NINA ALLAN (1881-1954), born Nina Alexandrovna Allanovich, lived in the US for her adult life as a circus performer and owner of strange and exotic animals.

 Dear Sir,

 In response to your letter, dated 15th August, I will state that we do indeed sell dogs. I can state that most unequivocally. We are a pet shop, sir. Selling dogs is what we do.

 I am confident that we can furnish your needs, and look forward to your paying a visit to our establishment at your convenience.

 I should add, moreover, that we do not merely supply dogs. We have cats, parrots, budgerigars, mice, hamsters, all colours of goldfish, and have recently acquired four baby turtles.  All of these, naturally, will be made available for your additional perusal.

 Yours sincerely, etc.

 *

 Dear Sir,

 In response to your letter, dated 19th August, I would beg, sir, for some additional information. You say that you require dogs tailored to your specific needs. But you do not say what these needs might be. If you would indulge us with some indication, sir, then maybe we would be able to recommend accordingly.

 If you want a dog as loyal companion, I would suggest a Labrador or a Golden Retriever or an Alsatian would be ideal. We have a very friendly Alsatian at the moment, we call him Fyodor, but of course you can change the name as you see fit. If a guard dog, I would advise some sort of mastiff. Is the dog intended to be a gift? If for a child, we have a great array of puppies, of all breeds, all of sweet temperaments. If for a lady, our new range of Chihuahuas always proves very popular, or maybe a poodle; both dogs are considered perfect accessories for the fashionable gentlewoman about town.

 Your letter suggests moreover that you are looking to purchase dogs – in the plural – as opposed to a dog – in the singular. And I seek only to reassure you, sir, that we boast a full complement of dogs, and can satisfy your needs should you want two, or half a dozen, even twenty of the creatures. (Your letter suggests moreover that you are looking to purchase many dogs – in a large plural – as opposed to a few dogs – in the small plural. We seek only to reassure you, sir, when we say we can provide twenty, that I was using a round number, in fact we can provide twenty-three, we have twenty-three dogs at the moment.)

 I should add too, of course, that in addition to the dogs we also sell cats, parrots, budgerigars, hamsters, fish, and four baby turtles. I say with full confidence that there is no finer pet shop in St Petersburg, and we look forward to satisfying your special needs. Whatever they may turn out to be.

 I have the honour, sir, to be your servant, etc.

 P.S. – There are, of course, some very fine pet shops on Nevsky Prospekt, and I dare say in all conscience I cannot compete with those. Ours is a family pet shop, sir, run by myself and my daughter Nina, and (until recently) my late wife Natalya. Theirs though are pet shops run as industries, with animals passing through their hands day and night, in one door and out the other, and may be by appointment to the Tsar, and display it in the window, sir, and the money spent on those dogs may be more than the worth of my entire shop. But I sincerely put it to you that there is no finer family pet shop than ours, run with simple love, in the whole of St Petersburg. And I have the honour once again, sir, to be your servant, etc.

 *

 Dear Sir,

 Thank you for your letter, dated 23rd August. I can confirm that we will be ‘at home’ for you, as it were, at your especial convenience, on Saturday next. Moreover, we will have the shop closed for your private viewing, so that you can inspect the animals at your own leisure without interruption. Moreover, I will assure you that I shall be present, a faithful servant in the background, etc, sir, to answer any questions you may have. Moreover, I shall guarantee that the dogs will all be scrubbed and clean and brushed within an inch of their lives and acting upon their very best behaviour.

 You still have not revealed what your especial needs for the dogs may be, but it is no matter, each and every one will be standing to attention to demonstrate whatever particular attributes may take your fancy.

 Moreover, I feel I should apologise. It has come to my attention, sir, that you are a famous personage, a man of science, and I humbly seek your pardon in my earlier missives to your most honourable self for not being in full acknowledgement of that there fact. I am a plain man, sir, and I confess I had never heard of you. But now that I am in the know, I ask whether you might consider, should this not be an impertinence, and should you naturally find my dogs and my establishment to your particular satisfaction, allowing me to advertise the fact that you are my customer? The shops on Nevsky Prospekt say ‘by appointment to the Tsar’. It would be a signal honour, say, if you would permit a similar sign, hanging in my window, saying we were ‘by appointment to Ivan Pavlov, open brackets, famous scientist, close brackets. I would, of course, offer you a discount for the dogs. I might even throw in a dog for free.

