all that evolution for THIS?

Five hundred and fifty five million years ago
(which really is one helluva long time ago you know)
lived a worm the size of a grain of rice
the first of its kind with a mouth that bites
and a butt that squeezed out all the waste
from the endless snacks it ate with its mates
and it’s name?
Ikaria wariootia
(which may or may not be new to ya)

my point is
this cute little joint is
our earliest common ancestor
(according to scientists at the research centre)
and from this worryingly wormy beginning
you get an Attenborough
plethora
of fauna
swimming and flying
running and diving
leaving and arriving
jumping
or humping
or just slumping
in front of the TV
like me
and Stanley
stretched out in a food coma
on the sitting room sofa
two distinct species but arguably one loafer
as motionless as any fossil you’d hope to knock
from some sedimentary Australian rock

A Very Stanley Christmas

Here comes Stanley Claus
up on the roof
with his big whiskery paws
and his big whiskery woof

He’s driving a dog sleigh
piled up with presents
pulled by nine bichon frise
on supplements

You’ll know when he’s been
the baubles all scattered
the snowman pushed in
the fairy lights shattered

You’ll spend more on repairs
than you’ll earn back in gifts
picking hairs from the stairs
and mending the rips

It’s a Christmas Eve riot
but at least he’s trying
so hide and keep quiet
when Stanley comes flying

flight of dreams

Stanley’s posture
on the sofa
is that of the highly qualified loafer
head on the arm rest
nose due West
while the rest
of him points East
because this particular beast
will never knowingly be misaligned
no matter how many times
he naps and snoozes
somehow he never loses
his sense of direction
his nose to the West without exception
holding his dreamy attitude
maintaining cruising altitude

Ode to Brodie

Stanley’s not 100% dependable
sometimes perfect, sometimes lamentable
looks pretty innocent but we’ve learned to be skeptical
if anything happened I’m sure we’d be liable

having said that, he’s completely fine with Brodie
a stoner dog with a hipster goatee
as happy as a heavy metal roadie
smoking a joint and spooning macaroni

when Stanley and Brodie get together
it’s like a sudden outbreak of sunny weather
the world a different place altogether
horses, dogs, squirrels… whatever

Brodie could stroll through a full-on riot
like it’s nice to be nice man so why not try it
and suddenly the streets would all fall quiet
and the TV reporters would struggle to describe it

he could totally work for the United Dog Nations
sniffing out barking populations
calming volatile situations
wack job sheepdogs, dotty dalmations

and he’d win huge acclaim for his peace campaign
The Nobel Beast Prize, La Croix de Chien
a squeaky bone headdress from the Chief of the Cheyenne
at a ceremony hosted by the actor, Sean Penn

and they’d raise a statue in the market square
and the sunset would sparkle on his curly bronze hair
as the street dogs gathered to read the plaque there:
To Brodie: A Dog Who Dared To Care

let there be lurcher

We went to see dogs at the RSPCA
but they didn’t have much to show us that day
just a couple of wild-eyed terriers
barking round their barred interiors
two intimidating staffie brothers
smouldering, shoulder to shoulder
then a lurcher
called Storm
slumped in a basket at the far end on his own
like a cyclone
of the purest depression
or a lifer in prison
whose only ambition
was to own a harmonica and play the blues
as people passed by in orderly queues

he looked a mess
and I have to confess
I expressed
some hesitation
especially when I read the information
written on the card
tied to the bars
describing his hard
and cruelly neglected past

he’d been rescued with a Patterdale called Biscuit
who’d been taken the day before our visit
(unless TAKEN was some kind of shelter euphemism
for the way some dogs end up leaving the prison)

so it was just Storm
forsaken and forlorn
waiting for someone to perform
an unlikely miracle
the chances against it were considerable
for something so ribby and miserable

and I must admit I had my doubts
especially how a dog that size would get out
through the flap we had in the kitchen door
other than breech birth paw over paw

but the others were insistent
so we found an assistant
told her we were interested in adopting Storm
she took us to the office to fill out a form

there were certain procedures to follow of course
we had to come back a few times for walks
to see if any of us had second thoughts
including whether he’d get on with Lola
our beautiful, elderly and elegant lurcher
who acted the martyr
but then quickly adapted because she’s smarter
and saw the benefits in having a partner

so everything seemed to go pretty well
Lola behaved like a true professional
and Storm was happy as far as we could tell
being generally as inscrutable as baby Yoda
in the end we said fine and he jumped in the Toyota
(and yes – I KNOW Skoda
would’ve sounded better
but – y’know – whatever
at least you can see I’m always striving
to be honest about stuff, including what I’m driving)

