26 July 2010

Urban Myth

Shannon could hear the footsteps behind her as she walked home. The thought of being followed made her heart beat faster. ‘You’re being silly,’ she told herself, ‘no-one is following you.’

To be safe she began to walk faster, but the footsteps kept up with her pace. She was afraid to look back and was glad she was almost home.

Shannon said a quick prayer, ‘Please, God, get me home safe.’ Inside the house the porch light burned bright. She leaned against the door for a moment, shivering with relief that she was in the safety of her home.

She glanced out the window to see if anyone was there.

The sidewalk was empty.

After tossing her books on the sofa, she decided to grab a snack and go on line.

Logging on under her screen name ByAngel213 and checked her buddy list. GoTo123 was on line. She sent him an instant message, ‘Hi, I’m glad you’re on! I thought someone was following me home today. It was really weird!

GoTo123: LOL. You watch too much TV. Why would someone be following you? Don’t you live in a safe neighborhood?

ByAngel213: Of course I do. LOL. I guess it was my imagination cuz I didn’t see anybody when I looked out.

GoTo123: Unless you gave your name out on line. You haven’t done that have you?

ByAngel213: Course not. I’m not stupid you know.

GoTo123: Did you have softball game after school today?

ByAngel213: Yes, and we won!

GoTo123: That’s great! Who did you play?

ByAngel213: We played the Hornets. Their uniforms are so gross. They look like bees.

GoTo123: LOL. What’s your team called?

ByAngel213: We’re the Canton Cats. We have tiger paws on our uniforms. They’re really cool.

GoTo123: Did you pitch?

ByAngel213: No, I play second base. I gotta go. My homework has to be done before my parents get home. I don’t want them mad at me.

GoTo123: Catch you later. Bye!


GoTo123 went to the member menu and began to search for her profile. When it came up, he highlighted it and printed it out. He took out a pen and began to write down what he knew about Angel so far.

Her name was Shannon.
Birthday: Jan 3 1985: 13
State where she lived: North Carolina
Hobbies: softball, chorus, skating and going to the Mall.

Besides this information, he knew she lived in Canton because she’d just told him.

He knew she stayed by herself until 6.30 every afternoon until her parents came home from work.

He knew she played softball on Thursday afternoons on the school team and the team was named the Canton Cats.

Her favourite number 7 was printed on her jersey.

He knew she was in seventh grade at Canton Junior High School.

She had told him all this in conversations they had on line.

He had enough information to find her now.

Shannon didn’t tell her parents about the incident on the way home from the ball park that day. She didn’t want them to make a scene and stop her from walking home from the softball games. Parents were always overreacting and hers were the worst. It made her wish she was not an only child. Maybe if she had brothers and sisters her parents wouldn’t be so overprotective.

By Thursday, Shannon had forgotten about the footsteps following her. Her game as in full swing when suddenly she felt someone staring at her; it was then that the memory flooded back. She glanced up from her second base position to see a man watching her closely. He was leaning against the fence behind first base and he smiled when she looked at him. He didn’t look scary and she quickly dismissed the fear she had felt.

After the game, he sat on a bleacher while she talked to the coach. She noticed his smile once again as she walked passed him. He nodded and she smiled back. He noticed her name on the back of her shirt. He knew he had found her. Quietly, he walked a safe distance behind. It was only a few blocks to Shannon’s home and once he saw where she lived he quickly returned to the park to get his car. He decided to get a bite to eat until the time came to go to Shannon’s house.

He drove to a fast good restaurant and sat there until it was time to make his move.

Shannon was in her room later that evening when she heard voices in the living room.

‘Shannon, come here,’ her father called. He sounded upset and she couldn’t imagine why. She went into the room and saw the man from the ballpark sitting on the sofa. ‘Sit down,’ her father began, ‘this man has just told us a most interesting story about you.’

Shannon sat back. How could he tell her parents anything? She had never seen him before today.

‘Do you know who I am, Shannon?’ the man asked.

‘No,’ replied Shannon.

‘I am a police officer and your online friend, GoTo123.’

Shannon was stunned. ‘That’s impossible, GoTo is a kid my age. He’s 14 and he lives in Michigan.’

