‘Do you need a lift?’
Danny looked at his mother; still wearing her dressing gown and her hair was in a state of bird’s nest tangles.
He shook his head. ‘It takes me twelve minutes and forty-five seconds to walk to the centre. I have twenty-two minutes and thirty seconds to finish my breakfast, wash up and put things away, put on my coat and trainers. I have already made my lunch and packed it into my rucksack. It will take you at least forty-three minutes to go back upstairs, wash, brush your teeth, get dressed and find your car keys – which are in the bowl on the breakfast bar. I put them there this morning because you left them next to the microwave. So, no thank you.’
Whilst speaking, Danny had already moved from the table to the sink and washed up his bowl and spoon. His mother was about to tell him to leave the drying up for her but she knew that Danny preferred to wash up his own crockery. She watched him as he moved to the hallway, pulled on his trainers and tied the laces meticulously. She longed to be the sort of mother who could give him a hug and a kiss before he left the house but was held back by the knowledge that this would make him freeze and back away from her.
His coat was on now, and after checking that he had his own keys, his wallet and was wearing his rucksack with the straps adjusted equally, Danny nodded at her and left the house.
Even allowing for pavement crack avoidance, Danny still managed to arrive at work with two minutes and twenty-five seconds to spare. He keyed in the combination on his locker, hung his coat and rucksack inside, and carefully juggled the numbers again so that no one would be able to guess his secret code. Other workers were already waiting in the staff room; as was his custom Danny took a seat at the other end of the line of chairs, away from his colleagues. No one was offended by this however, that was just Danny.
On the stroke of eight o’clock, Maggie, the centre manager joined them and began cleaning off the white board so that she could write up the jobs for the day. Danny expected to be on kennel cleaning. This had presented him with a problem at first but Maggie made sure that he always had the right gloves, a boiler suit, boots and an apron to wear, and it gave him a warm sense of accomplishment when he left the kennels clean, tidy and ready for the dogs to come back to.
Today was different though. Maggie didn’t give him any jobs. This worried Danny. She had explained to him and his mother that the centre couldn’t afford to take on many permanent staff, and that Danny could have expenses as a volunteer but would need to prove that he could work hard with his colleagues, and for the good of the dogs that had been abused and abandoned by evil, thoughtless people. Danny loved the dogs. He loved his job. He began to breathe heavily as he imagined what life would be like without his job at the centre. Maggie was very quickly at his side.
‘Come with me Danny. I have a very special job for you. I don’t know how long it will take you or if you can manage to do it, but I have a feeling that if anyone can succeed, it will be you.’
Danny followed her out of the room. Maggie was nice. It didn’t look as if she was going to sack him after all. He hoped that he could do the job – whatever it was.
They walked along the corridor: anxious doggy faces peered through the bars of the kennels. Some dogs barked, some whined, some yapped. Most of them wagged their tails as they recognised people who only ever showed them love and kindness.
‘In here,’ said Maggie as she unlocked the door to the special kennel. ‘This little boy was brought in during the night. I’m afraid that someone has been very unkind to him and he is extremely scared. He doesn’t know what to do when you touch him because he thinks you are going to hurt him. The only noise he can make is a scream of fear. I need you to spend some time with him every day. Talk to him, try to stroke him if you can. Your job is to help him to trust people again. Do you think you can do it Danny?’
Danny nodded, not taking his eyes from the skinny, cowering dog hiding in the furthermost corner of the kennel.
‘I’ve put in a clean bean bag for you to sit on; there’s fresh food and water, keep the door closed while you are in here and lock it when you leave. The noise he makes is pretty bad so come out when it becomes too much. Any questions?’
Danny shook his head, his eyes still focussed on the little dog.
‘We’ve called him George. He didn’t have a name before.’
Maggie left the kennel, mentally crossing her fingers that Danny would be the one to save George. The centre relied on donations and being able to rehome dogs once they had recovered from their pasts. She was doubtful that George would ever recover.
Danny moved the beanbag closer to George and reached out a hand to touch him. George screamed. An ear-splitting noise that Danny had never heard a dog make before. He turned its head towards Danny’s hand as if to bite it but experience had taught George that this action would only result in a kick or a punch, so he was too nervous to actually make contact with Danny’s gentle fingers.
‘It’s alright George. I won’t hurt you. I promise to look after you. I’m just going to sit here on the bean bag next to you for now so that you can get used to my smell.’
Maggie found them there, side by side, when she came back near lunchtime. George still looked scared but he wasn’t screaming. Danny looked up at her and she could have sworn she saw a glimmer of a smile.
‘Time for lunch Danny. You can either take a couple of the dogs round the field this afternoon, or you can come back and spend some more time with George – but only if you want to.’
Danny got to his feet stiffly and turned back to George.
‘I am going for my lunch now George. It will take me precisely twenty-six minutes to wash my hands, eat my lunch, go to the toilet and wash my hands again. I’ll come back here afterwards and bring my magazine with me. It’s about computers so you won’t really understand it, but it will help you to get used to my voice if I read to you. Is that alright Maggie?’
‘Oh very alright. I’ve explained to the others what you are doing with George but it’s completely up to you how much time you spend with him. If you need a break and want to stretch your legs, come and find me.’
Danny nodded, knowing that taking time to have his lunch would be the only break he needed. Maggie closed the kennel door behind them and handed Danny the key. He walked quickly down the corridor, feeling proud that she had trusted him with this very special job and not wanting to take any longer over his lunch than necessary.
It took two weeks in all. Every day Maggie made time to visit the kennel and listen to Danny’s soft voice telling George about computer systems, how to cook scrambled eggs, cleaning out kennels and making sure that the dogs had a balanced diet – anything that Danny felt George would like to know about. George stopped screaming when Danny reached out to him, and eventually took to creeping closer to the bean bag until the wonderful day when Maggie peered through the kennel bars and saw George curled up on Danny’s lap, sleeping happily as Danny stroked him.
Maggie went back to her office feeling a bit choked. She picked up the phone and called Danny’s mother.
‘I have some good news for you. I haven’t told Danny yet so act surprised when he comes home.’
I’ve been given a grant to take on an apprentice kennel worker. I want Danny to have the opportunity – if he wants it.’
Danny’s mother almost choked on her reply. ‘How wonderful! Oh Maggie! I never thought I’d see the day that Danny would have a real job. Thank you. Thank you so much.’
‘No, it’s all down to Danny. I gave him a job that I didn’t think anyone would be able to do and he’s excelled at it. Has he told you about George?’
‘A little bit every day. We looked at some of his old books and discussed whether George would be receptive to music. It always soothes Danny when he gets wound up. I’d better work on looking surprised for he gets home tonight.’
Maggie walked back to the kennel, smiling at the sound of Danny singing an old lullaby to George. It would be a new beginning – for both of them.