Bell Vs Sebastian

My body grunts by way of complaint as I stretch out to my full length and then arch my back, suspended in the air between these two rooftops for a fraction of a second, before curling sharply back around my gut, whipping my feet back out in front of me to get a little more distance, bracing for a hard landing. One foot slips out ahead of me, skids small stones and fallen leaves in an arc, and I tense up, steady myself.

A joke is a fucking joke, but I swear, this time I am going to cut that son of a bitch’s nuts off myself.

I shout out his name, and grimace to the plaintive tone slipping into my voice. The only way to get them to come back to you is to be assertive; to sound like it is a foregone conclusion that they are going to come back to you. All the experts, armchair and otherwise, say so. An already naughty dog hears the slightest weakness, they’re just going to keep on ignoring you. I imagine Sebastian, on the run and hearing my voice, doing that weird whiney yawn that passes for laughter in the breed, and quickening his pace. Although, of course, it is always possible that he’s already miles away.

I waste a second on looking out over the ledge, down towards the street, see if I can see him. Nothing! I cross the roof quickly, look out over the other corner of the building, but still nothing… my view is partially blocked by a fire escape, but I’m fairly certain I’m barking up the wrong tree.

But then I hear the giggling squeal of a small girl, somewhere off to my right: The familiar cry wherever we go, of “Dalmatian!”

I allow myself a smile, and head off in the direction of the sound… the one thing that I can always be sure of is Sebastian’s ability to turn a girl’s head.

I get lucky covering ground with a couple of transitions to lower roofs – those are relatively simple to clear, and I feel reassured by the descent to a safer level, but looking out over the lips of these buildings isn’t helping me find the little bastard, and I realise that I need to get higher up if I stand a chance of spotting him. I glance around, and see my path to higher ground – a short jump across an alleyway to an adjoining sloping roof, then a slightly trickier crossing to a fire-escape across the way. If I’ve gauged the sounds of bitching traffic right, that should get me within clear visual range of where my dog is causing havoc down below. I don’t have too much time to calculate the risks, though, so I ignore the burn in my muscles and set off at a sprint. I use the extra height of the low wall at the lip of the roof to brace myself against the air, and I make a point of not looking down.

I don’t pretend to be great at this. I’m largely self-taught, and I rather suspect that my technique looks a lot like that of a disoriented chimpanzee – I’ve watched guys do that free-running stuff on tv, and it’s all handstands and backflips, and I can’t pull any of that shit off. I don’t have the upper body strength, for a start. I’ve got about two years of high-school track and a lifetime of action movies on my side – everything I do pushes out from the legs and lands on borrowed nerve from Willis and Van Damme. If I had my way, I’d be at home watching Die Hard with the kids right now, but… this bloody dog.

We’ve had Sebastian for about a year, and you couldn’t wish for a better behaved pet around the house. He’s a gentle giant around our two girls, and when Julie walks him he behaves like the very image of a perfect canine gentleman, and he’s even seen off a few unsavoury types that have approached her on more than one occassion. When we go out as a family, he’s the same – sociable with people and other dogs, never too rough with the smaller breeds, always stoic in the face of alpha-dog bullshit from the larger ones.

So of course, Julie thinks I’m just trying to get out of walking him when I tell her what he’s like when it’s just me.

But every time she pushes me to take my turn like a man, it’s the same thing. The dog waits till the first sign that I’ve dropped my guard, and bolts. People think Dalmatians are a dainty breed, but let me tell you, when a full-grown male spotty-dog yanks hard enough when you aren’t expecting it, you either let go or lose the use of your shoulder. And it doesn’t matter how far into the park you are, the first thing Sebastian does is bolt for the concreted misery of the streets.

The bloody dog is obsessed with the city. I could leave him to it, and hope that he got picked up and brought back to us by people better equipped than I. But the thing is, dogs are canny enough to get away, and fast enough to clear some distance. But they are almost universally dumb as shit when it comes to traffic. My girls love that dog, and I don’t think I could face telling them that their pet pooch was roadkill.

I quickly found that the only way to find and catch him in this built-up nightmare of a place is to… take shortcuts.

Like I said, this was an easy distance, and I hit the slope across the way with only a little squeal of anger from my ankle. I also bumped my ankle and had to get ankle braces for men to ease the pain. I reach the top of the roof to find a nice flat platform from which to make my assault on the fire-escape. I try not to think about the thousand sharp edges of the wrought-iron stairway as I chuck myself at it, aiming for the banister below the one that I’m level with, and I only half fuck it up when I make a grab for the rail. I catch it, but I’ve cleared more distance then I was expecting, and swing hard against the metal posts under it, my shoulder bitching at me as it connects.

I try not to hold its complaints against it as I use that arm to pull myself up and over, and start clearing flights of clanging stairs three and five at a time. Moments later, I’m on the new roof, and looking out over a new ledge.

The only thing I’ve got on my side here is that Sebastian lacks a clear sense of purpose. Once he was away from me, he almost certainly just started casting about for shiny things and pungent smells, and that means his powerful legs won’t have taken him in a straight line awaywards. Still, the temptation to get them cut off at the knees when I take him to the vet to get his balls cut is so palpable it’s like I can taste it in my mouth. Although what’s more likely is that I’ve bit a little piece of something off in my mouth when I’ve landed badly earlier on.

