Chapter 15: Stanley, Queen of Egypt

Too doggone hot – Water shortages – Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra – sleepy foals – An exciting new movie about a Poacher and his Lurcher – Are you the farmer? – One man and his gigantic hound

Heatwave. Except – it goes on so long it’s not so much a wave as a full-on, thermal flood, transforming the country from a chilly European outpost to a hard, blue Mediterranean wannabe. And of course, the trouble is, because we’re mostly used to shivering indoors in our coats, or tapping snails from our wellies, or bailing out river water with saucepans, we’re not really set up for it. The endless torrents that fell over winter disappear overnight. The taps start to run thin, and you suddenly you find yourself queuing at the local football ground to score a few bottles of water.

It’s so hot, we can only walk Stanley early in the morning. He runs around for about five minutes then spends the rest of the time dowsing for springs. His ludicrous white fur coat must be a burden, but he’s very fashion conscious and refuses to strip down to his furry undies like the rest of us. When we get back, Kath puts a wet tea towel over his head and takes a picture, holding it up against one of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. And I have to say, there’s a definite likeness. Although on balance I think Liz beats Stan by a nose.

Mostly he spends his time sprawled out flat in front of the fan, or under a tree in the garden, or on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor, panting steadily and determinedly with a noise like a woodsman sawing logs. We keep his water bowl topped up. He struggles, but puts on a brave face, exactly like Cleopatra, smiling mysteriously from her basket as she watches the pyramids go up in the garden.

And like Stan, the Hole in the Hedge gang are hot and sleepy, too. They’ve had a few foals (I’m too stupid with heat to Google the collective noun – a ninny? a cuteness?) and although sometimes they chase and kick each other to no great purpose, and generally leap about, sneaking up on their parents round the blackberry thickets, most of the time they’re stretched out on their sides, flicking their tails at a constant bothering of flies.

Stan ignores them – which is progress. Not so long ago he’d have looked at them with alarm, barking like they were monstrous creatures with iron paws who’d been spawned from the very earth (I have to say I agree with him on that one). Now, he yawns and carries on, pulling on the lead, keen to get into the next field, which is much more secure, free of horses, and just right for a mad and uncoordinated long-legged lurcher to throw himself around in.

He does his usual thing, which is a combination of sniffing, running, jogging, jumping, leaping, nosing about, standing still with ears lifted, standing still with leg lifted, and original combinations of the above. We thought at first he’d be an awesome rabbiter. Although I have to admit much of that was based on how he looked. I mean, if I was casting a film about a poacher and his dog (set in the early nineteenth century, where the poacher gets tricked into joining the British army, and finds himself fighting in the Peninsular War, where his poaching skills come in very handy, but he gets wounded, and thrown in prison, and he’s pretty much had it, when a mysterious old woman charms the guards and bribes them with pawful of hard biscuits, and they let her in to tend to the wounded, and then she throws off her shawls, and it’s the lurcher, who gives a disgusting cough and vomits up the key he lifted off the guards, and they all escape, and after many adventures – none of which involving horses – end up back in the old Sussex pub they started out from, struggling to make a living selling rabbit skins and old blogposts) – well, then, I’m confident Stanley would get a callback. I don’t think his rabbiting skills are all that, though. When he sees one he freezes, and only runs after it when he’s confident it’s made it at least halfway down the hole.

Whether it’s the heat, or whether it’s the excellent training we’ve been putting him through, courtesy of Adina, I don’t know, but this time on the walk Stanley seems remarkably calm and well-behaved. He doesn’t bark at the horses. He comes back when I call. He notes the presence of another dog on the other side of the field but doesn’t launch himself over there. All-in-all, he’s pretty damned good.

I see one of the regular walkers the far side of the main field. It’s a guy I try to keep clear of, to be honest. An elderly guy, a farmer type, squashed down firmly into his boots by the flat of his cap. The kind of farmer who lost his license for unspecified misdemeanors. Who has a Suzuki Jimny with a pheasant feather on the dash and a bumper sticker that says: Keep your bullshit in Westminster. He’s got a pack of Jack Russells that he seems, by the sound of it, to hate. They’re a torment to him. You can hear him cursing at them as he blunders through the kissing gate. You’d think to hear him he was leading a pack of hyenas. Actually, they seem pretty good (from a distance). They trot ahead of him, happily sniffing around, enjoying the early morning air whilst he curses and growls behind them. Once I saw him throw his walking stick in their direction – which seemed pointless, because it only made them trot further on ahead, and meant he had to go and pick up his stick, which didn’t improve his mood any. The point is, Stanley didn’t even respond to them, which is a miracle out of scriptures.

The most miraculous moment comes a little later, though. We’re halfway through the twitten – a nerve-stretching alleyway at the end of the walk – because once you’re committed to it, there’s no turning back. We’re approaching the main road. Suddenly, a man walks past with the most enormous dog I’ve ever seen. I’d say Munsterlander but I’m not sure that’s even a thing. It’s big anyway, bigger than the horses, bigger than the man, and certainly bigger than Stanley. I reach for the treat bag, my heart dropping because I know only a dart from a ranger at the wildlife park could stop Stanley barking now. He doesn’t, though. All that happens is his mouth drops open, his eyes widen and he tenses up. But he doesn’t make a sound.

‘Morning!’ says the man, striding on.

‘Morning!’ I say.

‘Lovely day!’ he says.

‘Hot!’ I say.

And that’s it. They’re gone.

Stan gives himself a little shake. I’m so shocked I eat the dog treat I’d taken out of the bag.

‘Come on, Stan,’ I say, screwing up my face.

And holding his tail in neutral, happy alignment, he follows.

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