Somewhere Below Zero: a RUFUS adventure

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The big red bow was causing me embarrassment, but I didn’t let it stop me.

Let’s get the bow out of the way so I can concentrate on the real story.

My mistress had just won an award for her book PASSION BEHIND THE ASPIDISTRA. It hadn’t sold as well as her previous books, but her publisher entered it into the Romance Writers Who Talk A Lot About Love Without Actually Telling Their Readers What People Get Up To, which seemed like a strange title for an award, but that’s what my mistress told her friend, Maude. My mistress never lies to me, so it must be true.

So, the day comes for the award presentation, and my mistress said I could go with her, in the Lagona.

I love riding in the car — the wind in my fur, delicious smells wafting in from who knows where — bliss.

The middle of winter means that it will be a cold drive, but I don’t care. I’m wearing my winter coat, and my ancestors came from a frigid part of the world.

I got up early and had my breakfast on the terrace, despite the cold. The sun was up, and even though it didn’t have much oomph, I still enjoyed being in its warm glow.

My mistress came at me with the red bow, and I was too startled to run away.

“Everyone is going to love you in this,” said my mistress.

Not if I eat it first,  I was thinking.

“And don’t you dare chew it off, Rufus. I’ll be very cross if you do.”

So, what was I to do? She is very kind to me, and I love her so.

Just suck it up and wear the damn thing, Rufus!

I’d patrolled most of the perimeter in the morning when I went out for a wee, but there was still the pond to check on.

I knew we were going to be away overnight because I heard my mistress booking us a room in a hotel. She was very annoyed when she first rang; apparently, that hotel didn’t like dogs — have you ever heard of such a thing? She gave them a piece of her mind.

“Have you ever had a dog run out and not pay the bill? Come in drunk and vomit on the carpet? Have loud parties in their room? Steal a lampshade? No, I didn’t think so, you ignorant man!”

My mistress has a way with words.

The pond looked beautiful in the morning light. The ducks, which I have an uneasy understanding with, were looking for bugs in the reeds. The surface of the pond had frozen over during the night.

One duck, or at least I thought it was a duck, had broken through the ice and was splashing around. Except it wasn’t a duck despite the duck-like noises it was making. It was a small dog — smaller than me.

It seemed that he had walked out on the ice to sniff the DANGER  sign and had fallen through.

He sounded desperate, the way that dogs do when they are being beaten by their owner, or caught by a big dog intent on doing them great harm.

I edged out onto the ice to get a closer look. As I got closer, the ice was making strange cracking noises, and I got scared. Now I was within sniffing range, and the faint odour of a friend reached my nostrils. It was the dog known as Scruff. We had been great friends when we were pups — got into all sorts of trouble. Scruff is the reason that the butcher hates me as much as he does.

Scruff’s owner moved away — closer to the city.

“Don’t worry Scruff,” I said because I knew that it was important that he knew I was still fierce and brave.

In truth, I was terrified, but friends don’t let friends sink to an icy grave, even if you haven’t seen them for a long time.

“This is going to hurt, Scruff,” I said as I took hold of his ear. He didn’t have much fight left in him. He must have been in the water for a while before I got here.

“Don’t worry,” said Scruff, “I’m so cold I can’t feel much. Pull me out please.”

 “This would go a lot better if I had hands,” I said through a mouth full of ear.

Scruff helped as much as he could, and after several tries, I pulled him up onto the ice.

“I’m not sure I can walk,” said Scruff.

“Don’t worry, I’ll drag you. It’s only a short way.”

I was trying to sound confident, but the cracking noises were increasing.

When I got him to the shore, we both lay on the cold grass for what seemed like a long time.

“Rufus, what’s happened, and who is this bedraggled fellow?”

It was my mistress, come looking for me. I didn’t mind if she scolded me. I was so happy to see her; I wagged my tail furiously.

I gave a small bark and nosed my friend. My mistress is brilliant, and she worked it all out very quickly.

“Did you two fall in the pond, or did you save this little dog, Rufus?”

I stood up as tall as I could so that she knew I was the brave one. Scruff was too cold and tired to walk, so my mistress picked him up and carried him back to the house. I trotted along next to her, feeling very proud.

My mistress lit the fire and wrapped Scruff in a green towel, sitting him on the rug and telling him to stay.

