Chapter 25: Unapologetically Stanley

The Snellen Apparatus – Opticians Close-up – War of the Worlds – It’s not personal (although it feels like it) – The WHO described, more or less accurately – Vigil of the Rescue Centre Dog – Routines established – Why doesn’t he sleep in the big basket? – Quid Pro Quo

2020.

It’s what you say about someone who’s got great eyesight. 20/20 vision.
Balanced, clear-cut, ‘just right’.

Even though I’ve used the phrase before, I have no idea what it means. Turns out, it’s American, based on feet rather than metres. It means you can read line 8 on the Snellen Chart from twenty feet away without glasses. The Snellen chart – named after the Dutch ophthalmologist, Herman Snellen, who put it together in 1862 (you’re welcome) – is the lit box with the lines of diminishing letters up the far end of the room that you try to read with scaffolding on your nose, while the optician leans into your face way too close, breathing heavily while they scrabble around blindly in a box, then spend the next half an hour screwing different shaped lenses into the frame and flipping a hand lens over and back and saying ‘Better? Or worse? Better? Or worse?’ with a dangerously thinning kind of patience. And whilst they’re cursing and rooting around for some other lens, or maybe a cattle prod, you look at yourself in the mirror, and congratulate yourself on making such a fine-looking Steampunk professor.

So.
2020.
Clarity. Balance. Acuity.
Yeah right.

Never has a year been so inappropriately named.

*

It started innocently enough.

But as Richard Burton says at the beginning of War of the Worlds: ‘…across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us.’ Except, of course, the coronavirus wasn’t planning anything, and didn’t really have a ‘mind’ as such, certainly not going by any of the photos I’ve seen. It was just fulfilling its innate career trajectory, a mission statement encoded in its RNA, which was basically to infect as many people as possible, and make as many of itself as possible, and the hell with the consequences. Which to be fair isn’t a dissimilar proposition to our own these days. So really the whole thing comes down to a conflict of interest. Who has the bigger spikes.

It seems strange, looking back over the year – with 20/20 hindsight – that the story of the virus coincided almost exactly with the story of Stanley.

It’s been a year since we adopted Stanley and drove him home from the rescue centre. One whole dispiriting year since those tier-free days last December, when emerging reports from China of a novel virus spreading from a wet market – whatever that was – sounded about as real as the plotline from a thriller. I didn’t think too much about it at the time. I had some idea that governments were tracking these things, on the alert for the next super bug. There was the World Health Organisation, for a start. That sounds impressive. I imagined it on an island – hidden inside a volcano, with huge glassy architecture, people in foil suits, klaxons, big digital clocks, electric buggies. And anyway, hadn’t we come a long way since the 1918 Flu pandemic? Even further since the Black Death. We had international cooperation. We had powerful microscopes and Google. We had Kate Winslett in a hazmat suit. We had this shit covered.

And if all this had only a passing interest to me at the time, of course it had none whatsoever for Stanley. He had been sprung from a long and lonely vigil in his cage at the Rescue Centre, watching prospective owners coming up the cold kennel steps, leaning forward to read his notes, comparing notes to dog, dog to notes, then smiling sympathetically, and saying it’s a shame, and walking back down the steps again. Now that he was finally out of that place, his attention had switched to other, warmer things. How he was going to get along with Lola, the lurcher who was in the house already. How often he’d be fed, taken on walks, given a toy and then tormented with it. What sofa he could sleep on. Which bits of the garden were secure, and who the hell were those dogs who lived over the hedge at the back?

And some of our preoccupations overlapped with his. Like finding covers for the sofa that were tough enough to withstand his gallumphing great paws, but didn’t look too awful. Getting a basket that was big enough to fit those gangly legs. Hiring someone to fix the fencing round the garden. Getting supplements to improve his ratty hair. Finding the right kind of food so he wouldn’t be so gassy. And above all, to establish a routine we could all live with, so we could rub along together, without any howling at night because of the wind rattling the windows, or the cars in the rainy streets outside making too many splashing noises as they passed, or an owl sounding off somewhere.

He settled in. Like a bean shoot winding up a family of sticks, the routine took. Stanley grew stronger, his hair less clumpy and singed-looking. Whilst it was true that when he ran he was clumsy, hopeless at stopping, weak in the hips, generally about as coordinated as a dog thrown together from yogurt pots and string, he’d been badly treated for so long we knew it would take time. Even in those early months he started to seem sturdier and more himself, more like the dog we imagined he was after those years of neglect. He had a habit of barking at other dogs when he was on the lead, which made dog walking a little stressful, but Adina the trainer helped us with that a couple of times in January and February, and we learned to shrug and accept that a dog with a history as poor as Stanley was always going to be scarred – and scared – to some degree. Lola was okay with it, though. Even though sometimes his behaviour scandalised her, she learned to accept him more. They started to hang out together, paws draped over the edge of the same sofa. Stanley ignored the big basket we got for him, squeezing into Lola’s smaller basket; he liked to pack himself into it with his legs sticking out of the gap like a giant Ammonite swimming backwards. The routine was becoming established; we were glad we’d taken the plunge.

And really – as things turned out – he helped us as much as we helped him. Because for all the frustrations and deprivations of the pandemic, the closures and cancellations, the narrowing of everyone’s plans and expectations – in fact, the comprehensive social wipeout that came to define 2020 – we could always draw comfort and inspiration from Stanley. To see him curled up on the sofa, or leaping around with Lola over the fields, or lolling around on the rug with his squeaky donkey – all of this was a reminder of how much joy there was to be had in simple things. How even the most repetitive routine will always have within it moments of new and unforeseen distraction, if you channelled your inner lurcher and crossed your eyes and threw yourself about any-old how. Stanley is always so utterly and unapologetically Stanley, it’s a daily lesson in being grateful for wherever you find yourself, and the hairy-pawed possibility that things will get better, no matter how bad they seem at the time.

Happy New Year!

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