So far as I knew, nobody in our little coastal village near the North Sea was actively unkind when it came to Eva Kent, neither behind her back nor to her face. She wasn’t known as the Village Idiot or Seathorpe’s answer to Forest Gump or anything like that. She was just – well, a bit thick! Or so we thought. She wasn’t ugly, by any means, but her moon-shaped face and rather straggly hair and figure that somehow managed to be plump and angular at the same time were definitely never going to win any beauty contests either. Some folk said she could play the piano a bit (I personally had never heard her) but there was no suggestion of her being a hidden brilliant musician or an idiot savant or anything along those lines – at most maybe knock out a recognisable version of Yesterday or Waltzing Matilda. She wasn’t even preternaturally good-natured as such simple souls are often said to be. She worked in the local convenience store, and had definitely let out audible sighs and become quite short with her when Mrs Johnson spent half an hour deciding whether she wanted Rich Tea biscuits or Digestives, making her views on anything from Brexit to the proposed new Bypass, to the failings of her grandson’s school while she was weighing it up. Well, not that any of us would have blamed Eva for that and I suppose generally she was easy-going enough. There was a rumour that she was vaguely related to Mrs Johnson, but neither of them mentioned it, if it were true. 

    Eva was just, well, there! There in the village Spar in the same way the counters and the tills were there. I think the staff were,  theoretically supposed to wear a uniform, but it was largely ignored, though whoever staffed the deli, man or woman, had to be hair-netted and overlong nails or visible tattoos, man or woman, were frowned on. Eva did not wear the branded sweatshirt of the franchise, but, for some reason, an old-fashioned blue overall (why were they always blue?) like a charlady in a 1970s sitcom. 

    We did, more or less, know her age – she hadn’t been at the village school, but there were people who knew people who had been, or whose children had been, at her secondary school, so we knew she was in her late thirties or early forties. But if we hadn’t had those points of reference, she could have been anything from a prematurely aged 25 year old to an unnaturally young looking 60 year old. That’s probably more common than folk think – my own family has a genetic quirk that makes us look a bit younger than we are, and I’m not that wild about admitting to the truth. But this isn’t about me. Well, at least, not mainly about me. I’m a bit player, or have a cameo role, or whatever. I was working from home at the time, deluding myself I was a writer, but let’s just say that my creative output wasn’t the main part of it (or at least not the main money-earning part of it!) and bits and pieces of tuition and the like came in handy. I did the “big shop” at the out of town supermarket or online, but the Spar shop was convenient, and even though it was pricier and didn’t have the same range of choice, it was, as Mr Bronte famously said on seeing Charlotte’s Jane Eyre for the first time, “Better than Likely”. 

    There’s this idea that a writer, or an aspiring writer, should find everything and everyone potentially fascinating and a source of story – of course, at odds with that stuff that nobody in the world has ever believed about any resemblance being purely coincidental! But I genuinely struggled to find Eva interesting.

    Even her dog – and I’m a dog-lover – didn’t seem that interesting! Oh yes, Eva had a dog. A mongrel, though the ears pointed to there being a fair amount of beagle in the genetics, called Staffy. As I was pretty sure one breed that wasn’t there in the genes was a Staffordshire terrier there was something perverse about that, but I don’t know if it was meant that way. Staffy was a docile, unprepossessing little pooch, well-behaved and amiable, but – well let’s just say I wouldn’t have chosen him as my pet. True, he had appealing dark brown eyes, but I had yet to meet a dog that didn’t have appealing eyes, whether in pursuit of affection or food or both. When I met him when Eva was taking him for a walk I dutifully petted him a bit, and he dutifully wagged his tail a bit.

    Dogs are probably more naturally dutiful, or less inclined to be otherwise, than a great many humans, myself included, but I still wouldn’t have neglected to visit my great-grandmother in her care home on her birthday. Ashley Hall (which I always thought sounded more like a person than a building!) was about twenty-miles away – one of those buildings that looked older than it was. I probably didn’t visit Granny Ida, as I called her, as often as I should have done, but wouldn’t have missed her birthday. She’d always had a bit of a soft spot for me, though she’d never stood for any nonsense. She still didn’t! I often thought that although she was in her nineties and, to her own annoyance, physically more frail now, she didn’t really belong in a care home. But it had been her own choice, and she was there on her own terms. Though she was popular with the staff, and not over-demanding or fussy, woe betide any of them who refused to wheel her back to her own room and the sanctuary of her books and Radio 4 when her low tolerance threshold to the TV habits of some of her fellow residents was reached! 

