A Cautionary 'Tail' For Dog Walkers
It all began with Poo! Yes, that's right, Poo. Not Pooh as in Winnie the Pooh as that's entirely different, but dog poo.
The sort of poo that really represents the worst type of anti-social behaviour in our time. I know this to be true because of the frequency with which the letters page of our local newspaper are filled with complaints from residents bemoaning the condition of our streets.
Mr Michael was the first. He called into the station just over five months ago waving one of those perfumed orange plastic bags. I think it smelt of Lavender. The bag that is, not the contents. Thankfully he didn't open it, nor did it split as he thumped it down on the enquiries desk, but I could see what was lurking inside.
He wasn't happy.
"Now look here," he barked at me, "it's just not on Constable. Not on at all. I've got children in my house. I don't expect this sort of thing from around here. Dog's doings being posted through my letter box during the middle of the night." I remember his face being flushed red, but couldn't make up my mind if he was genuinely upset or mildly embarrassed.
"I'm the Desk Sergeant today Sir. And yes, I can understand that finding this mixed in with your morning post might be a little upsetting. Not the kind of thing to help your cornflakes go down, eh!"
I appreciate that, in hindsight, I could've been a tad more sensitive under the circumstances. Poo is after all quite an emotive subject. After a brief apology for my misdirected humour we managed to establish that the offending item had arrived through his door contained in a more robust packaging and accompanied by a note printed on plain white A4 paper. There was dark smudge down the left-hand side; you know the sort that sometimes occurs when your printer cartridge is starting to fail.
The note read thus:
I BELIEVE THIS BELONGS TO YOU!
YOU WERE SEEN IN THE PARK WITH YOUR BLACK LABRADOR ON THE 3RD AT 6.55AM. YOU ALLOWED YOUR DOG TO FOUL THE PAVEMENT AND YOU WALKED AWAY.
HAVE YOU NO SHAME?
YOUR BEHAVIOUR IS UNACCEPTABLE.
DISPOSE OF YOUR DOG WASTE RESPONSIBLY OR IT WILL BE RETURNED TO YOU.
There was no signature. No non de plume, nothing. Yet clearly Mr Michaels was a little shaken.
"And is it true, Sir? I have to ask as it is in fact an offence under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005."
Mumbling something about not having had enough bags on him that morning he claimed to have intended to go back for it (I could only envisage the large lump of rock salt that he must have imagined in his head as he said the words).
About a week later Miss Hodgekiss pitched up in the mid-afternoon. I'd just bitten into a nice chocolate Eclair. (I didn't need that kind of snack according to the wife, but then, what she didn't know about wouldn't hurt me.) With a scowl she, Miss Hodgekiss (not the wife), just dropped the translucent plastic bag next to my mug of tea.
Thud. It narrowly missed my much anticipated Eclair.
We stared at each other for several seconds, then I tried the infamous James Bond eyebrow raise made famous by Roger Moore.
"Well?" She wailed. "What are you going to do about it?" As if I had some arcane prescience as to her issue with the offending article.
To be fair as soon as I saw the bag swinging in her hand I did have a slight inkling.
"I'm going to ask you to dispose of it somewhere else, Miss Hodgekiss. Disposal of animal waste isn't quite what we do in here."
Unsurprisingly she looked somewhat affronted and harrumphed right there in front of me. "Don't be ridiculous young man, I didn't bring it in here to be disposed of. This...," and she waved a partly arthritic finger at the crumpled waste bag as she bristled with a display of irritation that only our more mature residents can muster. I did warm to her a little when she used the phrase 'young man' though. Quite flattering for a bloke who's not long since turned 49. "This was posted through my letter box this morning. Little Chickadee nearly chewed through the plastic."
"Chickadee is your dog then?" I enquired.
"Of course," she replied. "He's a Shih Tzu."
"And the item inside....does it belong to Chickadee?" I prompted as gently as I could whilst admiring the irony. It would have to have been a Shih Tzu. One was bound to turn up eventually. For the record I did actually manage to keep a straight face.
Miss Hodgekiss shuffled awkwardly, "Well....yes, but that's not the point is it?"
I decided to cut to the chase. "I don't suppose there was a note with it, by any chance?"
"Why yes, officer, there was," and after a few seconds rummaging in her pull along shopping trolley, with a flourish she brandished a sheet of roughly folded A4 before me.
