Sammy stood in the middle of the kitchen. His parents were still asleep but he couldn’t sleep and there was no point being in bed when you were awake, especially on a Saturday morning when there was no school. When he opened the kitchen door Carthenage had bounded towards him. Sammy didn’t kick him when he jumped up and scratched his shins. His leg came up all by itself, but Sammy made it go down again before it touched the little dog. He was going to go back into the living room, but Carthenage had gone in first, so Sammy had quickly shut the door on him.
He wanted to get a drink but he looked at the mess. The waste bin had been overturned and everything that had been in it was now out of it and spread all over the floor. A blue and white checked tea-towel had been pulled off its hook by the sink and was all chewed up. But that wasn’t the worst thing of all, at all.
‘Shelly May. Shelly May. Shelly May.’ Sammy shouted at the top of his voice. He kept shouting his mother’s name over and over until he heard her footsteps pounding down the stairs. She burst through the door. ‘What is it? What’s the matter, is the puppy hurt?’
Sammy raised his voice even louder. The horror and indignation that he felt were apparent in every syllable. ‘It’s done a shit,’ he said staring at the poo, shaped like cupcake icing, by the back door.
Shelly didn’t know whether to laugh or be outraged. In his fifteen years she had never once heard her son swear. ‘Sammy,’ she shouted at him, trying not to let the corners of her mouth spread into a grin, ‘You don’t use language like that. You know better.’
‘Oops,’ said Sammy. She set to cleaning the mess while Sammy played with his fingers.
‘Wash hands, Shelly May, wash hands, now,’ said Sammy, before reciting a text book passage about how many different bacteria were in dog faeces. He began to name them. Sorting them into alphabetical order as quickly as a computer could have done.’
‘Of course I’m going to wash my hands,’ she squirted hand wash into her palms and rubbed them together vigorously before rinsing under the tap and drying,’ There, is that okay?’
‘Again, wash your hands again, Shelly May.’
She picked up the antibacterial wash that was kept on the windowsill beside the hand wash, ‘I’ll tell you what, Sammy, I’ll put some of this on and if we use it after we’ve stroked Carthenage, it will be fine. It kills all germs and diseases and bacteria, so you’ll never have to worry that you’re not safe to touch him. This will protect you.’ Sammy was obsessive about hygiene and Shelly thought it was a good idea to try and implant the hand wash into his brain before stroking Carthenage became an issue.
‘Should we go into the living room and see him, Sammy?’ The night before they had managed to get a collar on the puppy. ‘If you wait there just one second, I’ll put his lead on and then he won’t be able to jump up at you. It will be perfectly safe. I’ll call you in when we’re ready. Is that okay, Sammy?’
He didn’t answer her so she left him to think about it and squeezed carefully through the living room door before the puppy managed to shimmy through her legs and get into Sammy. Carthenage had picked up one of John slippers, and was chewing it with everything he was worth. He was growling angrily at it, but his tail was wagging furiously. When he saw Shelly he left the slipper and ran towards her. He was so excited that his bum waggled from side to side in delight. Shelly bent down and was able to get the lead on him easily, but when she tried to walk him over to the furthest chair from where Sammy usually sat, the pup dug his hind legs into the carpet and refused to move. He shook his head, madly trying to dislodge the unfamiliar binding around his neck. Shelly had to drag him across the room. She sat down and lifted the pup onto her knee. ‘Come on in when you’re ready, Sammy,’ she shouted.
Sammy didn’t come in; she reassured him that it was okay.
‘Call Samuel May in when Shelly May’s ready,’ Sammy shouted back from the kitchen. This wasn’t a request, it was part of his Echolalia, when distressed, Sammy would repeat the last thing that had been said to him, often mimicking the voice that had said it, much like a parrot will do.
‘I am ready, sweetheart. I’ve got the puppy on my knee, he can’t come near you. It’s okay for you to come in and sit in your chair. We’re right across the room in Dad’s seat.’
‘Call Samuel May in when Shelly May’s ready.’ Shelly signed and ruffled the dog’s ears. This could well take some time. She tried a different tack.
Sammy, I wonder if you could help me, love. I have the puppy on my knee, right over at the far side of the room. I can’t reach the curtains to open them and it’s really dark in here. Would you come in and open the curtains for me, please?’
