A drive out to see Alistair for another dog walk. It’s been a while since I was here – August, in fact – and even though it’s still something of a building site, they’ve accomplished a lot. He shows me the brick reservoir they’ve renovated in the middle of the land, how they’ve organised things so that everything drains into it. He shows me the pipes they’ve run from the tank to the raised vegetable beds off to the side, and the solar pump that’ll keep a trickle supply running. It’s all very organised and admirable. He’s even using rocks they’ve scavenged from all the clearance to landscape the area around the tank and make it good.
‘You have to use your imagination’ he says, but really, it’s not such an effort.
We head down to a gap in the fence at the bottom, and out onto the neighbouring field where a dozen horses in quilted jackets stand and stare at us, their breath steaming around them in the brisk morning air. Ailsa lies down and stares back, obviously wanting to round them up, but Alistair whistles for her to come, which she does, so quickly it’s as if she materialises from one spot to another.
‘Good girl’ says Alistair.
Meanwhile, Lola has chased after Dexter, heading for the woods. Lola would’ve caught him a few years ago, but these days she’s slowing up. Dexter leaves her behind, galumphing into the undergrowth and disappearing.
‘Dexter’s staying for a while,’ says Alistair discreetly, like he’s describing a guest at a rehab facility. ‘There’s something going on at home,’ he adds, darkly.
Ailsa has already overtaken Lola as they both chase after Dexter into the woods. Lola’s in love with Dexter. It wouldn’t surprise me if a little later we found their names carved by claw into a tree. A heart with an arrow, initials, kisses.
‘I’ve been getting into coding’ says Alistair, ducking under a wire fence. ‘It’s amazing how everything’s come on. It wasn’t so long ago you’d be struggling with a big old text book that was out of date as soon as you opened it. Now you can log onto forums and watch people explain it all on YouTube. It’s so much easier.’
‘I know! When I think how hard origami used to be, trying to figure out those drawings – dotted lines for a valley fold, a kinked arrow for a squash fold. Half the time I’d give up. Now you just watch a clip on YouTube. We had a whole series of origami books written by Robert Harbin. Is that how you say it? Harbin? It’s funny – I’ve never said it out loud before. It sounds made up.’
‘No, no. I think Harbin’s right.’
‘I bet no-one’s publishing origami books anymore.’
‘Or code books.’
‘Or any books!’
It suddenly strikes me. We are almost certainly the biggest nerds ever to walk through these woods. It’s probably a good thing duck season hasn’t started.
Alistair yawns whilst I stop to take some pictures of a derelict railway bridge, the tracks gone, the brick parapet breached by thick stems of ivy.
‘Sorry,’ he says. ‘I got up so early this morning.’
‘Why? Couldn’t you sleep?’
‘No – it was just that when I went to bed I was trying to figure out a tricky bit of code, and then about four o’clock, I sat up straight from a dream, and I was convinced it was telling me the answer. So I went downstairs and tried it out.’
‘Did it work?’
‘No,’ he says. ‘Complete garbage. I’ve been yawning ever since.’
‘I remember reading about this chemist who was trying to figure out the molecular structure of benzene, and he had a dream about a snake with its tail in its mouth, and that’s how he figured it out.’
‘I read that, too’ says Alistair. ‘Bastard.’
The dogs appear again, Dexter first, closely followed by Lola and Ailsa. We come to another stile. There’s an elderly woman the other side, rattling a bag of treats and shouting Arthur! All three dogs leap through the gap and sit around her.
‘You’re not Arthur,’ she says, but they carry on sitting anyway.
‘Lost your dog?’ says Alistair, climbing over.
‘I’ve only had him two weeks,’ she says.
The woman is strangely dressed for the muddy conditions. She’s wearing a red two piece suit with a fur trim, soft leather boots, and a pointy, green velvet hat. In fact, it’d be easier to think she she was on her way to an audition for Robin Hood than taking a dog called Arthur for a walk. But who knows? Maybe this is all a last minute decision.
‘Are your dogs okay with other dogs?’ she says.
‘Fine’ says Alistair. The worst Ailsa will do is round him up.’
‘And Lola’s too busy with Dexter to notice anyone else.’
The old woman cuts across us.
‘There!’ she says, pointing with the treat bag. ‘Arthur!’
We all turn to look (including the dogs).
Arthur turns out to be a heavy Alsatian, warily hanging back on the brow of the hill. I must admit I’m shocked. I was expecting something smaller. I can’t imagine the woman being able to hold onto a hound as substantial as Arthur. She’d be safer throwing a saddle on his back and riding him home.
‘Arthur!’ cries the old woman again, shaking the bag of treats in the air again. The dogs – giving up on the treats as any kind of prospect – jump to their feet and race up the hill to intercept him, Dexter and Ailsa making the running, Lola tagging on behind.
‘Are you sure they’ll be alright?’ says the woman.
‘Of course!’ says Alistair. ‘Just look at those tails!’