The man smiled. ‘I know I told you all that but it wasn’t true. You see, Shannon, there are people on line who pretend to be kids; I was one of them. But while others do it to find kids and hurt them, I belong to a group of parents who do it to protect kids from predators. I came here to find you, to tell you how dangerous it is to give out too much information to people on line. You told me enough about yourself to make it easy for me to find you. Your name, the school you went to, the name of your ball team, and the position you played. The number and name on your jersey just made finding you a breeze.’

Shannon was stunned. ‘You mean you don’t live in Michigan?’

He laughed. No, I live in Raleigh. It made you feel safe to think I was so far away, didn’t it?’

She nodded.

‘I had a friend whose daughter was like you. Only she wasn’t as lucky. The guy found her and murdered her while she was home alone. Kids are taught not to tell anyone when they are alone, yet they do it all the time on line. The wrong people trick you into giving out information, a little here and there. Before you know it, you’ve told them enough for them to find you without even realizing you’ve done it. I hope you’ve learned a lesson from this and won’t do it again. ‘Tell others about it so they will be safe too.

‘It’s a promise,’ Shannon said.
The above is a copy of a warning circulated on AOL message boards in January 2002. It was written by a guy called Chris who felt great concern for the kids who innocently told all when they were on line. He wrote:

‘This tale may be an Urban Myth but the warning is valid. Myth or not, AOL (and other service providers) should consider adding a link to such a warning on its profile and message board links. I think we’ve all at some time received IMs from quite young users. It’s often easy to tell even from the opening words. I (Chris) always make a point of telling them my age and advise them about the possible risks of contacting anyone online. The same applies to even older users.’
With the amount of ‘grooming’ that goes on these days you can see that the message contained in this ‘myth’ still applies.

23 July 2010


In 1954 Patrick and I did the journey to Capecastle to celebrate his parents ruby wedding, a grand affair with a marquee and a slap-up meal and attended, it seemed, by the entire population of Northern Ireland.

'A great fuss,' grumbled Patrick, who was not keen on crowded functions. Nevertheless, he didn't mind joining his four brothers for after-dinner drinks … half a crate of Bushmills whiskey which was probably still illicit. And he didn't mind staying in bed the whole of the following day and night, cursing the pain in his head and blaming me for allowing it to happen.

Well, I enjoyed the anniversary party but if you were to ask me what I ate or to outline the topics discussed around the table I'd be hard pressed to remember. What does come to mind was the decision of the Portrush group to attend the village ball. It would be a perfect end to a perfect day. Or so I was led to believe.

My dress was ideal for a ball being ankle-length and created from shimmering pink parachute silk, though the high-heeled satin shoes were hardly fit for walking the dark and muddy lanes. Patrick assured me that I looked like a princess. I took that with a pinch of salt considering his inebriated condition.

Brimming over with jollity, we arrived at the dance hall. I remember turning the corner of the lane and seeing the single lantern over the door of a wooden hut, and I remember the mirth deserting my soul. I had expected more than a decrepit shack to dance in. I had expected to be whirling around a Casino-type place in the arms of my well-oiled husband.

One of the brothers took my arm and guided me towards the entrance. Patrick trailed behind singing Baa Baa Black Sheep. I was mortified when we reached the door and Patrick began chanting ‘Yes, sir; Yes, sir, three bags full’ to the amusement of the man on the door. I was so humiliated, even more so when the doorkeeper seized my left hand and quick as a flash imprinted the back with a black ink date stamp. My entrance ticket, I was told, and a pass-out. I complained bitterly about the mess but was reassured that the ink would eventually wash off. The word ‘eventually’ bothered me no end.

Inside that glorified shed, straight-backed wooden chairs were arranged in rows on two sides, with a single chair bang in the middle of the floor. A red-cheeked, robust individual with a shillelagh under his arm paced to and fro inspecting the floor and shouting instructions to an elderly man in a grey cap and tweed jacket who was scattering chalk like he was feeding the fowl.

And then the band arrived. 'Here's the band,' Patrick cried, as one man and his fiddle sauntered towards the chair in the centre of the room. I closed my eyes, convinced I was hallucinating, but opened them again when the first musical strains hit the air. The fiddler was standing on the wobbly chair, tapping one hob-nailed boot in tune to an Irish jig, his red polka-dot kerchief crumpled between the fiddle and his chin. Around him ruddy-faced farmers, fingers dyed blue with crop spray, danced at arms-length with their wives, solemn-faced women, straight-legged and aloof.