‘Call Samuel May in when Shelly May’s ready.’ said Sammy coming in very dubiously. He looked at the pup to make sure he couldn’t get to him and Shelly was glad that he’d made brief eye contact. On seeing the newcomer to the room, Carthenage, yelped excitedly and tried to get out of Shelly’s arms to go to Sammy. Sammy’s mind was completely taken up with opening the two pairs of curtains in the room. He had switched his mind from the puppy and only looked at him when he walked from one side of the room to the other to get to the second set of curtains. He pulled each curtain back and ensured that every pleat was in complete symmetry to the rest. He gauged the distance of the opening between the two curtains to check that they were even and made adjustments where necessary. When he was satisfied that they were perfect he went to his chair and sat down. He dropped his gaze to his hands and played with his finger’s ‘Oops.’
‘Oops, John May’s slipper.’
Shelly laughed. Yes, Carthenage found it and brought it in for him.
‘No honey, he’s not bad, he’s just being a puppy. We’ve got to expect him to pick up lots of things and chew them. He’s only a baby and he doesn’t know any better. I’ll tell you what, if you see him with something that he shouldn’t have, you say “Oops,” and I’ll come and take it off him. How’s that?’
Sammy thought about it. He was still looking at his hands but kept sneaking lightning quick peeks at the dog. Shelly talked to the dog and to Sammy until he got used to being in the room with Carthenage. She kept her voice chatty and conversational.
‘Carthenage is an unusual name for a dog, Sammy. Your dad and I were wondering why you chose it? It’s the name of a place, isn’t it?’
‘The ancient city of Carthage was situated on the North Coast of Africa in what is now modern day Tunisia. Carthage was built on a promontory with inlets to the sea to the north and south. C.A.R.T.H.A.G.E.’
‘Oh,’ said Shelly, bemused. So he’s called Carthage, not Carthenage. Did I get it wrong?
‘Shelly May did not get Carthenage’s name wrong. Shelly May got Carthage wrong.’ Sammy was still looking at his hands but his fingers were moving less. He was beginning to relax. ‘Dog is called Carthenage. That is his name.’
‘Oh, so what does that mean, then?’
‘Carthenage is a none sense word. It is not nonsense, it is a word of no meaning. It is none sense. Samuel May made it up.’
‘Ah, I see. Why Carthenage though, Why Not Ben, or Rover?’
Sammy dropped his hands and let them fall to his sides. He kept looking up at the dog, before lowering his gaze back to its normal position. Sammy had a big problem with eye contact.
‘Carthenage means greatness.’
‘Look Sammy, Carthenage has curled up on my knee and has gone to sleep. I thought you made his name up.’
‘Samuel May made the meaning up as well.’ Shelly loved these conversations with her son.
‘Oh well, I think that makes it a great name.’
Sammy risked a quick glance upwards that encompassed both his mother and the dog.
‘It is the right name for dog.’
‘But you hadn’t met him when you named him so you didn’t know that then.’
John May said it was a German shepherd cross. Samuel May knows what German shepherd cross looks like. Carthenage is his name. That’s a good name,’ he said emphatically.
‘Should I bring him over so that you can stroke him,’ asked Shelly. ‘I promise I won’t let him jump on you.’
Sammy didn’t answer but his hands flew together and started twining. His eyes shot up into the far corner of the ceiling.
‘Don’t worry Sweetheart, there’s no rush. I’ll put him back in the kitchen. You can see him again later.’
‘Shelly May can sit on this chair,’ he said, touching the seat beside him.
She lifted the pup without waking him and sat carefully next to Sammy. He continued to look at the ceiling on the other side of the room but his hands were still. Shelly sat for a few minutes stroking the sleeping dog and talking to her son. ‘His fur is so soft Sammy, it’s the nicest feeling ever.’ She reached over and took her son’s hand. He didn’t stiffen or scream. He made no attempt to bite or head butt her. As she lifted his hand across to the puppy he only tensed slightly. She rested his hand on the back of the puppy’s neck and took her own hand away. Sammy buried his fingers deep in the dog’s fur and then stroked him from his neck onto his back. Carthenage didn’t wake up. Sammy’s eyelids fluttered and the blank canvas of his empty face filled with expression. She couldn’t be sure, but she felt that Sammy was learning how to smile.