There was a rich old woman called Mrs Barker who lived in a pokey little house at the top of a street so steep that it had steps instead of pavements. Mrs Barker could look all the way down the street from her windows and watch people puffing up the steps to bring her presents. Quite a lot of people did that, because Mrs Barker didn’t have any sons or daughters or nieces or nephews, only what she called ‘sort-ofs’. Sort-of-nieces, sort-of-nephews, sort-of-cousins and so on.
You want an example? Mr Cyril Blounder’s mother’s father’s father’s mother’s sister had married Mrs Barker’s father’s mother’s brother. That made Mr Blounder a very sort-of sort-of, but it didn’t stop him bringing Mrs Barker lettuces from his garden and hoping that one day she’d die and leave him some money in her will. When he came Mrs Barker’s maid Hannah would bring him camomile tea, which he pretended to like, while Mrs Barker looked in the lettuces for slugs.
Most of the other sort-ofs did much the same, and they always got given camomile tea, and they all pretended to like it, because of the will. When they left, Mrs Barker would stand at her window and watch them go muttering down the hill. She knew what they were thinking.
Whenever a new sort-of was born Mrs Barker always sent a silver napkin-ring for a christening present, with a name on it. She chose the name herself, without asking the parents, so that was what the child got called. The parents usually decided it was worth it, because of the will. Mrs Barker preferred what she called ‘sensible names’. She wrote them down in the back of her notebook to make sure she didn’t choose the same one twice.
After that Mrs Barker paid no attention to the child until it was eight years old. Then she used to send a message inviting it to tea. So the parents would dress the child in its smartest clothes and take it up the steps, reminding it several times on the way to say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ and not to make faces when it drank the camomile tea. (Some parents used to give their children camomile tea for a week before the visit, for practice.)
But more important than any of that advice was that when Mrs Barker asked the child what it wanted for a present it must choose something really worth having.
Because whatever it wanted, it got.
It was very extraordinary. Mrs Barker wasn’t at all generous in other ways. She sent the most miserable mingy presents to the sort-ofs at Christmas, when they all bought her beautiful things they couldn’t really afford, but just this once in their lives…
She would peer at each child with sharp little eyes and croak in her sour old voice, ‘Well, what would you like for a present?’ And the child would open its eyes as wide as it could and say a racing-bike please or a pony please or a huge model railway lay-out please … Mrs Barker would write the request down in her notebook and put it away, but when the child was gone she would take out the notebook and cross off one of the names in the back.
A few days later the present would come, and it would be the best you could buy—the bike with the most gears, the briskest little pony, the most complicated railway set. But it would be the last good present that child ever got from Mrs Barker.
All this went on for years and years, until there were sort-ofs who’d been to tea with Mrs Barker when they were eight, now taking their own children up the steps and telling them to say please and thank you and above all to choose a present really worth having…
One of these later sort-ofs was called Molly. (Her parents had hoped to call her Claudinetta, but it said Molly on her ring.) She was taken up the steps wearing a pink bow in her hair and a pale blue frock with a white lacy apron crackling new, and told all the usual things. Hannah opened the door for her and asked the parents to be back at half past five, and Molly went in alone.
As soon as the door was shut, Molly undid the ribbon in her hair and took off the lacy apron and put them on a chair in the hail before she went into Mrs Barker’s parlour and shook hands. Mrs Barker’s hand was cold and dry, with loose slithery skin. She pursed her purple lips and peered at Molly.
‘You were wearing a pink bow when you came up the steps,’ she said.
‘I took it off,’ said Molly.
Mrs Barker puffed out her cheeks like a frog, but didn’t say anything. Hannah brought in the tea, thin little sandwiches, tiny dry cakes and a steaming teapot.
‘Do you like camomile tea?’ she asked.
‘Not much, thank you, but I’ll drink it if you want me to.’ Mrs Barker puffed out her cheeks again and peered at Molly, craning her neck like an old tortoise.
‘What do you drink at home?’ she said.
‘Milk. Or orange juice. Or just water.’
Mrs Barker tinkled a small glass bell and when Hannah came she told her to bring Molly a glass of milk. After that they ate tea. Then they played an old-fashioned card-game. Then they did a jigsaw. And then Mrs Barker glanced out of the window and said, ‘I can see your father coming up the steps. It is time for you to go. Would you like me to put the bow back in your hair?’
Molly ran and fetched the ribbon and apron and Mrs Barker tied them with trembling old fingers.