Totally bewildered, I joined Patrick and the brothers on the hard chairs and bemoaned my fate. I felt like an overdressed dummy though Patrick continued to assure me I was the belle of the ball. If he could've transferred his intoxication to the poker-faced couples on the chalk-strewn floor, I would have been better pleased. If he had been sober, my presence in a room smelling of classrooms and wood yards might have been more tolerable. And then I saw the funny side of it. I started to laugh, and Patrick laughed, and the brothers joined in. The fiddle-player grinned and broke into a livelier jig. And I wouldn't have missed the experience for the world.

So when I am asked what my in-laws ruby wedding was like, I reply with truth that it was a remarkable affair. But it's not the event which comes to mind, it's the jolly-faced fiddle player with the polka-dot kerchief and the amiable grin.

12 July 2010

Butch to the Rescue

The sun shone directly on the pond, making it glisten like the sparkling water that comes from the outside tap. Ginger was pawing at a thick clump of weeds near the water while I lay there dreaming of dinner. Liver was on the menu for our boss and his Missus; I could smell the bloody meat as soon as the butcher delivered the week’s rations but you can bet we wouldn’t get a look in.

Feeling something brush past me I twisted my head to see what it was. A tiny field mouse darted away. I didn’t mind, the farm’s big enough for all of us. Ginger saw it too but he was too busy to give chase. The new household addition, Marmalade the cat, was dozing on the branch of a nearby Beech tree, oblivious to what went on around him.

It struck me that I should see what was grabbing Ginger’s interest. Brushing a bluebottle off my nose, I slowly stretched out my legs, breathed in the scents of wildflowers, yawned, then rolled over, gazed at the sky for a minute, then got to my feet and ambled to the water’s edge. Ginger was painstakingly trying to drag out a pink rag that was snagged on a twig. It was of no interest to me so I left him to it and went back to my favourite sunbathing spot among the ferns from where I could see the farmhouse door.

Chicken Fingers was stacking wood chunks on the wheelbarrow beside the door. He was always doing something in readiness for winter months. I once heard him explain the situation over a glass of beer at the Rose and Crown. ‘Always be prepared,’ he told his drinking mate. ‘There’s no set date for winter lately.’ I didn’t take much notice at the time but I remember the need to curl up in front of a blazing fire when it turned cold.

The kitchen door opened wide and Missus came out to inspect the Boss’s progress, hands on hips, dominant style. He wouldn’t like that. He was Boss after all. I saw his chest heave in a deep sigh. That must be why he abandoned the job and decided to do something different. Bending to pick up a couple of twigs from behind the old milk churn, he headed towards the pond. Hopefully eyeing the stick, I waited. Although it was hot I didn’t mind a few chases in the field.

Ginger was still pawing the rag which had now fallen in the water. I despair of him sometimes; he seems so anti-playtime. I’m surprised the water rats didn’t tell him to buzz off. Chicken Fingers surprised me by going to investigate instead of coming straight to me with the sticks. I could see a bit of prompting was necessary. Hurriedly I left the soft ferns and went over to nudge his leg.

‘Okay, Butch, I know you’re there! Race you to the field.’

Well that was a joke. He couldn’t run fast enough to beat me, but I stayed back. It was no good running off to the field and then having to run back again. I knew his tricks. He would call me to him and then throw the stick, which meant I was doing twice the run when one would do. Well, three times if you count having to take it back for him to throw again. I decided to hang fire until he was ready. But Chicken Fingers didn’t wait until he reached the field. Throwing the first stick as hard as he could he said, ‘All right Butch, fetch that one.’

I sped off in the direction of the flying stick, saw it coming down near the Hawthorn hedge. I raced, even in that heat I could run as fast as a bird. Skidding to a halt on the grass, I plunged into the hedge, started to search.


Agitatedly, I hunted again, beneath branches and beyond in the clusters of prickly Gorse.


I lay down in frustration, not once moving my sights off the hedge. That is, until I heard a sort of chewing sound coming from the other side. Belly close to the ground, I tracked the noise around the bush, across a narrow beaten track. Beneath the wide Oak lay Jack, the sheepdog from the next farm, and he was gnawing at my stick. I snarled, and was about to stick up for my rights when there was sudden pandemonium coming from the house. By the amount of screams I felt sure the hens had been let loose in there. Ginger must have thought the same. He abandoned his task, yapped a few times, and broke into a lolloping run.

