Janet the dog walker

Millie’s poodle Rosie bounds off the sofa when I come in. She lies with her paws either side of a well-chewed rubber Bugs Bunny, glancing down at it, then up to me, then down to the rabbit again, daring me to take it. I can’t decide who has the maddest expression: the rabbit or the dog.
‘I think… she thought… you were Janet,’ says Millie. ‘Janet… the dog walker.’

Millie furniture-walks to a seat at the dining room table. COPD has blasted her body, robbing her of any spare flesh. It’s left her tentative and frail, spindle-thin as a giant crane fly, fumbling for purchase, somewhere to land and catch her breath and think about the day.
‘I don’t want much,’ she wheezes. ‘I’ve got… the medication I need… plus a little something… for anxiety. What I really need… is someone… to come in now and again… to help me… with a bath. That’s all. Do my back… y’know?… the awkward bits.’
The doorbell rings and a breezy woman swathed in waterproofs stamps into the kitchen. I’m guessing it’s Janet.
‘Hiya Millie!’ she says. ‘Phew! It’s bad out there. Oh! You’ve got company!’
I introduce myself, get up to shake her hand which is ice cold.
‘You need gloves’ I say.
‘I need a lot of things,’ she says, pulling out a hankie and blowing her nose so loudly I take an involuntary step backwards. ‘I need to win the lottery,’ she says.
Meanwhile, Rosie has ditched the rabbit and dashed through to greet her. Janet kneels on the kitchen floor with her arms wide. Rosie puts her paws on the woman’s knees so she can reach up and lick her face.
‘You silly girl!’ she says. ‘I’ve had a wash today. I don’t need another one. Do I? Hey?’
‘Will… she be… alright?’ says Millie. ‘It looks… pretty bad out there.’
‘Of course!’ says the woman, grasping the kitchen counter, struggling to get up again. ‘Oof!’
She looks at me.
‘Got any spare knees in your bag?’
‘I’ll have a look.’
‘Good boy.’
She reaches into her pocket for a treat, and for a moment I think she’s going to throw it to me. But Rosie sits excitedly at her feet, and Janet hands it down to her instead.
‘She’ll be fine,’ the woman says. ‘It’s so windy out, I’m thinking of tying some string round her legs and flying her like a kite.’
Millie gives her a panicked look.
‘Seriously, though, we’ll just go for a short one round the park,’ says Janet, giving me such an exaggerated, lop-sided wink I’m guessing her face is still numb from the cold.

the isle is full of noises

4.

We’ve hired a dog trainer to help us with Stan. She’s coming tomorrow and I have to say, she can’t come soon enough. She looks great. A specialist in re-homed dogs. There are clips on her website of her swimming in the sea with a dog, walking smartly along suburban roads with a dog looking up at her adoringly, turning about, walking smartly the other way. The only thing that worries me is the physical gesture she demonstrates for the Emergency Stop. Bending her left leg, stretching her right leg back, flashing out her right arm with the palm of the hand flat. She looks like Superman leaning in to catch a train. The dog stops dead, of course, but I don’t know. I might feel self-conscious using a pose like that. We’ll see.

Stan definitely needs some super-advice, though. It’s strange, how well-behaved he is on the lead, how sweet and obedient he is around the house (for the most part), but how oblivious he is when we let him off. Not a hint of a check to see where we are, not a sign he’s even dimly aware of us shouting, blowing on the whistle, or jumping up and down, brandishing the treat bag. He’s just gone, utterly in thrall to his nature, chasing the spirit of the great wild space running out endlessly in front of him.

To be fair, even to a non-dog, it’s a pretty enchanting world out there. Out on the walk this morning, and a low mist drifted in over the fields, everything ghosted, chill, strange, like the world was hanging back, waiting for something. Monstrous tree shapes loomed overhead. Somewhere close, the sudden cry of a pheasant, deep in the bramble breaks – a sharp and ratcheting cry, like a tin can violin played with a hacksaw.

I’d already had to catch Stan a couple of times, so he was back on the lead by this point. I felt bad. It was like slinging a line on a spirit, tricking Ariel into a tree.

