When I phone to check if it’s okay to visit, a dog barks so loudly it’s as if the dog has answered and not Eileen. There’s the sound of a desperate struggle – which is either Eileen trying to wrestle the receiver out of the dog’s paw, or Eileen dropping the phone, grabbing the dog by the collar and dragging it off into the kitchen. I’m guessing it’s the later, because after a long pause when all I can hear is the sound of muted, non-specific threats, more barking, doors slamming, and then the sound of slippers and heavy breathing approaching, the phone gets swept up again and Eileen answers with a gasp: ‘Who is it?’
‘My name’s Jim. I’m a nursing assistant from Rapid Response at the hospital. I’ve been asked to come take some blood this afternoon, if that’s okay.’
‘Fine,’ she says. ‘So long as you don’t mind dogs.’
‘I like dogs.’
‘Do you?’ she says. ‘You might change your mind after this one. I’ll put him in the kitchen before I let you in.’
‘Honestly – I’m good with dogs.’
‘Yeah?’ says Eileen. ‘Well there’s dogs and there’s dogs.’
We settle on a time.
I look forward to proving her wrong.
From the outside at least, the bungalow looks innocent enough. None of those chintzy warnings you sometimes see: I LIVE HERE! with a picture of a dachshund or something; a door mat with a fake bite taken from one corner: Beware of the Dog! , or one I saw recently, which was a silhouette of a doberman against the words: I can make it to the door in two seconds. Can YOU? and so on.
I knock, and take a step back. There’s an urgent skittering of paws, a crash against the door, and an enormous barking so resonant I feel it more than hear it.
‘Nero! Nero!’ shouts Eileen. ‘No Nero! C’mere!’
More scuffling and cursing. It’s strangely subdued, though, like the violence is quite routine, two bad tempered wrestlers going through the motions.
‘Jes’ a minute! Jes’ a minute!’ wheezes Eileen – although whether to me or Nero it’s impossible to say.
It takes about ten minutes for her to drag him away and bang him up in the kitchen. Eventually she shuffles back to the door and opens it.
‘Hello,’ she says, straightening her wig. There’s the sound of an enormous nose sniffing under the kitchen door – which is actually more of a flimsy screen, and would struggle to hold a rabbit.
‘He’s a bastard,’ says Eileen. ‘He’s not even my dog.’
‘Whose is he then?’
‘My son’s, but he’s away.’
‘How long for?’
‘Too long. C’mon in. Let’s get this done quick before he wrecks the place.’
The sitting room is dominated by a gigantic portrait of an Alsatian, and I wonder if Eileen’s baby-sitting this, too. It’s such a funny, formal pose – upright, three-quarter length, the kind of outraged frown you might see on a High Court judge. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the artist had added a houndstooth waistcoat and a pocket watch.
‘Yeah. That’s ‘im,’ says Eileen, collapsing back on the sofa, her legs kicking up so violently her slippers almost fly off. ‘His eyes follow you. Like real life.’
‘He certainly looks like a Nero,’ I say. ‘Very intelligent.’
‘You think? Well if he’s so smart, how come he failed the police exam?’