I should have known something was amiss when the squeaking stopped. I’d just popped to the corner shop to buy a pint of milk and had left Mr Moley tied to a lamp post outside with his favourite toy. I’d nearly turned back as I clocked the queue snaking along the biscuit aisle to the till; I hated inhaling the shop’s damp stench. But I was desperate for a cup of tea after our walk.
So I stood in line and watched a craggy-faced man buying a cheap fluorescent green lighter. He lived in my street and often stopped me for a light, even though I don’t smoke. Two customers at the head of the queue chatted about the weather finally turning, while the big bear of a man in front of me kept sniffing at the bouquet of pink carnations he was nursing as if he couldn’t quite trust his sense of smell.
I shifted from foot to foot, wishing I too could bury my nose in the flowers to block out the musty air, when I heard a series of short, rabid squeaks. It was followed by a few moments of silence before the whole business started up again: Mr Moley never tired of his plastic Christmas pudding.
‘Someone’s having fun!’ a woman’s voice said behind me.
I turned to see a middle-aged lady from the sandwich shop. She was balancing several loaves of bread in her arms. I tried not to stare at the little blobs of beige foundation dotted over her cheeks. It looked as though she’d been disturbed half way through doing her make-up, and had forgotten to rub it in.
‘Three month’s worth of fun,’ I said raising my eyes to the grubby ceiling.
The pudding came with us everywhere. Even when he got distracted by something sniffalicious, like another dog’s bottom, he always retrieved it. I’d tried kicking it into numerous bushes, and once threw it down an alleyway behind some bins, but he always snuffled it out.
I smiled at the lady, swallowing down my mean thoughts; I felt were incongruous with the clement weather. And it was only when I went to pay for the milk several minutes later, I realised I hadn’t heard a single squeak since the last bout, and speculated that Mr Moley’s passion had finally killed it.
I felt a lilt in my step as I left the shop and wondered if, like the weather, my luck would change: the squeaky toy had broken and most importantly, I’d find a job. I’d been unemployed for two years, intermittently taking cash in hand jobs as and when they arose; cleaning offices, and delivering leaflets door-to-door for a monosyllabic plumber.
More recently, I’d worked as a waitress in a nearby Italian restaurant until I got sacked. I’d been accused of mislaying, not one, but two sets of keys, even though I was convinced someone had stolen them. The first time they went missing, I’d left them in my bag while I visited the toilet at closing time. When I returned, the keys had disappeared, although my bag remained, along with my purse and credit cards. I’d been so worried about losing the second set that I’d secured them to my belt. But when I went to lock up, just two weeks after losing the first set, they too had disappeared.
My boss said that one loss was forgivable but two was plain careless.
I accepted the lost keys as yet another example of my bad luck with possessions. I was the champion of mislaying items: not just objects that people regularly lose like socks and wallets, but random things like butter dishes, pages from magazines and half-eaten snacks that I put down one minute, only for them to vanish the next. My parents and sister had always berated me for being absent-minded. And I’d come to accept that I just lost things. Or as I liked to put it, things got lost around me. In terms of losing my job, well, I wasn’t too upset. I was still holding out for a career in publishing, though I tried not to think about the 82 job applications I’d made, most of which I’d never even received replies to.
However, my positive mood was short-lived. As I went out of the shop, I was met by Mr Moley straining on his lead, whimpering and very much pudding-less.
‘Where is it?’ I asked, scanning the street.
I wondered if perhaps his biting had become so overexcited that he’d accidently propelled the pudding into the path of an oncoming car or a bus, and it was lying squashed in the road. But I couldn’t see it anywhere.
A smirk began to tease my lips when a voice called out.
‘It was her!’
I looked up to see the man with the flowers. He was waiting at the bus stop, a little further down the street. He pointed the bouquet accusingly at an elderly lady shuffling up the road. She was pulling along a large red and black tartan trolley, and wore a raggedy fur coat that would look more at home covering a much-loved teddy bear.
I looked down at Mr Moley. His soft brown eyes were fixed on the elderly lady as he breathed out a series of strange high-pitched squeals I’d never heard him make before. I looked back at the man wondering if he was mischief-making.
‘I thought she was going to chuck it back to him. But she just stuffed into her trolley and walked off.’
He pulled a face and we both stared at the old lady disappearing up the road as the roar of the 341 approached.
‘Good luck!’ he called.
The bus doors whooshed open and closed and he was gone.
As I untied Mr Moley, I wondered what I should do. Perhaps we should just walk away? After all, the elderly lady had done me a massive favour. I was free at last of the toy. Mr Moley would get over his loss. We’d visit the pet shop that afternoon and he could choose himself a nice new, squeakless toy.
But I had no choice in the matter. As soon as I untied his lead, he yanked me along the pavement and I was forced to jog behind to keep up, every now and then, trying and failing to pull him back to a more reasonable pace. And as I did so, I wondered why someone would want to snatch a dog’s squeaky toy? Perhaps, the lady had an elderly dog at home, who could no longer manage walks, and after seeing the pleasure that Mr Moley derived from the toy, had decided to steal it as a treat for her own pet? Whatever the reason, I would have to tread delicately.
