You do better with a dog, of course. People don’t notice that you’re a bit smelly and that even when you were a young man, you never were very handsome. They just notice your mutt, staring out from under the edge of the blanket. Doesn’t even make any difference if he’s a bit of a podge. Actually, my Fred was a bit, well, just a little bit chubby. I found him in the park one night, going through the litter bins. Skin and bone then, nothing of him.
I shooed him off, because I was planning to go through the bins myself. These ones are about four hundred yards from the takeaway, just enough for people to be ready to chuck away what they don’t want. Especially the kids who want a bit of ‘how’s your father’ under the trees in the summer, they sometimes throwaway more than half what they bought. So busy gazing at each other they don’t have time to eat.
Anyway, that evening the little blighter had cleared the bloody bins. I guessed as much as soon as I saw him, ripped soggy newspaper all over the ground, and there he was, licking his chops in the middle of it. I delved in just in case, but not so much as a chip. So I walked on to the next bin. And guess who followed me? Well, he knew a thing or two, that dog. I definitely had a bit of luck there. A whole chicken wing, some chips and half a can of lager. Can’t believe what people throw away. I was just attacking the chicken when he, well, he sort of whimpered. I looked down at him I thought to myself, well, he didn’t know he was robbing me at the other bin, did he? And he’s hungry, too. So I gave him a couple of chips.
Just then several lads came by, mucking about, shoving each other. They all had huge, mouth-watering burgers in their mitts. Then one of them butted one of the others so hard with his shoulder that he dropped his. Quick as a flash, the dog had it and ran off into the bushes. Well, they weren’t going to chase him for it, were they? They just laughed and carried on, jeering the lad who had dropped it.
I watched them going. God, those burgers smelt good. I sat on one of the seats and started on the chicken. Not a lot of meat on a wing. But there were still the chips. I began to eat them very slowly, making one chip last at least three bites, really savouring it. Every now and again I took a swig of the lager. At least it wasn’t as cold tonight. I could just see the Christmas tree in the town square. They leave the lights on till eleven.
A couple walked past me, hand-in-hand, smiling at each other. I’m invisible when I’m not on the pavement, under that blanket. I’m always the invisible man for a lot of people, of course. Some are just embarrassed and avoid my eye, some think it’s all my fault and I should leap up and get a job. Chance would be a fine thing. One minute I had a wife and kid and was doing OK, then redundancy, a nasty, messy divorce, and back home, broke, with the parents. When Mum and Dad died, as parents do, then the council shoved me out, and well – here I am. No fixed address. You try getting a job.
I don’t often let myself get maudlin, I try to take each day as it comes. An optimist, in spite of everything. No good going over what might have been, just keep hoping for a miracle. A Christmas one, perhaps? Yeah. There’s a laugh.
Just as the gloom was about to take over, I felt something move at my feet. I looked down, and would you believe it, there was that thieving hound. And what’s more, he had a bloody great piece of that burger in his mouth. I watched, disbelieving, as he jumped up on the bench beside me and placed it on my lap.
“Well, old boy,” I said, stroking his cold head, “that’s very generous of you and much appreciated. But I’ve had the chicken, so you have this, and we’ll share the last of the chips.” To be honest, the burger didn’t look much cop anyway, as he’d slobbered all over it, but I wasn’t going to say that, was I?
I’ll swear he understood. He picked it up and ate it, then nuzzled me as if we were lifelong mates. He hadn’t got a collar on so I thought that if we were going to be friends, I’d better give him a name. I picked on Fred as my name is Frederick, but everyone has always called me Rick. It seemed to bond us, sort of. And when I told him, he grinned at me like he approved. We sat there companionably until the lights on the Christmas tree went out.
“We’d better go and find somewhere warm to sleep, Fred. Come on.” And he followed me round to the back of the gents, where there’s a big paper recycling bin. You can always find stacks of newspaper hanging out. I extracted enough to wrap us both up in, and found some thick brown paper, which was a bit of a bonus. Then we poked around the bins until we found some carrier bags shoved into a cardboard box.
We went to a very sheltered bench in front of a large conifer hedge, and I covered it with cardboard and newspaper, then I filled the plastic bags with the paper to lay on top of my blanket. There were even enough carrier bags for me to put one on each foot. And Fred and me snuggled down together, keeping each other warm. You’re not supposed to sleep in the park, but the night warden remembers me from when I was someone proper and he turns a blind eye.
Well, that was the start of Fred and me. He was my Christmas miracle, really. Everything got better. People were much more generous because he was such a good actor, especially at doing starving and pathetic. You should have seen the transformation when we had finished work for the day – he got frisky and grinny and, well, everything you could want from a friend, really.
