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.

Chapter 19: Don’t Quote Me

Why we walk where we walk – The Mysterious Pit – The Wonderful Miss Cox – A Dead Tree kind of Philosophy – Nuts n’Isles – Stanley as Ophelia

Sometimes you need Shakespeare to explain yourself with any weight.

For example. We tend to walk Stanley in the same place every day. The reason is that the fields over the back of the estate are all well fenced off. There are horses in the first field – the Hole in the Hedge gang – but they tend to keep themselves to themselves, playing cards, drinkin’ and cussin’ over the far side – so we’re okay if we take a circuitous route to the two fields beyond them. There aren’t any sheep or cattle in the neighboring fields, and if you pick your time you can avoid seeing too many other dog walkers, so all in all it’s a good place to let Stanley off the lead. He’s getting better at being around other dogs, and I don’t think it’ll be long before he’s completely reliable. Until we’re sure, though, it’s safer and easier to fill our pockets with treats and head that way.

We mix it up a little, for variety. I mean – sometimes we’ll reverse the order. Sometimes we’ll go up rather than down, clockwise rather than anti-clockwise. And anyway, there are plenty of distractions. There’s a mysterious pit in the far corner, completely wooded and overgrown. Stanley often disappears down there for a root-around, and always comes back with a wilder look in his eye.

So where does Shakespeare figure in this?  

Well, to begin with, sometimes when I’m walking I find myself raking through the scraps of memorised lines I know of WS, mostly from my time at Secondary school, and a VERY Pre-Raphaelite teacher with long red hair and a pale expression, who wandered round the margins of our English class like a tragic princess doomed to repeat endless circuits of a pit of ravenous wolves. I had a VERY big crush on this teacher, Miss Cox, who I would risk any humiliation to impress. I even gave her a book of poems I’d written, mostly about animals – moths and spiders and things – basically being a closet goth, before the term goth or closet existed. And when I say book, I mean an exercise book, where the poems only took up the first half, so I ripped out the other pages to make it look as if I’d written more, on the same logic that if you had a bag of crisps and smashed them up before you opened the packet, you got more crisps. Anyway, Miss Cox, with a bravery in the face of ridicule that was basically martyrdom, insisted we all learned poetry by heart, especially the emotionally stormy stuff. I’m guessing she must have drawn some wry satisfaction from seeing eleven year old rugby players scrape back their chairs, stand up, punch the guy next to them, then recite: tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day… or Milton: Blind among enemies, O worse than chains, dungeon or beggary, or decrepit age.

The point of this is, the other day I was thinking about the repetitive quality of the walks. I was thinking that actually, the walk is never the same – like the old saying: you can’t step in the same river twice, because it won’t be the same river, and you won’t be the same person (or something like that). There are an infinite number of changes that happen, and in some ways it’s good to do things over and over, because your relationship to them is as fluid as the thing itself. You see that in the quality of the light. How a dead tree looks against a bright blue sky, or low cloud, or through mist. With crows or without. And when you see it with one of its limbs fallen after a storm, the shock that gives you.

Anyway – it reminded me of that Shakespeare quote from Hamlet:  I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space. Which sums up nicely (in the way that Shakespeare can absolutely be relied on to sum things up nicely), the fact that you can always find new things to look at, and new ways of looking at them, if you relax and stop worrying about the pursuit of novelty.

As a side note, there’s a whole range of Shakespeare quotes whose meaning changes if you don’t quote the whole thing. Like the nut one. The whole quote is: I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. Which definitely makes the whole nut gaff a little less cozy. The other one that often get quoted out of context is the ‘sceptred isle’ speech from Richard II. You often hear it as a patriotic thing, an expression of the glorious Britannia mindset… This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle … a long, gaudy shopping list of all the wonderful things about Britain. Except, they always miss the point of it. The payoff of all that hyperbole is to express how much disgust John of Gaunt feels at the way the country was being f*d over: …Is now leased out… Like to a tenement or pelting farm. So nothing new there, then.

