Here is a heartwarming little story for Easter containing a small life lesson for children (or indeed anyone). It might appeal to animal – especially baby animal – loving readers. I hope so, anyway.
It’s one of three new stories for my anthology Awakening which I’m gradually adding to and which is an eclectic collection of partly stand-alone short stories on many and various subjects loosely linked by seasonal themes, told with passion, and partly chapters from my full-length novels masquerading as short stories.
The second new Awakening story (which has absolutely nothing to do with animals, baby or otherwise) will appear here in due course. The third story is a chapter from my forthcoming novel The Flautist (as in ‘flute player’, not ‘one who flaunts’!). Please watch this space.
I hope you enjoy this small seasonal offering. Happy Easter!
Sometimes Bernice Mockson hated her parents. Not because they were cruel, or emotionally unkind, or neglectful, or anything. They were none of those things. Far from it; most of the time they were pretty well perfect, she imagined. Certainly a lot better than some of the parents of the kids at school, if you believed everything they said about them.
No, it was because of the stupid name they’d saddled her with. Bernice. No one was called Bernice these days! There certainly wasn’t another one at school. Plenty of Traceys and Emilys and Lilys and Sharons but not another Bernice, as far as she knew. It was a stupid name, with an even stupider nickname: Bunny. Okay, her best friends, Jasmine, Sarah and Freya, didn’t call her that, because they knew it infuriated her and made her feel belittled; a figure of fun. They just called her Bernie, which wasn’t so bad, even though it was a boy’s name really. She didn’t mind that. And it had been fine when there’d only been her proper name in use, until the fateful day when some moron had discovered the nickname variant, and then of course it had immediately gone viral among the entire Year Three. And not just ‘Bunny’, but all the other stupid teasing names had appeared too, then, like Bucktooth, just because her rather large front teeth protruded a little bit, and Bugs, and Cottontail.
She didn’t just get teased at school either. Her dad had always called her Bunny (which was probably how the name had leaked out into the world) and one of her idiot smarty-pants uncles on a visit last Christmas had laughed uproariously and said she sounded like someone from an old black-and-white war movie: a plucky young WAAF girl (which was a woman in the RAF, apparently) pushing numbered counters around an aircraft plotting table in a control room, or something. Or a Bunny Girl (whatever that was) from a Paul Raymond review, he’d added, winking mysteriously at Dad and making Mum blush with anger or embarrassment or possibly both.
Her middle name was unfortunate as well. Not in itself. It was Ursula (which sounded pretty old-fashioned too) and could have been shortened to ‘Sula’, which sounded a little bit exotic and quite cool, or at a stretch, ‘Lucy’ perhaps. Not ‘Urse’ though. That would sound too much like another, similar word. No, the problem with Ursula was the acronym (she’d just learned that word in English) her initials produced: BUM. She was keeping very quiet about Ursula otherwise the morons would be gleefully calling her Bumface, or worse (like for example that word that Urse was similar to, with ‘face’ following it). And even her surname, the unwanted legacy from her dad, was an embarrassment: Mockson. Mock. It positively invited teasing.
And the idiots (mainly boys) had been at it again today, calling her names. She really wished that, as her parents considered themselves so sophisticated (which was presumably why they’d chosen such stupid names for her) they’d sent her to a better school. They could have afforded to, with Dad having a well paid news anchor job on television, instead of this crummy north London comprehensive with its cruel kids. But apparently they hadn’t wanted her to have a privileged education, they’d told her three years ago when she was on the point of leaving primary school; it went against their beliefs in equal opportunity. Well, it was all right for them to say that! Dad had gone to a public school after all, somewhere up in Northamptonshire and he probably hadn’t been teased for being called Jolyon.
