The puppy squirms in Janine’s muscular arms as she rings the bell, but its squirming is eager, its energy indistinguishable from delight — delight in being in her arms, in wherever it’s going, in the whole of life.
Unusually, there’s delight on Janine’s face, too.
Archie readies his own smile as the door opens, the door once sealed off by his father’s unexplained warning: Don’t go into Uncle Bill’s by yourself. As always, the house exudes cleanliness, no old-man fug or mustiness. Bill’s shirt is fresh and ironed and he wears a tie.
“Hello, Uncle Bill,” Janine cries, showing no resentment at all that his face stays inexpressive, which it doesn’t have to do, for it’s still boyish, uninvaded by the stiff or sagging elderly skin that make it hard for feelings to exhibit themselves.
Then the old man’s eyes focus on the puppy. Already the puppy is heaving and wriggling to get at him, and Bill darts in a hand to caress its neck, and the puppy’s licky ecstasy passes back into Bill and his face becomes a big soft smile. “What’s his name?”
“Hasn’t got one yet.” Janine is trying for archness, not helped by her big face and big voice.
“Well, come in, wee big man,” Bill says, tickling its chest.
She releases the puppy. As fast as its soft overlong legs allow, it bounds after Bill with little cries of tail-wagging joy, yodels rather than yaps. Bill spins round suddenly, causing Janine and Archie to halt and bump into each other. He drops on all fours to face the puppy — no stiffness, no creakiness of limbs — and makes the same noise back to it, like one dog to another.
Janine’s face wears a snout-like appearance which Archie can read as a pleased conspiratorial look. She says, softly for her, “Told you.”
In due course they are all seated in Bill’s sitting-room, except for the puppy, who alternates between darting away to sniff at some boxes and torn-off paper, and scooting back in devoted love for more pattings and strokings from Bill.
“Books,” says Janine, eyeing the boxes and paper and the volumes lying among them.
“Books,” says Bill, as though confirming Janine’s identification of something she might have had to hazard a guess at.
He adds, “Complete sets of Scott and Dickens. Of the novels of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens. Came this morning. They should keep me going.”
Janine snorts. “That’s what I say to the old ‘uns when I give ’em their laxatives.”
The old man switches to a cuddly baby-talk voice. “An oos passing his little literary judgements, then? — Ooh, piddling on The Heart of Midlothian.” Showing no annoyance at all, he lifts the puppy onto some of the discarded wrapping paper, then fetches pail and mop from the kitchen and wipes up.
“They’re easy to house-train,” Archie says in an apologetic tone he sees isn’t needed.
“Wish my old ‘uns were.” Her voice turns heavily sentimental. “So how are you, Uncle Bill? Still missing Tony?”
He’s still holding pail and mop. “What do you think, given that we were together for forty-two years and ninety-six days and he died eleven weeks ago today?”
Happily, Janine doesn’t say Be like that, then, even though she won’t be seeing Bill’s manner as a shield against overwhelming feelings. Instead, she points to a large framed black-and-white photograph of a young man on a motor-bike. He wears a peaked cap. Somehow he’s both exaggerating the macho Marlon Brando pose and grinning sweetly in a way tough guys never do. “And there he is,” she says.
The loud unrestrained slide of compassion in her voice reminds Archie that he knew there was compassion in her the first day he saw her, when she was working at the supermarket. Hopping in time to her own raucous rendering of When That Midnight Choo Choo Leaves For Alabam’, she’d kicked a stack of supermarket baskets all the way from the checkouts to the Tesco entrance. The boss tore her off a strip in front of the customers. Misery for herself was so naked in her face, so untouched by ego, that it told Archie she could find compassion for others, too. After the telling-off, she stood there bawling, tall and all alone, oblivious to customers criss-crossing around her. Archie went over and looked up into her face and said, “Well, I thought it livened the place up.” She’d flinched down at him as though a customer had taken over from the manager to berate her. “No, I’m on your side. I’m Archie—yes, just that; my dad wouldn’t have me put down as Archibald because it’s old-fashioned, but he liked Archie because it’s a name you can think of a nice guy having.”
“Tea, while I’m on my feet?” Not staying for an answer, Bill returns pail and mop to the kitchen. Janine points to the puppy as it follows him with emotions on its face that humans lose—adoration, total trust, an unclouded sense of being in a good, good place. Bill’s baby-talk voice comes from, the kitchen: “And would oo like tea, too? Wag your tail for Yes. Oh, you do. But no sugar for you. We don’t want you getting diabetes like Stuart Lawson’s wife. Fat, so fat. Stuffed herself with sweet things all day long, so it was her own fault she had to have a leg off. Oo don’t want to be a three-legged dog, does oo?”
The smirk and elbowing Janine gives Archie express a shared triumph, not just her own. She calls, “I take sugar, Uncle Bill,” and laughs out loud.