 I remain, sir, in keen anticipation of your arrival, etc.

 *

 Dear Sir,

 Please, sir, accept my apologies for what has occurred. I am mortified.

 Let me state, first, that when you said you would visit my shop on the Saturday, I bluntly took you at your word, and had not appreciated (as I now perforce must do) that you would have meant ‘Saturday, or some close to Saturday’, or, ‘not Saturday at all, but in the environs of Saturday’. Had I realised, sir, that by Saturday you had really meant Thursday, I would have closed the shop in readiness (as I promised), I would have had the dogs groomed for display (as I promised) – and, moreover, I would have ensured that I was on the premises to greet you.

 I was abroad from the shop, sir, on Thursday, because I was accepting a consignment of hamsters. I say this to you, sir, so you will realise that my absence was not borne out of laziness or inconstancy, I was engaged nonetheless in business. Of course, hamsters do not sell as well as dogs: that is the tragedy of the thing. I would have foresworn each and every hamster in Russia had I realised they would come between you and me, and between you and my dogs.

 And then you would not have been left alone with Nina.

 What can I say, to put this right? Nina is my daughter. Forgive a father’s indulgence. She is still a young girl, and she is headstrong and she is impetuous. I assure you that when she had you ejected from the shop it would have been done (mistakenly as she clearly was) for reasons that she thought were best.

 She is a sentimentalist, Mister Pavlov, sir. She is a woman, and women are made of sentiment, and it is a dear and tender thing, but it is not a useful quality in a pet shop owner. She will name the animals, she will pet them as if they are ours. She calls the Alsatian Fyodor, she calls the poodle little Olga-kins. I tell her it is ridiculous. That these are products to be sold, and the customer will have the right to do whatever he likes with these products, to rename them as he sees fit. But ever since her mother died last year – and it was a shock, sir, so sudden and so sad, and I doubt that myself or Nina will ever truly get over it, and finding her body like that, so still and somehow so small – ever since, she has fixated upon the animals, she has poured her love into them. And she has so much love to give, sir. Sometimes, if we sell a pet, she will sit in her room for a day and cry. And I shall say to her, but my darling, we need to sell them, that is what they are for, how else can we eat? And she will tell me that she knows that, but she may doubt the character of a particular customer, she thinks a particular customer will not treat our animals well; she begs me to go and find this particular customer, to rescue the pet we just sold him, to buy the animal back. Of course, I do not do this.

 I tell you all this, sir, not to frustrate you or to exhaust your patience, but to give you a context for what happened, you as a man of science and all.

 She was not prepared for the precise and intimate inspection you wanted to give our dogs. And I must admit, I do not follow her descriptions of what you did either, and fear she may have misunderstood. You told her you were interested in ‘psychic secretions’. And you went to each and every dog, and put your fingers in its mouth, and tugged hard. You said you were looking to see whether or not you could stimulate the dog’s salivary gland, that the specific needs you had for the dogs you left unspecified in our correspondence was that they must drool copiously. It was the fact that you so distressed Fyodor that did it, sir; the Alsatian is a favourite of Nina’s. Nina said that when you thrust your hand into Fyodor’s mouth you did it with too much force, sir, that you hurt Fyodor. That is why she shouted at you, sir. That is why she called you such names (she has confessed some of the names she called you), that is why she chased you from the shop. It is unfortunate too, sir, that you came during regular business hours, and that one of our burlier customers, I’m sure only wanting to help, had you frogmarched from the premises and plonked you down so hard in the gutter.

 I know I should punish Nina, sir. But understand a father’s love. She was protecting the dogs as if they were her own children, and I can only feel the same impulse. Since the death of Natalya (my wife, sir) we have been all on our own here. And I can’t explain it. But whenever I see Nina, whenever I hear her voice, my heart gives a skip, it swells, it misses a beat. It is entirely involuntary. It is a reflex action over which I have no control. I know I should be angry with her, but she triggers something within me, I feel such a rush of love that it overwhelms me quite. And I’ll think of her mother – even though she looks nothing like her, if anything Nina has taken after me, same hair, same jaw, none of Natalya’s more refined features – but she makes me think of her mother, and I’m in love, I almost sway with the force of it, and I hang on to that little happiness, I don’t want to let it go.