    She gave me one of her crisp embraces and said, “That new haircut suits you, Susan.” And she most definitely wouldn’t have hesitated to tell me if it hadn’t. She was a person it was both hard and easy to buy presents for. She meant it when she said she didn’t want a lot of money spending on her, but had also said – and I couldn’t disagree with her – that the phrase “It’s the thought that counts” often meant people thought it was fine not to think at all and to give someone a present they found “neither use nor ornament”. But a book was always a safe bet, and I knew her favourite authors, and the new book from one of them went down very well as, no doubt, would the bottle of halfway decent wine. “I expect I’ll have to endure the statutory sickly sherry later on,” she sighed, “Why they think everyone above a certain age likes the stuff, I’ll never know!”

    There was something of an air of excitement in the lounge, and Granny Ida, with one of her wry smiles, said, “Don’t delude yourself it’s because I’m a year more ancient. It’s Dog Day.”

    “Dog Day?” I queried.

    “You know – I’ll willingly admit I was one of the most cynical about it, but when Daisy,” (the manager) “assured us it was entirely voluntary and there’d be no compulsory stroking, and it was fine for us to stay in our rooms I thought, well, let them get on with it, though I didn’t think it could do much good. But I’ve never minded confessing I was in the wrong …. fair enough, maybe a bit! – and I have to say that little mutt can work wonders. Even with people who are …” her face darkened, “Well let’s just say who are in a state I hope I’m never in.  It’s as if a light gets switched on again for a few minutes, and the world makes a bit more sense to them again. Even a crusty old cynic like me, still with all my wits about me, has been won over and I find myself looking forward to Dog Day. His handler is wonderful, too. She’s a bit reserved, but she – has something about her.” As she spoke, there was a delighted cry from the “lookout” who was the first to see the welcome visitors. “Staffy is here!”

    And Staffy, let off the leash, and wearing a very official looking little “Pets as Therapy” coat, trotted over to his adoring fans – accompanied by Eva, wearing a tabard with the same design. “Happy birthday, Ida,” she said, giving her a box of chocolates before she spotted me. “Susan! How lovely to see you!”

    “You too,” I said – and it was absolutely true. It was a joy, and rather moving, to witness Staffy and Eva doing what they did best. There was a quiet chemistry between the two of them, and between them and the residents, and both seemed to instinctively know who wanted to play and have a chat, and who just wanted to gently stroke Staffy for a while. The thing is, it wasn’t as if they had metamorphosed – but as if I was seeing them properly for the first time. As if I just hadn’t paid attention, even though she had never mentioned it. I brought that up on the way home – she didn’t drive, and gratefully accepted my offer of a lift, though as she said, with a smile, “Staffy will sulk at not having everyone on the bus make a fuss of him too – though I don’t know. I think he’s a bit tired! Being a superstar can’t always be easy!” He had, indeed, fallen asleep, with little snuffling snores and dreaming of whatever dogs dreamt of.

    “I had no idea,” I said, unnecessarily.

    “I’ve been meaning to get round to telling folk – I’ve been doing it for six months now. But – well, to just say it out of the blue, it looks a bit like showing off.”

    Through my bits and pieces of writing I have a couple of connections at the local paper, and asked them if they’d like to run an article on Eva and Staffy and their work, having checked with Eva first. She was a bit hesitant, but then said if it raised awareness of the charity, it would be fine. “I know I’m nothing special,” she said.”It’s Staffy who’s the real star.” I was aware of my own hypocrisy as I protested, having thought the same thing (and, frankly, worse) myself. But I also knew that if she had thought she was something special, at least in the regular way, she would not have been. But she didn’t suffer from any sense of insecurity or inferiority. She was a quiet, wise lady, with a not always so quiet, but equally wise little dog!

October 11, 2019 07:01

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