It wasn’t just her accursed names though. It was everything. She’d grumbled to Mum about feeling so unattractive; being skinny and still flat-chested (well, you could just begin to see something starting to happen with no clothes on but there were no satisfying bulges underneath her blouse yet, not like Jasmine, who had been wearing a proper bra for ages and got ogled all the time by the boys). And she’d grouched about having to wear glasses, and being too tall, but Mum had said not to worry and started going on about stuff like self-image, or having a poor one, or something. It was just a phase, she’d said; just part of being a teenager. But Mum had assured her, not sounding terribly convincing, that she would ‘blossom’, would fill out in time. After all, she wasn’t thirteen yet, not for a couple of weeks, at Easter; and besides, she had the important attributes: intelligence and a lovely personality.
But it was all right for Mum to say that too! She wasn’t a four-eyes and she’d still got a good figure (although she was getting quite a big bum) and looked terrific in dresses. And Dad must still be fancying her, even at their great ages. You could tell by the way he looked at her sometimes.
So she was feeling a little disconsolate as she waited outside the school gates for Freya Mitchell to appear. But things were about to look up. She was going to Freya’s house to see their new arrival, a Golden Retriever puppy. Freya had gone with her mum to collect him from the breeder yesterday, after school, and had been talking about nothing else all day; what a cute little thing he was, and everything. Bunny had rung to tell her mother that she’d be late home from school, and why, so that was all right, and it was with mounting excitement and anticipation that she walked with her friend to her house in Richmond Road. The house wasn’t as posh as Mum and Dad’s; it was only a red-brick semi, but then Freya’s dad was only a plumber and her mum worked mornings at a toddler group. But it was nice all the same, and Freya’s little brother Harry was quite sweet, for a nine-year-old. A lot better than some of the little horrors from her primary school had been, anyway.
Bunny was envious of Freya. She’d asked for a puppy for her birthday, which was a couple of weeks before her own (which fell on Easter Sunday this year, as it happened), and they’d agreed to her having one just like that! No argument. No trying to talk her out of it. But then they were a doggy family; they already had a grown-up dog, also a Golden Retriever, called Percy, which seemed a funny sort of name for dog, really. Percy was a nice, friendly old dog although he was quite elderly, Freya said: eleven. Apparently that was a good age for a dog of his breed. And the other reason her parents had agreed to her having a puppy, Freya had said, was that he would be a second dog in the family (obviously!) so when Percy died it wouldn’t be quite so bad, quite such a loss. The younger dog would be a sort of replacement, except of course that he would already be present. Bunny couldn’t really get her head around that. It seemed a strange sort of attitude to have towards a pet. Surely you loved a pet just as much as a human member of the family didn’t you?
Well, not quite so much, perhaps. Not like her little brother Sebastian, who had died when he was a baby and she was six. She could just about remember him, at the hospital, a really tiny wrinkled little thing in an incubator, with a woolly hat on and tubes and things coming out of him. He’d been over ten weeks premature, Mummy had told her a few years later, when she was about nine and could understand. He was just too small and under-developed, and had heart problems, to survive and although the doctors at the hospital had tried their best, he’d only lived three days. But there’d been no question of Mummy and Dad having another baby to replace him, Mummy had said, when she’d asked why they didn’t. No, he was absolutely unique and irreplaceable, she’d said, and besides, the reason he’d been premature was because there was actually something wrong with Mummy herself, that had happened after she had her, so she couldn’t keep a baby in her tummy for the proper length of time, and if they’d tried again the same thing would probably have happened, which would have meant even more heartbreak, so they hadn’t. So she’d never had a brother or sister, which was a shame, and why she too would really like a pet to love instead.
They reached Freya’s house. Freya (and that was another thing Bernice envied her for) had her own front door key and let them in, calling hi to her mother, who answered from the lounge. They walked in there to find her on the floor with a tiny fluffy creature with short stumpy legs and bright-button eyes and quite-bright-button black nose climbing all over her, gnawing on her fingers. The puppy was much darker in colour than Bernice had expected (much more than Percy); quite red, really. And he was absolutely knock-out cute.
