The Kennel, part four: Good morning, Nick

When Nick wakes up, he feels eyes on the back of his head. He rubs his cheek – rough with stubble, stinging from the rocks that he can feel under the thin, ragged travel pillow beneath him – before turning to look over his prone shoulder.

“Morning,” the security guard gruffs. The nametag on his chest reads ‘Thomas’ with the park logo stitched on the side. Nick’s seen him a few times.

Nick is laying hard up against the external wall of the public toilet. He sits up and runs a hand through unkempt blond hair. “Morning,” he replies. His voice sounds like it was whipped raw and strung up to bleed.

“You planning on moving on before the joggers come through?”

“Yep.”

“You planning on leaving your stuff?”

“Never do.”

Thomas sucks on his teeth and nods. “Alright then. I’ll be back around in 20 minutes.” The ‘don’t be here when I get back’ is left unsaid.

Nick waits for Thomas to disappear through the hedge that blocked Nick’s sleeping bag from the footpath’s view. Then Nick slumps down again.

Better than most, he concedes silently as he starts hyping himself up to get off the ground. Might be able to camp here another week or so.

It takes longer than he would like to build up the motivation to get up. Nearly ten minutes after the security guard left, Nick is finally rolling up his sleeping bag and stuffing it into the rucksack that has been his home for the better part of two years. When he was seventeen, Nick bought the rucksack with plans to go backpacking in Europe – living the life of adventure and self-discovery, before finally returning to Australia to take up university.

He cringes at the thought of his younger and more vulnerable self. Then he ducks into the public toilet to wash his face and armpits in the sink.

Cold water. The stench of unclean urinals that no amount of handsoap could ever hope to hide. An itch in his beard. A grumble in his belly.

The grumble, at least, he can fix.

He steps out of the toilets to see the sun just barely peeking over the trees that line the park and takes a deep, lung-aching breath of cold autumn air. Then he tosses his bag over his back and makes his way through the streets and alleys to The Kennel.

Eventually, Nick stands before the unlocked front door of the dog café and takes another deep breath. There’s a soft scent of baking bread on the air and his gut whimpers at the thought of it. He shoves down his hunger, as well as the swell of bruised pride that threatens to choke him when he thinks of the meal he’ll be getting when he’s finished walking the dogs.

This isn’t charity, he tells the bitter, bile-filled voice in his head. I’m earning it. It’s payment for a job.

The only job you’ll ever get, the voice sneers back.

Nick licks his lips and opens the door.

BARK BARK BARK

An immediate wall of noise slams into Nick that makes him shudder and fight the urge to cover his ears. Four dogs are before him instantly, leaping at the baby gate that keeps them from running out the door every time it opens, howling to let Iris Underhill know that he’s arrived.

“Morning!” she shouts from behind the counter, where she’s no doubt struggling to wrestle one of the dogs into a harness.

“Morning,” Nick calls back. He winces and coughs to try and clear his throat.

He steps over the baby gate and kneels to give the dogs some attention. Two spaniels, a bordoodle, and a single black cockerdoodle. Naturally, it’s Beowoof – the blond cockerdoodle – who’s causing Iris some trouble behind the counter. Nick can see his fur through a gap in the glass display case. Nick runs his hands through Bilbo’s darker fur and waits for Iris to come around and greet him properly.

The café is always at its best in the mornings, as far as Nick is concerned. No people means no noise apart from the dogs, and they quiet down easy enough. The cosy, plush pillows that line the benches and chairs are covered in dog hair, but the room smells faintly like jasmine and clean linens – a gift to his senses, which were always so much stronger than he could handle. In the far corner lays a massive St Bernard with a fluffy white maltese nestled in his belly fur. They both look up when Nick enters. Then they go back to their mutual snooze. Next to the counter, watching the dogs hurl themselves at Nick, is a white kitten with her back legs trailing limply behind her. Her back is arched up and her fur is on end, but she hasn’t fled under one of the tables or upstairs to Iris’s bedroom loft.

Good, Nick thinks. She’s getting used to the chaos. A week ago, she hadn’t even been willing to get on the ground with the dogs. Instead, she’d tried to jump from table to table and nearly broke her neck when she forgot that her back legs didn’t work.

Iris finally finishes wrestling Beowoof into a harness and releases him to come charging out from behind the counter and into Nick’s arms.

“Have a good night?” she asks.

She’s worried about you, the voice in his head tell him. A hint of smug bitterness, as though it were offended on his behalf. She thinks you can’t handle yourself. Because you can’t. You never could.

“Fine,” he replies to Iris. If he’s a little sharper than usual, he hopes she doesn’t notice. Iris has been good to him but she’s a bleeding heart and Nick would prefer that she wouldn’t get her pity all over him before he’s had his breakfast. “I looked up a wheelchair design at the library yesterday. Should be easy enough to make.”

“I’d appreciate it,” Iris says as she glances over at the kitten who’d found its way into the café by accident and now refuses to leave. “If you tell me what parts to buy, I’ll have everything ready for you to put it together whenever you like.”