I hope the trainer’s as good as she looks. I promise I’ll adopt any posture if it means Stanley can have his freedom.

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ozymandias

Each patient record has a reminder area on the home page. It’s supposed to draw your attention to essential details or dangers, such as the need for double-up visits, the contact numbers of the relatives you must liaise with first, the keysafe code, any environmental dangers you should be aware of. So the first thing I write is:

Two small dogs – friendly, but bark when you knock

It’s only when I read it out loud I see the problem with the sentence. So I delete and write instead:

Two small dogs. Loud to begin with, but soon settle down.

*

Mrs Albright is ninety-seven. She lives alone in a ramshackle bungalow, top of a narrow lane of cottages and heavily-buttressed flint walls leaning out at extraordinary angles, an ancient church under scaffolding, and a strange, round building with worn stones and arrow slits standing alone in a paddock, that looks like maybe it’s the last thing standing of a castle, currently serving as a chicken house.

Like most of everything else down the lane, Mrs Albright is old and falling down. But although physically she’s reaching the end of her ability to cope, intellectually she’s as formidable as ever.
‘Apart from the carers coming in twice a day, and your family popping in when they can, do you manage to see anyone else?’
‘Anyone else? Do you mean socially?’
‘Well – yes, I suppose I do.’
‘I run an ancient history group once a week, if that counts. Does that count?’
‘I think that counts.’
‘Excellent. Then – yes. Every Wednesday I have a dozen or so people round and we discuss a broad range of topics. Last Wednesday Sally did the Assyrians. This Wednesday it’s Margaret on Alexander the Great.’
Whilst we’re talking, Mrs Albright’s dogs – two bug-eyed pugs – have plopped themselves down to sleep around her feet.
‘Yes – I’m afraid they do that a lot,’ she says, peering down. ‘They like to be near me in case I drop anything overboard, a bit of crumpet or what have you, which I’m afraid to say does happen from time to time. The problem is I forget the damned things are there and when I get up to spend a penny, I go flying. It’s a miracle I’ve lasted this long without breaking anything. Not so much as a cup.’
Mrs Albright’s son Richard is sitting with us at the table. He’s already mentioned that the family are looking at residential care, something Mrs Albright seems happy to think about.
‘I’ll miss the old place,’ she says, planting both hands firmly on the table and looking around. ‘But – you know, one thing that became very apparent to me very early on in my career, is that nothing lasts forever.’

peas in a pod

The moment I press the front bell a furious howling and barking starts up deep within the house; a half second later, a malevolently dark shape starts leaping up and down the other side of the door, battering itself against the frosted butterfly glass, crazy as a baby wolf on a trampoline, doing everything it can to get to me bar setting up an oxy acetylene cylinder and cutting a hole through the panel. A minute or so passes but the dog doesn’t tire. It even seems to be trying out some fancy moves – a half-tuck, a forward roll. Eventually, a light goes on. A shadow coalesces through the butterflies, three pane zones into one.
‘Shashi! Shashi! For goodness sake – shush now!’ A chain rattles back, a lock turns, the door opens. Despite myself, I can’t help drawing back, expecting the dog to launch itself at my throat; instead, it trots out quite happily to sniff my shoes, as if it was only contracted to bark so long as the door stayed shut.
‘Lovely to see you!’ says June. ‘Sorry about Shashi. She sounds terrible but she’s perfectly harmless.’
‘Her bark’s worse than her bite.’
‘Well her bite’s pretty bad, to be honest, but since she had her teeth out she’s calmed down in that respect.’
I’m relieved.’
June leads me through to her living room. It’s a tidy space, dominated right and left by two enormous Georgian-style doll’s houses. Each house has a little patch of garden in front, surrounded by a white picket fence. In the garden of one, two elderly dolls lounge in deck chairs, reading the paper; in the other, a doll mows the lawn with a dog exactly like Sashi following behind.
‘Have a seat,’ says June. She gets into position to sit down herself, unaware that Shashi has already jumped up onto the armchair and – apparently – fallen asleep.
‘Watch out!’ I say.
‘What? Oh – d’you mean the dog? She’ll move.’
I can hardly watch. June drops down into the chair immediately above the dog, which only moves at the very last second, reaching out with a paw to whip its tail out of the way as June lands with a weighty sigh.
‘There!’ she says. Then looks around.
‘I don’t know where the other is. They’re thick as thieves, normally. Brother and sister. Peas in a pod.’
I’d spoken to June’s son before coming here today. He’d talked to me about June’s increasing problems with dementia, her loss of short term memory, her habit of leaving the cooker on, door open, bath running. The whole thing is moving towards residential care, but for now the family were looking at increasing the number of carers during the day.
‘It’s been a difficult few days,’ he says. ‘Yesterday we had to have one of the dogs put down. The vet came out and it was pretty awful, but I’m not sure Mum remembers too much about it.’
I look over at Shashi. She’s left June’s armchair to curl up on one of two plush, tasselled red cushions on the opposite sofa. As if she can read my mind, she raises her head and stares at me.
‘Don’t!’ she seems to say.

