Bill Smith had a way with dogs, a kind of power over them. They would sit in awe of him, would listen to him, would slink away sheepishly if they had growled near him. It was a skill I had cause to be thankful for once or twice. The odd thing was, that Bram, the last dog Bill owned had died in 1925 - fifty years distant.
Bill was a retired, life long bachelor. He lived alone in the small terraced house next door but two from us. On a number of occasions, I visited Bill's house, and it seemed that it hadn't really changed much from the 50s. There were hints that some articles had been undisturbed apart from the occasional silverfish or visiting woodlouse, since the 1930s.
He had a picture of a dog in the small converted kitchen which housed his huge solid pillowed chair, newspapers protruding from beneath its seat cushion. It was among one or two other small photos. On closer examination these were:
A grey snap of seventeen year old Bill, grey in flat cap, sitting on grey grass with a winsome girl wearing her hair in grey bangs, and a cloche hat.
A brown photo of a young boy in Edwardian dress, his head tilted back slightly, despite his stiff collar, with a too-small school cap perched on his head. Bill said it was him, but it looked like another person altogether.
Almost forgotten amid the clutter of pipe cleaners, matches, spills, bits of wire, tea coupons and old Yale keys was a very small dark photo of a black mongrel dog, lying in a back yard. A white stripe down its nose and in between its ears was one of the few ways it was distinguishable from the background gloom. This was Bram, Bill told me, his dog.
"Or my brother Frank's dog, if everyone had their own."
Through the years, my family had a total of four dogs. We actually had no photographs whatever of the first two.
Yogi had departed before I could really remember him.
Rex was next - My only memory of him was drawing on him in biro when I ran out of paper. He loved it.
Rusty ran away never to be seen again, and Benny - well, he deserves a story of his own.
Dogs had only played walk on parts in my family. As far as I was concerned the all defining object in a house was a television. There was one in Bill's house. It stood like a lonely, redundant sentinel in a dank corner of his empty living room and seemed cold and unused. When I asked Bill what he watched, he answered that the set didn't work, it needed a new plug or some such, and he hadn't bothered to get it fixed. And what's more, he didn't miss it. To me this was unimaginable - how could a person have a TV and not use it?
"Radio's best," Bill would wheeze, "you can't beat old steam radio ..."
What Bill did for much of the day, when there was life and bustle outside, if the children were off school for example, was he stood in his slippers, leaning against the wall just inside his gate, and would chat and banter with anyone who cared to do so. He wasn't the only one. People would stand in the backs, they would go to their gates and chat, or chat outside someone else's gate. It was life.
Bill rarely left his garden gate unlocked, but most of us could unlock it if, as sometimes happened, a football went into his back yard. He had little tolerance for trespassing animals in his back yard, and kept a squeezy bottle of water handy with which he would repel cats. It seemed odd that he didn't get many feline visitors, particularly as his neighbour Mrs Deakin had a menagerie of some fourteen cats, not to mention a flock of pigeons on her roof.
For some reason, the cats stayed out of Bill's yard.
They felt no compunction about using our back yard as a lavatory, however, and my Father would regularly extract cat droppings from amid our tired rose bushes, and tip the lot over Mrs Deakin's wall.
"There, it belongs to her, now she's got it back," he would say.
Though Bill wasn't much of a shot with his squeezy bottle, his yard remained curiously cat free and I sometimes wondered whether the cats had such an awful experience in Bill's yard that they had determined never to make the mistake of returning. Bill would mutter darkly on occasion about 'doing a cat in' if he caught one, but I knew he never would - and knew he never had.
Bill would tell us stories of his work, of holidays, of his biggest adventure, which involved travelling across the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man in stormy seas. He had been young with men who still lived a few doors from him. He would tell us how, as a sleeping child he was lifted from his bed, and placed on his father's shoulders to see a German Zeppelin fly overhead during the Great War, and of how as a young man, he had continued working as a painter and decorator up in the Westlands during the Great Strike in 1926.
"I heard some fuss down in the town, but I let 'em get on with it - daft buggers."
Bill dispensed with the whole matter of industrial relations:
"Honest day's work, fer a honest day's pay," he intoned, solemnly, and sounding the 'h' in 'honest' - causing secret amusement in my brothers and myself.
Bill knew everything. Later, as an older teenager, I would joke with my father about Bill's encyclopaedic knowledge. We took him out for a drink at a country pub in the summer, and we sat outside, where a railway line ran alongside the beer garden, deep at the bottom of a cutting. When our conversation was cut into by the sound of trains burrowing through the cut in the earth, Bill checked his watch.
