In this extract our hero, Archipelago Smith, has discovered his missing friend’s cat was
once treated by a ‘pet psychologist’ and decided to investigate the clinic further…
Dr Leach’s office was set out like a regular veterinarians; a metal table for the
examination of animals and a sink nearby, framed certificates on the walls. I guessed
the bronzed man in residence had trained as a vet before branching off into a more
esoteric field, although what he was qualified to do here wasn’t clear. Certainly Leach
had a number of letters after his name, I’d seen them up on his website, but the initials
could have stood for anything.
He urged me to sit in a high-backed leather chair, facing the psychologist who was
maybe five feet away. My seat felt comfortable but I didn’t relax. Looking round, I
noticed a second entrance off to the right, a door that suggested a back way out. Dr
Leach cleared his throat then read from the notes he held, squinting faintly. The man
wore his white coat over a suit which couldn’t have been cheap, dark shoes matching
his dye-job, footwear polished to a dazzling shine.
“You say there’s a problem with your hamster?”
“That’s right.” I replied.
Leach put down his notes. “So where is the little fella? Let’s have a look at him.”
“Er, Reg won’t be joining us today.” I looked down at my clutching hands, trying to feign
a deep sadness. “I asked Reg if he wanted to come along. The lad wasn’t keen.”
“They are mostly nocturnal.” Leach agreed. “Maybe you should bring Reg to see me later
on? Hamsters can be more active at dusk.”
I grunted a sad agreement. Despite his veneer of professionalism, Darren Leach gave off
an ingratiating air, as if he had learnt over time what owners wanted to hear. He was
like that stereotype of the used car salesman from a hundred old movies and TV shows.
Or maybe a middle manager working some religious cult, using his finely-tuned
interpersonal skills to recruit the lost and gullible.
“We’ll discuss your pet and his problems in broad terms before I talk through the possible
treatments.” When Dr Leach smiled, the gleam of his teeth was almost as powerful as the
one from his shoes. “We can see about arranging for you to visit together. I don’t charge
for the initial consultation. My clients are only billed when I’m sure I can help.”
How very novel. But I guessed this man always had a solution for these new clients. That’s
what gave him an income after all.
“Thanks very much.” I murmured.
The doctor took a pen from his shirt pocket. “I’ll start by asking a few questions about your hamster.” I
waited. “When did he start to display signs of unhappiness? Was there a moment when your pet began acting differently? Something that triggered this behavioural change?”
“Yes doctor, yes there was. Reg hasn’t been the same since getting out a few weeks ago. I couldn’t find the lad for ages. I was frantic I tell you, frantic. What if Reg got hurt or fell down the stairs? Then I remembered, I
live in a flat. We don’t have any stairs.”
“Quite so, quite so.” Leach was scribbling away, notes that looked illegible from where I was sitting. “It could be post-traumatic stress. I’d have to see your hamster to be sure.” He looked up. “What about you? Do you suffer from remorse? Guilty feelings?”
“Every day of my life; Reg could have died.” It was an effort to keep my voice level, but giggling would have given the game away, left me no better than some inane prankster on a programme aimed at the youth.
“That said, Reg wasn’t exactly the life and soul of the party even before his excursion. I never woke up to the sound of his wheel,” I lamented. “Not like some mates of mine. Their hamsters rattle away every night. Mad bastards they are.”
“Hmm, this could indicate a number of things.” Leach looked up from his notes. “Often such cases prove to be mild depression fuelled by loneliness. Have you considered getting another hamster to keep Reginald company?”
“Don’t they eat each other?”
“There have been instances, yes…” His thoughts seemed to drift. “Are you able to spend more time with him yourself?”
“I’m a busy man with a high-powered job.” I lied, adding more truthfully. “I need a lot of sleep.”
“Yes, well…” Only silence between us for a while. I thought I heard something yelp in the distance, past the back door. I was about to ask what the noise was when Leach spoke.
“Your hamster may not like his appearance. A lack of self-esteem can be one reason they refuse to stay in shape. Without being in his presence it’s difficult for me to confirm. If the problem turns out to be body image-related, a colleague of mine has a sideline in plastic surgery. He’s very respected in the field.”
“Plastic surgery? For hamsters?”
“Dave’s had a lot of success with body dysmorphic dogs.” Leach continued. “Of course, surgery isn’t your only option. We have facilities among business partners for water cures, primal scream treatment, holistic remedies; even electro-convulsive therapy. Although that’s not recommended for the smaller pets.”
“Er...” The sound of Beethoven playing a novelty keyboard filled the room. Leach’s phone was ringing.
“Yes dear, one second.” Leach looked my way. “Will you excuse me a few moments?”
He disappeared into reception, talking to his wife most likely. I’d seen a wedding band among the other rings and jewellery on his hands. I wondered what she was like, the significant other of this self-styled
psychologist. The wife must put up with all sorts of extra-curricular activities which occupied her husband: overtime at work, golf on weekends, a younger mistress the doctor fitted in whenever he could. I sat back in the leather chair, staring into space and pondering my ridiculous situation. Jim came to mind, along with a certainty my friend would never fall for Leach’s schtick, no more than I had. Jim would recognise this for the bollocks it was, understand there was nothing to be gained here. This supposed doctor couldn’t help his cat,
or my imaginary hamster.