It read in a similar vein to the one shown by Mr Michaels and displayed the same carbon smudge on the left side. This one had the feint trace of a piccalilli stain in the top right corner though.
I recall thinking, "Does anyone even eat Piccalilli these days?"
"Was this stain already there Miss Hodgekiss, or is that something that's appeared since you opened the note?"
Bless her, she was evidently delighted that I was taking an interest.
"Er, no. That's as it was opened Officer. Is the stain significant?" Her voice quavered as she leaned in closer, her pale watery eyes focused on the yellow stain as if it would somehow, miraculously perhaps, reveal a clue as to the perpetrator of this evil crime.
"Possibly, Miss Hodgekiss. We can't afford to ignore any clues in situations like this. Now, I have to ask. Is the note true?" I looked at her waiting for her to say some skate boarding louts had knocked her over as she'd been trying to pick up Chickadees messages and that she'd lost all her doggie bags when she fell.
Instead, I got silence followed by a quivering lip and then tears.
"Janice, another cup o' tea o'er here please," I hollered over my shoulder to our administrator working away in the back. "Member o' the public in distress."
Even if say so myself I did exercise extreme empathy and understanding during the next hour as I endured the whole widower living alone; can't afford doggie bags on a state pension; scaring an old woman with such a vile act, and so on type stories. I smiled and waved like a Madagascan Penguin. Metaphorically, of course.
Having made the point that having Chickadee as a pet brought certain social responsibilities and getting assurances between sniffles that it wouldn't ever happen again, Miss Hodgekiss withdrew.
I never did venture back to the Eclair.
Over the following few months we had fifteen more members of the public call into the Station to complain about midnight deliveries of dog waste through their respective post boxes. All carrying similar notes and packaged in little cardboard boxes sealed with strips of thin Christmas wrapping tape decorated with holly leaves and red berries.
None of the owners had heard or seen anyone near their houses or noticed anything out of the ordinary during their canine constitutionals.
It all started to come to a head a week last Tuesday. Around about 11.00 that morning there was a call about two neighbours up on the Greene Farm Estate kicking off. The caller claimed it had starting turning nasty. By pure happen stance I ended up attending the scene myself with young PC Oldham.
Oldham had been seconded to us for 6 months, and he'd almost become my mum's lodger but when it came to it he just missed the room by 24 hours. Mum had offered it to an IT support engineer from Newcastle the day before the matter had been brought up for discussion, so he'd moved in with Janice instead. Nice lad, but a bit green!
The call -out was to one of those run down estates just on the edge of town. Not an area you would choose to visit on your own if you didn't have to. It wouldn't have looked out of place in an early episode of Frost. As we pulled up two burly men were going at it hammer and tongue. One all muscles and tattoos in a grease stained vest. The other a pony tailed hack with an interesting array of ear piercings and wearing a tatty leather jacket.
Tattoo man was accusing Pony Tail of stuffing his letter box with Dog ..., well you get the gist! The language was colourful to say the least but nothing I hadn't heard before. PC Oldham on the other hand blushed like a tomato. An audience of two young children with dirt on their faces were sat on the overgrown grass verge watching intently, whilst a pensioner peered through a cracked windowpane from a ground floor flat nearby.
Two uniformed officers landing in the midst of their ranting appeared to give them pause for thought, although it took three elongated minutes for our presence to register. Even the two Rottweiler's caged in the back of a not-so-white van parked in front of Number 6 stopped barking as the tattooed owner turned to look at us.
"Afternoon gents. What's all this then? Neighbourhood debating society getting a bit overheated is it?" I gave them both my sternest look.
Ponytail piped up first. "Dullard 'ere just started threatenin' me for nae reason," he snarled.
"For squashing dog sh**" Retorted his nemesis.
I cut him short.
"These two yours?" I asked Mr Dullard gesturing to the open tailgate of the van. He merely nodded, somewhat dumbstruck. "I think I might know where this is going, sir. We've had some experience of late in the Dog Waste department. Was it gift wrapped first by any chance?" Mr Dullard stared at me with an expression of dubious surprise.
"Wot you mean?" he mumbled with his eyes narrowed suspiciously. It was clear that he thought I was going to steal away his moment of pure testosterone ....
And of course, he was right.
"Well, to be fair, and I'm just guessing here, but to give Mr....?" I looked at Ponytail inviting him to contribute his name.
"Gibson," he volunteered grudgingly.
