storm force stanley

I decided to take Stanley out in a storm
he looked up at me from the sofa in alarm
like I was a perverse and alien life form

but in retrospect his hesitation was right
it was gale force ten in lurcher bight
winds so strong he flew like a kite

bedraggled fur and chattering teeth
as soaked on top as we were underneath
we raged like two mad Lears on the heath

finally we made it back through the door
Kath said whose idea was the walk
Stan pointed at me with a paw

death of a game dog

I saw Marian over the woods
her young golden-eyed GSP
rapt, en pointe
– Where’s the other one?
Oh – didn’t I tell you?
I had to say goodbye to Helga on Monday
– I’m so sorry
Long story short
She’d gone a little lame
I put her on Metacam and bed rest
It seemed to clear up okay
then I felt a lump on her neck
took her to the vet
lipoma they said
we’ll keep an eye on it
a few days later she stopped eating
I took her back
they did a scan
cancer everywhere
liver, kidneys, lungs
– where DIDN’T they find cancer? –
they talked about chemo
but I didn’t want to put her through that
I’ve always thought
you have to know when to act
better a few days early
than a week too late
– I’m so sorry
that’s okay
she was such a game dog
– I know
80 pheasants last year
did you know
there are badgers over there
their setts last 200 years
I remember once
coming back from a shoot
me and Helga saw
some badger cubs
playing with some fox cubs
right about where you’re standing
Helga looked up at me
as if to say
what do you want me to do about this?
so I said to her
I said Helga – RELAX
let’s just stand a while and watch


The Song of the Coat I Might Find.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I got distracted thinking up a limerick about Trump. 

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

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

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

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

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

We chat for a while then carry on.

…he raged and he tossed
whenever he lost….

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

We carried on walking. 

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

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

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

She managed it that time I thought. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I thanked him and carried on. 

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

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


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




I’m walking Lola over the woods in the pouring rain, and I’ve stopped to collect some chestnuts, when I hear a sudden, peremptory pheep! – and then I see them, Molly and her GSP, Elliot, watching me from the path. I wave my bag as if to say Hello! and Look what I’ve got! in one go, feeling a little guilty for some reason. Molly raises her stick, Elliot, his nose.
I walk over.
Lola runs in the other direction.

Molly is about sixty. She has the kind of vigorous but off-kilter demeanour of someone who doesn’t know the war’s over. She’s wearing a khaki field cap, green waterproof cape and leggings, green walking boots, and she’s standing to attention with the thumb of her right hand through the V of her hazel walking stick. Elliot is sitting bolt upright next to her, appraising me with his golden eyes. I feel the urge to salute, but instead I say: ‘Hi Molly! Don’t worry. I’m leaving some for the badgers.’
‘Nonsense! There’s plenty for everyone,’ she says. ‘You’re welcome to them.’ Then adds, for the record: ‘Not that it’s any concern of mine, of course.’
Elliot can see Lola nosing around in the undergrowth a little way off. He follows her progress with professional interest, and gives a haughty little sniff.
‘I’ll tell you what I had the other day,’ she says, producing a handkerchief from deep inside the cape and blowing her nose so suddenly and violently it’s as if she’d whipped out a double-barrelled shotgun and fired it over my head. ‘Cobnuts!’ she says at last.
‘Cobnuts? Is that hazelnuts?’
‘Yes, yes!’ she says, stuffing the handkerchief back under the cape. ‘It’s been a good year. They’re not the dried rubbish you get in the shops. They’re a bit fiddly to open – got a splinter under my thumbnail and it hurt like the devil – but goodness me! So delicious!’
‘I’d love to try some.’
‘Well you can’t,’ she says. ‘The leaves have all fallen ‘orf and there’s none to be had.’
‘Oh. Maybe next year.’
She shakes her head.
‘Won’t be the same,’ she says, sadly. ‘This was a vintage year.’
The rain eases a little and we both look around.
‘There’s an awful lot of die-back in the woods,’ she says. ‘Have you noticed?’
‘Yes. Particularly in that far corner.’
‘You see – they’re just not managed as well as they used to be. Ash isn’t good for anything more than firewood, and besides, the volunteers have neither the skills nor the equipment. You can’t just cut it down and hope for the best, you know?’
I nod as if I do.
‘So what do you end up with?’ says Molly. ‘A lot of rotten trees just waiting to fall on top of you. It’s getting increasingly dangerous to walk in these woods. You wouldn’t get much warning. You’d hear a great big crack, then you’d have seconds to decide which way to run. Seconds! And you might not get it right.’
‘I suppose if it’s windy you’ve just got to be mindful of the hazards,’ I say. ‘Not walk under any rotten trees. Or any with big limbs. Like oak. Or beech. I suppose you do what you can to mitigate the risk.’
‘Hmm,’ says Molly. ‘Well – you know – there was a large oak went over a few months ago, and there was no accounting for it. It wasn’t exposed. Good firm ground. Tucked away in a sheltered spot. And yet – over it went! But then – you never know what’s going on under your feet, do you?’
She gives the ground a speculative poke with her stick. I look down at it. Elliot looks down, too, and even leans in to sniff. Molly blows her whistle. Me and Elliot look straight back up again.
‘Enjoy your chestnuts!’ says Molly, and they wheel about, and march off together down the path, side by side, perfectly in step.


