(A Dog’s Dinner, Cross Purposes and Sensitivity And Awareness)
A Dog’s Dinner
The turd was exquisitely formed: crescent shaped, with finely sculpted mouldings and a carefree twirl at one end, dark chestnut in colour. But it was located in Bob Simpson’s drive; and Bob was an angry man.
Cecil Roads had set off to give Rover his daily walk as usual, about 10 o’clock, when he had been called into neighbour Bob’s driveway to witness the presence of the work of art. Knowing Cecil’s habits, Bob had lain in wait, ready to spring when Cecil emerged.
“What do you think this is then?” demanded Bob, “and what’s it doing in my driveway?”
The turd, exquisite as it was, was undeniably out of place in Bob’s immaculately swept drive. Art, particularly modern art, invites strong differences of opinion but the turd was definitely not being displayed where it should be; even Cecil could see that.
“Looks like a turd to me”, Cecil said, acknowledging to himself the facetiousness of his response even as he uttered the words; he should have thought of something better to disarm his irrascible neighbour.
“I suppose it must have been dropped there” he continued lamely.
“Dropped there! Dropped there!” thundered Bob. “Your dog put it there and I’m not having it!
Having it or not, you’ve got it, thought Cecil; and possession is nine tenths of the law. “How do you know Rover did it?” he said, fighting back gamely. “I bet you didn’t see him do it.” Cecil was sure of that; otherwise the SAS would already have been called out and would be surrounding his house.
“See him do it! See him do it!” spluttered Bob. “I don’t need to see him do it. Yours is the only dog around here.”
Rover was looking self-incriminatingly sheepish; but then he always did when anyone got angry and shouted. He was a peace-loving creature, like his owner.
“There are strays,” countered Cecil defensively, “sometimes even foxes.”
“Foxes!” raged Bob, getting a really good lather up by now. “That’s not a fox turd, it’s a dog turd; your dog’s turd.”
“How do you know?” asked Cecil, now feeling even more vulnerable under Bob’s onslaught. “I bet you wouldn’t know the difference between a dog and a fox’s turd”.
“Know?” screamed Bob. “We’ll see who knows. I’ve called out the Council. It’s a public offence to let your dog drop turds on people’s driveways; a £50 fine. We’ll see who knows when the Council gets here!”
Knowing was a funny thing thought Cecil, gazing reflectively at the offending turd. People said it was important to know what you didn’t know; and he didn’t honestly know whether this was Rover’s turd or not. Did that make it important to know whose turd it was? But how could he know what he didn’t know? It was daft, like people saying you shouldn’t believe what people say. What did that mean? Did it mean it wasn’t important to know what you didn’t know after all, since people said it was?
Rover had moved cagily round Cecil and Bob, still worried by the shouting but deciding that nothing more dramatic was likely to happen for the moment. He tentatively sniffed at the turd he’d dropped the previous night, on his usual late night excursion alone to track hedgehogs. The turd had matured in the early morning sun and formed a thin crust, confirming its shape within a harder crunchy exterior.
Cecil’s reverie was interrupted by a shout from Bob as a Council van pulled into the side of the road at the entrance to Bob’s drive.
“Here’s the Council,” cried Bob triumphantly, loud enough for all the neighbourhood to hear. “Now we’ll see what’s what.” And he strode off agressively towards the Council van.
Cecil trailed forlornly a few steps behind, unable to prevent himself from idly wondering about the logical possibilities of “what’s what”. If Wittgenstein was correct, the key would be what what denoted; but which what? Where are you, Wittgenstein, now that I need you, Cecil murmured to himself? But somehow he didn’t think even Wittgenstein in person would help much against an angry neighbour and a Council rule book.
Noticing Bob and Cecil move off, Rover took another look at his sun-dried masterpiece. It really was enticing and he knew he shouldn’t but no one was looking at him. With a furtive lunge and a quick snap of the jaws, the turd was gone.
Bob was already shouting at the man from the Council even as he opened the van door, before he had a chance to step out. “I want you to do your job and fine this man” he yelled, pointing behind himself vaguely in the direction of Cecil. Sure of his rights and with the long arm of the Council within reach, he lapsed into semi-officialese. “He’s despoiled my drive; come and witness what he’s done”. Grabbing the man from the Council by the arm and brushing Cecil aside, he marched back towards his drive.
Cecil trailed back after them, gloomily anticipating a triumphant shout from Bob as he pointed out the incriminating evidence and wondering what he could proffer in mitigation for himself and Rover. But both Bob and the man from the Council were silent as Cecil approached them, Bob dumbfounded and open-mouthed in shock. There was no trace of the turd nor the slightest evidence that it had ever been there.
