the isle is full of noises

4.

We’ve hired a dog trainer to help us with Stan. She’s coming tomorrow and I have to say, she can’t come soon enough. She looks great. A specialist in re-homed dogs. There are clips on her website of her swimming in the sea with a dog, walking smartly along suburban roads with a dog looking up at her adoringly, turning about, walking smartly the other way. The only thing that worries me is the physical gesture she demonstrates for the Emergency Stop. Bending her left leg, stretching her right leg back, flashing out her right arm with the palm of the hand flat. She looks like Superman leaning in to catch a train. The dog stops dead, of course, but I don’t know. I might feel self-conscious using a pose like that. We’ll see.

Stan definitely needs some super-advice, though. It’s strange, how well-behaved he is on the lead, how sweet and obedient he is around the house (for the most part), but how oblivious he is when we let him off. Not a hint of a check to see where we are, not a sign he’s even dimly aware of us shouting, blowing on the whistle, or jumping up and down, brandishing the treat bag. He’s just gone, utterly in thrall to his nature, chasing the spirit of the great wild space running out endlessly in front of him.

To be fair, even to a non-dog, it’s a pretty enchanting world out there. Out on the walk this morning, and a low mist drifted in over the fields, everything ghosted, chill, strange, like the world was hanging back, waiting for something. Monstrous tree shapes loomed overhead. Somewhere close, the sudden cry of a pheasant, deep in the bramble breaks – a sharp and ratcheting cry, like a tin can violin played with a hacksaw.

I’d already had to catch Stan a couple of times, so he was back on the lead by this point. I felt bad. It was like slinging a line on a spirit, tricking Ariel into a tree.

I hope the trainer’s as good as she looks. I promise I’ll adopt any posture if it means Stanley can have his freedom.

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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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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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new year’s thimble

Coming back from a dog walk the other day we saw a guy kneeling in the field securing the legs of a tripod. It looked like he was setting up for a long-distance camera shot – maybe of the crows that squabble in the oaks around there – but when we got closer we saw that the tripod was actually a long, thin spade stuck in the earth, and propped up against it, a metal detector.

The guy straightened, waved, and walked over. Despite his headphones, combat trousers and Caterpillar boots, he had a strangely out-of-time look about him, like a Viking who’d come back in disguise to find the treasure he buried.

His name was Janusz. We chatted about the area, what we knew about it, the places it might be good to look. I told him about all the fragments of old glass and pottery that get washed out in the far corner. Maybe there was a midden there or something. I told him about a field I thought was the remains of a medieval village over the back behind the church.
‘It had all these strange bumps in it I thought were the huts. But then I found out it was a golf course in the 1920s.’
Janusz laughed.
‘There is an old pond over there, though. It was dug in the middle ages, one of the hammer ponds they used when they smelted iron for cannon balls.’
‘Really?’ he said. ‘Hmm. Well – last year I found a beaten coin that way. About 1520. That was nice. Not much today though. I dug this up…’
He put a tiny brass thimble in my palm. It was fragile, dull, squashed out of true, filled with earth.
Have it,’ he said. ‘No idea how old it is.’
I felt the weight of it, held it up to the light.
‘Thanks, Janusz’ I said. ‘Thanks very much.’

I wanted to tell him how much it meant to me. How it was my birthday, and my Dad’s the day before that. How this time of year always felt freighted with meaning. I wanted to tell him about how Dad bought a metal detector once, back in the seventies, from the back of a Hobbies magazine. It was a clumsy, boxy thing, bakelite dials, wires sticking out of it. A horrible piece of crap someone might solder together from an old twin-tub and a radio. I used to go with Dad out on the Fen sometimes, looking for coins. I wonder what people must have thought if they saw us from the road: a man and his son, slogging through the peaty soil, stopping every now and again to chop frantically at the earth with trowels. A hopeless, fruitless quest. Half the time I think the buzz it gave off was a con, something random they built into it, just enough to keep the suckers moving. We’d have had more chance finding King John’s treasure with a hazel twig. Still – it meant something, out there on the Fen with my Dad, searching.
‘Thanks for the thimble!’ I said.
‘Hey! You’re welcome!’ said Janusz. ‘Happy New Year!’

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Advent Ascent

 

A very Happy Christmas to all my readers & followers!

Thank you so much for all your comments & support over the year.

Here’s to 2020…!

The Song of the Coat I Might Find.

It was early and still dark, the rain smattering dismally against the back door. 

‘What d’you think, Lola? Feeling brave?’

She wasn’t. She was staring at me with a shocked expression, like she didn’t know whether to follow me outside or stay where she was and bark for help.

It certainly did feel like I had an unfair advantage, standing there, zipping my coat up to my chin, pulling on my hat. I mean – all she had was the fur she’d gone to bed in.

So I got out her winter coat and gave it a shake.

It’s a heavy, cozy, well-padded thing, with a strap that passes under her waist, two poppers at the chest, and a furry collar that turns back at the neck and makes her look like a lumberjack. A very sad-eyed lumberjack. A lumberjack who needs a great deal of patient encouragement to even THINK about trees.

We took the usual route. I thought maybe we should vary it more, but then – there’s a value in repetition. You get to key-in to the subtle changes, and it’s surprising how many of those there are in any given moment. It’s a bit like a monk walking round cloisters saying their prayers. I’m sure they get a big kick out of seasonal changes to the brick. 

