf to hear my whistle calling her to her pureed dinner.
      But, she feels my jerky motions and knows with her ancient doggy wisdom that I clench my jaw as I'm scratching my fingers raw. There are blood spots where old eczematic scabs are scored.
      "Maybe it was fireworks..." I hope. It is a ridiculous wish.
      "You're right."
      A February Monday in the leafy affluence of Sandton holds no such pleasant surprise. Fireworks on the fifth of November when Neo-Colonialists still celebrate Guy Fawkes are for kids and shopping centres. Again, on New Year's Eve, when spirits have flown and hope drowns like the ants that collect at the bottom of champagne glasses, and float in the swills of flat bubbly.
      I used to get Passiflora from the vet for the hound because she got nervy and wet the carpet. Now I don't bother. The leftover bottle decorated with esoteric homeopathic designs lingers sedately on the kitchen sill, getting fat-spattered and sticky with dust. The last time I couldn't sleep I planned to try it myself, but the tacky bottle made me squeamish, so I stayed awake for the rest of the night instead.
      The little enclave we live in is patrolled by armed guards, with an access-controlled boom at its entrance. Only card-carrying residents may enter without scrutiny. Others must state their business and sign in with the illiterate guard at the entrance. I know they are illiterate because I sign in as Nelson Mandela, resident of Qunu, Transkei, and never once have I been challenged. Maybe they aren'tilliterate, only shortsighted and just needing glasses. They probably don't get time off to have their eyes checked. Or can't afford them.
      The rapid recoil stopped us mid-sentence at supper. The spaghetti slipped off my husband's fork suspended in front of his open mouth. We locked eyes over the packet fresh salad and said nothing. I know the dog didn't hear because she was lying on my foot when it started. She didn't flinch at the answering round of bullets like the children that slept without interruption.
      "You get the lights, I'll check the doors," my husband barked.
      Above our bed is the central control for the emergency floodlights that light up our property like a soccer stadium. I look at the duvet cover that needs replacing, the first one we bought 15 years ago. It is worn thin, faded and frayed. I can't get myself to do this chore, because every time I think of doing so I get stuck in wondering if the dog will drop dead before the linen rips or vice versa.
      She hears the choppers pass low overhead exactly six minutes later. It is possible she heard their mechanical whining along the river. Perhaps, as elephants sense fellow tribe members in distress across the veld, so dogs pick up vibes when killing takes place. The street is an uproar of barking and howling. That is when she starts growling.
      The sirens so close have gotten to her. Or else, they have gotten to me, and she knows when I'm uptight. Does it matter?
      "For Chrissakes, give her some of those damn drops." I can only stare at him. I don't want to touch thedisgusting bottle. I don't move in my seat.
      "What are you waiting for?" I'm not fond of the dog or the husband, but I amble over to the kitchen sill and pick the bottle up gingerly in a tissue. She takes them happily. She is always pathetically grateful for my attention. I resent her gratitude and her feeble-minded pathos.
      I could use strong drops in my coffee. Maybe the hysterical screeching of tires has got to me. Watching Jezebel from a distance I usually cannot see her brown chest rise and fall. I wonder if she has died in her sleep, so I go over to see if she is still breathing. So far, I have always been disappointed. Tonight, the drops make no difference. She breathes asthmatically.
      Usually, when I write, she flops on the floor near me. I don't care for the vile gases of her ancient gut,which erupt and leave me groaning. Now, however, she gets up, sits down, grunts, drops on the carpet, then shuffles back up to her elbows and sniffs the air.
      She walks to the door and back to my chair, then barks to go out. At the door I put on the outside light before I open it. Maybe a lurker waits in the shadows, but no, we are all lit up tonight. Switching on is a habit to provide sudden light on the path to dissuade intruders. I wait three minutes next to the fridge. She comes inside. And five minutes later she's panting to go out.
      It perplexes me that when the air echoes violently, I am utterly detached. I know what is happening when time stands still. I know at 7.39 pm that a shot has been fired.
      "That was close."
      "About 500m."
      "Shelley? Or Adele Place?"
      "Not north, south; Waggon Road."
      As serene as the Buddha, I know with a psychic's certainty that someone is dead. Despite the immediate calm, I am irritable and skittish in the hours that follow. When the phone rings I jump. My husband slurps his tea, and I startle.
      "Don't do that."
      "Do what?"
      "Your tea, you slurped."
      "It's irritating."
      "Take a Xanor."
      "Quit slurping."
      "Go to hell."
      I return to my book again, and put the spat away from me. Outside, Jezebel's solitary yap cuts my concentration once too often. I gasp, then hurl Vikram Seth's lovely but distant tale down onto the coffee table with an angry bang. This time my husband jumps in his chair and the paper takes flight like a frightened bird. The poetry of An Equal Music is lost on me tonight. So too are the Monteverdi madrigals I play to drown out the noises of chaos up the hill. As I get up for the third time, I fear that I will never get to London or ever see Manchester again. I wait against the door and listen before I open it. I don't stare at the African moon that usually captivates me. I open just a chink and let her in. Because she is stiff, she moves slowly. I have an urge to kick her.
