Saturday 7 November 2020

Confronting the Black Dogs

 by Gill James

gin and tonic

I was beginning to regret it. Just why had I thought it would be a good idea to get together with those two? Sure, they could be delightful company sometimes. And at other times they could be total nightmares. And sometimes even if they were in a buoyant mood they could be just a little too lively and difficult to keep under control. Mind you that would be better than if they brought the black dogs with them.

And the two of them together, really?

I must be as mad as they were.

Well there was no going back now. They'd both accepted the invitation - I'd caught them on a good day. They were on their way. And after all, there was something important we had to discuss.    

I'd better make sure the food was all right. They were both fussy about that sort of thing. The roast was doing nicely. Well you couldn't go wrong with something as traditional as that could you? I mean, yes I could make a mess of it, but I'd managed to pull it off this time. They just could not object to prawn cocktail, roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and all the other trimmings. Followed by a traditional apple crumble with pouring cream. Comfort food. And I'd taken no chances. All bought ready-made from Booths. I just had to unwrap the prawn cocktails and dish them up. The crumble would warm up in the oven while we ate the main course.

Well the table looked pretty. Just enough time left to butter some brown bread and cut it into triangles.

I'd just finished the last slice when the doorbell rang.              

I could already see their silhouettes through the frosted glass front door. The outline of the bowler hat and the smell of cigar smoke told me straight away that it was Winnie. And it was clear that he'd brought Ginnie with him. So, tonight was going to be great success. Not. He would be moody. And if Ginnie brought Winnie with her as well we would most certainly be in trouble.  I wish they hadn't decided to name their dogs after each other. It was just too confusing. But it was tradition after all. 

Winnie dropped his cigar to the floor and stamped it out.

"How can you afford to do that?" I asked. I knew he only smoked the best. Well, maybe that wouldn't be an issue after we'd sold the house. 

He sighed. "How can I afford not to? I know you won't tolerate cigar smoke in your beautiful home. And of course they're really bad for me. I like the smell, though." Definitely manic tonight, then. 

We air kissed. 

"I hope you don't mind me bringing dear old Ginnie with me. It's been a tough day," he said as we made our way into the lounge.

 I nodded. "Of course not. She's always welcome, aren't you my lovely?" I bent down and petted her. The black Labrador bitch really was a beauty.  She had a lovely nature. Two solemn dark eyes looked up at me. She wagged her tail.

"Come on in and make yourself comfortable." I was trying to sound cheerful. "Can I get you a drink?"

"Oh a whisky on the rocks, please."

I'd just about made him the drink when the doorbell rang again.  


My own mood plummeted even further when I again saw two silhouettes through the front door. Ginnie had brought Winnie with her. So, two depressed siblings and two big dogs to deal with. Both Ginnie and Winnie - the dogs that is, not my brother and sister - were delightful on their own. It was a different matter when they were together. They competed for attention. They had even been known to fight. And if my brother and sister had their dogs with them it was a sure sign that they were going to be awkward. I sighed as I opened the door.

Another bad sign. There was Ginnie dressed up as if she were about to dine at the Ritz. For goodness sake this was just supposed to be a casual meal and an opportunity to discuss what we were going to do about the house now that father had died. If only she'd come in her jeans and denim top. Things would have been easier then.

Was she manic tonight as well?

"Well, what do you think?" She twirled round and the black silky dress fanned out. She patted her hair and the paste stones in her tiara twinkled like diamonds under hall light. Her lips were painted ruby red.

Yes, manic all right. "You're sure you're not a bit overdressed? It's only little old me."

"Oh, I don't think so. I thought I ought to make an effort if we're talking about poor Papa's will. Out of respect for the old man. Is Winnie already here?"

I nodded. "Come on in. Gin and tonic?"

"Naturally." Winnie was already growling. "No, don't tell me he's brought Ginnie."

"I'm afraid so."

Winnie, the brother that is, not the dog, stood up as soon as we were in the lounge. No hello. No "Nice to see you sis" just "Oh I see you've brought him with you. Well I hope you'll keep him under control."

"You've got her. I'm just as entitled to bring my pet with me as you are. If you can be moody, so can I."

Ginnie was on her feet and growling at Winnie. But Winnie towered over her. Ginnie always seems a big dog until your put her next to Winnie.   Winnie is several inches taller than Ginnie and quite a bit wider as well. 

