It was my first day back in the village after more than a year away at uni. I was 18 years old. Mum thought I should make myself useful by returning the old lawnmower to my Nan. It was her way of getting me from under her feet. Nan lived on a small council estate just off the main village street, with her grown daughter and son, my Aunt Nellie and Uncle Ike.
The mower was rusty, not having been near an oil can for the best part of a decade. It was too heavy to carry, so I decided to push the reluctant creature the back way through the estate. I thought it would also attract less attention than using the main street. Which turned out to be a big mistake.
Nan’s estate was part of a larger swath of houses built cheaply by the local council after the war, to provide homes for victims of the war from down in the town. Uniform semis built in greyish brick and roofing tiles had brick chimneys and tiled fireplaces for burning the local coal. Small windows slotted into metal window frames let in what little daylight managed to penetrate the polluted skies. Each house had a small garden to hang washing. The houses were arranged in winding streets named after trees, Alder Avenue or Sycamore Crescent, in an attempt to raise their status a notch. A few one-storey bungalows for pensioners rounded off the estate. Inside the houses were regarded as modern with a bathroom, indoor lavatory, back boiler and gas stove. The kitchen walls were plastered, just brick, coated with a thick layer of green oil paint.
Nan’s house was on the edge of the estate, bounded on one by the main village street and on the other by a deep cutting which housed the railway line to Liverpool. Having used up all the local trees, the council plumped for place names. Nan lived in Gloucester Road, off Lancaster Road. It was a quiet street where the houses hid behind both fences and thick privet hedges, to mark their respective territory. The people on the estate were low-income workers who cycled to the chemical plants of the nearby town, leaving their wives at home with the kids, shopping and housework. Several of my schoolmates grew up there.
I set off, pretending it was the most natural thing in the world to push a clattering lawnmower along the uneven slabs of the stone pavement. As I turned into Nan’s street, several heads appeared at upstairs windows, attracted by the din. I quickened my step to get it over with, but the old mower protested loudly. Suddenly a new noise joined in, dogs barking from behind me and getting closer. Turning, I saw two dogs rushing towards me from one of the gardens opposite Nan. I tried desperately to get the mower between me and the attackers, but it was not easy to manoeuvre. Too late, the dogs struck. They both jumped up, growling ferociously. A scruffy black and white sheepdog went for my trouser leg. The material ripped and the dog’s teeth raked the back of my leg. The other one, a mongrel, several shades of brown, sank his front teeth into my right thigh. I shouted as I tried to swing the lawnmower at the dogs like a giant rusty club. It was heavy, but I managed to give the sheepdog a bit of a swipe across the head. But it still didn’t let go of my trouser leg.
Suddenly I hear: “Get back in ‘ere!” from one of the houses. The dogs bolted home like frightened rabbits into their holes, and with some relief I heard a door slam. I stood there all alone. The whole street was silent, no one to be seen. I lifted the mower from where it lay upside down and dragged it the last few yards, leaving it in Nan’s back garden. I didn’t knock, not wanting to worry her or get her worked up about the neighbours. She was a fighter, not to be messed about and noted for her sharp tongue.
I sneaked out of the garden and closed the squeaky gate quietly behind me. My heart was still thumping against my ribs like a base drum. I looked down at my trousers and legs to survey the damage. Fresh blood was trickling down my legs from the bite marks, and both trousers legs were torn. I rubbed my legs with what remained of my trouser legs and limped off towards the village street. What now I thought? Mad dogs? Rabies? Tetanus jab? Doctor?
Instead of returning home, I got the idea of going to see the village doctor. He lived in a large detached house surrounded by an acre of garden and protected from the village street by a high brick wall. There was no gate, which felt welcoming, so I marched boldly up the gravel driveway. Another mistake.
The only way to reach the front door was via a gate in a low brown wooden fence. A fat basset hound was lying down hiding behind the fence, awaiting his chance to ambush callers, tradesmen and unwanted patients. The hound knew that I would have to open the gate and get past him to reach the doorbell. Already bitten twice, in my desperation to avoid rabies I thought I was in some way immune or protected, that he would feel sorry for me. He got up and looked at me with a rather superior expression. He was after all the doctor’s dog. I took a deep breath, opened the gate and instantly he was on me, barking and baring his saliva-dripping teeth. I felt them puncturing what was left of my trousers and just as I was going to do a runner, the solid oak front door opened wide and a cultivated female voice enquired,
“Can I help you?” A well-preserved middle-aged woman of class was standing there. It was the doctor’s wife. “Quiet Morris”, she said firmly, and the dog shot inside.
