Thursday, 10 October 2013

Poor Man's Whippet

My Master was four-legged and I was three, so I answered to the name of Stumpy, but Master often called me “Whippet!” Master wasn't his only name as folk when they crossed our path said “Poor Man. Poor Man...”, especially in rain or winter. But it was rare that anyone approached us: folks glanced and scurried past as Master was far from endearing. His manner was gruff and at times insulting. He verbally abused folk, and walked crookedly in front of traffic waving his stick and ranting as I limbed alongside him, but this abrasive attitude was the only language he knew and a play for attention.
Being homeless and drunk on wealthy Epsom streets was frowned upon. Folks didn't like to see hardship and poverty: an unwashed man with a matted beard in worn-out clothes begging on pavements and sheltering in shop doorways. Being vagabonds in this town was tough, and some I heard say, “At least Stumpy, Poor Man's Whippet is quiet and dignified.” This was true: my coat was remarkably easy to keep clean and my breed is not prone to barking. In temperament, Master and I were exact opposites, and therefore good companions. My docile nature atoned for his misunderstood hostility; an ill will he never used towards me as his argument was with society and not with his faithful companion.
Together, we rested in many different places where we were either fleetingly acknowledged or moved on. One day, just before a a storm, we found shelter in an open porch squeezed in-between a pub and a charity shop, which led to offices above. The polished step was just wide enough for Master to sit and for me to curl up beside him. Light drops of rain were beginning to fall and the sky was turning dark and thundery. Master was thinking and so I tried to doze, but before I could slip into the land of chasing squirrels, a young girl carefully stepped over me. She seemed unperturbed to see us there and apologized for having to gain access to the building. As she disappeared behind the door, I dropped my head once more, but was disturbed again ten minutes later when she returned with a flask of tea and a whole pack of digestives, which she handed to Master with “I thought the two of you could share these.”
Master taken aback by this gesture wordlessly accepted and I gave thanks from my eyes, which I saw she recognised, and although this exchange only lasted seconds, it told me she had a whippet's heart: large and slow beating. I sensed she fled because she was embarrassed and didn't wish to alert others to our unwarranted presence. I was relieved she'd not given us money for Master would have used it to drown his sorrows; for a man like him tea and biscuits were safer. As the rain begun to beat more forcefully down, we had to move and so took the remaining biscuits with us.
Over the next few months, we continued to traipse Epsom town, stopping for shelter here, there and everywhere in all weathers, until we took up residence in the derelict grounds of a mental hospital. For a while we called these ruins home. I don't recall the fog of smoke the night we laid down and so I think the two of us must have died sleeping. But a week later, our ghosts saw the same young girl weeping when the fire was reported in the local paper. Her fellow feeling for us was the last we were shown.

*based on a true account, but some characters have been altered and some details embellished.