Chapter 17: Ice Age Stanley

Evolution of a Bark – a frozen cave bear – Werner Herzog – the life and habits of the Pleistocene Cave Bear described – dogs from wolves – what’s a Smilodon got to smile about? – Stanley’s good deed – and the treat he wins – domestic chores finally done

However annoying Stanley’s barking is – and, for the record, I have to say that really he doesn’t bark all that much – twenty thousand years ago we’d have been very glad of his bark indeed. In fact, we’d probably have kept him for that very purpose, along with his comedy walk, his empathetic expression, his crazy fur, his lolloping good humour and the rest of it.

The only reason I mention any of this is because on the news the other day I saw that some reindeer herders in northern Siberia had come across the carcass of a frozen cave bear. It was incredible. The whole bear, right there, emerging from the thawing permafrost with a terrifying snarl on its lips. (Mind you, I’m the same. If I don’t get the full forty thousand I’m a real grouch).

I remember seeing a documentary by Werner Herzog about the Chauvet caves in southern France. Apart from the fantastic animal paintings they’d found there, and the handprints of the artists who’d made them some thirty thousand years ago, I remember Herzog talking about the skull of cave bear. It had been put up on a plinth of rock, very much like an altar. And there were claw marks in the cave, too, where other bears had come to make their own contribution to the murals, or maybe to protest about their friend being made into a god. It’s hard to know from this distance – which is a point Herzog makes using an albino crocodile (you have to see the film).

Anyway, apparently these cave bears grew to quite a size – eleven feet or more when they stood up and waved their paws about, which they must’ve done a lot, especially when you accidentally went into the wrong cave, looking for a nice place to do some painting in, or living, coming to that. And then of course, the cave bear was omnivorous, which meant that although a pawful of berries or a scooched salmon or two would be more than welcome, a nice, fresh, screaming human would’ve been a particular treat.

Seeing how enormous the fangs on that icy bear were, I can imagine having a barky dog around to let you know if one was sneaking up would’ve been very handy indeed.

The theory is, of course, that dogs are domesticated wolves. They reckon it happened about fourteen thousand years ago, because there’s direct fossil evidence of dogs being buried with their owners. It may be that wolves started hanging round human camps, intrigued by the noise and the light and the delicious cooking smells. And I can corroborate this theory anecdotally, based on Stanley’s intense interest in the slightest sound of cupboards being opened in the kitchen – although cupboards didn’t appear in the fossil record until quite recently, of course. The humans may well have encouraged these feral but inquisitive animals, tempting them with scraps, laughing at them when they fell asleep and twitched as if they were still hunting or something. And after a few generations, maybe some of these wolf-dogs started tagging along on the hunt, and earned rewards for flushing out deer, or corralling aurochs, and generally making the whole thing more of a day out.

And then or course, there were the bears. And the saber-toothed tigers. Which, to be honest, I never did get. I mean – why would you need teeth like that, except maybe to impress? But at what cost to your table manners?

(I just Googled that. Apparently saber-toothed tigers weren’t actually tigers and were more properly called Smilodon. A Smilodon had teeth specially adapted to ambush big prey like bison and camels, biting them in a special way that scientists can’t agree on, except to say it wasn’t all that pleasant. Which makes the name Smilodon seem darkly ironic.)

I think Stanley would’ve been in his element, twenty thousand years ago. The earth was still frozen in the last great ice age. Woolly mammoths and giant ground sloths were hulking about. There were packs of wolves chasing down giant elk through the snowy forests. In fact, everything was giant, so Stanley would’ve fitted right in, especially his ears. I can imagine him, sleeping towards the front of the cave, twitching happily on his pelt, lulled by the flickering embers of the fire – until he suddenly sits straight up and starts barking, the dreadful hoooof-hooooofing echoing around the cave, and everyone groaning and stirring, swearing and cussing like flint-knappers, throwing quern stones and mammoth shoes and eagle bone flutes at him, until someone has the grace to realise that actually, he’s just saved them all from a particular savage cave bear, who’d been tippy-clawing up the slope in an effort to claim back its home. And then Stanley gets a great deal of cuddles and fuss, and a Pleistocene treat, being his favourite – the femur of a Moa (very low fat, high in magnesium, great for healthy teeth and bones and shiny coat, the only drawback being it’s so big you can’t pick it up). And the cave bear would grouch away along the glacier line, and trip, and get more completely frozen than those vegetarian burgers you have absolutely no memory of buying, and which only emerge twenty thousand years later when you finally get round to defrosting the fridge.

Chapter 16: A Renaissance Guide to Dog Walking

A bit barky – Dog walking obstacles, being mostly other dogs – An inappropriate war metaphor – A couple of things I remember from University – How to Make an Impression – BrodySheep – The Ghent Altarpiece – Blessed Tripe

‘He’s a bit barky.’

Which is like saying a Great White’s a bit bitey.

Vesuvius a bit erupty.

Or Donald Trump a bit totally unfit for public officey.

But I digress.

When I strode out for an early walk this morning the clouds were clearing, the sun was shining, I was fresh and new-made upon this glorious world – in other words, not concentrating, and totally unprepared for the dog-walking obstacle course that lay ahead.

Although, not totally unprepared.  And I suppose that’s the benefit of routine. You can be half-asleep with your hair pointing straight up and your eyes gummed shut but there’s still a part of your brain that keeps you breathing, and another that guides your hands to the poo bags, lead and treats. So at least I had a pocket load of tripe sticks. Like a marine about to fall out of a helicopter. Lock & Load. Tripe sticks taped together for quick deployment. A pack of cigarettes in the band of my helmet. I’m overdoing this. It’s a dog walk, for tripe’s sake.

