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Four Scenes from a Semi-Detached House
by Matthew Charles
Matthew Charles -- all rights reserved
 

"Mr Jones?"

"Oh, it's you. What do you want?"

"Your new Welfare Assistant, Peter, is here. Would you like to shake his hand?"

"No I would not - and don't patronise me. I told you before, I don't need any help."

"Please don't be difficult; we both know what the doctors said. Either Peter comes to help you or we have to put you in a home."

"All right! You don't have to spell it out. Just send him in and let's get this over with."

"Okay then. Peter, it's probably best if you let Mr Jones give you a tour of the house today, then do some cleaning if you've got time. Meals On Wheels delivers at one o'clock, so you don't need to worry about cooking."

"Thanks, Cathy. I'll be okay." He smiled, then turned to the old man and took his hand. "Um, hi. I'm Peter."

"Well, Peter, you can start by taking your gloves off. Didn't anybody ever teach you any manners?"

Peter paused, then answered, "I'm not wearing gloves."

"Oh great, an SLD. Listen, Einstein, you are wearing gloves, and probably inside-out as well. I can tell this because people's hands are not naturally fluffy."

"I have SCABS."

"Wha- Oh, fantastic. Cathy? Cathy!"

"I'm afraid she's gone. I think she was running late or something."

"Typical of the woman. Threatens to send me to a home, then dumps a SCAB on me and runs off. She thinks it's funny, I suppose. What sort of SCAB are you?"

"Um, a dog."

"Hate dogs. Are you house-trained?"

"Yes."

"They wanted to give me a Guide Dog for a while, but I said no. Stupid, smelly things. And where am I going to go, anyway? What breed are you?"

"Pardon?"

"You know, what breed? Because if you're a poodle, you can get out right now."

"Um - I'm not quite sure. A mongrel, I suppose."

"Hah! Figures. Well, I suppose you better come in. Don't get used to it, though."

Peter stepped through the doorway and into the hall and took a couple of sniffs.

"Hold it a minute. You aren't going to shed, are you?"

"Shed? Oh, no. Not for a few months, anyway."

"Good. Now, this is the hall. Nothing interesting in here. The first door on the right leads into the sitting room. Don't go in there unless you've taken your shoes off. You are wearing shoes, aren't you?"

"Yes."

"Thank God for that. Maybe you are house-trained. Take them off now, please."

For a while, there was no sound apart from the whisper of string on string.

"What's taking you so long? Can't untie your shoelaces?"

"They're special shoes. Um. They take a bit longer to remove than normal. I'm done now."

"Don't say 'I'm done', say 'I've finished'." Jones stuck his hand out towards Peter, then felt his palm touch something cold. He let out a cry of revulsion. "What was that?"

"My nose."

"Your nose? That's disgusting, not to mention unhygienic." He rubbed his hand against his trousers. "In future, when I hold out my hand, you take it with your hand or paw or whatever. And don't even think about licking or sniffing it. For that matter, I don't want you sniffing anywhere. You don't make a habit of sniffing other people's crotches, do you?"

"No."

"Your own crotch?"

"No."

"Well, that's something at least. Well, come on then, take my hand. Since I can't keep an eye on you, that'll have to do instead. No, don't put your arm round me. I'm perfectly capable of walking on my own two feet, thank you. Watch your footing, the carpet's coming loose by the door. Council said they'd send someone round, but they never turned up. They're friendly enough when you're healthy and paying taxes, but get old or sick or unemployed and that's it - back of the line.

"Now, this is the dining room. There's a chair over there where I sit. Table on the right for food, radio on the left. Phone on table over here somewhere, not next to the chair because the cord doesn't stretch. I have no idea what's in the rest of the room any more. Any questions?"

"Were you married? Only I can't see any family photos."

"That's none of your business! You're here as a cheap substitute for a cleaning lady, not a social worker. I didn't even want that, but they insisted. And I certainly didn't want you. In fact, you aren't going to be coming much longer, so I don't see much point in the rest of tour. If you feel you have to nose around the place later, you'll do it quicker without me hanging off your arm anyway. In the meantime, make yourself useful and put the kettle on. Use the small teapot, one tea bag each. I take milk and sugar."

While Peter was hunting around in the kitchen, Jones made his way over to the armchair, then eased himself into it with a sigh. Reaching over, he switched the radio on, listened for a few seconds, then flipped it back off.

"You made me miss the news! They're doing Women's Hour, of all things. Why is there an hour a day for women, but not for men, hmm? Are you listening to me?"

"Yes. Um, maybe they don't get as many male listeners at that time of day or something."

"Well, of course not - Women's Hour is on. Is the tea ready yet?"

"Not quite; it needs a bit more time to brew."

"Humph. Well, I suppose I should be grateful you didn't just throw the bags in the mugs and pour on hot water."

For a while, neither spoke. Tea sloshed into a mug.

"Only one cup?"

"I'll just have some water. Now, I've just put your tea on the table to your right. Be careful - it's hot."

"Yes, thank you, I know it's hot. Drinks made with boiling water usually are. What's the weather like?"

"I'm sorry?"

"I thought you were supposed to have sharp ears. I said what's the weather like outside?"

"Well, it's a bit overcast, but mostly sunny. It's probably going to clear up later on."

There was a pause.

"Is that it?"

"I'm sorry?"

