Wednesday, 15 August 2012


Based on the experiences and in memory of Stan Higham who loved all animals, but especially dogs

"My first assignment"

Pest Control HQ was a dingy municipal building in an equally dingy part of town. Although less than 50 metres from Shrewsbury Mold’s main shopping precinct, few pedestrians ventured into its grim vicinity and even the pigeons kept their distance – proving, to my mind at least, that birds do, after all, have souls.
Access to the building was through the parking bay where a neat row of red Municipal vans in assorted shapes and sizes provided the only colour to the drab surroundings.  Inside, the walls were painted the requisite shade of bile green, occasionally brightened by cheerful posters on rabies, Toxacares, Meningitis and all the dire diseases communicable to Man by dogs, mice, rats, fleas, foxes, birds hedgehogs and other species I’d never heard of.
Only Mr Smiley, the Pest Control Supervisor, had the luxury of his own office. The rest of us were cramped together in the Day Room where the Municipal Rat Catcher, a small ferret-faced man called Mr Bevis, the Municipal Disinfestation Officer, Mr Worth and me were allocated one chair, one filing cabinet, half a desk and an unlimited supply of Municipal memo pads.
It was to the Day Room all calls were transferred to be answered by Albert Scrum, the Pest Control Co-ordinator who would, in turn, refer each complaint to the relevant party. For contacting any vehicles in transit, Albert had a radio of which he was inordinately proud and he spent hours fiddling with it – one of the reasons it never seemed to work properly. At every opportunity, he’d give this unique contraption a complete overhaul, taking out all the components, making sure they were all there, blowing off any dust and putting them back again.
Albert had devised special radio code names for each member of the Pest Control team, making sure our activities would never be revealed to MI6. Mr Bevis’ Rat Catcher van was known as Tiger Z; Mr Worth’s Disinfestation van as Axolotl Y; while my own Dog Warden van had been newly christened Panther Z – a surprisingly exotic choice of names for the stoic Albert. I could only assume that, beneath his rather grim Municipal exterior beat a romantic heart, longing for the great outdoors and a lifetime of adventure. But no other sign of this became apparent.
At quarter to eight on that fateful first morning, I arrived at Pest Control H wearing the navy blue Municipal uniform with which I’d been issued. The sleeves were a little long and braces were needed to hold my trousers up yet I felt quite raffish in my new attire and had found the cap particularly effective in traffic as nearly every motorist mistook me for a policeman, slowing down to let me pass as my second-hand Vauxhall cruised down the  bypass.
For my role as Dog Warden, I’d also been issued with a variety of leashes and dog collars, elbow-length gauntlets, and a grasper - long pole with a lever at one end and a noose at the other. The noose could be adjusted once a dog was ensnared while the pole kept the animal at a safe distance from the handler. It was to be used in emergencies when faced with a particularly savage or rabid dog.
My new boss Mr Smiley did little to make me feel welcome as I entered the Day Room. “Who are you!” he snarled, obviously failing to see the words ‘Dog Warden’ emblazoned across my cap.
“Max Hardy, the new dog warden”, I replied. “We met last week if you remember?” A flicker of recognition passed over Mr Smiley’s dour features. “Oh yes – didn’t recognise you in the cap. At least you’re punctual, which is more than can be said for those other two layabouts. Albert!”
“Yes, Mr Smiley?” said Albert Scrum. “Stop fiddling with that blasted radio and find out what’s happened to Bevis and Worth. They should be here by now, setting a good example to the new boy.”
Albert set about his task, wearily shambling down the corridor in search of the latecomers while Mr Smiley began to “apprise” me of “the procedures necessary for the smooth running of Pest Control H.”  My head started to spin trying to memorise which forms to fill in where and on what occasions. “Tell you what,” said Mr Smiley, “Here’s the Instruction Book. Everything you need to know you can find in here.” He handed me a large green binder containing forms, rules, regulations and photocopied diagrams of my territory.
By now, Albert had completed his mission and was wearily shambling back again. “Bevis is sick,” he announced, “and Worth’s got a job to finish in Carter Street.” His duty done, he shambled back to his desk and began sharpening pencils as Mr Smiley retreated to the privacy of his office. “’Bout time we had some tea – put the kettle on, Albert!” Then he disappeared, leaving Albert and me to get acquainted.
“Shall I brew up?” I asked. “Just tell me where everything is and....” Albert answered with a menacing glare. “That’s my job!” he snapped. “Very fussy about his tea, is Mr Smiley.” As he set about his task, I settled myself behind my half of the desk and wracked my brain for something to say. “Get many complaints about dogs, then?” I asked.
Turning his attention away from the kettle, Albert gazed at me as a teacher sometimes does when faced with a particularly stupid child. “Why else d’ye think we need a dog catcher!?” he rapped, effectively squashing any further attempts at conversation. Just as the silence was becoming uncomfortable, the telephone rang and Albert sprang into action, almost leaping over the desk in his eagerness to grab the receiver. “PEST CONTROL!” he yelled – so loudly, I nearly fell off my chair with shock. “What’s that? Oh, you want the dog catcher then!” and he held out the phone to me. “The police are after you!” he said, glaring at me accusingly.
“Hello” I said into the receiver and heard a gruff voice at the other end. “Is that the dog catcher?” “Well, it’s the dog WARDEN actually,” I replied, mainly for Albert’s benefit.
“Do you catch dogs or don’t you?” said the voice impatiently and, before I could answer, Albert snatched the phone from my hand. “Sorry about that, Sergeant Fraser, he’s new!” It was then I realised I was going to have trouble with Albert who handed the phone back with a triumphant smile.
“What can I do for you, Sergeant?” I asked as I desperately searched the desk from something to write with. Strangely, the dozens of newly-sharpened pencils had mysteriously disappeared.