I think it worked in my favour that Stan was as sleepy as I was. The two of us stumbling haplessly from situation to situation, pinch point to pinch point. A poodle – good boy, Stan – tripe treat. A springer spaniel – good boy, Stan – tripe treat. A Labrador – good boy, Stan – you get the picture. We reached the kissing gate into Hole-in-the-Hedge field, admittedly more awake by now. There was a couple approaching it with a feisty little thing. No idea what breed. Looked like a cross between a Border Terrier and a Marmoset.

‘Which way are you going?’ I said.

‘Why? Which way are you going?’

‘Into the field. Only he’s a bit barky.’

More tripe stick, feeding it into him like a log through a sawmill whilst the couple hastily turned right out of the gate, giving us enough room to get into the field before they turned left and carried on.

I did English & Drama at university (which obviously stood me in good stead for a career in nursing). A lot of it’s a happy blur now, but some things stand out from the course. The character of Despair from The Faerie Queene – the most haunting depiction of depression I’ve come across. Japanese Noh theatre, where I played a mysterious masked figure who took ten minutes to shuffle on stage, ten minutes to look into a mirror, posture tragically, then ten minutes to shuffle off again (but at least it means I don’t have any trouble wearing masks these days). Talking to a big, bearded guy in the student bar a few minutes before I was due outside in the windy courtyard to do some fire eating and juggling, and the guy turning to face me, scooching his beard to one side, to show me the horrendous scars he suffered from fire swallowing and juggling in a windy courtyard some years previously.

But one thing I remember from reading Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier – an early renaissance etiquette FAQ for aristocrats and politicians – was the idea of sprezzatura. Castiglione recommended putting in hours of secret practice in a thing – whether that’s painting, dancing, sword-fighting or whatever – but not letting on that you’ve studied to that level. So that when you’re asked to paint a picture, and then demonstrate the jitterbug, and then have a fight about it, the whole thing comes so effortlessly it makes more of an impression. Which always sounded like a lot of preparation for a fleeting social kickback, but then again, they had more time in the sixteenth century, and the lighting wasn’t as good. The only reason I mention any of this is that I think Castiglione would’ve raised his Renaissance eyebrows and quietly applauded in his kidskin gloves to see the sprezzatura Stanley evidences when he barks.

I’ve talked about Stan’s barking before, but it’s worth revisiting.

He looks angelic, otherworldly. Like Adrien Brody went into a matter transporter but didn’t realise there was a sheep in there as well. But then launches the kind of apocalyptic woof that would make a pilot of a passing Airbus at thirty-five thousand feet frown and rap the console with his knuckles.

There was a big hoo-hah in the papers recently about the restoration of the 15th century Ghent Altarpiece painting by van Eyck. It’s a big painting, with lots of people standing around and not much happening (a bit like that Noh play I was in). But central to the thing is the Mystic Lamb up on the altar, being sacrificed in the way God liked it, and looking strangely happy about being bled out into a cup. The hoo-hah was that people didn’t like the way the lamb’s face had been restored. They said it made it look like Kylie Jenner. But the truth was, that’s how van Eyck painted it (spookily pre-empting Kylie J. by 588 years). There’d been so many restorations and adaptations since it went up, the original lines had become blurred. (Although I have to say, I prefer the blurred version. The repainted lamb had a certain mystery; the original lamb is too – well – pouty).

All of which is a massive digression. What I really wanted to say is that Stanley has perfected the art of sprezzatura to such an extent that he goes from Mystic Lamb to Great White in one effortless intake of breath. The kind of transition that would put even the most adoring angel on the back-foot, and have the priest dropping his crucifix and reaching blindly for a holy club.

Or tripe stick, depending on how well prepared he was.

Chapter 15: Stanley, Queen of Egypt

Too doggone hot – Water shortages – Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra – sleepy foals – An exciting new movie about a Poacher and his Lurcher – Are you the farmer? – One man and his gigantic hound

Heatwave. Except – it goes on so long it’s not so much a wave as a full-on, thermal flood, transforming the country from a chilly European outpost to a hard, blue Mediterranean wannabe. And of course, the trouble is, because we’re mostly used to shivering indoors in our coats, or tapping snails from our wellies, or bailing out river water with saucepans, we’re not really set up for it. The endless torrents that fell over winter disappear overnight. The taps start to run thin, and you suddenly you find yourself queuing at the local football ground to score a few bottles of water.

It’s so hot, we can only walk Stanley early in the morning. He runs around for about five minutes then spends the rest of the time dowsing for springs. His ludicrous white fur coat must be a burden, but he’s very fashion conscious and refuses to strip down to his furry undies like the rest of us. When we get back, Kath puts a wet tea towel over his head and takes a picture, holding it up against one of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. And I have to say, there’s a definite likeness. Although on balance I think Liz beats Stan by a nose.

Mostly he spends his time sprawled out flat in front of the fan, or under a tree in the garden, or on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor, panting steadily and determinedly with a noise like a woodsman sawing logs. We keep his water bowl topped up. He struggles, but puts on a brave face, exactly like Cleopatra, smiling mysteriously from her basket as she watches the pyramids go up in the garden.

And like Stan, the Hole in the Hedge gang are hot and sleepy, too. They’ve had a few foals (I’m too stupid with heat to Google the collective noun – a ninny? a cuteness?) and although sometimes they chase and kick each other to no great purpose, and generally leap about, sneaking up on their parents round the blackberry thickets, most of the time they’re stretched out on their sides, flicking their tails at a constant bothering of flies.

