I was no longer concerned by the late Ewan's non-appearance; I was seriously worried. There was still no sign of the gangly-limbed mongrel. I know that, "up here", there are apparently no boundaries - but I felt certain that he and I would have crossed paths by now. I confided my fears to Kipper as we strolled close to the place where we had first re-united after my passing. He listened patiently and with consideration, but was equally unable to account for the absence, given that descent to "the other place" could be ruled out with certainty. We had almost resolved on a direct enquiry to the man with wounded hands and feet, who we'd spotted sitting on some rocks next to the river some way off, watching the progress of some fish in the water, with a contemplative look on his face, when Kipper suddenly stopped and barked "What's that?!"
I turned to follow his gaze and was surprised to see that he was looking directly upwards to the sky. I stared with him, but failed to notice whatever had caught his attention.
"What're you-" I began, but Kipper shushed me. And then I heard it. A puffing and grunting sound, soft at first but getting clearer, accompanied by muttering. It was bizarre, although faintly comical. We stood and listened.
"Gnnnyyrgh! Grrrufffff..." - snort - "Stupid clouds... gnyrrrfffff..." - sounds of snuffling, heaving and panting - "Grrrrnnnnggghhh... Oh! Oh no! No, no nooo!" After frantic scrabbling sounds, the tip of a tail appeared through one of the clouds overhead. "Argh! No!" Two hind-paws appeared through the cloud, desperately paddling in the air trying to stay atop the cloud. "Oh no! Oh no! Noooo!" And then, with a piercing scream and a loud whump!, Ewan fell through the cloud and landed at my feet.
"EWAN!" I yelped joyfully. My friend staggered to his feet, shook himself, and looked up.
"Hello Jazz!" he barked, "What are you doing here?!"
"Well - er," I turned to Kipper. "This is my friend Ki-"
"You haven't seen it, have you Jasps?" interrupted Ewan
"Eh?!" I was taken aback. "Seen what exactly...?"
"That ruddy staircase." replied Ewan crossly. "I wish I'd never climbed the stupid thing now."
I exchanged a puzzled glance with Kipper, who shrugged.
"Oh, so THAT'S where you've been all this time!" I replied.
"Yes!" barked Ewan, looking all about him for his mysterious 'staircase', "And I've looked EVERYWHERE and I can't find it and now, to be honest with you Jazz, I's getting very much annoyed. I know you has always said that I's a couple of Cheddars short of a full cheeseboard but I PROMISE I is looking for a real and proper staircase."
"Well, Ewan, perhaps if you tell us some more about the staircase and how you came by it Kipper and I can help you."
"Oh!" said Ewan, turning to look at me properly for the first time, "Is this your friend Kipper? Hello Kipper, it is nice to meet you."
"Likewise!" barked Kipper, wagging his handsome caramel-coloured tail with its white tip.
"So - OK - the staircase." said Ewan, "Well I hadn't been feeling very well at all. I sees your partner and she says to my mummy that 'Ewan seems quiet today' which isn't normal for me. I has had a sore tummy, you see."
"Well, I do recall that you weren't renowned for being a quiet dog...!" I cut in, with a good-natured smile at my simple friend.
"Well yes." he responded. "Anyway, I was OK the next day and Fizzy wasn't worried, so it was everything OK. But two days after that I had a sore tummy again. And I mean SORE. I didn't want to go out of my bed - and I has never been one to linger in my bed - and I didn't want my dinner so Fizzy eated it. Mummy saw and so she took me to the vetsdoctor. The vetsdoctor said it was OK but I needs a little operation so they gets me ready and I has the 'jection and goes to sleep. No problems. Anyway, so I was sleeping and then - THEN - I sees this light, sort of a golden glow. It looks nice and then it comes nearer and I sees this GREAT BIG staircase, all shiny and golden - like Double Gloucester is golden. Well - no, actually. Double Gloucester is too dark and orangey. It was more like Cheddar, a good strong Cheddar. Sort of. Well... a cross between Cheddar and Leerdammer, probably... anyway... erm... what was I talking about again...?!"
"The staircase!" I yelped as, behind me, Kipper tried to master his guffaws.
"Blimey," muttered my friend, "You said he was obsessed with cheese, but..."