cecil & the badgers

I was out on a dog walk, hanging around that corner of the woods where the badgers live (or some of the badgers, I should say. In fact, I’ve only ever seen one, hurrying home like someone weighed down with shopping bags, late for an appointment). I was impressed by the amount of work the badgers had been putting in, major excavations by the look of it, a great tract of sandy soil kicked out from one of the burrows, along with all the leaves and twigs they’d been using as bedding. It looked pretty deep. I thought if this was anything to go by, we were in for a hard winter.

I’d just rejoined the main path when I saw Jenny striding along, her pug Cecil waddling out in front. I waved, and waited. Cecil reached me first, checking me over in that abrupt, flat-faced way he has, a border guard demanding my papers.

‘Oh for goodness sake!’ says Jenny, waving him away. ‘Leave the poor man alone!’
‘How are you, Jenny?’
‘I’m fine, thank you,’ she says. ‘I only wish I could say the same for Cecil.’
‘Why? What’s wrong?’
‘What isn’t wrong, more to the point. He’s on antibiotics. For his ears. And now he’s completely off his food. He’s just not interested. I’ve tried everything – even his favourite, raw mince.’
‘Raw mince?’
‘Nothing. Not a sniff.’
‘Sorry to hear it.’
I look down at Cecil. I’ve never seen such a healthy-looking dog. Sleek lines, muscular back. I can imagine him in the Olympics, shoving a javelin through the air, or wrestling another pug flat on its back.
‘He’s wasting away,’ says Jenny. ‘Poor thing!’
Cecil is bored by all the attention. He starts eating some grass, with great relish, his slobbery tongue slapping at the leaves.
‘Cecil no!’ yells Jenny, hauling him away. ‘For goodness sake! You’ll kill yourself at this rate!’
He huffs indignantly, then waddles further ahead to eat the grass there, in peace.
‘He slept with me last night,’ says Jenny, dragging her hair back, making a mime of putting it into a non-existent scrunchie, then releasing it to spring forwards into exactly the same position. ‘It’s so unlike him. I didn’t mind, though. It meant I could keep an eye on him. Anyway. How are you?’
‘Yeah. I’m fine. I was just looking at the badgers. They’re digging deep. I wonder if it’s going to be a hard winter.’
‘Badgers’ says Jenny, glancing over her shoulder with a shudder. ‘I don’t think Cecil is all that good with badgers.’


The story about Alf & Picasso

A day off at last.