Stan ignores them – which is progress. Not so long ago he’d have looked at them with alarm, barking like they were monstrous creatures with iron paws who’d been spawned from the very earth (I have to say I agree with him on that one). Now, he yawns and carries on, pulling on the lead, keen to get into the next field, which is much more secure, free of horses, and just right for a mad and uncoordinated long-legged lurcher to throw himself around in.

He does his usual thing, which is a combination of sniffing, running, jogging, jumping, leaping, nosing about, standing still with ears lifted, standing still with leg lifted, and original combinations of the above. We thought at first he’d be an awesome rabbiter. Although I have to admit much of that was based on how he looked. I mean, if I was casting a film about a poacher and his dog (set in the early nineteenth century, where the poacher gets tricked into joining the British army, and finds himself fighting in the Peninsular War, where his poaching skills come in very handy, but he gets wounded, and thrown in prison, and he’s pretty much had it, when a mysterious old woman charms the guards and bribes them with pawful of hard biscuits, and they let her in to tend to the wounded, and then she throws off her shawls, and it’s the lurcher, who gives a disgusting cough and vomits up the key he lifted off the guards, and they all escape, and after many adventures – none of which involving horses – end up back in the old Sussex pub they started out from, struggling to make a living selling rabbit skins and old blogposts) – well, then, I’m confident Stanley would get a callback. I don’t think his rabbiting skills are all that, though. When he sees one he freezes, and only runs after it when he’s confident it’s made it at least halfway down the hole.

Whether it’s the heat, or whether it’s the excellent training we’ve been putting him through, courtesy of Adina, I don’t know, but this time on the walk Stanley seems remarkably calm and well-behaved. He doesn’t bark at the horses. He comes back when I call. He notes the presence of another dog on the other side of the field but doesn’t launch himself over there. All-in-all, he’s pretty damned good.

I see one of the regular walkers the far side of the main field. It’s a guy I try to keep clear of, to be honest. An elderly guy, a farmer type, squashed down firmly into his boots by the flat of his cap. The kind of farmer who lost his license for unspecified misdemeanors. Who has a Suzuki Jimny with a pheasant feather on the dash and a bumper sticker that says: Keep your bullshit in Westminster. He’s got a pack of Jack Russells that he seems, by the sound of it, to hate. They’re a torment to him. You can hear him cursing at them as he blunders through the kissing gate. You’d think to hear him he was leading a pack of hyenas. Actually, they seem pretty good (from a distance). They trot ahead of him, happily sniffing around, enjoying the early morning air whilst he curses and growls behind them. Once I saw him throw his walking stick in their direction – which seemed pointless, because it only made them trot further on ahead, and meant he had to go and pick up his stick, which didn’t improve his mood any. The point is, Stanley didn’t even respond to them, which is a miracle out of scriptures.

The most miraculous moment comes a little later, though. We’re halfway through the twitten – a nerve-stretching alleyway at the end of the walk – because once you’re committed to it, there’s no turning back. We’re approaching the main road. Suddenly, a man walks past with the most enormous dog I’ve ever seen. I’d say Munsterlander but I’m not sure that’s even a thing. It’s big anyway, bigger than the horses, bigger than the man, and certainly bigger than Stanley. I reach for the treat bag, my heart dropping because I know only a dart from a ranger at the wildlife park could stop Stanley barking now. He doesn’t, though. All that happens is his mouth drops open, his eyes widen and he tenses up. But he doesn’t make a sound.

‘Morning!’ says the man, striding on.

‘Morning!’ I say.

‘Lovely day!’ he says.

‘Hot!’ I say.

And that’s it. They’re gone.

Stan gives himself a little shake. I’m so shocked I eat the dog treat I’d taken out of the bag.

‘Come on, Stan,’ I say, screwing up my face.

And holding his tail in neutral, happy alignment, he follows.

Chapter 14: Summer of Love

Better at Not Barking – St Adina – A Nightmare Scenario – Foley Suggestion – Shakespearean Caution – Love and The MOD – Love means never having to come back till you’re lassoed

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Stanley’s getting better at not barking.

There. I’ve said it. It’s out there. I’ve had the t-shirt printed and everything.

There is a slight rider, though. He’s getting better at not barking but he’s no angel.

‘He barks when he feels afraid. When he’s uncomfortable in situation,’ Adina says, gently circling her fingers in the crazy wig of hair between his ears. Stanley’s eyes spiral in ecstasy. ‘The important thing is to show he can trust you to take care of situation for him. Then he can relax, and not worry about it. So. If you find yourself in situation, make sure you take Stanley a little further off. Yes? Put distance between you and whatever it is. And if that’s not possible, simply walk away in the other direction. Isn’t that right, Stanley? Hmm?’

And my memory might be a little hazy, but I’m pretty sure he nodded once, emphatically, before meekly accepting the tripe stick she passes down to him like a novice priest receiving the sacrament.

Quite why Stanley is afraid of the Golden Retriever that comes running towards him over the field is a mystery. Even from here you can tell it’s no danger to anyone. It couldn’t look more obviously friendly if it had huge, squeaky paws and a flashing bow tie (although, having written that, I’ll probably have nightmares). I think the issue isn’t the thing itself – a buffoonish dog running towards us straight out of clown dog school, the light entertainment between the Afghans on Horseback and the French Bulldogs on the flying trapeze – but the way in which he appears, which is suddenly, from a thicket of trees just to the right of the path. It’s like being ambushed by a giant tongue.

Luckily, Stan was on the lead at that point – only because there was a hole in the hedge that he’d run through after some rabbits the other day, and it was a job to get him back. As soon as he sees the Retriever he rears up on the lead and barks his bark. It’s such a rich and devastating sound. I’m sure they could use it as a sound effect in the next Jurassic Park movie. The scene where the velociraptor gets croup.