Bob turned on Cecil: “What have you done with it? Come on, what have you done with it; where have you hidden it? It was there until I turned my back; you’ve taken advantage to get rid of the evidence, haven’t you?” Rover too had disappeared, deciding the renewed shouting suggested caution would be the better part of valour. The man from the Council looked at the ground where Bob was pointing, then looked up at the sky, rolled his eyes and walked resignedly back to his van without a word.
Cecil left Bob yammering to himself and went in search of Rover. “Until I turned my back.…..”, he mused. Maybe it was not Wittgenstein but the existentialists who had the answer. Did the turd still exist, arguably, since Bob (and Cecil too) had turned his back on it? Cecil had his back to the Council van now and could no longer see it; so did that continue to exist? The noise of the engine as the man from the Council restarted it and roared off indicated a possible problem with that line of argument.
Still, it was something to think about. Cecil thought he’d enjoy doing that when he continued his walk with Rover. Philosophy might yet reveal the secrets of life, the universe and everything but that was man’s business and it didn’t mix too well with dog’s business, Joe summarised to himself. What Rover thought was nobody’s business.
Cecil Roads looked at his watch and reluctantly put down the newspaper crossword he’d been doing. It was his first day as a volunteer so he’d better not be late. After his retirement and the death of his wife, he’d wanted to continue being a useful member of the community in some way; he also needed more than just crosswords on which to exercise his capabilities. Cynics might ask what useful capabilities any civil servant, let alone a retired one, could possibly have but Cecil was quietly proud of his career. OK, so the think-tank he’d ended up being part of had rejected his idea for alternative organic passports but they couldn’t fault his calculations of the revenue they would produce. The statistics proved it. And he still reckoned his idea for legislating mandatory garlic-free zones in restaurants would have been a great diversionary tactic, putting the anti-EU public off the scent, as it were, while the government surreptitiously got on with the business of closer ties. The idea was offered in the same spirit as the location of the non-smoking zone in a Parisian restaurant he was fond of (all restaurants in France then had to have one). This one was in the loo.
But that part of his life was over now. He’d gone to the volunteer bureau two weeks previously and offered his services to several organisations. Most had obviously been so desperate for help that they hadn’t even had time to respond to his offer; but his local primary school had and he was about to start his first day as a teacher’s assistant. So dropping his newspaper on the table and quickly gulping the last of his tea, he embarked on the short walk to the school. Walking along, he mused on the clue he’d been trying to unravel. Sombre cavity in sub-continent: four words of 5, 4, 2 and 8 characters. He always went for the long solutions first but they usually had more of a clue to help. Anyway, he’d keep it at the back of his mind during his morning stint.
He already knew the school layout, having been to various meetings there, so he had no difficulty finding the 2C classroom, Mrs Jones’ class. Cecil knew her vaguely; a bit of a fussy woman and a bit over-emotional for his taste, he’d thought, but that needn’t make her a bad teacher. He entered the room and made his way through the kids towards her. As he approached Mrs Jones, a kid intercepted him and said cheekily: “Whatcha mister; I would of thought you’d be too old to be here”. Cecil put his hand gently but firmly on the kids head so he could stare him in the eyes and replied: “Would have, son, not would of. What’s “would of” supposed to mean? You can’t parse it.” The kid stared back at him blankly.
”Ah, Mr Simpson”, fluttered Mrs Jones, “Good to see you but we don’t teach the children grammar; they don’t understand it yet.”
”I thought that was the idea behind education”, Cecil replied fliply, “teaching kids what they don’t yet understand.”
“Yes, well, Mr Roads”, continued Mrs Jones, “I think you’ll find things have changed rather since your day.” And she proceeded to direct him to supervise a group that were doing some painting, mostly on each other it seemed.
As the morning progressed, if that’s what you could call it, Cecil went from group to group, sometimes at the behest of Mrs Jones and sometimes following his own search for any kids who might show some spark of originality. He hadn’t been able to spot any except for a girl of about eight called Jane. She stood out as singularly unattractive: dumpy, with a squint and one lens of her glasses held in with sticky tape, large ears and dried snot below her nose. The snot was the key.
Cecil had watched her and three others having a snot recovery contest which she had won. The idea was to let a snot gradually elongate from the nose and then to snort it back up before it detached itself. The one who could let the snot elongate furthest before recovering it won the contest. There’s a lot of physics in that, thought Cecil: judgements on gravity, tensile strength and opposite and equivalent forces. And the kids had been more engrossed in that activity than in any other of the morning. You could use that to teach the blighters physics, Cecil had concluded.
