(Lyndall Bywater, January 2019)
(16 minute read)
Tizwot the Sheep lived in a pretty little bungalow on the edge of a pretty little village (and for the purposes of this story I’ll ask you to kindly refrain from pointing out that sheep don’t live in bungalows). Hers wasn’t the smartest bungalow on the street; that belonged to Scratchit the Cat. Neither was hers the busiest bungalow on the street; that belonged to Fixit the Dog. Tizwot’s bungalow was shabby, quiet, cosy and welcoming, much like Tizwot herself.
Tizwot the Sheep, Scratchit the Cat and Fixit the Dog were firm friends, though they had hardly anything in common. Being a cat, Scratchit was proud and fastidious. Her house was always impeccably clean, her paws never left footprints, and her coat never had a hair out of place. In her opinion, Tizwot was unkempt and Fixit was untidy, but she loved them dearly … well, at least, she loved them as dearly as you love anyone when you’re trying to keep them from messing up your pristine life.
Being a dog, Fixit was hard-wired for loyalty and helpfulness. She’d do anything for anybody, as long as she had the tools, and since she was the owner of a very shaggy coat, she could hang all sorts of useful gadgets about her person, which meant she usually did have whatever tool was needed. Her house was frankly a mess, but not because she was slovenly, just because she had so many projects on the go. She was gluing a broken vase back together for Scampers the Otter (an unfortunate incident with a lump hammer), she was knitting new hats and gloves for all of Francesca the Mouse’s thirty-six new babies, and she was providing admin services for Wesley the Bear’s election campaign … well, it had all gone a bit wrong for him when he took on that Sonya the Goat as his campaign secretary and she munched her way through his flyer mailout. But Fixit was ready to step into the breach, being the only dog within a hundred miles to own a photocopier and a franking machine. In fact, Fixit was always on hand to get you out of whatever mess you’d got yourself into. In her opinion, Tizwot was much too laid-back and Scratchit was far too self-absorbed, but she loved her friends dearly. After all, they’d both need rescuing eventually.
As for Tizwot, she was indeed rather unkempt. Her fleece looked thoroughly lived-in, and her house needed a clean. She was just too laid-back to bother. Why waste energy on such things when there was tea to drink, flowers to smell and sunshine to sit in? This irresponsible attitude might have driven Scratchit and Fixit to distraction were it not for the fact that Tizwot had an excuse. Tizwot the Sheep only had three legs. Scratchit purred patronisingly about how self-care was more difficult for the disabled, and Fixit panted enthusiastically about the big spring-clean she was going to do for her friend someday soon, and all the while, Tizwot smiled a sheepish smile and let them think what they would. She loved her friends very much.
One day, as Scratchit was sweeping her front step, Fixit was delivering a food parcel and Tizwot was drinking tea in the sunshine, a large removal van arrived in the street. Number seven had been empty for ages, so there was much excitement about the new residents. The three friends had spent many happy hours hypothesising about their neighbours-to-be. Scratchit was hoping for a bit of class. Fixit was sure it would be someone needing lots of support. Tizwot had no preference but had bought in some particularly nice biscuits in readiness. When the van door opened, all three were rather surprised to see a large rat clamber out.
‘His coat was filthy,’ said Scratchit, as they gathered later for a debrief. ‘I swear I could smell him from half-way up the street.’
‘I thought he looked troubled,’ said Fixit. ‘There’s a story there. I’ll go over later to see what he needs.’
Tizwot just kept tapping her hoof to the tune in her head.
‘What did you think, Tiz,’ asked Fixit, when it looked like Scratchit was about to explode with irritation at the tapping.
‘I didn’t think anything,’ she said, taking another sip of tea.
The rat was called Wrong’un, and it’s fair to say that his residence in that pretty little street did not get off to a good start. He was antisocial; he played loud music at night and left his food waste strewn all over the driveway, just so his many rat friends could come over and party on his leftovers. He was rude to everyone he met, and he refused every neighbourly gesture. He even told Wesley the Bear that he’d rather eat himself alive, tail first, than waste his council election vote on such a pathetic loser.
Scratchit was the first of the three friends to reach the end of her tether. They were due to have their daily tea-time cuppa at Fixit’s but her kitchen was out of bounds after the school science experiment she’d been helping little Loopy the Rabbit with had gone spectacularly wrong, so she and Tizwot decided to reconvene at the cat’s house. They knew something was very wrong the moment they entered. Instead of rushing at them with a towel to wipe their feet, Scratchit stayed rooted to her chair, studying something sharp and shiny.
‘What are you doing?’ Asked Fixit.
