The dog is my cover story. People don’t ask what you’re doing if you have a dog with you. They talk to you, of course – more than if you’re on your own. I’m prepared for that. They trust you. Well, maybe not if you have a particularly fierce-looking dog or one with a muzzle on. But mine looks the furthest from fierce you could imagine.
They’ll ask what breed the dog is, how old and (if there’s a child with them), whether it’s a boy or a girl dog, and whether it’s friendly. They’ll let me know (if they are walking a dog themselves), whether there’s a dog further up the road that needs careful watching in case it decides to attack mine. Whether it’s ‘frisky’ or not, and will go for anything that moves. Sometimes, they’ll give me a whole catalogue of their dog’s latest procedures at the vet, accompanied by the costs, with much eye-rolling, eyebrow-raising and sighing.
Frankly, I couldn’t care less about other people’s dogs, and what they fork out at the vet is their business. That’s what insurance is for. Otto is no trouble, most of the time anyway. If another dog wants to do more than sniff his behind, I just scoop him up and tuck him under my arm. You get used to doing that with dachshunds, anyway. When I first had him, I’d let him off the lead a lot. Seemed kinder. But then, of course, with his little legs, I’d lose him in the park’s long grass and I used to feel like a right berk when I had to yell, ‘Otto!’ countless times to try and get him back. So now the lead stays on most of the time.
My mates ask me if I feel silly being seen with such a small dog, as I am well built and look like a labourer, standing six foot two in my socks. Well, I won’t deny it felt a bit funny at first – I don’t mind telling you that I was a little embarrassed when I set off with Otto on our first trip, just to the corner shop to pick up the paper. Jan had persuaded me that we needed to buy a dog and then she set her heart on a flaming sausage dog when I would have been more than happy with a retriever, or something a bit… well, bigger.
After we’d had him a few weeks, though, I noticed just how many other men out there are walking dinky-sized dogs. Pugs with their wrinkly faces, French bulldogs with their sticking up ears, and a few other dachshunds, too. So no, I don’t feel silly at all these days. Besides, you can go out any time of the day or night with a dog, and people don’t bat an eyelid. It can be 11 o’clock at night and I’ll say to Jan, ‘I’ll just take the dog out for his late night final.’
‘OK,’ she says to me, ‘When this programme’s finished I’m turning in. Can you lock up?’ And that’s it. By the time I get back – it could be in half an hour, could be two, depending on how business goes – I know she’ll be asleep, gently snoring, flat on her back as usual, with no clue as to where I’ve gone. And Otto won’t tell, will he?
It’s an ideal situation in many ways. She has her own life – still working in the charity shop two days a week, and helping out in the school library – and I have mine. Two years ago, I officially retired, although I still do small bits of work for friends. Just odd jobs mainly – fixing fences, sorting out dripping taps – and I get paid in cash, naturally. And then I still help out at my old workplace once a week if they need me. The ‘oldest Saturday boy ever’ as I joke with the teenagers.
The rest of the time? Well, I can do what I like, more or less. Jan has plenty of friends and she spends a lot of time with her sister, who only lives around the corner. Half the time, I think she just wants to get away from me, to be honest. That’s OK – the feeling’s mutual.
There’s football on Saturdays – watching not playing. I just support the local team. If it’s a home game, I’ll watch with Ian, if he’s around, and we’ll go for a few pints after the match to celebrate or drown our sorrows, as the case may be. There will always be someone I know in the pub.
Then there’s my fishing – I can set off early in the morning and not return until it’s getting dark. It’s the solitude I like most of all. I’m not bothered about how many carp I catch. Of course, I’ll tell Jan that I’m off to fish and set off with all my equipment, but sometimes, I’ll be somewhere else altogether, which explains why I come back empty-handed on occasion. I’m sure she thinks that I’m just a rubbish fisherman, but I don’t care.
It’s not a secret existence exactly, just, well… I prefer it if Jan doesn’t know about every aspect of my life. There’s no need. I’m sure she has secrets of her own, although maybe not as big as mine…
Anyway, today I was at my mate Ted’s house. He wants me to help dig a pond in his back garden, which is a pretty big one for around here. I think it’s a bad idea, personally. He has two young grandchildren who come over every Saturday, so it’ll have to have a grille fitted over the top, which won’t look very attractive. Then, someone will have to watch like a hawk every time the kiddies come round and no one will be able to relax. And he says he wants giant koi in there as well, but I don’t think he realises just how much it costs to stock a pond properly. Then all it takes is one determined heron and he could have lost hundreds of pounds. Still, he’s paying me a decent amount of cash so I won’t open my mouth.
