into the hive

Highdale Lodge sounds like a golfing hotel. Truth is, the nearest it will ever get to a fairway is the smear of grass in the middle of the road running by it, and the only shots the residents make are into-the-vein.

You’d never know it was there if you didn’t know it was there. When the weather’s better you might wonder about the people hanging around, leaning against the wall, but you’d probably think they were something to do with the Magistrate courts in session a few doors down. Because otherwise, Highdale Lodge is ruthlessly, determinedly anonymous, no nameplate or number, utterly forgettable. The building itself seems to sit up from the general run of the street, the first row of windows higher than usual, like the road was subject to flooding or riots. The main door is set back at the end of a narrow recess four or five feet deep, an odd architectural feature, somewhere between an alcove and an alleyway. The door – if you paused long enough to look into the recess – is severe, thickly-painted, double-hinged, more like the fortified entrance to a private citadel than the front door to a hostel. There’s a single, metalled button to the left of it to talk to the staff, linked to a security camera so sturdy it could take a swing from a lump hammer and still be looking down at you.

Everyone who enters the Lodge has to go up a half dozen steps and pass the office counter on the left. It would be a cliche to describe the Lodge as a hive – even though the layout is exactly like a hive, with endlessly bifurcating, shoulder-width corridors leading to a bewildering number of tiny rooms, and everyone who takes you to each particular room seems to do a little wiggle to let you know how to get back – but if I DID feel tempted, and DID describe it as a hive, I’d have to say it would be a particularly busy hive, administratively confusing and always at the point of failure, the kind of hive where every bee has to sign in and out, and many are tagged, and have their stings monitored, and the farmer is at his wits end, desperate for more hives, but you’d have to think there’s no money in honey.

My patient, Keith, seems happy enough, though. To begin with, at least. He stubs out his cigarette and turns on his nebuliser.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ he gasps.
There’s a great smear of damp in the corner, spreading upward like a malignant wave. It’s a poor situation for someone with COPD.
‘I’m hoping to get ah’t of ‘ere soon,’ he wheezes through the mask. ‘It’s a shit’ole. I ave’da go upstairs to the kitchen. Me like I am it may as well be the moon. So it’s not like I even get a decent meal.’

I check him over. Unsurprisingly, his SATS are lower than you’d expect.
‘I don’t need to tell you the smoking’s not helping,’ I say, writing in the folder.
‘Oh – here we go!’ he says. ‘It’s all my fault! Yeah – I know! But listen, mate – it weren’t so long ago they give you a fag with yer bottle a’milk at school. Everyone smoked everywhere, all the time – on the buses, the tube, the pictures. Saturday night, you couldn’t see the cowboys for the smoke! So don’t come round ‘ere blaming me for everything…’
‘I know it’s difficult, Keith. I just meant it’d be better if you could cut down, given how bad your lungs are. Even a little bit. That’s all. There are things around to help, patches and whatnot.’
‘Patches!’ he says. ‘Don’t talk to me about patches! What about them patches over there, eh?’

And he turns away to nod at the damp, and then turns back again, and glares at me over the rim of his mask.

three little words

3.

Stanley is a perfect dog. Almost.

He’s affectionate, gentle, inquisitive. He has a funny way of pulling out the throw we use to cover the sofa at night, dragging it into the middle of the room, twirling it round into a weird kind of nest, then plomping himself down in the middle of it (sighing heavily like a forbearing but ultimately disappointed teacher who has shown his pupils time and time again exactly what is required but STILL has to go through the motions). He sits when you ask him to sit. He stands when you ask him to stand (and occasionally when you say Stan – and he misunderstands). He takes a treat from your fingers as gently and carefully as a technician in a hazmat suit.

Stan is so nearly perfect, it’s unnerving. But the thing that keeps him from being a one hundred percent, gold-starred, fully-certificated wonder hound, is his recall. Or, more specifically, his lack of it.

We’ve tried training him in the garden. We even bought a whistle. We blow the whistle and give him a treat when he comes back (which he does, directly). It’s all fine. By the book. But when we take him for a walk over the fields and let him off, he becomes a different dog altogether. He ignores the whistle. He ignores the shouting, the frenetic rattling of treat bags, the slapping of thighs and general carrying-on. He heads off, onward, outward, away. Head up, tail out. He does NOT look back. The only reason he MIGHT stop is to write a quick letter and post it. The letter will arrive in a day or so. It will read: Dear People. I am GONE. Yours &c, S.

It’s like we’re mad inventors who built a clockwork hound only capable of running in one direction, and when it’s disappeared over the horizon we’re left looking at each other, suddenly realising the basic design flaw.