That was nearly a year ago. Three weeks ago the coppers asked me to change my pitch. Well, you know, asked is a bit of politeness, there wasn’t really any choice. So the next week, Fred and me said goodbye to the High Street, and kipped down just outside the new shopping precinct. I put the cap on the ground, pulled up the blanket and he arranged himself into pitiable mode. We were doing OK. I’d just decided that it might be a better gig anyway, when this woman appeared from nowhere and pulled back the blanket without so much as by-your-leave. Tall, well-dressed, middle-aged, she didn’t look barmy. I just about had time to clock all that, when she threw herself to the ground, burst into tears and scooped Fred into her arms.
“Sandy! Oh, Sandy, darling! Where have you been? We’ve looked everywhere for you.”
Fred looked a bit startled but he obviously knew her and tentatively began to lick her face. Before I had a chance to say anything, she shoved me back hard against the wall.
“I suppose it was you that stole him from our garden? I know all about you people. I suppose you thought you could get an allowance for him? Well, at least you must have been disappointed there, thankfully. Have you any idea what I have been through? I shall be informing the police. Meanwhile, I am taking MY dog back right now.”
Fred was wearing a red collar we’d found in the park, and she took her scarf off, and looped it through to make a lead. And that was it. She dragged him away, and even though he was whimpering and looking over his shoulder at me, she didn’t look back. There was a small crowd round me by now, all standing silently. I think they didn’t know whether to berate me or sympathise with me. Jack, the local copper who I’ve known since better days, pushed his way through.
“Don’t worry, Rick, we all know that you found him. I know her, she’s a nice lady, her dog was stolen long before you got Fred, so I never connected it. He’s a pedigree, you know, so I guess whoever did steal him simply let him go when they realised he’d been de-knackered. I’ll have a word with her, say it wasn’t you.”
I nodded. I was gutted. I think it was even worse than when I realised my ex-wife was taking our daughter abroad and I’d probably never see her again. Fred and me had been together every minute of every day for a year. He was my best mate. He was the best mate anyone could ever have. I got to my feet. My shoulder was hurting from where she shoved me against the wall. I began to pack up my blanket and cap. As I picked up my bag I could feel the carton of biscuits I’d bought for Fred last week after we’d had an especially good day. They were his favourites. To my horror I felt my eyes begin to prick. Jack put his hand on my shoulder. He pushed a tenner into my hand.
“Go round to the shelter tonight, Rick. Things will look better in the morning.”
They didn’t, of course. I’m back outside the precinct, but I’m invisible again. And lonely. More lonely than I ever was before I had Fred in my life. They’re putting on the Christmas lights in the precinct today. Christmas makes everything worse.
I looked up from my blanket. There she was. The woman. And there was Fred, with a smart leather collar with studs in it. He launched himself at me, licking me enthusiastically and drooling everywhere. Good job. It hid the tears rolling down my face.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realise until Constable Brown explained. You rescued Sandy, didn’t you? I am so sorry I accused you of stealing him. Can you forgive me? You have looked after him so well.”
Fred was draped over my lap looking up at me with his lovely, loyal eyes.
The lady continued, “I think he’s missing you. He can’t settle and I believe he is pining for you. He’s not even eating much.”
The biscuits were still in my bag. As I reached for it, Fred dived in headfirst and dragged out the carton of biscuits. He put it in my lap. I opened it and gave him a handful which he scoffed down. Then he pushed his way under my blanket and lay on my legs. The lady sighed, and then smiled at me. She had a nice face when she smiled.
“I have a proposition for you. May I call you Rick? I think perhaps Sandy has become Fred. Now, I was offering a hefty reward for his return.”
“I don’t want any reward.”
“Just as well, as I wasn’t going to offer you one. But, I wonder if we could share Fred, perhaps? I have an empty basement flat and a large and almost unmanageable house and garden. And my work means I have to travel a lot and I don’t like leaving the house empty. And I used to absolutely hate having to put Sandy,” she paused, “or rather, Fred, into kennels. I need someone to live in the flat, manage the garden, look after the house when I’m away and be Fred’s carer. I can’t offer you much in the way of a salary, but it will be enough to live on. What do you think?”
At that moment there was a noisy blast on a trumpet, and we all jumped out of our skins. The whole area was flooded with brilliant colour and music as the precinct Christmas lights were ceremonially switched on. Fred popped his head out of the blanket and looked up at me. Expectantly.
“I think,” I said, getting to my feet and folding up the blanket, “that miracles do still happen.” I reached down and fondled Fred’s ears. Then I looked at the woman. Just for a moment I thought she was wearing wings. A trick of the light.
“Merry Christmas,” I said.