It was like one of those comic films Chicken Fingers watches on television. He was running towards the house, while Ginger darted excitedly in and round and between his legs. Chicken Fingers fell to the ground, Missus shot out of the kitchen door as if she’d been fired from a canon, while I desperately tried to keep up.

Red in the face and shaking, Missus screeched into the boss’s arms. It was scary. I’d never seen her touch him before let alone smash her chest against his. Ginger took one look, then turned tail and ran round the back of the house, but I felt a bit braver and anyway I was worried for the boss’s safety.

Chicken Fingers told me later that the upset was caused by a mouse in the house and that the no-good Marmalade cat had been missing from duty. Well, Ginger and I knew where he was: up in the Beech tree, out of harm’s way.

I twitched my nose, foreseeing trouble.

Missus dislikes cats but she hates mice even more, consequently Ginger and I have to put up with the rather wild looking feline. He’s one of the laziest animals you ever saw until a rodent comes near, then he’s up and away as fast as a lightning strike. Yes. He can certainly move when he wants to. I heard a whisper round the farm that he didn’t like mice either. Well, hard luck, if he thinks we’re taking over mouse hunting duties he’s very much mistaken.

I think it was Ginger and me staring at Marmalade up the Beech tree that alerted Missus’ suspicions. Holding her apron close, she belted up to the tree, tilting her head to look up. Her fists came up as well, clenched, like they were ready to pummel the daylights out of the cat if she could get at him. Rustling leaves told me that Marmalade had shifted a bit higher. It was the first inkling I had that there was a degree of good sense in that furry head.

Missus isn’t a cruel woman; it’s just that she doesn’t understand animals. She thinks we’re all there to do certain jobs. Only Ginger has it worked out; his handsome features absolutely melt her heart. My job is to help Chicken Fingers, otherwise known as Gaffer. His fat fingers tasted of chicken when I first made licking contact at the dogs’ home, that’s why I called him Chicken Fingers and it sort of stuck. Now, there’s Marmalade, the recent addition to the farm, whose job is or should be to remove all sign of mice from the vicinity. If he’s any brains, right now he’ll keep out of the way.

Gaffer managed to calm his wife and led her back to the house, having established that the mouse was well and truly out of the way. I tagged on behind to check out the territory but stayed outside on instruction. I spotted straight away that Ginger was missing.

It wasn’t too long before Gaffer decided a walk was on the cards. He came out with my lead and collar and I sat still while he put them on. I knew I wouldn’t be on the lead for long, just as soon as we were away from the lanes he would give me free rein. We were at the woods that embraced the pond before I gained some freedom and then of course I ran amok. While Gaffer lowered his great bulk onto a fallen tree, I ran off to chase pigeons, rabbits and squirrels for the sheer pleasure of it.

Without realising I edged nearer to the water but Gaffer’s shrill whistle made me slow down, an order I almost decided to ignore. Somewhat breathlessly I turned to check Gaffers direction and saw him hurrying towards the duck pond. I ran to catch up.

Ginger was lying down and writhing in agony. I couldn’t imagine why but Gaffer was on to it. By the time I got there he was removing an ugly looking mousetrap from Ginger’s paw. I snapped at the paw, trying to help, but was ordered to keep away.

Gaffer told me to go and fetch the Missus, so I ran over to the farmhouse as quick as I could. Something told me that it was urgent.

Missus was standing at the oven, stirring something that smelled very appetising. After a few investigative sniffs round the cooker I tugged her apron strings, hung on until she paid attention. Only then did I let go and run towards the door.

‘Soppy dog,’ she said as she turned back to the cooker.

I tried again, this time grabbing a mouthful of skirt and tugging for all I was worth.

‘Get off, you stupid dog.’

I whined and headed for the door, then stopped and looked back. Missus stood there looking mystified so I barked a couple of times and pretended to go out of the door. Obviously she had more wisdom than I gave credit for because she followed me. I kept up the stopping and barking routine until we got within sight of the pond. That’s when she saw her beloved Ginger lying on the ground, his paw mercifully freed from the trap. Gaffer’s hands were on him, soothing, telling him everything was going to be all right. I sincerely hoped so, I just couldn’t imagine Ginger not being all right.

