I took a glass of wine from the bar and made my way over to the only empty table, taking out my book to read while I waited for K to arrive – or at least to use it as a prop while I waited on my own. The tiny room was so crushed with people I hadn’t had a chance to take stock until now, when I realised that it was full of lazing dogs. An obese bulldog lay prostrate across a bench while a couple of people tried to make it move without having to touch it. A spaniel moved sluggishly around the room, an empty socket where its right eye should be. And a golden retriever was asleep in front of the bar, its paws neatly folded below its chin.
K arrived, and straight after her a wave of her friends who had come to see her speak at the book launch. As each person entered the cafe, people stepped aside so that the door could swing open, and I shuffled along the bench to try and make room for the new body. Each time I turned to the woman sat on my left, as the space between us got smaller and smaller. ‘Sorry… Can I just…?’
The room was filling up, and the temperature was rising. I fidgeted on the bench, trying to cool the underside of my thighs. At that point I realised there was another dog in the room, brushing its tail against my legs. It was tiny, possibly a spaniel crossed with something else – not a good mixture. Its eyes bulged out terribly, and an underbite showed a row of white teeth fixed in a gurn. Its expression was of permanent dismay.
I turned to the two women at the table to my left and said, ‘All the dogs in here look broken.’ They looked at me, startled, giving no indication about whether they agreed or disagreed. I felt this hadn’t quite achieved the conviviality I was looking for, so I added, ‘Particularly this one.’ I gestured to the dog between our feet, hoping to unite us in our pity for the poor animal. They stayed silent, so I rubbed the dog’s head. It raised its chin towards the sky as if to touch its mouth to my hand, so I withdrew. I tried rubbing its head again and it did the same thing, under the watchful eyes of the women to my left. I said, ‘What are you meant to do with a dog, anyway? I don’t understand what they want.’
One of the women said, ‘He likes it when you rub him under his chin. They tend to prefer that.’
I made an ‘oh’ expression and took a sip of wine. ‘I’m not sure about putting my hand near its mouth area.’
The women blinked at me, and I realised the one who had spoken had bulging eyes, rather like the dog. She said, ‘His teeth are about this big,’ holding her thumb and forefinger up to indicate ‘very small’. I smiled and turned back to K and her friends. A few minutes later, the two women got up to move to another table, one of them carrying the dog in her arms.