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U3A Writing: Done To A Turn

Merle Parkin tells of a creaky old dog called Eustace.

The neighbours had an aged cattle-dog called Eustace. Their three-year-old called him "Useless", which was probably more apt.

Almost as soon as I moved next door, Eustace decided to live with me. I don't know why, for I'd never have raised a neighbour's ire by feeding their animal and thus coaxing it away. I never fed Eustace till I made my first batch of bread, but that was later.

The one favour Eustace ever asked was to be swept regularly. He established himself on the doorstep of my pickers' hut, and if I wanted to pass in or out, I needed to sweep Eustace with the millet broom that stood beside the door. Once I'd swept his back, and given a lick and a spit to his underside, the old gentleman would move aside so I could pass.

At dusk, he'd head home for his scraps, then creak off to his heap of bags in the neighbours' woodshed. Bright and early, he'd arrive back at my place to be swept. Perhaps it eased his geriatric aches, for he really was a creaky old fellow.

I can't remember when he abandoned his bed for my concrete step, but I do remember how I discovered him there. Nature beckoned me one cold night, and I strode out the door, and went sprawling. Eustace was asleep on the step - or maybe he was awake but didn't move, expecting that I'd sweep him at 3 a.m. My neighbour was quite miffed when she found that he was only going home for meals. I assured her I wasn't feeding him, and suggested: "Perhaps if you swept him,..."

"Oh, I used to," she said sheepishly, "But I never seem to have the time now, with seven kids." Yes, well—

"Now look old man," I said after I'd swept him that evening, "It's all a part of life. You're like me first¬born. When the babies start accumulating, the eldest kind of gets shuffled to the end of the queue. You mustn't take it to heart. Go home to your bags. I'm sure it's not good for you, sleeping on a concrete step at your age."

Late that night, I took yet another cropper over my novelty doormat. After a while, I became resigned to high-stepping if I had to go out at night.

I had a good old wood stove in the hut, and many a Saturday morning the neighbour would come down to have a cup of coffee and some hot date scones - after she'd swept her dog, of course, to get inside. One week I brought home a recipe book from the library, with instructions how to make bread. A farmer's wife must have written the book. I had no idea that the quantity of materials listed would produce half a week's supply for a large farm family.

I rose early, stoked the stove till I reckoned the room was warm enough to "raise" bread, then kneaded away happily. After a while, I had nine loaves ranged round the glowing stove. They kept rising and rising. What were all these disasters I'd read about? Bread making was a breeze!

In a cloud of crusty aroma, the first loaves came out of the oven, done to a turn, plump and golden. I'd tapped them, as per instructions, to make sure they sounded hollow. I put them aside to cool. How triumphant I felt when all nine loaves were lined up along the table. Now it was time to sample the bounty. I took a loaf, and slid the bread knife across its golden crust. The knife made no impression!

I tried to cut loaf after loaf, but each was as hard as a brick. Something had gone horribly wrong: my heavenly smelling bread was so hard I couldn't have split it with an axe!

Sadly, I handed a loaf to Eustace, for I'd seen him worry a large beef bone until he shredded it. Sometimes if a bone was too hard, he'd bury it for a month or so till putrefaction softened it. The old dog carried my loaves, one by one to his burial patch between two orange trees, where he interred them. Six weeks later, when I left to go abroad, he still hadn't dug them up.

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