My friend came to greet me. ‘Werner,’ he said.
It’s my name. What can I say? German name, German dog, although more by accident than design, seeing as how Jan chose the dog.
‘How’s it going?’
‘About the pond. I thought we could put it over there. What do you think?’
Overhanging tree branches, I think to myself. He’s going to be fishing leaves out of it all winter.
‘Fine, fine. All I need is a shovel, then I can get started.’
My friend, who’s surely aged more than I have in the thirty years or so since I’ve known him, went off in the direction of his shed. Halfway there, he turned and looked at me over his shoulder. ‘Oh yes, that’s what I wanted to tell you. Did you hear what happened the other day? To Geoff?
Now, Geoff is in my group of friends, but on the fringes, if you like. I don’t know him that well. We support different teams and he drinks in different pubs. I’ve never cared for him, to be honest, although some of my mates are on quite friendly terms. I haven’t had much to do with him – at least not until two weeks ago.
I’d been ‘walking the dog’ one night. Only I wasn’t, actually. Otto was safely tied up and he’s always been a quiet dog. If you leave him for an hour he won’t bark for his master to come back, he’ll just lie down and wait patiently for me. This has served me well on several occasions. I’m not worried about anyone nicking him – I’m sure he’d nip their ankle if they tried.
Anyway, this particular evening, I had a lot of business to do and it was already dark – but not dark enough, as it turned out. It was getting late and had just started to drizzle. As I turned the corner to set off back for home, who should come strolling along but Geoff. He’d almost caught me out, but not quite. Luckily, I’d just untied Otto from the alleyway so my cover story was trotting along happily by my side.
‘Wasn’t expecting you here.’
‘Well, you know, just walking the dog.’ I indicated Otto with my hand, in case he hadn’t looked that far down.
‘Ah yes, the famous sausage dog. Funny little bugger, isn’t he? I prefer bigger breeds myself.’ He gave me a searching look under the streetlight. ‘Bit late for a walk, isn’t it? In this weather? Shouldn’t you be watching telly with the missus?’
I gave an approximation of a laugh. ‘I could say the same of you. Just popped out to the shop for a chocolate bar.’
‘Yes, so it is. It must be later than I thought. Got carried away watching the film.’
‘Oh, what film was that?’
‘Something on DVD. I forget the title now. It wasn’t that good anyway. Well, got to be getting back. I’ll be seeing you.’
‘Night, Werner.’ He put the stress on the first word, as if it was significant that we were meeting at such a late hour. Then, he was off, striding into the night down a side road.
Did he live around here then? I could have sworn he lived on the other side of town but now I wasn’t so sure. Maybe he’d moved. I hoped not. It would make things very… difficult if I started running into Geoff on my nocturnal outings. Very tricky indeed.
It unsettled me, seeing him. So much so that I couldn’t stop mulling it over the next day, and for the whole of that week his face kept returning to me at inopportune moments. What had he been doing that night, come to think of it? Did he have similar interests to my own?
‘About Geoff.’ Ted had now returned with the shovel and a wheelbarrow. ‘Last Sunday it was.’
‘Oh yes?’ I replied, breaking through the turf with the first swing of the hefty shovel. I’m still strong, even though I’m collecting my pension.
As I said to the police on Sunday, I’ve absolutely no idea how it happened. A complete mystery. There I was, in the bathroom first thing, doing my morning shave, as I do every day, when I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. We get huge spiders in this old house so I thought maybe it was that. I don’t mind them but Bel goes potty if she sees one. In fact, she’s terrified of practically any creature that makes sudden movements, come to think of it.
Now, I’d taken my glasses off to shave, as is my usual practice, so I just carried on with the razor until I’d finished. I don’t like anything interfering with my routine, see. But just as I was about to put them back on, there was another movement. Something told me this was no spider. As soon as I’d towelled my face and could see properly, I turned around fully and saw it. I couldn’t believe my eyes at first, but there it was, slithering slowly along – there was a snake in my bathroom! It was gradually emerging from behind the roll top bath, gliding soundlessly over the tiled floor, its head shifting from side to side.
It wasn’t a small adder type of snake that you might be unlucky enough to find in the grass while out walking – though that would have been bad enough. No. This thing must have been about five feet long, thicker than your arm. It was looking straight at me now, flicking its tongue in and out. I was rooted to the spot – I didn’t want to provoke it. What were you supposed to do with snakes? Stay still? Run like hell? It was keeping to the edge of the room, heading for the toilet bowl, where it started coiling itself around the base.
