Iris hears the scream and slides a bookmark into her book, rising from the stool at the counter. Two cockadoodles immediately rush to the door – they’d have leapt into the new customers’ arms if it weren’t for the babygate in front.
Around the room, three other customers look up as well. An older man sitting in the corner with Queen Elizabark in his lap glances up, narrows his eyes at the three young women clamouring at the front, and pointedly turns his gaze back down to the newspaper on his table.
Theo is a regular to The Kennel, and Iris knows that he can be a real prick when his ‘peace’ is disturbed. He’s even been known to grumble when the younger pups barked at each other. Elizabark is the only dog chill enough to enjoy Theo’s complete approval, so he tends to monopolise her whenever he’s in.
The new customers are young women in short dresses and teetering heels, their hair damp with sweat, with rapturous grins on their faces as they let themselves inside and immediately bend over the gate to pet Bilbo Waggins and Beowoof.
“Oh my god, you are so cute!”
“Look, look, he’s licking my hand –”
“Chloe, do you have your phone –”
Sherlock Bones, Jane Pawsten and Mary Puppins trot over as well, looking for the eager attention of drunken hands, and the girls immediately lose their minds at the sight of Sherlock’s hobbling gate.
“It’s got three legs!”
“Oh poor baby!”
“Hold on –”
The one on the left – Chloe, if Iris heard correctly – uses her companion as a balance as she attempts to step over the gate without tipping over. Her balance is off and she flashes dark red knickers as she shifts her skirt much higher than it needs to go, but eventually she manages to climb over.
When Chloe is in the café proper, she immediately falls to her knees. The dogs swarm her and lick the blush off her cheeks. She shouts: “I’m dog rich!” and wraps her arms around Sherlock, burying her face into his neck. “I’m sorry about your leg, baby, you can have one of mine.”
“Oh my god, oh my god, is that the dog from Beethoven?” the girl she’d used as a balance screams.
Indiana Bones, who is sharing a loveseat with a couple of women in the corner, watches the newcomers with his head cocked before settling back down onto his paws and dozing. Furcules had been curled up around Iris’s legs, but he’d rushed over as soon as he realised that one of the girls was on the ground and therefore within licking distance. Bilbo, who has somehow managed to get himself tangled in Chloe’s long silver hair, yips cheerfully, causing Chloe to laugh and aw at the same time.
Iris checks the clock. 10:04pm. As good a time as any for the Saturday evening rush.
The newcomers had clearly been pregaming and are on their way to a club. Iris watches Chloe struggle to untangle herself from Bilbo for a moment. Then she slides off the stool beside the counter and walks over to lend Chloe a hand.
“Welcome to the Kennel,” Iris says, gently extracting the girl from the cockadoodle. “You want something to eat?”
“Yes!” Chloe practically shouts. Her eyes seem bright enough, and Iris can’t smell too much alcohol on her. Probably just tipsy, then. “What do you have?”
“We’ve got some cake –”
That does it. The other two girls are climbing over the babygate, oblivious to their skirts riding up with the movement. The shorter of the two walks over to Indiana and sits crosslegged next to his seat, apparently unaware that there are a couple of middle-aged women already sitting with him.
She offers her hand for sniffing and, when Indiana has bestowed the sniff that she craves, she leans over to pet him slowly and carefully from snout to tail.
The couple sitting with Indiana make eye contact with Iris, roll their eyes good-naturedly, and sip their decaf coffees. Iris doesn’t know their names – they’ve only been in the shop a couple of times – but they seem pretty indulgent when it comes to the younger pups, and Iris imagines that their friendliness probably extends to human pups as well.
Compared to the couple, and to Iris herself, the three newcomers are definitely pups.
Chloe and the other girl make their way to the counter. The dogs are at their heels, and all but Jane and Mary have the good sense to avoid getting stepped on. The others keep trying to weave through the girls’ legs, demanding that they stop and give them attention. Luckily, there are no accidents between the gate and the counter.
“Aw, the cupcakes are called pupcakes!”
