The next few weeks passed in a blur of activity as Jill settled into her new job. There were two doctors working out of the practise, Bill Williams a no-nonsense, loud, old-fashioned country doctor in his late sixties, whose brash manners did little to disguise his big heart, and who could be called on at any time of the day or night. Rita Fitzsimons was the exact opposite of her colleague. In her early thirties and so soft spoken that Jill had to strain to hear, she brought with her an air of quiet confidence that appealed to those of a sensitive nature. It soon became clear that her patient list was mostly made up of women and children.
Jill’s first day at work was supervised by Claire, who stayed back during the lunch break to explain the filing system. The surgery was busy from the moment the doors opened, and this was the only time they had a chance to talk. Jill was curious to know why she was chosen for the job, considering the other two applicants were local women.
“It’s very simple, my dear,” Claire explained. “One of them is a gossip, and while she might agree to keep the patients’ personal information to herself, the task would be quite beyond her, and she would hardly inspire confidence in those who know her acid tongue. The other woman is flighty and not to be trusted to stay in the job for any length of time. So, I merely suggested to the doctors you were the most fitting candidate to replace me.”
Jill smiled, aware that Claire’s suggestion, as she put it, would have sounded like an order. The few hours she spent with her that day left her in no doubt as to who oversaw the office.
“I’m grateful you did,” Jill said. “I was going out of my mind with boredom and much as I love my son, I find it hard to exist on conversations about superheroes. It’s great to be back in the company of adults.”
“I know what you mean,” Claire agreed. “I was only in my twenties with two small children when my husband died, and I couldn’t wait for them to start school so I could go back to work. Not just for the company, you understand, but for the financial security it gave me. I used to work here full time up to a couple of years ago.”
For the rest of the hour, they settled into a comfortable silence as they worked. Now and then Claire would offer an observation on one file or another, pointing out the patients who were very ill and the assorted malingers, who used the office as a meeting place to catch up with local gossip. Some of the worst cases came from the council estate, where lack of nourishment, coupled with a diet of drink and drugs, made the people susceptible to every virus going.
“There are the odd few who demand home visits when they are perfectly capable of coming in,” Claire said. “But you will soon learn to tell the ones that cry wolf at the first sniffle.”
God, I hope I do, Jill thought, and that I don’t manage to kill someone.
Life at home improved a thousand-fold, especially since the arrival of the dogs. Realising Toby was let down enough during his short life, she kept her promise to take him to look at the puppies, and though she hoped the idea might have worn off, they managed to end up with three dogs instead of one.
Liam, Toby’s friend, had drawn a crude map of how to get to the farm, and it proved surprisingly helpful, as she managed to find the place without too much effort. The old sheepdog was lying in the straw in the barn and surrounded by her litter. She lifted her head and wagged her tail when she saw them approach, and Jill was taken aback by the animal’s look of wide-eyed intelligence when she bent down to stroke her head. The puppies were bundles of black and white fur, and each one vied for attention from the stroking hands. Another dog, probably the father of the litter, came to inspect the visitors, but after sniffing around them, lost interest and wandered off again.
“Those are the bitches,” Liam pointed out two of the puppies. “You can have one of them. My dad has sold the others.”
As if on cue, a jeep pulled up outside the barn. Tom, Liam’s father came in and scooped up the three males.
“These are off to a lovely home,” he said, before carrying the struggling pups away.
Jill watched as the mother stood and followed him to the door of the barn. She couldn’t help but imagine how the dog’s heart must have felt as she watched part of her family being loaded in to the jeep. It was only when it was out of sight that the dog returned to her two daughters, and the look of resignation in her eyes made Jill’s heart ache.
“Well, have you made your choice?” Tom came back in.
Though both pups were identical, Toby made a great show of choosing.
“They really are lovely,” Jill said.
“Aye, Bess was a good breeder,” he knelt and stroked the dog’s head. “But this will be her last.”
“Is she too old?” Jill asked.
“Aye, and a bit lame at the best of times,” Tom shook his head. “She’s not able for the herding anymore.”
“So, she’s going in to retirement,” Jill smiled down at the dog.
“Well, no,” Tom scratched his head. “She’s a working dog and no use to me. She’s going to need some work done on that leg, and I can’t bear the extra expense, not when there are healthy animals to look after.”
“You mean…?” Jill was unable to say out loud what she was thinking. It was beyond her that a beautiful animal such as this should be put down, because she was no longer of use to her owner. “What about the other pup?”
“There’s not many around here that would want a bitch, so…” the words were left hanging.
Jill realised that Toby had stopped playing with the pups and was now looking up at the farmer. He made no attempt to hide his horror at the man’s words, and she knew from his bright eyes that the tears were not far away. Cursing herself for being such a softy, she asked.
“Would it be all right if we took the two pups?”
“Yes,” Toby whooped in delight.
“Please yourself,” Tom shrugged. “I’m just glad to get them off my hands.”
“Thank you,” Jill shook his hand, as Toby struggled to pick up the pups.
He was anxious to put them in the car before his mother had time to come to her senses. He was strapped in the back seat and being licked to death, when Jill climbed in. She turned around and laughed as her son fought off the lapping tongues.
“Thanks, Mam,” he was beaming with happiness.
“You are going to have your hands full,” she said, before turning away.
Liam and his father stood waving them off, and she was at the gate when she looked in to the rear-view mirror. Bess, the puppies’ mother, was standing at the door of the barn watching her babies being taken away.
