A Sergio Fionda anecdote, as told to Gail Holloway
Sleet slid across the window as I sat looking out. Early January had been especially bitter this year. Bleakness hung across Brixton, and not just the weather. Times were tough for many folk in this area.
Christmas merriment had given way to a deeper winter mire. Watching England on the telly lose The Ashes in the Australian summer simply rubbed salt into our collective wound.
After the festive season, on my way to work I would pass one house rented by a young family. A new puppy, a Border Collie, now sat in their yard even on the colder days. It would spark up as I walked by. ‘Hello mate’, I said each day, and it would come to the fence to greet me.
As the days went by, the dog became less energetic. I’d talk to it, but it was slower to move. Why was it left out in this miserable weather, I wondered. Everyone needs a warm place to be in winter.
One morning, the father was in the yard. The dog looked up at me as I stopped to speak.
‘How’s it going, mate?’, I asked the man. ‘How are the kids?’
‘They’re OK. You know. It’s hard to keep them entertained when we don’t have much and the weather’s rotten like this. I thought the dog would be a good thing, but already the Christmas novelty has worn off.’
‘I have noticed it’s outside a lot.’
‘I just can’t get the kids interested in taking care of her.’
I nodded sympathetically, and continued on my way.
The next time I walked past, I stopped to say hi to the puppy and it leapt up into my arms. It was a clear cry for help. I opened the front gate and popped her back onto the small grey blanket she used on the front step, offering a few words of comfort.
The following day I stopped at the house and the puppy was once again straight up into my arms.
I knocked on the door and asked the man if I could perhaps take care of her. I had no idea what I would do with her. It wasn’t possible for us to keep a dog, but I couldn’t bear to see the poor thing suffer. I returned home to my girlfriend, Alice.
‘But we’re about to go away for a week. What are we going to do with her then?’, Alice said.
Friday night we drove down the road to our chosen town in Kent. Scally, as I’d named her, paced along the back seat of our Morris Minor.
We soon found a picturesque spot to camp, on lush grass by a small brook. But, no sooner had I hammered in the last tent peg, the skies opened. It had been dry weather all week, and it chose this exact moment to rain down.
A hot pub meal beckoned. We went with Scally to the Tractor and Plough, a typical old village hotel on the high street. As we stepped in and wiped the raindrops off our parkas, Scally shook her whole body, sending droplets flying across the floor.
A dozen or so locals had already settled in for lunch. They all looked up as we arrived. A couple gave a half smile, but they all returned to their own. The hotelier eyed us coldly as he dried glasses behind the bar. ‘You can take the standard lunch if yer like’, he said, without changing his expression. Not very welcoming.
The standard lunch was laid out on a table, decked with pork pies, potato salad, pickles and cold meats. We were drawn straight to this buffet. But so was Scally. She stood up, put her front paws on the table and helped herself to a whole roast chicken.
The hotelier rounded the bar, arms flailing. ‘Get out’, he shouted. Alice spun around while I grabbed Scally by the collar, leading her toward the door.
‘Take that dog out, and stay out. We don’t want you or your dog in here.’
Alice followed me out and we looked at each other, startled by our abrupt eviction. Scally blithely chomped on her ill-gotten spoils, ignoring the now steady rain.
Thankfully, the Tractor and Plough was not the only pub in the town. The three of us made our way up the hill to the Shepherd’s Arms. Away from the high street, this pub was set back from a dirt road, with a small garden and tables out front.
As soon as we walked in the entrance, Scally again shook herself off, then ran straight for someone’s left-over meal. A middle-aged woman came around from the bar and the patrons looked up from their lunch. Alice and I both held our breath.
‘Aren’t you a cutie!’, the woman said, bending down to pat Scally on her back. Scally beamed up at her, tongue out and panting happily.
‘My name’s Maggie, what’s yours?’
I know Scally would have told her herself if she could. ‘It’s Scally’, Alice said.
‘You here for lunch?’, Maggie asked, addressing us. ‘You’re just in time before the kitchen closes. Come on in.’
She showed us to a table by the open fire, then went into the kitchen and returned with a lamb bone for the dog. She laid it on the timber floor and Scally happily spent the rest of the afternoon working it over, while Alice and I relaxed by the fire.
Every day after that, the three of us went for long walks in the surrounding woods and spent time at the Shepherd’s Arms. Each time we entered the pub, Scally was welcomed by Maggie in the same warm and friendly manner. Such a contrast with the Tractor and Plough.
Other pub locals had taken a shine to her too. Indeed she had become the local celebrity.
The following weekend came around all too soon. It would be back to work on Monday. On our final visit to the Shepherd’s Arms, Scally herself was reluctant to leave.
‘I’m sad to see her go. We all are’, Maggie said, as others nodded agreement. ‘. . . and you too, of course’, she added with a wink and a grin.
Alice nudged me and we exchanged looks. ‘Um. What if . . . Do you think maybe she could stay here? We would be happy if you took her on. And I think she would be too.’
Maggie glanced around the room.
‘Go on Mags.’ ‘Please Maggie, we can all help look after her.’
Scally herself seemed to know what was going on. She sidled up to Maggie and looked plaintively into her eyes.
‘Oh, alright then Scally’, she said. ‘Let’s be having you then’, and she crouched down to embrace the young dog, tousling her fur and allowing Scally to lick her face. Others queued up to do the same.
Promising to return soon, Alice and I said our goodbyes – to Scally and all at the Shepherd’s Arms. It would long be a very fond memory, that trip to Kent.
One way or another, it was two years before we got back to the Shepherd’s Arms. But it was like nothing had changed. The same faces, perched at the bar and seated in the booths. Maggie was still plying her kindly country hospitality.
As Alice and I walked in, it was Scally who recognised us first. She bounded up, put her paws on my thighs and woofed a warm greeting. ‘Hello, Scally. You’re a big girl now.’
Scally’s tail wagged furiously while Alice gave her a cuddle.
‘Looks like she’s well and truly settled here’, I said to Maggie as she came over to greet us.
‘Oh yes. She’s our mascot and we love her. We call her Sally now though.’
Alice and I enjoyed the winter’s afternoon in the warmth of that pub. Such a great pleasure to revisit all the old friends we’d made here, two winters ago.
My friend Sergio was a world traveller and a great raconteur. Sadly he passed away in December 2020. I wrote up just this one of the stories he told.
This is one way of remembering his spirit. RIP Serge.