Chapter 29: The Mystery of the Unmade Bed

SA = snorers anonymous – a glamorous ENT – the dangers of swazzles – advice given and depressingly received – Stanley as life model – an abstract soundtrack – the mystery of the unmade bed – submarine or robot? – dr jekyll and mr stanley

I snore.

Okay. Good. It’s out there. We can all move on. (If not sleep).

It’s probably my most unattractive feature (although you no doubt have to cross-check that with the people who know me). And why do I snore? Who knows? I even saw an ENT consultant, who put a nasopharyngoscope down my nose to have a look round and see if there was some structural explanation for the horror. The scope is a camera on a flexible tube they thread in through your nostril, down your nose and back as far as your larynx, descending like a potholer with a lamp, looking for stalactites, or polyps, or cave bears. But she was happy everything was in order. No untoward growths and so on. No swazzles (Google it. I mean – how do they NOT swallow those things?).

‘You could afford to lose a stone or two,’ she said, writing out her notes. ‘No big meals before you go to bed. Cut down on the alcohol. But other than that… I don’t know.’ She smiled at me, impossibly glamorous, her sunglasses still pushed up into her hair like she’d wandered in from the shopping mall to browse noses instead of shoes. ‘We all have our thing,’ she said. I couldn’t imagine what hers was.

So why am I confessing this abomination to you? And what on earth has it got to do with Stanley?

Well. It’s true that Stanley is a bit of a snorer, too. In fact, ‘snoring’ doesn’t even begin to cover the symphony of nasopharyngeal expression Stanley is capable of producing in his sleep. Whenever he’s dozing on the sofa – one ear flapped up, the other down, one paw flopped over the side and one crooked under his muzzle, like he’s modelling in a life class and the teacher said give me something tragic – he produces a work of abstract sonic art so modulated and expressive and downright strange, you could score it and sell it as the soundtrack to a film. I don’t know. A mood piece about a grumpy Icelandic fisherman dreaming of escape. Something black & white, anyway. Gritty. Heartfelt. Volcanic.

No. The reason I mention the snoring is to do with something that happened earlier in the week. I was up really early to get ready for work. On the way to the bathroom I noticed that Martha’s bedroom door was open. Martha has gone to university so her bedroom’s empty these days. I glanced inside and noticed the bed rucked up and a dent in the pillow. So I thought I must’ve been snoring so badly last night Kath came and slept in here.

It’s a thing we’ve talked about. I wouldn’t have minded if she had bailed and gone somewhere else to get some sleep. I would too, if I was the kind of person who could be kept awake by anything.

I mean – no doubt a factor in my snoring is the way I sleep. I fall asleep quickly and decisively, like a submarine. I might salute from the conning tower, sometimes, but mostly I just slam the hatch shut, plunge to forty metres and stay there, gliding through the shimmering deep, my propellers chopping the water with a gentle snoring noise.

I wake up just as quickly, too, which can seem weird. In fact, the way I suddenly sit up, swing my legs over the side of the bed and march off to the bathroom is probably grounds for concern that I’m actually a robot. But if the ENT saw any circuitry or rivets I’m sure she would have said something. Or pressed a panic button.

The point is, if Kath had left the bed in the middle of the night, there’s no way I’d have known. So when I saw that Martha’s bed had been slept in, I thought it was entirely possible. She was still in our bed when I got up to shower, so I just assumed she’d come back to bed after a few hours relief.

‘I’m sorry I was snoring so badly last night,’ I said that evening when I got back.
She shrugged.
‘You snore badly every night. It wasn’t any different.’
‘Yeah – but you don’t usually go and sleep somewhere else. Which is fine, of course. I completely understand. I’d do the same.’
‘But I didn’t go and sleep somewhere else.’
I described Martha’s bed, how it looked like someone had slept there.

Stanley.

You see, just lately, Stan’s been taking a great deal of trouble rearranging the cushions and blankets in his basket. You’ll often see dogs do it, turning round and round on the spot, a bit of pawing here and there, much like they’d do on the prairie a few thousand years ago, flattening the grass, rearranging the gophers, making things right for the night. But lately Stan has turned it into yet another performance piece. He’ll pick up a cushion in his mouth and carefully drop it overboard. He’ll paw the blankets into extraordinary shapes. He’ll use his muzzle to lever things into arrangements no sensible creature would think comfortable, standing back now and again to take an overview, as if he’s thinking okay – if I ruck up the crochet blanket just a TOUCH more there, and drape it over PORT side, that’ll give me enough leg room to flop over to the STARBOARD… And so on, and on, until you reach distraction point, and shout out for him to ‘settle the hell down’ so we can carry on watching Vigil, a tense thriller about a snore-powered submarine.

So now I picture Stanley taking himself off upstairs. Jumping up onto Martha’s bed. Pawing the duvet aside. Wriggling in. Pawing it back over himself. Sighing. Checking the alarm clock. Flopping his head down onto the pillow. Falling instantly asleep – and then jumping up a few hours later to go to work.

No. Sorry. That’s me.

My God!

Have I been Stanley all along?

AM I STANLEY NOW?

(Checks hands for hair and claws.
Goes to the bathroom to look in the mirror.
Hurries downstairs for more coffee.)

Chapter 28: The Walking Stanley app

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!’
And more.
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.

Chapter 27: Where were we?

disclaimer, incl. some irrelevant stuff about young earth creationists & freedivers – core sample as awkward literary device – how to handle a horse – varieties of police dog – please brush his teeth – Brodie – round one – round two – therapy for dogs

DISCLAIMER
I don’t agree that it’s been a long time since the last post. It just depends on the scale you’re using. If you’re talking about the life of the planet – about four and a half billion years (although if you believe in young Earth creationism, and think the bible is a work of documentary fact than a particularly vivid and long lived creation myth, then you’ll probably think the Earth is about six thousand years old, fashioned by God, along with the fossils, which He made during the flood, because there’s nothing God likes to do more than confuse people, cataclysms and acts of pestilential vengeance aside) – then it’s really no time at all. But on the other hand, if you’re talking about how long you can hold your breath, well, then – yes, it’s a very long time indeed. (Even if you ARE a freediver and can STILL be cheerfully waving and giving the thumb-to-finger O sign after twenty minutes, and maybe pointing straight down into the abyss as if to say I’m more than happy to go deeper if you want me to….). So no, I wouldn’t say it’s been a ‘long’ time, and neither would I say it’s been a ‘short’ time. All I WILL say, in a noncommittal but still red-faced kinda way, is that it’s simply been ‘some’ time. (And probably not that much longer than it took to read back this last paragraph). And for both, I can only shake your hand and thank you for your indulgence.