But here’s the thing. If I was a dog running happily over to meet another dog, and that other dog made a noise like that, I’d take it as a sign maybe I should exercise caution, and hang back a little, at least until someone wearing a bomb disposal suit went over first and made sure the scene was safe. But this particular dog is so filled with love for all things, so totally and open-heartedly devoted to finding pleasure in the world, and lapping it up, like a giant, golden bee rushing from moment to moment siphoning up the nectar (and there’s another nightmare I’ll be having later), it takes absolutely no notice, but rushes up to us regardless. I’m tempted to let Stanley off the lead, because I know that by hauling on the lead like this it’s only making him worse – but I think of that Shakespeare quote: Let slip the dogs of war. So I don’t. I look around for the owner. I see a woman in the distance, waving a lead in the air and calling Maisy or Daisy or something, without the least effect. I try walking off purposefully in the other direction. Which would be fine, if Maisy or Daisy (I’ll call her MOD for short) stayed put and didn’t follow. But of course she follows, because whereas Stanley has a darkly nuanced vocabulary of emotions, influenced by his nine long years of abuse, MOD has one mood setting, which is LOVE. Dialled up to eleven.

I feel bad for everyone, particularly MOD. Looking at her, though, I’m not sure it’ll set her back all that much. She is the epitome of Golden Retriever, the essential article, stuffed full of golden things, Affection and Love and Goodness and Forgiveness and I don’t know what, hurrying about the world, retrieving wonders.

I give up trying to walk away, because apparently it doesn’t matter that Stanley has transformed into a huffing and puffing troll swinging a spiky club and threatening bloody vengeance, MOD trails happily in our wake like a hippy at a festival strewing flowers left and right and sticking a few in her hair.

‘I’m so sorry about that!’ says MODs owner, catching up at last and lassoing the Retriever. ‘She’s not the best dog in the world at coming back, especially when she’s having such a lovely time.’

‘That’s okay!’ I said. ‘I’m sorry about Stanley. He’s a good dog, really, but he still has a bit of a barking problem.’

‘Oh dear!’ says the woman, smiling down at Stanley – although her smile doesn’t seem quite as unconditional as the Retriever’s.

‘He’s getting better though,’ I tell her.

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Chapter 15: Lunch at the Bitch Cafe

Dog Heaven – Too Many James Bond Films – What Dogs Do on the Beach (other than that) – Tide Brutality – A Useful List of Cross-Breeds – What the N in RNLI Really Stands For – An Idea for Curing Arachnophobia (you’re welcome) – Two Guys & an Essex Port – Wall of Fame – Collies Getting Smaller – Food Order Getting Cold

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We walk along the beach heading for a seaside cafe we’ve heard is dog-friendly. We keep Stanley on the lead, because there’s just too much going on, too much distraction. This whole resort seems to be some kind of dog heaven and we feel like we’re among our people. For some reason it makes me think of friends of ours who became obsessive triathletes. They bought a timeshare on an apartment in a training resort at Lanzarote. Which I have to say made me feel a little uneasy when they showed us pictures. Long lines of super-fit athletes, exercising in unison in the early morning sun. Scientists in white coats, smiling approvingly, taking measurements from a balcony, announcing the best times over the tannoy, calling people forward, travelling with them in electric buggies to the lab at the heart of the volcano. Guards up on gantries, a rocket, yadda yadda. You’ve seen the film. Anyway, plots to rule the world aside, timeshare can really tie you down.

There are dogs everywhere, leaping off the dunes, splashing through the shallows left by the retreating tide, careening round the windbreaks, surfing, kayaking and whatnot. Stan had a busy time running around out on the flats this morning, so he’s happy enough on the lead, and anyway, he seems to know we’re heading in the direction of food. We stride along the damp, compact sand of the strandline, along by heaps of broken shells and things, washed-up jellyfish drying out in the sun. A dead white crab waggling in the shallows, belly up. It’s like every time the tide goes out there’s a mass extinction event. But there’s such a stack of all these things I can only think there’s plenty more where that came from. The gulls and terns seem happy about the situation, piping and swooping exultingly overhead.

We hear the cafe before we see it. A great mass of noise, a Tower of Babel, except more like a Tower of Tables, with at least half a dozen hyperactive dogs per table.

Dogs, dogs, dogs. It’s the dress code at the Beach Cafe. You have to have one to eat. Don’t worry if you don’t, though. There’s a retired chihuahua behind the counter you can use, like an old tie in a fancy restaurant.

Dogs, dogs, dogs. Dogs of every variety. Sheep dogs, sausage dogs, GSPs, ESPs (bred to know where you’ve hidden the treats); surfer dogs; instadogs posing with an espresso and a French novel; border collies & collies from further inland; poodles, labradoodles, cockalabs, labacockercollies, cockatiels. There’s even a rare labarridor (a labrador born in the corridor). The cafe is right next door to the lifeboat station, which is a nice touch and makes it feel safer. I imagine when the klaxon sounds, six Newfoundlands throw down their forks and leap across the forecourt into an inflatable.

We approach the cafe with a thrill of anxiety. It may have been my imagination, but the great hubbub stops as we approach, thirty pairs of dark dog eyes snapping in our direction, thirty tongues doing an anticipatory smack of the muzzle as we head up the slope to see if there are any tables free. For a dog that sometimes has issues barking at other dogs, Stanley seems remarkably subdued. Maybe his usual responses have been overwhelmed. A bit like curing a fear of spiders by walking into a spider convention where everyone’s dressed as a spider and then shuffling into a little cinema draped in spiderweb to watch a film about spiders. Although having read that back to myself, I’m not so sure it’d work.