"To give Mr Gibson here the benefit of the doubt, we have had a number of complaints recently from other members of the public who have received similar parcels through their letterboxes. The doggy bags normally come considerately wrapped in a small cardboard box sealed with Christmas tape and accompanied by a note. Would this be the case here?"
"Err, I, err," Mr Dullard suddenly seemed awkward.
I left Gibson in the tender care of PC Oldham for a statement on the incident and ushered Dullard to his front door.
On entering the compact hallway I could see why he'd got so upset. The delivery box had been well chewed and the familiar orange bag split open. From the state of the place I could only conclude the dogs had either rolled in it, or trod in it, as they roamed the flat freely. It wasn't a pleasant sight, and an even less pleasant smell. The inevitable note was found partially torn and damp under the kitchen table. It was consistent with the previous samples. What remained of the small crumpled cake box still had a thin strip of Christmas sticky tape clinging desperately to its lid.
"I think it would be reasonable to conclude, Sir, that the perpetrator was not, on this occasion, Mr Gibson. Unless of course you have grounds to believe he would take the time to gift wrap dog waste before returning it to you? Personally I don't think he looks the type to go to that amount of trouble." I waved the note at Mr Dullard who in true Neanderthal style grunted something which I took to be an acknowledgment. "For the record Mr Dullard, why did you believe Mr Gibson might have done this?"
He grumbled something about engine noise, tyres and a motorbike.
Obviously, they had history.
We left the scene having issued a caution and Mr Dullard in no doubts as to where his canine responsibilities lay.
'Scoop', as we'd nicknamed the case at the station, was starting to become a right royal pain in the neck in its own right: A phantom vigilante with a misplaced conscience, yet we had no idea how to track them down. Trawling the midnight streets with extra officers in order to catch them was never going to be an option.
I finished up my run of back-to-back shifts that afternoon and, as was my usual routine when the wife went to the bingo, I called into my mums for a bite of supper.
"Evening, Barry," I greeted mums lodger, who was just leaving the house as I arrived. "How's things?
"Aye, just grand, thanks. Busy. You know," he replied. Barry looked rather uncomfortable, as if I'd caught him with his hand in the cookie jar, but maybe I was just over analysing. He flashed me grin, "I’ve got to dash. Got a date down at the Bale n Bucket...," and with that he side stepped me and headed off down the street.
"Have a nice night then," I called after him and couldn't help but notice a flimsy piece of orange plastic sticking out of his back pocket.
Mum must've been having a little doze in her sun room, dropping off between the short stories in one of those Readers Digest magazines. Her tiny steel rim glasses had slipped onto her lap. They fell to the floor as she woke with a start from the noise of me entering the house.
"Oh, Son!" she said, "You made me jump. Whatever’s the time? I've not even started supper yet, so I hope you're not too hungry." She retrieved her glasses from the floor and gave them a little polish with a tissue.
"I'm fine Mum. There's no rush. Could do with a cuppa tea though. It's been a right funny old day all round," I replied before giving her the dutiful brush of an air kiss on her proffered cheek.
"I'll rustle you up a cup of tea then, and whilst I'm getting supper ready maybe you could have a little look at my printer in the study. It's all jammied up. With my arthritis this last day or two I just can't get the paper out of it. If that's all right?" She said with a twinkle in her eye.
"Only if there's a chocolate digestive too! We only bought that printer a few months ago. What on earth have you been doing with it?" I answered with a grin. Mum had joined a Computer Literacy group at the community centre a while back and had slowly been getting to grips with the mysteries of Cyber Space. "Couldn't Barry fix it for you? He is an IT boffin after all. Isn't he?"
"He is, he is," she answered as I headed up the stairs, "but he's been such working a lot the last few weeks. Very long hours and late at night, so I've not liked to ask him."
I could hear the kettle serenade mum in the kitchen with a tuneless whistle while I was gingerly easing a piece of A4 paper from the rear of her laser-jet printer in my Dads old study. I finally managed to pull it free and was struck by the long dark smudge down the left-hand side. It bore an uncanny resemblance to several other pieces of A4 I'd been witness to during the previous few weeks.
I wouldn't have thought much to it even then but as I put it down on the old 1930s bureau I found myself staring at the side drawer which was sitting slightly open.
Three rolls of Christmas patterned sticky tape peeked from the recess within. My heart started to race. I prayed so hard that they didn't have green holly and red berries on them.
I was wrong.
