The main drawback of being escorted home by Alice was that she proceeded so very slowly down the road on her sticks. This allowed the neighbours plenty of time to scrutinise Beverley, dressed in her night-clothes as she was, with rumpled hair and tear-blotched face. Even worse, some of them wanted to chat.
‘Good morning, Alice!’ called an elderly gentleman from his front door step, almost as if he’d been waiting for her to walk by.
‘’Morning, Joe. This is Beverley, the Porters’ house-sitter. She’s lost Bertie.’
‘Oh, not to worry. He’ll be around and about.’
‘That’s what I told her. How’s the chest, Joe?’
‘Not good, Alice. I’m suspecting Pneumonia, to be honest.’
‘Well you go inside and keep yourself warm. And put a mustard poultice on it.’
‘Thank you, Alice, I’ll try that.’
‘He’s a bit of a hypochondriac,’ remarked Alice as they continued on their way. ‘It’s probably just another chesty cough. Mind you, he wouldn’t get them at all if he could afford to heat the house properly.’
‘Hello Mrs Bivouac,’ piped a small voice behind them.
Alice executed a sort of four-point turn and beamed at a small girl in a pushchair. ‘Hello Melanie,’ she said. ‘What do two and two make?’
‘That’s absolutely right. Go to the top of the class! Hello Sharon,’ she said to the lovely young woman at the handles of Melanie’s pushchair. ‘This is Beverley. She’s house-sitting for the Porters, and she’s lost Bertie.’
‘Lost Bertie?’ said Sharon. ‘But he’ll be out visiting, won’t he?’
‘That’s what I said,’ replied Alice.
‘We like Bertie, don’t we Mum?’ said Melanie as the pushchair sped past. ‘We gave him a bone, and he buried it. He buried it, didn’t he, Mum?’
‘Poor Sharon,’ said Alice. ‘Her husband left her soon after Melanie was born, and he doesn’t keep up with the payments. It’s a bit of a struggle for her.’
‘It must be,’ said Beverley.
‘I think she’s sweet on a neighbour of yours, but he doesn’t seem to be interested.’
Ah, that’ll be the handsome young Josh, thought Beverley. Maybe he’d feel differently if there wasn’t a child involved. Poor Sharon.
‘’Morning, Alice, how’s it going?’ This from a young policeman en route to his car.
‘It’s going very well, Bruce. How’s Dora?’
‘Not so bad, Alice. I think she’s forgiven me.’
‘You don’t deserve her, Bruce. You need to pull your socks up.’
‘I know, Alice. I really will try to do better.’
‘Well, see that you do.”
Beverley was mortified at this reference to what she assumed was drunkenness, philandering or wife-beating. Thank God Alice hadn’t introduced them.
‘He keeps over-pruning the climbing roses,’ explained Alice. ‘I’ve told him so many times. “They don’t need it, Bruce,” I tell him. “You’re thinking of Hybrid Teas.” But I’m starting to think it’s sheer laziness – he can’t be bothered to get out the ladders, climb up, bang in some vine eyes and tie the stems in. Cuts them off instead. So they never get any taller than six foot two, which by a strange coincidence is exactly the same height as Bruce. Dora’s had it up to here.’
‘I don’t blame her,’ said Beverley, who was a rose-lover herself.
Eventually they reached home, and there was Bertie sitting by the gate, smiling.
Beverley was so relieved she hadn’t the heart to scold him. And anyway, he wouldn’t know what it was for – the offence was too far in the past, for a dog. So she hugged him and petted him and they all went inside, where Bertie had a refreshing, snorting roll on the rug, and Beverley and Alice drank more tea and talked about roses, Art, and the operation of the bowels.
Beverley offered to drive Alice home, but she wouldn’t hear of it, and set off on her sticks with cheerful though slightly wobbly determination.
Goodness, thought Beverley, that’s nearly the whole morning gone. Time for breakfast. And a shower!
But before she had a chance, the bell rang, and Bertie went berserk with excitement. Thinking Alice must have left something behind, Beverley went straight to the door and opened it, forgetting that she was in no fit state to do so.
It wasn’t Alice. It was a man. Not a very well-presented man, though. His hair was a frizzy grey thatch that veered off to the left, his chin was thick with stubble, his home-spun sweater was unravelling at the bottom, and his track pants were well-kneed and grubby. But given Beverley’s current state, a casual observer might have taken the two of them for twins.
‘Hello,’ she said. ‘Can I help you?’
But Bertie was already bouncing round the visitor in uninhibited joy.
‘Would you mind if I gave him a treat?’ asked the man. ‘He’ll probably settle down if I do.’
‘Do!’ said Beverley. ‘Go right ahead.’
The man extracted from his pocket something that looked exactly like a small brown turd, picked a piece of fluff off it and offered it to Bertie, who took it carefully in his mouth and disappeared behind the sofa – presumably in case Beverley wanted to share it.
‘Vince,’ said the visitor. ‘Vince Shotter.’ And held out a hand.
‘Beverley Carr. I’m the house-and-dog-sitter,’ said Beverley, taking the hand and shaking it. It was a bit bony, but dry and warm, with just the right amount of squeeze.
‘Look, I’ve come to apologise,’ explained Vince. ‘Bertie came to visit me this morning, and it didn’t occur to me how worried you would be. Not till Sharon dropped by and told me. So I’m very sorry – it was really thoughtless of me; I should have brought him back straight away.’