He was in no condition to argue.

Scruff’s owner was back in the village for a visit, and Scruff came down to the pond because he remembered it being the place of many adventures. At least, that is how he told it to me as we sat warming ourselves in front of the fire.

When my mistress used her telephone to find Scruff’s owner, I knew we would not have much time together. We talked about old times and the fun we had as pups.

My mistress let Scruff’s owner keep the green towel.

“He’s nice and warm in there. Best not to disturb him,” said my mistress. She is very kind because I know she loves that towel.

My red bow was ruined, so my mistress made me a new one, and before I knew it, we were in the Lagona speeding along the country lanes heading for London and an award ceremony.

I knew we were going to have fun, but after hanging my head over the side of the car and enjoying the exhilaration of sheer speed, I felt drained.

I curled up on the leather seat and dreamed of the adventures that Scruff and I had experienced, back in the day.

I’ll miss Scruff, and I’m glad that I was there to save him.

Friends should always save friends and let friends save them right back.

 

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Incomplete Unrest

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“In some countries, it’s considered bad form to urinate while wearing a hat,” I said.

“Okay. So what’s your point?”

I didn’t have one — a point, that is.

The etiquette of taking a leak while wearing, or not wearing a hat, was simply a distraction.

It’s a trick I learned from my mum. My dad had no need to bamboozle a bully — he had always been able to take care of himself. I didn’t inherit his physique, so other measures were required to escape the clutches of a tormenter.

The technique was simple and in two parts.

The second part came from my grandfather. He understood dogs.

“Never take a backward step when confronted by a dog. They read body language at the speed of light. Flinch or take a backward step, and they see you as weak. Never back away from a bully either.”

The first part of the process involves confusing the bully, who usually hunts with a pack. Confuse them for long enough, and they get bored, or their friends do, which is even better.

“Come on Steve this bloke’s nuts, and we’ve got stuff to do.”

The sound of your back-up Neanderthals drifting away is a powerful persuader.

It has to be said that my big mouth got me into a heap of trouble, but I could talk my way out of most of it.

In the dog world, eye contact is reserved for other members of the pack, otherwise, it is seen as a challenge.

In the human world, eye contact is seen as a sign of strength.

If you stare at someone, there is a good chance that they will think that you can handle yourself. A small smile helps to complete the picture. Not too big a smile, that could make things worse.

As I hoped, my tormentor’s friends got bored and encouraged him to thump me or go with them in search of easier prey.

He wandered off, leaving me with a not very well veiled threat.

It wasn’t our last encounter, but eventually, his tiny brain maxed itself out, and his parents took him out of school and ensconced him in a dead-end job where I’m sure he lived out his days.

And me?

I went on to be an even bigger big-mouth, and it continued to get me into and out of trouble.

And I’m not sure I would have had it any other way. 

First I Was Lost, and Then I Was Found

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If television is to believed, people walking their dog or children chasing a ball into the undergrowth are the main ways that dead bodies are discovered.

That’s not how they found mine.

I’d been dead for a while.

It can’t have been fun to discover what was left of me.

Being dead, I don’t tend to worry much, but if I did, I would feel for the poor soul who looked through my window, and the unfortunates who had to take me away.

I’m considering haunting the real estate agent who is so gleefully trying to sell my former abode. My family needs the money, apparently.

I’ve tried giving her a fright, but she seems to be too self-absorbed to notice me — hanging around, with not much to do.

I not sure why I’m still here, but it’s not at all unpleasant.

I seem to be able to get progressively further from my home each day, so I can walk around a bit and spy on the neighbours, talk to dogs, that sort of thing.

I don’t sleep, obviously — not the human type of sleep, just the eternal type.

I always like the night time. It’s another world, and apart from the ner do wells who use the undercover nature of the dark, most people who are awake when others are asleep are friendly and sad somehow.

I don’t hurt anymore, not physically. It’s a strange sensation, something like in a dream. I’m aware of my body, but it does not seem to have any weight. I should float off the ground, but I don’t. Everything seems the same, but I don’t have any sensation of touch. It doesn’t slow me down, I just do what I always have — I put one foot in front of the other, and away I go.

I can move through solid objects, walls and things. I know this because I accidentally walked through a chair. It freaks me out a bit so move around like I used to, by opening doors and occasionally climbing through windows — I did that a lot, back in the day.