She could buy a better one on Amazon in five minutes. Probably cheaper than what you can make. She’s just humouring you.

“I’ll make a list and bring it tomorrow.”

And then he’s out the door with Beowoof, Bilbo and Mary the bordoodle. The three most high energy dogs in Iris’s kennel; if they didn’t get a good run in the mornings, they’d been known to literally rip up floorboards and eat them. Nick’s payment for an hour of mid-level fasted cardio is a full English breakfast and some conversation with someone who doesn’t think of him as a dirty begger.

Just a babyman who needs protection. Maybe she’ll let you sleep at the foot of her bed like one of the dogs.

Shut the fuck up.

Nick doesn’t think he’s crazy. The voice in his head isn’t a ‘voice’. It’s not another personality, or a violent tendency manifested – he looked it up online one morning when the public library was blessedly deserted.

As far as he can tell, he just has particularly loud negative self-talk.

And sometimes he talks back. Sue him.

The three doodles prance and bounce together, tangling and untangling themselves in their leashes and Nick untangles them without thinking – deftly moving the leashes from one hand, to the other, and back again, unspooling their attempts to choke themselves on woven nylon rope.

This is the easiest part of his day. The part he looks forward to the most. Because these dogs don’t know that he’s homeless. They don’t know that every night he sleeps in a different place in town, or that he showers at the church and busks with a rusty harmonica so that he has enough money for a bread roll from Woolies – the only meal he’d likely manage in a day, if their owner weren’t so generous with her own food.

They don’t know that his great ambition is to save up enough money for a shitty second-hand car so that he can sleep somewhere with a roof. They don’t know that he’s lost every job he ever had because his anxiety threatened to swallow him whole and choke on him, until there was nothing left that he could do for work besides freelance jobs from Upwork – barely above slave wages, considering the hours he spends at the library, typing and researching and writing.

They just know that he’s willing to let them sniff whatever trees they like, and that he can keep up with them when they run through the park at the edge of town. Two cocker spaniel/poodle mixes, and a border collie/poodle mix. An unholy alliance of high energy and job-orientation that would have overwhelmed Iris with six other dogs to care for.

She and Nick help each other. It works. And yes, sometimes she gets that look in her eye like she’s thinking of trying to employ him fulltime, as if that could end any other way than badly. Or she’s thinking of letting him crash in the café overnight.

She never offers though. She knows he doesn’t like it. Nick knows how much it costs her not to offer.

It’s because you’re so pathetic.

No, it’s because she’s nice.

Both can be true.

Nick can’t argue with that.

When Nick wakes up, he feels eyes on the back of his head. He rubs his cheek – rough with stubble, stinging from the rocks that he can feel under the thin, ragged travel pillow beneath him – before turning to look over his prone shoulder.

“Morning,” the security guard gruffs. The nametag on his chest reads ‘Thomas’ with the park logo stitched on the side. Nick’s seen him a few times.

Nick is laying hard up against the external wall of the public toilet. He sits up and runs a hand through unkempt blond hair. “Morning,” he replies. His voice sounds like it was whipped raw and strung up to bleed.

“You planning on moving on before the joggers come through?”

“Yep.”

“You planning on leaving your stuff?”

“Never do.”

Thomas sucks on his teeth and nods. “Alright then. I’ll be back around in 20 minutes.” The ‘don’t be here when I get back’ is left unsaid.

Nick waits for Thomas to disappear through the hedge that blocked Nick’s sleeping bag from the footpath’s view. Then Nick slumps down again.

Better than most, he concedes silently as he starts hyping himself up to get off the ground. Might be able to camp here another week or so.

It takes longer than he would like to build up the motivation to get up. Nearly ten minutes after the security guard left, Nick is finally rolling up his sleeping bag and stuffing it into the rucksack that has been his home for the better part of two years. When he was seventeen, Nick bought the rucksack with plans to go backpacking in Europe – living the life of adventure and self-discovery, before finally returning to Australia to take up university.

He cringes at the thought of his younger and more vulnerable self. Then he ducks into the public toilet to wash his face and armpits in the sink.

Cold water. The stench of unclean urinals that no amount of handsoap could ever hope to hide. An itch in his beard. A grumble in his belly.

The grumble, at least, he can fix.

He steps out of the toilets to see the sun just barely peeking over the trees that line the park and takes a deep, lung-aching breath of cold autumn air. Then he tosses his bag over his back and makes his way through the streets and alleys to The Kennel.

Eventually, Nick stands before the unlocked front door of the dog café and takes another deep breath. There’s a soft scent of baking bread on the air and his gut whimpers at the thought of it. He shoves down his hunger, as well as the swell of bruised pride that threatens to choke him when he thinks of the meal he’ll be getting when he’s finished walking the dogs.

This isn’t charity, he tells the bitter, bile-filled voice in his head. I’m earning it. It’s payment for a job.

The only job you’ll ever get, the voice sneers back.

Nick licks his lips and opens the door.