“Sorry to disturb you, but I need a tetanus jab, just been bitten by a couple of dogs on the estate. Is the doctor possibly at home?“
“I’m afraid he’s is not at the moment”, she replied in a voice modulated by many years of elocution lessons.
“Your dog bit me too” I said, “look here,” pointing to my bloody trousers.
“Yes, Morris does that. Try the clinic in the town. I’m sure they will be able to help you.” she said in a rather condescending manner, and firmly closed the front door. It had an expensive sounding thud which echoed around the garden. I hurried away, leaving the gate open on purpose and hoping that Morris would escape and get run over.
In the village street I joined the throng of housewives and pensioners at the bus stop. A red double decker bus was due to take them the town centre and the local market. Standing at the bus stop I discretely surveyed my torn and blood-stained trousers. Several of the other passengers stared, or so I imagined, but no one said anything. Hopefully that meant they didn’t recognise me. They probably knew Mum from the local church and women’s club. Let them gossip, I thought. I don’t live here anymore.
The town boasted an accident hospital for minor injuries, which I hoped would be more welcoming than the doctor’s wife. I climbed on board as best I could, given my injuries.
“Been in the wars lad?” asked the observant bus conductor, surveying my blood trousers.
“Dogs on the estate!”
”Shoot ‘em all if I had my way! Need to get those seen to”, he said.
“On my way to accident hospital, down by the river.”
” Take you all the way son, only a shilling.”
I paid and, hoped it would shut him up, climbed upstairs to keep out of the way of the village gossips. A used white cotton handkerchief screwed up in my pocket was all I had to wipe the blood from my legs. It had dwindled to a trickle but I still got my hands covered in blood as I tried to scrub the worst mess off. The smell of blood on my hands mixed with diesel fumes from the bus was sickening. The bus took ages, stopping frequently for loud housewives to clamber on board. After the market place I had the bus to myself.
The accident hospital was a large red-brick building down by the river. I forced open the heavy wooden doors and stumbled into what turned out to be the reception. A jolly-looking nurse who presented herself as Edna stepped forward and, seeing my bloody handkerchief, exclaimed in a loud voice:
“What have we here then? Been in the wars I see.”
“Dogs,” I groaned
“Three in all!”
“My my! Record this week” said Edna laughing. “Follow me and we’ll have a look at your wounds.”
She led me to a small treatment room as though I was her “patient of the day”, gathering gossip to amuse colleagues during their tea break.
“Drop your trousers then, what’s left of them, and we’ll have a look at you. “
I hesitated a second or two.
“Don’t be shy now, I’ve seen legs before!”
I did as I was told and lay down on a low bench against the wall.
“Hairy! exclaimed Edna as she examined the bites.
“Yeh, it was quite scary.”
“Your legs I mean, hairy.”
Nurse Edna proceeded to swab off the dried blood and apply disinfectant on the bites and scratches. It stung sharply but I kept quiet until she had finished. Now I sported three oversize dressings held in place with gauze bandages.
“There you are, all done. Be right as rain in a few days.”
“What about a jab?” I asked.
Not deep enough lad, an’ we haven’t had rabies here since the Middle Ages. Up you jump and cover up those hairy pegs again. You can rinse off your hands in the toilet outside.”
“I’m going to report the dogs to the police.”
“Are you then! You’ll need one of these.” said Edna reaching into the desk drawer and pulling out an official-looking form. “Fill this in, name and address, and I’ll do the rest. Show it at the station.”
A big red bus was waiting for me at the stop outside the hospital. The driver had taken a stroll along the promenade for a cig. I climbed up, holding Edna’s form. It had her signature and a purple rubber stamp which said Accident Hospital. I was glad to sit alone on the bus, sights set on the police station a few stops nearer town hall square.
I had never been to a police station before. It was in a scruffy brick building next to the local billiard hall, The Black Cat, where the villains were said to hang out. The standard blue lantern with POLICE on the glass sides told me I had found the right place. Inside the heavy door, a tired looking elderly policeman with several stripes on his uniform got up slowly from his old office chair and approached the reception counter. He had grey hair and a belly which wobbled when he moved. Clearing his throat loudly, he slid the metal shutter to one side and in a rather weary voice asked:
“What can we do you for?”
