Short Story 5
Robert and the Dog
by Ken Saro-Wiwa
Robert’s new employer was a young medical doctor just returned from abroad. He was cheerful, exuberant and polite. It was obvious to Robert that he had not been in the country for a long time. Because he did not once lose his temper, he did not shout at Robert, he called him by his first name, and always asked him about his wife, children and other members of his family. Robert, accustomed to moving from household to household, thought he had at last found fulfillment. The more so as the young doctor appeared to be a bachelor.
Stewards, including Robert, prefer to serve a bachelor. Because every bachelor is as wax in the hands of his steward. The latter determines what is to be spent on grocery, how much food is to be served at meal times, what is to be done with the remnants of food. In short, he holds the bachelor’s life in his hands. And that is tremendous power.
Robert quickly settled into his new situation and took full control of the house. Experience had taught him never to occupy the servant’s quarters, which were attached to the main house. It made dismissals or the abandonment of a situation rather messy. So it was that Robert’s family lived in the filth and quagmire of Ajegunle, which the wags termed ‘The Jungle’. In his one-bedroom apartment in The Jungle, Robert was king. And he always repaired there nightly to exercise his authority over his wife and six children. The experience he had gained in running his household helped him a great deal in organising the life of each new employer. Robert was particularly happy in his new situation because the young man was carefree and happy. There was, as has been said, no wife breathing down Robert’s neck and limiting his abundant authority. There were no children whose nappies and numerous clothes had to b e washed. He did not have to cook several meals a day. The young man ate but once a day, except for the cup of coffee and toast early in the morning.
Trouble began when the young man announced after six months that his wife was about to join him. Robert’s face fell visibly at the announcement. But he did not worry very much at the expected curtailment of his wide powers. Who knew, the lady might not be an ogre after all.
Which is precisely what happened in the event. The lady was as young and cheerful as her husband. She, too, took an interest in Robert. She was European and excited about her first visit to Africa. She appeared pleased to have Robert’s assistance. She spent the day asking Robert about African food, watching Robert at work in the kitchen and lending a helping hand where possible. She made sure Robert stopped work early so that he could get home to his family, and she did not make a fuss if Robert turned up late some odd mornings. And she got Robert paid every fortnight. She even offered to go and visit his wife and family in The Jungle. Robert carefully and politely turned down her offer. He could not imagine her picking her neat way through the filth and squalor of The Jungle to the hovel which was his home. Maybe, he thought, if she once knew where he lived and sampled the mess that was his home, her regard for him would diminish and he might lose his job. Yet the young lady extended every consideration to him. Robert began to feel like a human being, and he felt extremely grateful to his new employers.
The only source of worry in the new situation was the dog. For the young lady had arrived with a dog called Bingo. And Robert watched with absolute amazement and great incredulity as the lady spoke tenderly to the dog. She ensured that he was well fed with tinned food and milk and meat and bones. And she held the dog lovingly in her arms, brushed his hair and tended him carefully. The dog appeared as important to the lady as her husband and, indeed, Robert thought, in the order of things, the dog was more important than himself. Try as hard as he might, he could not dismiss from his mind the fact that the dog was doing better than himself. And he detested this state of affairs. He could understand a dog being invited to eat up an infant’s faeces. He could understand a stray, mangy dog with flies around its ears being beaten and chased away from the dwellings of men. He could understand a dog wandering around rubbish heaps in search of sustenance. But a dog who slept on the settee, a dog who was fed tinned food on a plate, a dog who was brushed and cleaned, a dog who drank good tinned milk, was entirely beyond his comprehension. On one occasion, the lady took the dog to a doctor. And that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
All that day, Robert felt his stomach turn. and when he got home in the evening and saw his children, with distended stomachs, gambolling in the filth that simmered in a swollen stream at his door, and watched them hungrily swallow small balls of eba, he asked himself, ‘Who born dog?’ And all of a sudden he developed a pathological hatred for Bingo the dog, his master’s dog. All night long, he saw in the eye of his mind, the dog cuddled in the warmth of the settee, which he would have to clean and brush in the morning. And he asked himself again and again, ‘Who born dog?’
The object of Robert’s hatred was totally oblivious of the feelings that he bred in the cook-steward. He revelled in the love of his master and mistress. He ate his food with relish and wagged his tail in contented gratitude. He loved and served the lady, doing as he was bid. And he wagged his tail contentedly at Robert. He slept in the day and kept watch over his owners at night. But each wag of his tail was like so many pinpricks in the heart of Robert, who secretly vowed to ‘show’ the dog some day.
That day duly arrived and much sooner than Robert had expected. The young doctor announced to him that they would be going away on holiday for six weeks. He wanted Robert to take care of the house. As they would not be travelling with the dog, he would be most delighted if Robert would be kind enough to take care of Bingo. They were going to leave enough tinned food and milk for Bingo and some money so Robert could purchase bones to supplement his food. He hoped Robert did not mind.
Not in the least, Robert replied. But in his innermost heart, he knew he had found the opportunity he wanted.
After the departure of the couple, Robert, true to his training, obeyed his master’s orders to the letter. On the first and second days. On the third day, watching the dog lap his milk from a plate, a voice spoke to Robert. ‘who born dog?’ And to this ponderous question, Robert could find no other answer than ‘Dog’. And the anger in him welled. He looked at the dog, and the dog looked at him, wagging his tail. ‘Well may you wag your tail,’ Robert thought, ‘but I can tell you, I’m not going to waste my life taking care of you.’
He gathered up all the tins of dog food, all the tins of milk, tethered the dog to the settee and walked off, out of the house and the job he had loved to do. He gave the milk and dog food to his children when he got home.
And the dog died.