Nothing works. It’s a simple fact. Stanley will NOT come back. All we can do is head him off in a Billy Smart’s Circus version of the pincer movement, tramping through the grass as quickly as our enormous boots, flashing bow ties and buckets of confetti will allow.

If we get the angle right it’s effective, though, because the ONE good thing about Stan on the Run is that he will keep coming on, straight, in a relentless trot, so much so that when he makes contact and you grab his harness, his feet keep on wheeling round and round (or at least it feels like they do), and he looks astonished, because he can’t understand what the problem is.

Yesterday was different, though. Yesterday was dangerous.

He’d set off as usual, ignoring all my whistling and pleading, and then suddenly speeded up, double-time. Why? He’d seen some rabbits. He was at the fence in no time at all, despite his back legs still being weak from those years of neglect. He tried to jump the fence – which has barbed wire along the top. I could hardly watch.

But of course, I did.

It reminded me of that scene in The Great Escape, when Steve McQueen tries to clear the barbed wire fences on a motorbike. Except at least Steve McQueen managed a couple. Stan fell at the first attempt, not jumping it so much as speculatively launching himself into the air with his four legs spread in an X. It was only by some miracle he didn’t end up crucified on the wire; as it was, he fell back in a heap. He was just getting back on the bike when I caught up with him and clipped the lead on.

Needless to say, we’re been phoning round for a dog trainer. Kath has a recommendation for a militaristic woman who lives locally and specialises in gun dogs, but I’m not sure whether that’ll be a good fit. All that saluting and duck work. I’m hoping for more of a dog-whisperer type, someone who can do the canine equivalent of the Vulcan mind meld, or maybe watch Stan make his bed, when they’ll stand up straight, smile mysteriously, and write three words on a scrap of paper, the key to unlocking Stan’s perfection:

Twirling, Idiosyncratic & Rabbits

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yours forever

please, I beg you, remake me in plastic
it’d be fantastic
I could ride the ocean wide
and collide
gently
with the beautiful flotsam and whatever else some
other plastic people like me
felt happy to dump in the sea

please, I wanna go through the process
it’s a simple request
so I can witness the end of this dirty business
and grimace
innocently
in a non-degradable parade
of polymerised citizens
who’ll live on in instagram and virtual vitamins

rebirth me as a child of the polymer tree
that’s the fit for me
so I could be there at the final flare
and stare
vacantly
as the earth dies cheaply like a burger with fries
and I’m the happy meal toy
that gets tossed in the void

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writer’s block

I cannot get started
my mojo isn’t just low you know it’s totally up and departed
I’m the arrow you let go and watch disappear way off target
it’s like Margate, end of season
unfeasibly cold
where you go for a paddle with your trousers rolled
and curse the luck that led you there sevenfold

I cannot get started
the mean bean dealer I meet on the way to market
swaps my cow for a grow-your-own magic beanstalk kit
bullshit! the beans are duds!
the whole beanstalk thing’s completely fake
not only is there no land with lots of golden crap for me to take
but I’m down a cow and the best part of my lunch break

I cannot get started
my ship’s adrift off lands so lost they’re uncharted
I’m bent, spent, bad tempered & broken-hearted
cathartic, you’d think
till you see what’s up ahead of you waving from the pass
a giant so buffed and bronzed when he slaps his arse
a fart of mythical proportions rips your ship apart

I cannot get started
I’m finally and fatally outsmarted
I’m vague as a plague victim unconsciously carted
morbid, I know, but there you go
a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step
which is great advice, Laozi, undoubtedly, yep
but from here it still looks like one hell of a schlep

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another fine mess

2.

The first thing we did was change his name.

Names are important, after all. They’ve got to sound right, feel right. They’ve got to fit.

I worked in a bar at a holiday camp a few years ago. The bar was a huge, circular, glass and timber wheel with a desolate car park only marginally less inviting than the snug. It had a view over the mud flats that served as a beach, and even the seagulls stayed clear. It was called The Beachcomber, but The Wrecker’s Retreat would’ve given you more of an idea. It was just far enough down the road to give the campers a sense they were going somewhere different, but not so far they couldn’t find their way back pissed. The bar was set up for instant shutters down and till removal for the inevitable fights at the weekend. Even the jukebox was armoured. The bar manager was a pinched and shifty guy whose body didn’t seem to touch his clothes and whose smile was only ever two points shy of a sneer. He was always up to something, some ruse for making money or ripping off the punters. He’d buy condemned stock and sell it on as specials. He used to collect all the drip trays at the end of the evening and put them in the mild. He was generally not the kind of guy you’d want running a pub, or anything else involving money or people, come to that, but he did have two very entertaining dogs, an Alsatian and a Springer spaniel. The Springer was a hyperactive mop that ran mad circuits of the pub at opening and closing time, so chaotically it was like he’d been thrown in a washer on spin cycle. The Springer was called Snifter. The Alsatian was the opposite in size and temperament, a depressive lunk with black eyes who looked at everyone in the same, glittering way I imagine assassins might, doomed never to meet anyone without first gauging the drop. His name was Hawk.

