dave says it’s tricky


Sounds beautiful. Magical. I bet the architect was a fan of Lord of the Rings. You expect to see an ancient castle draped in moss and mist, with strange, long-legged birds circling and crying overhead, a plangent waterfall and so on, elfcetera, elfcetera. Instead what you get is an anonymous, pre-fab block just off the high street, tucked away behind a phony Italian restaurant. It’s only been up a year or so but already it has a tired, beaten-down kind of look, strips of tape over the intercom where the buttons have fallen off. If the same architect had worked on Helm’s Deep, I don’t think Saruman would’ve needed much more than a couple of orcs and a wheelbarrow to tear the place down.

The one magical thing about Avondale, though, is its uncanny ability to screw up the SatNav. The app doesn’t recognise the postcode at all, and ends up recommending you ‘make a u-turn’ and then ‘make another u-turn’ so that if you were truly dependent on it, you’d end up simply driving in a circle at the bottom of the high street until you ran out of fuel or the police threw stingers down.

I know all about Avondale, though.
I’ve been here before.

Cherry lives on the first floor with her little Jack Russell, Dave. Cherry has a long list of health problems, from mental health and self-harming to morbid obesity, diabetes, breathing problems and recurrent infections, and she’s been referred to us many times in the past. She’s got a reputation for being difficult, but I think because I make a fuss of Dave whenever I go there she takes it easy on me.

‘Cherry was pretty sick this time,’ says Michela, the co-ordinator. ‘She went in with an exacerbation of COPD, but then self-discharged against advice. She was so bad they gave her home oxygen. So can you pop-in, see how she’s doing? Get her to sign a non-concordance form if necessary.’


Cherry is propped up in bed watching CSI. The first thing I notice – after Dave has finished leaping madly around my legs – is that Cherry’s wearing a nasal cannula connected by a long, plastic tube that snakes across the bed to an oxygen cylinder by the window. The second thing I notice is the fag in her mouth.
‘Erm … Cherry? You really can’t be smoking when you’re using oxygen.’
‘What? Wha’dy’a mean?’
‘You’ll blow yourself up. And everyone else. You’ll send Dave into orbit. Honestly, mate – you’ve got to put the fag out.’
She shrugs, pinches the end out, and rests it carefully on the ashtray by the bed.
‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘I’m sorry to be so blunt about it, but you absolutely cannot smoke with oxygen around. This whole place’ll go up.’
‘I only have one now and again. It’s not a problem.’
The heaped ashtray and the smoky fug in the room tell a different story. I know I’ll have to report this to her GP and the Community Respiratory Team as soon as I’m back in the car, but for now I move on.

Dave is on the bed now. He rolls onto his back so I can rub his tummy, his tongue lolling out with the ecstasy of it all.

‘So how’ve you been?’ I say to Cherry. ‘Sorry to hear about your recent hospital trip.’
‘Yeah – well. What can you do? They said I had to go. I didn’t want to. I mean – what are they going to do about anything?’
‘I don’t know, Cherry. But to be fair, they do seem to have done quite a bit. Put you on IV antibiotics, sent you for chest x-rays, got you back on your feet.’
‘Yeah, but they didn’t, did they? Look at me!’
‘It says in your notes you self discharged against advice. Is that right?’
She shrugs.
‘They made it impossible. It was noisy. I couldn’t sleep. They wake you up every five minutes to fiddle about. The nurses were rude. The food was unbelievable. I mean – you’ve got to be really sick to want to go to that place.’
‘That’s true. And from the sounds of it – I think you were pretty sick. And still are.’
I unclip the SATS probe from her finger.
‘Your oxygen levels are terrible, Cherry – even for you. And that’s five minutes after you came off the oxygen.’
‘Yeah – and I’d still be on it if you hadn’t said.’
‘It’s a choice, though, isn’t it. No oxygen and low SATS, or oxygen and burst into flames. Isn’t it, Dave? Isn’t it…?’
Something suddenly occurs to him, because he flips himself upright again, hurls himself off the bed, and skitters off across the laminate flooring into the kitchen.
‘Oh my God! Wait for it,’ says Cherry.
There’s a single, loud squeak from the kitchenette, and then Dave hurries back with a red, rubber bone in his mouth. It’s so big he can’t make it up on the bed again without a boost from me. As soon as he’s there, though, he chows up and down on it, making it squeak as regularly as a monitor in a hospital for clowns.
‘God – it’s noisier than the ward,’ says Cherry. ‘And before you say anything, I don’t care, I’m not going back.’
I look down at Dave.
‘What do you think?’ I ask him. ‘What do you think mummy should do?’
He stares up at me, panting excitedly, flicking his eyes without moving his head…. down to the bone…. up to me…… down to the bone…up to me.
‘Dave says it’s tricky.’