I’m not worried about what comes next. I’m applying the same rules I’ve always lived by, be patient and let life come to me. Though in this case, it’s afterlife.

I have encountered a few others who are in my situation, but they are confused and angry, sometimes frightened. It doesn’t seem to matter what I say to them, it doesn’t help, so I steer clear.

I like my own company and the company of dogs, so I’m okay for now, but there are a few people I would like to catch up with.

Maybe one day, assuming they end up where I end up. 

Buster and The Dead Set Scrolls

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“So, why did you ring me. I’m no expert,” I said, with a hint of annoyance.

I’d been happily ensconced in front of my old computer which must surely turn up its toes and die, but for now, it is excellent for watching ‘big-screen movies’.

“You’re the smartest bloke I know, and besides, who else am I going to ring in the middle of the day? Everyone I know is at work,” said Thomas, my sometime friend.

“I was at work!” I said in a voice that was a bit too loud to suit the occasion, but I’m sick of people thinking that what I do isn’t work — even if I was watching a movie instead of painting.

“Yeah, I know, but you know what I mean — you are at home, and your boss isn’t going to yell at you if you stop working for an hour or two.”

He had a point. I’m my own boss — mostly because I’m too proud to work for someone who is obviously an idiot and that pretty much sums up most employers — in my extensive experience.

So, here I am, standing in Thomas’s lounge room. Thomas inherited the house from his mum, who died way too young, preceded by his dad, who died even younger. I always loved this house. Thomas and I would play for hours in this dark, carpeted room. Timber walls in need of varnish, rich tapestry curtains edging leadlight double-hung windows looking out onto the neighbour’s timber pailing fence, a few flowers poking their heads above the window sill. Thomas didn’t tend his mother’s garden, it just kept growing — a testament to his mother’s horticultural skill.

The two large parchments were spread out on the walnut dining table, the same one we built a slot car track on when we were kids. The table will seat eight people without anyone bumping elbows.

The page on the left was a bit more tattered. The sentences were written in red ink, probably using a wide nibbed calligraphy pen. The page on the right was in better condition, the sentences written in black ink using a similar width nib.

Despite the condition of both pages, the writing was crisp and clear, as though freshly written.

“Where did you get them?” I asked.

“Did a job for Jimmy over in Toorak.”

“Why didn’t Jimmy ring me. He knows I need the cash.”

 “Everyone who works for Jimmy needs the cash,” said Thomas.

Jimmy runs a couple of business, all on a strict cash basis. I’ve worked for him for years, on and off. Jimmy’s companies clean offices and meatworks, and when the need arises, he clears houses for a Real Estate chain.

“Big place. Belonged to some bloke who diddled the banks. Took off and left everything. Some of it was choice.”

“How would you know?” I said. Jimmy usually called me in when there was a sniff of classy stuff. My family dealt in antiques, and some of the knowledge rubbed off on me.

“Everything was heavy.”

“That’s because good furniture is usually made from quality hardwoods, walnut, oak, teak, cedar,” I said. Some of those timbers aren’t exactly hardwoods, but Thomas wouldn’t know the difference, so why tell him.

“Shut up a minute and let me look at these things,” I said.

The parchment may have been old. Only a few tests would be able to date it, but the ink was much younger.

Beautifully written, each short sentence spelled out in capital letters. The sentences reminded me of those annoying posts on Facebook. The ‘motivational’ ones printed over pretty backgrounds. ‘Don’t eat carrots on a Friday’‘Be good to your mother, leave home’, that sort of thing.

I read each parchment several times and was none the wiser.

“You dragged me away from my work for this,” I said.

“I know they don’t look like much,” said Thomas staring at his hands.

“So why call me in?”

“Every morning, when I get up, I walk past them on my way to the toilet and every day the writing is different.”

 “Different how?” I said.

“The sentences are different. Not the same as yesterday.”

Long silence.

“Have you been smoking anything unusual, Thomas?”

“Kicked the stuff, cold turkey, a couple of months ago,” said Thomas, which explained a lot. He had been quieter lately and didn’t say stupid things as often.

“Wow,” I said. Thomas had been smoking weird substances for most of his adult life. He always smelled sweet and a bit sickly. That smell was absent from his house and I only just realised it.

