The estate is so perfect it hardly seems real. A collection of the kind of houses you might see on a Monopoly board, except red not green, and made of wood not plastic. I imagine a giant hand reaching down from the sky and carefully setting each one in place, followed by the bushes, the young trees, a cute little twist of driveway. Kids playing in the street.
One of the kids cycles up to me as I park in the drive.
‘Hello’ he says, with a blank expression.
‘Oh – hello! Alright?’
He doesn’t say anything, but leans on the handlebars of his bike and watches as I take my bags out and shut the door.
‘Well… have a nice day!’ he says, satisfied everything seems to be in order. Then jumps up on his pedals and sprints away.
‘You too!’ I call after him.
I’d phoned Maud earlier to say I was coming.
‘The front door’ll be open’ she’d said. ‘Ring the bell, come into the hallway, but don’t open the inner door till I say. Only I’ve got the dog and he’ll run out.’
There are half a dozen wooden steps up to a boxy porch. I ring the bell, then open the door and step inside.
‘Just a minute!’ shouts Maud above the excited barking of a small dog. I close the main door behind me and wait. The moment Maud opens the inner door, the dog hurls itself through the gap, stretches its paws up my leg and stares at me with crazy eyes.
‘Peanut!’ says Maud.
Peanut is about the size of a Jack Russell, but one that’s been cut-and-shut with a Yorkie or a Capybara or something. It has wild, overgrown eyes and a bottom jaw cocked to the side with the tiny teeth showing, giving it a vexed kind of look, the kind of look you might see on the face of an ornery town sheriff who can’t decide whether to shoot you or make you deputy.
‘He’s so cute!’ I say, reaching down to pet his head.
Peanut licks my fingers then jumps back down and hurtles away back into the house. Maud trudges after him, waving for me to follow.
Maud’s front room is as cosy as any I’ve seen, the large patio window overlooking a lush and flowery garden.
‘Take a seat!’ says Maud, throwing herself down into her mission control recliner. ‘I don’t mind where.’
‘That’s the second dog I’ve met called Peanut’ I tell her, putting my bag down.
‘What was the other one like?’ she says. ‘Was that a pest, too?’
‘I didn’t name him,’ she says. ‘He was like that when I adopted him. I wanted an older dog. I said to them I said – I’m eighty-six! What do I want with a young dog? But they didn’t have anyone else and he’s only little so I suppose they figured he’d get enough exercise out in the garden. Plus I have a woman come over every other day to take him over the racecourse, and that seems to work.’
I picture Peanut racing alongside the horses. When they jump over the hedges, he dives straight through…
‘…mind you, it’s company,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t be without a dog. It makes a place, d’you know what I mean?’
‘I do,’ I say. ‘We’ve got two lurchers.’
I show her the pictures I’ve got on my phone.
‘Oh – now!’ she says. ‘Look at that!’
She doesn’t stop long over the pictures, though. She immediately struggles back up again and takes me over to a wall that’s covered in framed pictures of all the dogs she’s ever had, which is quite a number. There’s one she seems to avoid, though – a Bichon Frise in soft focus, reclining on a pink bed, looking as pampered and comfortable as Barbara Cartland. Eventually she comes to it, though.
‘And that’s Billie,’ she says, reaching out to stroke the frame. ‘Billie was just.. I don’t know… Billie!’
Meanwhile, Peanut has taken the opportunity to climb headfirst into my bag, pedaling his back legs furiously in the air to push himself further in. I reach down and gently lift him out again.
‘Tempting as it is to kidnap you,’ I say, setting him upright on the carpet where he stands panting indignantly.
‘You’d be welcome,’ says Maud. ‘Yesterday he ate two marigolds.’
‘No – the flowers!’ she says. ‘He came running in with them sticking out of his mouth, then chewed them down before I could pull ‘em out.’
‘Oh Peanut!’ I say.
He looks up at me, his jaw synched to the left, his bottom teeth poking up, as if he knows exactly what Maud’s talking about but has decided to take the fifth.