‘Rani!’ The call goes up from a young woman behind the counter.
One by one, other staff members take up the refrain till it reverberates through the cavernous interior of the pet shop, an echo inside a cave, the opening strains of The Circle of Life.
We’re here for the dog groomer. It’s a full service salon day and Rani will leave with a bow attached to her collar, a spring in her step, and smelling like lavender with an undertone of wet dog.
As with everywhere she goes, Rani has a fan base. They flock from the furthest recesses of the shop to visit her in the grooming centre. No, really. The people who work there will leave tasks half finished, drop cans of pet food messily onto shelves, and rush to coo and cuddle her.
If I encounter the park walkers in a supermarket, out of context and unaccompanied by Rani, they do a double take with furrowed brows, trying to decipher how they know me, raking their memories for a connection. The pet shop people, on the other hand, know exactly who we are–Rani’s entourage.
‘Ree’s going to be so excited. Rani’s her favourite,’ the young woman continues. Ree, the groomer, is always thrilled to see Rani, and has jokingly threatened multiple times to keep her if I ever run late. I’m only partially persuaded it is a joke.
‘Don’t tell the other dogs though,’ the young woman adds conspiratorially and giggles.
‘She will! I won’t!’ I promise, coaxing Rani away from the pigs’ ears and rawhides shelved temptingly at doggy-nose height. Rani disapproves of my course correction. I tug gently at her leash. She narrows her eyes at me. She considers me for a moment, perhaps evaluating whether she could, in fact, take me, perhaps plotting my eventual demise at her paws. She’s inscrutable. After a beat she snorts, grudgingly concedes to me, and trots up the ramp towards the grooming area.
Ree isn’t at the counter when we get there. The young man who works there, and whose name I still don’t know, beams at me.
‘Oh. Is Ree still sick?’ She’d lost her voice last week. I ran into her when I was buying Rani’s food and she’d croaked through a conversation with me.
‘No, no!’ the young man assures me. ‘She’s just out the back. I’ll get her.’
‘N–‘ but my objection falls ignored amongst the clippings on the floor. The poodle currently being trimmed by a different groomer glares disapprovingly down its nose at me.
Before disappearing through the door, the young man yells over his shoulder, ‘She’ll be so excited!’
I lean down to scratch Rani’s ears–a reassurance that she’ll be okay. As I straighten, Ree barrels in, exuding life and energy, squealing Rani’s name. Her voice is back and in full force.
She is excited.
Over her uniform, she’s wearing a vest of dog fur. Not a vest knitted from fur that’s been spun. No. A vest made from fur that’s clipped, unbroken, from one of her charges. She catches my surprised glance.
‘I had to show you. I had a dog in this morning that was so matted, there was nothing for it. I trimmed all his fur off in one go. Poor thing. It was so knotted and awful that it held together like a coat. I can wear it!’ She spins, arms splayed, in a tight pirouette.
‘Probably not something you want to wear on a night out,’ I laugh. ‘But wow, that poor dog.’
‘Yeah.’ Her excitement momentarily tamps into seriousness. ‘He was so happy when I shaved him. He perked right up.’
She hunkers down, tucks her arms in to her sides, and wiggles her bum. ‘His ears went pointy, and his tail wagged a hundred miles an hour.’
‘It was obviously bothering him,’ she says, straightening up.
‘Wow.’ I sound more judgemental than my mental record-checking for when I last brushed Rani should allow. Did I get all the twigs and prickles out of her fur?
Ree shakes her head. She loves the dogs she’s responsible for. If she could, she’d take them all home. It’s probably why she’s one of two people outside the immediate family that Rani accepts as part of her inner trust circle. A big deal for a small dog with separation anxiety.
I hand Rani over.
‘I’ll text you when she’s done,’ Ree says, her excitement returning. ‘Unless I decide to keep her!’
We both laugh. As I leave I wonder, before dismissing the thought, if I should be worried.