Beverley would sometimes describe herself as ‘universally incompetent.’ People who didn’t know her would put this down to humorous modesty – always an attractive trait if not over-done. But the sober truth was that she was rubbish at almost everything.
This was apparent from her earliest days at school, and continued throughout her education. Her exercise books were a mess of blots and crossings-out. She couldn’t add up, couldn’t spell, and couldn’t remember anything that didn’t interest her. In science she broke the funnels and flasks. In cookery she burned the saucepans. And as for ball games – well, she was completely unable to throw, hit or catch.
Looking ahead, she had seriously doubted her ability to make her way in the world. How could she possibly survive? Who would want to employ her or marry her or have babies with her?
What she did have going for her was sweetness of nature and plump good looks. In fact, she looked rather like a nice big juicy plum – a look which a surprising proportion of the male population does secretly prefer. I say ‘secretly’, because a plump woman does not confer the same status on a man as a slim woman does. Sad, but true.
But Beverley was lucky enough to meet and marry a very nice man called Frank, who didn’t give two straws for status, and loved Beverly for who she was, despite being a liability, and despite the fact that she turned out to be infertile. So they lived pretty happily on one income for thirty-five years, with Frank patiently footing the bills whenever Beverley pranged the car or blew up the microwave or flooded the basement. But Frank died of an aneurism at the age of fifty-seven. He left Beverley with a house and car and a small life insurance payout, and the state provided one year of Bereavement Allowance. After that she was left with no income, no marketable skills, and nine years to go till retirement.
Bad enough to have the grief of losing your best friend and lover, without the practicalities of survival barging in on you like insensitive neighbours – but that’s what often seems to happen. For six months Beverley did her best to ignore the dwindling bank balance, but in the end anxiety overcame inertia, and led to radical action. She rented out the house, and became a house-sitter.
‘Aaargh!’ I hear you cry. ‘What a disaster that must have been!’
Well, actually, no. It turned out surprisingly well.
You see, most people who use house sitters do so not because they love their houses, but because they love their pets or plants so much that the thought of them pining or sickening or dying of neglect is intolerable. So they are prepared to have complete strangers using their bathrooms and sleeping between their sheets in order to ensure the happiness, well-being, and continued existence of these beloved living things.
And the thing about Beverley that I have cunningly kept in reserve till this moment, is that she was absolutely wonderful with pets and plants. They all seemed to adore her, and flourished under her care.
So after two years of house-sitting she had accumulated glowing references despite the minor disasters that inevitably befell.
Besides, she disarmed the home-owners from the start by describing herself as ‘universally incompetent’ on the house-sitting websites. Those who didn’t know what it meant thought it sounded good, and those who did know thought she was being modest. So it didn’t put anybody off, but there it was, upfront, in her profile.
She also kept a scrupulous log of everything that went wrong, and left it for the owners’ perusal. So far it had been nothing more serious than broken crockery, cracked tiles, and dents in the parquet flooring. No fire or flood or corpses. So far…
When she arrived at 6 Winthrop Grove in the village of Langdon Bower, the Porters were all packed up and ready to go, with just enough time to hand over the keys and introduce Bertie the Poogle before the taxi arrived. Then off they went to the airport, leaving Beverley to read the typed instructions and get acquainted with Bertie.
The village nestled against a tract of ancient woodland, and that afternoon dog and sitter ventured into it together. It was late autumn, and pretty much all of the leaves had fallen, so despite the low angle of the sun it was light enough to see their way. Bertie had his own ideas about the route they should take, so whenever the path forked he pulled hard on the lead to indicate his preference, and Beverley was happy to oblige.
She always kept a map in her pocket when out walking, but rarely consulted it, because she was as incompetent at map-reading as she was at most things. She simply assumed that her charges would be able to find their way home, and usually they did.
But Bertie must have either got lost or been long overdue for a walk, because he took a very roundabout route, and it was twilight before they got back to the cul-de-sac. Even then, he wasn’t ready to go home, and tried to pull her up the drive opposite.