       I keep my temper and my voice low so I don't wake and scare the children. Deep breaths are supposed to be calming, but make no difference. The apprehension accumulates in my belly, but I cannot eliminate it even if I puke. I have no energy for retching, barely enough even for the weary plod through the large house to switch off the emergency floodlights. It is always strange how tension is so exhausting. I brew another pot of coffee.
      It is more than an hour since the shooting and the choppers have given up and gone home. Maybe they found and arrested any escaping accomplices. It is unlikely. No self-respecting armed robber would be hanging around even if he was spewing blood out of an artery. I must relax now because the action is over.
      The dog comes over again and sits on my foot with her bony black bum. I kick her off and wish she would hurry up and die. She doesn't damn well take the hint, though, and returns to slouch against my shin. She can't seem to get close enough to me and bumps me as I pour the coffee. I spill a little into the saucer and wish her gone. She is a useless watchdog and a trying companion. She can't hear the postman's bike any more but snaps at visiting kids who try to befriend her. When she finally goes I will not get a bigger, braver hound to guard our fragile peace. Her absence will be one less tie that binds me to this place. Only the children will grieve her passing.
      The vet says that fox terriers can live to be 16. She is 14 years old and apparently in the best of health. I have told the children that she might go to be with the angels because she is so old. It is partially the truth, but also a ruse that will cover up when I can no longer bear being woken three times a night. I am resigned to the knowledge that her geriatric bladder will one day get the better of me in the small hours and I will in desperation slip her a sleeping tablet smeared in peanut butter.
      We keep budgies these days. In part, to lessen the grief of the dog's inevitable demise, but also for practical reasons. They are easier to dispose of if one needs to leave in a hurry. But I don't want to act impulsively. I don't want to make a knee-jerk decision about going in the wake of violent tragedy. If the dog can hang on another year or so, that would be enough time to get organised to get out of here. That presupposes that our hearts are still pumping and gunmen don't beat us to the airport.
      If we get the time right on this thing, we could leave with our papers in order, furniture in containers and maybe even jobs lined up. It might be enough time to prepare the children for another life. If I get this done properly, we won't have to leave as refugees with the clothes on our backs and the tiny violins tucked under their arms.
      "We can't live like this."
      "I know." He knows, but is perpetually disinterested.
      "Where will we go?"
      "I don't know." In a crisis, he ponders momentarily.
      "This place is killing me."
      "I know." Oh, no, you don't. You have not the vaguest idea.
      "How much longer will our luck hold out?"
      "I don't know." You can't begin to imagine how this question invades me.
       Our luck has held for about two hundred years now. My children are ninth generation South Africans and I am eighth. This is my home and I know no other, yet like my ancestors that sought out this savage beauty at the tip of Africa, I too must seek another clime. Must I return to the Scottish winters, where it snows for six months then rains and blows for the rest of the year? Must I go to dreary Europe that I do not love to trace my distant Belgian heritage? Or shall I head for Australia and avail myself of my mother in law's current citizenship?
       I hope the dog and our luck will last a little longer. I don't wish her dead really. Especially when she puts her silver muzzle in my hand and licks my salty ankles. I don't wish us dead either. Yet sometimes I feel our life bleeding away and drying up. Perhaps, after all, the white man's numbered days are coming to their logical end, even as his skin metastasizes under the bleaching sun.
      It all makes so little sense as I climb into bed. My husband holds me tight. I know he desires the security of my body before we sleep. My maid has ironed the pure cotton linen and it is cool against my naked back. I feel no desire, for I am in shock, but I am glad to offer my husband a moment of comfort. My mind is wandering. If I lived in England we would have polyester sheets, because I can't iron. I don't know how to.
      "Jezzie, come Jez." I call her to lie down next to me.
      "Ignore that stupid bitch." I want to let my hand hang down beside the bed and touch her. I need to reassure her, to reassure myself.   "OK."
      My husband clutches me in his lonely passion. It is too hot here for polyester sheets. Tonight it is even too hot for sex. One needs the absorbency of cotton. Perhaps one does not sweat so much in cold places. In the sticky heat, I try to disengage my body without pushing him away. I have always lived the good life of a white South African.
      In the dark, guilt about my loss of libido is easier to hide. By day I cannot look my maid in the eye. I cannot look the security guard or the gardener at the school in the eye too for the great shame I carry. I,too, shall flee mother Africa. The darkness is kinder but also more terrifying. We have switched off the floodlights.
      As he climaxes, my husband's foot falls over the side of the bed. At the height of his enthusiasm, he kicks the dog curled up next to my bed. Jezebel snarls and clamps her toothless jaws onto his foot.
      He ejaculates over the fresh sheets as he withdraws his saliva-wet foot from her and his sperm-moist member from me. Under the sudden stress, the sheets finally rip. It is the first time I laugh all evening.
      "Oh God, oh Jesus, that fucking dog bit me." He screams, but it is outrage, not pain. She hasn't even left a mark on his foot. I bite my lip. It is imprudent to laugh at him. I will have to replace the sheets now, too.
      Jezebel's hours are numbered. I know what he will say as he emerges from the bathroom with his foot bandaged.
      "She's going to the vet tomorrow."
      In England we will not keep a dog.

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