"You're not much good at making small talk, are you? And don't say you're sorry so often; it's beginning to get on my nerves. Go and have your bowl of water, then do some washing up or make the bed or something. I'll sit here and listen to Anne Bloody Fletcher rabbit on about the joys of motherhood."

Peter got up and left the room.


The doorbell rang for the third time.

"All right, I'm coming! I'm not deaf, you know."

After fumbling with the lock for several moments, he pulled open the door.

"Yes? Who's there."

"It's me, Peter. The Welfare Assistant."

"What are you doing back? I thought they'd replaced you."

"Um, no. Cathy told me you rang her about that. She says there isn't anybody else free for this slot. It's me or nobody, I'm afraid."

"I know which I'd prefer. Well, I suppose you'd better come in; we can't disappoint Cathy, even if she doesn't have the backbone to say 'no' to my face. Make yourself useful and put the kettle on."

"Tea?"

"Milk and sugar. Put a whole spoonful in this time."

"Oh, sorry."

"And don't say you're sorry all the time. You may be a dog, but that's no excuse for cringing whenever you open your mouth."

"Um, I'll try."

Jones grunted to himself, then shuffled into the dining room and sat down in his chair. The clink of a spoon in a mug came from the kitchen.

"You only made one cup again?"

"Yes. I'm okay with water, thanks."

"Look, pour yourself one anyway, okay? If you're going to hang around here against my better judgement, you might as well learn to appreciate good tea."

"No, really. I can't drink it, I'm afraid. I overheat - no sweat glands, you see."

"Well, you learn something new every day. If dogs don't sweat, how come they still smell?"

"Um, I'm not sure. Here's your tea."

"About time, too. Well, sit down and drink your water."

"Thanks."

"At least you're easy to please. Now, keep quiet and listen; with a bit of luck, we can still catch the end of the news."


Jones stirred in his chair at the sound of a key turning in the front door.

"Peter?"

"Hi. I'll just go and put the kettle on."

"Um. There's something in the kitchen for you. Just, you know, to say thank you for the last six weeks."

"Really? Thanks, but you shouldn't have."

"It's nothing. What's that banging noise?"

"That was my tail. It sort of wagged into the bin - but it's okay, nothing got spilled. Um, where is it, please?"

"On top of the bread bin."

"But there's nothing there apart - dog biscuits?"

"Dog treats. They've got some sort of fake chocolate in them which is safe to eat."

"Actually, I'm okay with chocolate."

"No you're not. It's poisonous to dogs."

"But I'm not a dog."

"Well, try it anyway. They didn't come cheap, you know."

The sound of a tentative sniff, a bite and then a bowl being filled and rapid lapping came from the kitchen.

"Well?"

The lapping stopped. "It didn't taste very nice. Sorry."

"Oh, for God's sake. Find a digestive biscuit or something, then. And then make the tea."

A pause, while the kettle boiled. Then, "Peter?"

"Yes?"

"What's it like then? Being a dog, I mean."

"Well, like I said, I'm not actually a dog. I just look like one."

"You know what I mean. And besides, you don't just look like a dog: you act like one too."

"I'm not sure I understand."

"Oh, come on. You're almost pathetically eager to please. And the slightest criticism makes you cringe; I'll bet your ears go flat and your tail tucks between your legs. Not to mention the fact that it wags. And whenever you come into a room, you always sniff a few times. And the way you keep coming back here because you feel you ought to be faithful to the Master, even though you'd be better off staying away - if that isn't classic dog behaviour, I don't know what is."

After a moment, Peter replied, "That's an... interesting way of looking at things."

"I'm right, though, aren't I? Is that tea nearly ready?"

"Just coming."

"Good, because there's a lot needs doing upstairs."


The front door opened.

"Peter, thank goodness. Don't just stand there, boy, go and put the kettle on. I'm gasping for a cup of tea."

"Peter's not here, Mr Jones. He won't be coming any more." Cathy's heels clicked as she stepped forward.

"What'd you go and get rid of him for? I was just getting him broken in. Go and tell him you made a mistake, I don't really want him to swap. You should have checked with me, first."

"I didn't tell him to go, though I'm glad he did. He asked."

"What?"

"He said he had too much work from college, didn't have time for this any more."

"Well, he should bloody well make time."

"What do you think he's been doing for the last month and a half? You're the reason he's leaving, and I'm not at all surprised. Frankly, I'm impressed he stuck it out as long as he did."

"But I don't want him to go!"

Cathy clucked her tongue. "Well, perhaps you should have tried a bit harder to show it."

"Oh, well that's just great! If he wanted to be patted on the head and told he was a good boy, he should have bloody said so, not kept quiet and then run off to hide behind your skirt. I mean, he didn't even have the decency to come and tell me to my face!"

"Oh be quiet. We both know he did a hell of a lot for you, but you were too self-centred to appreciate it. You drove him away, and now nobody has the benefit of his help."

"Don't you get sanctimonious with me. I asked for him to be swapped, but you wouldn't do it. You thought that you'd teach the old man a lesson. Well, this is what playing games with people gets you. If you'd done your job instead of trying to be a social worker, you wouldn't be in this mess. I'll talk to you when you're ready to apologise."

The door slammed in her face, cutting off her retort. Frustrated, she flung the keys at the letterbox, turned, and walked off, shaking her head.

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