Well, I was terrified, I don’t mind telling you. I reckoned there was enough distance between me and the creature for me to make it safely to the door. When we had our house extended, I’d told Bel the bathroom was too large but I was grateful for its capaciousness now. So I fled out of the room and slammed the door, then roared down to Bel, who was baking in the kitchen, to call the police.
She couldn’t make out what I was saying so I had to run downstairs and explain, then run back upstairs in case the thing escaped under the door. I opened the door gingerly, just enough to see if it was still there. It was fully coiled around the toilet now, looking at me with an unblinking stare. I found my breathing had become shallow and rapid. Half of me couldn’t bear to look at it, the other half was mesmerized. Then, as I was watching, it seemed to be uncoiling itself slowly. God! It was coming to get me!
Now, spiders I can deal with, no problem. Snakes are a different story. I’ve always been a bit scared of them, with their scaly bodies and forked tongues, and face to face, as it were, this one was horrible – huge and scaly with black and orange splodges along its back. There are no zoos around here so it must have been an escaped pet – though how anyone could want to share their living space with a monster like that, goodness only knows.
My next worry was – when I could stop thinking about it coiling around my neck and suffocating me – how could I prevent it from sliding out under the door? There’s a gap of at least an inch. I’ve been meaning to do something about it for ages, the draughts in winter are terrible, and although its body looked far too thick to pass through, I had no idea whether snakes could slim themselves down enough to fit through small spaces (like cats, but to a more extreme extent). Presumably, they can, else how on earth could this one have got into my bathroom?
So I wrenched a towel out of the linen cupboard on the landing and quickly stuffed it into the gap, hoping that would be enough to contain it. Bel, meanwhile, now that she knew what was lurking in her own bathroom, was on the phone to the police, hysterical, and by the sounds of it, trying to make herself understood. She’s petrified of all reptiles you see, but then I defy anyone not to be terrified if they encounter a snake in their own home.
Having blocked the gap as best I could, I ran downstairs and together we sat in the lounge on the sofa, pressed close together, waiting for the police to arrive.
‘What are we going to do?’ My wife was shrieking now, clutching her cheeks. ‘I can’t go up there. I can’t! Don’t leave me alone down here, Geoff, don’t leave me!’
Bel pulled me back down onto the sofa in a panic. I was only going to check for the police car. Thank goodness it wasn’t our turn to have the grandkids that weekend. After 15 long minutes, a squad car, with no siren or lights on, pulled up outside and two police officers got out – in rather too leisurely a fashion, in my opinion. I’d jumped up and opened the front door before they had time to ring the doorbell, trying to usher them upstairs, but they insisted on coming into the lounge, sitting on the other sofa and taking down a few details first in their notebooks.
‘We’ve rung the RSPCA and they’re contacting their snake expert,’ announced the taller one after I’d finished giving what information I had. ‘There may be a bit of a delay owing to this expert being called away to another emergency.’
Good God! How many of those creatures are on the loose today? I thought to myself.
‘Have you identified it, sir?’
‘Have you identified it? What kind of snake is it?’
‘It’s a snake and a bloody big one. That’s all I know.’
‘Yes sir, but what kind? So the snake man knows what he’s dealing with.’
‘I’ve absolutely no idea. Take a look yourself.’
‘We just want someone to take it away!’ my wife said in an anguished voice.
The police officers exchanged glances, then went upstairs.
‘I don’t think it would be wise to open that door,’ said the shorter one. ‘He might be waiting on the other side, ready to strike.’
They contented themselves with peering at the blurred shot that I’d managed to take on my phone, just before I’d slammed the bathroom door.
So we amused ourselves while waiting for the cavalry to arrive by Googling ‘snake, black and orange patterned’ and a number of possibilities came up. Many of them were described as ‘harmless to humans’ but Bel didn’t seem any calmer and, frankly, neither was I. A snake is a snake, especially if it’s five feet long.
Eventually, a bald man in black uniform and gloves turned up, carrying a hessian sack and a pole with two prongs on the end of it.
‘Brian… I do the snakes,’ he introduced himself with a wave. ‘Where is ’ee then? Bathroom, is it?’
I replied in the affirmative and he nodded as if people found snakes in their bathrooms all the time.
The idea, he cheerfully explained to us, was to carefully pin down the snake with the pole, then bundle it into the sack, tie up the sack and cart it away to safety. Safety? I was more worried about my safety, not the snake’s.