‘Sharpening …’ said Scratchit, her voice tailing off mysteriously.
‘Sharpening what?’ Asked Tizwot.
‘Why? Aren’t they sharp enough?’
‘Not for what I need to do.’
‘And what do you need to do?’ Asked Fixit, her voice shaking a little.
‘I need to teach that filthy rat a lesson. Maybe I’ll rip his filthy throat out.’
Fixit looked over at Tizwot. They’d never seen Scratchit like this.
‘Erm … why do you want to do that?’ Asked Tizwot, pulling up a chair opposite Scratchit and waving Fixit over to the kettle.
‘Because I hate him. Since he arrived, he has done nothing but offend people. He’s disgusting. His living habits are a health hazard. He’s foul-mouthed. He’s rude and arrogant. He’s dirty and dangerous and he’s making this street a misery to live in. Will that do for enough reasons?’
The speech did at least have the effect of distracting Scratchit from her claw-sharpening for a while.
‘Yes, but you can’t hurt him, Scratch. That’s well out of order,’ said Fixit as she frantically wiped up the four drops of water she’d spilled on the shiny-as-new draining-board.
‘Why the hell not,’ hissed Scratchit. ‘Someone’s got to do something about him and I don’t see anyone else stepping up to exterminate vermin around here.’
Tizwot looked long and hard at her friend. ‘Scratch, has something happened?’
‘Well, I know he’s annoying but this just seems a bit … extreme.’
‘Hang on … weren’t you talking to him in the street earlier?’ Said Fixit. Scratchit didn’t answer but her eyes flashed with venom. ‘Did he say something to you?’
It took a long time, but eventually it came.
‘I told him I’d set fire to his rubbish if he didn’t stop leaving it all over the drive. With any luck I’d have incinerated a few of his vile little rat friends at the same time. Anyway, he told me he’d get a mate to torch my house if I ever so much as talked to him again.’ She stopped and took a deep breath. ‘He’s not safe. I’m not safe. We’re not safe here anymore. You get that, don’t you?’
‘Of course I do,’ said Tizwot, reaching across the table and touching her friend’s paw, ‘but you’d make things so much worse by trying to get rid of him like that. And anyway, maiming other living creatures is very messy. You’d hate all the gore.’
Scratchit growled deep in her throat and licked her lips. That’s when Tizwot knew things were really bad.
They both looked up in surprise as they heard the front door slam. Fixit had gone. Tizwot managed to persuade her friend to take a break from the claw-sharpening, and they spent fifteen minutes or so drinking together in companionable silence.
When Fixit came back, she was panting even more than usual.
‘OK, I’ve sorted it, Scratch. We can’t have you going over there and damaging him. You’d only end up in prison. But we do have to find some kind of solution to this. It can’t go on. So I’ve got Wes talking to the Council about an eviction order … don’t worry,’ she said, as Scratchit flinched in fear, ‘I told him to do it on the quiet. And I’ve asked Wilber the Owl to set up some kind of mediation between Wrong’un and the rest of us so we can work out a way through. Oh, and I’m going to take him some leaflets for local counselling services. He obviously has some deep-seated issues to work through. Then I’ll clear his driveway and see if I can’t have a few words about personal hygiene. It’s one of the advantages of being a dog, I guess … you don’t get scared by rats.’ She put a very large, very shaggy paw on Scratchit’s back and licked her ear affectionately. ‘Don’t you worry, friend. I’ve got this sorted.’
Tizwot smiled. ‘Trust Fix to come up with a plan, eh? Will you at least hold off on the assassination attempt till we see if that lot works?’
Scratchit agreed, albeit grudgingly, and the three finished their tea.
It’s fair to say that Fixit’s plans were far from successful. Wes the Bear accidentally forgot to be discreet in his report to the Council (perhaps because of his own vendetta against the rat), and before too long the whole street knew about it. Scratchit had to move into Fixit’s for fear of her house being torched, and those two living together was every bit the disaster you might imagine it could be. Wilber the Owl did attempt to set up some kind of mediation, but Wrong’un declined, using vocabulary which even the wise old bird had never heard before. Fixit tried to talk to Wrong’un about his personal and household hygiene, but it turns out that rats can indeed inflict considerable pain on even the largest dog. And as for the counselling leaflets: she’s still too embarrassed to talk about where they ended up, and the vet who extricated them has been sworn to secrecy.
‘That’s it then,’ said Scratchit, a week or so later, ‘we’ve tried everything and the filthy beast is still getting away with whatever he likes.’
