“Why don’t you just tell me what I can do to make it better?” he asked.
“I’m thinking,” she said. “For once just give me a chance to think without interrupting, yes?”
He started to reply, but caught the words in his mouth and killed them. They walked along the path in silence. David looked away to the right, at the tall hedge that ran alongside the path, tiny gaps occasionally giving glimpses of the field beyond. Every so often there were little yellow flowers hiding in the twisted branches, brilliant against the green, but he didn’t know what they were called. Occasionally a car passed, the sound eventually swallowed in the background hum of the traffic along the busier roads that led into town. He listened to Jess breathe, hearing anger in every breath.
“David, what’s that?” The words caught him by surprise, he had expected more dividing up of blame into neat piles.
“What?” But even as he was speaking he followed her outstretched arm, the embroidered cuff of her shirt, the tiny hairs golden against skin, skin deep brown apart from the pale band where she no longer wore the watch he had bought her, her delicate hand, the chipped dark red nail varnish on her pointing finger. The road had grown to four lanes as they walked closer to the town, and dividing the lanes was a raised kerb, straggles of grass, a low metal rail. There was a dark shape half-hidden in the grass.
“Oh, David, I think it’s a dog.”
“Are you sure?” he said, knowing it was a stupid thing to say, but still confused by the abrupt shift in events. “It’s hard to tell with all that grass.”
They both squinted across the road. A bus went past, warm air pushing at their faces. They both rocked back on their feet slightly, and she took hold of David’s arm, just above the elbow.
“Can we see,” she said, “please. We can’t not look.”
“’Course. Let’s take a look.” He tried to sound calm, in control, the sort of man who would always cross to see what it was. As they crossed the road Jess didn’t let go of his arm, and he was careful to make sure he held it so she wouldn’t need to.
It was a dog, a small wiry-haired brown and white terrier, with ears that looked too big for its head. The dog lay with one leg out in front, the leg was bent in a wrong way and the fur was dark and matted.
Jess made a noise and her fingers were tight on David’s arm.
“It’s OK love,” he said quickly, “it’ll be OK. I’ll get it to a vet and they’ll do something with its leg, and then I’ll find a home for it. I can ring the shelter, they’ll take it when it’s better. It’s OK.”
The dog looked up at them without moving its head, its eyes dull. Its side was rising and falling quickly, the breaths coming out in short huffs. There was a faded red leather collar around its neck, but no identity disc, no address, no name.
“Doesn’t matter if it costs” David said. “At the vets. Doesn’t matter if it costs.”
He crouched down, extended his fingers towards the dog, made soothing noises.
“Careful.” Jess said, “The poor thing’s hurt.”
David could hear the tears in her voice, and felt a momentary relief that this time he was not the cause. He shuffled closer to the dog, disgusted at his detached self-interest. His compassion was one of the reasons Jess loved him. Had loved him.
“Don’t worry boy,” he said, inching closer still, “ everything’s going to be all right."
Later, David played those few seconds back in his mind as he did with so much else, over and over in slow motion, what might have happened, what he could have done if he had been quicker, smarter, stronger, somebody else. He reached down and began to lift the dog, and its limp body sprang back to life, back legs scrabbling frantically in the grass, teeth snapping at his hand.
“Shit.” David said, jerking his hand away and nearly stepping back into Jess. The dog’s back legs finally found traction in the long grass and it shot away from them and into the road, holding the injured front leg up close to its body, over-sized ears back against its head. The car in the nearest lane missed the dog, the driver braking violently, but the car in the far lane hit it at speed and the dog bounced in a slow, lazy curve through the air and into the field beyond. The car slowed but didn’t stop, and the other driver who had braked looked at David, looked at the motionless dark clump that lay in the field, tried to say a thousand things at once with his face, and drove off.
David stood for a second, his hand still high in the air where he had pulled it back to safety.
“I.” he said. “I.” But then he saw the way that Jess was looking at him, and didn’t say any more.
Cars sped past as they stood there in silence. Eventually David muttered something, crossed the road and walked into the field, pausing for a minute to look down at the huddled shape. He reached out a hand, but didn’t touch it. When he was back beside Jess he shook his head, but didn’t say anything, just stared out at the traffic.
“It wasn’t my fault,” he said eventually, but soon as the words came out he felt like a naughty child, and wanted to shuffle his foot back and forth in the grass as he spoke.
Jess slowly shook her head.
“No.” she said. “It’s not your fault. But the dog’s still dead.”
David looked at her, reading in her eyes the history and future of everything between them. He nodded slowly, and they stepped over the low rail, crossed to the far side of the road, and began to walk back towards the town.