I press the bell and wait. The porch door is shut but the inner one is open and I can see through into the house. A dark hallway with a baby gate halfway. It’s all pretty quiet.
I press the bell again. The button is held together with weathered tape and doesn’t look too healthy. It’s only then I see there’s a piece of paper tacked to the window. The writing has faded almost to nothing but I can just make it out: Bell not working. Please knock.

As soon as I do, there’s a wild yapping and snarling from the front room, and a caramel coloured Jack Russell hurtles out into the hallway and throws itself at the gate. Although ‘hurtles’ isn’t quite right – more a cross between hurtling and a skitterish kind of wobble. At any rate, the expression on its tiny face is one of the purest and most pitiless hatred.
‘Peanut! Be quiet! Go in the garden, darling! Go on! In the garden!’
Peanut pays no attention, but spreads its paws, daring me to come any further.
‘I’m in here!’ says the man.
I put my hand on the handle.
Peanut narrows her eyes and gives a hectic sneeze.
I open the door.

Peanut goes completely nuts. She swells to twice her size, her eyes bulging out, like I’ve inadvertently cracked the outer door on a space station, and the catastrophic change in pressure is making her pop.

I’m good with dogs but I’m not stupid. I wait for the man to appear, to give me some credibility. Instead I hear him cry out in pain from the front room. There’s nothing for it but to go forward and brave the beast.
‘No, Peanut!’ I say in an Alpha wolf voice. ‘No.’
Peanut obviously doesn’t care for wolves. As soon as I open the baby gate it goes for me. The only thing that saves me is the fact that Peanut is old and fat and her range of movement is seriously compromised. It also helps that she doesn’t have any teeth. All she can manage is a furious gumming of my shoes, which sounds horrendous but is actually quite pleasant, how I imagine it would feel like if I stuck my foot up through the sunroof when I put the car through the car wash. The only real danger is that when I carry on walking she’ll trip me up. Maybe that’s the plan. Maybe the moment I’m down she’ll roll up onto my face and suffocate me. Luckily I manage to stay upright, though, lifting my legs like some kind of fastidious wading bird, high-stepping through a lake of hostile fish into the front room.
‘Good girl!’ says the man, approvingly.
Whatever made the man cry out has passed. He’s perfectly calm.
‘On the sofa, Peanut. On the sofa. Hup!’
The dog is too exhausted from the shoe wars. Anyway, if there was ever a dog in the history of dogs less likely to jump onto a sofa at the word Hup it’s Peanut. She completely ignores the man, choosing instead to wobble exhaustedly over to the far side of the man’s chair, collapsing on the carpet with an audible whump like someone delivering coal.
‘Oh Peanuuuuut!’ says the man, drawing out the last syllable into a tortured wail. Of all the things to despair about, this is the least worst thing. Peanut’s obviously used to it. She gives another of her disdainful sneezes, then settles her face onto her paws. With her huge eyes and curled lip, she’s a spit for Peter Lorre.
‘What are we going to do with you, Peanut?’ says the man.
‘Does she have a harness?’ I ask him.
‘There. Behind you,’ he says, gesturing to the sofa with his scrubby chin.
I pick it up. It’s a complicated affair, heavily-padded corduroy, confusing straps and velcro and snappy fixings. It looks more like a Victorian straitjacket.
I hold it up.
‘Peanut! Who’s a good girl…?’