Actually, probably what I should do is test the theory of ‘least said soonest mended’, and maybe at the same time see whether you’ve been paying attention or not. Maybe I should simply carry on with the blog as if nothing happened, and no ball was dropped, and no events glossed over, and nothing of significance missed, in the hope that you won’t notice anything strange at all – or, if you do, you’ll put it down to a recent change in medication, or a tendency these days to nod off after lunch.

So please ignore the disclaimer, and carry on as if nothing happened.

*

Speaking of geology – and yes, I know you’re sighing, because you came here to read about dogs, and don’t have the time or the inclination to want to read about anything else – and I’m CERTAINLY running the risk that starting off the paragraph that SHOULD have landed you straight back in the Stanley-themed action with the phrase ‘speaking of geology’ – will only make you realise what it is you thought you came here for, and what you’re dangerously short of at the moment, and at severe risk of clicking away to something else, because if you can’t visit a blog called ‘The Lurcher Diaries’ without having to wade through a lot of irrelevant crap about geology or bible studies, or wade through sentences that really are a grammatical and syntactical abomination – with WAY too many dashes – sentences you’d only want to start so long as you could play out a spool of fluorescent nylon rope behind you to can keep an eye on the beginning and not lose the sense – as I just did …. so …. erm … full stop?

Geology. That was it. In geology, I think, they use core samples in glaciers and other places to see what’s been going on over the past few thousand years. So in the spirit of the core sample, I thought I’d drill the cursor back down through the sediment of the last four months (you SEE! I TOLD you it hadn’t been long!), and present it as a selection of paragraphs that you can look over and get a feel for how things have been with Stanley.

*

One: The Return of the Hole in the Hedge Gang

In the field beyond the allotments the horses come and go. I’ve no idea where or why. For all I know they’ve got a beach house somewhere and take six months off surfing. Whatever the reason, they were back at the beginning of the year, as inquisitive and mischievous as ever. There’s one of them – Butch – who seems to take pleasure in putting himself where he knows it’ll cause the most problem, which is almost always the gate. This particular morning he is so far reversed onto the gate it looks from a distance like he is actually sitting on it. So not only would we have to get past him without Stanley barking, but we’d have to go round the back of the horse, which even an amateur like me knows is the zone most famous for kicking.

I try to remember the advice one of Kath’s friends gave her, a woman who knows a lot about horses, having found herself in the strange position of actually owning one.
‘Don’t show any fear,’ she’d said. ‘Be positive. Let it know where you want it to go by slapping your knee.’
‘So – wouldn’t it just come and sit on your knee?’ I asked.
‘No,’ said Kath. ‘They’re smarter than that.’

I look at Butch. He doesn’t look particularly smart. More intuitively mean.

Stanley is already rising up on the lead, despite the tripe sticks I’m frantically feeding into him. I can’t think what to do. Butch makes no sign that he’s bothered about me or Stanley or any other damned thing in the world, come to that. It starts to rain. There are no other exits without doing a huge detour.

Luckily, two women appear down the path on the other side of the fence. One of them I recognise, a wedding planner with a vigorous, no-nonsense manner that will at least make the wedding finish on time.
‘Help!’ I say.
‘Don’t worry!’ she says, tearing a branch from the hedge. ‘Move orf!’ she shouts to Butch, tapping the fence with the switch. ‘Get along there!’
And he does.
‘That’s amazing!’ I tell her.
‘Not at all!’ she says, tossing the switch and slapping her hands clean. ‘You just can’t afford to show any fear!’

*

Two: To the Vets

Stanley is due a routine check-up, so we take a trip to the vets.

The lockdown means that you can’t go inside the practice. You have to wait outside for your appointment time, then handover the dog under a gazebo they’ve rigged up outside. When we get there, one of the vet nurses is waiting under the gazebo. She smiled at us but holds her hand up for us to stop where we are. At the same time, a police car pulls up and an officer jumps out.
‘Hi!’ she says. ‘Thanks for seeing us!’
‘No problem!’ smiles the nurse.
The officer opens the back door and shouts: ‘Come on Ace! Good boy! Out you come!’
I’m expecting an Alsatian or something. A big dog anyway, in a kevlar jacket and baseball cap. Instead what jumps out is a spaniel, one of those one hundred percent love & affection dogs who wag their whole body instead of just their tail. I can’t think what they’d use it for, other than for detecting illicit chocolate, or maybe poetry. But then – maybe she’s brought it in for a drugs screen, because corruption happens not just at the highest levels but the very lowest, too.
‘Good boy!’ she says, and they both leap up the stairs two at a time following the nurse.

Later, when we pick Stanley up after his examination, the nurse is pretty severe.
‘His teeth are terrible,’ she says. ‘You really must brush them. Use this rubber thing on your finger.’
She gives it to me.
It looks like a pervy kind of thimble.
I try it on.
Show it to Stanley.
He sneers.

*

Three: Stanley has a fight.

Out on the walk we recognise a friend of Kath’s walking her dog Brodie with another woman and her black lab. We know that Stanley loves Brodie. Mind you, I don’t think there’s a creature on this earth that doesn’t or wouldn’t love Brodie. He’s the chillest dog I know. A mountain gorilla could charge through the hedge one minute, and the next it’d be sitting down with Brodie, scratching his head whilst Brodie politely asked him what it was like being a gorilla these days, and had he really met David Attenborough, and was he as charming as he seems, &c. The Labrador was more of a risk, of course, but we figured if Brodie was around it couldn’t hurt to let Stanley off.

Everything goes well, for a while. The woman throws a ball for the Labrador. Lola chases after it, followed by Stanley. (Brodie stands next to us shaking his head, tutting and saying ‘dogs, eh?’) And it all looks pretty idyllic – except, Stanley doesn’t know how to play.

We knew he’d been neglected for much of his life. I’m not sure running after a ball has ever been part of his emotional vocabulary. Consequently, he doesn’t seem to be ‘playing ball’ so much as ‘playing at being a dog playing ball’ – a confused and ragged kind of position, that involves a lot of random barking and generally irritating behaviour. It doesn’t make any difference how much encouragement or direction we try to give him, Stanley carries on doing the same thing, which is throwing himself around in an approximate way, chasing after the other dogs, then barking in their face when they bring the ball back. The Labrador takes as much as anyone could be expected to, then snaps, and launches herself at him.

