A few days later I received a letter on AERSIP notepaper. I knew before I opened the envelope. On the back there is a stylised representation of a Labrador gazing kindly at a little girl. Because it is one of those cartoon likenesses that have to stand for all races and none it is a very stylised representation, though the Labrador is more lifelike than the girl. Inside, they couldn’t bring themselves to refer to Bella by name and used her tagging number instead, after which they call her ‘the dog under investigation’.
The dog under investigation was subject to an assessment under the Race Relations (Racism and Sexism Issues Around Pets) Regulations 2013 dated so and so and held at so and so, Facilitator the fierce woman, presumably and has been determined non-compliant having regards to the said Regulations. Accordingly it is required that the dog under investigation and its owner attend at so and so for remedial action taken and a determination having regards to the disposal of the dog under investigation.
So I telephoned the number on the letter.
‘AERSIP here,’ said a cheerful if recorded voice. ‘Working together against racism and sexism around pets,’ and there followed a series of options, one of which I took.
‘Dogs,’ he barked.
He didn’t ask how he could help me but I went ahead anyway. I told him about the letter. He said that he was ‘retrieving’ it, but as far as I could see I still had it in my hand.
‘What is all this nonsense?’ I said.
‘It’s a very serious matter. I suggest that you take it very seriously.’
‘What are we talking about?’
‘I,’ he said, ‘am talking about the reprocessing of the dog under investigation. I don’t know what you’re talking about. And if he/she fails, the dog under investigation, I’m talking about an ASBO or in the last resort AERSIP has delegated powers to adapt or terminate non-compliant pets.’
‘Not to proceed within fifty metres of any member of a designated faith or ethnic community.’
‘That would be difficult in Plaistow. What about Jews? Are they to be protected from Bella too? She has some good Jewish friends.’
‘Bear with me,’ said the man. ‘I’m retrieving the Regs.
‘No,’ he said eventually, ‘nothing about Jews. Not a designated faith or ethnic community.’
‘I’ll make it my citizen’s duty to preserve her from anti-Semitism,’ I said. ‘Rest assured.’
And so we found ourselves in another municipal office, Bella and I. There were some depressed dogs with their owners.
‘I hope this is good,’ I said to one of them. ‘I didn’t realise till we got here that we have to pay for this circus.’
Indeed, they had presented me with a bill. He cast a fishy glance at me but said nothing. He was probably afraid that I might be an informer.
On the wall was a banner announcing that the University of East Anglia was proud to be partnering with AERSIP in this important initiative, and indeed the man who then bounded into the room wore a sweater bearing the insignia of that academic institution.
He was anxious to gain our trust. He assured us that we were all, humans and canines both, dedicated to the elimination of racism and sexism around pets. It was just, he said, that sometimes clouds got in the way. It was our job today to burn away those clouds. He wrote this on a flip chart, making a sun-like gesture as he did so. Then he tore off his University of East Anglia woolly and rolled up his sleeves.
‘Now how,’ he demanded, ‘do we eliminate racism and sexism around our pets?’
And on his flip chart he wrote two things: Top Down and then Bottom Up.
That was a silly question. When so posed the answer is always Bottom Up.
I put up my hand. He pointed at me forcefully.
‘What if you don’t burn them away?’ I said.
‘Is that Top Down or Bottom Up?’ said the man.
‘Never mind that. Let’s cut to the chase. What are you threatening us with?’
‘It’s Bottom Up,’ he cried. ‘There are certain penalties. ASBOs,’ he said with a sigh. ‘Electric shock treatment. The stocks. Ultimately termination.’
‘You put our dogs into the stocks and then you kill them?’
‘Only if they remain noncompliant.’
‘God almighty! And how do the stocks work?’
His eyes lit up.
‘We tie their front paws, humanely, to a length of wood in a public place. Over their head is a banner saying ‘This Dog is Racist’ and people are encouraged to throw things at them and to reprimand them, calling, ‘Bad Dog!’ and ‘Racist Dog!’ It can be transformative.’
‘And who decides all this? The University of East Anglia? AERSIP?’
‘In consultation, yes.’
I was struck dumb. Fortunately at that moment there was a commotion. The sash windows into the street were thrust up and a figure, female, clad entirely in black and covered as to her face, leapt into the room. It was the Jibjab Woman. I’d know those eyes anywhere.
‘JJ!’ I said.
‘Bella!’ she said.
Bella had met the Jibjab Woman a week or so back at Great Secret Miss, and was overjoyed to see her again. She rushed over, jumping up, licking her and leaving, I am afraid, paw marks on her spotless jibjab.
‘Oh, Bella,’ said the Jibjab Woman, I love you too.’
Giving her a gentle fondle to the ears she turned to the man from the University of East Anglia.
‘And what is this shit?’ she said.
He was stuck for words, so I answered.
‘Bella avoided some women at a bus stop and then didn’t avoid some schoolboys in a park. And now we are in a kangaroo court with her accused of racism and sexism around pets.’
I didn’t mention the medieval punishment in case the Jibjab Woman approved of that sort of thing.
‘Have you no shame?’ she said to the man from the University of East Anglia. I thought how much more scornful she would have been if she had seen his woolly. ‘Is this a racist dog?’ Bella was attempting to climb into her arms. ‘Is this a sexist dog? Come with me’ – this was to Bella and me – ‘we’ll leave them to their wanking’.
Being a modest Moslem woman she refrained from the gesture that usually accompanies that remark.
‘You’re a star, JJ,’ I said when we got outside.
‘You won’t hear any more from them.’
And off she went – about her work, as always. She turned.
‘Shall I fix the teacher for you?’
‘Oh, no, thanks,’ I said. ‘It’s a hard life, being a teacher.’