We were a large brood even by the standards of the 1950s. As my father permitted no gossip to enter or leave the house, the neighbours knew little about us. That was no deterrent to their interest; what they didn’t know, they made up. We were considered eccentric, and our behaviour did little to contradict that assumption.
We loved dogs, and over the years we owned several, usually female, only one at a time, as the haphazard organisation of our household could never have coped with more than one. As family finances never managed to accommodate the vet’s bill for neutering, it meant every male dog in the neighbourhood congregated outside the garden gate when our bitch was in season. Invariably, one of us would leave a door open and off she’d run, ecstatic, leading the pack of dogs chasing her in frenzied excitement. In and out of traffic they wove, then down side roads, making for the lane that led to the downs. When exhaustion finally brought our bitch to a standstill, she would submit to the attentions of the male dogs, and nine weeks later give birth to a colourful selection of pups.
The owners of the male dogs blamed us for their dogs’ escapades, carefully ignoring the fact that their vigilance must have been less than perfect in the first place. It seemed to upset them that their dogs were potential fathers to a Darby bitch’s litter, as if association with us would contaminate their dogs. Ironically, like the local naive girl who became pregnant, it was our dog who bore all culpability, showing the world her guilt with swollen stomach and teats.
Mrs. Wilson lived five doors away. She had four children, and each afternoon, hot or cold, they would group with their mother, by the front garden gate, in an unnerving stillness, looking up the road, waiting for their father to turn the corner. Each of her children wore a knitted balaclava, whatever the weather. I never knew how long the hair of each child was, for all I could see was a hint of dark brown before the knitted helmet smothered the rest. They had a medley of different coloured headgear and it was easy to see why. Their mother knitted non-stop as she stood at the gate each evening, waiting for her husband to come home from work, never looking down at her racing fingers, eyes always fixed on the horizon.
When my father first saw her, he muttered, ‘My God, Madame Defarge.’
One Sunday morning our dog got out and defecated right in the centre of the Wilson’s doorstep. Mrs. Wilson didn’t bring her knitting with her as she charged up the road. The entire family advanced, although Mr. Wilson looked reluctant as he trailed some yards behind. My mother opened the door in response to the violent banging, but everyone in the house could hear what was screamed at her.
‘Your filthy mongrel has shat all over our doorstep, and if I had my way I’d rub your bloody nose in it!’
She got no further because my father interrupted in a deceptively quiet tone which caused us children, waiting and listening at a safe distance, to shiver. That tone was a prelude to his hooded eyes sparking and flashing, his tongue protruding from between his teeth, his massively strong hand being raised in retribution. But all he said was, ‘Mr Wilson, I will not discuss this matter until you send your wife home.’
‘Home!’ shrieked Mrs. Wilson, ‘I’m not going home until I’ve had my bloody say.’
My father ignored her and turned again to her husband standing miserably hunched in the background. ‘Send the virago home,‘ he said, ‘and then I’ll talk to you.’
‘Go home, dear,’ pleaded Mr. Wilson. ‘I promise I’ll sort this out.’
His wife gave him a look of contempt and started to scoff, ‘You…’ Then she caught sight of my father’s face and something in his expression stopped her. She gathered up her children, and backed towards the gate. Safely there she blustered, ‘Everyone knows what you Darbys are like; you’re the talk of the neighbourhood.’ Nearing her own gate she remembered the dog’s misdeeds, and her final outraged shaft echoed up the road, ‘And it did it on a Sunday.’
Once Mrs. Wilson was gone, my father and Mr. Wilson quietly came to an agreement. The step would be cleaned. Much relieved, Mr. Wilson scuttled off. My visibly shaken mother asked my eldest brother, Tony, to clean the doorstep. He considered for a moment, and then said, ‘Right, of course I will, but I’m not going to let that harridan leer or gloat from behind her filthy nets. So I do it my way.’ Then he sent me running round the house gathering up any receptacle that might hold water. This collection was then filled with warm, soapy water, laced with the San Izal disinfectant beloved of my mother.
Outside it had begun to rain, a grey, seeping, drenching winter rain. Tony lined his brothers and sisters in order of age outside the front gate and briskly allocated the assorted buckets, bowls and jugs. A military walk down the road to the Wilson’s house followed, with Tony at the head clutching The Sunday Times and a yard broom. With a flourish and as much gravitas as could be summoned when clearing up dog muck, Tony wrapped the newspaper round the offending pile, removed it from the step, then ordered, ‘Shirley…Roger…Roy…Jill…Judy…’and each of us stepped forward with water and swilled the doorstep. Tony swept the water away, and a doorstep, which had never had such thorough ministration before, gleamed and smelt fresh and wholesome.
From behind the nets Mrs. Wilson gaped, and Tony gave her a polite bow before marching us back the way we had come. My father was furious about The Sunday Times, for he hadn’t read it yet. Tony said, ‘ The News of the World would not have sufficed, Father; I needed something sober and respected for such an important task. ‘