Well the upshot of all this was that Missus and Gaffer carried Ginger back to the house, where the vet was summoned. He examined the injured paw and declared that nothing was broken. I didn’t know you could break a paw; it made me check that mine were okay. They were, so I went across to Ginger and lay by his side, leaning into him to show how much I cared about his welfare.

Gaffer had a go at Missus. Seems it was her hatred of mice that caused her to leave traps. Gaffer made her fetch all the others, ten in total, scattered around the farm. Missus looked upset to have been found out, but I reckon it was more because she’d brought harm to her beloved Ginger.

My buddy was soon up and running and he and I had the pleasure of bossing it over the newcomers to the farm: two moggies, a lean black and white and a huge tabby. Dear old Marmalade was now forced to pay more attention to duty instead of ducking out the minute he saw a mouse.

09 July 2010

Annual Check-up (repeat)

Taking a short pause while Part 5 of the doggy tales is completed. Instead I'm repeating the Annual Check-up for the benefit of those who haven't read it before.


'Have you ever had an operation, dearie?' croaked the old woman, her wizened fingers meddling with a black chiffon scarf.

Annabel looked at her in astonishment, more for her boldness in speaking to a stranger than the question itself.

The woman inched along the green bench until Annabel felt her bony elbows touching hers. She could smell her age, that fusty smell of old bones and looming death. The colourless, egg-shaped face, framed by silver-white hair, was strangely familiar.

'I’d like to hear about your operation,' the woman said.

Had she to have one herself? wondered Annabel. Was she het up because of it? Idly, she surveyed her surroundings. Two bowler-hatted men strode towards the reception desk. A nurse with a clipboard escorted a man on crutches. On the benches, injured toddlers whimpered into the comforting breasts of anxious mothers, and not much braver adults sat in stony silence, waiting.

The woman’s question was probably fairly normal, considering where they were. It would be something to do while she waited and it might be amusing to humour her and list her medical experiences. Like the one where that brute of a doctor dug out an ingrowing toenail. Or the harrowing extraction of her third wisdom tooth which had wrapped its roots around its neighbouring molar, necessitating a drilling process guaranteed to put her off dentists for life. Then there was that glorious out-of-body experience when she gave birth to Kim, whose foot was wedged in her ribcage and caused such excruciating pain that she fled her physical form entirely unaided for half an hour.

Annabel studied the old woman sitting beside her. A harridan of minute proportions, craggy chin, heavily lined brow, and intensely blue eyes which seemed capable of scanning a body like an x-ray machine. Perhaps she was an x-ray machine! Perhaps she had grown a heart overnight and been cast out of the department as useless. Given the sack, so to speak. Whatever she was, she was uncannily familiar.

A man in a white coat pushed an empty gurney through the rubber flaps that served as doors. A stethoscope hung from his top pocket. Annabel’s nose wrinkled as the smell of ether wafted in her direction. Quite like old times, she thought, evoking the event which had the most impact on her life.

Now that she had decided to relate her story, Annabel was tempted to ask the woman’s name but in the end she felt perhaps it was better not to know.

Examining her fingernails, she speculated about where to begin. Her tale could be classed as an accidental incident rather than one of a medical nature, although a surgical procedure might well have been carried out had there been enough time.The action took place this very day, long ago. It was enough to say it occurred on her fortieth birthday. The year was irrelevant.

Andrew had taken her to a bell-ringing contest to celebrate. Celebrate! There was nothing to celebrate in that dismal hall with those disgracefully ragged drapes covering the windows and teams of bell-ringers incessantly brandishing brassy bells by their wooden handles, coloured streamers fluttering in their wake. Up and down, up and tediously down.

Annabel shuddered as she remembered the rancour which flooded through her and the accusation she was tempted to fling at him: If you thought this was my idea of fun, you were sadly mistaken. Fortunately, Andrew sensed her disquiet and suggested they leave. Thank God, she mutely cried, not really wanting to upset he who had not yet produced her birthday present and who must, for the time being, be kept sweet.