"Oh yes, the staircase! Right. Brilliant. Yes." nodded Ewan. "So I climbs it. It was cool and smooth like metal and very steep. It seems like I is climbing for ages. Then I gets to the top and there is a nice big silvery shiny gate and a man there. He is a nice man and he says 'Ewan! What a good, GOOD boy you have been. You have brought so much joy in your life - you are welcome to come in.' So - like a fool - I strolls right in. Well, it is all very nice and that, but now I can't find the staircase so's I can go back down again. I looks and looks and looks, but can I find it? No! I cannot. And now I's all cross and - to be quite honest with you Jazz and Kips - very worried. I need to find the staircase so I can go back down it to Fizzy. Fizzy will be very frightened about where I am. She will think I has done something silly. Fizzy-" he explained to Kipper "-is my pretty wife. She makes sure I am all right and doesn't do too many stupid things. I need to go back to her now." He sighed. "The only good thing about all of this," he concluded "Is that my tummy isn't sore any more."
"Oh dear." muttered Kipper, as he and I exchanged a glance. How were we going to explain this to poor Ewan? The confused dog was looking about him all the time, trying to find his precious staircase. As he turned, he stumbled and fell against me. I helped him to steady himself.
"Jazzy!" barked Ewan sharply, "I can TOUCH you! You's solid again!" He patted me all over, hardly daring to believe himself. "But - yes! You's whole and solid and strong again! You has come back to life! It is a miracle!! I TOLD Fizzy that you would come back properly and here you are! She never did believe me, but now she will HAVE TO! You're ALIVE!!"
Kipper and I looked at each other again.
"This is unlikely to be pleasant." murmured Kipper, and I nodded. At that moment, Ewan tapped Kipper firmly on the shoulder.
"Kipper! You's alive too! Brilliant!!" cried Ewan, "But... but I thought you's dead from a bad heart years and years ago. Jasper told me what did happen. I - I don't understand... Why are you solid now Jazz?"
Just when all seemed most dire and it looked like I had to break the truth to my trusting friend, Ewan turned and saw the man with the wounded hands. He still sat watching the fish in the sparkling river, deep in his thoughts. "Oh no!" wailed Ewan, "Jazz and Kips! Look at that poor man's hands! They look so sore! And - oh, that's gross! - look at the holes in his feet, that's GOT to hurt... Stay there Kazz and Jips, I's going to see if he's all right." Kipper and I smiled slightly at each other as Ewan hurtled over to the water's edge.
It was more than half an hour that Ewan spent chatting to the young man. Kipper and I maintained a discreet distance - it was clear that the man was gently explaining the reality of our situation as kindly as he could to simple Ewan, softly stroking the dog's head all the while. At one point the man put his hands into his white robes and drew out a circular wrapped package, which he gave to Ewan with a smile and a loving hug. At length, Ewan trotted quietly back to us, clutching his package in his mouth. As he padded over and put the package on the ground he looked at me sadly.
"You's not really solid, is you Jazz?"
"And neither is you, Kipper, is you?"
"No, Ewan. I'm so sorry, mate."
"And I's not at the top of a staircase, am I?"
"No, Ewan. There is no staircase to take you back down." I shook my head sadly.
"He's nice, that man." said Ewan, indicating the rock on which the man had been sitting, but he had gone. "He says that I can't see Fizzy any more. Not yet, anyway. And Fizzy-" he broke off and stared, hard, at the grass.
"Tell you what, then," said Kipper brightly, "You'll see your lovely lady again one day! In the meantime, how's about you hang around with us while you wait for her, eh? We'll look after you, son. Would you like that?"
"Oh yes!" yipped Ewan, looking up into Kipper's kind face and beaming. "Yes please, I would like that very much indeed!"
"Fantastic." grinned Kipper. "You'll have to forgive Jasper though, he flits back and forth like some canine yo-yo. But we forgive him, 'cause he's Jasper and we love him!" Ewan laughed and wagged his tail. "Now then," continued Kip, "What's in that parcel?!"
"Ohhh-hhh..." sighed Ewan, gently stroking the white muslin that wrapped the round, flattish item. "He says it's ALL for me, because I was such a good dog when I was alive."
"Crack it open then, son!"
I grinned as Ewan unwrapped the package with the utmost of tender care. It was an entire Port Salut cheese, one of Ewan's very favourites. Dear Ewan looked as though he could hardly believe his eyes.
He pulled off the paper and opened his mouth as wide as he could, to take a massive bite. At the last moment (and, I might add, after he had drooled a little on the cheese) he recollected his manners and offered first bite to Kipper and myself.
"No thanks, Ewan. I'm not hungry." I grinned.
"Yeah - it's all yours, mate, you enjoy it." smiled Kipper.
Ewan savoured every single mouthful. Later, as we three dozed happily bathed in glorious sunshine, Ewan lifted his head.
"You know boys," he sighed, "I am SO glad that I was a good boy. I know that I always says and does stupid things, but-"
"Ewan," I cut in, grinning at my dear friend, "You were a TRUE one-off, and all the better for it. And - unlike King James I - Ewan; you really were the wisest fool in Christendom."