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

worryingly

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
saying
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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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a short walk to the bypass

you used to be able
to go over the fields
not any more
they’ve fenced it all off
why, I don’t know
now you have to stick to the lane
I usually walk to the by-pass and back
but I won’t let amelie off no way
too dangerous
I keep her on the extendable

look at that
you can still just about
read what they wrote:
pick up your shit
the council said they had to
paint it over
too aggressive, they said
but it’s not nice, is it
everyone using your garden
for a toilet
a few people spoiling it
for everyone else
same old same old

see that sign?
that makes me laugh
warning! alsatians off the lead!
I saw the man who owns it the other day
I bet you don’t recognise me he said
I do I said you used to sell pet food down the market
you’ve got a good memory he said
but why would I forget?
just make sure you keep your alsatians
away from my amelie I said
you’re alright he said
but I’m not so sure
what with him driving in and out all hours
the gates aren’t always shut are they
and I don’t know what’s worse
being run over or eaten by dogs

look at that house
what’s left of it
such a shame
almost burned to the ground
some foreigners were sleeping rough
set it all on fire
lucky they didn’t go up with it
it’s been like that a while now
but they’ve got plans
apparently someone somewhere
wants to turn it into a riding school
a riding school!
I remember when it was pigs & runner beans
come on, that’s far enough
let’s turn back
it’s not like it used to be
but at least we’ve got the garden

lola, baxter, suki & the shadow

I’m taking photos of a bricked-up window when a woman calls out to me from higher up the path.
I say! she says, then Hello? You there with the camera. Is your dog alright with puppies?
I turn to look.
It’s a woman in her late middle-age, dressed like a countess, lacquered hair and Alice band, navy-blue twinset, the cardigan draped over the shoulders and fixed by a button, the only concession to the walk being a pair of blindingly white court shoes. Her left arm’s crooked up for balance, presumably, the right extended straight out in front, attached to the lead of a porcine little pug, madly scrabbling its paws in its eagerness to make time. I know that pugs’ eyes bulge, but these seem particularly alarming. I put it down to the effort it’s making pulling the woman along.
‘She’s fine!’ I say, hoping to God it’s true. Lola doesn’t seem bothered, though. The pug makes a bunch of strangled yippy noises, describing a perfect arc in the dirt, but Lola lopes by safely out of reach with barely a glance.
‘What about cats?’ the woman says as she draws nearer.
‘Cats? Well – she lives with one. They get along. Why?’
‘Suki follows me when I go out.’
I can see a large, marmalade cat sitting on its haunches in the middle of the path, such an air of self-possession I wouldn’t be surprised if it produced a pair of field glasses and called in an airstrike by walkie talkie.
‘She’s so cute!’ I say.
‘She isn’t. Sometimes she turns and goes back. Sometimes she disappears. For weeks.’
I nod, like – yes – this is definitely something to bear in mind with cats.
‘She’ll be alright with her, y’think?’
‘I think so.’
In fact, Lola hasn’t even seen the cat. I’m not surprised. Last week she walked right past an adult deer over the woods: didn’t even look up. And once, when an entire herd of black and whites fell into line behind me all the way across the field, Lola walked calmly in front, like she expected exactly this to happen all along, and was actually a little disappointed.
I bend down to offer my hand to the pug, which it takes as an invitation to climb all over me.
‘Don’t encourage him,’ says the woman. ‘He’s already much too excited about these things. C’mon, Baxter…’

It’s certainly a day for meeting posh dog walkers.

