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The Independent Online
Every August, the barber I go to, Derek, a fearfully nice guy, takes a long-haul holiday. He usually goes to Thailand. He's been there 16 times to my knowledge. Says he likes the scenery. This year, however, he went to Newfoundland.

"But, Derek," I said, the last time I was in his chair, "there are no rub'n'tug shops in Newfoundland. You've been badly advised, mate. There probably are not even any women." But he was concentrating hard on shaping my left sideburn at a slightly different angle to the right one and said nothing.

So off he went to Newfoundland. As usual, I was charged with watering his tomatoes while he was away and also, this year, with looking after Sheba, his aged black Labrador. Normally, he bungs Sheba in kennels when he goes away, but she's quite old now and doesn't like to move about much. So I told Derek I'd be pleased to have her while he was away, and, after giving it some thought, Derek agreed. He even said he'd give me a free haircut for doing it when he got back.

Rather than leaving Sheba at Derek's house and just feeding her and letting her out every day, I brought her back to my place for a bit of company. I'd invite her into my office and she'd curl up at my feet while I typed. Sometimes she'd rest her old grey muzzle on my feet. Nice, that. She was a quiet, unassuming dog and I enjoyed her company.

The first time I took her out for a walk, the old girl only managed a few steps and then stood there swaying and looking at me through her opaque eyes. So we called it a day and gave the walks a miss after that. She was so unassuming she didn't eat or drink much either, and not once did she ask to go outside to do a job in the garden. I was very impressed. The next dog I get, I said to myself, will be an elderly one. They are far less trouble. You hardly know they are there.

Then Steve Christmas turned up with two of his fingers in a sling. He'd broken them defending himself from his wife who had assaulted him with her new tennis racquet. Could he stay for a couple of nights? Of course, Steve, I said, of course.

Steve is a radio technician with Radio 2. The first night he stayed he didn't sleep a wink. He looked terrible next morning. He said he couldn't sleep because he was worried about having to fix a microphone on to Dolly Parton's chest for a live radio interview that afternoon. The thought of it was making him that nervous and, with two fingers in a sling, he wasn't sure that he would be able to go through with it. He did it OK though. He was very quiet afterwards, but he did it OK.

Then there was all that business with the eclipse. Should we look, or shouldn't we? In the event, we all tried hard not to look until someone cried: "Look! There it is!" We all looked and now we are all worried about our eyesight. The bloke down at the 7-eleven is very worried. He conscientiously put a pinhole in a piece of card, but instead of holding it away from himself, covered his face with the card and actually tried to peer through the pinhole directly at the sun.

On top of all this, when I went back indoors to do some work, I squatted down to give Sheba a stroke and found that she was dead. She was lying in the same position she had been lying in when I had glanced at her that morning.

Cancer, said the vet when he came. Riddled. I told him I felt terrible about her and he said I ought to. I should have been more pro-active when I saw that the dog wasn't drinking, he said. He took her away in his Land- rover Discovery and I put his bill in an envelope to give to Derek when he came back from Newfoundland.

And then I remembered Derek's tomatoes. I'd been so taken up with Steve and the dog and everything, I'd forgotten all about them. I jogged round to Derek's house and went round the back. Inside the greenhouse was a scene of utter desolation. Everything in there was either yellow or a crisp brown - and long dead. I think I'll write off that free haircut for a start.