Shaggy Dog Story
I sit, along with Rufus, and we wait. Every day of the week we sit and wait. Yet each day the waiting is different.
Sunday’s is the hardest wait. On Sundays we sit together in the wingback chair, our limbs entangled like tights in the washing machine, to wait for death.
On Mondays, our triumph over the weekend perks us up somewhat. After I empty the remains of our microwaved meal into the pedal bin, we retire to the chair beside the window, to await the young ladies from Queen Elizabeth High School. Visiting the elderly and housebound; we never had that when I was a lass. The teachers call it Community Service but, to the students, it’s their opportunity to fleece me at poker. They cheat, those girls from Queen Elizabeth’s in their smart blazers and hitched-up skirts. They look at my cards, and how could they not, when my hands, as supple as boxing gloves, refuse to marshal the cards into a fan? By the time they go back to school, I’m five quid and a packet of Penguins poorer.
Tuesdays we wait for the bath lady. Fridays too. It used to be three days a week but I lost one bath to The Cuts. When the supervisor came to tell me, there were tears in her eyes. I shook my head and looked serious, but it was a lot of fuss about nothing. After all, Sunday night in the tub was good enough when we were kids, and that was with all day and every day running around the backstreets, playing hopscotch and piggy-in-the-middle. Just taking my zimmer from the toilet to the kitchen to the bedroom to the wingback chair beside the window isn’t going to have me working up a sweat, is it? A splash of water on my face of a morning and a wipe down there with a damp flannel ought to suffice at my age. It’s not as if there’s any pleasure in it, anyway, with that hoist like a crane on a bloody building site, and the bath lady doing her best to look anywhere but at my gnarled body. But it’s not for me to say, is it? And the bath lady gives a purpose to Tuesday’s waiting.
Today, however, is Wednesday: the best of day of the week. Wednesdays are when we wait for the vicar lady -- or one of her do-gooding helpers -- to ring the doorbell and take us down to the communal lounge for a paper plate of pie and peas and a couple of rounds of bingo. All it costs us is to join in with the croaking hymns while the vicar lady tinkles away on the piano. My mouth is watering already as I sit here, bent and twisted as the trees in the windswept park out the window, Rufus waiting with me, his body wrapped around mine like ivy. I hum a few bars of All Things Bright and Beautiful and Rufus joins in with his funny doggie whine. I laugh and squeeze his body tight to my chest like a hot water bottle, and he growls and licks my face. You daft dog, I say, and bury my nose in the teddy-bear fur of his neck. He has a sour smell, like the sludge of fallen leaves in the winter gutter.
Along with the poker and the bingo and the pie and peas, Rufus is my saviour. Never had time for pets before, too busy with a house and a husband and a market stall to see to. But when the work stops and you find yourself suddenly alone, you need something to share the waiting with you. Companionship. Something to cuddle and push out the thoughts that echo in your head like footsteps in an empty room.
While loyal to me, Rufus can be standoffish with some of my visitors. When the home-helps come round, or the district nurse or the warden or the bath lady, he goes and lies under my bed, out of the way. He can sense when someone doesn’t approve of his ways. Whenever Kelly -- that’s the young home-help who looks anorexic -- finds a hair on the carpet with too much colour to be mine, she wrinkles her nose at me accusingly. To let Rufus off the hook I blame the Queen Elizabeth girls. Their hair always has far more colour than is good for them. Then, when Shirley -- the district nurse who’s married to one of the doctors -- hints there’s a funny smell, I accuse the home-helps of being too lazy to clean properly.
Rufus feels more at home with Monday’s and Wednesday’s visitors. When the Queen Elizabeth girls come, he barks and wags his tail and jumps up to lick their faces until one of them takes him for a runaround in the park to burn off some of that adrenalin. He’s more sedate with Marjorie, the vicar lady, but he seems to recognise in the dog collar the mark of a kindred spirit.
Today, when the doorbell goes, I feel Rufus tense in my arms, like a child who can’t quite believe Santa has finally come. Under all his layers, the shaggy hair and the warm skin and the play-pen cage of his ribs, his heart seems to miss a beat. And then he turns his head to look at me, and almost smiles. You daft dog, I say.
He springs off the chair and runs in circles round the room, while I clamp my arthritic fingers around the zimmer and edge towards the door.
“Sorry I’m a bit late,” says Marjorie, “are you ready?”
Of course I’m ready. What else have I to do but wait? “If you wouldn’t mind getting my handbag for me? It’s over by my chair.”
Marjorie squeezes past me to get the bag. The lead is lying on the floor nearby. “Is Rufus coming?”
“Of course,” I say. “He wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Marjorie picks up the dog’s lead. She reaches out and presses the clip at the end as if attaching it to a phantom collar. Then she strides back towards me at the door, my white handbag in her left hand and the brown leather strap dangling from her right. Meanwhile, Rufus dances around the wingback chair, unfettered.
“What is it?”
I point at the empty lead, then at Rufus. “He’s over there, by the window.”
Marjorie flings down the lead. It lies on the carpet, coiled like a snake. “I give up.”
Rufus and I hold our breath, me leaning on my zimmer by the door, he slouching low on the floor, his back legs tucked under the wingback chair. We wait.
Marjorie’s neck above her dog collar has turned bishop’s purple. “I’m sorry, it’s just that ...” She bends down and picks up the lead, turns back towards the window. “Come on, Rufus. Good dog.”
As we make our way out into the corridor, me shuffling with the zimmer, she encumbered with my bulging handbag and an excited dog, Marjorie apologises again. “I didn’t mean to offend you, but a dog like Rufus, a special kind of dog -- not everyone sees him as clearly as you do.” She presses the down-button and we stand there, two women and a dog, waiting for the lift. “You do understand?”
“You’re saying he’s not real?”
“No, of course not.” Marjorie’s neck colours again. “He’s real to you. That’s what matters.”
The lift goes ping and the metallic doors slide apart. Marjorie keeps her finger pressed on the button while I hobble inside. Rufus rests his body against Marjorie’s legs as the doors close on us. He barks nervously as the floor shudders and we begin our descent. “It’s okay, Rufus.” Marjorie pats the air above an invisible head.
I laugh. “You do look daft.”
“Pretending you’re stroking a dog. Like a kid with an imaginary friend.”
Marjorie looks forlorn, like a vacant market stall in the rain. “I was only doing it for you.”
What does she take me for? Does she think I’ve completely lost my marbles? How could I manage with a real dog -- horrible smelly thing -- with my arthritis? Doesn’t she know the rules? They don’t allow dogs or cats in a place like this. Health and safety, isn’t it? I’d have to be completely off my trolley to think Rufus was a real dog.
She winds the lead around her hand, looking, not at me, not at Rufus, but solemnly at the floor. I start to hum.
The floor shudders, the lift pings and the doors slide open. We stumble into the vestibule: one vexed lady vicar, one whimsical old widow and one fantasy man’s-best-friend.
Wednesday’s waiting is over. Time at last for our bingo, hymns and pie and peas.