One Man And His Dog
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.
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.