It’s pouring with rain, though, so the early morning dog walk is delayed. Instead I have a cup of coffee and take a gentle stroll around Twitter & Instagram, taking the air with my virtual boots and my virtual dogs and my tablet cocked on my arm, before I put the cup in the sink and turn myself reluctantly towards the stairs, ready to go up and write.

The rain has stopped, though. I can take Lola out after all.  Lola doesn’t seem that keen, but it’s good to get it over with. Maybe it’ll freshen me up and help get my thoughts in order.

Turns out, Lola was right. The break in the weather is actually the eye of the hurricane. It’s exhilarating, in an annihilating kind of way, but we both get thoroughly soaked. I stand at the kitchen sink wringing water out of my pants.

It takes a while to dry off. Whilst I’m doing that, I notice the extractor fan over the oven is really greasy and horrible. I think it needs cleaning right away. It takes a lot of scrubbing, but after an hour I have to say it looks pretty incredible. I did a good job there. And so finally, with nothing else to do or say about it, I drag my bare and sorry carcass upstairs to the bedroom, and the monk-like wooden chair and table where I write. Lola follows me, throwing herself down on the rug to steam while I flip the laptop lid, rest my hands on the keys, and prepare.

fig. 1

Facing me above the desk is a cork board I hung in a faraway and more innocent time when I was at grave risk of buying something like that. My plan was to cover it with things that might resonate with whatever project I was working on: photos, pictures, cuttings from magazines. I could pin up a sequence of cards to map out the structure of the book. Needless to say, the board is still bare, just the drawing Jess made of a little purple ghost I use for my avatar, a friendship band, a Sergeant Pepper pin, a Jack Skellington pin, a pen pin with the word ‘mightier’ down the middle, a business card with a typewriter motif (not mine), and the label that fell off the cat carrier (see fig 1.)

Sometimes I stare at the empty cork and try to see visions in the speckles of light and dark, but the truth is I don’t need cork for that. The bare wall’s just as good. I’ve had a lot of practice, being the sort to stare at nothing in particular quite happily for long periods of time. Maybe I should volunteer for a deep space trip. So long as there was a window, snacks, stationery, and a reading light for the sleeping shelf, I’d be more than happy. I wouldn’t mind a robot, too – who’d be bad-tempered but dry & hilarious. The misunderstandings we’d have, all the way to the Kuiper Belt. Oy Vey!

I take a breath to try to root myself in the moment, and in doing so realise  I haven’t done my morning meditation. I launch the app, do a ten minute session, followed by some exercises, press-ups, scrunchies (crunches?), stretches, etcetera, then a shower, then a cup of tea, then lunch, and when all that’s done and cleared away, drag myself back upstairs, flip the laptop, rest my fingers on the keys, wriggle them expectantly, and prepare.

The first thing I do is review how much progress I’ve made with the book. I play with the table of contents, trying to decide whether something I intend to write should be in bold and what I have written in italics. Make the change through all the documents. Then go back and undo it. Widen the margins. Enlarge the font. Then I take a breath, rest my fingers on the keys – and immediately realise that the single most important thing I have to do is Google Cubism.

The thing is, (and I admit, there is always a thing), I want to write up a little story I remember about Fred’s dad, Alf, something that happened to him in the war, and Cubism is a part of it.

One thing I do know about Picasso was that he had a Blue Period. To be honest, I’d rather he called it a Blue Phase. Blue Period just makes me think of those sanitary towel adverts where they demonstrate the absorbency of the pad by pouring windscreen wash all over it. The fact that Picasso also had a Pink Period doesn’t help, either. His Cubism Phase came immediately after and lasted a surprisingly long time – from 1907 to 25 – although I’d guess he was producing other, non-Cubic stuff at the same time, like ceramic hats and so on. The one thing I know about Picasso was that he was prolific as hell; the only thing that could distract him was a corked bottle of wine, or maybe a bull breaking free of the studio.

In this Cubist Phase, around 1910, Picasso painted the portrait of a guy called Ambroise Vollard. Ambroise was a French gallery owner who promoted a lot of artists early on in their career – Van Gogh, Gaugin, Renoir – so he ended up being one of the most painted men in the history of French art (although judging by the portraits, not the happiest).

