Chapter 18: Unreliable Witnesses

Photoshop for Beginners – Into the Woods & Into the Zone – Guard Duty – Jenny & Cecil – Rain & How Animals React to it – An Alarming Picture of One Man & His Labrador – Fake Horses – Crows & Cameras

If Lola seems to have disappeared from this journal for a while, it’s because we’ve been tending to walk her separately. The thing is, before Stanley (B.C.E, or Before Considering Extra-lurcher) she’d been used to long walks over the woods. Off the lead, free to follow her nose from the moment we push through the kissing gate back of the rec. Lola’s completely reliable – dogs, people, cows, dinosaurs (no doubt, if there were any). So all in all, it’s an easy time. The kind of idyllic, carefree country walk you see in adverts for dog food or laxatives. Not only does it mean she gets plenty of exercise, it gives me time to wander off in my own head, a meditative, semi-vegetative state, like a dozy shaolin monk, but in a kagool, not a robe, an iPhone instead of a flute, squinting up at the dazzling patterns of the leaves against the sun, whilst Lola looks back at me from way along the path, wondering what the hell’s holding me up.

It’s a different kind of walk with Stanley, I’m afraid. More like walking a maximum-security criminal round an exercise yard, Stanley in an orange boiler suit, grinning up at the watchtower guards, chewing grass, gauging distances / response times.

I’m over-selling it, of course. He’s not that bad. And if he is, he has good reason. He had nine years of not being walked before we adopted him, so it’s not surprising he has a few issues. The only thing is, you do have to watch him, and it’s not what you might call relaxing. I seem to spend my time continually passing Stanley treats, or scanning the horizon with field binoculars. With Lola, if we see another dog walker, and our paths happen to cross – great! We chat, we talk about this and that. I miss catching up with the people I’ve come to know over the last few years.

Take Jenny, for example.

Jenny’s a middle-aged woman with – from top to bottom – wild white hair, Onassis sunglasses, Barbour jacket, tight blue jeans, hacking boots, and a pug called Cecil. Except for a couple of days midsummer, Cecil is always in a fleecy wraparound, much like a babygro except tighter and with a hole for his stubby tail (although, thinking about it, you have poppered holes for nappy access, so maybe it would make a cheaper alternative, and you could buy them in packs of three). Cecil’s fleece always looks a bit too tight, because he walks with the kind of stiff-legged roll you’d imagine an occasional table would walk with if it could, and his eyes bug-out alarmingly. But that’s a feature of the breed, I suppose, and something you might go for if you had a kink about dyspeptic bank managers. They have a fraught relationship, Jenny and Cecil. You can hear them coming from a long way off, Jenny snapping out his name constantly, driven mad by his latest infraction, like Cecil stopping to sniff a flower, or snacking on rabbit droppings.
‘At least it’s organic,’ I say.
‘Highly toxic!’ says Jenny, clapping him away. ‘We’ll suffer for that later.’

Jenny is worried about everything. Her anxiety is a force of nature, all-encompassing, a low-lying cloud of generalised concern, covering everything from Brexit and the pandemic to the kids who hang around the recreation ground. Trying to stay positive when you’re talking to Jenny is a bit like when you mix all the colours in your paintbox: you start off with yellows and reds but despite your best efforts you end up with puce. It’s exhausting talking to her, like blundering into quicksand and trying to whistle for help. But she often says such strange things I like it. And Cecil is always good value.
‘I was thinking of helping them out over Brexit,’ she says, frowning at Cecil by way of illustration.
‘Oh? In what way?’
‘Fruit picking. I hear they’re a bit short. I think I’d quite like a bit of fruit picking, in East Anglia or wherever it is they do that kind of thing. Lincolnshire, is it? Somewhere flat. But then again, you see, I don’t want to end up in a dormitory. If they give me one of those sweet little painted caravans, well, then – fine – I can cope with that. But a dormitory… Cecil! Don’t eat that! You’ll blow up and die!’

