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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don’t say that

There is a middle-aged man and woman, standing side-by-side at the living room window of the bungalow next door, staring at me as I walk down the path. I wave – as best I can, with all the bags I’m carrying – but they don’t wave back. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were actually cut-outs, set there by an estate agent. But if that’s true, why not give them wavy arms and flashing eyes, activated by a sensor when you got close enough? As it is, their bungalow looks about as homey and real as a house made of Lego. Even the juniper in the planter wears a tag.

Mind you, the bungalow I’m visiting has more than enough reality for both. A low, brick wall separates the two of them as severely as the line between a ‘Before’ and ‘After’ feature. It’s a wretched, cliche, tumbledown affair, with an overgrown garden, rotten woodwork, missing tiles, and a car parked round the back, one of those boaty old Citroens, crusted in mould, the bonnet disappearing into the tarmac like a junk submarine in the world’s slowest dive.

I glance over my shoulder. The cut-outs have been repositioned to get a better look.
I put my stuff down, reach out, and knock.
The instantaneous and outraged barking of a dog.
Scuffling, swearing, crashing – the sounds of a desperate struggle in the hallway. I guess the dog is being put in a cage; if it is, it only makes the barking worse, like trying to stuff a panther in a box after it’s got blood on its snout.
After a composing kind of moment the door opens. George stands there, breathing hard, pushing his hair back from his face, smiling, whilst a small terrier tries to cut through the bars with acetylene fury.
‘Don’t mind Trampus’ says George. ‘He’s very protective.’
‘I’d never have guessed he was a terrier!’
‘Well. He’s crossed with something bigger.’
‘A wolf?’
‘Possibly. In his head.’
‘I don’t mind if you let him out. I’m alright with dogs.’
George’s smile tightens.
‘Oh, no,’ he says. ‘Oh, no, no, no. I couldn’t possibly.’
As if to illustrate, Trampus redoubles his efforts, the cage rocking from side to side.
‘Well. Alright then,’ I say.
‘Thank you for coming,’ says George, backing up.

George is as friendly, nub-faced, vast and shiningly white as a beluga whale, his trousers suspended by hoops, the lenses of his glasses thumbed with grease. He leads me back through the house, which is just as awful as the outside promised, comprehensively silted up with trash in the hoarder-style, unwashed plates stacked in plastic buckets, strata of food trodden into the floor. Even though it’s early in the year, a couple of plump black flies are on the move. One buzzes past me in a straight line from Crap A to Crap B, somnolent and satisfied as a bank manager on the daily commute.
‘Mother? There’s a gentleman to see you. From the hospital.’
‘Hello Gladys. My name’s Jim. How are you today?’
Gladys is as thin as George is fat. A frail and spidery old woman in a housecoat and flowery bandana, she’s not sitting in her chair so much as nesting in it, kyphotically hunched over a plate of digestives, scooping up the pieces and pressing them into her whiskery mouth.
‘Trampus has gone quiet,’ I say, looking for somewhere to put my bags, not finding anywhere.
‘Eerily quiet,’ says George.
‘What’s he doing? Tunnelling?’
‘Oh no!’ says George. ‘Don’t say that.’

dogs in hats

Billy is as thin and white as forced celery, wisps of white hair streaming back from his chiselled forehead against all natural gravitational laws, his etiolated white hands clasping the armrests of the chair like roots he put out to suck the nutrients from the stuffing. He barely acknowledges me as I let myself in. Whether that’s because of a general remoteness, or because he’s drunk most of the various spirit bottles placed artfully around his feet, it’s hard to tell.
‘How come you didn’t answer your phone, Billy?’
He turns his sad blue eyes up to me.
‘Oh. Was that you ringing? I looked for my phone but I couldn’t find it.’
‘Shall I give it another ring and see where it is?’
He shrugs.
I go to recents in my phone, and call.
After a moment, a loud buzzing starts up on the cluttered table immediately in front of us. His phone is under a red reminder.
‘Found it!’
‘Great’ he says, in a whispery voice leached flat by long hours of nothing in particular. ‘Gis it here, then.’