“It changes every day?” I said.

“Every day.”

“When does it change?” I said.

“I don’t exactly know. I fall asleep when it gets dark. I try to stay awake, but I wake up, and it’s morning.”

“Where did you find them?”

“Well, to be exact, I didn’t. Buster did.”

Buster is Thomas’s dog. His IQ beats Thomas’s by about twenty points. Buster looks a lot like Snowy, Tin Tin’s dog from the classic Belgian comics. Buster goes everywhere Thomas goes.

“Upstairs in one of the spare bedrooms. The carpet was loose in one corner. It wasn’t part of the job to take up the carpet, only the loose rugs — mostly Persian. I was buggered, and we’d packed the truck. I thought I’d better give the place the once over to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. Buster was having a great time. I don’t always let him run around when we work, as you know. Some places are pig styes — broken bottles and sharp sticky things, but this house was pristine. Only a slight layer of dust due to the owner being away. He must have left in a hurry because we found dirty plates on the kitchen table and a cupboard full of sheets that were probably furniture covers, all neatly packed away.”

“So?” I said.

“Buster stayed with me as we went from room to room. I wasn’t paying close attention. It was obvious if the rooms were empty or not. The last room at the end of the hall was the smallest. The carpet was older than the rest of the house and Buster was very interested in one corner of the room. You know how well behaved he is when we do these jobs, well he was going nuts trying to get the carpet to fold back. I told him off and went over to see what he was up to. There they were. Dusty, but pretty much the way you see them.”

“Why didn’t you hand them in with the rest of the stuff?”

“I always keep something for myself. I thought they might be a treasure map or something.”

“Make us a cup of tea, and I’ll have another look at these things,” I said.

The parchments were curling up on the top and bottom edges, almost to the point where they needed something substantial placed on them to keep them flat. This seemed strange to me considering how long they must have been under the carpet.

At times, the sentences were nonsensical.

The red scroll seemed to be obsessed with clothing and how to wear it.

‘Turn your collar up when the wind doth blow.’

‘Button thy trousers carefully in the presence of a lady.’ A bloke definitely wrote that. I can see him checking his fly buttons before exiting the bathroom.

‘Never wear a large hat on a Sunday.’ Why not? What would happen if you did?

The black scroll seemed more interested in manners.

‘Pick not your nose on a sunny day.’

‘Pass not wind on an open staircase during the gloaming.’ What if you were about to explode? And when exactly does ‘the gloaming’ start and end?

Thomas came into the room carrying a tarnished silver tray with a chipped china teapot and a couple of mugs that probably came from one of the house clearings.

“Odd collection,” I said.

“What?” said Thomas.

“Never mind,” I said. “Have you written down what the scrolls have said on other days?”

“Not at first, but once I noticed they changed every day, I wrote them down.”

“Give me a look,” I said, and Thomas rifled through a drawer on the sideboard and produced a few pages of poorly written text.

“Don’t ever write a ransom note in longhand. They will definitely trace it back to you,” I said. Thomas got the inference. He looked hurt.

I read through the pages, and they made about as much sense as the current parchments.

A long silence.

“I’m buggered if I know what it all means,” I said. “Do you want to take Buster for a walk?” Buster instantly stood up at the mention of the magic word.

“Don’t you have to get back to work?” said Thomas.

“Nah, the day’s buggered now. Let’s walk.”

Buster was at the door, waiting expectantly. We gathered up his favourite treats and his lead and headed off into the wilds of suburbia. One of the black scroll inscriptions flashed into my head.

‘Don’t leave your wireless playing when you leave the house.’

“You don’t have the radio playing, do you, Thomas?”

“No, why?”

“Never mind.”

Bernard

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Looks can be deceiving.

Take Bernard for example.

He looks small and cute, and his mistress is French.

You might think that he lives in a handbag and eats paté all day, but no, he doesn’t. Okay, so he does eat the occasional croissant, and he once licked paté off the floor where some French bloke dropped it while talking to his mistress, but I don’t think that counts.

He does eat snails, but that is a whole other story.

Bernard is special.

All dogs are special, of course, but what I mean to say is that Bernard is especially talented.

You already know that dogs have amazing senses, and the sense of smell is particularly acute.