Harry was there too, already back from school, kneeling, grinning from ear to ear, chortling, entranced. Freya sank onto her knees, removing the puppy from her mum, who squealed and grumbled about little needle teeth. ‘I’m glad you’re back, love,’ she grumbled good-naturedly, this little beast is wearing me out. You can take over. I think Percy’s fed up with him already too. He hasn’t had a minute’s peace.’ Certainly, the big dog didn’t look too impressed by the little interloper. He was lying on the sofa eying the pup with great suspicion. He’d probably suffered a few nips from those tiny teeth too.
But if Percy wasn’t impressed, Bernice certainly was. ‘Oh, he’s gorgeous!’ she cooed.
‘Do you want to hold him?’ Freya offered magnanimously, handing the wriggling little creature over. Bernice took him. It was the first time she’d ever handled a baby animal. She wasn’t sure how gentle she had to be. He must surely be very fragile. But he felt surprisingly solid, like handling a firm-bodied teddy bear or something, except that he was squirming around constantly, diving for her fingers too. She yelped; yes, his teeth were sharp. His belly was astonishingly naked and pink and smooth, and the long wisp of fur on the end his little weeing thing felt a bit damp. But then he wouldn’t be house trained yet; he’d perhaps had a few excited accidents.
He was lovely. And Bernice wanted one just like him too.
He was already the owner of his first toy, it seemed. There was a very new-looking, junior-size, red-and-white plaited fabric object terminating in a ball on one end, lying on the carpet a short distance away. Freya crawled across to pick it up. She dangled it in front of the pup’s face. ‘What’s this then, Jasper?’
The puppy broke off from chewing Bernice’s fingers to eye the new attraction, following it. From the safety of the sofa, Percy watched with bored distain.
‘Jasper? Is that that what you’re calling him?’ Bernice asked, incredulous.
‘Yes, why not?’
‘Well, I don’t know. Seems a funny sort of name for a dog to me.’
‘No it isn’t! I got it from a book I’m reading at the moment. It’s the name of the main boy character. He’s red-haired too.’
‘Like Jasper Carrot!’ Freya’s mother put in.
‘Who?’ Freya asked.
‘Oh, he was a comedian on the telly, yonks ago. I don’t know whether he’s still going.’
‘Oh, right. Well I think it suits him. It will when he’s big, anyway.’
‘Yes, it will,’ Mrs Mitchell agreed.
‘All right then,’ Bernice conceded. The Mitchells were used to naming dogs, after all; they were probably good at it. Unlike her own parents, she thought gloomily. A thought struck her. ‘If he grows as big as Percy, won’t he be too big for you to handle when you take him for walks?’
‘No, it’ll be fine,’ Freya’s mum interjected again. ‘Freya won’t be taking him by herself to begin with; this little monster will come out for walks with the rest of us, when he’s a bit bigger, and he’s going to go to dog training – Freya’s going to come with us when we take him – to learn to walk nicely. That’s one of the conditions of her having her own dog. That and feeding him.’
‘Yes, and I’m going to have one too, when I’m a bit bigger!’ Harry said, grinning.
‘Well, quite a lot bigger, actually, darling,’ Mrs Mitchell said. ‘When you’re about Freya’s age, by which time old Percy-poops will have gone to doggy Heaven and we can have another dog again. Two at any one time is quite enough.’
‘Oh . . .’ Harry said, disappointed.
‘But meanwhile, Freya will let you share Jasper, lovie. Won’t you, Freya?’ Mrs Mitchell shot Freya a look that didn’t brook dissent.
‘Well, yeah, but he’s still technically mine,’ Freya insisted.
Her mother smiled. ‘Yes, of course.’
Freya was still swinging the toy in front of Jasper’s nose. He was going somewhat cross-eyed, watching it. She threw it across the room. ‘Fetch then, Jasper!’
The puppy wriggled frantically, wanting to chase.
‘Let him go, Bernie!’ Freya commanded. Bernice put him down and Jasper scampered after the toy, clamping it in his jaws. It was nearly as big as him, and certainly as long, but he staggered back with it, tripping over and righting himself, to the girls.