She has bracing views on most things. The pandemic gives her plenty of scope to sound off about the state of the health service, the government and so on. I offer the usual line, which is that they want to dampen the spread of the infection so the health service doesn’t get overwhelmed.
‘We just need a vaccine,’ I say. ‘Once we’ve got that we can start getting back to normal.’
‘Well you know what I think about that,’ she says.
‘What?’
‘Well it’s obvious!’ she says. ‘What did we do before all this medicine? We built up immunity! That’s what we did! Some people would die, of course, but they would have anyway…Cecil! Put that down, darling!’
I mention diphtheria and smallpox, the fact that vaccines had eradicated them in the community. Without vaccination we’d still have a ton of young people dying before they reached adulthood.
‘Maybe,’ she says, unconvinced that’s such a bad idea. ‘I’m not a scientist. All I can say is how I see it.’
She suddenly seems sad.
‘I don’t know,’ she says, with a sigh. ‘Everything’s changing and not for the better. You know – I completed on my mother’s house the other day.’
I’m not sure whether to congratulate her or offer my condolences, so in the end I just raise my eyebrows and nod.
‘I celebrated with champagne and strawberries, but they gave me indigestion. I thought I was having a heart attack. And then I couldn’t sleep, because I kept on having the same thought. If I died here now, who would find me? And what would they think?’
She looks at Cecil again, as if to imagine what he’d have done. But shockingly, Cecil has blundered down onto the shallow bed of a nearby stream, where he snuffles happily and noisily amongst the rocks.
‘Cecil! Cecil!’ she cries, sliding down to grab hold of his collar, then dragging him back up again.
‘I’ve already had to take him to the vets with a chest infection,’ she says. ‘Last time he went after a ball and got water on the lung. He thinks he can get away with these things but he can’t, you see. He can’t. Just because your face is flat, doesn’t mean you can breathe underwater.’
‘No. I suppose not.’

*

Today, though, I decide to take Lola out with Stanley. It’s pouring with rain, and forecast to stay that way, so I figure it’s better they go together for a short walk over the fields and get the thing over and done with. Neither dog is enthusiastic. Stanley pushes his head out of the dog flap, holds it there a second, then slowly withdraws and looks up at me with the kind of expression you might see on a stunt man who’s just been asked to throw himself off Niagara Falls.
‘You’ll like it when you’re out,’ I tell him, pulling on a hat and a waterproof (and feeling a little guilty about that).

The walk doesn’t start well.

As soon as we’re through the back gate, Stan sees a man and a Labrador trudging past the front of the house, so he lets out one of his horrendous, howitzer-grade barks. And although I know I’m prone to exaggeration now and again, and won’t stand up in court about this particular detail, I think I’m right in saying that the dog did the splits in mid-air and the man’s hat blew off. I wave an apology as they hurry on. Lola looks up at me, already drenched, with a tragic look on her face, as if to say: You see? You see what happens?

We carry on with the walk.

And actually, it’s okay. Bad weather always looks worse when you’re snug and warm indoors. The rain takes pity on us and eases a little. The dogs give a couple of shakes, magically transforming their fur into primitive anoraks, and they trot along happily enough. One benefit of the bad weather is that there aren’t too many other people out, so it’s a clear run through the housing estate to the fields out back. All the horses of The Hole in the Hedge gang are out, standing as motionless and menacing and dripping as life-size model horses in the rain, so it’s easy to pick a route that’s equidistant from each and make it through to the fenced field the far side. I let the dogs off, and they tear around after each other through the saturated grass. I even have time to take a photograph – or try to. There are two crows perched on the top branch of a tall, dead tree. I figure it’ll be a moody shot to catch them as they fly off, so I wait at the bottom of the tree with my phone held up over my head. And wait. And wait.

And I might be wrong – and I definitely can’t promise to stand up in court and testify about this – but I think I’m right in saying, one of them slips a little black phone out from under its wing, and takes a photo of me.

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