University lecturer Andrew takes a sabbatical to complete his doctoral thesis, but despite his secluded surroundings he finds himself distracted by a bored canine; by Beryl Ensor-Smith.
In the beginning everything looked rosy. The old family holiday house he had hired through a colleague suited him fine. Its thick walls kept out the summer heat and it was isolated from most of the houses in the village. Not that there were many; just a few on either side of the main road, behind the few shops and businesses that lined it.
He had only one neighbour as the plot next door on the right was an overgrown tangle of weeds and shrubs. To his left was a house of similar vintage to the one he was renting, but at a lower level, so that when he stood on the big veranda onto which the kitchen opened he could look down onto it. It was presently uninhabited with curtains pulled across sightless windows. Both it and the house he was in were on long plots that sloped down to a wire link fence at the bottom, separating them from farmland on which was built a massive dam.
Every morning when Andrew drank his breakfast coffee on the veranda, he enjoyed watching the bird life on the dam, especially the small flock of Egyptian geese that arrived each day to paddle and cool down.
After a few days he began to feel restless. He kept up his early morning run, needing to keep fit, but was confined to the main road. The others were not tarred and engulfed him in clouds of choking dust. The few people he encountered when he ran through the village were retailers and business employees, and not very friendly. Andrew began to wonder whether he would have been better off staying in the city, even with its distractions.
When the weekend arrived and he was once again on the veranda drinking coffee, he was pleased to see movement in the house next door. The curtains had been opened and a pot of geraniums placed on the kitchen windowsill. Solitude was one thing, but too much could turn into loneliness.
Later that day there was a knock on the front door. Andrew was seated at his laptop with research notes spread about, but ideas had dried up and the interruption was welcome. On his doorstep stood a middle-aged woman who he assumed was his neighbour. This was confirmed when she introduced herself and handed him a plate of cupcakes.
"I saw you through my window this morning. Welcome to the village."
Andrew invited her in and surreptitiously took stock of Mary Grant. Plump and with a halo of white-blonde hair, her eyes were alight with curiosity. Andrew obliged by explaining his reason for being there and, because of her friendliness, even voiced doubts about the wisdom of his choice and the cold reception he had received from the locals.
"Oh, that will pass," Mary said airily. "Folk here are very conservative and suspicious of all new-comers, but once they get used to you, they are warm and caring."
Andrew doubted it, but let her comment pass. She accepted his offer of tea, and he learned that Mary was a theatre sister in the hospital of the neighbouring town, some thirty miles away. She had just returned from her annual holiday in Durban. She had lived in the village for the past eleven years.
"Don't you get lonely?" he asked.
"After dealing with people all day, I love it," she replied simply, "and of course I have Nero. My dog," she explained when he raised questioning eyebrows. After her visit, Andrew managed to get down to some serious work.
Early the next morning he saw her drive off in an old Honda and wandered onto the veranda to watch the Egyptian geese, already swimming in the farm dam. He saw a streak of something black tear into the dam and the geese rise into the air, an agitated mass of frenzied honking. In annoyance he watched the offender return to the bank; a black Doberman. It shook itself vigorously before setting off in hot pursuit of his prey, which were circling overhead before arranging themselves in "V" formation and flying off.
This, a disgruntled Andrew deduced, must be Nero; obviously well named in that he was clearly just as obnoxious as his eponym, chasing away the local bird life! He must have broken through the fence at the back of Mary's property.
Over the course of the next few days, whenever Andrew took a break from his thesis and wandered onto the back veranda, he would see Nero in his neighbour's back yard, tossing an old ball in the air or nosing around aimlessly, obviously bored out of his mind. Whenever the Egyptian geese arrived Nero would perk up, run to the rear of the plot and reappear after a while on the wrong side of the fence, giving raucous chase. It seemed to Andrew that the geese would tease the dog, circling just out of its reach before flying off. Nero would then return despondently and flop down in the shade of the only tree in Mary's yard. If the dog weren't such a pain in the neck he could almost feel sorry for it!
One day, when rooting through the kitchen drawers in search of a pair of scissors, Andrew came across a rubber mask, a satanic affair with horns and a hairy wart on the chin. He looked at it for a moment, wondering why anyone would buy such a thing, and then grinned as an idea struck him. He was working less and less on his thesis, the tedium of constant isolation killing initiative. Consequently he was spending ever more time on the veranda, reading novels he found in the house, drinking juice and always aware of the presence of the bored dog next door. Now he could exact a small measure of retaliation through provoking it in the same way it annoyed the geese and give it something to bark about!
Andrew pulled on the mask and crept down the veranda steps. In a stooped walk he made his way along the privet hedge dividing his property and Mary's and after covering a fair distance, leaped into the air, yelling loudly as he did so. Nero went ballistic, barking his head off and jumping up and down on the other side of the fence so that he and Andrew were face to face at the zenith of their leaps. Andrew was the first to give up, totally out of breath but filled with gleeful satisfaction.
It became a habit in the following days, whenever at a loose end, for Andrew to don the mask and tease the dog next door. Nero always responded frantically, giving as good as he got. The two would attempt to outdo one another, Andrew trying out fresh battle cries, Nero snarling loudly in return, leaping ever higher.