‘There’s a clever boy, Jasper!’ Freya cried. She took hold of one end and pulled, as the puppy refused to relinquish it and tugged back.
‘Careful Freya,’ Mrs Mitchell warned, ‘don’t pull too hard. He’s only got a little mouth and his baby teeth.’
Freya let go and Jasper, resistance suddenly ended, collapsed back into a furry, legs-thrashing-about ball. Everyone hooted with laughter. Percy just yawned. Her mum got to her feet to go and make herself a mug of tea and get drinks for the children. That was the other thing that Bernice liked about her: she allowed her kids Coke. Her own mother wouldn’t have it in the house, only natural unsweetened juice, because Coke was much too sugary, she said. Bernice stayed until a quarter to five, playing and cuddling, then reluctantly tore herself away from the little furry centre of attention. She’d promised faithfully to be home by five. If she was late she’d be in deep trouble and probably grounded, then there’d be no more visits to Jasper for ages.
She walked home rehearsing in her mind all the arguments for having a Jasper of her own. Well, it wouldn’t be ‘Jasper’ of course. Perhaps not even the same sort of dog. Retrievers were very big, it had to be admitted. Perhaps she should be crafty and suggest a much smaller model that would be more acceptable to Mum and Dad. Like a – what? Poodle, or something? Poodle puppies would probably be even cuter than Jasper.
There was just Mum’s car in the drive when she reached home. Well, Tuesdays was usually one of Dad’s late shift days when he did the early and ten o’clock news. Perhaps that was a good thing; there would only be Mum to win over first, and if she was onside perhaps she’d persuade Dad.
Bernice walked around to the kitchen door, knowing it would be unlocked. That was another thing; she was old enough to have her own front door key now, if Freya could have one. But one thing at a time. Her mother was in the sitting room, feet up on the sofa, her nose in a book as usual. She looked up, first glanced at the carriage clock on the mantelpiece (it was okay; it told four-fifty-nine) then smiled. ‘Hello darling. Had a good day?’
‘Yes, very good,’ Bernice said tentatively. She waited for her mother to ask about her visit. She didn’t. Her eyes returned to her paperback.
‘I said I wouldn’t be late, didn’t I?’ Bernice had checked the progress of the time, twice, on her mobile, en route.
‘Yes. Good girl. Thank you.’ Gloria Mockson’s attention remained on her book.
Bernice took a deep breath. ‘Freya’s puppy is really cute.’
Her mother still didn’t look up. ‘Mm. Baby animals usually are.’
‘But he is especially.’
Mrs Mockson finally gifted her daughter a look. ‘Yes, I’m sure. But little animals soon grow up, you know. Much faster than humans.’
‘Yes, I know that. But their big dog, Percy, is beautiful too. He’s lovely.’
Her mother frowned. ‘Look, Bernice, I know where this is leading. We’ve been through all this before. The answer’s still no.’
‘But you don’t know what I’m going to say!’
A patient sigh. ‘All right then. So tell me.’
‘Well, Freya is going to look after Jasper herself – ’
‘Yes. That’s the puppy’s name. That’s the condition. One of them. He’s also going to be trained at classes so he walks nicely on his lead, so Freya can handle him okay.’
‘“Handle him properly”, Bunny!’
‘Properly. So Freya’s going to be really responsible. And I would be too!’
Another sigh. ‘Yes, I’m sure you think you would. But caring for an animal is a very big responsibility, darling. There are far too many animals given as gifts to children and then ending up having to be re-homed or put down. I do think you’re too young really to be taking on an animal. Especially one that’s going to grow very large and need lots of exercise, like a – what sort of dog did you say he was?’
‘Exactly. Much too big for you, even if it were well trained.
‘Well it wouldn’t have to be a very big dog like that. It could be something small, like one of those little poodles, or something.’
‘Mm, well I still think your dad and I would probably end up having to look after it, and mostly me. It’s all very well talking about your friend Freya, but her parents are obviously animal lovers if they’ve already got one dog. But we aren’t. Neither your dad nor I have grown up with dogs or ever had one. We’d find a dog in the house, well, difficult. And as I say, it would probably end up with the dog having to go to one of those rescue centre places. It just wouldn’t be fair to it.’
