A line of flags – Mr Grimshaw – Idea for an App – The horses are up to something – Stanley as Julie – What we talk about when we talk about short stories – more gold scored – a bucket o’suds
It’s Sunday morning and everything is quiet. I’m standing in the middle of the road with Stanley. He’s squatting to do yet another poo, but this time all that comes out is a skein of grass. He waddles forwards like that, tries again. The grass is stuck. There’s nothing else to be done but get another poo bag out of my pocket, and wearing it like a surgical glove, grab the end of the grass and pull. It slides out in a horrifying glob. And more of it. And more.
‘Jesus Christ, Stanley!’
I feel like one of those magicians pulling a never-ending line of flags from my sleeve. Or someone else’s sleeve, in this case.
It’s one of those very public moments that seems to shine a cruel spotlight on where you are with your life, to date. You had dreams? Movie star? Rock god? Professional Wrestler? No. You’re obviously and exactly the kind of guy who finds himself standing in the middle of the street on a Sunday morning, pulling shitty grass from a dog’s arse.
Stanley is grateful, though. Once the lawn has been removed from his rectum, he walks with a jaunty flounce.
And my question to him is: at what cost, that jaunty flounce, Stanley? At what devastating, emotional cost?
We pass by the allotments. Mr Grimshaw is standing talking to one of the other gardeners. I’m relieved about that. If you ever get caught talking to Mr Grimshaw, you can be grimly sure to be there an hour. It’s like being pinned to the spot by a granite frown. There’s no subject Mr Grimshaw doesn’t have an opinion about. He’s more Old Testament than Moses. And I’d have to admit, Mr Grimshaw would look fabulous in robes. He’s certainly got the forehead for it. And the forearms. I can imagine him on top of a mountain, telling God EXACTLY what he OUGHT to be doing. As it is, I can hear him talking to the gardener about boilers. I wave as I go past. Mr Grimshaw frowns at me; the gardener sends up a distress flare. That’s the only thing that puts me off having an allotment. That and all the work.
Not for the first time do I think that I ought to design a phone app called Walking Stanley. The area has so many hazards – and I don’t just mean the hundreds of other dogs. For example, to get to the allotments you have to go through Sally Alley. We call it Sally Alley because Sally lives in one of the flats that overlook it. We’re pretty sure she keeps a close watch – or uses some kind of electronic tripwire – because more often than not she intercepts you at the end of the path. And the thing is, Sally is perfectly nice. It’s just that her depression is an irresistible force of nature, like quicksand, or black holes. Her makeup has the same emotional punch as a clown, her eyebrows plucked, her eyelashes shellacked into a permanent sparkle startle. And a simple ‘how are you’ is like lifting the lid on a trunk of howling despair. She knows I work in community health, which is worse. I get every extenuating detail, every prescription med change, every sample submitted. I just pray she didn’t see me manually evacuating Stanley’s bowels just then because I shudder to think what she might want from me next. So in my app game Walking Stanley, it’d be game over if Sally successfully intercepts you, a handful of gold coins if you manage to escape. Same with Mr Grimshaw. Same with the horses. But to provide the lift, you’d score gold coins when Stanley came back for a treat, or lifted his leg on some ragwort, or you stopped to take a picture of Stanley looking cute, which – to be fair – is all the time. If only I knew how to code. AutoClose.
We make it safely to the first field with plenty of gold coins in our pockets. I must admit, the Hole in the Hedge horses are behaving very strangely. In fact, I’d go as far as to say suspiciously. They’re just standing around, staring, in exactly the kind of overly self-conscious position you’d adopt if someone said to you just act naturally. And so evenly, too, that if you were somehow to drop a grid on the whole field, you’d find that each horse occupied exactly two squares, with a four square margin between each one. And they don’t move at all. It’s quite weird. But whatever it is that’s making them weird, I decide to brave it out and go through anyway. And using the imaginary grid, it’s oddly easy to plot a way through. They slowly turn their heads as we pass. Too slowly. And I’m pretty sure they’re frowning.
Into the next field and everything’s clear. I let Stanley off. He runs around so happily, throwing his legs out, his paws, too, it’s like Julie Andrews spinning and singing on the mountain. Stanley should audition for The Sound of Music. His singing’s ropey but he’s got the moves.
The long walk round the field is uneventful, which I’m relieved about. Stanley bounds ahead through the long grass, sniffing and sneezing and chewing and hacking like he does. A crow heaves itself languidly into the air and settles to watch us pass from an oak. I have plenty of time to think about things, but I can’t say I have any great insights. I think about short stories, whether I should try writing some, whether I can remember any. There’s one by Raymond Carver, about a drunk guy selling all his furniture outside in the street, with it all set up like it would be indoors. And a young couple comes by, and he ends up dancing with the woman. It’s strange what sticks with you, and what doesn’t. There’s another short story by Irwin Shaw – I think – about a footballer who gets a concussion, ends up hearing other people’s thoughts, and although at first it helps him win by intercepting passes, it starts to drive him mad because he can’t bear to know the truth of what people think of him, so he asks the doctor to set things back to how they were. Or something.
Into the first field again and the horses are the same but completely different. We pass between them quickly and quietly, and exit through the kissing gate with our pockets clinking with gold.
When we get back home I run a bucket of suds to clean Stanley’s arse. He loves it.
Maybe I should start with a short story about THAT.