“Is that red velvet? I love red velvet –”
“Ash, do you want chocolate or red velvet?” Chloe calls over her shoulder at the girl next to Indiana.
“Yes,” Ash replies, seriously, her eyes never leaving the St Bernard in front of her.
“What happened to this puppy’s leg?” the third girl asks, squatting down so that she can see Sherlock better. The scruffy mutt leans up to lick the girl’s nose and her entire face melts into delight.
“The people at the shelter thought he might have been hit by a car,” Iris tells her as she bustles behind the counter. “How about one of each flavour of pupcake? Does that sound good?” she asks Chloe.
Chloe nods while the third girl strokes Sherlock with both hands. A little aggressively, but Iris had never known Sherlock to complain about the intensity of petting. “Was he a pound puppy?” she asks.
“They all were,” Iris tells her. “Every dog here was adopted from a kill shelter.”
The three of them make sad noises. Ash renews her awed petting of the massive St Bernard. She seems to be cooing to him softly, though Iris can’t hear what she’s saying from the other side of the café. The couple with Indiana grin at each other and lean over to pet the dog with her.
In his corner, Theo’s lips curl into a sour purse and he flicks his newspaper pointedly, looking up through his frown to see if the newcomers noticed. They don’t. Elizabark is snoozing at his side and doesn’t seem to know or care that there are new people in her domain.
The girl squatting next to Sherlock reaches over to bring Jane, Mary and Beowoof into a big hug, while Bilbo jumps on her arm and tries to climb into the cuddle pile. Furcules has decided to focus on Chloe, who leans over to give him a rub between the ears while she fishes out her credit card.
“I didn’t know this place was here,” she says. Her voice is still slurring but her eyes are clear enough that Iris feels comfortable accepting the card as she leans over to get a look at the coffee menu. “How come you’re open so late?” Chloe asks.
“Sometimes people can’t come in the day,” Iris replies. “We stay open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Would you like a coffee?”
Chloe seems to think about it, then shakes her head. “That’ll sober me up.”
“We need to sober up!” shouts Ash, startling Elizabark enough to make her blink rapidly before settling back down, and making Theo glare. “We shouldn’t have drunk so much. We can’t protect them!”
Iris smothers a smile and gestures to the menu taped to the counter-top. “All the coffees come decaf, and there’s hot chocolate and juice.”
“I want juice,” says the squatting girl, her arms still full of dogs. “Can I get a pineapple and midori?”
“I can do a virgin pineapple and midori.”
“Nice, one of those then.”
“Kath do you have the cover money?” Chloe asks, leaning over to give Furcules a more energetic pet.
The squatting girl reaches into her cleavage and pulls a wad of bills out of her bra, waves them around, then stuffs them back in.
“Ok, then can we get one of every pupcake and three pineapple juices, please?” asks Chloe.
“Sure,” Iris replies, charging the card quickly and handing it back to her. “Why don’t you go get comfortable and I’ll bring it out to you?”
The three girls pile into the booth right next to Theo, making kissy-noises to coax the pups up to join them. Three phones appear, and suddenly the girls are bending and contorting themselves so that they can take selfies with the dogs. There are giggles and full on belly laughs and cooing – enough that the café fills with more life and joy than there had been all night. It had been a rather subdued evening before they’d arrived.
While Iris starts bustling around making drinks and putting pupcakes onto plates, she keeps an eye on Theo. He’s glaring at the women at the booth next to his. Elizabark, who’d been curled up in the seat next to his, has her head up and tilted. He puts his hand on her back and rubs a little more forcefully than Iris would like, but Elizabark doesn’t seem to notice.
Iris carries the platter over to the booth and sets it down as Ash pulls her face out of Virginia Woof’s fur.
“Ok, so these are human treats,” Iris tells them, gesturing towards the pupcakes and drinks, “and these are puppy treats.” She gestures at a small pouch of homemade ginger snaps wrapped in a purple bow. “On the house,” she adds.
The girls immediately descend on the puppy pouch. Chloe manages to get it open despite the frankly outlandishly long fake nails she’s wearing, and she pulls a tiny heart-shaped treat from inside.