Somewhat in shock I braced myself against the bureau. The movement jarred the little cupboard door of the right-hand pedestal and it swung open.
There, revealed in all their glory and lit up by a bright accusing finger of late evening sunlight, were a stack of flat packed white cardboard cake boxes along with two packs of nappy sacks and a small leather handled stainless steel trowel. One of the nappy sack packs was open and I caught a definite whiff of lavender.
The possibility that I had accidentally found the person behind Scoop slowly dawned on me. The time frame fitted. Barry had arrived about six months ago and that was when the 'deliveries' had first started. Unthinking I picked up the trowel, a cake box, a pack of nappy sacks and a roll of sticky tape and went purposefully back down to the kitchen.
"Honestly, Son! That's twice in one day." Said Mum jumping as I entered the Kitchen. "If you want your inheritance sooner you should just say." Her smile dwindled as she caught sight of the items I placed on the kitchen table. A look of bewilderment washed over her time-worn features. "Whatever are you doing with those?"
"Mum, have you been letting Barry use Dad's study whilst he's been staying here?"
"He's used it a few times. I don't mind," Her look was one of puzzlement. "Besides he's helped me with a few things on the wonder-web. I think he's got some work bits n bobs stored in there too. It's not like I use it that often or need the space, is it! Why do you ask?"
"'Cos of these!" I gestured to the table. "These have been used to package up Dogs mess and post it back to their owners with a note printed on paper just like this...," and I brandished the piece of A4 with its dark smudge triumphantly in the air.
"What? And because you've found them here you think it's Barry?" There was a merry twinkle in her eyes as she turned the notion over in her head.
"Well, it's more than a coincidence that the deliveries started just after he arrived here, that he's using Dads study with all this stuff stored in the bureau, and he was more than a little odd when he was leaving for the Bale n Bucket a while ago with one of these in back pocket...," I pushed the nappy sack across the kitchen table indignantly.
"Is it? A coincidence? Really? He'll have been awkward bumping into you because he's got a date with some lad tonight. Thinks he's on a promise from the sound of it," she said nonchalantly.
"You do know he's gay, don't you? No, don't answer that. You've never been good at spotting them and I didn't tell you beforehand as you'd have objected to me letting him have that room." She paused to stare at me, "Ironic isn't it? When you think on it. Given the chap he's on a date with is the one you wanted me to give the room to instead. One of your bunch, I think you said at the time."
"Sorry! You mean PC Oldham? PC Oldham is gay? No!" I had to sit down. "But that aside, what's that got to do with Scoop?"
"Scoop? What's Scoop?" Mum asked.
"I told you before, mum, that's what we've called the case with the Dog Poo postings," I answered shaking my head. "I saw Barry leave. He had one of those bags in his back pocket."
"So? Your chap moved in with Janice in the end, didn't he? You know she has a dog, a Westie I think Barry said. The two of them were taking it for a walk this evening, as part of their date. A responsible thing to do, isn't it? Taking a waste bag when you walk a dog?" She looked at me as if I was socially challenged.
"You think I'm barking then? Thinking it's Barry?" I asked her.
"Yes, dear. Totally barking. Absolutely absurd." She turned away to the sink, "Coincidence gone mad. You're looking for something that just isn't there."
"Well then, how do you explain all of this? You don't have dog, and you haven't had one since 1982 when Totty died? So, what's all this stuff doing upstairs? It's not like you even bake that much any more?" The Roger Moore eyebrow did its thing again as I gave her my best appraising look.
"Oh, well that's easy," she said briskly, bustling past me to a cupboard for some salt. "The cake boxes are left over from the Bake sale fund-raiser at the Silver Surfers Club and the nappy sacks, well they were left from when I looked after Mrs Watkins Scottie dog. And as for that gift tape, it’s so old that it’s been around for years. Have you fixed my printer?" Mum was being a bit stiff. A sure sign she was hiding something.
It was when she opened the fridge and I caught sight of a jar of Piccalilli on the top shelf that my world completely stopped.
"So nothing to do with collecting up dog waste for gift wrap and return to their owners then ' in the middle of the night!" I walked over to the fridge, removed the jar and held it up in front of her. "Think very carefully before you answer Mum, because this jar of Piccalilli says differently..."
There was no point in pussyfooting about (no offence meant to our canine or feline friends).
