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Feather's Miscellany: The Gambler And The Talking Dog

John Wadington-Feather’s tale about Heinz the talking dog will leave you speechless.

Every Friday night at the Keighworth Cycling Club there was a lively school of cards when much money changed hands. There were also two snooker tables in constant use and games of dominoes going on all round the room. The weekend was ahead and Keighworth’s business moguls were letting their hair down, either at the Cycling Club or at the Masonic Lodge at the other end of the block.

There’d always been rivalry of sorts between the Club and the Lodge, but the Cycling Club held all the aces. They owned the entire block and drew rents from it, including the Lodge rent. You’d have thought it would have been the other way round, for the Freemasons were more wealthy and certainly held more clout in the town than the Cycling Clubbers. There was a long-established pecking order in Keighworth which, as you moved up it, involved moving from the Cycling Club to join the Freemasons. But there were some like Arthur Denby and Bert Trickey who remained at Cycling Club all their lives and never received the arcane handshake.

Perhaps I ought to explain how the Cycling Club came to own the premises of the Freemason. About the middle of the nineteenth century when Keighworth was just beginning to put down its industrial roots and expand, a little group of cycling enthusiasts formed a club and bought a patch of land in the middle of town to build their clubhouse on, nothing more than a modest hut.

Then Keighworth began to mushroom, filling the Worth Valley and spilling over down Airedale. Land spiralled in value in the middle of town, and the Cycling Club realised they’d made a killing. Finely architectured buildings were erected over their patch of land: banks, building societies, a row of expensive shops – and the Masonic Lodge; all of which paid their rents to the Cycling Club. Their little hut was demolished and in its place a fine building was put up with the name of the Club sculpted in stone right across its frontage.

The members of the Club were in clover and in the space of a few years the Club changed into a gentleman’s drinking Club. The cyclists in it dwindled as the snooker players, card players, domino players and boozers grew. All that was left of the original Cycling Club was a faded sepia photograph hung forlornly over the mantlepiece at one end of the room. On it, Victorian cyclists posed in their jockey outfits and caps with their bicycles, including two penny-farthings.

The seating inside the new Club was richly upholstered in leather and ran round three sides of the room. The fourth side was the bar and in a little room off the bar was the card-room. Two full-sized snooker tables filled the top end of the room round which at intervals stood cast-iron tables at which the members sat drinking or playing dominoes. All-in-all, a cosy self-contained gentleman’s drinking club.

Arthur Denby had been a member for some years. He ran a small outfitters in town and was a regular. He was a short, stocky, well tailored man, very agreeable like all outfitters but not obsequious like some. Fresh-complexioned, he was going bald on top; but he’d been born with a peculiar jaw which left him speaking out of the side of his mouth, yet that didn’t stop him from being talkative like the rest of them when he’d had a pint or two. Keighworth dourness evaporated once they were in their cups. So did their sense of time. Many a wife rued their husband’s membership of the Club when their spouses crept home in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday morning. Arthur Denby was no exception.

He was a compulsive card-player, but his powers of concentration diminished the more he drank and he lost much money at cards. Indeed, he was taken advantage of by one shady member called Bert Trickey.

Bert Trickey ran a gambling arcade in town and dabbled in all sorts of shady deals as well. In wartime he’d have been called a “spiv”, a black-marketeer, which indeed he was. He’d been exempted from military service during the war on the pretext of having a weak heart; yet he lived well into his eighties, finally snuffing it on the Costa Brava in Spain, where he’d speculated in land, made huge profits and retired there late in life when the climate in Keighworth proved too much for him.

He was quite unlike Arthur Denby who was as open as they come. Bert Trickey was tight-fisted, lean and shifty-eyed, always on the look-out for the main chance, and he found Arthur an easy picking. He cheated him rotten each Friday night till Arthur owed him £50 – but Trickey got his come-uppance.

The Hippodrome Theatre was just across the road from the Cycling Club and the theatricals were made honorary members of the Club during their stay in Keighworth. Over the years, a close bonding had grown between them and the Club members right up to the time when the theatre sadly was demolished to make way for a new bus station in 1961.

Came the time when Arthur realised he was being cheated by Trickey and he decided to have his revenge. When he visited the theatre one night the idea came to him how to go about it.

