Donald hadn’t sounded enthusiastic on the phone.
‘I’m not well’ he said ‘Come tomorrow’
‘It’s because you’re not well I should see you right away. That’s what the GP has said. I promise I won’t keep you long, Donald.’
A pause, long and weighty as a freight train at a stop light.
‘Come if you’re coming,’ he said at last. ‘There’s a keysafe. Use it.’
As soon as I put a hand to the little black box on the side of the house, a big dog starts barking. The notes had mentioned that Donald had a small, active dog, so either it’s a small dog with a big personality or the person who wrote the warning was a giant. Either way I decide to just go for it. I’m good with dogs. Which’ll make an ironic quote for the gravestone.
The dog goes eerily quiet, but I can tell it’s just on the other side of the door as I put the key in the lock. I imagine it holding its ear to one of the panels, frowning.
‘Good boy,’ I say. ‘Who’s a good boy. Or girl…’
I open the door a crack. Immediately a snuffling nose jams itself out as far as possible.
‘There you are!’ I say, uncertainly.
I remembered reading something about how you must never loom over an aggressive dog. Bring yourself down to their level – a little at a slant, mindful of your throat – and say soothing, non-threatening things. Don’t glare at them and make them worse. And if you must hold your hand out, keep your fingers curled.
I push the door open and assume the position.
A dalmatian. An elderly one. Portly and a bit rickety, like a bad taxidermist knocked it off about twenty years ago, and forgot the wheels.
‘Who’s a good boy? Hey? Who’s a good boy?’
The dog gives me a comprehensive sniffing, followed by a contemptuous kind of sneeze, then turns and hobbles back inside.
‘Up here,’ shouts Donald. ‘And shut the door when you come.’
Donald must be a career smoker because the house is as black and drawn as an old kipper shack. If it were only a little lighter I would probably see clouds of smoke and ash rising up around my feet as I climb the stairs, following the corrupted sound of Donald’s coughing to the little back bedroom where he mostly lives.
‘Hello!’ I say. ‘Nice to see you!’
He glares at me from the depths of his flap-eared hat.
‘It wasn’t my bloody idea,’ he gasps.
The Dalmatian wanders in, collapses in its basket, then looks up at me with the saddest eyes, like it wasn’t so long ago it would’ve torn me to shreds, and isn’t ageing a terrible thing?
‘Good girl, Ange,’ says Donald.
They stare at me with the same expression.
At first Donald won’t allow me to do anything. I can see he’s struggling, but either through fear or cussedness, he bats away any attempt to win him round. I decide to get to him via the dog.
‘I love Dalmatians, ‘ I say.
‘Have you got one?’
‘So there you are.’
I try again.
‘What’s that thing about Dalmatians?’
‘Don’t they suffer with their eyes? Colour blind…?’
‘Deaf,’ he shouts. ‘They tend to go deaf. It’s genetical.’
‘That’s it! Deafness!’
I bend down and stroke Ange’s head, which she allows with a very gracious bow.
‘They’re beautiful dogs. Didn’t they used to run alongside mail coaches as well? Something like that?’
Donald leans toward me out of his chair.
‘It carried over to America,’ he says. ‘Back in the eighteen hundreds every yankee firehouse had a Dalmatian or two. Yeah. They used to run alongside the horse and distract any street dogs what might come out and bother ‘em.’
‘Yeah. And they used to keep the place clean of rats, too.’
‘That’s a handy dog to have around.’
He settles back in the chair.
‘That’s why you’ll often see Dalmatians in American firehouses. It’s a tradition.’
‘I never knew that,’
‘Yeah? Well you do now.’
I stand up again. Ange gives a grumpy sigh and curls up.
‘So – Donald. How about I run a few tests, then?’
He pushes his cap up a little, and sucks his teeth.
‘Go on, then,’ he says, bunching up his sleeve and stretching out his arm. ‘But for God’s sake be quick!’
‘Why? Where are you off to?’
‘Sleep, with any luck,’ he says. ‘Jesus H…’