“Look Gertie . . . it’s Gerald . . . he’s come back,” the little girl shouted excitedly.
“Well, young Miss Jane, I do think you’re right,” Gertie said, eyeing the goat that was contentedly chewing their crop of carrots.
“What is it?” Mrs Dickens said, hearing the noise and coming out into the garden. She was worried that her husband would hear the noise, and wouldn’t he get into a grump. Every time he was working on the idea for a new book, he would snap and snarl at every little noise. “You’re as grumpy as an old sow,” she had shouted to him one day, and he had laughed. He had known she was right . . . but it didn’t help.
She reckoned the worst one had been when he was about to start on Oliver Twist. She had had to have everybody creeping around the house on tippy-toes, he was so bad.
Mrs Dickens looked out into the garden, and sure enough there was the goat they had been rearing last year, fattening him up for Christmas. It must be the same one. Her daughter, Clarry, had named the goat Gerald, and had tied a red bow around its neck, and the bow was there still.
Mrs Dickens had been so cross when the goat had escaped. Months of fattening . . . and then he was gone. Alright, they had got hold of a nice turkey instead, but they had been looking forward to eating the goat.
She noticed their maid, Gertie, looking across at her, and she gestured for her to tether the goat up. She hadn’t heard any noises from her husband Charles to suggest that the little girl’s excited cries had disturbed him, but then she heard the noise of his heavy boots coming down the stairs. He had a little writing room . . . well not a room as such. More of a little place curtained off at the top of the stairs, where he had a small desk on which was a candle in a holder, a ream of fresh paper and a holder containing quills and nibs. His friend Robert Cratchett from the Stationery Suppliers shop in town always made sure that Charles had plenty of paper and writing implements. The paper wasn’t the finest, but it was good enough . . . cheaper than buying the finest vellum, and anyway, what with all the crossings-out, the little notes and asides . . . and she was the one who had to copy it out again when he had finished. She was the one who made sure that the final copy was legible when it went to the printer.
“What’s all that noise?” she heard him say, as he clomped his way down the stairs.
“It’s nothing dear,” she replied in her most calming tone.
She saw the maid looking frightened, and Jane was hiding behind Gertie’s skirts.
“It’s alright, Charles,” Mrs Dickens said. “It’s just that goat we had last year. You know . . . the one that escaped before we had the chance to . . .”
“What?” her husband said, looking quizzically around.
Mrs Dickens noticed that the goat must have wandered off again. Maybe it had gone around into their front garden. It was nowhere to be seen anyway.
“Say again,” her husband said.
Mrs Dickens knew that her husband was a little deaf. He had been since childhood, his mother had told her. Maybe if he was a bit deafer, she thought, then he wouldn’t be so disturbed by all the little noises around the house, but sadly his deafness didn’t work that way. He could hear noises, but they sounded a little garbled. She always took pains to speak slowly and clearly to him.
Her husband was still looking quizzically at her.
“It’s just that goat,” she repeated, “you know, the goat from last Christmas.”
He held his hand against his ear, giving her that little look, like a puppy she thought. He knew that he could be a burden to her, but he loved her dearly . . . and she knew it.
“It’s the goat from Christmas past,” she said again, speaking slowly and clearly.
Her husband seemed to consider this. Then his eyes gleamed and twinkled. She had seen the look before. He nodded to her, as if some great wisdom had been imparted, and then he turned and made his way back up the stairs. She heard him pull out his chair . . . heard him get himself settled. She knew that he would be selecting a quill and nib. She knew that he would soon be hunched over, scratching away, oblivious to the world around him.
She felt a sense of relief.
Now . . . to find that goat.