Amazingly there is a table free, way over to the left of the place, with a candy-striped awning and plenty of shade. The girls settle-in, Stanley slumps down under the table, and I go inside to place our order.

The queue takes an age to move. I can’t figure out if the two guys in front of me know each other or not. They’re dressed almost identically, in sandals, khaki shorts, polo shirts and baseball caps. The only difference is the colour of the shirts, and the fact whilst one guy is tall and drawn out, the other is a foot or so shorter and kind of squashed looking, with a belly so perfectly round you’d think he was carrying another guy in there, and so on, like a blokey matryoshka. The tall guy is talking at great length about Tilbury docks, the fabulous resources they have there, the tonnage, the history and so on. The short guy gives just enough in the way of Hmms and Okays and Reallys? to keep the whole thing going, but I can tell his heart’s not in it. He seems more interested in the cake display than a major international shipping facility just outside of London.

There’s a Wall of Fame just inside the cafe. You can email the cafe a picture of your dog and if it looks crazy enough they’ll pin it up (taking down the ones that are starting to look a bit dog-eared.) It’s an impressive collection – a hundred crazy hounds, blurry head shots of every dog that’s ever been slipped a corner of fried toast or the end of a sausage from the plate of the wonderful all-day breakfast.

Back outside, Kath is talking to the woman at the next table who has two little black and white dogs lying up against her legs like furry slippers.
‘They’re actually Bordoodles,’ the woman says. ‘Border Collies crossed with poodles. To make them smaller and more manageable.’
‘They’re gorgeous!’ says Kath.
‘And they know it!’ says the woman, leaning down to fuss them between the ears. ‘Don’t you? Hey? Don’t you?’
‘Number Thirty-Seven!’ shouts a guy holding two plates of food.

And I have to fight my way through a pack of wolves to get to it.

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Chapter 14: To the Coast

A stop off – Meeting Amelia – A Good Long Stretch – Groomers’ Perks & Quirks – Gender Identity – Queen Victoria vs. Gladstone – Mean Bones and How to Spot Them – Rescues take Patiencepaw print

En route to the coast for a short break we take a detour to see my mum. The whole visit gets quite a build up. Mum’s keen to meet Stan, but she’s a little anxious, too. She’s been reading the blog and knows he can be a handful. She’s worried he won’t get along with her dog, Amelia, a miniature Schnauzer with a big personality, a dog who’s taken on such mythic proportions since mum got her a few years ago, I wouldn’t be surprised to be met at the door by a particularly hairy woman in a peaked cap, holding out a paw, demanding to see our papers.

We make it to mum’s in good time. The girls have made brownies and cinnamon biscuits, so we take them out into the garden to have them with mugs of tea, sitting under the porch awning when it starts to rain a little. Stanley stretches out on the grass, sighing theatrically, extending his legs like his paws are on invisible strings and there’s about another three feet of leg in there somewhere. He’s been cooped up in the car for hours, apart from a brief stop for coffee and a comfort break. Somehow we’d ended up in a dodgy tributary of the motorway services, the car park of an abandoned motel, pulling up next to a pile of soft toys fly-tipped on the verge, like some other family were forced to off-load all sentiment to have any hope of completing their trip. But I don’t believe in omens. Just coffee.

Amelia keeps a close watch on him from behind mum’s recliner.

‘The woman who grooms Amelia is so good,’ says mum. ‘She’s won competitions. Even taught grooming. But she only charges twenty five quid, which I have to say is pretty reasonable. Don’t you?’
‘Sounds about right.’
‘Stanley would cost more because he’s bigger. Does he shed?’
‘Yeah – he does. Especially in the summer.’
‘Amelia doesn’t shed. I couldn’t have a dog that sheds. Because of the asthma. Is she a lurcher?’
‘He. Stanley’s a male lurcher.’
‘But she’s got such long legs.’
‘He. He’s a he. Yeah – a lot of them do. Depends what he’s crossed with. Maybe a gantry crane.’
‘More like a labrador.’
‘Yeah. Probably.’

Between you and me, though, I have to say, despite the groomer having won the Nobel prize for grooming or something, Amelia looks a little bottom heavy, a thick frill running all the way around the middle. When she walks it kicks up like a Victorian crinoline skirt. With that grumpy and beetling frown on her face, she even looks a bit like Queen Victoria, hurrying across the croquet lawn to take a swing at Gladstone with a mallet.

‘Amelia is so friendly with other dogs,’ says mum. ‘She’s a bit put out she can’t just go up to Stanley and be friends.’
‘It’s not Amelia, though, mum – it’s Stan. He’s had nine years of neglect, don’t forget. His legs were so deconditioned he could barely walk for fifteen minutes at a stretch. Who knows what he’s been through? It’s not surprising he’s got a few issues.’
‘I don’t understand why people mistreat dogs like that,’ she says, taking a swallow of tea. Then after a pause – ‘But I did think they might get on. I thought they could be friends. Amelia seems very wary of Stanley. Do you think he’d hurt her?’
‘It’s best to be on the safe side,’ I say. ‘He’s had a long drive in the car, he’s on another dog’s patch. There’s a chance he might get a bit scratchy.’
‘Well I don’t understand it,’ says mum. ‘Amelia is so good with other dogs.’
‘It’s like I say – it’s not her, it’s him.’
‘I mean – she does bark a lot, but she hasn’t got a mean bone in her body. They can see she doesn’t mean any harm.’
‘Best be safe, though.’
‘How old is she?’
‘He. Stanley’s a he.’
‘Sorry. All dogs are bitches to me. How old is he?’
‘Nine.’
‘Nine!’ she says. ‘Ah.’ Then after staring out across the garden awhile, says: ‘Shame, though. I did hope they might get along.’

