Iris Underhill rises with the sun, whether she likes it or not.
Warm, early-June sunlight streams through the skylight above her bed, gently pressing at her closed eyelids. But that’s not what wakes her. What wakes her is the insistent pawing of the bed’s other occupant, and a soft whine in her ear.
“Ok, ok, I’m up – I’m up.”
Iris tosses her heavy blanket off and shoves her feet into warm socks before clambering out of bed, scratching behind a pair of fluffy ears while she rubs her other hand over her face. Across the loft, the other dogs are peaceful in their crates. Awake, but happy to remain snuggled up in their pillows or each other. Only Queen Elizabark, a geriatric maltese with a bladder the size of a raisin, is up and about.
“You could use the puppy pad if you need to go that badly,” Iris tells her.
Queen Elizabark doesn’t dignify that with a response.
The bed is surrounded on all sides by raised wooden slats – concealed storage for her clothes. She’d been lucky that the loft could hold a king mattress, nevermind the eight dog crates along the far wall. Iris rolls out of bed, walks the short distance to the loft stairs and totters down, ever mindful of her balance even with the special carpet pads she’d installed.
She’d slipped the first week after she moved in and nearly split her skull open on the floor below.
Elizabark follows Iris down at a much more brisk pace.
Downstairs, the café is quiet. At some point in the night, Indiana Bones had left his crate upstairs to climb down and flop at the front door. His gentle snores pause when Elizabark’s toenails start tapping on the hardwood; he glances over, acknowledges the maltese and their human, then starts snoring again.
Elizabark wags her tail as Iris guides her through the hall to the backdoor, out into the deserted parking lot.
There’s a chill in the air. A hint of winter. The days aren’t as short as they would be further south, and the change in temperature between seasons is as mild as Iris could ever hope for. It’s one of the many reasons she’d chosen to settle in the Northern Rivers.
While Elizabark sees to her business, Iris cracks her back.
“One day, you’ll learn to use the puppypad and you’ll like it,” Iris tells her, even though Elizabark has her nose buried in the dirt next to the dumpster and doesn’t seem to be listening.
The Kennel Café is closed on Mondays. Once, a university student with half a business degree and a dog-eared copy of The Four Hour Work Week had lectured Iris about closing the café on Mondays while she’d poured him a double-shot. He’d told Iris that she was losing hundreds of dollars in revenue from Monday morning caffeine-addicts.
One: even on regular business days, Iris never opens before 10am. No one comes to The Kennel for a morning caffeine fix. They come for brunch and puppies and aesthetic Instagram pictures.
Two: any revenue she loses on Monday is made up on Friday and Saturday night, when the café is open well into the evening. Morning caffeine-addicts might be good for business, but they have nothing on drunk twenty year-olds who go apeshit over puppies and cake at midnight.
Three: Iris Underhill is forty-two fucking years old and if she wants to close her dog café on Mondays then she will bloody-well close her dog café on Mondays.
Elizabark finishes her morning ablutions and Iris hustles her back inside.
This is their routine. Much as Iris is loathe to get out of bed so early every goddam day, there is comfort in the rhythm that she and her dogs have set for themselves. She used to think she would hate being confined by a concrete routine, and business-ownership is so fraught with it that she’d always thought she’d hate that too. But as Iris grew older, she’d came to appreciate the structure more and more. There’s comfort in knowing what is expected of her. And when.
Within an hour, the other dogs are awake and insisting on their morning exercise. While Iris is busy clipping Mary Puppins into her harness, there’s a soft knock on the front door.
And Beowoof, Bilbo Waggins, Furcules and Jane Pawsten lose their collective shit.
They run for the door, barking and howling, determined to be the first to let Iris know about a potential intruder. Indiana Bones had long since abandoned his napping position at the front of the café – he’s lounging on one of the benches, and probably wouldn’t have noticed the knock if the other dogs hadn’t alerted him. Sherlock Bones, Virginia Woof, and Queen Elizabark just look annoyed.
Iris cringes. The noise is shrill and insistent and not at all what she wants to hear so early in the morning, but at this point the noise is just as much a part of her routine as brushing her teeth.
The long hallway that leads to the back door has a direct line of sight to the front, and Iris can see a man with long blonde hair and a heavy winter coat standing outside. She waves for him to let himself in.
“Morning!” Nick calls as the bell above the door tinkles. He squats down to pet the dogs who rush to greet him.
“Morning!” Iris replies quickly. “Mary and Bilbo are done but Beo’s being a little shit.”
“I got him.”
Nick swoops down to secure Beowoof under his belly, picking the cockadoodle up and giving the pup a noogie.
Once Beowoof, Bilbo and Mary are dressed and ready, Iris hands their leashes to Nick. He has dark circles under his eyes. Darker than usual. He’s barely nineteen, but he’s been sleeping rough and he looks much older.
“Have a good night?” she asks.
Nick has a smile on his face, but it’s clearly forced. “The council installed slanted benches in the park.”
Iris winces. More hostile architecture. No wonder Nick looks tired.
She wants to offer a place to stay. She wants to, but she can’t. Last time she tried, the kid got hostile and disappeared for three days.