Immediately, the dogs’ backs straighten. Bilbo and Beowoof leap off of the booth and plant their butts on the ground, their tails wagging so quickly that they are essentially blurred floofs on the floor, their eyes unblinking and hyperfocused on the treat pouch.
Kath leans down and offers her hand. “Paw?” she asks.
Both dogs give her their paw.
Chloe, Ash, and Kath screech in unison.
On the other side of the room, the two women wince into their decaf coffees. Theo’s hackles raise as he snaps his newspaper and curls over it as though he can block out the sounds of joy through sheer belligerence.
Out the corner of her eye, Iris notes Elizabark’s sudden perk. If there’s one thing that maltese loves more than pets, it’s treats. She watches the cockadoodles swallow their little hearts; she watches Sherlock Bones as he is also invited to give his paw and receive a treat.
Iris makes eye contact with the couple in the corner, trying to offer some kind of apology even as she has to smother a smile. Thankfully, the pair raise their mugs in a toast and return to their conversation.
“I love them I love them I love them I love them –” Kath mutters as she gives the two cockadoodles their treats.
Iris isn’t surprised when Elizabark squirms out of Theo’s hold and springs off the bench.
“Oi, come on!” Theo says, trying to catch Elizabark and pull her back up.
He misses. Elizabark lands delicately on the vinyl and trots over to the drunk girls, shouldering her way between Furcules and Jane Pawsten. Predictably, the girls aw at the newcomer and give her a treat without even asking her to do anything for it.
They don’t notice the rising warm colour in Theo’s neck and cheeks.
Iris notices. She swallows and licks her lips, her mind already imaging the ways that this can go, and not liking most of them.
“Iris!” Theo growls, half-rising from the bench. “Can’t you get those idiots out of here? They’re disturbing the customers.”
She straightens up and turns to meet Theo’s eye. “They’re harmless, mate, you can ignore them.”
“They’re hogging the dogs!” he says. He is out of the bench now, standing at full height. “I pay good money to come here –”
“You can’t buy exclusive rights to a dog, Theo,” Iris says. Her heart starts to beat faster as a coil of nerves builds in her chest, but she pushes through it. “The dogs do as they like, and the guests have to respect that.’
The couple in the corner are watching, and Chloe seems to have noticed something going on even if her two companions are still engrossed in playing and stuffing their faces with cakes. Though her gaze doesn’t waver from Theo, Iris does see Furcules attempting – and succeeding – to steal a mouthful of pupcake from Ash’s plate while the girl is trading paws with Bilbo.
“I don’t like that you let a bunch of angry drunks into the café. They’re going to hurt the dogs –”
“I’ll rain down hell on anyone who hurts my dogs, Theo, don’t think I won’t. But I’m not going to kick a couple of tipsy, harmless girls out of my shop for what they might do.”
Her palms start to sweat. She clenches her fists.
“They’re drunk and they’re disturbing the peace. If you’re not going to do right by your customers – and the dogs – and kick those idiots out, then I will.” Theo crosses his arms across his chest. His jowls quiver as he glares Iris down.
“Theo, if you don’t like other customers distracting you, then you can come during the less busy times. You know how it gets on Saturdays, mate.”
“Why are you even open on Saturdays?”
“So that people like you can enjoy dogs’ company in the evenings.” Iris crosses her arms, mimicking Theo’s stance, projecting a sense of pride and surety even as her chest starts to ache with the speed of her own heartbeat. “People like you, and people like them.”
Now, the whole café is watching. Ash and Kath have even noticed that something is going on, though their attention is split between the humans standing and the dogs that have crawled onto their laps in search of more treats. In his loveseat in the corner, Indiana Bones has his head up. Watching Iris and Theo with narrowed eyes; his usual sleepy expression gone.
A brush of fur on Iris’s calf makes her glance down. Jane Pawsten is there. Her ears are down and her tail wags in short, wavered swings. She licks Iris’s hip and whines low in her throat.
“I don’t know if you can tell, Theo, but my dogs don’t like arguments. If you want to stay, you’re going to have to play nice with me and the other guests.”