"That's the 6.20 from Crewe," he said, nursing an unfiltered Park Drive in his brown coated fingers- then another glance at his watch, "He's ten minutes late."
My Father and I exchanged smiles, and would later laugh, once Bill had shuffled off up the backs, and his green gate had closed.
Bill knew sporting figures too, and had a particular penchant for telling us about his latest encounters with local football players, particularly Gordon Banks, Jimmy Greenhoff or Denis Smith of Stoke City.
"I saw Denis down Stoke the other day when I was going to the market," the tale
"'Denis', I shouted, he saw me from across the street,
'How you doing Bill?' he shouted.
'You want to sharpen up on defending against crosses from the left,' I told him, 'that goal as got in on Saturday wouldn't 'ave 'appened! Mark my words.'
'Right you are Bill!' he said."
Bill had advice for everyone - often whether it was sought or not - but he was so much one of nature's gentlemen that he was impossible to resist. You found yourself nodding sagely, and tracing the patterns of the end of his animated index finger, in receipt of the raised eyebrows, the thorough showmanship of Bill Smith righting the wrongs of the world.
Bill was in actual fact, not so much a man of the world, as a man of Basford and Hartshill, but here was a life lived in an extraordinary richness of simplicity, a wealth of minute experience and also, I always felt, a whole ocean of experience that only Bill knew of, with which he sat at night in his back room alone, and unpacked secretly like a cut glass set, and repacked again before morning.
I felt that there was more to Bill than he ever let on. *When we first moved into Victoria Street, our arrival was marked by two things.
One - within minutes , I was ordered to fetch my mother a packet of cigarettes.
Norman Bettany, the owner of the small grocer's next door one, sporting grey shop coat and brilliantined hair, shook my hand and said,
"Welcome to Basford"
It was the sort of gesture I can't imagine receiving now.
Two - Bingo, the dog who had lived in our house with its previous occupants, started to pay us unannounced and traumatic visits. This gave Bill an opportunity to demonstrate his way with dogs.
Bingo had already left us a fair memorial to his former guardianship of the house in the form of scored scratch marks at paw level on the outside of the kitchen door - which opened on to the yard. It was from here a few days after unpacking most of our belongings, that we heard scratching and desperate grunting and moaning. When the window was checked, there once again was Bingo, a refugee from his own destiny, seeking a way back to what he knew and was sure of.
The first time, we had little clue as to Bingo's demeanour when he discovered that his territory, and that of his master and mistress, was now under the occupancy of an invading force, who would deny him what he still saw as his legitimate home.
In short, Bingo turned exceptionally nasty. When he saw our heads pop up in the window frame, instead of the reassuring features of his owners, he had an expression of bewilderment. His eyes, if ever a dog could do this - became wide with shock and incomprehension, which, as he was approached, festered into vicious disappointment, bile and acrid resentment.
His other characteristic, we soon learned, was tenacity. Bingo was not going to be put off by the mere fact of his home now being taken over by strangers - he would not leave. Though he never actually got into the house, his intentions clear enough if he should ever do so - with militant paws planted on the cold grey slabs of the yard, and a baring of his teeth - he was for storming this citadel. There could be no returning to what was now his future - he would savage all comers in a do or die attempt to seek the familiar comfort he was convinced still lay inside.
My father tried to persuade Bingo to leave.
Dad was from the 'if they growl, then you growl louder' school of canine diplomacy. He first tried yelling and growling loudly at Bingo. Gesticulating wildly and throwing imaginary objects (they appeared to be imaginary house bricks) at Bingo, my Dad was sure he could see him off. This only fuelled Bingo's confused rage, and it was seconds before my Dad was retreating to the
safe side of the kitchen door, Bingo's insistent clawing pinning us all inside like sniper fire.
Dad decided that it was time for an armoured assault. He sought the whereabouts of my brother's pushchair, and wheeled it in front of him, wielding a mop over the top, with which to prod the dog steadily back, and gradually away, and out of our yard.
Bingo was not intimidated. The impersonal nature of the goliath now emerging from his own home - attacking and repelling him - only added further fuel to the fury burning in his brain. He grabbed the mop head in his jaws, and began a fiery, frenzied show of temper and torment as he mauled and shook it.
My Father was forced eventually to concede that the armoured assault only gained a little ground in what was a war of attrition. The yard was narrow by the kitchen, and Bingo could not get past the steadily advancing pushchair, but as the end of the house was reached, the yard opened up, and Bingo could attack from the sides.
