Chapter 23: A Farmer is Born

Water shortage remembered – (Yes, Another) Rainy Day – Dogs Doing Time – The Farmer (s) – The Making Of – A Poorly Judged Jump – Smugness of a Four-Legged Animal – Squirrel Dance– Dance of the Dogs

There was a heatwave in August. After ten days of unbroken sunshine, the pressure from the taps started to fall, and the word went out that we had a water shortage. Trucks started delivering bottled water to a collection centre hastily set up in the car park of the local rugby club. We queued for our allocation, gossiped about this and that, ripped the water company to shreds, took our precious cargo home. The water company blamed the failure on customers doing despicable customery things, like washing cars, filling paddling pools, watering gardens. It seemed crazy, though. Didn’t we get enough rainfall through the year? Ten days of sunshine and then rationing? What could we take from that? (Apart from twelve litres of bottled water at a collection centre?)

Yesterday could have filled a hundred reservoirs on its own. It rained all day. So long and so thoroughly that the sun gave up and left us to it. Went off to find some more hospitable planet to hang out with. We were inundated, drenched, saturated, soaked. We took a thorough-going hosing. When I went to meet my daughter from school with an umbrella, I felt like a species of depressed jellyfish hovering uncertainly along the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Getting splashed by bastard car fish.

The point to all this is that the dogs didn’t get a walk. Normally if the weather’s bad we’ll take them for a stretch, but things were so rough we’d have needed flotation devices. Consequently they lay around the place, draped over the furniture in forlorn attitudes, playing harmonica, bouncing a ball against the wall, lying on their backs with one paw crooked up behind their head, smoking tripe sticks, saying stuff like ‘Hey! D’you remember that crazy little dachshund? Out of west side…? Whatever happened to him…?’

Which is why today they are so fired up to be clipped on the lead.

It’s super early. I want to get out and back before the school traffic kicks in. Stan is still barky on the lead when he sees other dogs, and past a certain hour in the morning it’s like a street dog show, families combining a dog walk with getting the kids to school.  So we head out at double-speed through the estate to the fields beyond, Lola and Stanley trot gamely at my side like two little ponies going for maximum style points. It feels great to be out without breathing apparatus and flippers. The streets are just starting to wake, with that soft but measured beat of a neighbourhood keying up for the day.

We don’t pass a soul. It’s a clear run through the alley, the empty streets of the estate, and then the rat-run through the allotments to the kissing gate and the fields beyond. An auspicious start.

Until – I see The Farmer and his three Jack Russells lingering around the gate.

I don’t actually know if he’s a farmer or not. It’s just an assumption based on his general get-up. I mean, he looks so much like a farmer you expect a tractor and a few cows. He couldn’t look more like a farmer than if he’d been sitting in a make-up chair in a make-up trailer on a film set for three hours, chatting about the renowned Lear he played in Hemel Hempstead one season, the girls nodding and smiling and suppressing yawns as they dab his cheeks with rouge, madden his eyebrows and such, then whip the cloth from his shoulders with a ta-dah! so he can trudge over to the full-length mirror, and admire himself, and make fussy adjustments to his flat cap, and neckerchief, as the girls dust the shoulders of his gaberdine mac with fake scurf, and tie the improvised belt around his middle, and spray fake mud on his boots, and hand him his swan-necked walking stick, as he pulls one last face at himself in the mirror, muttering: feck… ballocks…grrr… then treads backwards down the wooden steps from the trailer, like a farmer version of Neil Armstrong leaving the lunar module, and then turning and walking on towards the director, waving his stick in the air, shouting Coo-ee! Lionel! Your blessed farmer is here.

Which is to say he looks a bit like a farmer. So I’ll call him The Farmer, and offer my sincere apologies to all concerned.

He’s hanging around the kissing gate talking to someone else who also looks like a farmer (not so much a conversation as a kind of mini country cosplay, then). The three Jack Russells are trolling around looking bored. The Farmer periodically raps his stick on the ground and says something sharp, but the dogs pay no notice. When he looks in my direction he gives a little start, then uses his stick to urge the other farmer to move further up the path, and – thankfully – the Jack Russells follow suit, albeit reluctantly. Meanwhile, I’m busy trying to distract Stanley by feeding him tripe sticks, at considerable risk to my fingers.

‘Thanks!’ I say, when it looks like there’s just enough room to squeeze through the gate and get past.

The Farmer, the other farmer, and the three Jack Russells stand and stare at us as we bundle through the kissing gate and tip on into the field.

After yesterday’s downpour the place is a mud bath, but further out into the field it firms up a little. The Hole in the Hedge horses are safely over the far side, so all in all it starts looking good for a lovely walk. Lola’s fine off the lead, so she goes running ahead. I keep Stan on the lead, though, until we get to the second gate and the field beyond that, where it’s safer. There’s a narrow ditch to cross first. I’ve jumped it before, and I’m feeling good, so after saying ‘Hup!’ to Stanley, I launch myself over it.

I haven’t allowed for the fact it’s been raining forever. When my right boot makes contact with the opposite bank, it disappears in a mini-landslip, and I pitch headfirst into the mud.

Oof.

Stanley stares down at me. He can’t believe such a simple jump could be screwed up so royally.

‘No – it’s fine, Stan. Really. I’m good, thank you.’

He stares at me as I regain my feet and wipe myself off, looks on ahead to where Lola is standing waiting, then looks at me again.

‘Okay. Let’s go!’ I say, limping next to him. He trots on as neatly as before – quite smugly, I think.

I let him off in the next field. He runs ahead, along the hedge, leaping and throwing himself about like a stunt pony on a lunch break. He sees a squirrel and goes nuts, pretty much improvising a modern dancework, packed with jumps and sudden stops, pivots, tail whips, strange ethereal cries. The squirrel is perfectly safe, of course, watching the performance from about fifty feet up in an oak tree. Eating nuts, tossing acorn skins down in lieu of a bouquet. Stan is so committed to the artistic ideal of The Squirrel, though, I have to forcibly end the performance by putting him back on the lead and dragging him away.

The moment passes. Off the lead again. Stan and Lola chase each other about the field, madly running off all the energy they built up through yesterday’s washout. It’s great to see them play together like this. I watch them dance around each other, their crazy, clownish, haphazard choreography, taking it all in much like the squirrel, one species watching another at a distance, lacking the language, perhaps, but feeling the similarity nonetheless.

It’s good to get out.

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