Amelia, the medium miniature schnauzer

There’s a Georgian mansion house and gardens occupying the spot where the Norman motte and bailey once was. These days, the only thing surviving of the stone castle that followed on from it are the vaults and tunnels beneath.
‘A little health and safety before I take you in,’ says the guide. ‘Can you hear me at the back? Shuffle up! No-one’s going anywhere until I’ve gone over the rules.’

I’m a little worried about mum. This is her ninetieth birthday party, after all, and although her health is pretty good generally, her right hip is beginning to give out, making her walk at a loping slant like a pantomime pirate. On the plus side, it might actually work to her advantage down there in the lopsided environment of the vaults. On the minus, she’s taking her miniature Schnauzer Amelia down with her. She won’t be dissuaded.
‘She’s sensitive to ghosts,’ she says. ‘It’ll be like taking a canary down the mines.’
‘Keep your hard hats on at all times,’ says the guide, tapping his head by way of illustration. ‘The ceiling is low and it curves in steeply either side. I estimate that each of you will bang your head four times. I’m never wrong about this.’
‘Is there a hat for Amelia?’ says Mum.
‘No,’ says the guide. ‘She’s low enough for that not to be a problem. Okay? If you’d like to follow me, then…’
And he turns and leads us down the worn stone steps, through the iron gates, and into the gloomy vaults that stretch ahead, lit by emergency lighting at spooky intervals.
Someone bumps their helmet on the lintel.
‘That’s one!’ shouts the guide.
‘He’s good’ whispers Mum.

Mum had her eightieth party at the castle, too. For some reason she didn’t go down the vaults then, which either suggests the older she gets the more risks she’s happy to take, or – more likely – that the poodle she had at that time was too elderly or sick to manage it. Everything Mum does is based on the dog of the moment. She refuses to put them in kennels, have a dog-sitter or leave them alone for a minute. Any family event, the primary concern will be the dog. It wouldn’t surprise me if she turned up at a wedding or a funeral with the dog carried in by four oiled slaves on a litter. Every dog she’s ever had has been utterly dependent with high-end requirements, existing on boiled rice and chicken, and pet soaps on the telly.
Funny thing is, Amelia is much less of a monster than you’d have any right to expect. Mum says she barks all the time, but she hasn’t barked once at the party. She’s quite content to sit in the shade under the table. She even lifts a paw and when I ask her – to shake, I thought, but I think she wants me to kiss a claw, like the pope’s ring.
‘She’s a very biddable dog,’ I say.
‘She’s protective,’ says Mum. ‘She won’t be parted from me for a second.’
Amelia puts her head on one side and stares into my eyes with that odd, gruff-wise expression Schnauzers have (or Schnau-tzers as Mum pronounces it, like it’s a make of machine pistol). Arriving at the party I half expected to see Amelia’s face on the balloons and banners when we came round the corner into the garden; as it was, she was prominently displayed on Mum’s lap, receiving tribute from the guests as they arrived, accepting all their strokes and tickles with the imperious and unquestioning hauteur of a president.