Kim was waiting outside, leaning against the wooden panels from which the cheerless hut was constructed. Annabel had been surprised to see her daughter dressed in her best blue trouser-suit, wearing the lovely perfume Andrew bought at Christmas. Gardenia, she thought. These days Annabel had difficulty remembering precise details like which scent it was though she did recall that Kim’s blonde hair was swept into a French pleat with not a single securing pin in sight. Kim was very clever at disguising things. Even her love was hard to find. Annabel sniffed and swallowed hard, knowing she would never find it now.

Kim was idly swinging a set of keys which glinted in the light of the hut’s swaying lantern. Annabel briefly wondered why her daughter was dangling them in front of her when they were not her keys.

'Your car, Madam,' Andrew proudly announced.

Annabel remembered those words as if they had been uttered only yesterday and she recollected the joy she felt when she saw the bright orange secondhand Beetle parked at the kerb. Beetles were her favourite cars in all the world, prompting thoughts of Howard, that wonderful man who took her virginity on the leather-covered back seat.

'It’s yours,’ Andrew said, tossing back a wayward lock of mousy-brown hair. Taking the keys from Kim, he placed them in Annabel’s hand and curled her fingers over them. 'Happy birthday, darling.'

She vowed the driving seat had been moulded especially for her, though the pedals were a distance away even when the seat was adjusted. She strained her slender ankles to reach them, smiling at Andrew who sat in the passenger seat. Kim had by that time gone home.

Pausing briefly to brush her dark fringe from her brow, Annabel imperceptibly shook her head at the crystal-clear image of that night. She moistened her dry lips so that she could continue.

She had driven Andrew to the restaurant where they were to have dinner and where they imbibed much champagne. It was, after all, a celebration of her forthieth birthday. Afterwards she drove home in the rain, the pair of them singing country and western songs as loudly as they could. Annabel got so carried away she let go the wheel and waved her arms above her head.

The car skidded on the greasy road and careered into a telegraph pole. Momentarily, she saw a woman’s face through the window, timeworn and ashen with fear, her mouth widening into a scream. Her black scarf fluttered as the screen abruptly shattered into a fog of tiny fractures.

The image had tormented her ever since.

It took two hours to release her broken body from the tangled wreck. Andrew was lucky to have been thrown clear. Long after he and the elderly victim had been carted off to hospital, firemen worked steadily and untiringly to free her from what remained of the birthday gift, operating their cutting equipment proficiently and with no time to lose. Even in her distressing incapacitation she could not help being impressed by their strength. She felt comforted by the efficient way they worked and watched trance-like as they carefully removed the metal covering and exposed her body to the rain.

'A disasterous end to your birthday,' observed the old woman.

'It certainly was,' replied Annabel, looking round on the off-chance she might see Andrew or Kim.

'I imagine you were glad when it was all over.'

Annabel laughed. 'You could say that.'

The woman nodded knowingly. She adjusted the bag on her lap and hooked a hand through the strap. Then her brow puckered and she inclined her head to one side. 'But wasn’t there an operation?' she asked.

Annabel’s reply was gruff. 'It wasn’t necessary.'

'As with me.' Easing herself to the edge of the bench, the woman struggled to her feet. tottering slightly with the exertion.

Annabel shot up in order to steady her, cautioning her to be careful not to fall. An appreciative expression was etched on the pallid, elliptical face.

Flattening her copious grey skirts to her side, the woman gave Annabel a toothy grin. 'I’m glad you told me ,' she said, and went on to ask if Annabel was waiting for someone.

'Not really,' Annabel remarked. 'I come once a year to make sure nothing was overlooked. An annual check-up, you might say.'

Livid weals appeared on the woman’s face as she scratched the diaphanous skin with grimy nails, giving the appearance of having been slashed by something sharp, like a knife or a piece of glass. 'Strange I haven’t seen you before,' she said. She began to fidget, her arms restless at her side, fingers meddling with her skirt. An agonised frown etched her forehead, yet when she spoke again her voice was calm. 'My mission has long been the search for truth.' Laying a gnarled hand on Annabel’s shoulder, she added, 'Now that I have it I am grateful, though gratitude is perhaps an ill-suited sentiment in view of that you did.'

So it was her, thought Annabel, the unknown casualty. All these years being haunted by that anaemic countenance, yet she failed to recognise it when they met. What on earth could she say? Was an apology enough? Indeed would an apology be accepted? She was about to attempt some kind of justification for what happened that night when the old woman spoke again.