It’s a brilliant study. Ambroise comes across as a brooding presence, simultaneously wide awake and profoundly asleep (a condition I sympathise with). It’s more than just the effect of looking at someone through a distorting prism; it’s as if Picasso’s taken a stack of angles and changes of light and perspective, and painted them into one dimension, so that you’re looking not just at a man sitting for his portrait, but at who he was, and thinks he is, and who he’d like to be.

So what does this have to do with Alf?

Alf was the hardest man I ever met. He was a pitiless, dessicated old Cockney, exiled to the Fens, bruised and bitter. He had his schemes and his dodges, his nice little earners, one of them being to work as a rose budder for six weeks every summer. He had a scarred face, flat and uncompromising, with a nose rolled so flat the nostrils were like two finger holes jabbed in a pie crust. His eyes were cut-in, ice blue. He smoked spitty little fags, talked out of the corner of his mouth – when he talked, that is. Mostly he just worked, trampling the roses down with an East End curse, brutally efficient, getting the work done, making progress.

I was terrified of him.

The story, then.

Alf was a despatch rider in Italy during the war. One day he was following a convoy of American trucks when they were ambushed. He ended up losing control of his bike and crashing face-first into a tailboard. Luckily, there was a young American surgeon travelling with the convoy. Ever since medical school, this surgeon had been reading up about maxillo-facial reconstruction, hoping to start his own exclusive practice after the war. He took Alf on as a project, using as his guide the photo of Alf from his military identity card.

‘Are you sure it weren’t a picture of one of them Picasso paintings instead?’ someone said.

And whether Alf smiled, or sneered, or did both at the same time, it was impossible to tell.


no dog walk

poor Lola
stress yawning
losing three molars
and a cyst
at the vets
this morning

she lies on the sofa
in a post-op stupor
wearing an old t-shirt of mine
(I didn’t mind
it was kinder than a cone
and wasn’t the nicest t-shirt I owned)

lying in that rumpled T
she looks a lot like me
before first coffee
staring mournfully
blinking slowly
each eye working independently


she watches me put my boots on

I feel bad
she looks so sad
like I’m the Great Betrayer
grabbing my camera bag and phone
about to go on a walk on my own
good girl see you later
phony as an alligator
wily, scaly, lowly
backing out the back door slowly

I thought I might go somewhere new
but somehow end up walking where we usually do
across the recreation ground
over Broken Tree Hill, down
to the stream with the ruins and the ferns
up the rooty path that turns
by the field with the cows and the crows
where the warm wind blows
through the high summer grass
to enter the wood at the broken fence
by the fallen chestnut and the badger setts

and for a moment I think I can see
Lola standing there, waiting for me
like she often will, her nose in the air
and the moment she sees me there
she turns and hurries on into the shadows

and I follow

IMG_0933 (1)

