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

puppy to man

mum had kids when she shoulda had dogs
which makes such perfect sense because
it totally fits how she is and was

a fit of adult distemper? maybe
but every dog she ever had was a baby
and every baby a dog she fussed like crazy

you can take a baby and a dog for a walk
but a dog only barks whilst a baby soon talks
and that’s where the strolls in the park start to fork

at the risk of sounding a little judgemental
instead of taking the road marked parental
she shoulda just followed the signs to the kennel

but the clock ticks on, enough’s enough
the kids were fed and watered and loved
(so we looked our best when she showed us at Crufts)

here to help

It’s a cliche that dogs look like their owners. But whilst I wouldn’t say it was true, even someone as cynical as me would have to admit that Ralph the Shih Tzu is a dead spit for his owner, Robert. They have the same overhanging mullet, the same bug-eyes, the same extravagantly friendly, panting smile – to the extent that if I picked up this squeaky banana toy and threw it across the room, I’m not sure which one of them would get there first.

‘So what happens now?’ says Robert, sitting on the edge of his chair, whilst Ralph plumps himself down at my feet so I can scraggle his ears.

Robert’s mum is entering the final stages of her illness. The district nurses are organising the End of Life nursing care, and they’ve referred to us for additional care support and any extra equipment that might need providing at short notice.

I explain exactly what it is we can offer, how the system works, what’s going to happen next. Robert writes notes on the front page of the folder I’ve given him. There’s a lot to process – mostly how the teams come together, who does what and so on. It’s taken me a few years to figure it out, so I’m not surprised Robert struggles to understand. I try to simplify it to the basics – what time the carers will come in, what they’ll do.

‘I’m grateful for anything,’ says Robert. Ralph swipes at my leg with a paw. I scraggle his ears some more. His back leg begins to twitch.

‘He’s lovely,’ I say.
‘I rescued him,’ says Robert.
‘From the pound?’
‘From the neighbours next door but one. I think the kids wanted a dog, but then went off the idea. Poor thing. He never got a walk. They used to go out all the time and leave him behind a baby gate in the kitchen. I went round one day to help them with their fridge, and I felt sorry for him. So I said do you want me to take him for a stretch round the block? And they said if you like. So I did, and it became a regular thing. We just kind of clicked. He came and stayed with me for a week when they went on holiday. I didn’t hear from them when they got back, and when I went round and said what about Ralph then? And they said you may as well keep him. So I did.’
‘He landed on his paws.’
‘I think so. We both did. Didn’t we, Ralph? Eh?’
Ralph gives him a glance, then puts a paw out, taps my leg, and bows his head ready.

how Stanley howls

how Stanley howls
and growls
with a vexing mix of vocal vowels
and frowns, and scowls
till your patience is broken and your sympathy aroused
and you ask him what all the fuss is for
and you go over there and muss his fur
and he rolls on his back like a fuss connoisseur
all four paws in the air
and you despair
and with one last ruffle you leave him there
and he sneezes and stares
and watches you sit back down in your chair
waits a couple of minutes and then
the whole damned performance starts over again

Stanley v.2

I made a new Stanley from the recycling
basically just experimenting
with everything and anything

his head was a cracked plastic funnel
a baked bean can for a muzzle
his ears a pair of raggedy flannels

for his eyes I used two diet coke tops
his legs were four old floor mops
his claws quartered rubber door stops

his body was a novelty cushion
wires to work every facial expression
a bark from a bootleg jazz session

it turned out better than I anticipated
I hoped he might’ve celebrated
but Stanley growled at the creature I’d created

dog tempest

Be not afeard; the lurcher is full of noises,
a hundred twangling voices
that sound as if they should mean something
but do not
or if they did the dog hath long forgot
as he wakes with a sneeze and a start
and a mournful howl that would break’st thy heart
and rolls about the rug a lot
and his floppy ears begin to swot
with shaggy, importunate paws
and oft time roars
when those grievous and galumphing claws
wrought more damage than he witteth
whereupon he forthwith doth quitteth
to lie in attitudes of bleak despair
in a forlorn heap at the top of the stairs
and moans, and sighs
and everyone’s patience tries
and makes them curse that moment when
they adopted a lurcher from the rescue pen
as he dreams o’ the walk he had last weekend
and wakes, and cries to dream again