I pull them apart.
Neither seems hurt.
Apologies all round (‘think nothing of it, old boy,’ Brodie says, quietly filling his pipe. ‘These things happen’). We say our goodbyes and head home.
It’s only later we realise Stanley’s ear is bleeding. Not much – just enough to make him look a little forlorn.
‘Oh Stanley!’ I say, dabbing it clean. ‘What are we going to do with you?’
But if he has any idea, he keeps it to himself.

*

Four: Stanley has another fight

For the next few days we’re more cautious about keeping Stan on the lead, only letting him off if when we’re absolutely certain there are no other dogs around – dogs he doesn’t know, that is. Or any dog with a ball.

I’ve just completed one circuit of the maximum security field – the one with hedges and fences surrounding it – Stanley off the lead and leaping about, when he suddenly freezes and adopts the position anyone can tell you is the precursor to action of one sort or the other (and in Stanley’s case, most definitely the other). Suddenly I can make out on the other side of the hedge a woman, walking a long, low and prodigiously hairy dog that looked something like a cross between a dachshund and a snow boot. And before I can say anything or make any of the distance to clip on his lead, Stanley takes a springing leap and dives through the hedge with his front paws stretched out. My memory of it is a little sketchy, but I think he does a little half-tuck and quarter-pike, before landing on his feet and hurling himself at the other dog. I have to run round to the nearest gate, leap over and then run down to grab him. There’s a great deal of snarling and posturing, but at least they aren’t actually going at each other with their teeth. Meanwhile, the woman is throwing treats at them, which is unorthodox, but seems to work, to some extent. When I’ve separated them, and they’re back on their leads, the woman catches her breath.
‘Is he alright?’ I say.
‘Physically – yes – I think so,’ she says, checking his ears. ‘But emotionally I’m not so sure. I’m terrified he’s going to need therapy.’
‘He’s not the only one.’

*

And so.
Time passes.
Time the Great Healer (if not the Great Cleaner of Teeth).

And whilst I don’t think Stanley will ever be the world’s greatest ball player – and certainly not the world’s greatest police dog – I’m happy to say he’s absolutely the world’s best Stanley the Rescue Lurcher, and I look forward to telling you how THAT goes in the next installment (due out later this millennium).

Chapter 26: The Stanislurchski Method

Interview with the Maestro – The Relaxation Paradox – Who Am I? – What You Have To Do To Be Convincing – The Magic If – The World Expressed As Donkey Toy – Closing Aphorisms

The following account is based on a series of interviews with Stanislurchski at his dacha in West Sussex. Over a bowl of tripe sticks, pausing only for the occasional squeak of his beloved donkey toy, he describes in detail his famous ‘Method’ – the system of acting techniques he developed over several years that eventually brought him to the attention of dog trainers worldwide.

A Lurcher Prepares

‘First of all, you must understand – to look this relaxed takes a great deal of work. It’s the paradox of the profession, and I’d like to explore this with you in greater detail if I may.

‘To begin with, specificity is key. Am I a rescue? Yes. Am I a male dog? Of course. As you can see. But I am more than this. I am male lurcher dog of nine years, and this is the first lesson. Specificity. Look for the detail. I am male lurcher dog of nine years, okay – good. What now? I am called Storm by previous owner who neglected me. I lose many teeth and – as you say – I am the skin and the bone. I have medical problem. True. Good. Now we have it. Now we can begin creating the role.

‘Truthfulness. Conviction. Faith in what you are doing. It is not enough to show to the audience something. It is not enough to leap from your basket to fetch donkey toy and then squeak this toy endlessly. No. You must first create in your inner being a desire for the toy, based on all the times in the past you have squeaked this toy, and made it talk. This is not just donkey toy. This is a distillation of your desire for donkey toy made manifest in the moment, and I cannot stress this more strongly. The audience must not simply see you grasp donkey toy, or hear you squeak donkey toy. First you must find the truth in your desire for donkey toy, the obsession, and only then can a true and full experience of the moment you squeak the toy be realised, and the performance made whole. Remember, there are no small toys, only small squeakers of toys.’

Building a Character

‘There is much work to be done in creating a role. You must devote long hours of research, establishing the facts, making notes on the history of the thing, the where and the why and the how. Often you will be overwhelmed. Often you will find yourself howling for no reason. What was name of woman who walked the character at the shelter? What was colour of hair of bad-tempered woman who worked behind desk? What snacks did they serve? And before that – what was name of stupid terrier you shared room with? Okay. So. This was Biscuit. Biscuit was psychopath. Good. Now we start to have background detail. Now we start to have perspective, and shade. Nuance. Now we find that character of nine-year-old rescue dog called Stanley can start to become believable for audience. But there is still much work to be done. Please – help yourself to tripe stick. Don’t let me finish them by myself.

‘Once you have a book filled with notes, you can start to build a truthful Stanley and achieve the objective of the performance, which – of course – is Truth. The audience must not only see the drama as it is conceived by the playwright. It must smell the devastating aromas after evening meal. It must shake its collective head with confusion at the spontaneous way you put your right paw up over your ears – like so. It must sigh with affection when you come in from the garden and collapse on rug with a harrumph. It must grit its teeth when – yes, once again – you find donkey toy and squeak it a hundred times. It is the essence of the work. When you choose the smaller dog basket to sleep in, it is because it means something to you to make this stupid choice, even though your legs stick out like octopus. It is not simply what a lurcher might do. It is what Stanley might do, and therein lies the performance.

‘The greatest tool in any dog’s toolkit is imagination. The employment of the Magic If. For example. On stage, the family are sitting down to watch The Sopranos. There is no room on sofa. The performance comes alive when you ask yourself: What If I Persist in Attempting to Join Them on the Sofa? They may not let you on the sofa. It may cause a great deal of fuss and the exciting season finale of famous New Jersey crime series may have to be paused temporarily. People may have to move. A cup of tea may be caused to be spilled unfortunately. Much has been accomplished. However! Still the artist continues to employ the Magic If. The true artist will ask: What If After All This I Stand Here A Few More Minutes Then Go Back To My Basket Anyway? There! A moment has happened! A reality! The performance continues. Art has taken place.’

Creating a Role

‘Action is the heart of everything you do. And if there is no action, that lack of action is still an action. This is the purpose, the staying in the moment, even if that moment is entirely empty, consisting of random grunts, a twitch of the ear, a sneeze. Do you see? Doing nothing at all is as active as pursuing a squirrel, or disappearing into a bramble thicket. Action is drama and drama is action. There! Now you know everything. Have we run out of tripe sticks, or…?