oz, boz, buzz

You’ll always hear Jenny before you see her.
‘Cecil! No! Don’t! You’ll be sick again and THEN what’ll happen?’
And so on.
Then you’ll see Cecil, a punchy, paunchy, busy little pug who trots bow-legged, snuffling and snorting, wearing an expression like a hedge fund manager who’s been transmuted into a dog and is a little outraged but determined to make the best of it. And Cecil will truffle around the grass, occasionally snapping up a few rabbit droppings, and then Jenny will come striding over, her bobbed hair flying, lavender glasses shining, crying out for the love of God for the pug to stop.
Except today there are two pugs.
‘What are you doing – cloning them?’ I say as she strides towards me.
‘What?’ she says, pushing her glasses back up her nose so positively she almost nails herself in the forehead with her finger.
‘Are you cloning them? The dogs?’
‘No. That’s my friend’s dog, Samuel. I’m looking after him while they’re on holiday…. Cecil! Samuel! For God’s sake will you STOP that?’
She looks at me helplessly.
‘I’m at my wit’s end,’ she says. ‘I can’t take much more. When they get together they’re completely unmanageable. They do what they like.’
I look at them, happily stomping around in the grass.
‘If it’s too much maybe you should think of something else, some other arrangement,’ I say.
‘What do you mean? What other arrangement? There IS no other arrangement. They take Cecil when I go away. I have Samuel when they go away. That’s it. That’s how it works.’
‘But if it’s not working…’
‘They’re brothers!’ she says, as if that clinches it. ‘I mean – honestly! Cecil’s difficult enough on his own, but I don’t know. When they get together something just clicks and they’re – well, they’re absolute hooligans. Cecil! Don’t eat that! Samuel…! Please!’
‘It’s vegetarian, at least.’
‘It’s poison. They’ll be sick all morning and I’m the one who has to clean it up. I don’t know. And I’ve got him for two weeks in August. Two weeks! You know – the police were here the other day.’
‘The police?’
I’m confused. For a minute I think she means they came about the pugs.
‘The kids were back. Setting fire to things. The police walked all the way in through the estate and up through the woods. Although why they came that way I don’t know. So of course by the time they got here the kids were long gone.’
‘That is quite a way.’
‘It’s all getting too much….Cecil! WILL you leave it alone? Samuel!’
She sighs, waves her hand in the air.
‘I’d better go before they kill themselves.’
And she strides off after the dogs. I hear her plaintive cries getting smaller and smaller as she makes her way through the woods.

On the way back up the hill I think about dogs and how difficult it is to train them – or, to be more precise, how difficult it is to accept it’s your behaviour that needs modifying as much as theirs.

I think about Buzz, our first dog, a Patterdale-Lakeland mix (the genetic equivalent of Delusions of Grandeur spliced with Sociopath). His name at the pound was Oz, which we didn’t much like, so we called him Boz instead, because we thought it sounded sufficiently like Oz not to confuse him too much, and if someone asked us where we got the name from, we could prove how literary we were by saying we named him after Sketches by Boz, by Dickens. He was pretty lively, so we signed up for a dog training session over the local park. It was run by a terrifying guy called John who looked like Jason Statham’s tougher brother. He was dressed in black combat trousers and black tight-fitting nylon t-shirt, dark shades, and a shiny bald head he could probably kill you with if his hands were zip-locked. He told us he had seven doberman’s at home that were so dangerous he had to walk them at four in the morning (although Kath had a theory that actually he had a Bichon Frise he called ‘Seven Dobermans’, and they watched rom-coms together, cuddled up on the sofa, sobbing). The very first lesson he misheard us when we introduced him to Boz, calling him Buzz instead, because that was around the time the first Toy Story came out. We were too scared to correct him, so we ended up calling him Buzz, too, which in the end was a better fit. To infinity and beyond was an apt description of how he used to run.
Anyway, the point is, Buzz was always superbly well behaved in John’s lessons.
‘You’ve got a diamond dog there, guys,’ he said, the two of them staring affectionately at each other.
‘Yeah. A very biddable dog. Very biddable.’
Which is the only time I’ve ever heard anyone use the word biddable.

Buzz & ballSo the key thing I took from all the sessions we went to with John over the park was that WE were the ones who were the problem, not Buzz. He was taking his cue from us. When we were keyed up because we thought he’d be scrappy – well, he’d be scrappy as hell. And if we were worried he’d run off, he’d almost certainly run off. The difficulty was in breaking the cycle, which often meant taking him off the lead when that felt like madness to do it, or running the other way when he was pelting off after something. I think we got better at it, although there was always a sense that Buzz was Buzz no matter what, and that meant accepting him for those times when he was grumpy, or distracted, or just plain cussed. And I think he made allowances for us, too. More than some, no doubt. He forgave our sins and we forgave his. And we learned to get along. And he was there when Kath gave birth to Martha, his paws hanging over the side of the bath. And he was there when Jess was crawling around stealing his toys. And he may have been gone these many years now, but we all miss him enormously, the way you do, the way you miss family.


the old courtier & the pug

Even Jenny’s pug makes me anxious. There’s something about the way he trolls over to me, waggling breathlessly from side to side like an antique footstool that’s somehow learned to walk. And when he finally arrives at my feet, he’ll stop and slowly look up at me, panting in his tight fleece waistcoat, like he’s expecting me to do something, and if I don’t do it soon he’ll explode, and there’ll be pug everywhere, and it’ll all be my fault.