Then a grey haired head peered through our thin straggly rose bushes. It was Bill, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth.
I subconsciously thought it odd to see Bill any where outside his home - I had actually never seen him anywhere but within about 10 yards of his house. He rarely ventured even outside of his backyard domain, but the fuss next-door but two drew him. Seeing him now was like looking at a lost member of Captain Scott's Antarctic Expedition - not only that, but he was walking straight into a mantrap in his carpet slippers.
Bingo was in no mood to be talked down, won over with tid bits, clucked at, cooed over or asked:
"Whassamarrer then yer silly lad? Eh, whassup with him then?"
Dad called over the rose trellis work which arched unsteadily across our shoulder high wall:
"I should leave well enough alone here, Bill!"
Bill peeked between the gaps in the trellis:
"Oh, it's only old Bingo! What the dickens are you doing here, you daft bugger?"
"He'll have you, Bill, he's gone for me - you want to see what he did to the mop as I was keeping him back with!"
Bingo was anxiously glancing from one to the other, from Dad to Bill and back again. He had his mouth open, and his tongue hanging as he panted, his longer teeth visible.
The dog was waiting for one of the men to make a move.
"Barrie, let me tell yer, I'm not much good with babies, I'm hopeless with cars, but dogs ... well, I've got a way with dogs," said Bill, and he pinched out the cigarette nub, and placed it behind his ear.
Bill moved to open our back yard gate, and my Dad was alarmed,
"Bill, leave it, I mean it! He'll bloody have you!"
By now, Bingo had lost all sense of his original mission, and was hell bent on a vengeance which he had lost control of. Bingo noticed that Bill had disappeared from the wall, and detected the movement of the gate handle. The dog curled his lip, and sloped toward the widening gap, and Bill's slippered feet.
My Father later described Bingo's movement as reminding him of a hyena, shoulders hunched, head low, eyes sliding from side to side as he kept watch on all movement around him - a low, guttural growl creating violent mood music.
My Father moved gently to get behind the dog, and in particular, the dog's hind quarters - he meant to get a good kick at Bingo's backside. Bill saw this, and gestured for my Father to stop. Bill walked slowly backward away from the gate, and into the backs, and Bingo tracked him, now toe to toe with an enemy on whom he was going to unleash his thwarted venom.
I only had Dad's account of what happened next, as it was out of sight of the window on to our yard. He was firmly of the opinion that Bill had bitten off more than he could chew, and that Bingo was about to do the same. Dad took up a position of safety, looking over our wall, and saw Bingo preparing to attack. Bill wagged the famous index finger at the dog,
"You're not biting me sirree. You come over here and I will just fetch you one."
Here Bill revealed a gnarled stick, about three feet long. He didn't wield it aggressively, but held it at his side. It seemed to stir Bingo into decision and he lunged forward, gushing a hoarse throaty snarl as he moved.
There was some confusion about what happened between Bingo's aggressive lurch toward Bill and Bingo's sudden acquiescence. Bill later said he thought that the dog caught a glimpse of the stick, and had second thoughts, but my Father didn't agree, and told me so later.
"That dog was headed for Bill's leg as sure as eggs is eggs. He'd made his move! Fully committed! " here my Dad raised his eyebrows in appeal and reached for a footballing simile, " Look, it was like a goalkeeper who dives full stretch across a goalmouth to stop a shot. He can't go backwards, if he misread the ball, he has to watch as it floats in - right?"
I had to agree, having seen a succession of Port Vale goalkeepers do exactly that.
"Right! That's what the dog did, only it stopped in mid flight. I'm telling you - as sure as if it hit a wall. Stopped dead, and turned round and left Bill alone."
When he heard of Bill's account of the stick saving him, Dad shook his head vigorously,
"Absolutely not. The stick was what made the dog go for him in the first place!"
Bingo had somehow stopped, dead in the air, if you listened to Dad. The dog then became almost cowed, wagging his tail uncertainly, licking his chops in the way dogs do when they have been caught digging up flower beds - his ears flat to his head, his eyes peering up from his lowered head, lowered this time in uncertainty.
He even began to tremble a little in his hind legs.
Within an instant, Bingo had gone from driven and manic to unsure, and needing comfort. Bill ended up stroking Bingo, who nuzzled against his legs, and rolled over anxiously.
"Barrie!" called Bill to my Dad, "I'll keep him in my yard, you phone Jack and Maude Colclough."
My Father did so, and when the Colcloughs arrived to collect their the dog, they discovered him sitting outside Bill's gate. Bingo was delighted to see them, now ready to face whatever future his new home had for him.