Theo’s cheeks are bright red now. He takes a step around the bench so that there’s nothing between him and Iris. Iris’s stance doesn’t change. She drops a hand to rest on Jane’s head as the staffy slips behind Iris’s legs, keeping contact with Iris the whole time, a comforting presence despite everything.
“I’m a paying customer –”
“You’re disturbing the dogs.”
“– Do not interrupt me!” he shouts.
Iris doesn’t flinch. Later, she’ll be proud of herself for that.
All of the dogs turn towards the sound.
But Indiana is the one who moves, and suddenly there is sixty-five kilos of saint bernard between Iris and Theo.
Indiana doesn’t bark or growl, or make any kind of intimidating gesture towards the man. He just stands with his paws set firmly on the ground, his gaze unwavering, his breathing even and steady.
Theo jams his hip into the bench behind him in his haste to put some distance between himself and the beast. “You need to call that thing off –”
“Indy is just doing his job,” Iris tells him. “He’s telling me that there’s someone in the café who shouldn’t be.” She turns her hips so that she can gesture at the front door. “I think you’ve had enough time with the dogs tonight. You can come back tomorrow, if you’ve cooled down.”
There’s a beat where Theo seems like he might argue. Iris holds her breath. The couple in the corner and the girls in the bench beside her are all quiet.
Finally, Theo slams his hand on the table. It scares the dogs and makes them wince and flinch. Indiana’s shoulders tense. Jane shivers against Iris’s legs.
“I hope you’re happy losing a customer!” he shouts, taking his newspaper and knocking over his mug as he does. It clatters to the ground and smashes. He sweeps out of the room with as much majesty as he can manage and slams the door so loud that Iris can’t contain her own flinch this time.
Mary Puppins, Beowoof, and Sherlock all bark a couple of times, but they calm down as Iris sticks a – trembling, but only slightly – hand into her pocket and tosses each of them a treat.
“Sorry about that,” Iris says to the rest of the room. “Customer service, you know.”
There’s an old stereotype that customer service is full of screaming, entitled bastards, but Iris had been lucky. Dog cafes don’t usually attract that kind of crowd.
In her youth, she used to shake like a leaf in the breeze whenever someone yelled at her; tears would flood her eyes and spill down her cheeks as she would duck her head and pretend to be anywhere else, meekly curling in on herself and offering no kind of defence. She would accept the most predatory, abusive behaviour from friends, family, doctors, and tradesmen, rather than confront them and risk any kind of argument.
Iris smothers her long, bone-deep fear of arguments and shouting, and wipes her sweaty hands on her apron before kneeling down to comfort Jane. The poor thing is still trembling but she licks Iris’s hand, nuzzling to try and offer some comfort to Iris despite her own fear, and that alone is enough to draw a sympathetic tear into Iris’s throat.
“Sorry!” says Chloe, standing up from the bench and walking over to Iris. “That was our fault –”
“No, love,” says Iris firmly. “Theo’s a prick. People like him are why I keep bouncers like Indy. You and your friends are great and you didn’t do anything wrong. I promise.”
Indiana Bones watches the door for a few beats longer, huffs, and galumphs past back to his loveseat in the corner. He snuffles Iris’s ear as he goes, since she’s kneeling and within easy reach.
“Good puppy,” Ash says, taking some of the treats and offering them to the couple sitting next to Indiana. “He deserves a treat for protecting us.”
The closest woman reaches over and takes the treat. She offers it to Indiana. He sleepily takes it and swallows it whole, before settling his head into his paws.
“You alright?” her partner asks Iris. She’s watching Iris with narrowed eyes and Iris has the uncomfortable feeling that she recognises that the confrontation was scarier than Iris had let on.
“No worries, mate,” Iris replies easily. Her hands are steady and her eyes are dry. She’s in better shape than she usually is after any kind of confrontation.
Iris rises up and returns to her usual place behind the counter, taking some comfort in the physical barrier it puts between her and the rest of the world. Jane Pawsten follows, and doesn’t leave Iris’s side for the rest of the night.
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? 🙂