'Don’t fret about the accident. You did me a great service, as it transpired, since the cancer would have been a sight more painful.' Fiddling with the ragged scarf, she peered at the clock on the magnolia painted wall. Bustling clerks and nurses tidied the place ready for the next day’s batch of emergency patients. Gripping her capacious black bag, the old lady stepped away from the hospital bench.

Annabel queried if she was leaving.

'As soon as my hearse arrives. It’s late, as usual.'

'You can share mine,' offered Annabel. 'Mine’s invariably early.

02 July 2010


The continual scratching was the cause of Missus going off the rails. She swore Ginger was infested with fleas and did a lot of shouting to prove her disgust to anyone within earshot. Several teacups were broken in the process which struck me as being a bit over the top. Fleas are terrible but they’re only bad for the one who has them. Missus didn’t seem to realise what we had to go through in order to reach an itch. Contortions though, are Ginger’s speciality. With having longer legs he can twist and turn much easier than me. The only trouble is when he finds it he goes at it like pneumatic drill.

Much to Ginger’s dismay Missus spent hours washing him with special stuff that was supposed to kill off the mites. It reminded me of the old lady in a past life who treated my ears with Lysol. That was enough to put me off humans for life.

‘Don’t come near me,’ I barked, when we were put out to sleep in the barn. Well, you couldn’t blame me for wanting to keep myself clean. Chicken Fingers would soon bar me from the den if he thought I was lousy.

Chicken Fingers’ den was a wooden shed at the back of the farmhouse. He used to keep wood logs in there until they got a fancy fire for the kitchen which meant wood was no longer needed. It suited me; I never did like all the journeys to gather it in. I didn’t mind sitting in Chicken Fingers’ old car, leaning out the window to catch the breeze, but the old wagon wasn’t the most comfortable of vehicles and there was only room for me in the back when it was loaded with wood. I got splinters in my paws whenever we were on the return journey. Gaffer said it was my own fault for not keeping still. He hasn’t yet learned that a Staff doesn’t like sitting still.

The den was something else. Chicken Fingers did it out with wool rugs and bits of old furniture, a desk and a chair from the attic, an old couch from the front parlour, and a red plastic bed for me that was rescued from a neighbour’s tip. Mind, I was only allowed to use it when Chicken Fingers was in the den, other times it was the barn or the kitchen or the adjoining field, depending on the time of day.

Although Ginger was allowed more time in the kitchen, he wasn’t as well off as me. He had Missus to contend with. Being kissed all the time and embraced by those fat arms wasn’t my idea of heaven. I’m a man’s dog through and through. But if Ginger likes that sort of thing then he’s in the right place.

One fine Sunday, Chicken Fingers and I were outside the den enjoying the sun. He sat astride a wooden chair reading the newspaper while I pretended to sleep by his feet. All was calm, the only sounds coming from the cows and a pesky wasp. I tried snapping at it but wasps being wasps it just kept zoning in without fear of landing between my teeth. I made a silent promise to get it ... one day. It was too nice to get het up over a stupid insect.

Peace was disturbed by a sudden loud yell and a whoosh of feet. The kitchen door was flung open and Ginger shot out … followed by Missus.

‘Come here, you varmint,’ she cried, brandishing Ginger’s lead as she chased after him, her plump legs moving as fast as they were able.

Of course, Ginger had a head start; he was off round the barn, passed the hen run, and into the field. Chicken Fingers and I watched in quiet amazement.

‘Bet she’s found a flea, Butch,’ Gaffer said, resting his arms on the back of the chair and idly swinging his stout legs as if he was on a horse.

A flea? He needn’t come near me then, not until he was de-loused.

Gaffer said, ‘If he’s got to be treated I’m glad we’ll be out of the way for a couple of days.

Ears on the alert, I waited, but heard no more.

My luck was in. Sure enough, come Monday I was settled into the front seat of Chicken Fingers’ old Morris and off we went to visit an auction and a market two towns away. I had to stay on lead but that didn’t matter, at least I was seeing something new.

The auction was interesting. Warm and smelly. I’m quite taken with cow smells; it attracts me to them, although they don’t seem to care much for my presence when I go to investigate. Cow pats are a particular attraction, rolling in one gives me a sense of one-upmanship, an ‘I’m better than you’ sort of thing. Chicken Fingers isn’t happy when I go home, as he says, stinking the place out. And Missus won’t have me in the house until I’ve been hosed and scrubbed and hosed again.

