I press the bell and wait. The porch door is shut but the inner one is open and I can see through into the house. A dark hallway with a baby gate halfway. It’s all pretty quiet.
I press the bell again. The button is held together with weathered tape and doesn’t look too healthy. It’s only then I see there’s a piece of paper tacked to the window. The writing has faded almost to nothing but I can just make it out: Bell not working. Please knock.
As soon as I do, there’s a wild yapping and snarling from the front room, and a caramel coloured Jack Russell hurtles out into the hallway and throws itself at the gate. Although ‘hurtles’ isn’t quite right – more a cross between hurtling and a skitterish kind of wobble. At any rate, the expression on its tiny face is one of the purest and most pitiless hatred.
‘Peanut! Be quiet! Go in the garden, darling! Go on! In the garden!’
Peanut pays no attention, but spreads its paws, daring me to come any further.
‘I’m in here!’ says the man.
I put my hand on the handle.
Peanut narrows her eyes and gives a hectic sneeze.
I open the door.
Peanut goes completely nuts. She swells to twice her size, her eyes bulging out, like I’ve inadvertently cracked the outer door on a space station, and the catastrophic change in pressure is making her pop.
I’m good with dogs but I’m not stupid. I wait for the man to appear, to give me some credibility. Instead I hear him cry out in pain from the front room. There’s nothing for it but to go forward and brave the beast.
‘No, Peanut!’ I say in an Alpha wolf voice. ‘No.’
Peanut obviously doesn’t care for wolves. As soon as I open the baby gate it goes for me. The only thing that saves me is the fact that Peanut is old and fat and her range of movement is seriously compromised. It also helps that she doesn’t have any teeth. All she can manage is a furious gumming of my shoes, which sounds horrendous but is actually quite pleasant, how I imagine it would feel like if I stuck my foot up through the sunroof when I put the car through the car wash. The only real danger is that when I carry on walking she’ll trip me up. Maybe that’s the plan. Maybe the moment I’m down she’ll roll up onto my face and suffocate me. Luckily I manage to stay upright, though, lifting my legs like some kind of fastidious wading bird, high-stepping through a lake of hostile fish into the front room.
‘Good girl!’ says the man, approvingly.
Whatever made the man cry out has passed. He’s perfectly calm.
‘On the sofa, Peanut. On the sofa. Hup!’
The dog is too exhausted from the shoe wars. Anyway, if there was ever a dog in the history of dogs less likely to jump onto a sofa at the word Hup it’s Peanut. She completely ignores the man, choosing instead to wobble exhaustedly over to the far side of the man’s chair, collapsing on the carpet with an audible whump like someone delivering coal.
‘Oh Peanuuuuut!’ says the man, drawing out the last syllable into a tortured wail. Of all the things to despair about, this is the least worst thing. Peanut’s obviously used to it. She gives another of her disdainful sneezes, then settles her face onto her paws. With her huge eyes and curled lip, she’s a spit for Peter Lorre.
‘What are we going to do with you, Peanut?’ says the man.
‘Does she have a harness?’ I ask him.
‘There. Behind you,’ he says, gesturing to the sofa with his scrubby chin.
I pick it up. It’s a complicated affair, heavily-padded corduroy, confusing straps and velcro and snappy fixings. It looks more like a Victorian straitjacket.
I hold it up.
‘Peanut! Who’s a good girl…?’