One Man And His Dog

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By Patrick O’Connor

 

THE first time I saw Billy must have been about six years ago.

I’d just moved to the area to take up a job as a reporter on the local evening paper and I’d had to do a vox pop – getting quotes from people on a particular subject.

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I’d been sent down to Allen Street, a row of Victorian terraced houses in an old part of town, full of narrow roads and footpaths. It was a real, close-knit, working class area but it had its fair share of social problems.

My brief was to ask people about local crime figures and after I’d spoken to several residents in Allen Street, one of them said: “Don’t forget to go and see Billy at number 36, he’s a real character!”

So I did – and he was.

Billy was in his early 80s, a grizzled, toothless, little man with an impish grin. He was dressed in faded grey corduroy trousers, black boots, which looked as if they had never been polished, a blue sweater, which had already been perforated by several holes, and a brown bobble hat. He had that habit of talking despite having the butt end of a cigarette stuck to his lips. 

If it wasn’t for the fact that he had a home to live in, you would have thought he was a tramp.

When I knocked on the door and told him the purpose of my visit he invited me in and introduced me to Maisie.

She was, like him, a bedraggled specimen. There seemed to be a bit of Labrador there and a bit of German shepherd – and probably a lot more - in the two year old dog whose tail never seemed to stop wagging. The adoration the pair had for each other was self-evident. Her eyes followed him everywhere.

To call the house Spartan would be an understatement. His sitting room was clean but comprised of a worn two seater green couch and a yellow Formica table with one chair.   Plonked alone in the centre of the table was a salt pot that looked as if it had been nicked from a transport café.  There was a television in the corner and a china cabinet sparsely filled with very ordinary looking sherry glasses. A selection of cheap looking prints of rural scenes were scattered about the wall but there were no photographs.

They say you should never judge a book by its cover and this was certainly true in Billy’s case.

After making a cup of tea, he sat down opposite me, with Maisie curled up beside him, and said: “Right then young man, what would you like to know?”

I left the house an hour and a half later.

Billy was intelligent, charming and witty with an amazing knowledge and awareness of current affairs and politics. I found him wonderful company. There was an air of inner strength about him and he always looked you straight in the eye.   The only thing he wasn’t forthcoming about was himself. He was very reticent about offering up any personal information. “There’s nowt interesting about me, son” was his response to my probing.

Back at the office I got a king-sized bollocking because I’d taken so long on the vox pop.   My defence that I’d met this fascinating pensioner was swiftly dismissed because they only wanted a sentence from each person interviewed and anyway I had missed the deadline.  But despite that inauspicious start I was able to settle down well in my job.

Whilst out and about in the town I would come across Billy occasionally and nod or have a brief chat.   And as time went on we got to know each other even better and I began to regularly visit his house for a cuppa.   He turned out to be a very useful contact as he was always picking up bits of gossip.   Everybody in the area knew Billy and he was always stopping to pass the time of the day with them.   I lost count of the number of times he’d give me a wink and say: “Guess what I’ve just heard….”

In fact he was directly responsible for me getting several front page lead exclusive stories. My career really took off thanks to Billy’s help and I became a one of the paper’s top reporters. 

But Billy was more than just a contact.  My father died when I was young, my mother lived far away and both my grandparents were dead so Billy became a wise counsel, a sounding board.    I was 25, still naïve in some ways and back then probably not as streetwise as I should have been.   He was a one-man Citizen’s Advice Bureau and put me right on so many things.

I would ask: “Billy, what do you think I should do about….?”

He would look at me and say: “Well, son you’ve got to make your own mind up but you might want to consider this…..”

What followed was usually spot on.  I learnt to trust him implicitly.

Sometimes I would come across him balanced precariously on his ancient bike, with its clunky bell and brown mudguards, piled high with wood, with Maisie trotting along faithfully at his side.   When I asked him about the wood, he said he collected it to heat his home and keep down costs. 

On one occasion I felt so bad about this that I offered to give him some money but his response was swift.   "Nay lad, you keep your money to yourself. I’ve never relied on charity and I never will.   Charity is for other folk, those that need it.”

When the news editor, who had bollocked me for spending too much time with Billy, eventually moved on, I was appointed his replacement.   Consequently I became more deskbound and I’m afraid to say, saw less and less of Billy.   I kept meaning to pop round and see him but, well, things just sort of moved on.

About 18 months ago my career took another upward turn and I was promoted to deputy editor. The extra money came in very handy as I had also just got married.    On both occasions Billy sent me a congratulatory note written on the back of a scruffy postcard but I was very busy and forgot to reply.

As deputy editor I got a spanking new company car and Carol and I were able to move into a new three bedroomed detached house. We even started to talk about starting a family. I felt that my life could not be better. To be honest, I was feeling very chuffed with myself.

Then one day when the editor was on holiday I was fronting our normal morning news conference.   There were five of us sat around a circular oak table in the editor’s office, digesting the main stories of the day.   Steve, the news editor, said a pensioner had been robbed and beaten up in his home. I don’t know why but my heart started to pound the moment the words came out of his mouth.