‘Now,’ she said, ‘I expect you would like a present.’
Molly had been meaning to ask for a record-player, though she hadn’t felt comfortable about it. Her parents had been so eager, so excited about the idea of a present really worth having, and now there was something strange in Mrs Barker’s dry old voice, as though she was getting herself ready for a disappointment.
So without thinking Molly said what she’d felt all along.
‘I don’t think people should give each other presents till they know each other properly.’
Mrs Barker puffed out her cheeks.
‘Very well,’ she said.
‘Thank you all the same,’ said Molly. ‘And thank you for the tea.’
Then her father knocked on the door and took her home.
Naturally her family wanted to know what she’d chosen for a present, and when she said nothing they didn’t believe her. But nothing came and nothing came and they were furious, while all the other sort-ofs were filled with glee. (None of the sort-of families liked each other much, but that didn’t stop them passing the gossip round.)
Then, several weeks later, a message came that Mrs Barker would like Molly to come to tea again, and she was not to dress up specially. This time there were hot buttered scones and fresh chocolate cake and not a whiff of camomile tea anywhere. But nothing was said about presents.
The same thing happened a few weeks later, and a few weeks later still. Now Molly’s family was filled with glee and all the other sort-ofs were furious. None of their children had ever been asked to a second tea, so it was obvious Mrs Barker had decided at last who was going to get her money, and now it was too late to tell the children the trick was not to ask the old so-and-so for anything at all.
This went on till almost Christmas, when a letter came.
My dear Molly,
I believe you and I may by now be said to know each other properly, so it is time we exchanged presents. You told me on your last visit that your family dog was about to have puppies. Would you choose one for me, and I shall send you something on Christmas Day.
The family dog was a mongrel, and nobody could guess who the father of her last litter might be. Molly’s parents wanted to sneak off and buy a beautiful pedigree pup and pretend it came from the litter, but Molly said Mrs Barker was much too sharp not to spot that. She chose a black-and-white male and took it up the hill to show Mrs Barker, who said Molly was to take it home and look after it till it was house-trained. She added that it was to be called Barker. (A sure sign, most of the sort-ofs thought, that she was losing her wits. Naming a dog after your dead husband—honestly!)
Molly’s Christmas present turned out to be a yellow waterproof hat and coat and a pair of blue wellies—for taking Barker for walks in wet weather, the note that came with them said.
When he was house-trained Barker went to live with Mrs Barker, and Molly would go most days to take him for a walk. Sometimes she stayed for tea, sometimes not. Time passed. More sort-ofs climbed the hill for their first tea. If they asked for presents they got them, and if they didn’t Mrs Barker sent a cheque and note telling the parents to buy something the child needed.
Then people noticed that the writing on the notes was getting shaky. Next they saw the doctor going up the steps to the pokey little house three times in one week. Then an ambulance came. Soon after that Mrs Barker died. All this while Molly took Barker for walks, as usual.
All the sort-ofs were invited to hear the will read. They came, grinding their teeth, except for Molly’s parents who did their best not to look too triumphant, though they’d already decided on the grand house outside the town which Molly was going to buy with her money. It had a lovely big garden for her to run about in.
By the time the lawyer had finished reading the will everybody was grinding their teeth.
Mrs Barker had left some money to Hannah, enough for her to retire and be comfortable. That wasn’t too bad. But then she had left the rest, the whole lot, an enormous amount, to Barker!
And they weren’t even going to get their hands on it when Barker died. After that it was going to charity. Until then it was all Barker’s. Molly was to be Barker’s guardian. There was a lot of legal language, with trustees and heaven knows what, but what it all meant was that Molly was the only person who knew what Barker wanted. If she said Barker was to have something, he was to get it. If not, the money stayed in the bank. And provided Barker lived till Molly was sixteen, she was the one who was going to choose the charities which got the money in the end.
Some of the sort-ofs talked about going to law to have the will altered, but the lawyers said it was all very carefully drawn up and in any case no one could be sure who would get the money if they did get the will changed—it would probably have gone straight to the charities. So they decided to put up with it.
Almost at once Molly’s parents realized this mightn’t be too bad, after all. Barker needed a big garden to run about in, didn’t he, and it happened there was this suitable house outside the town…
Molly said she’d go and see what Barker thought (though really she spent most of the time talking to Hannah). When she came back she said Barker wanted to stay in his own home, with Hannah to look after him, and Hannah didn’t mind. (It was her home too—she’d lived there since she was sixteen.)