By the time we caught up with her, I could barely hold onto Mr Moley’s lead; he was making obscene gasping noises as he lurched at the trolley. There was no doubt that the toy was inside. He could sniff it out if it were on the moon.
As we drew level, I was struck by how tiny the elderly lady was, more the size of a child.
I took in a deep breath.
‘Excuse me! You don’t happen to have picked up my dog’s toy by mistake, do you?’
The woman turned. She wore old-fashioned pink, NHS-style glasses that reminded me of my school days. The thick lenses made her eyes look like two faraway planets. Her dyed black hair grew grey at the roots and was pinned in dozens of little circles with brown bobby pins. Red lipstick had bled into the lines around her lips making it look as though her mouth was stitched on. And as I watched it twitch and turn up at the corners, I felt a thread of something unpleasant touch me.
I stepped back. There was something vaguely familiar about her. It was same feeling you get when you wake mid-dream, and remember snatches of it, before it drifts away forever.
‘I don’t know nothing about no squeaky toy,’ she snarled, before shuffling on up the street.
Mr Moley followed, dragging me behind, his determination making me brave.
‘I didn’t say anything about it being squeaky!’ I said. ‘The man at the bus stop…’
She spun round again.
‘Are you accusing me of being a thief?’
‘No…well,’ I hesitated. ‘Yes, yes. I suppose I am. He’d like it back.’
I held out my hand. She glanced at it before batting it away like a bothersome fly. Then, standing on her tiptoes, she leant towards my ear, her stale breath hitting me as much as the menace of her words.
‘Go away, little girl. You don’t know what you’re messing with.’
I stood, paralysed, despite Mr Moley dancing around me, and watched her cross the road, little electric shocks running up and down my body. The nylon lead slipped through my fingers, burning my skin, and Mr Moley broke free, sprinting across the road and leaping up at the trolley. The impact caused it to skid across the road, its cover to fly open and the Christmas pudding to spin in the air, landing on the concrete with a defiant squeak, before rolling down the pavement, pursued by Mr Moley.
I looked back at the lady, steeling myself for a torrent of abuse, but she was nowhere to be seen. Instead, a huge crash bounced off the row of terraced houses and shops. I glanced around, trying to locate the noise, gritting my teeth and holding my hands over my ears as it echoed along the street. It sounded like the bin men collecting the glass bottles from the restaurant. But there was no such vehicle in sight.
It was only when I looked again I realised where the clatter-banging was coming from. The trolley had come to a rest on its side, its mouth gaping wide, vomiting an endless stream of objects. Past my feet bounced buttons of all different shapes, sizes and colours, milk teeth, odd socks, biros, pencils, crayons, mobile phones, cables, phone chargers, egg cups, butter dishes, Monopoly money, dice, playing cards, hair grips, combs and brushes, CDs, DVDs, cassette tapes, elastic bands, tennis balls and brightly-coloured bouncy balls, books, the heads, the legs, the torsos of dolls, Lego pieces, Playdoh monsters, whole herds of cuddly toys, including a one-eyed rabbit. My one-eyed rabbit.
My eyes widened as I remembered the day, all those years ago, when my mother had convinced me that I’d left him in the park, though now broken memories of a spiteful-looking old lady shuffling along with a tartan trolley floated around me.
I watched as he vanished again, buried by dozens of half-eaten packets of sweets, chocolate bars, crisps, custard creams and a wave of odd slippers and shoes. A bright pink stiletto skidded past, transporting me back to my teenage years; screaming and shouting at my Mum, accusing her of hiding it because she didn’t approve of my footwear. I gazed up as ripped out pages from magazines and newspapers, countless unopened letters addressed to me, correspondence I’d sent but that had never arrived, and pink, green and yellow Post-It notes decorated with times, dates, numbers, scribbles and doodles fluttered overhead like a rabble of psychedelic butterflies, momentarily blocking out the blue sky above.
I looked down, distracted by a familiar squeaking, to see Mr Moley bounding along the pavement towards me. His pudding was stuffed in his mouth, along with a toy cat he’d lost over two years ago, both singing in chorus as he dodged the debris flying around his legs.
I leant down and hugged him tightly as the trolley’s mouth emitted a mighty rattling and jangling burp. Out gushed a stream of shiny coins, keys, bracelets, and rings, swimming along the road like a shoal of deformed silver fish.
And that’s when I saw it. Attached to the bottom of the trolley, between two half-eaten chocolate digestives, was a little black label embroidered with my name and date of birth in gold spidery writing.
MICHELE SHELDON’s short stories have won and been short listed for many different prizes including Kent Life, Folkestone Literary Festival, Bridport Prize, the Colm Toíbín International Short Story Award. They’ve been published in a diverse range of anthologies including Stories for Homes, and magazines including Rosebud, Storgy, Here Comes Everyone.
Image: 825545 via Pixabay