‘Can’t you just kill it? It’s a danger to the public, surely?’
‘Oh no, sir, I couldn’t do that. Not unless ’ee’s really ill. This is someone’s cherished pet. Besides, from the description, ’ee sounds ’armless enough. But I’ve got to catch ’im first.’
So we all trooped upstairs (except Bel, who by this time had definitely had enough and announced she was going to stay at her sister’s house until we’d caught the damn thing) and the snake man carefully opened the door a crack. ‘’Ee’s not round the lav any more,’ he announced cheerily. ‘I’ll just go in for a closer look.’
I shrank back. The police officers stood poised, though what they’d do if a dirty great snake lunged at them, I didn’t know and I’m sure they didn’t either. The snake expert gingerly entered the bathroom.
‘’Ee’s not in the bath,’ he called. ‘Nor the shower cubicle. Not behind the door and not in the basin. Let’s look in the lav. They like it in there.’
He lifted up the loo seat and peered inside. Nothing.
‘What you have ’ere, sir, is the 'oudini of snakes. ’Ee’s escaped.’
‘What do you mean, escaped? It must be there somewhere.’ I felt myself sweating. ‘Try the towel rail. Is it behind it? Could it be hiding somewhere?’
‘I’ve looked everywhere, sir. Towel rail, laundry bin, bathroom bin… and I can assure you, ’ee’s not ’ere. I know all their ’idey ’oles, believe you me, and being as it’s a snake, they’ve got a lot of places to ’ide, I’ll give you that. But ’ee’s not ’ere.’
‘Could it have escaped under the door?’
‘Unlikely, given the towel you stuffed under it.’
‘Where is it then?’
‘I think, sir, ’ee’s done a runner, so to speak, or rather a dive, down the lav.’
‘’Ee’s slithered down the toilet, is my guess. That’ll be ’ow ’ee got in, most prob'ly. ’Ee’ll be in yer pipes now. Could end up in a completely different ’ouse. Or not. If you get my drift.’
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
The taller police officer stepped forward. ‘So what you’re saying is…’
‘Wot I’m saying is, ’ee’s gone. For now, anyway. I’ll check the rest of yer ’ouse, obviously, but I don’t ’old out much ’ope. That’s snakes for you. Clever little buggers. Anyway, it sounds like what you ’ave ’ere is a corn snake. You don’t want to be worrying about ’im. No danger to the public. No danger at all. Got any pets, have you? Any mice? Rats?’
I said we hadn’t.
‘Right, well, if ’ee turns up again, just give me a buzz. ’Ere’s me direct number. If I don’t answer just leave a voicemail. I’ve been very busy recently, for some reason. Think it’s the ’ot weather.’
With that, the man headed off in the direction of the other rooms, turning round to add, ‘Oh, keep the loo seat down. With a ’eavy book on it. Just in case.’
This was not going as planned. I’d thought the snake expert would simply remove the snake and that would be the end of it. For one thing, I couldn’t see Bel setting foot in the house again until it had been found. She’d already fled to her sister’s. I didn’t want to stay here myself, come to that. What if they never found it? It could make itself a home in my house, and one day I’d be on the loo, or in the shower, then suddenly it would appear and…
Good God. What were we going to do? What was Bel going to do? She wouldn’t be able to take it, not coming so soon after the other incident.
My wife had been talking about moving house for ages. She wanted to move closer to her mother in Bournemouth. This snake thing could tip her over the edge. Maybe it was time to go on an extended holiday, at least, until the thing had been found. And if it never turned up, well, maybe we could sell the house and move to the South Coast. I’m near retirement age as it is. A change of scene might be just what we could do with. No need to tell the buyer about our unusual house guest. No need at all…
Ted had finished his tale of our friend’s unwanted house guest.
‘Imagine something like that happening round here! Who’d have thought it? It’s amazing what people keep in their houses these days.’ He shook his head with wonder. ‘I heard they’re still looking for it. They put an appeal out on the local news the other day for the owner to come forward.
‘According to Ian, Geoff and Bel are definitely thinking about moving out now. She’s not been back to the house since. Still staying at her sister’s. Word is, they’re leaving the area completely. Going to the South Coast.’
‘Moving out? Are they now? That’s interesting. Anyway, Ted, I’ll have to finish this another day if you don’t mind.’ I laid the shovel carefully on the ground. I’d already dug about half the pond. ‘You see, it’s time for my lunchtime shift at Animal House. You know, near the station. The pet shop.’