“Café’s closed today,” she tells him. “When you bring these three back, why don’t you take a nap on one of the benches? Indiana won’t mind.”
“Never known Indiana to mind anything,” Nick replies. There’s a hint of defensiveness in his posture, and Iris knows that he won’t take her up on her offer.
What he will do is take the three most rowdy, high-energy dogs for a long walk, wear them out as much as he can, return them, eat the massive English breakfast that Iris makes him, and then disappear until the next morning.
Yet another routine that Iris had allowed into her life without realising.
Iris watches Nick leave the café with three dogs yipping at his heels, then she gets to work leashing Virginia, Jane and Furcules. The second tier for rowdiness. Iris can give them their exercise and be back in plenty of time to cook Nick his breakfast.
Outside, the cool air is crisp enough to make her tighten the scarf around her neck. Virginia’s fur has a light red tinge in the sunlight, and she bounces forward first, eager to get her steps, straining against her leash. Furcules tries and fails to nip her ankles. Jane stays at Iris’s side, her leash loose, a smile on her snout.
It’s 6:30. The town is waking up.
The Kennel is at the edge of the central business district, far enough away to avoid the worst traffic and noise, but close enough to lure customers without effort. Iris passes tall, thin white oaks planted on the edge of the footpath and breathes the scent of baking bread and clean drains that clings to the air. The bakers have been awake for hours already but their shops won’t open until seven. A few blocks away, there’s a Starbucks that probably has a line of those Monday-morning caffeine addicts she’d heard so much about. Sounds exhausting.
Iris directs the dogs towards the soccer fields at the far edge of the CBD.
The fields are deserted when they arrive, the grass freshly mown and damp, and Iris takes a ball out of her pocket that instantly has the two spaniels perking up. Technically, dogs aren’t allowed on these fields. No one wants to be dribbling a ball only to have it roll through a pile of shit. But Iris cleans up after herself, and no one’s told her she can’t run her dogs on the field. At least not explicitly.
“Ready? Virginia first,” Iris says.
Furcules whines and sits on the grass. Iris winds her arm back and throws the ball as hard as she can, to the other side of the field. It’s barely left her fingers before Virginia is tearing off, bits of mown grass flying behind her as she sprints. She catches it on the second bounce, then pelts back to return the ball directly to Iris’s hand.
“Thank you,” Iris says. “Now, Furcu–”
He’s already gone. Iris watches him run for a moment, glancing down at Jane Pawsten and sharing a look with the terrier. Then, Iris throws the ball and Furcules leaps into the air to catch it.
He misses. It smacks him in the face.
Furcules rallies, unfazed, rushing after the ball and catching it. He trots back to Iris and the others and spits it into his human’s waiting hand.
Two throws and it’s already slimy. She glances down at Jane. “You want in on this action?”
Jane just turns her lopsided smile up at Iris, face blissfully blank, just happy to be there. Poor Jane never learned how to fetch. Her old owners were more interested in using her for dog fights than they were in teaching her how to be a dog. When Iris first met her, she’d been worried that a staffy wouldn’t play well with others but Jane is about the sweetest – and dumbest – dog Iris has ever met. The nuances of fetch are lost on her, though she does seem to enjoy watching other dogs do it.
“Okay, you just sit pretty. Virginia? Ready?”
Virginia has the patience of a saint. She’d watched Furcules run without complaint, and now she waits for the ball to actually leave Iris’s hand before taking off like a rocket.
A couple more rounds of fetch, and Iris is leading the dogs back out of the field and down the back streets towards The Kennel. She glances at her watch. It’s only been half an hour. Furcules’s paws are green, but Virginia’s dark fur only looks wet. The spit-soaked ball is back in Iris’s pocket where it belongs.
On the way back, Iris glances in the doorway of Cook Bakery, three doors down from The Kennel. She makes eye contact with the cashier, Jenny, through the window and sends her a wave. Jenny winks back and waves a hand at some of the day old bread, raising her eyebrow in a silent question. Iris shakes her head and keeps walking, guiding her dogs back towards The Kennel.
Inside, Queen Elizabark, Sherlock and Indiana are waiting. Sherlock is the only one who gets up when Iris enters, pushing himself up on three paws and wagging his tail. Iris runs a hand over his scruffy, wiry fur.
Without thinking, Iris moves into the next phase of the routine.
Elizabark, Sherlock and Indiana know that their turn for walkies is coming. They’re the most patient of the nine – happy to watch as Iris walks the others and cooks Nick’s breakfast – and then take a leisurely stroll to get some fresh air and see something besides the beanbags and plain pine walls of the café’s interior.
As Iris bustles around the kitchen, her mind calls back to the dozens of morning routines she’s had over the years. Some she chose but could never stick to, some that were forced on her by employers and spouses and housemates; some she liked, some she tolerated, some she despised. She likes this one. More than she’d ever liked any other.
And as the dogs follow her around the surprisingly spacious café kitchen, looking for food or company or both, Iris lets the contentment settle into her bones, her mind already wandering towards the evening routine to come.
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