‘No Bertie, we can’t go up there. It’s somebody else’s house,’ she told him, belatedly asserting her authority. But he refused to yield.
In this kind of situation, rather than shouting at the dog, beating it into submission or half-throttling it with the lead, Beverley’s usual policy was to simply wait until it got fed up and gave in.
This was her reasoning:
If one year for a human is equivalent to seven years for a dog, then one minute for a human must feel like seven minutes to a dog, two minutes must feel like fourteen, and three must feel like twenty-four. (I did tell you she was rubbish at maths.)
Therefore, she concluded, waiting must be far more tedious for a dog than it was for her. In addition, the dog would have no idea whether this boring experience was ever going to end.
Whether the theory was true or not, the policy seemed to work, and after three minutes Bertie relaxed his pulling, and followed Beverley home with a drooping tail.
The temperature was dropping fast. Okay, she thought, time to light the wood-burning stove. So she picked up the wicker basket, put the front door on the latch, and set off in search of the wood pile, taking the path that led down the side of the house, overshadowed by the twilit trees marking the boundary.
‘Excuse me,’ said a male voice, and Beverley jumped, nearly dropping the basket. Peering through the dusk, she could dimly make out a figure lurking in the shadows under the trees.
‘Hello,’ she quavered, ‘What can I do for you?’ Which was pretty stupid, really. She should have screamed, thrown down the basket, and made a dash for the house. But the habits of social conditioning are hard to break.
‘Sorry to startle you,’ the male voice continued, ‘I just wanted to warn you that the ground drops away quite steeply along there. So be careful. You really need a torch.’
‘Well thank you, that’s very kind,’ said Beverley, and beat a hasty retreat, fearing at any moment to be grabbed from behind.
Once inside the house with the door locked and bolted, she put the kettle on and made tea to calm her nerves. Bertie was not a dog to bear a grudge, and as his new minder sat cradling her mug in the chilly lounge, trembling with delayed reaction, he came to offer comfort, laying his chin on her well-upholstered knees and fixing her with sorrowful brown eyes.
After breakfast the following morning Beverley picked up the basket and ventured down the side of the house again. And stopped only just in time, because the path suddenly veered to the right, while straight ahead the ground plunged vertically into the forest. She was on the brink of a fifty-foot precipice!
Again she beat a retreat, her heart banging against the inside of her ribcage. Again she put the kettle on and made a soothing mug of tea. Again Bertie laid his chin on her knees to give comfort.
This was ridiculous, she told herself. She should have been warned about such a hazard, but there had been nothing about it in the instruction sheets. She picked them up, and this time noticed that they were numbered 1 and 3. Where was page 2? Oh! There it was under the coffee table. She must have dropped it yesterday with her usual clumsiness. It did indeed warn her about the sheer drop, and recommended using a torch if she collected wood after dark.
This called for yet another cup of tea, and a bar of chocolate, too. What a close shave! And she sent up a fervent prayer of thanks for the lurking man who had warned her. If not for him, the Porters would have returned three months later to two corpses – hers half-eaten at the bottom of the cliff, and Bertie’s putrefying in the house.
Quite apart from anything else, it would have ruined her reputation.
Langdon Bower had a very small medieval heart, and it took Beverley the rest of the morning to find it. She took a map, but it didn’t seem to help. Maybe she shouldn’t have attempted it on foot; her car’s trusty SatNav would have got her there in five minutes, but it seemed such a cop-out.
Most of the village was less than forty years old, and the developers hadn’t believed in straight lines. The streets meandered and forked and fused and doubled back on themselves, and bred an inordinate number of dead ends. They were like a medieval maze guarding the tower of St Cuthbert’s at their centre – always tantalizingly visible, but always out of reach.
At last, by a stroke of luck, Beverley stumbled on a public footpath that cut through all the spaghetti, and deposited her at the church gate. But by this time the tea shop next door seemed a more urgent priority, so she went in and ordered tea, cake, and a sandwich. Once fortified, she was ready to tackle St Cuthbert’s, but somebody had locked the church door while she was in the café. So she gave up and caught a taxi home. She was slightly ashamed of this extravagance, but it seemed necessary to preserve her sanity.