I pat his head (which isn’t what he wants), and I wait.

Jenny comes striding over the hill, waving.

To be honest, I’ll often try to avoid Jenny. She’s nice enough, but like her dog, she makes me anxious. And I say that despite having tried over the last year through meditation to understand that’s it’s not other people or events that make me feel anything but how I react to them. I suppose it’s the difference between accepting that spiders are essentially harmless, that it’s an irrational fear rooted in family experience & conditioning, and actually picking one out of a box and putting it on my head. So even though I fully understand that wanting to avoid talking to Jenny is really just an indication that I’ve a lot more work to do on myself, still I can’t help looking for the exit.

One mistake I often make is to try to preempt the pessimism. It’s the conversational equivalent of bending down to pick up a box you think is full of books but turns out only to have a duvet and a pillow, so you end up throwing it in the air and falling over backwards.
‘Hey Jenny! How are you? What a lovely day it is today! So Spring like! Everything powering up! God – we’re lucky…’
Jenny stares at me through her lavender tinted glasses.
‘Did you hear about the boy in the high street the other day?’ she says.
‘Boy? What boy? No…’
‘Carrying a machete.’
‘A machete? Oh my god…’
‘Look,’ she says, opening Facebook on her phone and showing me the picture – a weapon that looks more like something a Klingon would use in a ceremonial fight.
‘Bloody hell!’
‘I don’t understand kids these days,’ she says, putting the phone away again, carefully, so she doesn’t cut herself on the picture. ‘I mean – we never had half the things they’ve got. Ferried around from place to place like little princesses. They have the best clothes. The best shoes. I suppose it’s all these violent games they play. But you see they just don’t have any respect. And they seem so angry all the time.’
‘Well. They certainly get a lot of peer pressure on social media. I’m glad I didn’t have that when I was growing up.’
‘I worry about the future. I really do. I worry for the world my grandchildren will live in.’
‘Knife crime’s terrible,’ I say, struggling to stay objective. ‘Horrible. Really awful. But one thing struck me the other day. You know some kids think they have to carry a knife because the other kid’ll have one? Isn’t that the same as our foreign policy? You’ve got to have nuclear weapons because the other country’s got them? I mean – aren’t they just doing what the government’s doing?’
Jenny pushes her glasses back onto her nose.
‘They’ve been smashing car mirrors,’ she says. ‘For no reason. Car mirrors. Just walking along and smashing them off.’
‘That’s terrible.’
‘And I tell you something else. I’ve had my car ten years, and last night the alarm went off! Twice! It’s never done that before.’
‘That’s worrying.’
‘I mean – these kids. They’re so angry!’
‘It’s interesting that all this comes at a time of reduced public spending. Do you think that’s got anything to do with it?’
‘I don’t know about that. All I know is, I’m glad I’m not a child growing up in this world…’

The conversation splutters on like this for a while. She’s not enjoying it. I’m not enjoying it. It’s like we’re wrestling with the controls of a little plane that’s stalling over a chasm. I’m tempted just to embrace my fate, put my arms in the air and try to relish the plummeting – except – I can’t afford to let myself think of life this way. It’s too bleak and soul-sapping. It would feel like surrender.

I look around for Lola. She’s way up the hill, heroically silhouetted against the sky, staring down at me with an expression that – even from this distance – I can read as pity.

