RAFFERTY by J Merrill Forrest
Last time Alex had visited Beth in her office she’d had the well-proportioned, high-ceilinged room with the views over the extensive hospice garden all to herself. Now someone was sharing it with her, someone almost hidden by massive piles of paper and folders on her desk.
Beth waited until the other woman finished the call she was on, then made the introductions. “Alex, this is Rhianna, she’s doing some research for her Masters in hospice and palliative care. Rhianna, you wanted to meet my husband, and here he is!”
He reached to shake her hand, careful not to dislodge any of the papers, and knew instantly that someone was with her. Someone who had passed away quite recently.
Unaware, Rhianna was regarding him with some amusement as she said, “You’re the first psychic medium I’ve ever met, and I’m going to be cheeky enough to ask if I could talk to you some time.” Her cheeks flushed pink and she hurriedly added, “For my research, I mean. You must have a unique take on hospice work.”
Alex grinned. “I’d be happy to talk to you. I have a particular affinity with this place, which Beth has probably explained. We’ll set a date shall we, I-” He was stopped mid-sentence by the whisper of a single word in his mind, but he was reluctant to open a channel to someone in spirit when he didn’t know why they were there, so he hastily pulled his mobile from his pocket and said he had to make a call and would be back.
He strode along the carpeted corridor towards the staircase, intending to head for his favourite bench in the garden where he would be able to concentrate, the one with the view of the amazing water sculpture. But his foot had barely touched the top step when he heard the word again, insistent and much louder this time:
Standing stock still, ignoring the people passing him and casting him strange looks, Alex opened his mind to allow whoever it was to communicate further. He listened for a short while, and retraced his steps.
Both Beth and Rhianna looked up as Alex arrived in the doorway, just as Rhianna was saying that she hoped he hadn’t thought she was angling for a free reading. When she realised he must have heard her, the scarlet rapidly crept upwards from her neck to her forehead and Alex decided it was kinder to ignore her embarrassment.
“Rhianna, who, or what, is Rafferty?”
Her hand flew to her mouth and her eyes widened. Biting her lip to stop it trembling, she eventually managed to compose herself enough to ask why Alex wanted to know.
“I got the word as we were being introduced and I heard it again on my way out just now. It’s a man speaking to me, someone who passed very recently. Is it his surname I’m hearing?”
“It’s a dog. Rafferty’s a dog.”
“I see. And did he belong … wait … yes, the man is telling me his name is Barry, and the dog was his. Look, I can tell you’re shaken by this, are you happy for me to continue?”
Rhianna, blinking furiously, explained that Barry was her uncle, and Beth said, “I’m so sorry, Rhianna, I didn’t know you’d lost someone. Are you OK?”
She offered to give them some privacy but was asked to stay.
Alex took a chair and sat down, hoping to receive clearly whatever Rhianna’s uncle wanted to say, but it seemed he wasn’t going to give any more information about himself. All he did was forcefully convey a picture of a large dog and his feeling of distress about it.
“I’m being shown a very handsome Golden Retriever. Your uncle is very worried about him.”
Rhianna glanced at Beth, who said, “It’s all right. You can trust Alex. You know you’ve told me nothing about your family, so he couldn’t know these things.” She patted Rhianna’s shoulder. “In fact I’ve just realised how very good you are at extracting information from people while giving nothing back about yourself!”
Rhianna dabbed at her tears with a tissue. “I’m sorry. I’ve … I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Can you … heavens, is my uncle really here?” She searched the room, a mixture of disbelief and hope on her face.
Alex explained again that Barry was definitely with them, but seemed solely concerned with Rafferty.
She sighed deeply. “That’s so typical of him. No thought for the rest of us, how we’re all grieving for him; he absolutely doted on that dog.”
“Yes, I’m feeling that, but he’s really telling me nothing. If you could just explain what happened, maybe I can get to the bottom of this.”
Rhianna told him that her uncle had died six months ago. “A motorbike accident. We were all so shocked none of us thought about Rafferty, so he was alone in Barry’s flat for a full day and night before my dad went round there. He was frantic, as you can imagine. We all love Rafferty, so he’s being looked after between us while we find a home for him.”
‘He’s special. I need to be certain he’s taken by someone who will love him as much as I did, someone he’ll be truly happy with.’
“Hmm. I know you can’t hear him, but Barry has just told me he needs reassurance that his dog will go to a good home.”
“Of course he will! Dad would love to keep him, but he has bad hips and can’t give Rafferty the exercise he needs. I’d give him a home if I could, but I’m planning on going to the States for a few months … it’s just not possible.”
‘He’s in her car. I want you to meet him.’
Surprised, Alex asked Rhianna if what Barry had just told him was true. She nodded, explaining that she’d had no choice but to bring the dog with her today.
“I’ve already checked that it’s OK for him to come into the building, but I was going to ask if it’s OK with you, Beth. He’s very well-behaved, he’ll just lie down under my desk once he’s got over the excitement of coming into a new place and meeting new people.”
Beth looked delighted, exclaiming, “Oh, I so love dogs! I don’t mind at all. Why don’t you fetch him, and I’ll make us all some coffee.”
Knowing she was relieved at having an excuse to get away from his revelations, Alex smiled reassurance at Rhianna as she grabbed her keys and hurried away. By the time she came back, a very large Golden Retriever trotting at her heels, Beth had made three mugs of coffee.
“I don’t want him jumping all over you.” She looked down at the dog and firmly ordered, “Rafferty, sit!”
The dog sat, his feathery tail swishing madly on the cord carpet, swinging his handsome head from Rhianna to Alex to Beth and back again. Beth sighed, “Oh, he’s gorgeous! Can I stroke him?” Rafferty leaned into her, making her laugh with the way he squirmed to get her to scratch the best spots on his back. Then his gaze fixed on Alex and he went to him and pressed his wet, black nose into his hands.
Rhianna apologised, “I’m so sorry, he’s getting hair all over you.”
Alex, fondling the velvety ears and the long, soft muzzle, replied, “I don’t mind. I grew up with dogs. My mother always says it isn’t any old ordinary hair they shed, it’s fibres of pure love.”
He could sense Barry’s pleasure as the man said, ‘He likes you.’
‘He’s a lovely dog, Barry. Do you have a message for Rhianna?’
Alex waited for a response but Barry didn’t answer. He glanced down and found himself lost in the softest, darkest brown eyes, so doleful in the golden, furry face. There was a moment of stillness between them, until Rafferty stiffened and stared intently at a spot just past Alex’s right shoulder.
‘He can see me!’
‘Yes, Barry, he can.’
Rafferty barked, a single, deep woof, that echoed off the walls and Rhianna admonished him as she tried to pull him away.
“It’s OK. He can see your uncle. Animals are smart, they can tell the difference between us and those in spirit.”
‘Rafferty is more than smart! I don’t just want a good home found for him, I want him to choose who he goes to.”
Rafferty laid his handsome head once more on Alex’s knee and he found himself transfixed again by that gaze. It was as if the dog was looking deep into his soul. His skin started to prickle as the implications of this meeting slowly dawned on him. He and Beth had only recently started talking about getting a dog. Did Rafferty want to be that dog?
He tore his eyes away and looked at Beth. She grinned back at him, barely suppressing her excitement.