Bump.
‘That’s two!’ says the guide, calling out from the front.
‘He’s very good,’ says Mum.

‘Now then,’ says the guide, stopping by a particular vent off to the left and gesturing with his stick. ‘We’ve got a colony of bats in there. Please don’t disturb them with any flash photography. They’re a protected species. If they do happen to fly out, resist the urge to flap around. Just remain calm and stand perfectly still. They’ll do a couple of circuits then go back in to roost. But don’t worry,’ he carries on. ‘They’re the only animals we’ve got down here. Present company excepted. There aren’t any others, not even rats.’
‘Rats don’t like bats,’ says Mum. ‘Or is it the other way round?’
It sounds like a quote – Alice in Wonderland? – and adds to the dreamy feel of the whole thing. Mum’s holding tightly to the arm of my eldest brother as we carry on into the vaults, either because of her frailty or because she doesn’t want to lose him again. After all, no-one’s seen him for ten years or more, but against all expectations he’s turned up at the party with his daughter. No one knows why he disappeared for so long, and Mum’s party isn’t the place to ask. For now, proceeding in a shuffling crouch through these dimly lit vaults, it feels like we’ve been magically called together for one, last ceremonial journey into the underworld.

We emerge into a longer, larger hall. Off at the far end is a single plastic chair, eerily lit by the emergency lighting. In front of us is a camping table with more of the chairs. The guide sits down on one of the chairs.
‘Gather round’ he says. ‘Now – this is where the local paranormal society like to set up their equipment. As you may or may not be aware, the castle – and particularly these vaults – are some of the most haunted spots in the county. Every so often we let the paranormal society camp down here for the night with all their equipment, their EVP recorders, full spectrum cams and what have you. Myself? I don’t believe in ghosts particularly, but they seem to think there’s something going on down here. They’ve shown me pictures of a dark figure over there in that corner where the chair is. The Blob, they call it. I don’t know. It’s an interesting phenomenon, whatever it is. And the place certainly takes on a special feeling in the early hours. I’ll tell you a story. Last year the paranormals were down for one of their regular sessions. And there was this chap – nice guy, very down to earth – and he came along with his girlfriend, because although he didn’t believe in ghosts she was very into the whole thing and he wanted to show her support. So here we were, all set up, and it was about two or three in the morning, and it was time for one of our regular breaks up top. And this chap, he says “I’ll stay down here on my own”. “Oh” we say “Are you sure about that?” “Sure I’m sure” he says. “I’ll be fine. And turn out all the lights when you go.” I think it was bravado – you know. Showing off in front of his girlfriend. Anyway, we did as he asked, we all left the chamber, and the last thing I did before I came up into the garden was turn out all the lights with the master switch. Then I joined the others having a cup of tea on the veranda of the main house. Well – I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced perfect darkness? Absolute, perfect silence? It’s a strange thing, something you don’t often get. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s rarely experienced, because however dark it gets there’s always a glimmer of something, even if it’s just starlight. Anyway – about ten minutes after I shut off the lights, there was this terrible wailing scream from the vaults, and the poor chap came sprawling up the steps, staggered across the lawn, and literally threw himself at us on the veranda. When he’d calmed down enough he told us what happened. Apparently he sat there in the dark, getting used to it, feeling quite relaxed, sleepy even – when suddenly he heard a scratching noise from over in the far corner. He didn’t like it, but he dismissed it as a rat – which, as you know, we don’t get down here. The next thing was the feeling of a heavy hand on his shoulder, and someone’s face at his ear, making gritty grinding noises with their teeth. That’s when he screamed and ran – headfirst through the pitch blackness. How he didn’t knock himself cold, I don’t know. And the worst thing was, he said – the worst thing – was he could hear footsteps following close behind him. I said to him, I said “that was probably the echo of your own footsteps” “So how come they followed me across the lawn as well?” he said. And that was that.’
Mum looks down at Amelia.
‘How strange!’ she says. ‘She hasn’t barked once!’

IMG_0985

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

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.

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