“There’s a photo the police have released,” he added. Oh no, God no, I thought.


I froze in horror when the picture appeared on the computer screen. I could just about recognise Billy but he was in a dreadful state. Both eyes were badly puffed up as were his lips. His face was maze of red blotchy marks.

“What happened,” I gasped.

“He was found like this by a neighbour.”

“Is he…?” I asked

“No, not dead, but not far from it. The police have agreed to us publishing a picture to help track down the bastards.”

I turned my eyes away and felt sick. After a moment I realised that the room was silent and everyone was looking at me.

“I’m sorry, I’ve just realised I’ve got an appointment to go to,” I said, rising swiftly from my chair, scattering paper before me.  “Steve can you take over.”   He looked at me bewildered. “Yes but what about the front page lead, do you want to go on the pensioner?”    But I was already heading, ashen-faced, through the office door and did not answer.

I arrived at the hospital about 20 minutes later.  It was one of those so-called ‘super-hospitals.’  It took me ages to find a parking spot in the huge car park and then just as long to work out where the ward was.

I could feel my nerve ends jangling as I finally rushed down the corridor. It wasn’t visiting time but I looked on a white board to see where Billy’s bed was and strode towards it.   It was empty and as I turned round a large, big-footed, red-faced nurse, in a uniform she was almost bursting out of, stood in my way and said: “Can I help you?”

Billy had died just minutes before due to his injuries. He had been moved to a side ward, but because I was not a relative they would not let me see him.   I pleaded and pleaded with the nurse who fetched a stern-faced sister but she was also adamant. The answer was no. When I told her I was from the paper she was even less sympathetic and asked me to leave immediately.

Billy’s feeble, tortured frame was just the other side of the door but I could not say my farewells to him. I could feel the anger rising in me and I hurled abuse at the pair of them before storming out.

I went and sat in my car and wept uncontrollably. Not only because of Billy’s death but because of the shameful manner in which I had deserted him. I’d also let myself down by the way I had behaved in the ward.

Oh Billy, what should I have done…..?

When I returned to the office I summoned Steve in and said: “For tomorrow’s paper I want a full, in-depth background feature on the pensioner. About his life - you know the drill. Let’s get out there NOW!”

His full name was William Stacey but everyone knew him as Billy.   He was well known in the area, having lived there for at least 20 years.  But there was very little information about his life before then. He regularly used to ask his neighbours if anyone had any spare wood and was always stopping for a natter.

The people at the local fish and chip shop were particularly devastated by his death. They said he appeared  regular as clockwork at 6pm every Friday for his usual order of fish, chips, mushy peas and two pickled eggs.   The owner said: “Billy lit the place up when he came in. He had everybody chuckling and smiling.  He was a real gent.”

But what surprised me most was that as well as being generous with his time, it turned out that Billy was also generous with his own money.    He may not have spent much on himself but he certainly had enough funds to be able to help out people around him.

Several neighbours told how Billy would turn up at their door and hand over amounts ranging from £10 to £50. Somehow he had found out that they were in need.

The local vicar at St Thomas’s even related how Billy would occasionally arrive at the church with even larger gifts of money if he had seen something on the news which had touched his heart. He asked the vicar to pass the money on to the charity concerned.

But word of Billy’s deeds had obviously spread and that is what probably led to his death. Police told us that he had been mugged once before and that his house had been burgled on several occasions. He had also been taunted and abused by local yobs.

And whilst all this had been going on I was smugly enjoying my rising career.

Where all Billy’s money came from no-one knew. There was no trace of any family and all Billy’s gifts had been in the form of cash. There was no record of any will, bank, building or savings accounts. In fact, there wasn’t a single penny left in the rented house.

Whoever had beaten him up had also taken his telly and even the sherry glasses.

The funeral was to take place at St Thomas’s which was about half a mile away from Allen Street.

I asked one of the reporters to find out about the arrangements but what she came back with left me with a kingsized knot in my stomach, because no relatives could be found and because Billy had no funds, the council would have to take on responsibility for his funeral. It would therefore be a very basic affair.

As I sat alone in my office looking at the picture of Billy’s battered face, my mind drifted back to our first encounter.  His warm smile, his friendly manner, his sense of humour. He was also, as I now fully realised, the most generous person you could ever meet.   I could not leave him to the ignominy of a pauper’s funeral.

Thankfully it was a warm, sunny day and the giant colourful wreath made out in the word ‘Billy’ fully covered the solid oak coffin.

As the horse drawn Victorian hearse proceeded down Allen Street, residents emerged from their doors and took their place behind it for the slow walk to St Thomas’s. By the time the hearse reached the end of the road there were over 40 of them, men, women and children of all ages.

I was trying to keep my composure and was just about managing to fight back the tears.

Out there walking in front of the hearse, I was comforted by the close presence of a new addition to my family.

Her lovely, doting, dark brown eyes kept glancing towards me and I sensed that she too realised the significance of the occasion.

As we turned out of Allen Street and along Forman Drive towards the church, Maisie kept in perfect step with me. Billy would have been proud.


© Patrick O’Connor 2009