I handed Ginnie her gin and tonic. "If you'll excuse me, I'll go and finish getting the first course ready."

They didn't hear what I'd said. They were too busy controlling the dogs and making snide remarks at each other.  And for once I was glad that father had been such a drinker and that there was another bottle of gin in the kitchen and plenty of tonic in the fridge. There were even lemons. I fixed myself a big drink, counting up to ten, just like they do in Spain, as I poured the gin into the glass. And then I listened.

At first it was just about getting the dogs under control.

"Sit down, Winnie."

"Come on girl. You keep away from that nasty brute. You lie down there."

"Don't you call my dog a nasty brute. Anyway your Ginnie can give as good as she gets. Come on Winnie darling. Come to Mummy."

"There's a girl. Lie down. Now. Good girl."

I took another large gulp of my gin and tonic. I would wait a few more minutes before I served up.

Well, the dogs seemed settled at least. The mad siblings seemed to have calmed down as well because they were now talking quietly. I couldn't quite make out what they were saying though. There were just snatches. 

"... rattle around...."

"... somewhere to live ...."

" ... get a dog ..."

Get a dog? Were they talking about me? No way. I wanted to sell this house, take my share and go travelling. I'd been cooped up here for years looking after Father. Now I was relishing my freedom. Time to dish up and start this difficult conversation. I doubted, though, that I would get any sense out of them tonight.      


Ginnie giggled when she saw the prawn cocktails and the brown bread. "How beautifully retro, darling," she said. "They look delicious, don't they? I didn't know you had it in you. Clever girl."

"Reminds me of Mother," said Winnie. "She made a mean prawn cocktail."

"Huh," said Ginnie. "That was about all she could make."

It was true. Dinner parties back then were always prawn cocktail, followed by steak, chips and salad, and dessert was always black forest cherry cake. Oh, she did do all of that herself. But never anything else.

"Mm. It tastes good, anyway."  Winnie was mopping up the sauce with his brown bread. "A real treat."

Ginnie - the dog, not my sister - growled. "Hey girl, calm down," said Winnie.

Winnie, the dog, chuntered in his sleep. "Are you all right sweetheart?" Ginnie ruffled the top of his head.

At least now they were just dealing with their own dogs and not accusing each other and each other’s' of all sorts of evil.

"Right." I started clearing the dishes. "I'll see to the main course."

At that moment the radiator started rattling. Not again.  

"Its' still doing that?" said Winnie. He got up out of his seat and kicked it. The rattling stopped. "We'll get a plumber to come and look at it. We can do that now."

Well yes we could. Goodness knows how much it would cost though. Too much probably. That was why Father had never bothered to get it repaired. Yes, the sooner we got rid of this monstrosity of a house the better.


 "I hope it's not too dried up," I said as I brought in the main course. I shouldn't have taken so much time over my gin and tonic. And that fiddling about with the radiator had delayed things even more.  

Winnie chuckled as he poured the wine. "Well that would remind me of Mother as well." It was true. How many times had Sunday dinner been too dry? Mother and Father had often got into deep meaningful conversations sparked by what had been in the Sunday papers. And there was an even longer delay as Mother had to make her way through a large gin and tonic first.

It wasn't too bad, as it happened.

"These Yorkshire puddings are really light and fluffy," said Ginnie. "Who'd have thought it? Our little sister a master chef. Well, she certainly doesn't take after Mother."

Good old Booths.

I felt a nose on my thigh. Ginnie. She simpered softly. "Is it all right if I give her a bit of meat?" I asked Winnie.

He nodded. "As long as it's not too much."

"And as long as you leave some for Winnie," said Ginnie crisply. "Can't have him getting jealous."

The meal was quite a success really. I wondered what they would say if I told them I'd bought it all ready-made from Booths.

Winnie helped himself to more vegetables and Ginnie held up the bottle of wine with a question in her eyes. Both Winnie and I nodded. Why not?

I was suddenly overcome by more powerful memories of when we were younger. Playing games in that lovely garden at the back. Stories with Grandma and Grandpa who were incredibly sensible compared with Mother and Father. And of course, the first pair of black Labradors. Father had been in a manic phase when he decided on that. "Well, Winston and Virginia both suffered from depression as well. So, it makes sense that you should both have black dogs." It was years before any of us understood the joke.