Three years later
and it’s hard to remember
a time before we ever had Stanley
(we changed the name from Storm incidentally
because essentially
we didn’t think he looked like a Storm
more like a Terry, an Eric or a Norm
in a neckerchief and cap
like a Victorian bargee or something like that
but it had to be a name that started with STUH
so he wouldn’t think we were calling some other lurcher
anyway – you get the picture)

and just like all those other decisions
when fate intervenes in unlikely conditions
we extended by one this vagabond family
with a lolloping, long-legged lurcher called Stanley

Nurse Stanley

I was sick, sick, sick, SICK
my chest was tight and my head was thick
and my neck had a crick
from sleeping on too many pillows
curled up coughing like a wheezy armadillo
until finally I gave up
found my way downstairs and drank a cup
of herbal tea
(with apologies to Paul McCartney)
then sat in the rocking chair to rock
backwards and forwards at four o’clock
in a flannel dressing gown and beanie
all bleary, snotty and steamy
in super-exhausted suspense
waiting for the coughing to recommence
whilst Stanley on the sofa
didn’t lift a paw to come over
and comfort me in my despair
(but then, again – to be fair
if I had a long and luxurious tail
I’d stay away from rocking chairs as well)

primed

Rita stands in the doorway, shifting her slippered weight from side to side in an effort to stop Randolph the dog running out. Randolph is a Jack Russell. Almost completely white, but with splodges of black here and there on his head, as if it was late in the day when they made him and they ran out of paint.

‘Excuse the stickiness in Harry’s room,’ says Rita. ‘Only I spilled his Lucozade and it’s gone all tacky.’

They’re a perfect combination, Rita and Randolph. They could both have stepped out of a painting by Beryl Cook – the cheeky strippergran and her chubby lapdog. Except, you’d need a measure of reinforcement to take Randolph on your lap these days. His delicate legs don’t seem big enough for his hefty body, like someone no-nailsed the legs from a Chippendale desk onto a boiler. The most extraordinary thing about Randolph is his eyes, though. Made of clear blue glass. He stares up at me, and when I bend down to let him sniff my hand, he gives me such a sad and searching look I feel as if I’ve mind-melded with a Vulcan.

‘Harry’s through here,’ says Rita, leading us through the house, along a laminate wood hallway, Randolph’s paws making an emphatic snickering noise as he runs ahead, doing one of those comedy, sideways skids at the turn.

‘Careful!’ says Rita.

Harry is in bed watching the news channel with a frozen expression. Randolph tries unsuccessfully to leap up onto the bed, so Rita gives him a boost. Once he’s made it, Randolph licks Harry’s face, then turns to look up at us, as if to say: There! Ready for you now!

Rita is right about the floor. You have to consciously wrest your foot up from it to stop yourself from permanently sticking. My shoes feel so generously coated I’m tempted to try walking up the walls and across the ceiling – and I would have done it, too, if I could be sure Randolph wouldn’t bark and cause a rumpus.

‘I’ll get some soapy water on that,’ says Rita.

We’re halfway through the assessment when there’s a knock on the door. Randolph launches himself off the bed, crashing against a chest of drawers, then skittering out of the room.
‘Coo-ee!’ sings a woman.
‘That’ll be Joyce,’ says Rita. ‘The first thing she’ll mention is the Amazon boxes. You wait.’

Eventually a leaner and older version of Rita appears in the doorway. She dumps her bags in the hallway, comes into the bedroom to kiss Harry lightly on the forehead, then straightens up again and gives us all a smile-shrug combination that seems designed to say both ‘sorry I’m late’ and ‘isn’t that just like me.’

Then she takes a breath and looks straight at Rita.

‘I see you’ve been online again,’ she says.