Molly’s parents were not pleased and there was a real row, but Molly stuck to her guns. She kept saying Barker had made up his mind. Her father stormed off to the lawyers next morning, but they said the same thing. It was absolutely clear. If Molly said Barker wanted to stay in his own house, that was that. You may think it was tough-minded of Molly to stick it out, but she was a tough-minded girl. Perhaps that was why Mrs Barker had chosen her.
And she had something to help her. On the day the will had been read one of the lawyers had given her a letter and told her she wasn’t to show it to anyone else. He hadn’t even read it himself. It said:
My dear Molly,
You will now know the contents of my will. It is no doubt very selfish of me to amuse myself in this manner, but I am a selfish old person and that’s that. When I was young I inherited a ridiculous amount of money, but it was all tied up in Trusts until I was twenty-five, so I got no fun out of it when I was a child. I have always resented this.
I see no reason why any of my connections should inherit my money. It will do far more good if it goes to charity, but it amuses me to think that before that a child might have some fun spending a little of it, as I never did. That is why I devised a little test to choose a child who was likely to be level-headed about money. I am glad it was you who passed the test.
If I were to leave the money to you till you are of age, people would insist on it being spent ‘for your own good’, and you would have very little say in the matter. That is why I have left it to Barker. My will says you are to be his guardian, but really it is the other way about. He is there to protect you—you are quite clever enough to see how useful he will be in this role. I strongly advise you to establish the point at the earliest possible moment.
Barker is an earnest soul (as I am not), and I think he will make a very good guardian.
So Molly did what the letter suggested and ‘established the point’. She liked their own home, and so did her parents, really. The other one was much too grand for them, and after a few weeks her parents began to think so too.
But soon the other sort-ofs realized that Molly’s family weren’t the only ones who could suggest things Barker might like. They would stop Molly while she was taking him for one of his walks and say he looked a bit off-colour, and wouldn’t a bit of sea-air do him good? Now it happened there was this holiday villa in Cornwall, a real snip, though he wouldn’t want to use it all the time, would he, and maybe when he wasn’t there it would be best if one of the Frossetts (or the McSniggs, or the Blounders, or the Globotzikoffs, or whichever of the sort-of families had thought of the scheme), went and took care of the place. For a suitable fee, perhaps.
Molly said Barker would think it over. The following week, she explained Barker thought he’d like to go on a rabbiting holiday this year, with Molly, of course, but he didn’t want her to be lonely so she’d better bring a few friends and her Mum and Dad to drive him about to good rabbiting places. Barker paid for the petrol and the hotel rooms.
A bit later a new baby sort-of was born and had to be christened. Barker sent a silver napkin-ring, but without a name on it. Privately Molly wondered what would have happened if she’d told the silversmith to put ‘Bonzo’, but she explained that Barker didn’t think it was quite right for a dog to tell people what to call their children.
And then one day in the supermarket Molly heard two mothers of sort-of families chatting about the old days, and the excitement of taking their children up to have tea with Mrs Barker, and thinking of really worthwhile presents, and wondering whether by any chance little Sam or Betsy would be the one…
Molly talked to Barker about it on their next walk, and the upshot was that the notes started coming again, inviting the children to tea when it was their turn. It was a bit different, because Barker didn’t ask questions the way Mrs Barker used to, and the food was better, and there was Molly to talk to and play with, but there was always camomile tea (or that’s what Molly said it was, though it didn’t taste much different from ordinary tea).
In fact it all became rather like an old custom, which people have forgotten the reason for, but go on doing because they’ve always done it and it’s a bit picturesque and so on. And there were the presents, of course. They were as good as ever, but somehow it didn’t seem quite so mean and grabby asking for them, which is what most people, in their heart of hearts, had probably felt, just as Molly had. And nobody now thought that Barker was going to leave all his money to a child who said ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ properly or an adult who turned up on the doorstep with a particularly nice present.
Mr Cyril Blounder, quite early on, did climb the steps one day with a bone he swore he’d dug up in his allotment, though it looked remarkably fresh. Hannah gave him camomile tea on the doorstep, and all the other sort-ofs felt he’d made a fool of himself and nobody else tried it.