BARK BARK BARK

An immediate wall of noise slams into Nick that makes him shudder and fight the urge to cover his ears. Four dogs are before him instantly, leaping at the baby gate that keeps them from running out the door every time it opens, howling to let Iris Underhill know that he’s arrived.

“Morning!” she shouts from behind the counter, where she’s no doubt struggling to wrestle one of the dogs into a harness.

“Morning,” Nick calls back. He winces and coughs to try and clear his throat.

He steps over the baby gate and kneels to give the dogs some attention. Two spaniels, a bordoodle, and a single black cockerdoodle. Naturally, it’s Beowoof – the blond cockerdoodle – who’s causing Iris some trouble behind the counter. Nick can see his fur through a gap in the glass display case. Nick runs his hands through Bilbo’s darker fur and waits for Iris to come around and greet him properly.

The café is always at its best in the mornings, as far as Nick is concerned. No people means no noise apart from the dogs, and they quiet down easy enough. The cosy, plush pillows that line the benches and chairs are covered in dog hair, but the room smells faintly like jasmine and clean linens – a gift to his senses, which were always so much stronger than he could handle. In the far corner lays a massive St Bernard with a fluffy white maltese nestled in his belly fur. They both look up when Nick enters. Then they go back to their mutual snooze. Next to the counter, watching the dogs hurl themselves at Nick, is a white kitten with her back legs trailing limply behind her. Her back is arched up and her fur is on end, but she hasn’t fled under one of the tables or upstairs to Iris’s bedroom loft.

Good, Nick thinks. She’s getting used to the chaos. A week ago, she hadn’t even been willing to get on the ground with the dogs. Instead, she’d tried to jump from table to table and nearly broke her neck when she forgot that her back legs didn’t work.

Iris finally finishes wrestling Beowoof into a harness and releases him to come charging out from behind the counter and into Nick’s arms.

“Have a good night?” she asks.

She’s worried about you, the voice in his head tell him. A hint of smug bitterness, as though it were offended on his behalf. She thinks you can’t handle yourself. Because you can’t. You never could.

“Fine,” he replies to Iris. If he’s a little sharper than usual, he hopes she doesn’t notice. Iris has been good to him but she’s a bleeding heart and Nick would prefer that she wouldn’t get her pity all over him before he’s had his breakfast. “I looked up a wheelchair design at the library yesterday. Should be easy enough to make.”

“I’d appreciate it,” Iris says as she glances over at the kitten who’d found its way into the café by accident and now refuses to leave. “If you tell me what parts to buy, I’ll have everything ready for you to put it together whenever you like.”

She could buy a better one on Amazon in five minutes. Probably cheaper than what you can make. She’s just humouring you.

“I’ll make a list and bring it tomorrow.”

And then he’s out the door with Beowoof, Bilbo and Mary the bordoodle. The three most high energy dogs in Iris’s kennel; if they didn’t get a good run in the mornings, they’d been known to literally rip up floorboards and eat them. Nick’s payment for an hour of mid-level fasted cardio is a full English breakfast and some conversation with someone who doesn’t think of him as a dirty begger.

Just a babyman who needs protection. Maybe she’ll let you sleep at the foot of her bed like one of the dogs.

Shut the fuck up.

Nick doesn’t think he’s crazy. The voice in his head isn’t a ‘voice’. It’s not another personality, or a violent tendency manifested – he looked it up online one morning when the public library was blessedly deserted.

As far as he can tell, he just has particularly loud negative self-talk.

And sometimes he talks back. Sue him.

The three doodles prance and bounce together, tangling and untangling themselves in their leashes and Nick untangles them without thinking – deftly moving the leashes from one hand, to the other, and back again, unspooling their attempts to choke themselves on woven nylon rope.

This is the easiest part of his day. The part he looks forward to the most. Because these dogs don’t know that he’s homeless. They don’t know that every night he sleeps in a different place in town, or that he showers at the church and busks with a rusty harmonica so that he has enough money for a bread roll from Woolies – the only meal he’d likely manage in a day, if their owner weren’t so generous with her own food.

They don’t know that his great ambition is to save up enough money for a shitty second-hand car so that he can sleep somewhere with a roof. They don’t know that he’s lost every job he ever had because his anxiety threatened to swallow him whole and choke on him, until there was nothing left that he could do for work besides freelance jobs from Upwork – barely above slave wages, considering the hours he spends at the library, typing and researching and writing.

They just know that he’s willing to let them sniff whatever trees they like, and that he can keep up with them when they run through the park at the edge of town. Two cocker spaniel/poodle mixes, and a border collie/poodle mix. An unholy alliance of high energy and job-orientation that would have overwhelmed Iris with six other dogs to care for.

She and Nick help each other. It works. And yes, sometimes she gets that look in her eye like she’s thinking of trying to employ him fulltime, as if that could end any other way than badly. Or she’s thinking of letting him crash in the café overnight.

She never offers though. She knows he doesn’t like it. Nick knows how much it costs her not to offer.

It’s because you’re so pathetic.

No, it’s because she’s nice.

Both can be true.

Nick can’t argue with that.


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?  🙂

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