Thinking of that elegant, goosey, Pre-Raphaelite look, I’m sure Stanley would’ve made one of those Victorian painters a wonderful muse. I can totally imagine Stanley in a big embroidered frock, lying on his back in the studio with a posey of flowers in his paws. There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. . . then he catches scent of a rabbit, leaps out of the bath and runs off.

Chapter 18: Unreliable Witnesses

Photoshop for Beginners – Into the Woods & Into the Zone – Guard Duty – Jenny & Cecil – Rain & How Animals React to it – An Alarming Picture of One Man & His Labrador – Fake Horses – Crows & Cameras

If Lola seems to have disappeared from this journal for a while, it’s because we’ve been tending to walk her separately. The thing is, before Stanley (B.C.E, or Before Considering Extra-lurcher) she’d been used to long walks over the woods. Off the lead, free to follow her nose from the moment we push through the kissing gate back of the rec. Lola’s completely reliable – dogs, people, cows, dinosaurs (no doubt, if there were any). So all in all, it’s an easy time. The kind of idyllic, carefree country walk you see in adverts for dog food or laxatives. Not only does it mean she gets plenty of exercise, it gives me time to wander off in my own head, a meditative, semi-vegetative state, like a dozy shaolin monk, but in a kagool, not a robe, an iPhone instead of a flute, squinting up at the dazzling patterns of the leaves against the sun, whilst Lola looks back at me from way along the path, wondering what the hell’s holding me up.

It’s a different kind of walk with Stanley, I’m afraid. More like walking a maximum-security criminal round an exercise yard, Stanley in an orange boiler suit, grinning up at the watchtower guards, chewing grass, gauging distances / response times.

I’m over-selling it, of course. He’s not that bad. And if he is, he has good reason. He had nine years of not being walked before we adopted him, so it’s not surprising he has a few issues. The only thing is, you do have to watch him, and it’s not what you might call relaxing. I seem to spend my time continually passing Stanley treats, or scanning the horizon with field binoculars. With Lola, if we see another dog walker, and our paths happen to cross – great! We chat, we talk about this and that. I miss catching up with the people I’ve come to know over the last few years.

Take Jenny, for example.

Jenny’s a middle-aged woman with – from top to bottom – wild white hair, Onassis sunglasses, Barbour jacket, tight blue jeans, hacking boots, and a pug called Cecil. Except for a couple of days midsummer, Cecil is always in a fleecy wraparound, much like a babygro except tighter and with a hole for his stubby tail (although, thinking about it, you have poppered holes for nappy access, so maybe it would make a cheaper alternative, and you could buy them in packs of three). Cecil’s fleece always looks a bit too tight, because he walks with the kind of stiff-legged roll you’d imagine an occasional table would walk with if it could, and his eyes bug-out alarmingly. But that’s a feature of the breed, I suppose, and something you might go for if you had a kink about dyspeptic bank managers. They have a fraught relationship, Jenny and Cecil. You can hear them coming from a long way off, Jenny snapping out his name constantly, driven mad by his latest infraction, like Cecil stopping to sniff a flower, or snacking on rabbit droppings.
‘At least it’s organic,’ I say.
‘Highly toxic!’ says Jenny, clapping him away. ‘We’ll suffer for that later.’

Jenny is worried about everything. Her anxiety is a force of nature, all-encompassing, a low-lying cloud of generalised concern, covering everything from Brexit and the pandemic to the kids who hang around the recreation ground. Trying to stay positive when you’re talking to Jenny is a bit like when you mix all the colours in your paintbox: you start off with yellows and reds but despite your best efforts you end up with puce. It’s exhausting talking to her, like blundering into quicksand and trying to whistle for help. But she often says such strange things I like it. And Cecil is always good value.
‘I was thinking of helping them out over Brexit,’ she says, frowning at Cecil by way of illustration.
‘Oh? In what way?’
‘Fruit picking. I hear they’re a bit short. I think I’d quite like a bit of fruit picking, in East Anglia or wherever it is they do that kind of thing. Lincolnshire, is it? Somewhere flat. But then again, you see, I don’t want to end up in a dormitory. If they give me one of those sweet little painted caravans, well, then – fine – I can cope with that. But a dormitory… Cecil! Don’t eat that! You’ll blow up and die!’