Cows at the farm snort when they see me coming, but not the ones in the auction sheds. They’re tame by comparison but I suppose they couldn’t do much with those tethers in place. Even so, I was kept strictly on the lead so I couldn’t test it out. I watched out for cow pats though, just in case Gaffer decided to let me loose.

I never knew cows were sold to other farmers. I suppose I hadn’t lived on a farm long enough to learn the nitty-gritty. There was a lot of shouting and waving of hands and papers but by and large the farmers just stood around watching sellers and buyers at work. While us dogs were stuck there on leads!

Afterwards we went for a walk in some woods. It was awesome. All those trees on which to leave the message that Butch was here. Chicken Fingers warned me to go carefully so as not to scare the woodland animals, he said there might be deer wandering about. Didn’t see any but there were plenty of fluffy rabbits and perky squirrels for me to chase. Two very different creatures, one shoots up trees and the other into holes in the ground. I never stood a chance.

The luxury bit of the days out was a stay in a hotel. You never saw such posh furnishings. A huge high bed covered with white sheets and what Gaffer called an eiderdown. Sounded like one of the ducks I’m friendly with on the lake. I was allowed to sleep in Chicken Fingers’ room but was told I couldn’t get on the bed. The green tartan car blanket was brought in for me, which was okay, but it didn’t smell half as nice as the eiderdown.

Back at the farm, Chicken Fingers and I had only been back a couple of minutes when we sensed something was wrong.

‘It’s too quiet,’ Gaffer said.

He was right. There was no barking for a start, and no sign of Ginger.

We got out of the car and ambled towards the kitchen.

‘We’re back,’ Gaffer called as we went through the door.


No sign of Missus or Ginger.

Gaffer walked across the tiled floor to the table, picked up a note, read it aloud. ‘Gone to the vets.’

The vet? Why would Missus want to see the vet? Was she ill? The only time Ginger and I went to the vet was for vaccinations. Did Missus need a vaccination?

Chicken Fingers looked worried. He sat in the chair by the hearth so I went over to lean against him. Leaning was my way of showing I loved him, I thought maybe I should try and cheer him up. His hand came down and rested on my head. ‘You’re a good pal, Butch. I wonder what’s happened to Ginger.’

Ginger? Why Ginger? NOT Ginger?

I twisted to look at Gaffer, trying to make out what he was thinking. I lay down and sat up again, moving to attract his attention. I rubbed my head against his ankle, looked up to see if my ploy was working. Chicken Fingers merely grinned and told me I was a great dog. Well, that was something, I suppose.

Then I heard it, the far away sound of Missus’ car coming down the lane. I yapped and bounced around, darting to the door and back again, urging Chicken Fingers to let me out. By that time the car was in the yard. I heard Missus pull the brake, then silence as the engine died.

She climbed out, walked round the car and opened the hatch. I saw Ginger’s head lift then sink, lift again, then sink. Saints preserve us, what was WRONG with him? I didn’t run, I padded quietly to the car. Sniffed. Smelled something strange and unpleasant. Gaffer came across and I heard Missus saying something about an operation. I lifted up, put my front paws on the car and gazed at Ginger. His eyes were open, his body still. No jumping in recognition. He just gazed at me, sleepily.

Chicken Fingers moved me out of the way, took me inside the house. I was told to get on the blanket and stay there! Hmm! Under the circumstances I felt it was best to do as I was told. He went back outside and minutes later came back in with Missus and him carrying Ginger between them. I froze. Was he dying? Oh no, I couldn’t bear it if he was, who would I snuggle up to at night, who would I tease or taunt? Was this the end of our little dog, big dog games?

I needn’t have worried, Ginger was fine. I heard Missus telling Chicken Fingers that Ginger’s itching was because of a deep cut. The continual scratching had opened it so wide it needed stitches. It seems the vet gave him something to make him sleep while he did it. No-one knew how Ginger got such a bad cut and I for one don’t care now that I know he’s not going to die.

That night, as we nestled in the hay in the barn, I snuggled close to Ginger, licked his nose several times, and promised that in future I would protect him from all ills, so long as it didn’t involve fleas.