Until there came a morning when there was no response when Andrew did his circus act. Puzzled, he went back to the veranda and looked into Mary's yard. He had seen Nero just before he put on the mask. The dog now lay on its side, not in the shade of the tree but out in the sun; and a short distance away was a snake, coiled and rearing, with hood spread wide. In horror, Andrew realised that it had just bitten Nero. Without conscious thought he grabbed the first thing that came to hand from a shelf on the wall, a decorative bottle covered in sea shells, and hurled it at the snake, which slithered quickly away into the undergrowth beneath the hedge.
Andrew rushed into the house, grabbed the quilt from his bed and made for the front door. He leaped over the low wall separating his front garden from Mary's, and ran along the side of the house to the back yard and the stricken dog. Nero lay with eyes closed, breathing shallowly. As he approached the dog, it occurred to Andrew that if Nero could rally the strength, he might attack him, as he was still wearing the satanic mask. He pulled it down under his chin before bending over Nero, making reassuring sounds. While doing so, he thought that if the dog didn't bite him, the snake might!
Nero was either too far gone to care, or sensed that Andrew was there to help him. He lay limply while Andrew wrapped him in the quilt and gently lifted him. There was no vet in the village that he knew of, so he ran with the dog, hardly aware of its weight, to the main road and the only doctor in the town, whose rooms he had seen when shopping for supplies. When he entered the reception area, he looked into the startled eyes of the receptionist and said: "He's been bitten by a snake. Where's the doctor?"
The sensible woman wasted no time and led him to a room at the back, knocking briefly on the door before entering. The doctor was talking to a patient sitting opposite him, but after an apologetic explanation from the receptionist, rose immediately.
"Describe the snake," he ordered Andrew as he rooted around in a cupboard. "I have only human snake serum here and no idea how much to give a dog. It's Nero, isn't it?"
Andrew stuttered a description, saying he thought the snake was a Cape cobra. The doctor drew serum into a syringe and injected it slowly into Nero, lying quietly in Andrew's arms.
"Now we hold our breath and hope for the best, the doctor said, stroking the dog's silky head. "I can do nothing more. Take him home and keep your fingers crossed."
The patient, who had sat by watching in fascination, offered Andrew a lift home and helped place the inert dog on the back seat of his car. He also insisted on helping Andrew carry Nero into the house. "Mary will be upset," he said. "She feels guilty enough that Nero is left alone so much, and this won't help. I don't envy you having to tell her what's happened."
Andrew spent the time before Mary's return from work sitting on a chair next to the couch on which Nero lay, watching anxiously for any change. Apart from shivering occasionally, Nero appeared lifeless and Andrew was surprised at the depth of sorrow he felt at the thought of the dog dying. "Come on, old chap," he beseeched, "just think of all the geese you still have to chase!"
When Mary arrived home, Andrew went over to her house and as kindly as he could, told her what had happened to Nero. She was, of course, very distressed, and said, "Would you mind having him for the time being, Andrew? It won't do him any good being moved, and at least you can keep an eye on him. I have to go to work. We have operations scheduled all of this week."
Andrew agreed immediately. "I feel really bad about Nero," he admitted, thinking of the way he had tormented the dog.
"I know you do, Andrew. I know what good friends you two are." Seeing his surprise, she smiled. "I came home from work early one day when we had cleared our list and saw the game you were playing with Nero; the one with the mask. He loved it, and it looked as though you were having fun too!"
Stunned into speechlessness, Andrew couldn't think of a reply. That night when he checked up on Nero before going to bed, he realised that despite himself, he had become fond of the dog. Twice during the night he got up to see if Nero was still alive. The only way he could detect that he was still breathing, was to place a gentle hand on his ribs.
When he woke the next day, Andrew was filled with dread. Would the dog have survived the night?
He walked into the sitting room prepared for the worst. As he bent over the dog, Nero made a feeble attempt to wag his tail. The eye that looked at him was less bright than usual, but was at least open!
It took a fortnight for Nero to recover completely. He stayed with Andrew, who gave him lots of attention and awkward affection. He felt a pang of regret when it was obvious that Nero was well enough to go home. When he said as much to Mary, she replied:
"You keep him, Andrew. He's devoted to you and has been a lonely dog for most of the time I've owned him. I know you have to work too when you go back to the city, but you'll get home earlier than I, not having to work shifts, and you're young enough to be able to exercise him properly." Her eyes twinkled. "I've seen how you do it, remember?"
So it was that when Andrew decided to return to the city far earlier than he had first intended, he had an unexpected passenger. He knew he had much to learn about being the owner of a pet, but thought he had the basics covered. There was plenty of ground on his property for Nero to run freely, and once he was back lecturing at the university, his char, Zuki, would be company for the dog until he returned each afternoon. He would then take Nero for a long run through the park.
Once the car was packed for the journey home and Nero comfortably settled in the passenger seat, Andrew hesitated for a moment before going back into the old house. He wrote a quick note thanking the family for its use and enclosed a sum of money to cover the cost of the broken ornament and the Halloween mask that was now stuffed into his back pocket. He was sure they would not miss it, and the shrubs screening the swimming pool from his house would provide all he and Nero needed to continue playing their game. His spirits rose at the thought of discarding his formal lecturer persona at the end of the academic day, donning the mask and resorting to the gloriously free, childish behaviour that drove Nero to a frenzy of delight!