It’s not to be just quick mugs of tea. Bill brings through delicate-looking cups and saucers, tea strainer, tea plates, milk jug, a fruit cake that looks home-made, a china tea-pot, posh biscuits set out on a gold-rimmed plate. He sits down and then does a pantomime of noticing something missing. He gets to his feet like someone who has to struggle to do so and is off to the kitchen again. Janine sneaks a biscuit — they’ve not been offered yet — and has eaten it before Bill returns and plonks down a sugar bowl without a word. The boy in the boyish face can be priggish.
But Janine’s good humour remains intact. “Doing things properly,” she says. Taking up her cup and saucer, she lifts her little finger and sniggers.
“You can’t let yourself go,” Bill retorts. “Robert Follis — he didn’t shave, his garden was a tip. He smelled. He ate out of tins. Literally, sometimes: couldn’t even be bothered to heat up beans. Had a heart attack and died eleven months after he retired. If you let yourself go, the whole organism becomes slack and open to attack.”
He pauses before pronouncing: “Only had himself to blame.”
“Your friend from work,” Archie comments. Which is too much like congratulating the old man on remembering people, on avoiding dementia so far. He adds, “I suppose it could have been the other way round: he was already ill without realising it and that made him give up on things.”
“No,” Bill says with finality.
Crumbs from the biscuit Janine is munching — her third — drop to the carpet and the puppy bounds across to lick them up. She crumbles a whole biscuit onto the carpet. Bill, glaring, allows the puppy to scoff it up, then snatches it onto his lap. “No need to hoover,” says Janine. She sniggers again. “I never do anyway.”
“You do your best,” Archie murmurs before telling Bill, “Jannie has been having a spot of bother at work.”
Bill’s face is expressionless again.
“Yes, Janine’s care home, it’s been taken over by new owners and all the staff have been switched to zero-hours contracts. She never knows what work she’s getting.”
Bill has risen to his feet, the puppy slipping scrambling from him. “Zero-hours contracts are a terrible thing. No sick pay, no holidays, having to hang around unpaid in case the boss happens to want you for an hour or two.”
He sits again, sadly. “But what can I do about it? Everything that’s been built up to protect ordinary people is being dismantled bit by bit to feed the greed of capitalists. It’s the one compensation, that I won’t be here to see the end of the process.”
“They just want me out,” says Janine.
“No,” Bill says, with finality again. “It’s not just about you, Janine.”
“Velda Macdonald gets called in all the time. All I got, two evenings in two weeks.”
“I expect it’s just the luck of the draw,” says Archie.
“Bloody well isn’t!” she shouts at him. The puppy whimpers and runs behind Bill’s legs and doesn’t peep out. “It was that wheelchair.” There’s a clumsy emphasis on that, as though she were identifying the wheelchair out of several before her.
Archie says to Bill, “It was just a bit of fun. There was a cake for someone’s birthday and Janine was handing it round in the lounge and she got up on this wheelchair like it was a children’s scooter and kind of scootered back and forth giving people their slices and tea. It livened the place up. It was supposed to be a party. But the wheelchair jammed and she upset a cup and a splash went on one of the old guys, and the manageress gave her a dressing-down in front of them all.” Bill has taken the puppy back on his knee, murmuring reassurances after its fright.
“I didn’t hit her,” Janine insists to Archie. “I just, like…” She flaps a hand.
Archie explains, “A gesture like, Oh, go away.” He pleads, as if before the judge, “That’s all.”
The boy in the boyish face is censorious. “Like Boadicea in her chariot. I trust I shan’t get tea upset over me if I have to go into a care home.” Janine starts to cry and Archie covers by saying to Bill, “So what are you going to call it?”
“It is not mine to give a name to.” Bill’s voice makes clear that Archie’s question was not a surprise.
Janine has looked up. “It is.”
“No, it is not.”
“But we bought it for you,” Janine wails. “A present. We thought now you’re on your own, you’d like a dog. He’s lovely.”
Archie says, “I like the idea of a dog having a proper name, Colin or Fiona or whatever, not a doggy name like Rover.”
“I am grateful to you, Janine —” This sounds clipped and official. Bill puts gratitude into the voice. “Janine, it was a nice thought, very nice, and, yes, I would love a dog. I’ve always wanted one. But Tony’s allergy meant we couldn’t. And now I can’t have one.”
“Not letting yourself go, you were going on about it. Exercise, best thing for you. I have to take my old ones walking in the grounds. The dog’ll make you exercise.”
The clipped official manner returns. “I do not need a dog to induce me to exercise.” His voice suggests that this would be an unworthy reason for having one anyway. “Tony was lesson enough. He would not take exercise. After his first stroke, the doctors told him again and again: exercise will help you recover and stay mobile and prevent another stroke. But would he listen? Just sat there watching his endless crime shows on TV. So it served him bloody well right. I walk at least four miles every day. My best time for four miles is an hour and thirty-one minutes.”
“Well, then.” says Janine. “Walking the dog’s no problem. Easy-peasy. Just take it with you.”