Back at university we studied an early Renaissance book by Castiglione called ‘The Book of the Courtier’. Written at the beginning of the 16th century, it was an early kind of How To guide for members of court, but it digressed lightly and beautifully into conversations about social philosophy, religion and so on. The book was surprisingly contemporary in feel. I remember one bit in particular, where the subject of ‘it wasn’t like this in my day’ came up.

“I have often considered not without wonder whence arises a fault, which, as it is universally found among old people, may be believed to be proper and natural to them. And this is, that they nearly all praise bygone times and censure the present, inveighing against our acts and ways and everything which they in their youth did not do; affirming too that every good custom and good manner of living, every virtue, in short everything, is always going from bad to worse.”
(from the beginning of the second book)

He wrote that over five hundred years ago. But despite all his balance and courtly wisdom, all his sprezzatura, I bet even old Castiglione would’ve changed direction when he saw the pug.


lola, the robot & the ball

It was only a matter of time.

When it’s my day off I’ll take Lola on her walk about the same time each morning. And because we’re regular we tend to meet the same people. I quite often see the elderly woman and her Jack Russell on the way back from the woods. She’s particularly distinctive, in a large, shovel-style hat and long quilted coat, bent forwards at the waist, carrying a tennis racket behind her, marching along in such a chaotic but determined way that from a distance the tennis racket looks like a key in the back of a giant clockwork robot. Now and again she’ll stop to pick up a squeaky yellow ball, and then using the tennis racket it whack it half way across the park for the Jack Russell to tear after. I try to anticipate seeing them, because Lola has an embarrassing habit of stealing other dogs’ toys and then running round and round in a celebratory lap that only gets bigger and faster the more you try to stop it. In fact, the only way I’ve found to get the ball back is to pretend I’ve found something even more interesting. (And I love Lola very much, but even I would have to admit that this is one powerful argument against the idea that Lola is a Very Intelligent Dog, because surely if she were, she wouldn’t keep falling for it).

Anyway – today I wasn’t quick enough. Before I could think to do anything, Lola had run straight across the park, intercepted the ball, and started lapping us all, squeaking the ball every time she passed, like a sprinter marking split-times. I waved and mimed an extravagant apology to the old woman, whilst moving into position to try the ‘Look what I’ve got’ trick again. The old woman ignored me, though. She was too busy making things worse by marching in a furiously ineffectual pattern, waving her tennis racket and hollering. Meanwhile, her Jack Russell had retreated to the path, where it sat with its muzzle on its paws looking thoroughly depressed, like its worst fears had been realised, and nothing would ever be the same again.

‘Don’t worry! I’ll get your ball back!’ I shouted.

It wasn’t easy. Every time Lola looked as if, maybe, this time, against all the odds, I might actually have something of genuine interest, the old woman would make ground on her, and set her off squeaking again.

Suddenly the old woman changed her trajectory, marching straight for me, either because she thought she’d have more luck whacking Lola if she stood next to me, or because she thought she might start whacking me, and bring Lola over that way. But when the old woman came within earshot it was obvious she was too out of breath to say or do anything, so I seized my chance.

‘Lola! Wow! Look at this! Unbelievable…!’ I said, bending down and pretending to find something incredible in the grass.

It worked. I could hear the squeaks getting louder.
I looked up.
Lola had stopped just beyond the distance she and I both knew I could cover in a standing leap, had dropped the ball onto the grass in front of her, and was standing there, panting and smiling at me, as if to say: Okay. What? What have you got?
Pathetically, I held out a leaf.
‘Here you are, Lola! Good girl! Look at this! Wow! Good girl!’
Incredibly, she inched a little closer.
Well. That’s just a leaf, isn’t it?
I sniffed the leaf and held it up to the light.
‘Fantastic! This is amazing!’
She came a little closer. Glanced back at the ball. A little closer.
Fatally close.
I leapt forward, grabbed her collar, clipped on the lead. Gave her a hug and a pat. Retrieved the ball and held it up for the old woman to see.
‘Don’t – whatever you do – throw it!’ she gasped.