‘Self-consciousness is the artist’s true enemy. You must employ every technique at your disposal to stay in the moment. Draw in your circle of attention. Build that fourth wall. The only thing that must exist is you and the thing you want. The donkey toy that is three inches from your nose. Good. Now we have it. You watch donkey toy. You want donkey toy. Man comes to grab donkey toy – but you grab donkey toy first. There! The world has shrunk down to a three-inch circle. And maybe one annoying human hand. This is my principle of Unit and Objective. When you can construct your character’s motivation from such things, you will have created a life. One that really squeaks – I am sorry – I mean speaks to the audience.’

Here the interviews ended. Stanislurchski was exhausted (even though he’d only just woken up), and needed to lie down on the sofa. Before I left he was gracious enough to condense his advice into a few well-chewed aphorisms, which I humbly offer for your attention.

“If you have a tripe stick lying on the table in the first act, it should be eaten in the last act.”

“The tail is the window of your soul.”

“When the dog is completely absorbed by some profoundly moving objective so that he throws his whole being passionately into its execution, he reaches a state we call inspiration. Especially if it squeaks.”

“Our demands are simple, normal, and therefore they are difficult to satisfy. All we ask is that the artist as dog lives in accordance with natural laws. And gets to lick the plates in the dishwasher.’

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!

Chapter 24: cat, dog, dog, cat, dog

Free Gifts & Fine Furniture – What’s in a Name? (apart from Buckwheat) – Two London Strays – London-by-the-Sea – Buzz the mixed-up terrier – Kasha and her natural affinity with sofas – The Inevitable Vet – Lola the Lurcher – The Inevitable Vet II – Solly the Dog Whisperer & Traffic Victim –Stanley

Our first cat came free with a sofa.

‘I don’t suppose you want a kitten,’ the woman had said, standing there looking harassed, kittens in her hair, swinging off her dressing gown cord. Behind her, the entire flat was filled with cats, of all ages and colours and sizes. A calamitous catastrophe of delinquent cats, chasing each other in and out of the kitchen, climbing the curtains, sprawling on the sofa, flipping through the TV with a remote, snapping cat treats in the air and missing their mouths. The poor woman explained what happened. She said she’d started out with two cats, one of which was pregnant. And then a neighbourhood stray drifted in and forgot to leave and she thought it was male but then it turned out to be pregnant, too, so probably wasn’t, and the next thing was both cats gave birth at the same time to about a million kittens a piece, and overnight the flat was knee-deep in whiskers.

‘Go on, then,’ I said.

‘Which one?’

‘I’m easy.’

After I’d loaded up the sofa she handed me the first one that happened to be passing. I said thankyou and staggered backwards into the hallway, a kitten claws-deep in my chest.

I called her Kasha, after hearing a Polish friend of my sister talking about a girlfriend of hers, although I subsequently found out it wasn’t a girl she was talking about but a recipe for porridge. Still, the name seemed to fit – particularly as it was almost exactly the coughing sound she made when she was about to dredge up a furball. (The cat, not the girlfriend).

Kasha joined me for a particularly rootless phase of my life. I was living in London, wondering what to do next, changing accommodation almost as frequently as I changed jobs. Kasha fitted right in. We’d go through the Employment and Accommodation pages of the local paper together; she’d scratch round something interesting with a claw, I’d make the call. It worked out pretty well. And although I quickly lost sight of the sofa, Kasha would always be there, happily curled up. An image of domesticity in an otherwise rootless time.

By the time I met Kath and we moved in together, Kasha was already into double figures, with the unblinking stare of a city cat who knew her way round the alternative A to Z as much as any pigeon or rat.

We lived together in London for a bit longer, then bought a house down in Brighton. As a first step towards thinking of having children, we thought maybe we’d better practice on something first, so we went to the local pound to adopt a dog. Buzz was a mixed-up terrier, a black and tan stray down from Liverpool who had ears on springs and who would definitely have walked back on his heels if he had any. Kasha hated him. She hid in the bedroom for a month, giving me accusatory looks whenever I went up to feed her and try counselling. But time passed, she got bored with her self-imposed exile, and grudgingly came down to mix with us all. Although they were never friends, they soon came to a workable arrangement. And if Buzz ever trotted too close to the sofa whilst Kasha was lying on the arm, she would swat him on the nose, and the most Buzz would ever do about it was stand and stare at us with a haunted expression, like he couldn’t figure out how his life had come to this, a mixed-up terrier of his pedigree, being tyrannized by a throw cushion.

But of course, it turns out that a free gift with a secondhand piece of furniture has a time limit, just like anything else. After twenty years of good health and serviceable teeth Kasha lost weight, looked frail and unwell. I took her to the vet.

‘I only hope someone will do the same for me one day,’ the vet said, as she shaved Kasha’s paw and prepared to euthanize. It was a painful moment, as these things always are. Despite the off-hand shrug with which I’d taken Kasha, twenty years is a long time in anyone’s book; twenty cat years even longer. I buried her in the garden with a rhododendron on top.

To make up for the loss of Kasha we got another dog. This was Lola – a tiny lurcher from the same pound as Buzz. She was a puppy when we saw her, a tiny scrap of legs and tail, buckling on the bottom row of a pyramid of lurchers who were trying to escape through the top of the run. Buzz and Lola got on well. Buzz enjoyed having something around that was a bit more relatable, something he could curl up with, and jump around with in the snow, and steal sticks from when she’d fetched them from the lake, and wouldn’t swat him on the nose when he stopped by the sofa, for absolutely no reason he could think of.

And then a few years later, when Buzz made his last trip to the vets, we decided to get another cat.

Solly came from a cat rescue place. He had a take-me-or-leave-me, black-and-white-and-the-hell-with-you demeanour. A smart, streetwise cat who’d ambush you in the hallway and jump on your lap when he’d been outside in the rain all night. He quickly learned to manipulate Lola with steely mind control, and I have to say his dog training methodology was way better than ours. Unfortunately, though, he must have tried using the same technique on an approaching car one night, because he was found run over by a passing traffic cop. I had to go identify him down at the vet’s. I brought him home in something horribly like a pizza box. I buried him in the garden with a rose bush on top.

The road was obviously too fast for another cat, so we decided to get another dog.  

Which is how, almost a year ago today, we came to be parking up at the same local shelter, filling out a form in the office, strolling through the back door, and up the familiar concrete steps through a wild chorus of barking dogs to see who might be in that day.

And that’s the first time we saw Stanley – or Storm as he was then – sitting in his basket, one enormous front paw flopped over the other, watching the coming and goings with the kind of stare you might see on the face of an old West End critic, sitting in the front row, praying for the interval.

‘Hmm. I’m not sure,’ I said, squatting down and smiling at him. ‘He looks a bit too big to fit through the dog flap.’