It’s hard to know what to do about Billy. The best you can say is that he has a workmanlike approach to drinking himself to death. There’s no joy in it; no wild ride. For some reason he’s simply hitched himself to a slow and dreadfully monotonous kind of decline, like he’s found himself in an armchair that began sinking beneath a quicksand of liquor bottles. When the glass level reaches the bridge of his nose, I don’t imagine he’ll struggle at all. He’ll merely turn those eyes in the direction of whoever’s there to notice, and slide out of sight with a clink.

I unzip my bag and loop the stethoscope round my neck. When I straighten I notice the four dog photos taped to the wall on his right. The photos have been printed A4 size with the colour running low, so everything’s a little fuzzy. You can see it’s the same dog, though, a lugubrious hound sitting in the same position in the kitchen, wearing four different hats: a fisherman’s floppy cap; a Norwegian style knitted hat with flaps; a panama, and then something from a fancy dress shop – a plastic policeman’s helmet fastened under its chin with elastic.
‘Love the pictures!’ I tell him. ‘Who’s dog is that?’
‘Karen, my carer,’ Billy whispers, sadly. ‘She knows I like dogs. And hats. So – there you go.’

where’s pepper?

If I hadn’t looked at the notes and seen it written in black and white that an ambulance had been called and taken Maria into hospital where she’d stayed a few days, I’d swear she hadn’t moved since the last time I saw her. The only difference is that her little dog Pepper isn’t leaping around the place in a twitching fury, wondering whether to bite me or throw himself through the window.
‘Where’s Pepper?’ I ask her.
‘He’s sleeping next door with Theo,’ she says. ‘They’re both exhausted. We were all up late last night. Theo came round, for a social. He only popped in to say hello ‘cos I was back and everything, and he ended up staying all night.’
There’s half a chicken leg on the ash strewn table in front of her. ‘I’m sharing that with Pepper,’ she says, as if I’m hungry and on the take. She hides it under some newspaper.

Walking down into Maria’s basement flat is like walking down steps into an Egyptian excavation – except, this isn’t the lavish tomb of a pharaoh, filled with gorgeous sarcophagi, wrapped cats, miniature wooden carts and dishes of carbonised grain. This is the urban degradation version, piles of red reminders, missed hospital appointments, bags of medication, discarded asthma pumps, magazines, grimy throws and crochet blankets, inco sheets, elbow crutches. And the door isn’t protected by an unbroken seal and a curse, but a CCTV camera, securely wedged into the top corner of the hallway like a nuclear bunker for a spider.

I’ve been in to see Maria a few times before. There’s always someone sleeping in the next room. Sometimes it’s Theo, sometimes it’s Clancy, sometimes Giles (none of them sounding like real names at all). But it’s only now I’ve been given the heads up about what’s really going on.

The scheme manager had sounded annoyed on the phone.
‘She’s breaking the terms of the tenancy,’ he’d said. ‘We’ve got vulnerable people living in that place. This can’t be allowed to go on.’
‘What’s going on exactly?’
‘She’s being cuckoo’d.’
‘Cuckoo’d?’
‘You know – when someone moves in and takes advantage. Except it’s a little complicated in Maria’s case, because I think she likes the company.’
‘D’you mean Theo and Clancy and the rest?’
‘Whatever they’re calling themselves. They’re using her flat to sell and smoke drugs, heroin mostly, but other stuff, too. The police have thrown them out of there before. There shouldn’t be anyone else staying. We’re trying to get an injunction to stick on the grounds that she’s breaking the terms of her agreement, but these things are always more tricky than they sound. She’s definitely got capacity. But she’s a vulnerable person, though. No question.’
‘Do you think it’s safe for carers to go in? Because Maria is pretty self-neglectful.’
‘I would think so. I mean – it’s not the nicest environment in the world. But during the day it’s fairly safe with regards to ne’er do wells hanging around. And if they are around they’re unconscious.’
‘Not terribly reassuring.’
‘No. But what can you do. I know it sounds harsh, but I’d like to forcibly take Maria out of there, find her somewhere secure, out of the reach of these people, and then maybe she’d come to see how awful they really are. At the minute, they buy her food and keep her company, and I suppose that’s something. If only they wouldn’t deal drugs, though. Or keep a dog. Pets aren’t allowed.’