Mother eventually explained it. "And of course," she added, "your father was also in a manic state when he decided to name the twins after Churchill and Woolf. I'm afraid when you were born he was depressed and that's why you became plain old Sandra. But I don't see why you shouldn't have a dog as well if you'd like?" I'd declined. I could enjoy the various incarnations of Ginnie and Winnie without having the responsibility.

Winnie shook my arm. "Hey, sis. You're daydreaming. That was lovely. What's for dessert?"

Dessert.  No. I'd forgotten to put the crumble in oven. "Oh shit. I've got to warm it up."

I dashed into the kitchen and Winnie, the dog, followed me. He must have wanted to catch up on treats.                  



"I am a clux, aren't I old chap?"

Winnie stared at me with his dark sorrowful eyes. He tipped his head to one side as I put the apple crumble into the microwave. 

"Here you go then." I scraped the last bits of the meat from the serving platter into a bowl and put it on the floor. He sat looking at me and wagging his tail. He was so polite.

"It's all right. You can eat it."

He stood up, positioned himself by the bowl and started eating hungrily.

"Knock yourself out," I said as he looked up at me as if he didn't believe what I'd just said. Yeah he was right. What did that actually mean?

Well, I'd better get this dessert ready before those two knocked each other out. Still, it hadn't been too bad. There was no doubt about it; those dogs always calmed them down. 

But the house. We hadn't even started talking about the house.

The microwave pinged. Ah well. Better get this in there and get down to business.

I poured the cream into the jug and put it, three dishes and the warm crumble on to a tray.

I was astounded to find Ginnie stroking Ginnie's head. "Ah there you are sis. Are you trying to steal my big boy? Come to Mummy, you."

But Winnie went over to Winnie instead. Winnie patted his head. "Good  boy."

"It's no good, Sandy," said Ginnie. "We can't sell the house. There's too much of our childhood in it."

"You must stay here.  Find yourself a man.  Make lots of babies. Or take in lodgers. But stay you must." Winnie raised his eyebrows.

"But whatever, we can't sell. We absolutely must not sell." Ginnie was wagging her finger at me now. I hated it when she did that. 

"And you must get a dog." Winnie chuckled. "No home is complete without one."              


They went home eventually, all four of them. It didn't take me long to clear up. I felt exhausted but when I got to bed I couldn't sleep. They were right. We couldn't sell the house. We loved it too much. There were too many memories - even if they included Mother's bad cooking and Father’s turbulent moods.  And it was generous of them not to demand their share. But I was annoyed with myself. I had given up on my dream of travelling around the world. 

I was even more annoyed with them. Didn't they realise that sometimes I got sad, too? It was in the genes wasn't it? I had the depressive gene as well. Or if not that, I too could be subject to the normal mood changes that are part of being human. 

But get a dog? No way. NO WAY. I was not going to become emotionally dependent on an animal.


Ten days later the doorbell rang. I made out three people and a dog through the frosted glass door. Which one of them was depressed or manic then?  Hmm. I  opened the door to find Winnie and Ginnie there, a man I didn't know and I dog I'd never ever seen. A gorgeous golden Labrador.

I was relieved to see that the two black dogs weren't there. Winnie wasn't smoking and both he and Ginnie were wearing jeans and jumpers.

"We've brought you a couple of new friends," said Winnie.

"This is Max. He's a plumber by trade and he'll fix the heating for free if you'll look after Sandy for a fortnight while he has a small operation." Ginnie giggled. "Who'd have thought it eh? Sandy, meet Sandy."

Well, I couldn't afford to pass up the chance of getting the heating fixed for nothing. I didn't want to look after Sandy but knew how to. Our family had had Labradors since Winnnie and Ginnie had been seven. I didn't suppose him being a different colour would be too much of an issue.

By the end of the fortnight I was totally besotted with Sandy and didn't want to give him back. Fortunately that proved to be unnecessary; Max and I soon became besotted with each other as well and he's now moved in.

"We told you the place needed a man," said Ginnie when she and Winnie called round one evening - minus their dogs.

"And a dog," said Winnie.   

About the author

Gill James is published by, amongst others, Tabby Cat Press, The Red Telephone, Butterfly, The Professional and Higher Partnership and Continuum. She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing.

She edits CafeLit.

She has an MA in Writing for Children and PhD in Creative and Critical Writing  

See her Amazon author page here.



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