As soon as I reach over to draw the bolt back on the garden gate, an overstuffed cream labrador lumbers into the doorway facing us. It stops, sniffs the air.
‘Woof!’ it says, just the once, as clearly as if it were written in a speech bubble.
The dog narrows its eyes in an effort to make out just who it is at the gate, then takes a couple of heavy steps towards us down the path, holding its head up like a politician reluctantly drawn out to face the press.
A man’s voice barks from inside the house.
The dog stops and waits.
A middle-aged man with dusty hair and bottle-end glasses hurries out of the house, hands first. He makes a grab for Hazel’s collar.
‘It’s okay!’ he says, ‘She’s perfectly harmless,’ hauling back on the animal as if it were an escaped tiger. ‘All bark and no bite.’
The dog suffers itself to be dragged to one side as the man nods back towards the house.
‘It’s my mother. You’ll find her in the sitting room.’
Then he puts his face down nose to nose with the dog.
The dog looks at him, then sideways to us.
We walk on.
Inside the house an elderly woman is sitting forwards on a high-backed chair, clutching a plastic mixing bowl and groaning. A woman, the man’s wife, has an arm around her shoulder.
‘So what’s been happening?’ I ask, putting my bag down.
‘What hasn’t been happening?’ the man says, dragging Hazel through the room and shutting her in the kitchen. I wait for him to say something else. Eventually he says:
‘She won’t get out of there in a hurry.’ And folds his arms to watch.
The woman – a version of her husband, but taller, more capable, and wearing a purple flower print skirt – gives the patient a tissue out of her pocket and smiles up at me.
‘Liz has been sick like this for a few days. We thought it’d pass but it hasn’t. She’s really dizzy and weak and we started to get a bit worried. The doctor saw her yesterday and gave her some tablets, but we’re worried that they’re not doing her any good.’
Just as I bend down to see to Liz, Hazel appears right beside me with a cushion in her mouth.
‘Hazel! No!’ gasps the man. The dog just has time to drop the cushion at the woman’s feet before the man grasps her by the collar and drags her back to the kitchen.
‘Don’t worry about Hazel,’ I tell him. ‘She’s fine. Honestly. We’re okay with dogs.’
‘I just don’t want her getting in the way like this. She has a knack for it.’
He slams the kitchen door shut, then tests it with his foot. ‘There. That’s better.’
I turn my attention back to Liz. She isn’t well enough to tell me what her medical history is, so I ask the woman. Before she has a chance to answer, her husband interrupts with a yellow care folder.
‘There,’ he says, waving it about. ‘You’ll find all my mum’s details in there.’ Rae takes it off him and starts thumbing through it, but to save time I say to him: ‘Could you give us a quick summary of the kind of things your mum suffers from?’
‘What doesn’t she suffer from?’
‘Has she been in hospital recently for anything?’
‘She’s hardly out of the place. She’s always going in for one thing or another.’
‘It’s all there in the folder.’
Suddenly, Hazel is there again, standing quietly by my side. Rae reaches down to ruffle her fur.
‘Hazel! For god’s sake!’ the man says. He makes a grab for the dog again.
‘It’s okay. She’s perfectly fine,’ I say.
‘I just don’t like her – taking over like this.’
‘Why don’t you go and find Liz’s drugs, darling?’ the woman asks him. He sighs, then grabs Hazel’s collar and drags her backwards into the kitchen again.
‘It’s okay. Really. We don’t mind the dog.’
‘Maybe you don’t,’ he says, slamming the kitchen door shut again, then clumping off up the stairs. We can hear drawers being flung open, things being thrown about.
The woman looks at me and smiles.
Rae goes off to get a carry chair.
Suddenly, Hazel is standing next to me again with another cushion in her mouth. The man is heading back down the stairs. I want to hide her behind me, but before I can act on the impulse he’s there in the doorway again.
‘Hazel! No!’ he shouts.
Liz throws up in the bowl.