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Chapter 13: On the couch

How Stanley sleeps – Adina’s Advice – Anger Management for Therapists – Three Reasons – Biscuit being one of them – Sigmund Stanley

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Stanley needs counselling.

Especially if it’s old school psychotherapy, in a studious, book-stuffed room, with a palm in a jardiniere and a great big leather ottoman. Stan would look amazing, sprawled out on the ottoman, his paws dangling over the sides in that dejected way he has, his goatish head pointing straight down at the parquet flooring. He sleeps like that in his basket and it can’t be comfortable. He reminds me of that painting, The Death of Chatterton, the poor poet hanging half in, half out of his bed after an overdose of laudanum. Although in Stanley’s case, it’d be tripe sticks.

The fact is, not only do I not understand Stanley, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t understand himself.

‘Don’t worry. It will take time,’ Adina said, circling her fingers hypnotically through his crazy white fur. ‘Stanley has been through very bad situation. It will come out slowly. You must be patient with him.’ And my memory might be wrong about this, but I think he raised his eyebrows to look straight at me, making sure I was getting it all down.

I can totally imagine Adina as a psychotherapist, in a tweed jacket and monocle, one leg crooked over the other, a notepad on her lap, nodding gently and empathetically. Although – before you say anything – I do realise this is ridiculously out of date re. psychotherapy, and goes some way to explaining why I’m not working in mental health. Or in the movies as a casting director, come to that.

If Stanley DID go to see a psychotherapist, it’d be interesting to see how long they kept their temper. I suppose it would depend if they put a throw on the ottoman first, to protect the fine leather from his scuffing great paws. No sooner had they done that, Stanley would leap up and start fussing, dredging and worrying at it, so intently you’d think he was digging for water rather than rearranging soft furnishings. The psychotherapist would be waiting in their armchair, making a note maybe, sighing, cleaning their monocle or whatever. Sighing some more. Then eventually they’d slam the pad down on the floor, jump up, and after saying : ‘Oh for goodness sake!’ or worse, stride over, straighten the throw again, stroke his head and help him settle (which he’d accept with a heart-melting look from his big black eyes). ‘There, Stanley! Now perhaps we can begin the session!’ And by the time the psychotherapist had made it back to their armchair, Stanley would have produced his squeaky chipmunk from who knows where, and the therapist would curse and throw their pad down again.

Here are three reasons I think Stanley could benefit from psychotherapy:

1. Sometimes he acts as if his paws don’t belong to him, or they’re being worked by someone remotely, someone with a grudge. He’ll make himself jump doing the simplest things, like scratching his ears, or walking. The dog shelter didn’t tell us much about where he came from, other than the fact he shared the house with a psychotic little terrier called Biscuit, who – judging by the way he looked us up and down through the bars – was a cross between a Garibaldi and a ginger nut. Who knows how far Biscuit got into Stanley’s head in those early days. It’s unthinkable. The dog needed exorcising, not exercising.

2. Stanley sleeps with his paws over his ears. Now and again he’ll give a disappointed sigh, the sort of noise you might make if you’d applied for annual leave but got turned down because there were too many people off that week. Administrative annoyance, in other words. Nothing too bad. He’d probably tut if he could.

3. Stanley lies down in the worst possible places, stretching his long legs out in front of him, then resting his head on his legs and flicking his eyes about as if he’s just waiting for someone to tread on his tail or fall backwards over him with a tray of ice cream and spoons. Maybe it’s his way of proving to himself – and to anyone who cares enough to witness – that yes, here’s another terrible household, with people who don’t give a damn about causing significant injury to a poor old lurcher, and hadn’t he been expecting just exactly this sort of thing all along? (But maybe that’s not his motivation. Maybe it’s just that he wants to get as close as possible to the food – but hey, I’m not a therapist).

Of course, another reading of the whole scenario is that I’m the one who needs the counselling. And I’m fully prepared to admit that may be the case. Who wouldn’t benefit from six months, once a week? Only – it’d be just my luck to be lying on that ottoman, reaching some kind of epiphany, then glancing over to the armchair only to see Stanley sitting there, in a tweed jacket, monocle, with a pad on his hairy knee, nodding sadly and smiling with his two good teeth.

‘Well!’ he’d say. ‘I think we’re making excellent progress!’ Then he’d scratch his ear with his pen, and yelp.

 

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Chapter 12: The Hole-in-the-Hedge gang

A horse called Onion, or something – A simple hack across the moor – Butch C. & Co. – The Wild Bunch – Stanley & why foals like him – Bushwhacked (again)

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I don’t understand horses.

Not that I’m particularly good with dogs (as this diary proves), but horses? I can’t read them. I certainly can’t RIDE them. I got up on one, once. A narcoleptic piece of furniture called Onion or Blanche or Rasputin or something. Anyway, it was enormous and old and sprouting with hair, so lacking in enthusiasm you could have offered it a carrot the size of an oak tree and it would’ve curled its lip – something it seemed to do a lot, exposing teeth so horribly blockish and yellow the only thing I could imagine it eating was a bucket of hardcore. I did my best to be friendly, reaching out to stroke the nozzle or whatever it’s called and say encouraging things, but it just turned and stared at me as if I was just the latest damned thing to walk in the yard. All this happened a few years ago and I’m not quite sure but I think I was lowered onto it by crane. We set off for a hack across Dartmoor. Not the most comfortable ride, like throwing your leg over a chest of drawers with a piece of string to guide it. Every few steps Onion would stop to tear at some meagre clumps of grass by the side of the lane. The grass was terrible. He knew it. I knew it. He was only doing it to make a point. And anyway, he probably thought there was a good chance I might slide off into a ravine, and he’d be led back to the paddock to make room for the emergency services. I held on, though, my knees up by ears, hip bones snapping like an old pretzel. I was determined not to be beaten and somehow made it to the end of the ride. But he had the last laugh. When we got back to the farm I had to be dragged off sideways. I could only walk by wobbling from side to side like a model cowboy, with a fixed, plastic grin of pleasure.