Towards the end of the morning, the various groups of kids coalesced into a single class for a story, “Mr Chatterbox”. The inane story might have been a sly dig at all the talking that had been going on but, if it was, the kids were clearly missing the point; they looked suitably bored. Eventually, Jane rose slowly and deliberately from her chair and audibly wet her pants. Mrs Jones froze in mid- sentence: “Oh Jane”, she said, “Couldn’t you wait to go to the toilet? You are naughty; go at once.” May be it was an intentional comment on the story, Cecil thought to himself gleefully; that girl had promise.
The lunch-time bell curtailed further story telling and Bill, having helped Mrs Jones clean up the mess, started back to his house. Outside the school, on the wall, some wag had scrawled amongst the usual graffiti “Heisenberg probably rules OK”. It cheered Cecil up no end. Well, somehow at least someone round here managed to get educated, he thought.
As he pushed open his front gate, looking forward to getting back to his crossword, he was confronted by a man turning from his front door.
“You wouldn’t by any chance be Mr Cecil Roads, would you?” the man asked.
“No”, retorted Cecil.
“He does live here, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, he does.”
“Well, do you know when he will be in?”
“In about two seconds, if you’ll let me get my key in the lock.”
“But…you said you weren’t Mr Roads,” said the man, getting slightly annoyed.
“No I didn’t,” retorted Bill, “You asked if I was Mr Roads by any chance. There was no chance about it; it was a deliberate act of sabotage on my life by my parents, giving me that name. Anyway, you’d better come in.”
The man warily followed Cecil in, waving a card proclaiming that he was a census official. He could already sense why there had been a problem with the census form and wondered what explanation lay ahead.
“Mr Roads,” the man began, deciding to drop into officialese as being the safest approach and perhaps offering some protection, “as you are perhaps aware, you are obliged by law to fill in a census form.”
“Yes,” grunted Cecil, wondering how long this was going to take and when he could get back to his crossword. “I did fill one in; and I sent it back.”
“We know you sent it back, Mr Roads,” said the man rather smugly, feeling he was getting the upper hand at last, “I have it here with me. But you’ve filled it in with gibberish.”
”No I haven’t,” Cecil said stubbornly.
”But you have, Mr Roads, said the man, now brandishing the form triumphantly, “Look at what you’ve written.”
”That’s not gibberish,” retorted Cecil, “It’s Serbo-Croat. I learnt it in the War. There’s nothing on the form saying you can’t fill it in in Serbo-Croat.”
“But Mr Roads,” said the man, now deflated and close to tears of frustration, “Isn’t it obvious you’re supposed to fill it in in English? What are we supposed to do with a form filled in in Serbo-Croat? What would happen if everybody filled in forms in any language they chose?”
Cecil shrugged: “Then I’d be daft to do it any other way. It’s not my problem. I’ve complied with the law; you can’t say I haven’t.”
“But what are we supposed to do, Mr Roads?” pleaded the man.
“Find a translator,” responded Cecil. “Come to think of it,” he added as a cunning afterthought occurred, “I could do it for you, if you paid me.”
Cecil saw the man out and watched with satisfaction as he wandered dazedly down the road, shaking his head. The little altercation had sharpened his mind. Now he’d get that crossword licked in no time. Sombre cavity in sub-continent: four words of 5, 4, 2 and 8 letters. Of course! Black hole of Calcutta. Chuckling, he allowed himself an “easy peasy”.
Sensitivity And Awareness
“Hello there”, called the woman welcomingly, as she got around to Cecil. “I’m Cecilia, your tutor, and you are….?” Cecilia was draped in what to Cecil looked like a multi-coloured sheet, a kind of new-age sub-species of sari, below which bare toes peered out from open sandals. They called to Cecil’s mind the eyes of a hermit crab.
“I’m Cecil”, Cecil replied, “Cecil Roads.” Cecil had sauntered into the classroom and, seeing others standing or sitting in groups, had nodded affably at them and found himself a seat alone. The school had said that a course on counselling would be useful background to his teacher’s assistant role, if Cecil felt like doing one. There was an introductory course at the local university, on Wednesday evenings, when he didn’t normally do anything specific, so he thought: why not?
“Welcome, Cecil, “ Cecilia chirruped back. “I’ve been telling everyone to just chat and start to get to know one another until we are all here and can begin. Why don’t you go and introduce yourself to Daphne over there?”