“Christ,” Jill swore under her breath, before hitting the brake.
Climbing out, she walked to the side of the car and opened the back door. The old dog, sensing her intention, started to hobble towards her.
“Is this okay with you?” She called to Tom, who was watching in amazement.
“It’s your funeral,” he said.
“Mam,” Toby was breathless with excitement. “You’re not, are you? And then as the old dog appeared at the door. “Oh brill, come on girl.”
He was engulfed in a sea of fur as the dog climbed in beside him.
“I must be out of my mind,” Jill mumbled, as she climbed back in to the car.
She had just clicked her seat belt in to place when she felt the touch on her shoulder. A paw as big as a bear’s was resting there, and she looked in to the mirror and saw reflected the dog’s comforting gaze.
Patting the paw, Jill whispered. “I know, girl, we’ll be all right.”
And so, they acquired three dogs, Bess and her newly named pups, Checkers, because she was black and white like a checkerboard, Toby explained, and Dotty, because she had small, white tufts of fur dotted around her legs.
The dogs now resided on an old blanket in the kitchen. Jill had promised herself on the drive home that the dogs would be kept in one of the small outhouses, but it would soon be winter. The nights were getting colder and Bess had not long given birth, so once again she relented. It was obvious from the first night, when Bess had crept into her room and lay down beside the bed that Toby had gone downstairs and brought the pups up to sleep with him. Rather than be cross, she chose to ignore his disobedience, as he needed whatever comfort those bundles of mischief gave him. It became the norm to find the two pups back on their blanket when she came down each morning. It gave him immense pleasure to think he had got one over on her, and he was totally unaware of the hairs vacuumed off his sheets. The vet’s bill, for the vaccinations the dogs needed, had eaten up her first three weeks’ wages, but they were worth it. The nights were not as lonely now, as she fell asleep listening to the old dog’s steady breathing, and the strange creaks and moans the house made no longer frightened her, as the dog ignored them. Their effect on Toby was better than any tonic and his health improved, until he was as red-cheeked and glowing as his classmates.
The only small blot on their new-found happiness, were the weekly letters that started to arrive from Joe. The first one was to let them know his new address and he enclosed a hundred euros. This small olive branch had left her shaking with temper, and brought all her feelings of loss and inadequacy surging back to the surface. At first, she considered keeping them from Toby, but then decided against it, as he had a right to know. His reaction surprised her, as apart from his delight on receiving the money, he seemed to have little interest in what his father had to say. Anxious to be out roaming the fields with the pups, he was chomping at the bit as she read. His days were now filled with chasing rabbits and squirrels and exploring the few acres they owned. The arrival of the neatly written envelopes meant nothing to him, and did not bring with them the same gut- wrenching effect they did to her. Though she would never write back, and burned each one as soon as she had read it, it annoyed her that she even took the time to read them.
On the plus side, she managed during her weekends off and the afternoons when the weather stayed clear, to harvest her small crop. They now had enough apples to last them the rest of their lives, along with rhubarb, turnips and carrots. Some of the crops had rotted in the ground and her grandmother’s diaries warned this would happen if the harvesting was left too late. She even bought some jars for pickling and was determined to learn how this was done. Sometimes, as she worked in the kitchen, it seemed to her that her grandmother was there guiding her hands. The words on the pages echoed the old woman’s voice and as the days passed, Jill became more confident as she blended and stirred her chutneys.
Work was also going great, as she had come to know most of the women from the surrounding farms. Those with children were constant visitors to the surgery, and they passed by her in a sea of runny noses and sore throats. There were the odd few ruffians who made life difficult, from the blousy, red-faced women, who took advantage of a medical system they did not have to pay for, and who arrived at the surgery alone, or with a gang of snivelling children in tow, for the smallest of reasons, to the druggies who sat sniffling, as they waited for prescriptions and eyed the room for something worth stealing. But other than that, she loved her job.
The fact she finished at one, meant she could do her housework before she had to collect Toby from school. At first, she had tried to pass the time by window shopping, not wanting to waste the petrol on driving home and then back again, but it was boring and the freezing weather made it worse. Deciding it was a false economy and her time could be put to better use, she started to go home instead. She thought of continuing her research on the missing children, but decided life was difficult enough and abandoned the idea.
October brought with it the first frosts of the year. To her amazement, the fires in the bedrooms lit without much trouble and she no longer worried about the cold. She had to buy a special guard for the one in Toby’s room, as the pups were fascinated by the flames, and once away from the watchful eye of their mother, were likely to burn themselves. Bess was now her constant companion and followed her from room to room as she worked. She made the ideal listener, as Jill recounted things that had happened during the day or told her about ideas she had for renovating the outbuildings into holiday homes.
Looking in the rear-view mirror, she saw the old dog watching her as she set off for the school. She always allowed at least half an hour to get there and, as the drive only took about fifteen minutes, she arrived in plenty of time, but she had not bargained for what happened next. The small bump heralded the steady thump, thump of a flat tire. Cursing, she got out and surveyed the damage. The road was empty and devoid of any sign of life, so she had no other choice than to change the wheel herself. Her hands were raw from the cold when she was finished, and to her dismay, it took her over twenty minutes to do it. Not having a number for the school in her mobile, she couldn’t warn them she would be late. It would only be by a few minutes, she told her pounding heart and Toby would wait inside the bars of the playground as she had told him to do, if she was ever late. He’ll be fine, she thought, I’m panicking for nothing. He will be waiting just like any other day.