‘Go on, Snifter! Go on, my son!’ said the manager, watching Snifter run, while Hawk stood sadly to attention beside him, and I restocked the bar.

* * *

The thing was, Storm didn’t look like a storm. Unless it was a blizzard, and even then not so much a white-out as a slow accumulation of flakes. It just didn’t suit his temperament. I imagine somewhere there’s a mountain rescue dog called Storm, in a kevlar bodysuit and snow goggles, dragging a sled loaded with medical supplies across a crumbling crevasse. A nine year old lurcher with bad teeth and weak legs? Meh.

He’d had nine years to get used to his name, though. And if we stood any chance of training him, we had to give him a name that sounded roughly the same. ‘Norm’ was the first thing we thought of, but I couldn’t imagine shouting ‘Norm’ over the park, and having anything other than a bank clerk come running back. Stan seemed more like it. It made me think of Stan Laurel, and they did seem to share the same vacant but benign expression. The only thing was, we just had to remember not to use his name when we were training him to sit.

Stan! Sit! might not get us very far.

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the storm comes home

1.

The RSPCA shelter didn’t tell us too much about Storm, the nine-year-old rough-haired lurcher, other than that he’d been ‘surrendered’ along with Biscuit, a knuckly little tan terrier with a ratty tail. The ‘surrendered’ description was odd. It made it sound as if the inspectors had surrounded a bungalow, and after a tense standoff, the dogs had come out with their paws up. 

In fact, if they hadn’t told us which dog was which, I would’ve thought the terrier was Storm and the lurcher, Biscuit – particularly if the biscuit was made of shredded coconut and lightly toasted. Apparently Storm doted on Biscuit but the feeling wasn’t reciprocated and they weren’t up for adoption as a couple. They were sharing a cage on our first visit, though, Biscuit raging up and down the pen, Storm sitting in his basket sadly observing all the comings and goings as if he’d expected this all along. We were told that Storm had been reserved by someone who lived on a canal boat – which seemed about right. I could imagine Storm in a flat cap and neckerchief, whistling sadly as they entered a tunnel. He was cute, and looked like a good match for our lurcher, Lola, but the fact was, even if he was available, he looked quite leggy and might not fit through our pet flap. Biscuit looked too much of a handful. Like adopting a gangster.

When we came back for a second visit Biscuit had gone and Storm was on his own in the pen. The boat deal had fallen through and Storm was back on the market.

‘Why don’t you take him for a walk?’ they said. ‘He’s such a lovely dog. He’s had a tough time. He needs a break.’

Apparently the previous owner hadn’t been able to cope with either of them. Storm had been so badly malnourished his coat was threadbare, he’d had some kind of skin problem, half his teeth were rotten, and he’d had so little exercise his back legs buckled when he walked. But the RSPCA had set him on the long road to recovery, first with a visit to the vet who took out fourteen teeth and treated his skin condition, then with an intensive programme of nutrition and exercise. 

The trial walk went well. Storm trotted along with an insouciant kind of wobble. Barked at some other dogs in an unexpectedly booming voice that was more like a toothless wolf than a pet. Maybe that was where the name came from. But he was endearing and lovely and we thought we’d come back for a second visit, this time with Lola. They walked together well enough, and if it wasn’t love at first sight, at least it looked like a workable kind of tolerance. We signed the papers, bought a new collar and lead – and brought the Storm home. 

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punk dog

I’m sorry, STORM, but the name doesn’t suit’cha
it doesn’t seem right for a scruffy lurcher
I mean – if there’d been bigger dogs in the pound
like a Munsterlander or a Newfoundland
a Pyrenean sheepdog or an Aghan hound
well – maybe
the name would fit the breed
and STORM would do you very well indeed
but a lurcher? who, for all his graces,
just has one of those mad faces
crazy wise and clever
more wild blue day and less bad weather
but anyway
what I meant to say
who you really remind me of today
– Johnny Rotten circa 1978
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