If anything was to make me turn tail and run, it was the endless phone calls. Morning, noon, and night, and always at meal times. Ginger's and mine, that is. Blessed instrument was silent when Chicken Fingers and Missus were eating. Missus did her best to get to the phone before Ginger started his howling, though how she could run with all that bulk to carry was beyond me. Like a fattened turkey she was, the way she waddled up the hall at high speed. Too many chicken dinners. Mind, I could talk. I'd got a bit plump since moving in. So had Ginger. His stomach had dropped and it didn't look right. A setter should be lissom and lean. The way he orbited the house when the phone rang should have kept the fat off, which made me wonder how much grub he was taking on the sly. Gaffer at our old lodgings wouldn't like it if he knew. He didn't believe in doling out weighty portions.
Ginger's reaction to the ringing sounds was the only thing I disliked. Other times we got on like a barn on fire. Oops. Shouldn't tempt providence. If that happened, we'd have no place to sleep, 'cause for sure Missus wouldn't have us indoors at night. We were supposed to guard the farm then, while Chicken Fingers slept. I sneaked upstairs one day to take a look at where he and Missus bedded down. The bedstead was as high as heaven, but I managed to jump on. The feather pillow was so soft I could have stayed there all day, but Missus didn't think Chicken Fingers would like it if he knew I was napping in his domain. She ejected me pretty quick and told me never to go in there again, shouting a bit, you know, so as to put a bit of urgency in my dismissal. She was probably anxious lest Chicken Fingers walloped me with his belt. He'd actually never done that, so I didn't see why she should be scared.
Chicken Fingers was the kindest master I'd ever had. Even Ginger said that, and he'd had a couple of good ones in his time. My old lady wasn't so bad, when she wasn't going on about scouring ears with Lysol, but she wasn't a patch on Chicken Fingers. She couldn't walk me, for a start, her pins being as thin as a whippet's. Me and Ginger got all the exercise we needed on the farm: sniffing out mice, chasing rabbits, and running alongside the tractor. It was a shame when the ploughing finished. It was such an excellent activity for reducing the waistline, I wondered Missus didn't have a go. Still there was the dog show to look forward to. There'd be a lot of galloping to do there. Chicken Fingers said there would be an arena to run round, but Missus said if we didn't lose a few inches we wouldn't be eligible, whatever that meant. Perhaps she was worried we wouldn't get through the gate.
Ginger had to suffer daily grooming, but it was worth it. All the tangles on his belly disappeared and, for all his complaining, he looked quite attractive. His coat actually shone. I was sure Missus had tinted it. It wasn't such a splendid red when we came. My coat being short, I didn't need such attention. Me being ordinary black and tan didn't entitle me to much fuss. My coat gleamed, though, because Missus gave it a quick rub with a hound glove and a silk cloth, but she didn't spend time on it. I got quite jealous at times, but Chicken Fingers made me feel better. He fondled me while we watched Ginger being brushed. I was his favourite, see. After all, it was me he picked first at the kennels. Ginger was an afterthought; he was chosen for Missus.
It was during one of the shampooing sessions that Ginger toppled Missus. The phone had leaped into action and from the first peal he was hurtling round like a dog with rabies. I yapped at Missus to grab the phone before he had a heart attack. She tried, but the timing was wrong and Ginger had completed his first revolution by the time she took a step to the table. Inevitably, they collided. Missus went over like a rollicking whale, her skirts rucking round her waist, revealing a spectacle of pink bloomers.
Chicken Fingers clutched his huge gut and rocked from side to side. Terrified he was badly hurt, I raced to him, but stopped dead when I caught his first chuckle. His observation that she'd finally slaughtered his passion was lost in loud guffaws. It stopped Ginger's antics though. Anything to do with bloodshed got him really worried.
I had this image of greeting Gaffer at the kennels and him repeating his famous rule about best behaviour or no food. A joke, he said, when we snarled our disapproval, but we knew he wasn't joking by the scarcity of good grub. With this horror in mind, I decided to make amends.
Trotting up to Missus, I nudged under her arm so she could grab my neck and heave herself upright. I nearly choked in the process, but she made it. She bent to pat my head and I grinned at her for all I was worth, fervently licking her hand. Out the corner of my eye I saw Ginger sneaking towards us, but Chicken Fingers, who had regained his composure, stopped him in his tracks.
'Stay, boy. Stay where you're well off.'
Now that her skirts were settled, Missus was all set to obtain justice. Pointing at Ginger, she yelled at Chicken Fingers, 'First light tomorrow, that fiend's off. And don't think you can protect him, 'cause I won't allow it.'
Chicken Fingers drew himself up to his full six feet and, although his gut protruded like a balloon, he looked impressively forbidding. He summoned Ginger and me to his side and then he bellowed, 'You'll do no such thing, woman.' Ginger and me folded into a profound cringe and we struggled for shelter behind our master's fleshy legs. My picture of Gaffer grew larger. I could almost hear him asserting that he knew we wouldn't be long returning.
A strange thing happened then. The phone began to ring. Sensing the worst, expecting Ginger to take off, I pressed closer to master's lower limb. I felt movement. Indeed I heard it, but it wasn't Ginger's howling I heard. It was a sort of rustling, shuffling sound. I didn't want to look. I didn't want to see Ginger frisking like a spring lamb and constructing the fastest return to starvation.
Chicken Fingers' strident laugh prompted me to peer round his leg in time to see Ginger shambling silently towards Missus, wearing a great stupid grin, and Missus bearing down on him, hands outstretched ready either to embrace or to throttle him.
'Come here, silly boy,' she said, and proceeded to smother him with kisses. Can you credit that? And all the time, the phone rang and rang. No-one went to answer it, and there wasn't a peep out of Ginger. 'You're a good boy, Ginger' Missus said. 'I knew sooner or later you'd learn that the telephone wasn't going to harm us.'
You could've knocked me out with a blade of grass, 'cause I'd never reckoned on Ginger having the capacity to learn things, but then he glanced at me, sort of sideways, and I knew I'd been wrong about him all the time.
PART THREE NEXT WEEK