All this is to say that, like Stanley, I was wary of the Hole-in-the-Hedge gang.

No-one seems to know who owns the horses that live in the fields to the north-east of the village. I’ve certainly never seen anybody tending them. (Is that what you do with horses? Tend?) No horse boxes or bales of hay. No vets striding across the field in white coats and green wellies, waving big syringes. (Seriously – I’ve no idea). There used to be a group of three adults. Two completely brown, one a sort of unfinished brown and white. The brown and white one was the leader. For the sake of argument, let’s call him Butch Cassidy. Butch would step out from behind a tree and come right up to you, giving a peremptory nod of his head, as if to say Hands Up before he frisked you for treats. The others always hung back a little, sniggering and nudging each other, in that psycho-subordinate way you often see in cliché gangs of this nature.

Recently there have been some younger additions to the gang. A couple of frisky teenage horses on legs they’ve improvised out of clothes props and bed springs. Let’s call them The Wild Bunch. They seem to spend their time either horsing around or lying in stupefied heaps. You have to admire their commitment, if nothing else. When The Wild Bunch are crazy, they’re completely crazy, leaping and kicking and chasing each other in circles like teenagers in stolen cars pulling doughnuts in a supermarket car park.

Their favourite thing, though, is sneaking up on Stanley.

Maybe they just want Stanley in their gang. They like his anti-establishment stance, his wild, apocalyptic, who-gives-a-damn look. A punk hybrid of sheep, goat and cartoon wolf. They probably see gunslinger potential in his lope.

Whatever the reason, whenever we walk over those fields, and however far away The Wild Bunch happen to be when we go through the gate, they always look up, and then disappear, and then suddenly reappear, lunging enthusiastically out of a thicket, or swinging in on ropes, ears and nostrils flaring, hooves flexing provocatively over their holsters.

Stanley always barks, of course. Not anything extended. More like swearing. And I really can’t blame him, because I’m swearing, too. But there’s not much to be done but walk on calmly as if being bushwhacked by a couple of psychopathic foals is perfectly routine and normal and nothing to worry about and oh, look! A treat!

And we run smack dab into Butch, who’s planted himself further along the path.
It was all a distraction. We fell for it, goddamn it.
Butch gives me the nod.
‘You, there! The guy with the Mad Max kinda sheep!’ he seems to say. ‘Stop right where you are and turn out your pockets.’

Horses, eh?horses

 

Chapter 11: Lolloping for Beginners

An awkward confession – Cooking for Elvis – Cars – Neurologists – Lolloping at Crufts – As silent (but not nearly as co-ordinated) as an Owl – Suspiciously the Same Paw

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I keep a dream diary.

Which is, by the way, exactly the kind of diary you can leave out anywhere, safe in the knowledge no-one’s going to read it – certainly not past the first few lines. Because whilst in real life it’s generally frowned on to run screaming down the road when someone says to you ‘I had this weird dream last night…’ so you’re obliged to stand there secretly pinching yourself to stay focused whilst they segue endlessly from being naked in an exam hall to cooking spaghetti for Elvis and so on, and you feel the inevitable so what do you think THAT all means? looming towards you on the horizon like some alien moon, and you’re wondering if a shrug’ll do it – with a dream diary you can just snap it shut and move on.

I only mention it because the way Stanley runs reminds me of a dream I had.

I was in a car that was going faster and faster. And people were jumping out of the way and screaming, and I was desperately pumping the brakes and slamming the gears but nothing worked. And then the steering wheel came off in my hands and I was left grappling with the steering column, twisting it left and right…

(So what do you think THAT all means….?)

I’m sure if you put Stanley through a CAT scan you’d see the reason why.
‘This region here…’ says the Neurologist – a severe looking individual in a white lab coat and fifties specs, hair brilliantined back, holding a clipboard. (And I’m standing next to him, naked…. no, sorry, that’s another dream…) ‘This region here is what we call the Lollopus Ganglious. It’s the region that provides excitability and recklessness to the limbs. In Stanley’s case, I’m afraid this region is twice its normal size.’
‘What’s to be done?’
‘Why – nothing!’ smirks the Neurologist, repositioning his specs, then lighting a cigarette. ‘Just make sure you only let him off the lead in soft areas – ball pits, trampolines, marshmallow factories, that kind of thing. Some owners like to tie cushions around their pets. Others fly them on balloons rather than walk them….’

Then I wake up.

The truth is, though, for whatever reason, Stanley is fantastically uncoordinated. He lacks precision. He has no faculty for fine motor control. He runs like a squid escaping from a laboratory on the moon. Or a puppet dog on macramé legs that a leprechaun brought to life for the craic. In other words, he lollops.

He’s a lolloper. If there was a class at Crufts like fly-ball but for lolloping – points awarded for the number of times you crashed into posts or cartwheeled tail over nose because the front half suddenly and unexpectedly stopped and the back half just kept on going … he’d win the cup. And then fall over it.