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


about george

I’d met George a few times in the past, so I had my doubts.

‘You have to take him,’ said Lyra, the manager of the rehab unit. ‘He’s been here six weeks and it was only supposed to be a couple of days.’
‘But you say he’s hoist only now?’
‘In that house?’
‘And it’s been cleared? It was so tiny and cluttered. You’ve actually managed to fit a hoist and a commode in there?’
There’s an ominous pause.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t be sending him home, otherwise. Would I?’

The conversation hadn’t started well.

George had been referred to us for an initial assessment. I’d phoned the unit to clear a couple of things up. When the first person answered I went through the usual spiel: Hello. My name’s Jim. I’m a nursing assistant from the Rapid Response team. I’m just calling to find out about George’s discharge today.
‘Oh. Hold on. You need to talk to another nurse.’
She put the phone down on the desk without muting it, so I could hear her calling out (although the other person was too far away to hear): I don’t know. Some guy asking about George…. I don’t know what he wants…. Why don’t you speak to him?…. Well where IS she?…..
Then some general clattering, muttering, background noise. Laughter. Eventually someone else picked the phone up from the desk.
‘Hell-oo?’ she said, in that drawn-out, slightly hesitant voice you might use for a sales call or worse.
‘Oh – yes – hello! My name’s Jim. I’m a nursing assistant from the Rapid Response team. Sorry to bother you. I’m just calling to find out about George’s discharge today.’
‘George Masters.’
‘No. Who are you?’
‘Me? I’m Jim. Nursing assistant. Rapid Response Team.’
‘Just a minute…’
She puts the phone back down on the desk, again – without pushing the mute button.
I don’t know. He says he’s a nursing assistant called Jim. Asking about George.
There’s some toing and froing between the two, then she picks the phone up again.
‘What is it you want exactly?’
‘Well – two things. One is that on the discharge summary they give an address that’s different to the one we’ve got. So we need to clear that up. And the other thing is to find out what time he’ll be home.’
‘Just a minute…’
She does the same thing. This time, I’m waiting for five minutes, hanging on the phone, listening to all the traffic and fuss of the unit. Just as I’m about to hang up and call again later, the phone gets picked up by someone else.
‘Hello. Erm. Yep. My name’s Jim. I’m a nursing assistant from the Rapid Response Team. Erm.. can I ask who I’m talking to?’
‘My name’s Sheila. How can I help?’
‘Are you a nurse, or …’
‘Yes – I’m a nurse.’
‘Great! Do you know about George Masters?’
‘What about him?’
I take a breath, then go into the two things I need to know about George so we can be there to do the initial assessment.
‘You need to speak to Lyra,’ she says.
‘Who’s Lyra?’
‘The unit manager… LYRA…!’ she shouts, so loudly I have to lean away from the receiver. She slams the unmuted phone back down on the desk.
Another five minutes.
Eventually the phone gets picked up again.
‘Hello? Lyra speaking?’
‘Hi Lyra. Can I just say, before I go on – I’m not all that happy with the way this phone call has gone. I’ve spoken to three different people. They’ve all put the phone down without even muting it, so I can hear them shouting across the unit…’
‘Don’t get clippy with me,’ says Lyra.
‘I’m not clippy, I’m just saying…’
‘I don’t appreciate your tone…’
‘All I’m saying is that it’s been really frustrating ringing your unit today….’
‘We’re busy. What d’you expect?’
‘Everyone’s busy.’
‘I think you need to look at the way you speak to people. Who did you say you were?’

We struggled on with the conversation, but by the time I hung up I was sweating more than a pilot who’d spent half an hour fighting to stop a plane crash.