Turns out, of course, he wasn’t.

Chapter 23: A Farmer is Born

Water shortage remembered – (Yes, Another) Rainy Day – Dogs Doing Time – The Farmer (s) – The Making Of – A Poorly Judged Jump – Smugness of a Four-Legged Animal – Squirrel Dance– Dance of the Dogs

There was a heatwave in August. After ten days of unbroken sunshine, the pressure from the taps started to fall, and the word went out that we had a water shortage. Trucks started delivering bottled water to a collection centre hastily set up in the car park of the local rugby club. We queued for our allocation, gossiped about this and that, ripped the water company to shreds, took our precious cargo home. The water company blamed the failure on customers doing despicable customery things, like washing cars, filling paddling pools, watering gardens. It seemed crazy, though. Didn’t we get enough rainfall through the year? Ten days of sunshine and then rationing? What could we take from that? (Apart from twelve litres of bottled water at a collection centre?)

Yesterday could have filled a hundred reservoirs on its own. It rained all day. So long and so thoroughly that the sun gave up and left us to it. Went off to find some more hospitable planet to hang out with. We were inundated, drenched, saturated, soaked. We took a thorough-going hosing. When I went to meet my daughter from school with an umbrella, I felt like a species of depressed jellyfish hovering uncertainly along the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Getting splashed by bastard car fish.

The point to all this is that the dogs didn’t get a walk. Normally if the weather’s bad we’ll take them for a stretch, but things were so rough we’d have needed flotation devices. Consequently they lay around the place, draped over the furniture in forlorn attitudes, playing harmonica, bouncing a ball against the wall, lying on their backs with one paw crooked up behind their head, smoking tripe sticks, saying stuff like ‘Hey! D’you remember that crazy little dachshund? Out of west side…? Whatever happened to him…?’

Which is why today they are so fired up to be clipped on the lead.

It’s super early. I want to get out and back before the school traffic kicks in. Stan is still barky on the lead when he sees other dogs, and past a certain hour in the morning it’s like a street dog show, families combining a dog walk with getting the kids to school.  So we head out at double-speed through the estate to the fields beyond, Lola and Stanley trot gamely at my side like two little ponies going for maximum style points. It feels great to be out without breathing apparatus and flippers. The streets are just starting to wake, with that soft but measured beat of a neighbourhood keying up for the day.

We don’t pass a soul. It’s a clear run through the alley, the empty streets of the estate, and then the rat-run through the allotments to the kissing gate and the fields beyond. An auspicious start.

Until – I see The Farmer and his three Jack Russells lingering around the gate.

I don’t actually know if he’s a farmer or not. It’s just an assumption based on his general get-up. I mean, he looks so much like a farmer you expect a tractor and a few cows. He couldn’t look more like a farmer than if he’d been sitting in a make-up chair in a make-up trailer on a film set for three hours, chatting about the renowned Lear he played in Hemel Hempstead one season, the girls nodding and smiling and suppressing yawns as they dab his cheeks with rouge, madden his eyebrows and such, then whip the cloth from his shoulders with a ta-dah! so he can trudge over to the full-length mirror, and admire himself, and make fussy adjustments to his flat cap, and neckerchief, as the girls dust the shoulders of his gaberdine mac with fake scurf, and tie the improvised belt around his middle, and spray fake mud on his boots, and hand him his swan-necked walking stick, as he pulls one last face at himself in the mirror, muttering: feck… ballocks…grrr… then treads backwards down the wooden steps from the trailer, like a farmer version of Neil Armstrong leaving the lunar module, and then turning and walking on towards the director, waving his stick in the air, shouting Coo-ee! Lionel! Your blessed farmer is here.

Which is to say he looks a bit like a farmer. So I’ll call him The Farmer, and offer my sincere apologies to all concerned.

He’s hanging around the kissing gate talking to someone else who also looks like a farmer (not so much a conversation as a kind of mini country cosplay, then). The three Jack Russells are trolling around looking bored. The Farmer periodically raps his stick on the ground and says something sharp, but the dogs pay no notice. When he looks in my direction he gives a little start, then uses his stick to urge the other farmer to move further up the path, and – thankfully – the Jack Russells follow suit, albeit reluctantly. Meanwhile, I’m busy trying to distract Stanley by feeding him tripe sticks, at considerable risk to my fingers.

‘Thanks!’ I say, when it looks like there’s just enough room to squeeze through the gate and get past.

The Farmer, the other farmer, and the three Jack Russells stand and stare at us as we bundle through the kissing gate and tip on into the field.

After yesterday’s downpour the place is a mud bath, but further out into the field it firms up a little. The Hole in the Hedge horses are safely over the far side, so all in all it starts looking good for a lovely walk. Lola’s fine off the lead, so she goes running ahead. I keep Stan on the lead, though, until we get to the second gate and the field beyond that, where it’s safer. There’s a narrow ditch to cross first. I’ve jumped it before, and I’m feeling good, so after saying ‘Hup!’ to Stanley, I launch myself over it.

I haven’t allowed for the fact it’s been raining forever. When my right boot makes contact with the opposite bank, it disappears in a mini-landslip, and I pitch headfirst into the mud.

Oof.

Stanley stares down at me. He can’t believe such a simple jump could be screwed up so royally.

‘No – it’s fine, Stan. Really. I’m good, thank you.’

He stares at me as I regain my feet and wipe myself off, looks on ahead to where Lola is standing waiting, then looks at me again.

‘Okay. Let’s go!’ I say, limping next to him. He trots on as neatly as before – quite smugly, I think.

I let him off in the next field. He runs ahead, along the hedge, leaping and throwing himself about like a stunt pony on a lunch break. He sees a squirrel and goes nuts, pretty much improvising a modern dancework, packed with jumps and sudden stops, pivots, tail whips, strange ethereal cries. The squirrel is perfectly safe, of course, watching the performance from about fifty feet up in an oak tree. Eating nuts, tossing acorn skins down in lieu of a bouquet. Stan is so committed to the artistic ideal of The Squirrel, though, I have to forcibly end the performance by putting him back on the lead and dragging him away.

The moment passes. Off the lead again. Stan and Lola chase each other about the field, madly running off all the energy they built up through yesterday’s washout. It’s great to see them play together like this. I watch them dance around each other, their crazy, clownish, haphazard choreography, taking it all in much like the squirrel, one species watching another at a distance, lacking the language, perhaps, but feeling the similarity nonetheless.

It’s good to get out.