 I hope, sir, you can forgive the misunderstanding. And may return to my shop at your convenience. I shall be here, sir, next time, whenever that may be, the hamsters may go hang themselves, and I shall attend to your needs, and Nina, she will be away somewhere, I can send her out. And you can have all the dogs to look through, and the cats, and the parakeets, and the fish, and the baby turtle. (We only have the one turtle; one was sold, two died, it was a shame.)

 I remain, sir, your most faithful and apologetic, etc.

 *

 Dear Sir,

 It has been two weeks now, and yet I have not received acknowledgement of my letter to you, dated 30th August, in which I made a full and frank apology in respect of what occurred in my pet shop, vis a vis you, my dogs, and my daughter, on 29th August. The least I might have expected was a response; I was hoping, moreover, for an apology back, not least because my daughter claims you brutalised our dogs, and my daughter does not lie.

 I will choose to believe, sir, that the letter you sent has been mislaid in the post. Or that you entirely forgot to reply, so lost in your strange salivating experiments, and that this fresh communication from me will prompt you to do so. We remain, as ever, sir, available for the sale of dogs, no matter what your requirements, and we will most happily accept your custom.

 Yours sincerely, etc.

 *

 Dear Sir,

 A whole month has now passed, and I can only conclude that the slight you have shown my daughter by not making an apology is intentional. I understand too that you have purchased a number of dogs at Ivanov’s Pet Emporium on Nevsky Prospekt. If that is the case, then more fool you. Ivanov’s dogs are too posh and refined to salivate, it would be beneath their aristocratic dignity. Whereas the dogs I sell are good, hardy, earthy Russian dogs without pretension, and would drool for your pleasure night and day. Even our Chihuahuas have some peasant grit in them.

 I wish to inform you moreover, on my daughter’s prompting, that we still intend to hang in our window a sign saying we are ‘by appointment to Ivan Pavlov, open brackets, famous scientist, close brackets’. We had the sign made up when we fully expected you would be buying our dogs, and indeed you led us on, you gave us every reason to believe it was so. And you have shopped here, sir, no matter the circumstances of your departure. Besides, the sign cost money. (If you object to the sign, then we will take it down, but we would ask you at least to pay for the board and the inks that fashioned it.)

 I write, moreover, to tell you I am troubled. Since your visit Nina has taken an inordinate interest in the salivatory instincts of our dogs. It is most unlike her. She attempts to keep it hidden from me, but a father knows. And sometimes I will spy her, prodding away at their mouths, poking inside; one time I even caught her yanking upon poor Fyodor’s tongue. She carries a little saucer, and holds it under the mouths to collect the drool; and then she studies it, she sniffs at it, compares it to other drool samples she has already taken, I’ve even seen her dip her finger into it to taste it. The dogs take it in good spirits; they love Nina, and really, who could not? But they are confused by this development, and so am I.

 Yours, etc.

 *

 Dear Sir,

 We have have had our differences, but I write to you now a fellow scientist. Or, at least, as the father of a fellow scientist.

 The fact of the matter is this: there are a lot of animals here, and feeding them is a matter that requires great enterprise and methodical planning. Animals are brutes, and look forward only to their next meal. We have a lot of animals to feed, and when they see another of a rival species being given preferential treatment, they get excited and angry. We need to feed the parrots before the budgerigars, because the parrots are bad-tempered and squawk furiously otherwise. We feed the hamsters before the goldfish, because the hamsters go crazy in their cages, throwing their little bodies against the cage bars and rattling them so. We feed everything before the turtle, because the turtle can’t make a fuss.

 To summon the dogs, Nina rings a bell. Then the dogs know to come in, to line up, to eat.

 One day she rang the bell for them, and then there was a crisis: the parrot got out of his cage! Nina had already fed it, but must not have closed its cage properly – and now it was out, and careening around the room – and it was full of food, and it was exultant, and it celebrated by raining down droppings on all the animals still hungry below. It took the work of several minutes to get it back behind bars, and at least as long again to clean up all the mess.

 When Nina turned back to the dogs, she saw that they’d been salivating. There were entire puddles of spit underneath their panting heads. She concluded that the salivating was triggered either by the ringing of the bell, or by the rain of bird excrement upon their heads. She experimented. Fresh excrement seemed to have no effect, but when she once more rang the bell, the dog drooling recommenced. She decided not to feed them at all; she merely rang the bell instead every half hour – and each time she did, in anticipation of the food she was withholding from them, they’d salivate freely.