“There’s a dog terrorising people on the Old Cromford Road. Some of the residents have managed to trap it in somebody’s coal cellar, but we need you to come and get it out. It’s a vicious thing – none of our handlers will touch it!”
Half an hour later, I arrived at the Victorian semi where my charge awaited rescue from the cellar. I groaned at the sight of the crowd which had gathered outside the house – the last thing I needed on my first assignment was an audience – but I assumed an air of nonchalance as I emerged from my red Municipal van and walked down the driveway to the side of the house.
Surrounding the coal cellar entrance were four burly men armed with mops and brooms which they kept prodding down the coal chute to intimidate their unfortunate captive. The poor animal could be heard barking and yelping with fear. “Gerrrr get back you brute!” growled the ring-leader who was flourishing a mop and his fellow gaolers joined in with a chorus of “See ‘im off!/Goarrrn you, devil!/get back you swine!” and other pleasantries.
“All right, all right!” I called, as if I knew what I was doing. “You can leave him to me now. Just stand back and let me in.” Three of the men moved away but the man with the mop remained crouched by the cellar, unwilling to relinquish his action man fantasy.
“Would you mind moving just a little?” I asked as politely as I could. The mop man merely glared, refusing to budge an inch. I reminded myself of the first rule in my Municipal Instruction Manual: “Always be courteous to members of the public.” Courteously, I tapped the man with the mop on the shoulder. “Shift!” I cried.
Reluctantly, he stepped back a pace. “Don’t you let that beast escape!” he warned, “Or there’ll be blood flowing round here and most of it’ll be yours!”
Impatient for action, an elderly woman called from the other side of the road. “Let him get on with the job, Pete. Getting his throat ripped out’s what he gets paid for!”
“Aye, on tax-payers money an’ all!” someone else grumbled.
“Where’s the owner of the house?” I asked. “Can I get in through the front door?”
The man with the mop almost spat at me with scorn. “Oh, this guy’s a genius, isn’t he? Of COURSE you can’t get in through the door – otherwise, WE’d have done it ourselves, wouldn’t we? Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here in the first place!”
The residents of the house had apparently gone out for the day, so it seemed I’d have to squeeze myself into the coal cellar after all. Carefully, I wriggled backwards through the narrow vent.
“Watch out, he’ll have your leg!” cried a man with a broom. “It’s not my leg I’m worried about!” I said with feeling before being catapulted down feet first down the coal chute with a force that took my breath away.
After landing ungracefully on a heap of coal with considerable discomfort to my nether regions, I tried to adjust my eyes to the darkness. I couldn’t see the dog. Only the softest growl betrayed his presence and with some relief I realised that has he seriously wanted to attack me, I’d already have been in pieces. At last, I could make out his crouching form where he lay trembling n one corner of the coal cellar.
“Easy Boy,” I whispered. “I won’t hurt you.” Reassured by the sound of my voice, the dog ceased growling and began to whimper with self-pity. No doubt he thought I’d been subjected to the same rough treatment as him – rounded up with household utensils and shoved down a pit by a mob of howling lunatics. In any event, he felt safe enough to approach me and I held out my hand palm upwards for him to sniff before stroking him and uttering soothing words of encouragement. Before long, he was resting one huge furry paw on my shoulder and licking my face enthusiastically.
“So you’re the vicious dog, are you?” I said. “Come on, let’s get you home.”
I attacked a leash to his collar and called up to the people waiting outside. “Stand back, everyone. We’re coming out.”
Unfortunately, getting out was not nearly as easy as getting in, especially now that I had a large German Shepherd on the end of my leash. The poor creature was none too happy at leaving his shelter and no amount of encouragement would persuade him to follow me up the coal chute. After a moment’s thought, I decided the easiest way was to push the dog from behind.
“Go on Boy, Hup you get! Hup! Hup! Hup!” After a few more ‘Hups’, he carefully climbed onto the coal chute ready for the ascent. Still holding onto the leash, I pushed and heaved and almost gave myself a hernia while my new four-legged friend began to wag his tail, enjoying this new game. Slowly, we inched our way up the chute but the strain was beginning to tell and I wondered how long I could support the animal’s weight before my legs gave way.
Help came unexpectedly from a small tabby cat which darted out from nowhere and scurried up the chute ahead of us. With no more ado, the dog leapt forward in pursuit, dragging me behind him. In seconds we had reached the exit and I followed the dog into the sunshine where the four musketeers, mops and brooms at the ready, were standing on a compost heap at the far end of the garden. The crowd had also disappeared and any remaining spectators had sought the safety of their twitching net curtains.
One of the men stepped down from the compost heap, for all the world as though standing on a pile of rotted garbage was something he did every day. “Hey, Frank! I thought you said this dog was savage!”
His remark was in all likelihood prompted by the sight of this large animal standing upright on his back legs, his front paws supported by my left forearm, as he trotted alongside me as if he were being escorted to a ball.
A curious spectacle we must have made, both streaked with coal dust and grinning ear to ear. Front doors flew open as residents reappeared.
“He didn’t bite you then?” Fred commented, trying hard to disguise his disappointment.
“No,” I replied. “But he gave me a nasty lick!” As if on cue, the ‘monster’ resumed wiping my face with his tongue, dribbling down my neck.
The dog was returned to his owners that day, none the worse for his experience but considerably dirtier. The next time I saw him, he was padding along under the strict control of his mistress, 11-year old Susie with her little brother Tom.
I’ll always have a place in my heart for my first canine customer – the only creature who’d been glad to see me on my first assignment.

© S J Hodson (aka Jacy Brean)

Adventures of a Dog Warden is the working title of a work in progress!

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