The other thing about Stanley lolloping is that he’s completely and utterly silent. To watch him in action you’d think the sound had gone off, or you’d suddenly lost your hearing. He’s the epitome of silent. An owl gliding from nowhere onto an unsuspecting mouse makes more noise than Stanley lolloping (but then, I’m guessing the owl doesn’t tend to disappear off into a hedge in an embarrassing cartwheel when it lowers its undercarriage).

None of this matters, of course. Stanley never had any ambition to go to Crufts. He’s too good for that place. He’d much rather lie on the carpet with his paws over his ears (or somersault backwards into a blackcurrant bush chasing a ball). The only trouble is that he seems to have a weak front left paw (or nearside paw, as the vet said once, like he was a mechanic talking about a dodgy front tire that needed attention). Without an x-ray it’s impossible to be sure, but it looks like he sustained an injury there in the past when he was seriously neglected, and it healed imperfectly. So his lolloping is fine except it means he’s more likely to aggravate that weakness.

As he did today.

It was the most perfect morning. Already warm despite being early. Clear blue sky. A meadow spilling with buttercups and tall grass. Lola and Stanley go charging off through it all, having an amazing time. Lola exploring it with the grave demeanour of a naturalist from the university, Stanley like a long-legged sheep-kangaroo hybrid that had been grazing on magic mushrooms. Which meant that – at the end of the walk – Stanley yelped, stopped, and held his paw up with a forlorn expression.

He did this before, when he ran up to a collie, wiped-out spectacularly in the mud, and we took him to the vets because we thought he’d fractured his paw. At that point he held it in the same way – sitting on his haunches, his left leg up, holding the injured paw so loosely you could bat it with your hand and it would spin 360 degrees (we didn’t, of course).
‘Has he got a thorn in it?’ Kath said, rifling through the fur on his paw. We couldn’t see one.
All we could do was put him back on the lead and walk slowly back home. He gradually put the weight back on the paw, though, and by the time we reached the kissing gate he seemed back to normal.

But I suppose that’s the thing about lollopers. They heal quickly.

They have to.

xray

Chapter 10: The Great Escape

The Spaniel – Tunnelling for Beginners – Whose dog is this? – Him or Me – Aeronautics for Houndspaw print
There’s a dog we see on the walk sometimes. Or – not so much see as experience. It’s a spaniel. I think. It’s actually hard to tell, because the moment it catches sight or scent of Stanley, it leaps a foot in the air and explodes into a mad cloud of fur and teeth and howl. Incredibly, it’s the one dog Stanley doesn’t react to. It’s as if the dog is crazy enough for both of them. The owners walk The Spaniel together, in the same way that maximum security prisoners get two guards round the exercise yard rather than one. And no sooner has he launched himself into his terrifying impression of a fire tornado, they huddle round him, shielding him from the thing that set him off, whether that’s a dog, a jogger, a cyclist, a van… I don’t know – a snail would probably push him over the edge.

Needless to say it makes me – and Stanley – feel incredibly smug.
We swap glances.
‘What a carry on…’
‘Some dogs…’
‘Some people…’
‘You’d think they’d show some restraint…’
‘Perhaps we should give them Adina’s number…’
(Although even Adina would struggle giving The Spaniel a treat without him being wheeled out of ECT in a strait jacket).

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Lola has started escaping from the garden, and we think it’s part of a campaign. About Stanley.

We thought she’d accepted him. When we caught them sleeping on the sofa together, it felt like we’d turned a corner. And even though Lola still curled her lip when Stanley tried to steal her chew, mostly they seemed to be rubbing along together pretty well.

The garden is one of those long, thin, suburban affairs, a wooden fence on the left and a juniper hedge on the right. The hedge eventually gives way to an apple tree and a loose attempt to disguise a lot of hardcore as a rockery. It’s the obvious weak spot in the garden’s security, so we’d cobbled together a kind of fence to keep the dogs safe. Plus there was a holly tree and a pyracantha shrub tangled in with it all, which was as good as barbed wire.

So it was a surprise when Lola started turning up next door.

I couldn’t figure out how she was doing it. I could only imagine she’d been working on a tunnel since the day we brought Stanley back from the centre, patiently paddling out a bit of soil at a time, carefully disposing of it in the drive, then covering the entrance up with a door made of grass and twigs. She’s such a clever dog, I wouldn’t be surprised to find a whole trolley system down there, with candles in old tin cans and some bellows made of stolen pillows for ventilation. But as hard as I looked, I couldn’t see any way through the hedge or the fence to next door. And the trouble was, next door had no gate between the garden and the main road.

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One morning, around half five, Kath’s phone lit up.
She groaned, rolled over to see what it was.
‘Oh my God!’
‘What?’
A post on the local gossip page (a bit worrying it’s one of her alerts, but this wasn’t the time or the place to talk about it). A photo of Lola standing defiantly at the top of the road, the wind in her ears. The caption read: Whose dog is this?
Apparently, they’d tried to catch her but she’d given them the slip.
The next thing we knew, there was a single bark at the front door. It was Lola. She gave herself a little shake and came trotting through, and the subtext was clear: This will keep on happening until you get rid of Stanley. It’s me or the lummox.

There was nothing for it but to put the pet flap on and keep them both inside till we’d sorted out the problem.

On my next day off we hacked back all the undergrowth down there. Bought a roll of chicken wire, knocked in some posts, and did everything short of hiring guards to make sure Lola couldn’t get through. Even The Spaniel would’ve burn itself out trying to get through that lot. But Lola? She quietly watched us while we worked, from a distance, her paws crossed so innocently and thoughtfully it was obvious she was planning something, sketching her calculations in the dirt.

She really is a smart dog.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see her in a few days, leaping off the roof in a hang glider improvised from a clothes horse and the fleeces from her basket.

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