Cut to: a tall, stooped figure in a tweed gilet and corduroy trousers, standing at the edge of the woods leaning on a rustic walking stick, one hand draped over the other, watching a stately black labrador sniffing around in the long grass. The man has a wide, thin-lipped mouth that barely moves when he talks, and the slightly fuddled demeanour of someone who’d woken up, dressed and made five miles before he knew what was going on.
‘Nice reprieve from the hot weather,’ he says when I draw level. ‘Not that I’m complaining, of course. One just needs time to aclimatise to these things.’
I agree with him and stand there a moment, catching my breath after the climb. Lola goes over to the labrador. They swap cards.
‘Good boy, Shadow,’ says the man, then raises his chin and stares off across the field.
‘Where are the brown cows, d’you think?’
‘Over that far side. Lying down under the trees.’
‘Ah!’ he says. ‘Good! Not that Shadow is troubled by them overmuch. Or they he’
‘No. He looks pretty solid.’
‘The black and whites are the worst,’ the man says. ‘Have you met those chaps?’
‘Absolutely! On the back field. They’re so inquisitive.’
‘Yes. They fell into line and followed us the other day. I think they thought I was going to milk them.’
He takes off his cap, scratches his head, replaces the cap.
‘I shouldn’t think there’s much to it, though. Do you?’
‘Probably not. You’d just have to watch the legs.’
‘Yes! I think I’d be a little twitchy in the old trouser department if someone started fiddling around with my udders.’

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of birds and buds

Every time I see Friendly Bald Guy With Two Rescues I want to ask his name, and each time I don’t it makes it harder. Why, I don’t know. I expect he feels the same, every time he sees Smaller Guy Of Similar Age With One Rescue. (Real names would be so much easier. Although guys can be problematic. There are only so many Robs and Jims and Daves and Petes you can meet before they start blurring into one amorphous check shirt and cargo shorts).

Today doesn’t help.

I’m standing on a path in the middle of the woods, head tipped back, listening to a bird singing high above me in an ash tree. I’ve no idea what sort of bird it is. The variety of its song is so astonishing, so flamboyant, you could tell me it was a Bird of Paradise and I’d believe you. The bird produces short bursts of piercingly beautiful song, pausing just long enough to catch a response from deeper in the wood, then launches itself into another, virtuoso phrase.

I think Lola’s still with me, so it’s a surprise when I look back down to find FBG’s two dogs sitting at my feet, their heads tipped back like mine. At the same moment, FBG comes striding along the path.
‘Hi!’ he says, tugging out his ear buds. (I think there may have been a slight, name-sized gap just after the hi, but if there was, he generously covered it with a smile).
‘I was just listening to this amazing bird’ I say. ‘No idea what it is.’
‘You put me to shame,’ he says. ‘I should be listening to nature rather than this podcast.’
‘Nah!’ I say, backtracking on the bird. ‘Podcasts are great, too.’

We stand like that for a while, a little awkwardly, either side of the path. Lola has reappeared, thrilled to find that the bird-watching episode has segued into something altogether more interesting. The three dogs chase after each other through the undergrowth, whilst FBG and me do that tentative, exploratory conversational thing, teasing out any correspondences. (They’d been away in Norfolk / Norfolk! I was brought up round there / Were you? Where? / Wisbech – on the border / I know Wisbech! I was further over, Norwich way / I know Norwich – I saw Jim Bowen in Mother Goose …). But for all the progress we make and everything we find out about each other, it still doesn’t stretch to a name. Later on, after he’s screwed his earbuds back in, called the dogs away and walked off down the path, it strikes me how much sweeter and more efficient the bird’s method of communication is than ours.

*

An hour later I’m slogging up Broken Tree Hill. I’ve taken more pictures of the pines at the top of this hill than anything else – so much so that when I tweet the pictures and come to write the caption, it autofills on the first letter. Anyway, today I’ve come armed with a bin bag, because the other day I’d been annoyed to find a scattering of drinks cans and fast food wrappers, and I thought after all the pictures I’d taken I owed it to the place to tidy up a little. I’ve just started litter picking when FBG appears at the bottom of the hill, his two dogs racing towards me. He pulls out his ear buds, waves – and then hesitates. And I really want to sing a burst of notes along the lines of: Hey! It’s not what it looks like. I’m not normally this conscientious. You’ve just caught me on an odd kind of day. But of course all I do is wave, too – forgetting that I’m still holding the bag, which he probably interprets as Look at me, busy litter picking. He shakes his ear buds, as if to say: And here I am, still listening to my podcast, then screws them back into place, and carries on up the hill.

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