Chapter 22: Farewell my Lurcher

Ready for a Walk – Drag on a Lead – A Dog’s Character Explained, incl. teeth – Something My Dear Ol’ Mum Might Say – Over the Estate – Horsey Judges – French for Wow – Another kinda Judge – Finis

It was a good day for a walk if you liked a coronary with your hypothermia. I was dressed for action, in a blue raincoat, beanie hat and paint-splattered jeans, like a knight that got beat up by the dragon, tossed in a dumpster and crawled out with whatever he could find in there. Still, it suited me well enough. I’m a dumpster kind of guy.

I was fixing to take the hound Stanley on a walk. And when I say walk I mean drag. Not the wig and lipstick kind. The ruched and rouged, plucked and tucked, Liza Minelli Liked My Instagram Story kinda drag. This was a whole other entertainment. Spelled T.R.O.U.B.L.E.

Stanley was the kind of dog who would give you one paw whilst he lifted your wallet with the other. A lean, loungy, lumpetty kinda hound, dirty as a swamp alligator, with legs like pipe cleaners and a smile that would make a dentist faint.

‘Let’s go, Stanley. And please – try not to bark.’

He looked up at me sweetly enough, like I was putting the Pope on a lead or something. But I wasn’t fooled. I knew what this particular Pope could do.

We took our usual route. Not that I thought we were being followed. But it’s like my dear old mom said to me one time: A little regularity never hurt no-one. Sure, the FBI used it against her in the end, but hey! A mother’s love for her son beats everything except the rap. Some lessons are best learned young.

The estate was as warm and welcoming as open day at the mortuary. Nothing fancy, just the usual characters blowing about the place. A big guy kneeling by his chopped bike, the guts of it spread all around, like a whacked-out surgeon surprised in an alley. I said good morning. He gave me a long, hard stare, like he was pricing his next job. Stanley ignored him, which was a relief. I didn’t relish the thought of a spanner cracking my skull. Not this early in the day. I like to save my treats for later. There was a kid coming in the distance. He had a bull terrier with him. They could have swapped places and no-one would’ve known. The kid was wearing a pair of earphones the size of dustbin lids, and he was walking along one foot after the other like the headphones were telling him. I fed tripe sticks into Stanley like logs through a sawmill, the hell with my fingers. Still – I might need them later. That .45 won’t squeeze itself.

We passed on into the field. There were horses. Why wouldn’t there be? The horses were always there, like the flu in winter. I could feel Stanley tense up. I fed him another tripe stick. I guess the hound was now eighty per cent tripe stick and ten per cent dog. The other ten per cent? You’d need a tall blackboard and a professor on a ladder to figure that one out, bud.

‘There, there,’ I said.

I couldn’t be any more specific.

He destroyed the tripe stick as we quick-stepped by the horses further on into the field. One of the horses nodded his head as we went by, like he was about to hold up score cards – four out of ten for interpretation, three for comedy value, zero for style. Deep down we both knew he wouldn’t. He couldn’t handle it. He’s got hooves.

Safely into the furthest field. The sun rolled out from behind some clouds like it had been kidding earlier about the rain. It got nicely warm, optimistic. I started walking lean and loose, enjoying myself. I let Stanley off the lead. I watched him go, that funny lopsided run of his, like a giraffe coming out of anesthetic. He covered the ground pretty quick, though. Straight towards a dog I hadn’t seen the other side of the field.

‘Stan!’ I cried. Too late. Before you could say tripe stick he was on them. I braced for impact. Waved my hand in the general direction of the owner.

The French have a word for it. Like they do for most things, being a pretty all-round kinda language. They call it coup de foudre. Lightning Flash, if you want to be picky, Love at first sight, if you’re a little easier. And even though I was halfway across a world made of grass, even from here I could tell Stanley had launched himself on the other animal full-on in the French way. I could see now the make of it. It was a Labrador, or L’abrador in French. Rough translation? Smokin’. Whatever. To my relief they had a great time, leaping around in slow motion, sniffier than two police dogs in a vape shop.

‘Sorry!’ I waved to the owner, the kind of bottle-blond woman in pearls and Drizabone jacket you see a lot of round here. The kind of woman whose other dog was a Hedge Fund Manager.

‘Don’t mention it!’ she said, smiling as broadly as a High Court Judge at the bird-end of the table at Christmas. ‘I must say he’s pretty frisky!’

Frisky?

I wondered what the French would call it.

Chapter 21: Game of Baskets

The Name of The Hound – His walking gear & why it takes so long to get ready – The HoH Elk as Treat – The Lunchables – Which Witch – The Impractibility of Cloaks – Magic Feathers – HBO get first dibs

The hound stood at the door, sniffing the air, tasting the morning, awaiting his armour.

The hound had carried many names in his lifetime. Storm, Caterwauld, Morgan le Paw. In the Sleeping Lands he was known as Tragelsmire. In FlameWald he was simply The Nose. Now he stood four-paw-square under the simple name of Stanley, and the trick of it suited him well enough.

‘Come, Stanley! Receive The Helmet of Gundersnatch, the War Harness of Schnegg and the Abysmal Crystal Dagger of Pangransmere’ said The Man, trudging wearily into the room. He was an odd figure, more goat than human, with a stoop like someone who had walked the earth all his life and then come home unexpectedly because he’d forgotten something. 

After helping Stanley into his armour, The Man quickly put on his own, being a simple leather jerkin, a fur hat of disreputable age, an ornate belt of woven ornate belts, and a rough sheath of cloth. Within was a blade of marvelous and intricate design, fashioned by elves in the Golden Workshops of Glimglamenglom, and then packaged and priced by wizards in the warehouse next door. 

‘Let us see what the morning holds in store for us’ said The Man. ‘Come, Stanley! Away!’ And slamming the roughly-hewn, Farrow & Ball Lichen Green door behind him, the two old warriors set off on their day’s adventure.

It wasn’t long before they encountered the drear Hound of Hoggenhansmanhant, of the House of Hoggenhansmanhant, although it looked like a little chihuahua had maybe snuck in the pedigree at some point. The HoH was being led on a Chain of Despite, by Danys, the drear Witch of Whatever. 

‘Hold fast, my brave Stanley!’ urgently whispered The Man. ‘Remember the legend. This is the Eve of the Feast of Stuffins, a most sacred time. We must not cross paths with the HoH this day, or our fortunes may be marred. Plus, I’m suddenly thinking your insurance may hath laps’d.’

The Man feigned good cheer and waved to the witch, who returned the favour. And so it was the two mortal foes tracked past each other on opposite sides of the path, narrowing their eyes, tugging on their respective leads.

‘Hold, damn you! Hold…!’ snapped The Man. Then ‘Good boy Stanley’ and – passing him a scrap of elk – they passed on unbowed through the quiet mists of the Valley of the Glebe, and on into the drear land beyond.