Minutes passed and I filled the time by yawning. It was half two already, and there wasn’t much daylight left. That was when I heard the yelping again, louder this time. With nothing else to do I tried the back door and found it open. Outside the shop opened onto a kind of yard. Ahead of me there was a caravan-size Portakabin, the source of this noise. Shivering through cold air, I honed in on the whining, walking across concrete littered with dirt and leaf mulch.
The yard was bordered on two sides by high walls, a narrow road behind the Portakabin leading off between buildings. Metal steps rose to an unlocked door and when I poked my head inside I was met by a cacophony of squeals, chirps and barking. Standing completely still, I prayed for the inhabitants to go quiet. At the other end of the structure was a large tank containing tropical fish, while to my right a wall-mounted box had been left open, displaying dozens of numbered keys. These matched the enclosures filling the Portakabin, all stacked up on either side, each one containing a creature of some kind.
At the top cages held budgerigars and canaries while on the lower shelves I saw gerbils and bunnies, uninterested cats or woofing dogs. I shuffled forward, urging the animals to shush under my breath, taken aback by what looked like a rifle resting against one pen. Bending down for a closer look, I realised the fearsome-looking weapon only fired tranquiliser darts.
That was when a wet nose poked through the mesh, a tongue licking the hand that dangled at my side. The
dog looking up at me barely had enough room to stand in there, white fur on a long snout, shading into beige near the back of its head, the animal’s body a mixture of those colours. Its fur was short in the main, but the coat got fluffier near the top of the canine’s legs, across its hindquarters. This cage was labelled number 20 and there was a handwritten note on the front saying Borzoi, female, aged 4 followed by a
couple of dates. The first must have been the day the dog arrived here, while the second had the word destroy underneath. This latter date was November 14th, the day after tomorrow.
I stuck a couple of fingers through the wire and tickled the borzoi under her chin, two big brown eyes staring out at me. Ignoring the occasional growl from behind and the general hubbub, I thought about what Jim always said to me. My friend would have got a cat because moggies were easier to look after, but dogs were Jim’s first love. Growing up I always wanted one too, but my parents’ environmental ideals didn’t stretch to another hungry mouth. Standing there, I experienced the same pang I felt when Jim spoke at length about these animals; their loving personalities and loyal natures. How dogs could tune into human emotion, look up to their owners, be there for you like no other pet.
Dogs were truly the best companions Jim said, not fickle like girlfriends or prone to emotional blackmail like his family. Full of affection and intelligence, they would never keep their distance when the going got tough, weren’t known as man’s best friend for nothing. Every time Jim got on one of those talking jags we’d let him continue for a while, before me or whoever else changed the subject. We were probably unnerved by Jim’s passion I thought now, wanted to get back to chatting about movies or bands. Only now, kneeling to pet the borzoi, her entreating face staring up at me like it was the two of us against the world, did I get his point.
A sudden bark from nearby combined with a tap on my shoulder and made me jump. I rose to my feet,
finding myself face to face with a blank-looking Dr Leach.
“I-I was looking for the toilet.”
“We don’t have one for humans.” He informed me. “Sorry I took so long. I see you’ve met some of our guests.”
The anxiety receded. “It’s quite a collection you have here.”
“A number of clients take up our offer of rehoming, when they can’t cope or the treatment doesn’t take. We’ve been very successful, matching animals to new owners, but it’s only getting more difficult. Most families can’t afford a pet these days; they’d rather have another child.”
Leach pointed to the borzoi’s cage, gold cufflinks visible as his sleeve rode up. “That particular dog belonged
to an Eastern European gentleman, a worker in the scrap metal trade I believe. The individual bought a pedigree borzoi as a measure of his status, but he neglected to read up on the breed beforehand. We weren’t able to mould this dog into the result he wanted so she was left with us.” Leach sighed. “You might think it would be easy to find homes for the pure-breds, but you would be wrong. Potential owners assume the pets
we keep suffer from incurable difficulties. Damaged goods, as one lady called them.”
I glimpsed something break through Leach’s can-do exterior then. He grew disconsolate, the pair of us surrounded by emblems of his failure, hopping or fidgeting or mewling in their noisy confinement. Suddenly the man and his profession didn’t seem so much of a joke. I was overcome by an urge to get away.
“I’ve always fancied some tropical fish.” I told Leach, pointing at his tank. “Maybe I can take a few of those boys off your hands?”
It worked. When he spoke again the doctor was all business. “There are links on my website, drop us a line.” Leach angled his head. “Shall we go back in?”
I followed him down the metal steps and out into the freezing day, but not before removing a key from its hook and slipping it in my pocket.
When we got back to the office I told Leach I would book a follow up session and bring Reg in. We shook hands and he followed me into reception where a couple of clients were waiting with their pets. As I left I heard Leach say to Maureen I’ll just see these two, then go for a late lunch. Then I was back out in the chill air, near that row of shops looking for Amy who proved to be parked nearby, waiting.