Bertie greeted her joyfully, and she felt stupid to have left him behind; she mightn’t have got so badly lost, and he would already have had his walk. As it was, she would have to go out again. She tried not to resent him for the consequences of her own actions, and off they went. Once more, he took her on a much longer route than she would have chosen, but what could she do? She was reliant on his sense of direction.
When they finally got back to Winthrop Grove, he again tried to pull her up the drive opposite. Again she waited him out, and this time it only took two minutes. I’m winning! she thought. (Wrongly, as it turned out.)
Needing food, she reluctantly had to go out again – this time by car to the supermarket in the nearby town of Billip. And finally sat down to burnt lamp chops and soggy cabbage at six-thirty.
The challenges of the day had left her physically and emotionally spent, but she didn’t feel she could put off introducing herself to the neighbours any longer. So she knocked on the door of number 8 and exchanged pleasantries with a handsome young physiotherapist called Josh, then rang the doorbell of number 4 and left a note for Mr and Mrs Stanley when there was no reply.
After that she went straight to bed with a hot water bottle and a Terry Pratchett book, and laughed her way to sleep.
The following morning, Bertie went missing.
Beverley had gone out early in her dressing gown to put out the rubbish, leaving the front door on the latch. First she fetched the rubbish bin and wheeled it down the path and through the gate to the kerb. Then she went back for the recycling bin, but – and this was her mistake – leaving the gate open! By the time she returned to the house, Bertie was nowhere to be seen. She did a quick tour of the garden, but he wasn’t there either.
Panic overwhelmed her straight away, driving out common sense as it usually does. So with the house still unsecured Beverley went rushing off down the street in her pyjamas, dressing gown and clogs, with her hair on end, calling, ‘Bertie! Bertie! Bertie!’
But to no avail. The small part of her mind still able to reason and observe saw curtains twitching as she passed, and knew she was being watched. What a way to begin a house-sit – losing the dog and making a spectacle of herself to the neighbours! But most upsetting of all, what would happen to Bertie? Would he end up in a dog-fighting den, being torn to pieces by pit bull terriers? She whimpered at the thought, and the panic grew.
Wandering further and further into the maze of crescents and cul-de-sacs, and calling, ‘Bertie! Bertie! Bertie!’ in an increasingly shrill and wailing sort of voice, it wasn’t long before she was utterly lost.
Biting back the tears and trying not to whimper out loud, she knocked on the door of the nearest house. It was opened by an extremely old lady, supporting herself on a stick.
‘I’ve been watching you from the window,’ she said. ‘You seem somewhat distressed. Would you like a cup of tea?’
At this kindly offer Beverley burst into tears, and was drawn inside and persuaded to sit down at the kitchen table while tea was prepared.
‘My name is Alice,’ said her ancient benefactor as she shakily poured Earl Grey from a home-made ceramic teapot into a home-made ceramic mug. ‘Would you like to tell me your troubles? I don’t mean to pry, but sometimes it helps.’
Beverley was at the hiccupping and nose-blowing stage by then, and blurted out the whole sorry tale.
‘Ah,’ said Alice, ‘What a naughty dog. But I really wouldn’t worry about him if I were you. He’s always running off, and so far hasn’t come to any harm.’
‘You know Bertie?’
‘Everyone knows Bertie. He’s probably gone visiting. He’s got lots of friends, you know, and they keep treats for him. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he was already back home, waiting by the gate.’
‘Do you think so?’ said Beverley, hope dawning in her breast.
‘If I was a betting woman, I would wager you a fiver,’ said Alice.
‘Then I’d better get back straight away. Oh, but I’m completely lost!’
‘Then please allow me to walk you home,’ said Alice. ‘It’s no trouble, I assure you. And anyway, it’s time for my constitutional.’
Part 2 soon
© Sue J Davis 2016
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