It was only a matter of time.
When it’s my day off I’ll take Lola on her walk about the same time each morning. And because we’re regular we tend to meet the same people. I quite often see the elderly woman and her Jack Russell on the way back from the woods. She’s particularly distinctive, in a large, shovel-style hat and long quilted coat, bent forwards at the waist, carrying a tennis racket behind her, marching along in such a chaotic but determined way that from a distance the tennis racket looks like a key in the back of a giant clockwork robot. Now and again she’ll stop to pick up a squeaky yellow ball, and then using the tennis racket it whack it half way across the park for the Jack Russell to tear after. I try to anticipate seeing them, because Lola has an embarrassing habit of stealing other dogs’ toys and then running round and round in a celebratory lap that only gets bigger and faster the more you try to stop it. In fact, the only way I’ve found to get the ball back is to pretend I’ve found something even more interesting. (And I love Lola very much, but even I would have to admit that this is one powerful argument against the idea that Lola is a Very Intelligent Dog, because surely if she were, she wouldn’t keep falling for it).
Anyway – today I wasn’t quick enough. Before I could think to do anything, Lola had run straight across the park, intercepted the ball, and started lapping us all, squeaking the ball every time she passed, like a sprinter marking split-times. I waved and mimed an extravagant apology to the old woman, whilst moving into position to try the ‘Look what I’ve got’ trick again. The old woman ignored me, though. She was too busy making things worse by marching in a furiously ineffectual pattern, waving her tennis racket and hollering. Meanwhile, her Jack Russell had retreated to the path, where it sat with its muzzle on its paws looking thoroughly depressed, like its worst fears had been realised, and nothing would ever be the same again.
‘Don’t worry! I’ll get your ball back!’ I shouted.
It wasn’t easy. Every time Lola looked as if, maybe, this time, against all the odds, I might actually have something of genuine interest, the old woman would make ground on her, and set her off squeaking again.
Suddenly the old woman changed her trajectory, marching straight for me, either because she thought she’d have more luck whacking Lola if she stood next to me, or because she thought she might start whacking me, and bring Lola over that way. But when the old woman came within earshot it was obvious she was too out of breath to say or do anything, so I seized my chance.
‘Lola! Wow! Look at this! Unbelievable…!’ I said, bending down and pretending to find something incredible in the grass.
It worked. I could hear the squeaks getting louder.
I looked up.
Lola had stopped just beyond the distance she and I both knew I could cover in a standing leap, had dropped the ball onto the grass in front of her, and was standing there, panting and smiling at me, as if to say: Okay. What? What have you got?
Pathetically, I held out a leaf.
‘Here you are, Lola! Good girl! Look at this! Wow! Good girl!’
Incredibly, she inched a little closer.
Well. That’s just a leaf, isn’t it?
I sniffed the leaf and held it up to the light.
‘Fantastic! This is amazing!’
She came a little closer. Glanced back at the ball. A little closer.
I leapt forward, grabbed her collar, clipped on the lead. Gave her a hug and a pat. Retrieved the ball and held it up for the old woman to see.
‘Don’t – whatever you do – throw it!’ she gasped.