Number 56- that’s the house where the old lady was eaten by her dogs.

The old woman at 56 was eaten by her dogs.
This is a true story, perhaps.

Ruth was my neighbour and this is my 20 year too late apology.
I’m sorry your dogs ate you after you died.
In fairness, they didn’t actually eat you, just nibbled around the edges, but by that time you had been dead for 3 days and they were hungry.
I’m sorry that I didn’t pay more attention, didn’t do something when I noticed that you were failing, didn’t pop round, offer to get some groceries in, make that phone call to social services.
But, I didn’t because I was younger and selfish and besides by then you smelt a bit and your house smelt a lot, so I stayed away and I’m part of the reason why number 56 is still known as the house where the old lady got eaten by her dogs.
It’s a great line, a pinging start to any narrative, but, it’s not the only story about you and it’s not even the best story about you.
This one is.
I don’t know it all, so I’m going to make some bits up, sex it up a bit, give it a narrative structure, a bit of plot pruning.
Lets run with it, it won’t be any less honest than the story of the lonely old woman eaten by her dogs when her body sat neatly on the sofa, undisturbed until someone, someone better than me, noticed the milk bottles piling up on the doorstep.

Ruth worked all her life in the boot and shoe, but not on the factory floor, not her, not a clever girl like her.
And one day, when I made an assumption, she was quick to correct me, not in the factory and her body gave a tiny shudder, not with the machines and the shouting and everything that goes with factory life, not her. She worked in the offices, in accounts, had her own desk ,moved money and numbers around. A nice clean job, a job with prospects,a job that made her parents proud.
She was sharp at school, could have gone to grammar school, should have gone to grammar school, but and there is a world of pauses in that but, a litany of regret, but, she was offered the boot and shoe, a decent job, clean hands, sitting down work.
So, she finished school on the Friday, started work on the Monday.
She liked the work, like the rows of figures, enjoys her own ability to move numbers around, see patterns, instinctively know when a row of added up just right.
Her ledgers were neat, handwriting clear and crisp, often she worked her sums in ink, was brave enough to do without the faint pencil marks the other girls used in the days before auto correct and predictive spelling and even tippex . Back in the days when mistakes stared you in the face, might even mean the difference between keeping a job and loosing a job.
At school she had held herself apart, worked hard and survived the taunts of snob and the mutters that one day she would get above herself.
If she hoped that work might be different, that she might find another type of young woman,ambitious, clever, eager to get on, she didn’t show her disappointment, didn’t seem to mind her loneliness, her continued isolation.
The problem, the growing problem was boys or more accurately now, as she was suddenly 16 and 17 and 18 and 19, young men.It wasn’t as if she was shy around them or scared or made awkward , they simply seemed to have no relevance,and they, feeling this , simply kept out of her way.
And then the other girls began to drop away, ritual letting go always the same, the initial coy display of the engagement ring, white gold and a chip of diamond,too small to call a solitaire, then the wedding plans, the homemade wedding dresses made by that clever cousin and sometimes daringly in 1950s provincial life, a registry office and then …..pouf….gone in a puff of rice and confetti , never to be seen again.
Ruth kept working, got promoted, offered the chance to go to night school at her own expense to train as a bookkeeper and she grabbed at it, because by now, she had a plan and was patiently, steadily working towards it.
And then, in 1963, her uncle George died and to her and everybody else’s surprise left her 1,000 pounds.
A very large amount of money indeed and the assumption from everyone around her, mother, father, younger brother, was that she would do the decent thing, keep a few pounds for mad money, buy herself a dress or two and dutifully hand the rest over to her parents, but she didn’t.

She took every penny of her savings, £400, scrimped together over ten years of living quietly at home and bought,outright the house she lived in for the rest of her life.
It set her even more outside the world of other young single women, distanced herself from her family, raised eyebrows when she moved into the neat terraced house with all her possessions not even half filling the little van that the office manager borrowed one Friday night from the factory and there she settled.
Woke up each morning at 6am, ate her two slices of toast at the table with the wipe clean table cloth, once a cheerful green gingham pattern which over the years faded to a uniform yellow green.
Smoked the first 2 cigarettes of the day, the cigarettes she smoked until the time she became too wobbly, too frail to make the short journey to the corner shop at the end of the street and by then she was nicotine coloured, cigarette thin herself.
At first, the radio kept her company and then later, when she could afford it, she bought the first of her televisions and later still the dogs, always in twos and always loud, barking, energetic types .
Dogs that never got walked but roared around the tiny back yard, throwing themselves against the gate whenever anyone walked past.
She stayed in the same job until retirement, went to the same office, moved numbers up and down columns and became middle aged and then older, but always capable, hardworking, a good, sharp mind that watched the world and felt herself outside of it.
We lived next door to each other for ten years and I never saw a visitor walk to the front door and , never heard a phone ring, and never, ever noticed her to go anywhere except the corner shop for cigarettes and the co-op for a small carrier bag of groceries, mostly, I guessed dog food and bread.
I was young, even though then I thought that I was all grown up, too busy leading a life to see that hers was fading.

So, I’m sorry, I’m sorry Ruth, my neighbour, I’m sorry that I didn’t do that tiny thing, knock on your door,offer to pick up some shopping.
I’m sorry that I didn’t make that call, get some help.
I’m sorry that when the dogs barked for 3 days without, it seemed , stopping for breath, I’m sorry that I did nothing, just turned the stereo up and cursed you and your unruly, noisy dogs.
I’m sorry.

About cathi rae

50ish teacher & aspiring writer and parent of a stroppy teenager and carer for a confused bedlington terrier and a small selection of horses who fail to shar emy dressage ambitions. Interested in contemporary fiction but find myself returning to PG Wodehouse when the chips are down View all posts by cathi rae

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