Daphne-over-there was not in one of the chatting groups. She appeared to be a glowering hulk lurking ominously in the corner of the room by herself. Clearly, she either hadn’t yet had the instruction to go and get acquainted or didn’t propose to do anything about it. A challenge, right from the off, thought Cecil, but his affable mood took him across the room to meet it. It was a balmy October evening and he’d spent the day pottering in the sunshine in his garden; after a light early supper, he was feeling relaxed and up-beat. The course could turn out to be a good idea.
“Hello, I’m Cecil”, proffered Cecil aimiably, “What brings you on this course?”
“How about you?” fenced Daphne defensively.
“Oh, I’m starting a stint as a teacher’s assistant,” responded Cecil, “and the school said it would be a good idea to do a course like this.”
“Why?” said Daphne, somewhat aggressively.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Cecil, still feeling a warm autumnal glow. “I expect they thought it might help with understanding the kids; something like that. Kids are a different breed of animal these days, aren’t they?”
The final comment was a semi-conscious attempt to open Daphne up a bit, implicitly noting the relative commonality of their ages (Cecil guessed Daphne was in her early fifties) compared to that of kids. The opening-up gambit was successful.
“Animals? Is that how you think of children?” retorted Daphne. “No wonder the school thinks you need a course.”
Fortunately, the effect of this conversation stopper was nullified by the arrival of two keen class members intent on doing the rounds. They’d left Daphne as a final duty and, seeing someone else brave enough to take her on, decided to take advantage of the opportunity for extra support. Chris jumped in with “Hi, I’m Chris, have either of you two read Rogers? I rather prefer Berne myself” while Judy, his co-acquainter, nodded enthusiastically at his side. Daphne looked blank, presumably trying to think how not to answer the question. Mafeking relieved, thought Cecil.
Not shaken, if slightly stirred, Cecil wandered off to other groups of chatting class members and gradually re-established his earlier relaxed mood. They seemed a pretty reasonable bunch on the whole. There were three young district nurses getting brownie points for their qualifications, a number of middle-aged or older people attending for vague or ancillary reasons like himself, wheelchair-bound Tom, seeing counselling a a job opportunity, the rather over-intellectualising Chris with his acquiescent side-kick Judy and fortress Daphne. Most of the conversation was wondering how the course would turn out.
Cecilia, it seemed, was about to enlighten them. She called for the class’s attention at last, asking everybody to take a seat in the circle of chairs. “Well,” she smiled warmly at them, “now you’ve had a chance to get to know one another a little, let’s start by standing up and holding hands in a circle. I do this at the beginning of every class so that we can all get connected.” A slight frown settled on Cecil’s forehead. He hoped there wasn’t going to too much of this standing up and sitting down; aerobics had never appealed to him and “connected” somehow had an ominous ring to it. However, Cecilia’s hand gave his a quick reassuring squeeze as he duly connected with her.
“Right,” continued Cecilia, “I want us all now to say something about ourselves to the class. I’ll start. I’m feeling so thrilled and filled with anticipation at the beginning of a new class! Now you, Cecil, and we’ll go round the circle clockwise.”
Cecil found himself caught somewhat on the hop. “I’m retired”, he said.
Cecilia smiled at him, her face awash with warm understanding. “Yes, Cecil,” she said, “That’s good. I wonder if you can tell us something about how you are feeling.”
“OK”, responded Cecil. “A bit daft, holding hands in a circle at my age, I suppose, but OK. Are we going to do ring-a-ring of roses?” he added slightly mischievously.
Cecilia’s warm understanding took on a rather strained look but the titters from the rest of the group seemed to persuade her that this was perceived as a light jest and she passed on enquiringly to the next in the circle. Most gave their reasons for attending the class or said they were wondering how the course would pan out. Chris wondered aloud whether the course was based on Rogers or Berne (which got a non-committal but understanding nod from Cecilia) and finally it was the turn of fortress Daphne, connected to Cecilia on her right.
The class’s anticipation was almost tangible. To everyone’s astonishment, the fortress crumbled and collapsed before their eyes. “My husband’s left me,” wailed Daphne. “He just walked out and I don’t know what to do!” She crumpled into a heap onto her knees, still grasping Cecilia’s right hand, like a supplicant before her saviour. Cecil felt Cecilia’s other hand tighten on his like a vice-like claw; he didn’t need to wonder what she was feeling.
But she coped masterfully. Disconnecting from Cecil, she enfolded Daphne in as much of a hug as her smaller frame would allow, muttered “there,there” soothingly and then looked up at the group gazing on in consternation. The warm understanding on her face was looking decidedly brittle at this point but her voice remained calm.
