ange the firehouse dog

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?’
‘No, but…’
‘So there you are.’

I try again.

‘What’s that thing about Dalmatians?’
‘What thing?’
‘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…’

beatrix splutter

Agnes lives in the last of a series of two-roomed cottages that tail off into the privet at the far end of an obscure cul-de-sac. It’s a dead-end, deeply shaded, out-of-the-way kind of place. The kind of place you’d imagine outlaws to live – at least, a very suburban kind of outlaw, with mobility scooters instead of horses.

I pass a strange duo sitting outside the first bungalow: an elderly man and his equally elderly cat. The man has no teeth, which makes it look as if his flat cap is a plunger that’s been pressed and driven the upper half of his head further down into his neck. He’s liberally smacking his lips as he concentrates on rolling a fag, one long and skinny leg crooked over the other and spasmodically kicking up and down, no doubt in time to his heartbeat. The cat is sitting on its haunches on the rusted patio table beside him, so fixed on the fag-rolling it’s like he’s waiting for the old man to finish, and pass the cigarette to him.
‘Morning!’ I say as I walk past.
The old man nods and waves the half-finished fag in the air. The cat merely turns to stare, in one smooth, arrogant slide, and an expression that seems to say: Don’t distract him.

Agnes’s cottage is so stuffed full of junk there’s almost no room for Agnes. She’s installed in bed in a living room with just enough space to move from the end of the bed to the commode. The whole scene is like a burrow, poorly lit by a low-wattage lamp on the shelf above her that casts a febrile, enclosing kind of light. Agnes smiles at me as I introduce myself. She’s like a Beatrix Potter mouse in a bonnet and nightie, twitching her whiskers as Doctor Magpie hops in and starts flapping around, trying to figure out whether any of her problems are new or not, and what’s to be done.

An hour or so later, when I’m walking back along the path, and filling my lungs with fresh air, I can’t help wondering if I’ll see the old man and the cat again. And yes – they are there, in exactly the same position. The old man is still smoking, tipping back his head and releasing such a quantity of smoke you’d think each cigarette would be vapourised in one, deep drag. The cat has already heard me coming, and draws a bead as I walk past the gate.
‘Alright?’ I say, and then: ‘Nice day’
The man raises his cigarette in the air in the same way as before, except now he accidentally disturbs a quantity of ash into his lap. He curses, uncross his legs, leans forward, and begins urgently smacking his trousers clear. The cat watches him, then turns to look at me again, this time with an expression that seems to say: You made him do that.