Campfire time in the halcyon days of anytime but now.
We have a small coppice at the end of the garden where there is a campfire. In the Summer we gather around while the sky darkens into dusk, roast marshmallows and tell ghost stories. The old favourites were there: Monkeys's Paw, The Bottle Imp, The Limping Man of Malak maku, The Rocking Horse Winner - stuff like that. Of course, I had to get around to writing my own ghost stories, and this is one of them, inspired by a true sensation that a dog was with me in the footwell of my new (to us) car.
I felt the dog's presence for the first time two months after the VW Golf came into our possession, with 73,000 miles and five years old it had cost us the princely sum of £6000. Money not exactly well spent, but necessary, as transportation needs must. Those two months might have simply been him biding his time, checking us out, or it might simply because we had to be sensitive to his presence. Maybe he had to decide whether he liked us or not; I don't know.
He made his occupancy within the car known to me for the first time during an early morning drive to Birmingham airport to catch a midday plane. The early departure was to avoid the heavy traffic on the M42. I do now and had then a profound a dislike to waiting in traffic. Not so much the traffic itself, but for the wasted time. In any event, he was there in the footwell on the journey, pressed against the back of my trouser legs, warm and cosy, tucked into a ball. Knowing he could not be there I at first ignored him but then, eventually wanting confirmation, reached a hand down to check and found that I was right - he was not there. And then, as if in grudging acceptance of his non-existence, he obligingly withdrew all sense of his presence, and I drove the uneventful journey with not even a hint of the dog's oddness in my mind. The trick of reality had been mine, I decided; I blamed myself.
I returned to the car three days later after an unexciting sojourn in Milan, and was struck upon opening the car that there was a scent that had not been there when I left the car. It was easily recognisable for I had owned dogs in the past. A sense of wetness that only a healthy dog at play during a damp Sunday walk can conjure up. A mixture of rain, and fur, and mud, and contented panting exertion. The newspaper that had been left on the rear seat was crinkled and light brown with dried mud, a single paw print clearly visible across an article about supply side economics.
"Did you let the dog on the back seat?" I asked Mari when I got home, as our own dog, our real dog, was only ever allowed in the boot. She told me she hadn't as our dog had recently taken a dislike to being in the car at all, and I filed the fact away, just one small part of a jigsaw that I didn't even know I was completing. I heard and felt nothing more about the dog until three weeks later.
It was the afternoon, and Mari had just returned from Hay.
"What do you make of this?" she asked, passing me a handwritten note, "I found it under the windscreen wiper this afternoon."
The day had been unseasonably warm for the time of year, and the note was clear and to the point:
'Dogs die in hot cars,' it read, 'you may have at least left a window open - bastard.'
"And was the dog okay?" I asked, thinking initially that Mari had indeed left our dog in the car.
"No, no," she said, "Ozzy wasn't in the car. That's the strange thing."
It was a strange thing, really strange, and the pattern of the car dog's behaviour had suddenly become aware to me, and I needed to know more.
"Well," I said, unwilling to startle Mari or the children, both of whom were within earshot, "they must have gone away to write the note, returned to place it on the car, but got the wrong Volkswagen. Silver golfs are not rare. It's the only possible explanation."
Mari agreed and we left it there, the matter apparently resolved.
Only it wasn't.
Later, when alone, I examined the piece of paper upon which the note was written and discovered it was a receipt for six coffees - two lattes, one cappuccino, a flat white, an Americano - and was dated and timed for 11:05 the previous Wednesday morning. It looked like a single order of a group of habit, so as a long shot I sat in the cafe from 10:00 the following Wednesday, and observed the transactions of the groups who came and went.
I waited two hours, and at 10:59 the group walked in. There were seven of them this time, the additional member adding to their order by a single Americano. I waited until they had settled, then made a timid introduction that had all the hallmarks of unexcited politeness. I did not want them to feel they were threatened.
"All I need is a description of the dog," I asked, once I had explained about the note, "as several people might have been driving the car that day, all are dog-owners, and I am concerned about the dog's welfare."
The subterfuge worked and within five minutes I had all the information I required, and several rounds of tutting admonishment. The dog they had seen in the car was a jack russell type, quite small, greying muzzle, docked tail and a milky eye.
We'd bought the car from a salesroom in Hereford that dealt mostly in Volkswagens, and it was them I called as soon as I got home. I didn't ask them for the number of the previous owner, as I knew privacy rules forbade it, but gave them the description of the dog, and asked him to call the previous owners, offer my apologies and ask them what they would like to do. The salesman said he would although I doubted it, thinking it more likely he would dismiss me as a crank, but he did call them, for the salesman called me back twenty minutes later and asked if I would care to sell the car back to them as the previous owners had expressed 'a profound interest in reacquiring it.' And so it was agreed. I delivered the car the following week, received a full refund, and that was the end of it. I never found out who the previous owners had been, nor the name of the dog who had lingered so long in the car, nor the manner of its passing, but I was happy at least that the dog - in whatever spectral form it had adopted - was once more reunited with its owners.
Originally written 2019, published here for the first time.