"He's been waiting out by my gate for you," Bill told them, "He wouldn't come in my yard. Offered him some of my braising steak, but he wouldn't have it."
Bingo had allowed Bill to guide him up the backs, and toward Bill's gate, but he would not, oddly, cross the lintel. Bill had grasped Bingo's collar, and hauled with all his might, but Bingo dropped his weight toward the floor, and locked his legs in forceful protest - he would not be pulled, nor pushed, nor cajoled into the yard.
The Colcloughs were puzzled by Bingo's refusal to enter Bill's yard, and were apologetic about Bingo's latest return to the haunts that he could not bring himself to let go. This, however was the last time we saw the dog. After this I assume he gave up his longing for life as it was, and, as far as I know, he must have accepted his life as it had become.
I shared a room with my brother, Ross, from the age of eleven until I left home, and it was several weeks after the final visit from Bingo, when Ross broke the gathering silence of late night:
"You still awake?"
"No, I'm asleep, " I replied, as always.
"I saw something round Bill's yesterday. I've been thinking about it. I'm not sure what it is," Ross went on.
His voice carried the greatest degree of intensity I'd heard since he confessed to me that he'd stolen a football magazine from the local newsagent. Dad had found out, and he marched Ross round the corner to confess to the newsagent.
"Well ... what?"
"Don't start taking the mickey out of me," Ross began - not being taken seriously was among his greatest neuroses, as is the case for so many younger siblings.
"I think I know why the cats don't go in his yard. I might even know what happened when Bingo went to bite Bill."
I propped myself up on my elbow, and cast a sceptical gaze through the darkness at him.
"Go on then, what is it?" I asked, and couldn't resist adding, "Summat strange and eerie, summat as will trouble my sleep?"
"Oh forget it, I knew you'd just start making fun ..."
"I'm sorry," I put in, quickly, knowing that I may have just deprived myself of at least an amusing diversion. Ross could take half an hour to win round from a refusal to spill the beans in cases like this.
"Just don't ..." he replied
After some persuading, Ross, who in fact wanted to get a second opinion on what he had seen, told me of the strange patch on Bill Smith's yard.
"I was round Bill's after school, before Mum got in. It was raining, and Bill didn't mind me waiting there," Ross told me.
"When I went into his yard, I saw this ... sort of shape on the ground, about two feet from Bill's back door. "
"Shape? What sort? Flying saucer shape? Ghost shape?"
-once again, I was pushing it, and I knew it, but Ross was particularly gullible when it came to this sort of thing. He had a huge collection of Ghost Story books, and for a few years read little else.
Ross pressed on, he was in his stride now, and wasn't going to be distracted by my poor attempts at humour.
"His yard was all wet, all the slabs, I know how wet, 'cos I nearly slipped as I walked down his path. Then, just a couple of feet from his back door, there's this patch which is completely dry. I stood there and looked at it. The rain was running down my nose, and down the back of my coat and soaking the backs of my legs, but ... this patch, about a foot and a half long, by about a foot wide - it was dry!"
I thought his story preposterous. I couldn't see his face, but I could imagine it, his eyes staring widely at the ceiling, his mouth slightly agape. I kept my own counsel, I could at this point tell him what I thought, but I had jibed at him enough for one night. I decided to say nothing. A silence passed, and thickened as it did. I decided that if he pursued the matter, I would let him have a ribbing of epic proportions.
"What d'you think?" Ross asked eventually.
"It's obvious," I replied, "There must have been a hole in the rain clouds - probably one, oh - a foot by a foot and a half, what you saw ..."
But I didn't get chance to complete my smart response. He switched on his bedside lamp, and was sitting up looking at me, a furrow of concern on his forehead.
"Stop it! I know what I saw, I'm not making this up! It can't do that. Rain just can't leave a patch of dry!" Ross stood up, and walked slowly to the window, his hand near his mouth.
"When I knocked on Bill's door, I looked around, and this patch started to get spattered. By the time Bill actually opened the door, it was wet, just like all the rest of the yard."
"Did you tell Bill about it?" I asked, serious because of his agitation.
There was little further comment, it was late, and we both had to be up early next day. The business was forgotten, I gave it no more thought until perhaps two years later.
Part of my degree course was to interview people I knew, and try to create a documentary radio programme using my source material. As ever, I left it very late to attend to, and finally found my way to Bill's house in Victoria Street, armed with tape recorder and microphone.