Fixit knew that manic, glazed-over expression all too well. Before the claw-sharpener could make its appearance, she interrupted. ‘Let’s head over to Tiz’s for tea, shall we?’
‘We’re an hour early.’
‘Oh, she won’t mind,’ said Fixit, heading for the door.
They were at the bottom of Tizwot’s garden path when it happened. The door to the shabby little house opened, and out came Wrong’un the Rat.
Scratchit hissed. ‘What the hell is he doing here?’
Fixit retreated a few steps, thoughts of counselling leaflets flashing through her mind. ‘No idea. Shall we go?’
‘Not likely. I want to know what that shifty sheep has been playing at.’
Wrong’un was almost level with them now, and to their surprise he waved a grimy paw in their direction. ‘Hello, ladies!’
The baffled cat looked at the disconcerted dog, and then they rushed for Tizwot’s door. They agreed afterwards that they’d expected to find her lying dead on the floor, a pot of mint sauce placed provocatively in her open mouth, but she was well and truly alive, washing up two teacups and a teapot.
‘You’re early,’ she said, reaching for the teatowel. ‘I was going to drain these but now I’ll have to dry them so we can brew up again.’
Scratchit took the teatowel, holding it by one corner because it was a bit too grubby for her liking, and Fixit took the cup. ‘Stop right there,’ she said. ‘What on earth has been going on here?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Cut the sheep crap, Tiz,’ said Scratchit. ‘We’ve just seen Ratty Boy walking down your garden path.’
‘Yes, and he waved to us,’ said Fixit.
‘That was nice of him.’
Gently but firmly the two friends led Tizwot to her living room and sat her in her favourite chair.
‘No-one gets any tea,’ said Scratchit, ‘till you tell us why that wretched beast was in this house.’
‘He was here because he comes every day at this time.’
The two friends uttered the word simultaneously, and it was hard to work out whether astonishment or outrage was stronger.
‘He’s been coming every day since he moved in … pretty much.’
‘But why?’ Asked Fixit. ‘And why haven’t you told us. You know what a nightmare this has all been … especially for Scratch. And you’ve been giving him tea and sympathy all along.’
‘Yes, I guess you could put it like that.’
‘Oh, come on, Tiz! The nasty piece of work makes my life a living hell and you’ve just been letting him come round for tea,’ said Scratchit, flexing her claws in her rage. ‘What did you even talk about? Were you giving him tips on the best place to start a fire in my house?’
‘No, of course not. We don’t really talk about anything. I mean, sometimes we talk about the weather or his cars, but mostly we sit and drink tea.’
‘But why?’ The question burst from Fixit with such exasperation that she nearly toppled off her chair. ‘You know we’ve been trying to get this whole mess sorted out, and you just happen to have been meeting him for a nice cosy cuppa every day. Don’t you think it might have been worth mentioning that? We could have used that as a way to … get him on the right track.’
Tizwot sighed and settled herself more comfortably in her heavy fleece. There was affection in her eyes as she looked at her friends’ troubled faces. ‘You two are amazing. I could never do what you do. Scratch, you’re so brave. I know this has been hell for you, and I get why you want to attack Wrong’un. He’s threatened you and scared you half to death. I wish I was as brave as you are when I get scared.
‘And you, Fix, you’re amazing too, the way you can think of a million solutions to a million problems all at once. I know he’s been a problem … still is, I imagine. I know you want to get the whole thing set right. I wish I was half the problem-solver you are. But I’m not. All I am is a sheep who drinks tea. At first I thought there was nothing I could do to help, but then it hit me … the best thing I could do was the thing I was already doing.
‘When Wrong’un first moved in, I invited him round for tea … and biscuits. I figure rats like biscuits. He came. Maybe that’s because it was before all the trouble started. He wasn’t rude to me. He didn’t threaten me. He just came and sat here and drank tea. He did eat a lot of biscuits, mind you.
‘Then all that stuff happened with you and him, Scratch, and I thought maybe I should have a word with him. You’re my friend after all. But the next time he came he just seemed sad, and I didn’t know how to say anything confrontational, so I didn’t say anything. All through that week, Fix, when you were trying to get him dealt with, he just kept coming and I still didn’t know what to say, so we just sat there together in silence. And it’s just carried on like that … well, until today.’
She trailed off, a tear running down her cheek.
‘Oh, Tiz!’ Fixit rushed over to put a paw on her shoulder.
‘Did he do something to you,’ asked Scratchit, her claws flexing again.
‘No, no, nothing like that. Today was different because he talked more than usual. It turns out he’s had a horrible life …’
‘Oh yeah, of course he has,’ said Scratchit, cutting across Tizwot’s words, her voice thick with irony. ‘That’ll be why it’s OK for him to make life miserable for the rest of us, right?’