 Nina believes that this is a remarkable thing. That the dogs now associate hearing a bell with tasting food. They almost seem to bliss out on it; she rings the bell enough times, and they roll over lazy and happy, as if they’ve eaten their fill, as if we’ve tricked them into believing there’s meat in their bellies.

 We should probably feed them soon, though, or they’ll starve. I thought there might be a practical application to this discovery, that we could save money by not giving them food at all, and merely by ringing a bell cheaply and at no cost we could satisfy their dietary needs. Nina is certain this isn’t the case, so feed them we must. (And the amount of dog spit on the floor is causing the shop to smell.)

 Nina reports that she has tried the same experiment on the turtle, but the turtle shows no interest in drooling whatsoever.

 Yours, in mutual respect, etc.

 *

 Dear Sir,

 You will have heard, I am sure, of our great success! We are the talk of St Petersburg. Even Ivanov on Nevsky Prospekt must be gnashing his teeth with jealousy. I write to you not in smug pride, to show you that we were right, and you were wrong. But, as Nina says, in humble understanding now of what you were trying to achieve, and recognition of your part in our fortune.

 This is the conclusion we have drawn from our experiments. People don’t much like pet shops. But they give their hearts to animals that can do funny tricks.

 And they’ll flock to our shop. No, not shop, our little theatre. There are banners outside, have you seen them? ‘Nina Allanovich and Her Salivatory Dogs.’ They pay their tickets, in they come. Children get in half price, it’s fun for all the family. We have them sit in a circle, like a circus ring. We sell them warm snacks, we serve vodka and blini.

 And then the lights go down, and oh! the magic starts.

 Nina steps out on to the stage.

 We’ve bought Nina a dress; it was a ball gown, second hand, once worn by some dead duchess or another, and it cost quite a few roubles, but you’d never know it wasn’t designed for Nina herself, it fits perfectly. Dressed in blue, with the most gorgeous little bows at the back, and she looks so elegant. And she looks like a woman now, the way it emphasises her bust. She takes her first bow, and I can’t help it, my heart still skips at the sight of her. And the men in the audience applaud, each time, they wolf whistle, they cheer. It’s as if they can’t help it. It’s like a reflex action. Ring the right bell, they’d all be drooling for my daughter too.

 Nina rings her bells. The dogs perk up, stiffen. Their mouths begin to drip with water. Grown men are stunned by the salivatory prowess of our dogs. Women gasp at the sight, they recoil even, but they’re excited too, they hold on to their husbands so tightly, they enjoy the excuse. And children point and laugh. And we’ve been clever, we’ve learned tricks to this trade. We give the dogs food colourings to dye their saliva, it comes out in all different bright colours. Fyodor’s saliva is always green, it stands out so well against his light fur. And at the climax of the act, Nina plays the national anthem – and, on cue, as she rings the bells near the appropriate dogs, they’ll drool out the colours of the flag, of Mother Russia, red, white and blue, and we all stand and salute.

 (We admit that some of the supporting acts don’t go down so well. No one cares about the lettuce eating turtle, and you can’t get the cats to do anything useful. But they’re only there as the warm-up.)

 The Tsar has heard of us. We have been summoned to Moscow. There we will give him a private performance. It will be the proudest day of our lives.

 Nina seems less sentimental with the dogs than before. She doesn’t pet them like she used to. She tells us she daren’t, that it’ll confuse their responses. I ask her whether she still loves them, and she says she does. I ask her whether she still loves me, and she laughs, and gives me a hug, and she’s still wearing that blue dress, and I think of her mother, I think of how elegant Natalya had been when she was young – and we had no money for dresses in those days, but it didn’t matter, elegance isn’t only about what’s on the surface – and I’m in love, I’m in love, I can’t help it, and I wouldn’t want to.

 We understand now what you wanted with our dogs. That you had ambitions for a circus act of your own. And we forgive you, dressing up a simple entertainment as something like Science, something sounding so grand and important – why couldn’t you just be honest with us? We don’t need facts, we need something fun, something to distract us from the hardship, to give all our hearts a little reason to skip. But there’s no need for resentment now, and you did give us the idea after all.