‘So – when’s he home?’ said Anna, who was due to handle the initial assessment with me.
‘She’ll call me,’ I said. ‘Maybe.’

To be fair, from that point on Lyra was more amenable. I think it was because she was desperate to discharge George, who’d been a disruptive presence on the unit, constantly ringing his button, throwing tissues everywhere, generally playing up. I’d met George before, of course, and I knew he could be difficult. But when I’d known him he was still at home – a tiny, cluttered house with a kitchen whose ceiling was halfway down and whose downstairs toilet was so unspeakable you wanted to clean it up with a flamethrower. He had a cute dog, though – a perky little brown and white Jack Russell called Lily, so it would be nice to see her again.
‘I’m sorry about the way the phone call went,’ said Lyra. ‘We’re completely rammed here, as you can imagine. And I’m having to get by with agency nurses, and they don’t know the routine.’
‘That’s okay. I’m sorry if you thought I was clippy.’
We laugh about it.
End the call.

Later that day I’m sitting in George’s front room. We’ve just hoisted George from the wheelchair onto the hospital bed, but already he’s talking about putting himself on the floor because ‘it’s too early for bed,’ even though he couldn’t sit in a chair without three feet of rope and a crash mat. The neighbour who we were told would be coming round with shopping and generally keeping an eye on things is actually self-isolating and not leaving his house. To add to the woeful picture, we’ve just found out the boiler doesn’t work. Our team have been asked to provide bridging care four times a day, but even so you couldn’t say with any confidence that George would be safe between calls. He really needs some kind of residential facility. Still – at least Lily the dog has been rehomed.

There’s nothing else for it.
I ring Lyra.
She answers.
I tell her the situation.
There’s an ominous pause…

next door’s dog

I’ve never seen such an old stair lift. It sits at the bottom of the stairs like a traction engine whose wheels have fallen off. It even has a hatch under the seat, which must be where the coal goes.
‘It was my husband’s’ says Maria. ‘Shame it’s broken. It means I can’t go upstairs.’
‘What about getting it fixed?’
She shakes her head.
‘The company went bust years ago.’
‘But surely someone somewhere would know what to do with it?’
‘I know exactly what to do with it. Throw it in a skip and start again. But I’m alright downstairs. I’ve got everything I need.’

I follow her into the living room, almost tripping over a metal milk holder with three pints in it that Maria has brought inside and put in the doorway.
‘Shall I put these in the fridge?’
‘Yes. Sorry, dear. That’s as far as I got.’

Maria is self-isolating, like the rest of our patients these days. She was discharged from the hospital after treatment for a chest infection, referred to us for ongoing care.

‘I do alright,’ she says, when I bring her through some tea. ‘I’m not as badly off as others. I’ve got two gay gentlemen living next door. They’re so lovely and kind. They do my shopping and what have you. Most mornings they knock on the door when they take the dog out. They’ve got this little dog, you see. Don’t ask me what sort it is. I’m not good with dogs. I pretend to be interested but between you and me it’s not that impressive. It’s fur sticks out all over the place and it has this odd, cross-eyed look, like someone clonked it with a frying pan. I wouldn’t trust it as far as I could throw it, but they seem to like it, which is the main thing.’

We chat as I check her over. She tells me about her husband, Jack. A small businessman with a big laugh, apparently.

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘It’s true. I married the boss. That’s him, there…’
She points to a photo in a frame: An elderly man sitting in a chair, Maria standing behind him with her arms around his shoulders, the point of her chin on the top of his head. The picture has stood in direct sunlight for so long the colour has faded. All the flesh tones have merged, leaving a blurry but strangely transcendent quality to their faces. Only the stronger patterns remain: the curve of Jack’s glasses, Maria’s auburn curls, the laces on Jack’s shoes.

‘I still miss him, all these years later,’ she says, carefully taking a sip of tea. ‘Maybe I should get a cat. What d’you think?’

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.


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.

‘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!’


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

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