Bill stares at her as if he’s walked into a trap, but seems to decide that such cunning is beyond her.
“I pleaded with Tony: going on like this, you’re going to leave me a widower sooner rather than later. But he was too selfish to think of me.”
Archie says, “Don’t be too hard on Tony. He was one of the good guys.”
What looks like anger on Bill’s face finally emerges as a grin, which encourages Janine to say, “Lovely guy. Now don’t you be selfish about this puppy, Uncle Bill. He’ll be ever so upset if you make him go away now.”
But isn’t Bill’s grin what they call a savage grin? It’s still trained on Archie. “Different from your father when Tony moved in with me. Daddy says I’m not to come in by myself. Now the son defends Tony against me.”
Bill has turned to Janine. “I’ve told you, Janine, I cannot have a dog.” He’s stroking the puppy again and murmuring baby-talk.
“It’s had its jags, if you’re too bloody mean to pay for them. But I suppose you don’t want to pay out for a few bloody tins of dog meat.”
“I am seventy-four. I might collapse and die at any time. Try to think what that would be like for the puppy. The terror. The fear. Locked in with a corpse. Starving. Alone. With oo’s ickle floppy ears.”
Janine snorts and starts to say something but Archie says, “They’re probably hard-wired to respect the pack leader’s body.”
“This is stupid,” Janine shouts. “It’s only a dog.”
Archie starts to propose a daily ‘phone call to check that Bill’s okay, but he interrupts: “I will not take the risk. I know what it’s like to be abandoned. Left.”
Janine turns to Archie. “Oh, I give up. He’s your uncle, not mine.” She’s crying again. “You do something nice for people and get it thrown back in your face. Frightened the dog will starve to death if I die. Fuck’s sake, people don’t think about things like that.”
Archie is half cuddling her, half helping her to her feet. She continues, “It’s because I gave it him. Never wanted you to marry me, great big lump for his precious bloody nephew. Well, serve him bloody well right if people don’t care. Hope he drops dead and it eats him. Come on, we’re leaving.”
Bill is murmuring, “Sorry, wee big man, I know we’d get on, but you don’t understand it’s for oo’s own good. Weally, it is.” He’s tickling it under its chin and it’s trying to lick the finger and Janine, a burly punishing angel, interrupts her lurch for the door to grab the puppy from his lap.
As he goes to follow her out, Archie’s feet are caught up in wrapping-paper from the books. He says, “You know how she is.” It sounds lame but he’s resisting saying Sorry for her behaviour.
“If I were too mean to look after it,” says Bill, “meanness would be another little life-support mechanism. How could a mean man spend all that money on all those books and then conk out before he’s read them? Got to get my money’s worth, haven’t I? Assuming I don’t get macular degeneration. And Oliver Twist won’t be sniffing around a corpse, terrified and starving.”
“See you, then,” says Archie, thinking he sees tears in Bill’s eyes and feeling more sure they’re there as, exiting, he hears Bill say to the room, “That would have been a good name for you, wee big man — Oliver Twist — ’cause oos got a twisty tail.”
She’s already in the passenger seat, holding the squirming whining puppy under one arm while she punches her mobile. “Get in,” she commands, then winks. She says, “Uncle Bill, I’m just throwing the dog out the car. In the road. Outside. You better take it in or it will get run over and squashed. Or starve. Right, drive off.”
Archie stares. “This is a joke, right?”
“Drive off!” As Archie obeys she opens her door and throws the puppy out.
She giggles at Archie as though he’s in on the plot. She starts singing How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?
She says, “He loves that puppy. We’re all looking for someone to love. He’s got someone, anyway.” There’s an odd emphasis on He, as if she’s still looking.
Next morning she comes to Archie with fear on her face.
“That was Cruelty to Animals ‘phoning. He’s reported me.”
“Bill wouldn’t do that.”
“He bloody has!” she shouts.
“Don’t take on, Jannie. It’ll just be — what? — he called them out to look for it.”
“No, they knew about me throwing it out the car. Made a complaint about cruelty, the bastard. Could I be taken to court? They want to see me.”
Archie’s mind flies around probabilities. “I don’t think it’d come to court. I mean, people do a lot worse to animals. You see photos. They’ll probably just have a word with you. Actually, look, we’ll say it’s our dog, it just ran off after we visited, not cruelty at all, you asked Bill to look for it for you because you had to get away to work your shift at Fynloch Lodge.”
“But I don’t want it back!”
“He just got hold of the wrong end of the stick, an old man, losing the place. I mean, he’s seventy-four. You said, ‘The puppy shot out the car like someone threw it.’ Yes, I heard you say that. Two against one.”
She’s bawling like she did the day of The Midnight Choo Choo. He tried to say two against one in a special voice to convey a deeper sense in which they are united, though he knows he’s too shrimp-like for it to get through. He can do things for her but will never be able to comfort her, he being so short and slight and having an odd thin concave little face, for these things must make her believe that he only took up with her because he was desperate for a woman, any woman, not from love.