 So we want to say, no hard feelings, Mister Pavlov. And we will be happy to show you our dogs, and offer you two free tickets to any one of our performances (Fridays and Saturdays excepted) as a demonstration of our good faith. We look forward to seeing you at your convenience.

 Yours sincerely, etc.

 *

 Pavlov,

 She has gone. She has left me. She has gone.

 Oh God.

 We were so proud as we entered Moscow. We thought we would be the toast of the city. We thought we would set the world on fire. Nina looked in shop windows, planned all the jewellery she would buy when she was rich. She planned even to get the dogs gold-encrusted collars, that might be picked up by the stage lights. For myself, I promise it, I didn’t want anything – I just wanted my beloved Nina to be happy. I thought too that if she were really happy, then she would be kind to me again.

 But Moscow has no need of drooling dogs. The Tsar has all the animals he could dream of. He has bears to dance for him. He has elephants swinging their trunks, gorillas that stomp their feet to music and sing.

 Nina went on to stage confidently enough. But suddenly, surrounded by all the wealth in that room, her dress seemed like such a mean thing. She seemed like someone pretending to be a duchess. No, worse, someone pretending to be pretty. No, worse still, someone pretending to be a shop owner, a little bourgeois, someone climbing the ladder, when we are peasant stock through and through, we are the children of peasants and always will be no matter how much we dress it up differently, no matter how brightly our dogs might drool.

 The dogs were conditioned by now to salivate not only at the sound of the bells, but the sound of audience appreciation, the applause and the cheers. But there weren’t any. And they got confused. Fyodor stared out, jaws clamped shut, not a drop of spit to be seen, the mouth so resolutely dry, and it didn’t matter how much Nina paraded in front of him, or how loudly she deafened him with that bell.

 I could see her get desperate. I wanted to shout out, to tell her to leave the stage. To get out now before it was too late. But instead, she tried all the harder. “Come on!” she shouted at Fyodor. And Fyodor gazed up at her, eyes wide with love, it wanted to please her, but it didn’t know what she wanted. “Come on, damn you!” And she kicked him. Again and again, hard.

 One man got up – I like to think it was the Tsar, maybe it was the Tsar himself – he shouted, “what is this act, Nina Allanovich and Her Dying Dog?”

 And I can see her now, blinking with humiliation in the stage lights, standing there over that still body of the dog she had once loved – and she looked like a little girl again, like my little girl, and I wanted to wrap her up in my arms then and there, and tell her it was all right, that everything would always be all right.

 And at the Tsar’s words the audience started to laugh. But it was the wrong kind of laughter, it was mocking and cruel, and the dogs didn’t know what to do with it. They didn’t drool. They were sick. They vomited over the stage, in turn, as if one egging on the next, all the colours of the rainbow.

 “Get her off!” shouted someone. Disgusted and, well, bored. Maybe that was the Tsar. I don’t know.

 And I tell you now. That there will come a day of reckoning. When the ordinary Russian people will no longer put up with such humiliation. When the Tsar won’t be able to take something good and noble and decent, and destroy it in one fell swoop. When and a man and his daughter will be able to lead a band of salivating dogs across the country in dignity and freedom. Not today, maybe. But the day is coming soon.

 We left Moscow. We began the trip back.

 Last night I woke to a letter from Nina.

 Dear Sir, she’d written. The act isn’t working. You’re holding us back. I’ve run away to join a circus. I have fallen in love with a contortionist, and we’re going to America, where there’s opportunity, and anyone can be what they want. Don’t try to find me. Yours sincerely, etc.

 She’s gone, and she’s taken the surviving dogs with her. I don’t know what she’ll do to them. But I worry. She’s in love with a contortionist, after all.

 I’m glad she’s in love. I’m glad, if it means her heart skips whenever she’s with him, the way mine always did for her. The way mine always will, whenever I even think of her. I’m glad. If.

 I shall be home soon. But I do not know what I will find there. The parrots will have starved in their cages. The cats will have turned feral. The turtle, at least, should be alive, but I doubt he’ll be too happy to see me.

 I feel, sir, I have done you a disservice. That I have blamed you for things which were never your fault. And I would like to say that I hope we can somehow be friends. But I think I should warn you. In all conscience. I think, if I ever saw you again, for what you’ve started, I’d kick you very hard where it hurts. I wouldn’t be able to help myself. It’d be pure reflex.

 Yours sincerely. Etc.

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