Mum's shoulders visibly slumped in defeat. "We've been rumbled then?" She turned to look at me with a mischievous glint of mock defiance in her eye. "Not that there's anything wrong in what we're doing. We're not using the postal service AND at least we're sending it back to the owners in responsible packaging. That's more consideration than they show when they leave their mess for everyone to step in." She looked at the jar of Piccalilli. "I said to Pat at the time we should have printed that one again," and rolled her eyes.
"Whoa, back up the bus there, mum. What do you mean 'WE'?" I had to sit down again at this point. I was struggling with the idea of a pair of errant pensioners roaming the streets scooping up dog waste, like some malevolent gang of social activists crossed with Santa and the Tooth Fairy.
"Well," she began as she popped my mug of tea onto the table in front of me, together with a pack of chocolate digestives. "There's Edie from Number 9, Pat from over on The Avenues, Maisey and Stan, lovely couple they are, do everything together, and of course Cecil. We're all in the Silver Surfers Club at the Community Centre." She said it as if it was obvious and couldn't understand why I didn't know it all ready.
"What, and you each just take a turn?" I was incredulous.
"No, but if we're out, and we see someone with a dog who's not fulfilling their duty we try to follow them home, then we go back and collect from the spot where they left it. It's shocking how many dog walkers are so irresponsible." She must have seen the look of horror on my face as she continued.
"We agreed, mind, that we wouldn't tackle anyone head on that we saw doing it. Not after that nasty to do Stan got into with some tattooed hoodlum early on." She grimaced at the memory. "We just got fed up with the town being treated like a massive dog toilet. It's not like your lot are doing anything about it."
"Well, it's an unorthodox solution I'll give you that. But you know you have to stop, don’t you? You can't just carry on." I sighed inwardly, as inwardly I knew she was right.
Very little ever happens about breaches of dog fouling. Our lot had to have it happen at their feet for anything to get done. To be honest though, I was more concerned for the safety of mum's geriatric gang if any one of them got into a confrontation. Stan clearly had at some point and Dullard was not far from my thoughts.
"Stop!" Mum shrilled. "The Silver Scoopers won't stop," she exclaimed. "It's our civic duty. It's where we make a difference. And, by the way, that’s what we called ourselves after your last visit! It might not be much of a difference, but Cyril ran up a spreadsheet two weeks ago to see if there had been any decline in the amount of dog fouling on our streets since we started. Maybe it is a coincidence, although I doubt it. You know, his bar chart showed a 16.4% drop in the number of dog fouling sites that we count when we're all out. And that's just in the last twelve weeks!"
I sensed I was on dicey ground as the glint in her eyes became a tad more maverick. "But what happens if one of you gets caught by one of these dog owners and it suddenly turns ugly?" I persisted.
"Pish posh," she answered flippantly waving me away as if I were some annoying fly. "We're more organised than that. It was risky at first as we were doing the deliveries on our own, but then we got nervous so now we go out in pairs. We might be old, Son, but we're a ways off yet from losing all of our marbles."
I tried a different tack. "Have you any idea how many people have been into the station to complain about your 'deliveries' in the last few months?"
"Is that all your concerned about? People complaining they've had their own dog doings delivered back to them. Shame on you! And them!" A finger wagged dangerously close to my nose. "If they want summat else delivered they should clear up their mess first before they go shopping on line. Half the problems today are there's no consequences and it's got to stop. Poor old Arthur around the corner last week, he went through a trail of the stuff in his wheel chair. It was all through his bungalow before he realised. Bad enough in itself, but he'd only had new carpets put down six weeks earlier."
For some reason I didn't say anything when I returned to work a few days later.
Nor did I make any comment as the next spate of disgruntled dog owners passed through the station over the following weeks.
To be fair, the actual number of complaints seemed to be dwindling along with the amount of dog fouling on the streets.
That's how I came to find myself at 2.00am in the morning pushing a little cardboard box stuck down with Christmas tape through the door of number 49B Meredith Street.
As mum had said, our lot were hardly going to make it a priority. I'm not one to advocate anyone takes the law into their own hands, let alone break the law, especially given the job I do, but....! In this instance I did have a degree of empathy with mums point of view. The town had become a massive dog toilet. This I thought, for me as a private member of the public, was Karma for turds, so what harm was there in showing some community spirit and a little solidarity with the Silver Scoopers? Of course, it didn’t have to be this way. The dog walkers could always do the socially responsible thing and 'Bag It and Bin It'.
You know, like they're supposed to!
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