Dog

“Josh!” calls Ems, “hey Josh!”

Our nephew cocks an ear in our direction but carries on scampering from grassy hillock to grassy hillock. Most of his attention is focused on the arbitrary rules of whatever game he’s playing. “If I was an animal,” Ems continues, “what animal would I be?” There’s a smile in her voice.

“Um…” Josh replies, on the move, before stopping and pulling his ‘thinking’ face – brows furrowed, eyes up, one finger pointed to his mouth. He’s having a good time, wants a laugh and we‚’re happy to oblige. “Um… a TIGER” and rushes towards us with claws drawn and an impressive roar (for a five year old). Ems and I both crouch and spread our arms wide to catch him up for a cuddle. But he’s onto us and deftly sidesteps before racing off up the hill again.

My sister and I turn back down the hill, grinning to ourselves and kicking our heels into the soft ground. “Nice,” I say, “a tiger’s pretty good. It’s not a dinosaur…” She smiles and nods, hands shoved in her pockets and shoulders up – casual hill stroller by day, deadly jungle beast by night.

Suddenly she shouts again, catching me off guard. “Josh, hey Joshy!” He’s not paying us any attention but when Ems asks “if Lucy was an animal what animal would she be?”, the answer comes back fast and serious: “a dog”. A lump rises in my throat and I can feel my face flush. A dog’s nowhere as good as a TIGER.

two or three hours earlier…

My brother, his wife and their boys – Josh and Zach – arrive half an hour late and exactly on time. Lunch is ready. Appetites flare at the brothy smells that fill the ground floor and coats have hardly been properly stowed before we’re sitting down and tucking in.

My mum is an excellent cook. Years of love and hard work are expertly packed into a flavoursome soup even our pickiest diner (Josh) can’t resist. He’s the second smallest person at the table, but that doesn’t stop him dipping several thick slices of home baked bread into the hot underbelly of his bowl. He slurps everything down but you won’t hear a shh. We’re fighting a vegetable battle and this soup packs a healthy punch. Zach, his junior by a couple of years, tries to follow his hero’s lead but can’t quite keep up – stomach size or skills wise.

I’m only in town for a short time – I’m booked on the 18.43 back to Paddington this evening – and I haven’t seen Josh, Zach or the rest of my family for over a month. Conscious of the ticking clock, and with slightly overfull bellies and the afternoon in front of us, we peer optimistically out the french windows at the white sky. A walk was always the plan, and brother Olly calls it first. There are various conditions touted by the more mature Langdons – let lunch go down, we’ll have a cup of tea first, do the boys have their wellies?

All in all, it’s about forty minutes until we’re all set. We laughingly self-diagnose ‘threshold paralysis’. Both lunch and tea have gone down, and there’s some general mumbling that wellies aren’t all really needed anyway. A few spots of rain greet us as we turn right out the front door and lean into the steep hill. But they’re nothing to worry about; this is the warmest it’s been in a while.

Josh and I find ourselves walking together at the head of the group, gaits aligned. I introduce a little skip every third step and his unspoken acquiescence warms me even more than mum’s masterpiece. He’s a little dude this one – I love him so much. “Seen any dinosaurs today?” I ask, casually. It’s a regular question and one he either rises to or scowls at.

“Nooo”, he replies, dropping on the second syllable and glancing up at me with a fake frown. So I do the obvious thing and transform into a terrifying velociraptor, chasing him up the hill, grinning more and more broadly despite myself every time he throws a look over his shoulder. We reach the top of the hill and enter the park long before anyone else. So we hide in a bush with a plan to jump out, but they’re too slow and we’re both feeling light on our feet. I hear Zach wailing in jealousy somewhere but want to keep Josh to myself for a bit longer. So we take off again, alternatively chasing and racing each other.

The rest of the clan catch us up at the play park. My parents meet some friends so we spend longer than usual messing around on the swings, slides, roundabout and climbing frame. I’m standing chatting to Ems about something when suddenly my legs are swiped from under me and I just manage to avoid a face first collision with the ground – that bouncy tarmac you get in play parks.

For a moment, the afternoon hangs in the balance. And Josh’s fate in my reaction. Am I hurt, annoyed, upset? He’ll get in trouble. Not a chance: I’m sure he wasn’t expecting his tackle to be quite so successful. So I wink at him, lower my head and then, from my knees (which are actually a bit sore), make a grab. He screams, laughs and leaps backwards. I get to my feet but stay crouched. “Riiiiighhht” I growl, moving slowly towards him, hands out, slowly speeding up. He takes off and I’m straight after him. We’re looping in and out, around and over anything, anyone, in our way.

I catch him, tickle him, throw him, catch him, turn him upside down, give him a gentle shake, plant a quick kiss and deposit him on the ground. That’ll teach him I think, walking off.

Or not. A few seconds later I hear a similar growl to mine and start running before I really know what’s going on. He gives a good chase and I let him tackle me to the ground again. From where I start growling… This game continues for a good 20 minutes, bar a couple of breathers.

Finally, to escape his greatly improved tackle, I vault the low fence of the park and gently taunt this darling five year old. He’s having none of it, and clambers right over after me. I feign terror and race off. And so our game continues but now with a lot more running and little less falling over. It’s exhausting but entirely wonderful and I’m rewarded with more than my fair share of hugs along the way.

It’s soon time for us to continue our walk down the other side of the hill. Josh gets distracted by the new terrain and goes off to explore the uneven grassy hillside. I find myself next to Ems again and we continue our conversation from earlier, until suddenly: ‚ÄúJosh! Hey Josh! If I was an animal, what animal would I be?‚Äù.

You know what Josh said to Emily’s first question, and to her second. But I didn’t tell you what he replied to her third, asked with a certain smugness – “Oh yeah? Why would Lucy be a dog?”.

The little judas runs right over to me and jumps into my arms to deliver his reply. He’s talking to Ems but he’s looking right at me and speaks quietly. “Because she can run really really really fast.”

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