‘But I would look after a pet of my own! How do you know I wouldn’t?’
Her mother’s face softened. ‘Well if you’d really like to have something, why not have a hamster; something like that?’
Bernice was on the brink of tears now. ‘Hamster? No! I don’t want a bloody hamster!’ she wailed. ‘I don’t just want to sit watching one of them running round on one of those treadmill things in a cage all day! Dogs are companions but those things aren’t. They’re stupid creatures! And anyway, it’s cruel keeping animals in cages.’ Her eyes were smarting, moisture welling in the tear ducts.
‘Well I’m afraid we can’t always have the things we desire in life, Bunny. Believe me; I know. I’m just suggesting that as a compromise.’
‘But I don’t want to compromise!’ Bernice sobbed and raged, and stormed from the room, into the hall and out of the front door, and away down the street, away from her hateful, heartless mother.
The police found her four hours later, hungry, curled up foetally on a park bench; trying to hide from the merciless world, all her tears spent. ‘Come on, sweetheart,’ the woman officer said, kindly, squatting in front of her, placing a gentle hand on her arm, ‘let’s go home; your mum’s worried sick.’
‘I don’t want to go back there,’ Bernice muttered murderously. ‘I hate her.’
The officer smiled. ‘No you don’t. Come on. I’m sure something can be sorted out. It’ll be all right.’
It was the Saturday before Easter. The breeder’s establishment was a few miles out of the city, tucked away down a track off a minor road off the main road to Chelmsford. Dad had found it on the internet. They currently had litters for sale. Dad was with her now; her driver. Mum had offered to bring her but Bernice still hadn’t quite forgiven her. Whereas Dad, who had rushed home after the early evening news (leaving the TV company to urgently find a stand-in for the 10 o’clock) after Mum had phoned to tell him she’d gone missing) was the good guy in her books. He’d talked to her calmly and suggested another compromise, one that she could accept. So she’d wanted Dad to be her chauffeur today.
The owner, a kindly, red-faced lady, met them in the office and took them to a cage where a litter of Sussex’s, just a few weeks old, were lolloping around happily, putting tiny paws and inquisitive twitching noses up to the chicken wire to investigate their visitors. Bernice gasped. They were almost exactly the same colour as Jasper, and incredibly cute; complete little fluff-balls.
‘Here we are,’ she said. ‘These are very popular. They make superb house pets. They’ve got terrific temperaments – very like Labrador dogs, really; friendly and very greedy!’
‘Yes, I’ve been reading up on them, Bernice’s dad said. ‘I must admit that I wasn’t aware they could be kept indoors, and even housetrained to use a litter tray, like cats.’
The breeder beamed. ‘Oh yes; they’re usually perfectly clean. And if you give them their own territory indoors, like a spare bedroom if you’ve got one, and give them the run of the house when they want it, they’re delightful companions.’
Jo Mockson looked momentarily sad. ‘Yes, we’ve got a spare bedroom. And we’ve rigged it up with a little sleeping house, a litter tray and everything. So we’re all ready for a new little arrival. And we’ve brought a carrying cage with us, for the journey home.’
‘Good! I can see that you’ll be responsible owners.’
‘Not us.’ Bernice’s dad chuckled. ‘This young lady here will be the owner. This is a first step to her possibly having a dog when she’s older. Well, it’ll be a try-out in animal ownership for all of us, really.’
‘Very wise,’ said the breeder, approvingly. ‘You hear of children being given puppies too readily by irresponsible parents, don’t you? No wonder the rescue places can hardly cope with so many of them when the novelty wears off.’
Mockson smiled wryly. ‘Yes, we had a conversation about that the other day.’ He looked at Bernice. ‘Okay then, it’s the moment of truth, young lady. Choose your bunny, Bunny!’
You can find out more about my Awakening anthology and read another preview here.