I sound like I know what I’m talking about, but to be truthful, I only discovered this because my mistress was doing research for a story.

It all started after I caught the murderer in the country house. It was one of my very first adventures. My mistress was very proud of me, and she wondered how I did it. I didn’t think much about it at the time; I just did what dogs do — I sniffed it out. I thought everyone could do it, but apparently not.

My mistress said that some dogs could detect individual ingredients in a pasta sauce. I could have told her that. It drives her crazy that her girlfriend makes a particularly good Napoli sauce, and she is not sure what the secret ingredient is. It’s Turmeric. A very tiny amount. I tried pointing at it in the spice rack using my nose, but she told me off for climbing on a chair. Humans can be very annoying.

Bernard, on the other hand, never gets told off for climbing on chairs. He is treated like a king — a small hairy king, but a king none the less.

His unique skill is finding things.

Rich people pay his mistress large amounts of money to find things that have been lost inside their huge houses, but more importantly, Bernard is asked to find things that are hidden in the houses of wealthy deceased persons — usually by greedy relatives who are sure that their dead uncle has stashed away a fortune.

Bernard comes to visit at least once a year.

His mistress and my mistress have been friends since my mistress was a student in France. She stayed with her friend’s parents for a year, and she says it was one of the best years of her life.

I was expecting Bernard to be a bit ‘up himself’, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that he was a very down-to-earth dog.

Appearances can be deceiving.

He likes watching soccer on TV, and he enjoys walks in the rain, but his mistress won’t let him. I splashed water on him one time so that he would know what it felt like. He was very appreciative.

I took him down to the local Butcher Shop, just to show him the sights and he had a splendid time. He got dusty, and some sand got stuck between his toes and he said it made him feel like one of those free range dogs. He was kidding himself of course. He wouldn’t last five minutes in the wild, but I let him have his dream. Who am I to step on anyone’s dream?

He told me about life in Paris, and it sounded pretty good.

French dogs are allowed into cafés, but I like it here. I’m too old to learn the French words for ‘walk’ and ‘treat’ and ‘get off the chair’.

I asked Bernard what was the most interesting thing he was asked to find, and he said that it was hard to choose, but it was probably a lost toy.

The toy belonged to a little old lady. She was very old and sick. She believed that she was going to die soon and she had been thinking a lot about her childhood. She had a favourite little doll.

She used to tell it her secrets.

One day, while playing hide and seek with her brothers and sisters, she put the doll down and forgot where she put it. She searched and searched, but to no avail.

She wanted to hold that little doll one last time before she died.

Bernard said that she offered a huge reward, but it would only be paid if he could find the doll.

His mistress brought him to meet the old lady, and they got on very well indeed. Bernard gave her a good sniffing and set off through the large old Chateau in search of the little doll. It helped that he is small because it stood to reason that the doll would be in a small hiding place just big enough to hide a little girl.

Bernard searched all day, and he was beginning to wonder if he might have to come back another day, but just as the light was failing, he wandered into a small room attached to the huge kitchen. It was full of dusty old boxes, and it looked like no one had been in there for a long time. To start with, nothing in the room seemed to smell like the little old lady had touched it, but after pushing a few boxes aside with his nose, he got a faint whiff.

The little doll had been nibbled on by moths and was very dusty, but she was in one piece, and she was exactly as the old woman had described her.

Bernard said that it was very strange, but he was sure that the little doll was calling out to him. He followed the scent and the sound directly to where the doll was lying, but when he got there, the doll stopped talking to him.

He gently carried the little doll back to the old lady. She was sleeping and woke as he jumped up on her bed. She didn’t care that the doll was dusty and moth-eaten. She hugged it and cried. Bernard knew enough about female humans to know that there was a chance that this little old lady was happy and not sad.

I asked him what happened to the doll and the little old lady, and he said that he was not sure. He heard his mistress talking about her a few times, but he did not know what her words meant. He did say that they got paid a lot of money because of his find and they went on a holiday to Trieste, and as a special treat, he got a ride on the famous funicular tramway. Bernard loves trams, and he and his mistress are going to visit Melbourne next year because they have the most extensive system of tramways anywhere in the world, not to mention the longest continuous piece of tram track.

Bernard loves trams.

You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but appearances can be deceiving.

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