After an initial wariness, and several times being told that I wasn't recording when in fact I was, Bill relaxed a little, and started into his stories. I knew many of these almost by heart, and was able to coax him into telling familiar ones. Including the one about the shooting incident.
When he was a boy, Bill's family had a dog, a mongrel - no one in Basford in the early 1920s could have had any other sort of dog. It had been his older brother's originally, but his brother joined up to fight the Kaiser, and never returned from Flanders, so the dog had to adapt to Bill as a new companion.
Here it came, the story I was seeking - Bill's stories of the dog, how he had been hunting, shooting rabbits, and the dog had gone with him, how the dog had been present when, on an estate nearby, Bill had shot what at a rabbit moving in long grass, only to see a cat leap several feet into the air. To his horror, when the dead creature was found Bill realised that he had in fact shot dead the local vicar's cat. How the dog had won the day by the way it sat on the doorstep of the Parsonage as Bill made his explanation, how it looked more sorry than him. It had caught the eye of the vicar's wife, and had somehow softened the blow of the cat's death. The woman had commented, 'I could swear that dog is in mourning for our cat. If a dog could weep, well, you'd swear that 'un is weeping right now.'
There was an ironic fragment of truth in what the lady said.
The thing was, the dog only accepted Bill as a temporary companion - of course it did not understand the fact that Bill's brother was never coming home. It continued waiting for him. Waiting for the familiar footfall, waiting for the imminent return of a voice it knew and devotedly listened for. The dog regarded the present as a state of waiting. Its life was in a state of suspension - a kind of 'this will have to be got through until everything returns to the way it really should be'. Its pointless patience was matched only by its growing detachment from everything else.
I sat with Bill for a couple of hours, and I ran out of tape. It was among the last times I ever visited him in his house, having left home myself - returning to Stoke only at holidays.
I took Bill up on his offer of a cup of tea before I left. There was snow on the ground outside, and the temperatures had plunged. I was shown through into the kitchen cum living area in the rear of his house, and looked again at the collected bits and pieces of this man's life.
The old radio with its bakelite casing and valves on a high shelf, the unsliced loaf on the table, the open fire, with a butter dish nearby and the photographs on the mantel.
Bill as a youngster,
Bill as a boy,
Bill's dog, lying in a dark yard, more than half a century ago. Lying near to a door. A narrow little yard.
"Typical of him, that was," Bill put in when he saw me looking at the picture again.
"Old Bram, he lay out there every day, come what ever the weather was, you know! He couldn't let go. Waited for Frank to come back. Waited until the day he died himself, that dog. He'd only move when I went and opened the back door, then he'd stroll in, and wait until he could go out and wait again."
Bill stood alongside me, and picked up the little frame. He looked down his nose at it.
"Do us a favour and pass us me glasses," Bill asked, "It'd take me half the day to get over there to get them. My bloody feet are no good to me these days, particularly in this weather."
I handed Bill his specs, and he peered at the dog, tutting to himself as he did so.
"Aye, Old Bram, lying out in the yard. Waiting for his life to start up again." He shook his head, wistfully.
"Lay out yonder, just outside the door there. If you could see to the sides of the picture you'd see the yard hasn't changed all that much. Well, my mother kept the flower beds better than me ..."
I was surprised, I had always thought Bill's family had lived in Clare Street, a street up from this one.
"Oh, we did, but we moved when I was a baby. I can't remember ever living there."
I looked out of the window into Bill's back yard. I could see the back door. Bram had lain in this yard, just near to the door. Just a couple of feet from the door.
On my way home, stepping carefully through the ice and snow, I turned thoughts this way and that.
Ross and his patch of dry path in the rain.
Cats rarely went into Bill's yard.
Bingo's sudden halt in mid attack, and refusal to enter Bill's gate.
I thought of all of us.
Bill, living in his bubble in time, powered by old steam radio and Woodbines.
Bingo - wanting to attack the present, and curl up in his past.
I thought of myself, waiting for my life to start.
One day, I thought, one day, things will be different for me. But only if I make it so. I was no longer a boy, but I still thought like one. I still thought of myself as one. I took myself terribly seriously, but knew deep within, that no one else did. I kept trying to re-invent myself, but I never created a me that could last more than a few months, then it was back to this ... boy.
How far was I willing to let go and move on?
Perhaps I might find myself a comfortable place, and lie there, and forever wait for the footfalls of my destiny to come and find me. But it could, I thought, take a long time - a lifetime of waiting. Did I want to wait like Bram still did?
Because he still did.
Through winters, through summers - fifty odd of them.
Bram still waited out there.