Frankie & Rita

If you didn’t know better you’d think Frankie’s wheelchair was a time machine. A particularly down-at-heel version, ruined by food debris, bodily fluids, scorch marks. And if it is, you’d have to think he’d leant too hard on the joystick, because suddenly he’s found himself in a brilliant new flat – a futuristic development, all chrome, glass and sharp corners – without an abusive partner, but with a beautiful dog. And the dog is strangely quiet, with deeply golden eyes and a deeply golden manner. And Frankie is slumped in his chair, as if this last leap has wiped him out, and he needs a good long sleep to catch up.

‘Sorry I didn’t answer your call,’ he says, slowly rousing and raising his chin, hooking aside his great mass of hair, stroking his beard into some kind of shape, his great silver skull rings glinting dully in the overhead spots. ‘Only I was a bit distracted.’

It’s always impossible to know what to do with Frankie. It’s obvious to anyone who deals with him that his problem is drug addiction. Frankie is the kind of user whose entire life has been sacrificed on the altar of altered states. You couldn’t name a drug he hadn’t swallowed, snorted, pumped in his veins or shoved up his rectum. He’s something of an expert in the field, and his destroyed body is his CV.

‘Rita!’ he says, leaning so far out of the chair I can’t help putting a hand out. By some miracle of gravity he stays seated, though. Rita leans up to accept a stroke.

‘She’s a good girl!’ says Frankie, mussing her head a couple of times then flopping back into the chair. ‘She deserves better.’

Rita turns her golden eyes up to me as if to say: You see?

We chat about how our service can help – which isn’t much, it has to be said. The flat is as good and well-adapted as you could wish for. Certainly better than the certified Pit of Hell I saw him in just a couple of years ago. And whilst his drug use is gradually working its magic on the place, still there’s room to move, and you can breathe with a measure of confidence, and there’s light coming in at the window.

‘I want to kick this shit,’ says Frankie. ‘I really do. Ya know? It’s not good for you. But I had that guy from mental health come by the other day, and he sat there, and he said did I want to go on the methadone. And I said to him What? Substitute one drug for another? Why would I wanna do that? I wanna come off the shit completely, ya know? Start over. Get on with my life. So he said Suit yourself. Just like that. And then he sat there, looking round. He was really mean. A mean, horrible, uncaring kinda guy. What’s he doing, being in a job like that? He oughta be caring for people, not judging them and making dumb suggestions. I told him to get out and not come back. But I tell you what, though. I’d LIKE him to come back. ‘Cos if he did I’d put some gloves on. And I’d give HIM some gloves, because I’m a fair-minded kinda guy. And I’d say C’mon on, then! Let’s settle this, man to man! Because I’m not a violent person, y’know? I teach street kids Taekwondo and Jiu Jitsu – but only for self-defence, yeah? Not aggression. And there’s a big difference, my friend. A BIG difference.’

He strokes his beard thoughtfully for a while and seems to fall straight asleep. I can’t imagine how he’d teach martial arts having only one leg. But maybe that was some years ago, before the drugs took over and he lost not just the leg but everything else.

I fuss with Rita whilst the physiotherapist wakes Frankie up to talk about options. Rita is a staffie, solid as a pommel horse, with a fleshy mouth and nipples like tire valves. Her eyes really are the most incredibly warm, extravagantly deep caramel colour. I can’t help staring into them, and blinking slowly, whilst she pants with her big fleshy mouth, and widens her eyes, and draws me in.

It’s an effort to break free.

‘Rita’s lovely!’ I say, eventually standing up again, as the physio writes something in the folder, and Rita curls up by the wheelchair’s footplate. ‘Where did you get her?’

‘Rita?’ says Frankie, orienting himself to me in a blindly approximate way, much like a bear might look to the mouth of the cave in the middle of winter. ‘Dunno mate. She just kinda showed up.’

That’s Stanley

Tarter than a russet or a bramley
More uplifting than a snifter of brandy
Sneakier than the sub in that thriller by Tom Clancy
That’s Stanley

More heroics than a bunch of comics by Stan Lee
Flirtier & dirtier than a cream horn or a fondant fancy
Sassier than a Netflix series featuring Alison Janney
That’s Stanley

Softer than a cashmere pashmina of paisley
Louder and marginally more annoying than the hit musical Annie
Holier and a whole lot hairier than Mahatma Gandhi
That’s Stanley