‘Oh,’ said Beverley, then didn’t know what else to say. She could hardly say ‘don’t worry, it wasn’t a problem,’ when the whole village had seen her roaming the streets in her night clothes, wailing like a banshee.
‘Well yes, I was a bit worried, it’s true,’ she admitted. ‘But it’s very nice of you to come round and apologise. Would you like a cup of tea?’
‘If you’re sure I’m not holding you up?’
Well, of course he was holding her up – just look at the state of her! She’d only offered out of politeness, but some men just didn’t understand nuance. So she put the kettle on.
‘Where do you live, Vince?’
‘Just across the road. Number 7.’
‘So that’s your house! Bertie’s been wanting to visit you. He keeps trying to pull me up the drive.’
‘Oh, he’s pretty determined. Once he gets an idea in his head, that’s it.’
‘You’re right. It must have still been in his head this morning.’
‘Well, he and I are good mates. If you ever have a day when you don’t feel like walking him, let me know and I’ll take him out.’
‘Would you?’ This offer seemed almost too good to be true, given the length of walk that Bertie liked to take.
‘I’d love to,’ said Vince. ‘I’ll take him out this afternoon, if you like.’
‘That would be marvellous. I’ve got a bit behind, what with one thing and another. I haven’t had breakfast yet. Or a shower.’
‘But that’s my fault! Look, Beverley, forget the tea for now,’ he said, getting to his feet. ‘Shall I take him out while you’re getting yourself sorted?’
‘Well, if you wouldn’t mind…’
‘No problem at all. Herbert!’
At this summons, Bertie shot out from behind the sofa and stood to attention in front of Vince with his head up and chest out – a picture of alertness and obedience worthy of a show dog.
‘Herbert, fetch the lead!’
Bertie dashed to the table in the hall, returning promptly to his post with the lead in his mouth.
Bertie dropped the lead into Vince’s hand, and stood quivering with barely-controlled anticipation while it was attached to his collar.
‘Right. I’ll see you later, then, Beverley,’ said Vince, beaming at her with a fine set of teeth. And off they went.
What a nice smile, thought Beverley.
By the time man and dog returned three hours later, Beverley had showered and breakfasted and got the fire going. She’d also baked some cheese scones. They were burnt on the outside and doughy in the middle, but just about edible. So she and Vince sat in easy chairs in front of the blazing stove, sipping tea and eating scones slathered with butter, while Bertie lay on top of Vince’s feet.
‘What I don’t understand,’ said Beverley, ‘is what the Porters needed a house-sitter for. It’s almost winter, so the garden doesn’t need attention. There’s Community Watch for security, plus the alarm system. And I’m sure you wouldn’t have minded taking care of Bertie, would you?’
‘It’s a bit of a sore point, actually,’ said Vince. ‘I think they suspect me of trying to steal Bertie’s affections. They’re right, of course. I plead guilty. So does Bertie, don’t you, boy?’
In answer Bertie rolled over onto his back, and squirmed back and forth ecstatically over Vince’s feet.
‘Oh dear, how complicated.’
‘He’s always trying to escape and come over to me, and they take a dim view of it. Can’t blame them, really.’
‘So what do you do for a living, Vince?’
‘I’m an electrical engineer by training, but I fancy myself an inventor, to be honest. I look the part, don’t I?’ he said, grinning.
‘Yes, you do!’ laughed Beverley.
‘Yes, I’ve got that bit down pat. Can’t seem to make any money at it, though, so I work part time at a factory down in Billip.’
‘And where do you do your inventing?’
‘I’ve got a workshop round the back of the house. You can come and see it if you like, but it might not mean anything. In fact, you’d probably think it’s fifty piles of junk. But to me… well, I love it.’
‘And you don’t mind working on your own?’
‘It’s okay. I did have a mate who was an inventor, and we collaborated a bit, you know? Great fun. Great bloke. But he died, unfortunately.’
‘Oh, that’s a shame. And it’s worse for the person left behind. That’s what I always think, anyway. My husband died, and I thought, “It’s alright for you, you rat. There you are, having a lovely time over on the other side, but what about me? Left here in this dreadful place, trying to survive without you.” Three and a half years later I’m still trying to forgive him. One minute I think I have, the next I’m not so sure.’
‘Do you really think the world is a dreadful place?’
‘I do, actually – in lots of ways. Though it could be wonderful. I mean, I love nature, I love animals, and I love people a lot of the time. But the planet has been well and truly messed up, don’t you think? By the banks and corporations.’
‘I know what you mean.’
‘But I’d better shut up now, or you’ll think I’m a conspiracy theorist.’
‘No I won’t. In fact… This mate of mine that I was talking about – well, he was working on free energy technology. Do you know what that is?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘And… Look, this is going to sound paranoid. But I think he was a threat to some vested interests…’
‘It doesn’t sound paranoid at all,’ Beverley assured him. ‘Not to me. Lots of people have invented free energy machines, and they’ve either been bought off or threatened or murdered.’
‘Well, to be honest, I think that’s what happened to Derek.’
‘They found him dead at the bottom of the drop.’
‘The one behind this house.’
‘Oh my God.’
‘He was the previous owner. The Porters picked up this house for a song, because no one wanted to live here after that… Beverley, are you alright? I’m sorry, I hope I haven’t freaked you out… Look, I’m not saying the house is haunted or anything.’
‘Maybe not,’ said Beverley. ‘But I think the garden is. And what is more, I think I’ve met the ghost.’
Part 3 soon
© Sue J Davis 2016
Please see Copyright Notice on the ‘About’ page.