Anyway, the thing I needed more than variety was speed – not only because the weather was so bad, but because I wanted to get back, warm up and start writing. I hadn’t written much that week, what with work and life and everything. I needed to get down and do something. (I admit it. Writing is now a habit – or worse, an addiction. I’ve passed through the ‘this is amazing’ phase, and moved into the ‘I feel terrible if I don’t write something, anything, even a limerick’. I have to write just to feel well. But there are worse things, I suppose. I could be into triathlon.)

At the edge of the woods Lola stopped. There’s a stile there for humans and a gap under the wire for dogs. Normally Lola dives through it, but she knew her ridiculous lumberjack collar would snag on it, so she waited till I held up the wire for her. She made a fuss of wiggling under, like a tourist just about drunk enough to try the limbo dance. 

But on into the woods, the rain eased and we started to get into the walk a little more. It was still too wet to think about photographs, so instead I tried to focus on the here and now of it, the sound of the rain through the leaves, the suck of the mud at my boots, the snug of my hands in my pockets. Lola was away in the undergrowth somewhere, snuffling around, making the best of it. 

I got distracted thinking up a limerick about Trump. 

There once was a president called Trump
Bent as a bell-ringer’s hump…

We covered quite a bit of ground, me trying to finish the limerick, Lola exploring.

I stopped to take some pictures of raindrops hanging under a gate, but maybe I’d taken too many of that. Maybe I needed to think of some other angle.

Jenny and her pug, Cecil appeared along the path. Jenny had on the full Barbour-armour, prodding for mines with a Norwegian walking stick; Cecil was squashed so tightly into his fleecy coat it made his eyes stick out like black swimming goggles. He was happy to see Lola, though. They circled and sniffed each other politely, two models checking out their outfits.

‘Isn’t this weather completely VILE?’ said Jenny, pushing back her hair to get a better look at me. ‘I can’t take much more. But y’know – saying that – no doubt it’ll snow tomorrow…’

We chat for a while then carry on.

…he raged and he tossed
whenever he lost….

I stopped to look at the group of funnel mushrooms I’d photographed the other day. One of them had a wild apple landed in the cup of it, and I’d put up a picture of it saying ‘serving suggestion’. Now I thought maybe I’d better take the apple out. I mean – sure, it fell in there naturally, so I’d be interfering in the natural run of things. But then, it mightn’t do the mushroom any good to have an apple rotting in the middle of it, and if I was in a position to make it’s short life a little better – why not? Especially as I’d taken the picture. I owed it a payment of sorts. So I picked the apple out of the funnel, and felt a little better for it, even though that group of mushrooms were already looking the worse for wear, what with the slugs and the deer and everything. Still -my conscience was clear. 

We carried on walking. 

I could not get the last line of the limerick. It had to rhyme with Trump, and I was hung up on the idea of ‘rump’, but couldn’t think what. Did he fall on his rump? I liked the idea of him Tweeting out of his rump, because I’d read about him harassing the US Ambassador to Ukraine (or ex-US Ambassador to Ukraine) on Twitter during the impeachment hearing, and it seemed like maybe that was a fruitful line to take. 

We came to the edge of the wood again, the circuit done. I was ready for some coffee.

Lola was through the fence already, waiting for me in the field beyond, the bottom of Broken Tree Hill. 

She managed it that time I thought. 

And it was only then I realised she’d lost the coat. 

‘Where’s your coat, Lola?’ I said, turning round on the spot, expecting – HOPING – it might be lying right there, and we wouldn’t have to retrace our steps. There was no sign of it. 

‘C’mon then!’ I said, heading back into the woods. 

Lola stared at me, with the same incredulous expression she’d used on me in the kitchen. Looked up the hill, as if she was wanted me to understand that her food was in that direction. Then gave up, and – reluctantly – tagged along.

It was a completely different walk. The first time round I’d been drifting along, thinking about this and that, the Trump limerick, the sound of the rain, the shape and colour of the leaves, thoughts and feelings scattering round me as randomly as the rain. Now every fine feeling was subordinated to the mission. I was too busy, scanning the woods for a dark green lurcher-lumberjack coat, marching rather than walking. I remembered a snatch of something from ‘The Pearl’ by Steinbeck, how he talked about the pearl fishermen having the Song of the Pearl that Might Be in their heads as they dived for pearls. 

Maybe I should try that? Maybe I should try singing The Song of the Coat I Might Find. 

Lola was up ahead now. It was like I was seeing two dogs – the real one, rootling around in the undergrowth, and the imprint of her, a lighter, lurcher ghost, trying to show me the precise moment she snagged on a branch and shucked herself free of the coat. 

We followed the same route – to badger corner, the sweet chestnut log pile, monument beech, the shack, owl stump, the meeting place, pet cemetery, funnel copse. I’d just reached the path that descends there when I saw a guy in camo and a whistle round his neck striding towards me, preceded by a hyper-alert gun dog. 

‘I don’t suppose you’ve seen a dog’s coat, have you?’ I said.

‘Is that what it is? I thought it was one of those baby carriers. Y’know. A papoose. Yeah – I hung it on a tree a little way down. You can’t miss it.’

I thanked him and carried on. 

I saw it before it before Lola, although that didn’t stop her running up to it and standing there proudly as if it was she who’d found it all along. 

‘Good girl!’ I said. ‘C’mon – let’s get home for breakfast.’

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There once was a president called Trump
Who was bent as a bell-ringer’s hump
He raged and he tossed
whenever he lost
and Tweets flew out of his rump

 

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