The star turn was a ventriloquist, who could throw his voice from every corner of the theatre. He had a doll on his knee and made it speak to the audience in a routine of back-chat which had the audience roaring. As he watched and listened, Arthur saw the means of exacting his revenge on Trickey and making him the laughing stock of the town.

He met the ventriloquist, Danny Leno, in the Club one night after an evening performance and bought him a drink, and then another, and then another, till in the end they were bosom friends and he’d persuaded Danny to give him lessons in ventriloquism. Arthur picked up the skill in no time. With his odd jaw he was a natural and mastered the art of throwing his voice from the side of his mouth without moving his lips or changing his face.

Then he went to the lost dogs’ home and picked out a mongrel with a very appealing look on its face; so mongrel he called it Heinz and took it to the Cycling Club early one evening where he knew he’d find Bert Trickey alone except for the bar-man, Jack. Bert Trickey always went straight from work to have his evening bar- meal at the Club. He’d no family and took his evening meal there every day.

“You’re in early tonight, Arthur,” he commented, as Arthur came in with his dog and took a seat at the other end of the bar.

“Aye,” Arthur replied, “I’ve just picked up this dog from my cousin, Bill, who’s emigrating and can’t take it with him.”

“Oh?”

“Aye. He’s one of these top-notch scientists, a geneticist or whatever you call ‘em and he’s bred a dog that can talk. He’s been head-hunted by the Americans and is going to work in California.”

“I didn’t know you’d got brains in the family, Arthur,” said Trickey trying to be funny.

“Sure has,” the dog answered in a very cut-glass voice – and Trickey nearly fell off his stool. He was speechless for a moment and looked hard at the dog, then at Arthur.

“Am I hearing things?” asked Trickey and looked across at the barman who was also staring at the dog and had almost dropped the glass he was wiping.

“No, you’re not,” went on the dog, “and while you’re about it, barman, will you bring me and my master a glass of ale each? Serve mine in a bowl, please.”

The Barman could scarcely fill Arthur’s glass and a bowl for the dog, he was so bemused; and when he took the beer over to Arthur and the dog, Heinz said, “Thanks awfully, old chap.” And he began lapping up the ale as Jack stood speechless, watching on with his hands on his hips.

When he’d done, Heinz looked up and said sharply, “Do you usually stare so hard at people drinking? It’s rude, y’know.” Then he lay down with his head on his paws.

“I don’t believe it!” exclaimed Bert Trickey; then added, “That dog would be worth a fortune on stage!”

“Never thought of that,” said Arthur nonchalantly sipping his ale. “Just did my cousin a favour taking him off his hands – and I’ve rather got to like him.” Arthur bent down and scratched the dog behind his ears.

The dog looked up at him. “Indeed,” Heinz said, “we’re good friends already.” and began wagging his tail. Bert Trickey could see a world tour looming up and the dog making millions for him.

“Ever thought of selling him?” he asked.

Arthur stopped patting the dog. “No,” he replied. “I’ve grown to like him so much. He’s very companiable. We’re the best of pals, aren’t we, Heinz?”

“We are that,” said Heinz and wagged his tail even more, while Jack the barman gaped and Bert asked for a whisky to steady his nerves.

When he’d drunk it he said, “I’m being serious, Arthur. How much will you take for that dog?”

Arthur gazed across at him and said slowly, “I’ve never really thought about it, Bert.”

The dog pricked up its ears and barked, “You’re not going to sell me to him, are you?”

Arthur rubbed his chine. “Well, to tell you the truth, Heinz, I’m pushed for cash right now and I owe him fifty quid…”

“I’ll cancel that,” interrupted Trickey, “and I’ll give you five hundred quid cash down for your dog.”

Arthur rubbed his chin again thoughtfully and at length said, “You mean it?”

“’Course I mean it!” Bert blurted out. “And I’ll ask Jack here to be witness.”

There was an ominous pause, then Arthur got up with dog following on its lead which he handed over to Bert Trickey. “In that case he’s yours,” he said, and Trickey took out his wallet stuffed with notes and peeled off five hundred pounds.

Arthur counted the money slowly, then pocketed it and strode to the door wishing Jack and Bert good-night. However, he was halted by the dog which whined, “If that’s all you think of our friendship, Arthur Denby, I’ll never speak another word again!”

And Heinz didn’t.

John Waddington-Feather ©



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