I’m also tempted to ask the vet to use his rustiest implements on him when he gets the snip, but I suspect the old man will balk at that. Its one of those touchy-feely places where they give the pet your surname. The receptionist always calls the dog Sebastian Bell, and don’t my girls get a kick out of that?

Hang on. There! A flash of grey squirting round that corner, down below… I’ve got you, you bastard!

You can’t chase a dog straight out – if they know you’re coming up on them, it doesn’t matter how hard your voice is, they think it’s part of the game, and they just run further and faster. You have to be more circumspect – put yourself in their eyeline and then feign disinterest. I try to get ahead of him, using the streets around me to drop a few feet at a time, thanking god for all the flourishes and decorations that whoever built all these buildings insisted on using. I make myself a blur, because the last thing I want to do is be spotted by some poor cow looking out of her window, thinking I’m some kind of extreme-sports peeping-tom. I vault, I leap, I run like a bastard, and then I see him properly…

I should have known, really, the day we went to get him. We’d answered an ad in the paper, wanting to get a pet companion for our daughters, but wanting to bypass the messy, awkward puppy months. The ad promised such marvels as “Fully trained” and “Two year old”. And best of all “Free to loving home”. The weird old French guy who gave him to us just kept chuckling to himself as if there was some kind of private joke being whispered in his ear, as he gave us all the pertinent information about Sebastian’s diet and habits. If I’d asked around, I’d have known that nobody gives away normal, healthy pedigree dogs for nothing.

You’d have thought opposable thumbs were pretty much a neccessity for the sort of tricks that this old dog is pulling, but he manages just fine. As I watch him, he seems to throw himself against a wall, and uses the force of his movement to keep himself against it, all four paws running along the vertical brickwork for a second before he compresses himself into a ball and pushes off, landing on a cornice skirting a building nearby. He runs the length of that building before pulling some other elaborate dog trick and skipping the distance between edifices as easy as if he was chasing a squirrel across Dead Man’s Park, gaining height all the time, his short leash flapping free in the air behind him.

I call his name again, angry this time, and he even stops. He cranes his neck in my direction, but acts like he can’t see me. Looks around, distracted, and then darts off like he’s following some hidden call to action.

I chase him, but I’m getting tired, now. Sick and tired. Hot, coppery bile sharpens at the back of my throat, and I swallow it down, ignore it, like I’m already ignoring the fire in my muscles.

But I shouldn’t have. Ignored it, that is. Because when I push off from the next ledge, everything is fine. But when I drop from this next roof onto the much lower marbled slab of the Central Library building, I don’t have the strength in the calf of my landing leg to hold myself tight, and when I drop into a roll to try and recover the landing, I fuck it up again, and feel all of the air force itself out of my lungs.

By the time I pull myself up and out of the heap I end up in, I only barely catch sight of Sebastian through watering eyes, as he clears the top of a distant multi-level parking place that I dimly remember having my car stereo stolen out of once. Trying to catch him like this clearly isn’t working, and he’s getting too far away for me to stand a chance getting to him, so I change tactic, and run for the front of the library, where there is a sharp drop down to the peculiar lip that runs round the whole place, skirting the base of the first floor. I ignore the lightning jagging up from my feet to my hips as I land, and sprint like fuck along this lip, risking a look through the large windows that I’m running past. Inside, aisle after aisle of shelf stacks extend into the guts of the building, and I remember that we need to bring the girls in before next Saturday, when their books expire.

Then I reach the end of the line, and there isn’t any more marble underneath me. I slip out into space, and barely land with a crunch and hollow bang on top of a double-decker bus as it slows to take the corner that I’ve reached. My palms flat out on the slick metal surface are all that stops me taking a header onto the hard tarmac of the road.

I give up with the whole “eyes open and aware” thing for a few moments. In the dark, I listen to the rumble of the bus underneath me, and try to ignore the humiliating sounds of pedestrians as they point and exclaim in my direction. I feel myself being taken away from the dog, and force myself not to care.

And then, a few moments later, with my arm now across my face, I hear a soft, scratching thud, and the tapping of many somethings on hard metal. The sound moves tentative towards me, and I force myself to ignore it.

Then I hear a low whine, and a curious, wet nose as it pushes itself past my arm and into my face. I open my eyes to slits, carefully, careful, until I can see the shape of Sebastian’s dumb, loyal face, ears pricked, alert, trying to hear if I’m okay, if that makes any damn sense.

I ease my spare arm up, and then that’s it. I’ve grabbed his collar, and then my other arm is around and on his lead, and I’ve got him. I spring up into a crouching position next to him, and I hold him fast. And the number 16 bus under us, that is taking us all the way to the stop that sits just outside our house, rumbles on.

Dogs, see. They are canny, but they are not nearly as sharp as all that. Not nearly as clever as a man with a clear understanding of bus routes and your basic canine behaviour, at least.

And the first thing I’m doing when I get home is phoning up the vet about Sebastian Bell’s ritual genital mutilation. Oh yes indeed.

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Nicolas Papaconstantinou
Nicolas Papaconstantinou is an enthusiastic amateur creative type, and the chap behind Elephant Words. Be nice to him. He growed up kinda wrong.

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