lola, baxter, suki & the shadow

I’m taking photos of a bricked-up window when a woman calls out to me from higher up the path.
I say! she says, then Hello? You there with the camera. Is your dog alright with puppies?
I turn to look.
It’s a woman in her late middle-age, dressed like a countess, lacquered hair and Alice band, navy-blue twinset, the cardigan draped over the shoulders and fixed by a button, the only concession to the walk being a pair of blindingly white court shoes. Her left arm’s crooked up for balance, presumably, the right extended straight out in front, attached to the lead of a porcine little pug, madly scrabbling its paws in its eagerness to make time. I know that pugs’ eyes bulge, but these seem particularly alarming. I put it down to the effort it’s making pulling the woman along.
‘She’s fine!’ I say, hoping to God it’s true. Lola doesn’t seem bothered, though. The pug makes a bunch of strangled yippy noises, describing a perfect arc in the dirt, but Lola lopes by safely out of reach with barely a glance.
‘What about cats?’ the woman says as she draws nearer.
‘Cats? Well – she lives with one. They get along. Why?’
‘Suki follows me when I go out.’
I can see a large, marmalade cat sitting on its haunches in the middle of the path, such an air of self-possession I wouldn’t be surprised if it produced a pair of field glasses and called in an airstrike by walkie talkie.
‘She’s so cute!’ I say.
‘She isn’t. Sometimes she turns and goes back. Sometimes she disappears. For weeks.’
I nod, like – yes – this is definitely something to bear in mind with cats.
‘She’ll be alright with her, y’think?’
‘I think so.’
In fact, Lola hasn’t even seen the cat. I’m not surprised. Last week she walked right past an adult deer over the woods: didn’t even look up. And once, when an entire herd of black and whites fell into line behind me all the way across the field, Lola walked calmly in front, like she expected exactly this to happen all along, and was actually a little disappointed.
I bend down to offer my hand to the pug, which it takes as an invitation to climb all over me.
‘Don’t encourage him,’ says the woman. ‘He’s already much too excited about these things. C’mon, Baxter…’

It’s certainly a day for meeting posh dog walkers.

Cut to: a tall, stooped figure in a tweed gilet and corduroy trousers, standing at the edge of the woods leaning on a rustic walking stick, one hand draped over the other, watching a stately black labrador sniffing around in the long grass. The man has a wide, thin-lipped mouth that barely moves when he talks, and the slightly fuddled demeanour of someone who’d woken up, dressed and made five miles before he knew what was going on.
‘Nice reprieve from the hot weather,’ he says when I draw level. ‘Not that I’m complaining, of course. One just needs time to aclimatise to these things.’
I agree with him and stand there a moment, catching my breath after the climb. Lola goes over to the labrador. They swap cards.
‘Good boy, Shadow,’ says the man, then raises his chin and stares off across the field.
‘Where are the brown cows, d’you think?’
‘Over that far side. Lying down under the trees.’
‘Ah!’ he says. ‘Good! Not that Shadow is troubled by them overmuch. Or they he’
‘No. He looks pretty solid.’
‘The black and whites are the worst,’ the man says. ‘Have you met those chaps?’
‘Absolutely! On the back field. They’re so inquisitive.’
‘Yes. They fell into line and followed us the other day. I think they thought I was going to milk them.’
He takes off his cap, scratches his head, replaces the cap.
‘I shouldn’t think there’s much to it, though. Do you?’
‘Probably not. You’d just have to watch the legs.’
‘Yes! I think I’d be a little twitchy in the old trouser department if someone started fiddling around with my udders.’

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