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!’

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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.’