They trudged on, Stanley stopping here and there to sniff and then mark the vegetation, The Man occupied with distracted thoughts of his own. Suddenly, materialising like bastards out of the mist, two Lunchable Horses appeared. They were many hands high, with the sensuous nozzles, inappropriate ears and bunchy haircuts typical of the breed. 

‘Whither goest thoust?’ said the first, peering down at The Man with an arch to its neck like a Bank Manager who knows he’s not going to give you the loan but wants to string out the meeting anyway. 

The Man was irritated. His way lay through the Lunchables’ domain. It would be a merry and deadly quadrille they would dance if hostilities were to be openly declared, conducted at the point of a sword. 

‘Good sirs, we aim to cross through to the Kingdom of Broken Tree Hill. We mean you nothing but honour and respect.’

‘Have you got any apples?’

‘Apples?’

‘Yes.’

‘No, I’m afraid not.’

‘What did he say?’ said the other, younger Lunchable, stepping forth. 

‘He said he didn’t have any.’

‘Any what?’

‘Apples.’

‘Apples?’

‘Yes. Apples. What’s the matter with everyone today?’

‘Oh! I thought you said ladders.’

‘Ladders? Why would I ask him if he had any ladders?’

‘That’s what I thought. Why’s he asking about ladders?’

‘Sometimes I worry about you, Geoff.’

‘Well. So long as it’s only sometimes…’

This carried on for some time. Stanley looked up to The Man, who returned his gaze with equal bemusement. Finally they decided to move on, leaving The Lunchables to argue amongst themselves. 

‘Well done for not barking,’ said The Man, passing the hound another scrap of elk, which he received most enthusiastically, although The Man cursed, because Stanley had yet to perfect the art of taking elk scraps without taking half his goddamn fingers in the process. 

They passed on across the drear field, and entered at last into the Kingdom of Broken Tree Hill. 

A dark figure emerged from the mists – much as the Lunchables had done, except without the attitude. It was a curious figure, more like an animated boulder than a human being, wrapped in a great black cloak with a hood that fell forward across the face, such that the figure did stumble and curse, and push the hood back multiple times. 

‘Hold!’ cried the figure, producing a twisted staff of some drear design, planting the staff firmly into the ground, and then pushing the hood of her cloak back – for it was a she – inspected the two brave adventurers. 

Stanley took a step back and whined. 

‘Hold!’ whispered The Man.

‘That’s my line,’ said the Witch, rapping the staff on the earth again, in a way that could become irritating.

The Man recognised her now. The drear Witch of Chlamydia, known and feared throughout the Kingdom. 

‘My apologies, oh witch,’ said The Man. ‘I witch not to offend. I mean wish. Sorry.’

‘That’s okay,’ said the witch. ‘Take your time.’

She pushed her hood back and bunched up her sleeves.

‘What is your business here? These are my lands. I say who comes and goes. Mostly goes. Depending.’

‘Oh Witch!’ said The Man, giving an awkward bow. ‘My hound Stanley and me wish simply to exercise. Long have we been confined to cave, and long do we yearn to seek our fortunes for half an hour or so, hereabouts. We make all due fealty to thee, and offer our strength of arm and our dauntless courage.’

‘Yes to the first, meh to the second,’ she said, with a shrug that tipped her hood forward again, and did cause her to push it back testily. The Man was tempted to offer his tailoring services. His drear mother had been a tailor, and had taught him from an early age to wield a needle with magical precision. It was he who had made his own hat – even though the material had been difficult and somewhat cheap, and it wasn’t his fault it turned out so lopsided. But something about the witch’s demeanour gave him pause. Besides, she was a witch. Couldn’t she magic up a cloak that fit better? 

‘Silence!’ cried the witch (even though he hadn’t actually been talking). ‘You may pass through my Kingdom. I’m having a bad day and I don’t want to add to it. Besides, I like the look of your hound.’

Stanley’s ears rose up – beneath The Helmet of Gundersnatch, so you wouldn’t know unless you really looked – and his tongue lolled out.

‘Let’s see if I’ve got anything here for you, darling,’ the witch said, rummaging around in her cloak pocket. ‘I think I might have… at least I thought I did…..yep! Here it is!’ 

She brought forth a scrap of elk and flourished it in the air. 

‘Is it okay if I …?’ she said to The Man.

‘Of course!’ he replied. ‘That’s very kind of you. Just watch out when you…’

But before The Man could warn her, the witch advanced the scrap of elk and waved it in front of the hound. Stanley lurched forward and snapped it up.

‘Fuck me!’ said the witch, jumping back and shaking her hand. ‘He takes no prisoners, does he?’

‘I’m so sorry,’ said The Man. ‘I’ve tried to cure him of that, but it’s difficult. I suppose he just really, really likes elk scraps.’

‘And fingers, too. Jesus Christ!’

She pushed her hood back, held her hand in the air and made a big deal about checking she still had all her rings. Then she turned her attention back to the travellers, and glared at them fiercely. For a moment The Man thought she was going to assail them with infernal magic. But the moment passed. 

‘Okay,’ she sighed. ‘This isn’t getting the cauldron cleaned. On your way, fella. And don’t pick any magic mushrooms. They’re mine. And don’t litter.’

She smiled, revealing wonderfully white teeth that The Man thought must have taken a lot of magical work, then – switching the staff into her other hand, and pushing back her hood – she rootled around in a black leather pouch. 

‘Here,’ she said, producing a golden feather. ‘Take this. On the house. Free. Go on. It won’t bite – unlike your mutt.’

‘Many thanks, kind witch,’ said The Man, taking the feather and holding it up, where it did catch the light and sparkle most impressively and inexpensively. 

‘It’s magic,’ she said. ‘Natch.’

‘And how shall I use this wonderful feather, oh witch?’

‘Within seven leagues thou wills’t come upon an ancient stone bridge across a river in riotous flood. In the middle of the bridge you wills’t see a gigantic eagle wrapped in mortal combat with a drear serpent. Take the feather and use as directed.’

‘As directed?’

‘There’s a website,’ said the witch. ‘I haven’t got all day. Farewell!’ she cried, and rapping the staff once more upon the earth, and her hood falling awkwardly across her face, she did vanish in a great tempest of vapour and cursing that made The Man cough and swipe the air in front of him. 

‘Come, Stanley!’ he said to the hound. ‘Let us continue with our walk, and see whatever else may befall us. Hopefully with a little more continuity. I’m keeping a diary and HBO have expressed an interest.’