“I’d like you each to turn to the person on your left and just look into their eyes,” she commanded evenly. “Don’t say anything, just look; and do that for a few minutes.” Having said which, she started to half coax and half drag the blubbering heap that fortress Daphne had become to a far corner of the room.
Pretty good control, in the circumstances, thought Cecil as he turned to face a determinedly smiling Judy. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Tom’s partner bobbing up and down like a cork in water before finally deciding to squat to look Tom in the eye. After about thirty seconds gazing at Judy, Cecil started to feel an uncontrollable urge to laugh. Judy had added to her fixed smile a beseechingly searching look in her eyes which seemed to demand some response from him. He suppressed the urge to laugh into a cough and thought he’d try out some different facial expressions. A quick grin was followed by raised eyebrows and then pursed lips. Judy seemed impervious to these changed expressions. Her look remained fixed and Cecil felt his own gaze becoming baleful. Either Judy had practised this before or she had a limited repertoire of expressions each of which which took minutes to time-out.
Fortunately, Cecilia had by then managed to reconstruct Daphne, if not into her original fortress form then at least into a tentatively viable stockade. They rejoined the group and Cecilia called for everyone to sit in a circle again, with a variation. Chairs, she declared, kept a distance between people, the understanding smile back on her face with a vengeance. With a triumphant sweep of her hand, she lifted a sheet at the side of the room to reveal underneath a pile of large cushions. “We’ll all sit on cushions,” she gaily proclaimed. “Everyone come and get one!”
Cecil heaved himself off his chair and walked across to the pile of cushions. As he bent to pick up the nearest, he realised that this counselling lark was going to do his back in. He sat down gingerly, sprawling his legs in front of him and supporting himself on his hands against the hardness of the floor. He noticed he wasn’t alone in experiencing some difficulty. Tom simply looked nonplussed until Cecilia, eventually noticing his predicament, signalled to him not to bother. Cecil felt a spasm of relief that they weren’t asked to dethrone Tom onto a cushion.
“Now we can all relax much better together”, trilled Cecilia obliviously. “You’ve each chosen a cushion so I want us all now to say what we feel our cushion says about us. Cecil, you first.”
Me first again, thought Cecil, beginning to feel like Muggins. “It was the nearest,” he said curtly. “Maybe it means I’m lazy.”
Cecilia’s re-invigorated smile tightened slightly but she passed on to Chris. Chris felt that the complicated pattern on his cushion reflected the complexity of Berne’s approach to counselling, which required near genius to understand. Cecilia’s smile relaxed cautiously. Judy noted, with affected surprise, that her cushion was the same as Chris’s. At her turn, Daphne just sobbed desolately and was quickly passed over. Tom just looked phased and suggested the question should be put to the person he’d had to ask to get one for him. Despite the best efforts of some fantasists within the group, the exercise could hardly be counted a great success, Cecil thought gloomily.
But Cecilia was nothing if not resourceful. With a slight edge of steel creeping into her voice, she said: “This is our first session and I expect we’re all feeling it a bit strange. And it’s come at the end of what I’m sure has been a quite stressful day for many of us. So let’s wind down with a free-expression exercise to help us relax.”
Cecil could feel the dread mounting within him.
“First, I want you all to stand up,” continued Cecilia.
Cecil winced as he clambered to his feet.
“Now I want us all to imagine we are daffodils, waving in the wind.”
As he gazed in disbelief at Cecilia lightly tripping from foot to foot with her arms aloft, he was vaguely aware of Chris doing a kind of drunken solo conga, Judy seemingly caught in a gale force 9 and Daphne subsiding towards the floor, foundering in Judy’s gale. Tom’s wheelchair started to tilt alarmingly backwards as he manfully waved his arms aloft.
“That’s it for this week,” Cecilia sang out, still prancing merrily in the wind which, to Cecil’s transfixed horror, was starting to unravel the sheet she wore. “Today’s session has been about sensitivity and awareness, of ourselves and others. Let’s all look forward to using our new sensitivity and awareness next week.”
Cecil staggered woodenly from the room, narrowly avoiding tripping over Daphne, who was by then completely prostrate on the floor and seemed intent on burying herself beneath it. The sensitivity and awareness of his back had certainly increased but maybe counselling wasn’t for him after all, he thought, as he started painfully on his way home. Along the way, he began to envisage with mounting terror the effect of trying any of those routines on 3C. The snot artist Jane as a prancing daffodil? No, he couldn’t see it working.
This post is also available in: French
This post is also available in: French