“I’ve been attacked by three dogs. I want to report it,” I said, in a wavering voice. I handed over Edna’s form.
He glanced at the paper, placed it slowly on the counter and turned away to look for his glasses. He found them, with the help of a younger colleague, and then studied the form for what to me seemed a very long time.
“Sure you want to report this, lad?”
“Yes, ‘m sure” I managed to whisper.
“Where did this incident take place?” he asked in a formal sounding voice.
“The Village, on the estate.”
“Might have guessed. Nobody down here in’e town ‘d report a dog bite! Kick the buggers, and owners too if they have any.”
“All right. Your privilege.”
He turned to face the office and growled loudly: ”Where’s that new one, got a job for ‘im.”
A young, fresh looking junior policeman appeared, hardly older than me.
“Take this young man up to yon village and get ‘im to identify them dogs as bit him. Chop chop now.”
The young policeman smiled and showed me through a door which led to the police car park. He unlocked a small police car with turquoise and white stripes, a Panda car, used for patrolling. It didn’t feel like a real police car for chasing robbers, but probably put the wind up the locals on the estate.
“Jump in, lad. Up in the village then?”
“Yes, Gloucester Road.”
“Live there do you?”
“No, my Nan does. I’m at uni.”
I explained as briefly as possible, not mentioning the visit to the doctor’s house´.
“I’m Malcolm. New on the force. Get sent on these cases. Community policing it’s called.”
“What happens now?”
“I’ll go in first and talk to the owners. Then you’ll have to identify the dogs. In these cases, if the dog bites the policeman then it’s cut and dried. Probably get a fine and restraining order.”
Malcolm, a big lad in his early twenties, perched his police hat on his head and marched off up the pathway to number 31, kicking the loose gate open in his stride. I sat in the Panda car, slumped down in the seat, waiting. Occasionally I glanced up towards the houses and noticed net curtains moving. The neighbours were getting something to talk about. After about ten minutes, Malcolm came out and fetched me.
“You’ll have to identify the dog, procedure, but it’s got a muzzle on now. Bit of a giveaway really.”
I followed Malcolm up the pathway and he ushered me into the back kitchen. The black and white sheepdog was lying in the corner, wearing a brown leather muzzle. It growled as soon as it saw me. The owner aimed a kick in the direction of the dog. It retreated into the corner, cowed and silent.
Malcolm followed procedure:
“Is this the dog that attacked you, sir?”
“Yes, I replied”, my voice wavering slightly.
“Well,” said Malcolm, turning towards the owner, “you’ll be hearing from us. And keep that muzzle on when the dog’s outside!”
“That went rather well I think,” said Malcolm, back in the the safety of the car.
“Yes, ‘suppose” was all I could say.
“Want a lift home?”
“No, not far from here, this’ll do. Thanks!”
Malcolm dropped me off on the corner of the estate and drove off, looking satisfied with his day’s work.
Back home Dad was at the kitchen sink shaving. When I came in through the back door he carried on staring into his small round shaving mirror. Mum was in the living room. I felt the tension and disapproval as I stepped inside. She had heard, through the gossip grapevine. It all poured out, as expected:
“Where have you been all this time? Look at the state of them trousers, your good ones. Fancy wearing these to take the mower. Serves you right taking it through that estate, I told you to go along the main street. It’s all over the village, calling the police and making a fuss. Neighbours are very upset. Don’t tell your Nan, they’re right across from her.”
I didn’t have the energy to argue with her. From the back kitchen Dad must have heard Mum’s outburst. He made a beeline across living room, a characteristic disappearance act to avoid getting involved, muttering “shoot ‘em” as he disappeared into the parlour with his racing paper. It was unclear whether he meant the dogs or the owners, probably both. He had no time over for the people who lived on the estate.
I was at home for another week, a week dominated by the big silence. Nothing more was said, except “your tea’s on the table” and the like. The volume on the TV was turned up to cover up the silence.
To make matters worse I contacted a solicitor when I got back to university. I was so angry about the dog attack and my ruined trousers that I was determined to make the dog owner pay. Living on a student grant at the time I couldn’t afford new ones. The solicitor sent a letter to the owners, demanding compensation for the trousers. They sent a cheque.
Mum wrote a brief note a few days later:
The neighbours are very upset with the police calling, and the letter from the solicitor.
I don’t know what’s got into you since you left home.
Mum & Dad