I decide to be perfectly open with Maria about the concerns that have been expressed about Theo and the rest.
‘I’m always perfectly open and straight with people because I think in the end that’s the best way,’ I say, by way of introduction. Maria looks worried.
‘It’s about Theo, isn’t it?’ she says.
‘Yes. There’ve been reports that Theo and some of the others are smoking heroin and using you and your flat for a base.’
She’s instantly furious. I’m amazed that Pepper hasn’t rushed in to see what the matter is, and can only think he’s in an opiate haze as well.
‘I know what’s happened!’ she says. ‘And it’s not what you think. There was a man round here a few months ago. Xavier his name was. Said he was my friend and everything, but turns out he wasn’t. Oh no! Tried to sell my dog at one point. So Theo turned up and kicked him out, and now Xavier’s got the hump, going around telling everyone lies about what goes on round here.’
‘He tried to sell Pepper?’
‘Yeah! To Theo. That’s the kind of low life he is! I mean – who’d sell someone else’s dog?’

sad eyed lurcher of the lowlands

It was the dog that brought it back.

I had a sudden and vivid picture of the granddaughter’s English Lurcher, slowly lifting its head out of my bag when I went to fetch my steth. A mournful expression, like it had seen what I had in there and was profoundly disappointed.

As soon as I remembered the dog I had the whole scenario, in every detail: the carers who’d said Edie was off her legs and stuck in the chair; the GP who’d diagnosed an exacerbation of chronic shoulder pain, and prescribed stronger analgesia, referring Edie to us for physio, nursing, equipment, bridging care and whatever else we could think of; Edie herself, slumped over in a high-backed chair watching The Chase on TV; the granddaughter; the dog.

More than anything I remembered how successful the visit had been.

I’d met up with Jason for the double-up. Her obs had been fine, but because of her shoulder pain she’d struggled to push herself up from the chair. The longer she stayed scrunched up like that, the less likely she was to move, until she’d pretty much seized up completely. For a while it had looked as if Edie might have to go to hospital, but with patience, encouragement and some delicate handling, we’d managed to get Edie out of the chair and moving again. We’d put her to bed where she’d be able to rest in a more appropriate position, and mobilise more readily to a commode. It was all fine. The carers would be coming in as before. The stronger meds would ease things along, and a programme of physiotherapy would help Edie recover her strength and confidence. All in all, a very practical and successful intervention.

Which is why I couldn’t understand why Jason was talking about a complaint.

It had come from the daughter, who lived some miles away. Her view was that her mother should have been taken to hospital, or at the very least been given a bed in a rehab facility. According to the daughter we had failed in our duty of care. She had written to her MP. We had a day to write a statement.

‘It’s okay,’ said Jason with a shrug. ‘I don’t think the daughter really understands how things are with her mum. Who knows what the family dynamic is there? Maybe she heard stuck in chair and thought hospital? Never mind. It’ll be fine. We did the right thing.’

I felt aggrieved on Jason’s behalf. I’ve known him ever since I joined the team. An expert physio, he was friendly, positive, empathetic – in fact, a perfect example of what a community therapist should be. I could see him now, taking the whole situation in, crouching beside Edie, one hand on hers, patiently going over the options, how we could help, what we could try. No-one could have done more, and – I don’t think – could have produced such good results. All this at the end of a long and gruelling day. The injustice was crushing.

Jason slapped me on the shoulder and smiled.
‘Cheer up, Jim!’ he said. ‘You remind me of that dog!’