She has bracing views on most things. The pandemic gives her plenty of scope to sound off about the state of the health service, the government and so on. I offer the usual line, which is that they want to dampen the spread of the infection so the health service doesn’t get overwhelmed.
‘We just need a vaccine,’ I say. ‘Once we’ve got that we can start getting back to normal.’
‘Well you know what I think about that,’ she says.
‘What?’
‘Well it’s obvious!’ she says. ‘What did we do before all this medicine? We built up immunity! That’s what we did! Some people would die, of course, but they would have anyway…Cecil! Put that down, darling!’
I mention diphtheria and smallpox, the fact that vaccines had eradicated them in the community. Without vaccination we’d still have a ton of young people dying before they reached adulthood.
‘Maybe,’ she says, unconvinced that’s such a bad idea. ‘I’m not a scientist. All I can say is how I see it.’
She suddenly seems sad.
‘I don’t know,’ she says, with a sigh. ‘Everything’s changing and not for the better. You know – I completed on my mother’s house the other day.’
I’m not sure whether to congratulate her or offer my condolences, so in the end I just raise my eyebrows and nod.
‘I celebrated with champagne and strawberries, but they gave me indigestion. I thought I was having a heart attack. And then I couldn’t sleep, because I kept on having the same thought. If I died here now, who would find me? And what would they think?’
She looks at Cecil again, as if to imagine what he’d have done. But shockingly, Cecil has blundered down onto the shallow bed of a nearby stream, where he snuffles happily and noisily amongst the rocks.
‘Cecil! Cecil!’ she cries, sliding down to grab hold of his collar, then dragging him back up again.
‘I’ve already had to take him to the vets with a chest infection,’ she says. ‘Last time he went after a ball and got water on the lung. He thinks he can get away with these things but he can’t, you see. He can’t. Just because your face is flat, doesn’t mean you can breathe underwater.’
‘No. I suppose not.’

*

Today, though, I decide to take Lola out with Stanley. It’s pouring with rain, and forecast to stay that way, so I figure it’s better they go together for a short walk over the fields and get the thing over and done with. Neither dog is enthusiastic. Stanley pushes his head out of the dog flap, holds it there a second, then slowly withdraws and looks up at me with the kind of expression you might see on a stunt man who’s just been asked to throw himself off Niagara Falls.
‘You’ll like it when you’re out,’ I tell him, pulling on a hat and a waterproof (and feeling a little guilty about that).

The walk doesn’t start well.

As soon as we’re through the back gate, Stan sees a man and a Labrador trudging past the front of the house, so he lets out one of his horrendous, howitzer-grade barks. And although I know I’m prone to exaggeration now and again, and won’t stand up in court about this particular detail, I think I’m right in saying that the dog did the splits in mid-air and the man’s hat blew off. I wave an apology as they hurry on. Lola looks up at me, already drenched, with a tragic look on her face, as if to say: You see? You see what happens?

We carry on with the walk.

And actually, it’s okay. Bad weather always looks worse when you’re snug and warm indoors. The rain takes pity on us and eases a little. The dogs give a couple of shakes, magically transforming their fur into primitive anoraks, and they trot along happily enough. One benefit of the bad weather is that there aren’t too many other people out, so it’s a clear run through the housing estate to the fields out back. All the horses of The Hole in the Hedge gang are out, standing as motionless and menacing and dripping as life-size model horses in the rain, so it’s easy to pick a route that’s equidistant from each and make it through to the fenced field the far side. I let the dogs off, and they tear around after each other through the saturated grass. I even have time to take a photograph – or try to. There are two crows perched on the top branch of a tall, dead tree. I figure it’ll be a moody shot to catch them as they fly off, so I wait at the bottom of the tree with my phone held up over my head. And wait. And wait.

And I might be wrong – and I definitely can’t promise to stand up in court and testify about this – but I think I’m right in saying, one of them slips a little black phone out from under its wing, and takes a photo of me.

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.