Chapter 20: Some Corner of a Damp Field

Rain (Again) – Just A Short One – Best Laid Plans – Holiday Memories –  Best Dressed Dog Walker 2020 – First Hazard – And the Second – The Basic Idea Behind Horses – The Disappearance – The Mysterious Thing Up the Tree – Ball Madness – Greece Is Still Much Nicer

It’s raining. Again.

Not the kind of tempest that would get Turner stuffing his shirt tails in his breeches, throwing some brushes in a bag and hurrying out the door.

Not the kind of cataracts that would get Noah tutting in the cabin of his ark while a giraffe gently nudged his arm for toast.

Not the kind of CGI catastrophe that would have the lead actors turn round slowly before they snap out of their funk and fight their way through the disposable crowds up to higher ground, or the library, or the mall, or wherever. The kind of photogenically apocalyptic weather that’s accompanied by drums and brass and buckets of popcorn.

Not that kind of rain.

No – this is that peculiarly British, mediocre, bargain-basement, own-brand kind of rain that makes you shrug and dream about Greece. A miserly drizzle. A so-so soaking. Whatever kind of weather. A non-soon.

The dogs stand at the back door as unenthusiastically as me.

‘Just a short one,’ I tell them.

They stare up at me in silent protest.

If only I’d listened.

*

I figure at least no-one else will be out. They’ll have taken a more balanced view. They’ll have listened to the forecast, for God’s sake, which I think I’m right in saying promised this whole damned thing will have cleared away by midday leading to sunny periods and ‘spits & spots’ of rain (which I hate as a description – it sounds too medical – the meteorological equivalent of ‘moist’). But of course, that wouldn’t fit in with the plans I have for my day off. I’d decided already. One: Walk the dogs. Two: Breakfast. Three: Write. Four: Lunch. Five: Supermarket shop. Six: The rest of the day’s my own (as if everything else hadn’t been). There’s nothing to say I couldn’t do it all in reverse order and stay dry at the same time. But no – a plan’s a plan – which probably proves I’m British more than my bad teeth or my Raynaud’s. A state of mind cold-forged by years of holidays on the North Norfolk coast, shivering in and out of the sea, followed by a rough towelling off, gritty sandwiches huddled behind a windbreak, then out again for a round of French cricket in the middle of a hurricane.

I can’t find the stuff to wear that I want to wear, so I end up in a flat brown cap, green waterproof with a broken zip, too-tight trackie bottoms with a red stripe down the sides, and a pair of ten pound wellies. When I put the little bag of treats over my shoulder, bookended left and right by two glum lurchers, I look like a minor character in a naff suburban sitcom.

Just as I reach the beginning of the alley that leads onto the estate, I see two girls coming towards me with a bow-legged Staffie, like they’re taking an old footstool for a walk. The girls are as crazily dressed as I am, so I don’t feel too bad.

‘Which way are you going?’ I say to them.

They stop and hold their hoods away from their faces to get a better look. Even the Staffie seems confused.

‘Which way are you going – right or left?’

They look uncertain about me, and I really can’t blame them – except, Stanley barks, and then they understand what I mean.

‘Right!’ says the older one in a panic.

I move to the left and distract Stanley with a treat whilst they exit and hurry on.

‘Good start!’ I say to him.

Lola looks at me. She could’ve predicted all of this. I give her a treat, too, which she snaps down with a scornful little snap like a bent cop trousering a bribe.

When we reach the gate into the first field, I see a woman coming towards us with a Border Collie. If Stan has an internal list of dogs he likes to bark at, a Border Collie comes second (below a French Bulldog, his nemesis, still at number one, and just above a Jack Russell, which I think he’s more worried about as a choking hazard).

‘Sorry!’ I say, moving off to the left as soon as I’m through the gate. ‘He barks!’

The woman is dressed in thoroughly sensible, all-weather gear. The kind of gear you’d put on if you were at the North Pole and just stepping out of the hut to drill some ice cores. She waves a Gore-Tex mitten at me. Stanley barks – but she doesn’t react. She’s used to polar bears.

Further on, and the Hole-in-the-Hedge gang are gathered around the furthest gate. There’s a big oak there, giving shelter from the rain. I suspect they don’t mind the rain all that much, though. It’s just an excuse to loiter round the gate and intimidate the passing trade.

Lola trots towards them obliviously, but Stanley bridles. I don’t think he understands the basic idea behind horses, and I have to say I’m with him on that. I think he thinks horses are just oversized French Bulldogs. To get him past I have to feed him a whole tripe stick – the treat equivalent of a stat dose of mirtazapine. It works. We make it through the gate into the next field. I start to feel more optimistic about the walk. I let Stanley off and the two of them chase each other around through the wet grass. We move on to the next field.

Stanley disappears through a fence into a private area of scrubby woodland.

‘He’ll be back,’ I say to Lola.

She’s not convinced.

Stanley is gone for ten minutes or more. Just as I wonder whether I should go look for him, I hear him barking. Not the usual thing – a worrying combo of distressed howl and urgent woofing. It sounds as if he’s in pain. I picture him hung up in barbed wire, or maybe his foot jammed in a hole or something. So I crawl under the fence and head that way. Finally I see him, standing under a tree, staring up. He’s so rapt, he doesn’t even glance back as I approach. I put the lead on and try to tempt him away with a tripe stick. But whatever it is up the tree (I don’t know, a deer probably, because I’m sure even an elephant would find some climbing capability if they heard Stanley barking), it has a hold on him that totally trumps tripe. I’m forced to drag him away inelegantly, all the time imagining what Adina the dog trainer would say. Probably nothing. She’d just shake her head slowly from side to side, a single tear sliding down her cheek.

I can’t risk letting him off the lead yet, so I have to negotiate the fence the best I can – which, as it turns out, is not very well. I manage it, though, sliding out the other side muddied and soaking wet, but still with Stanley safely in custody.

I straighten my hat. We carry on with the walk.

I find a tennis ball. I let the dogs off and throw the ball. Lola scoops it up mid-run, but Stanley overestimates and blows past her in a chaotic mess of legs. Then he scrambles upright again and starts chasing her round the field, making up in noise what he lacks in coordination. After a while I put him back on the lead. Lola waits until we’re at a safe distance before she drops the ball in a place she’ll remember for next time, then comes panting after us.

The horses have moved on, so that’s something. Now that the rain is coming down harder and with more conviction, it looks like we’re the only things out on the field. Probably the world.

‘Good dogs!’ I say to them. ‘Let’s get home for a nice, rough towelling off.’

And with the three of us standing there, muddy and wet-through, it feels like we’re home already.