‘No, of course it’s not. I think he does actually know that. After he’d told me some of his story, he admitted that he had done some bad stuff here. He doesn’t regret the counselling leaflets though, Fix …’ Fixit growled quietly. ‘And I even managed to say some stuff myself … stuff about how hard it is for us living in this street when it’s always been so peaceful. I don’t know, but I think he got it.’
The other two were silent, both remembering the not-unfriendly wave as they met at the garden gate. Eventually, Fixit broke the silence: ‘Well, it’s a good starting point. Now you’ve got this connection with him, Tiz, we can start to build from there. Maybe you can get him to agree to some help … but don’t suggest counselling just yet, will you,’ she said, shuddering.
‘And if we don’t start seeing some changes, I’m going to have to take it to the next level, OK? I’m serious, Tiz. If you can’t get him to change his ways, I’m not going to be responsible for my actions.’
Tizwot thought for a long time, then she said: ‘I’m not going to do any of that. You can both carry on doing it your way, but I’ve got to do what I promised to do, and that was just to sit with him – not to change him, just to welcome him. If that helps make things better, and I hope it does, then that’s great. But if it doesn’t, I’ll do it anyway.’
‘Who did you promise that to?’ Asked Scratch, her voice scathing.
Tizwot looked far off into the distance before she answered. ‘I promised my mum. I was quite young when she died, and just before … the end … we were talking about my name. I was still quite young and I’d never thought to ask why I had such an unusual name. She told me it had come from my dad. Apparently he was really angry when I was born with one of my legs missing. In those early days, every time he saw me, he’d get upset, crying and wanting to know why I had to be “like that”. My mum was a peaceful soul. She just took things as they were and made the best of them. So she used to say to him: “Nat, darling, it is what it is”.
‘He hated that answer, and he’d walk off in a huff, muttering that phrase over and over to himself: “it is what it is”, till in the end it was the first thing he’d say every time he saw me. Well, he had a real country accent, so what he actually said was: “’tis what ‘tis”. And the name sort of stuck. Tizwot. I think I was called Esmerelda or something originally, but everyone ended up calling me Tizwot in the end.’ She chuckled. It was a lucky escape, come to think of it.’
‘So, when my mum and I were talking just before she died, she wanted me to get it … to know how important it is to let things be what they are. “It is what it is,” she’d say, “and you’ll do well to accept that, my darling.”’
In the silence that followed, Fixit actually bristled a little. After a moment’s thought, she said: ‘I’m sure your mum was a good woman, but we can’t live like that, Tiz. If you just let things be what they are, you’ll never see any change. Surely we’re meant to make things better, aren’t we?’
‘And if we can’t make them better,’ said Scratchit, her hackles rising, ‘then at least we should stop them hurting us or our loved ones, right? I know you sheep are a pretty passive bunch, but surely you must advocate various forms of self-defence.’
‘Most things only need defending against if you get into a fight with them in the first place, Scratch. And as for making things better, Fix, maybe that’s not always the first thing we should do. Sure, things do need putting right and making better. If we’re not allowed to do that anymore then you’ll be pacing around with nothing to do all day. But how can you know how something’s broken or how it needs fixing unless you sit with it for a bit and get to know it? How can you know what to do unless you listen?’
‘So, is this strategy of yours going to work? Is Wrong’un going to change and become the nice neighbour he ought to be?’ For a gentle dog, Fixit’s tone was abrasive.
Tizwot sighed again. ‘It’s not a strategy, Fix, and I don’t know. He is what he is, and I’m going to carry on sitting with him. I’m not doing it for a result. I’m not even sure it’s completely safe, before you say anything, Scratch. I’m going to do it because it’s the truest thing I know to do.’
In all the best stories, this is the part where I tell you that, through Tizwot’s gentle acceptance, Wrong’un did indeed see the error of his ways, begged Scratchit’s forgiveness and asked Fixit to accompany him to his first counselling session. But this isn’t that story. This is the story of three different characters responding to something they didn’t like. One of them fought it off, all instinct and claws. One of them decided to change it, using all her rational powers to put it right and make it better. And one of them looked it full in the face and said to herself: ‘It is what it is.’ Then she opened her door and invited it in for tea. Sometimes it scared her; sometimes she wanted to change it, but always she held on to that truth, lodged in the very depths of herself, that peace comes first of all from choosing to see things as they are. Her friends got fearful from fighting and weary from fixing, but Tizwot just drank an awful lot of tea.