Time passed. Nothing much new happened. Molly got older, and so did Barker. You’d have thought he was rather a dull dog if you met him, but he had interesting ideas. He longed to travel, Molly said, but he couldn’t because of the quarantine, so instead he used to send Hannah and her sister who lived somewhere up in the North on annual holidays to exciting places, and Hannah would come back and show him her slides. He gave generously to charities on flag-days not only to the RSPCA—and took a keen interest in nature preservation He had some handsome trees planted in the park, with a bench under them which said:
IN FOND MEMORY OF ETHELSWITHA BARKER
Strangers didn’t know quite what to make of that, but none of the local people thought it odd.
In fact one year there was a proposal to have Barker elected Mayor. It was only half-serious, of course, but it worried the real parties enough to pay lawyers to find out whether you can elect a dog mayor, which you can’t. But he might have got in. For a dull dog, he was surprisingly popular.
One lucky result from Barker’s point of view was that he got quite an active love-life. In a town like that most people had pedigree dogs and used to send the bitches off to be mated. They tried to shoo mongrels away when their bitches were on heat, but it almost became a sort of status symbol to let your bitch have one litter of Barker’s pups, so after a few years there were quite a lot of his children in the town—Barker’s own sort-ofs. They weren’t sort-ofs because their relationship with him was complicated, like Mrs Barker’s had been. He was their father and they were his children. That was usually clear from the black-and-white patches. They were sort-of collies and sort-of Labradors and sort-of dachshunds and so on.
Curiously, people didn’t mind having these mongrels born to their prize bitches, and even more curiously this wasn’t because Barker was so rich—he didn’t send the family a huge present when it happened, only the right number of collars, with names for the puppies on them. It was because the whole town was proud of having him around. He was odd, and different, and when nothing much was happening in the world reporters would come and write stories for their newspapers about him.
Of course they never got it quite right—reporters don’t. It was difficult for them to understand the difference it made, all that money belonging to a dog, and not a person. When old Mrs Barker had been alive people used to think about her money a lot, envying her or scheming how to wheedle cash out of her, or complaining about her not spending it on things they thought important. But somehow when the money belonged to a dog it stopped being so serious. There were still schemes and complaints, of course (you don’t change people that much), but whoever was listening to the schemer or complainer was always likely to switch the conversation into jokes about Barker, almost as though the money wasn’t real. It was, of course—it got trees planted and the spire repaired and it endowed nature trails and sent the over-60s on coach trips and bought a site for the Youth Club—but it didn’t matter the way it had seemed to before. Even the sort-of families stopped being as spiteful about each other as they used to be—the money was out of everyone’s reach now, so there wasn’t much point.
Dogs don’t live as long as humans, so it wasn’t long before people started to fuss about Barker’s health, and knit coats for him to wear in the winter—though he had a perfectly good thick coat of his own—and speak sharply to delivery-men who hurtled round corners in their vans. Barker was a fool about traffic. Of course Hannah was supposed to keep him locked in and Molly always fastened his lead when they were walking anywhere near roads, but if he saw a cat or smelt a rabbit there was absolutely no holding him, or he’d manage to slip out on one of his love-affairs while Hannah had the door open to take in the milk. The Town Council had notices put up at the most dangerous places, saying CAUTION: DOG CROSSING, but they weren’t much use as Barker never crossed twice in the same place.
Still, he bore a charmed life for eight years. He had lots of narrow escapes. Strangers driving through sometimes hit lampposts or traffic islands trying to avoid him, and they couldn’t understand why everybody was furious with them, and why there were always a dozen witnesses ready to come forward saying it was their fault.
The over-60s coach got him in the end—coming back from a trip Barker had paid for himself. Molly said that Barker had always wanted a really good send-off, so there was a jolly funeral with masses to eat and drink for the whole town, and a fun-fair and fireworks.
After that Molly spent a whole week with the lawyers, organizing which charities should get Barker’s money. Practically all of it went to ordinary sensible places, a bit to the RSPCA of course, but mostly things like Cancer Research and War on Want. But Molly kept one per cent aside (that doesn’t sound very much, but Mrs Barker really had been enormously rich, so it was still a useful amount) for a special charity she had set up. The lawyers had had a lot of trouble making it legal, but she’d insisted it was what Barker wanted, so they managed it somehow.
That was why all the families in the town which had one of Barker’s puppies as their pet got a surprise cheque through the letter box, with a letter saying it was to be spent exclusively for the benefit of their dog, and the youngest person in the house was the only one who could say what that dog wanted.
It was an idea that would have amused Mrs Barker, Molly thought, and made her wrinkle her lips into her sour little smile—sort-ofs getting something in the end. Only not her sort-ofs. Barker’s.
© Peter Dickinson 1987