Chapter 15: Stanley, Queen of Egypt

Too doggone hot – Water shortages – Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra – sleepy foals – An exciting new movie about a Poacher and his Lurcher – Are you the farmer? – One man and his gigantic hound

Heatwave. Except – it goes on so long it’s not so much a wave as a full-on, thermal flood, transforming the country from a chilly European outpost to a hard, blue Mediterranean wannabe. And of course, the trouble is, because we’re mostly used to shivering indoors in our coats, or tapping snails from our wellies, or bailing out river water with saucepans, we’re not really set up for it. The endless torrents that fell over winter disappear overnight. The taps start to run thin, and you suddenly you find yourself queuing at the local football ground to score a few bottles of water.

It’s so hot, we can only walk Stanley early in the morning. He runs around for about five minutes then spends the rest of the time dowsing for springs. His ludicrous white fur coat must be a burden, but he’s very fashion conscious and refuses to strip down to his furry undies like the rest of us. When we get back, Kath puts a wet tea towel over his head and takes a picture, holding it up against one of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. And I have to say, there’s a definite likeness. Although on balance I think Liz beats Stan by a nose.

Mostly he spends his time sprawled out flat in front of the fan, or under a tree in the garden, or on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor, panting steadily and determinedly with a noise like a woodsman sawing logs. We keep his water bowl topped up. He struggles, but puts on a brave face, exactly like Cleopatra, smiling mysteriously from her basket as she watches the pyramids go up in the garden.

And like Stan, the Hole in the Hedge gang are hot and sleepy, too. They’ve had a few foals (I’m too stupid with heat to Google the collective noun – a ninny? a cuteness?) and although sometimes they chase and kick each other to no great purpose, and generally leap about, sneaking up on their parents round the blackberry thickets, most of the time they’re stretched out on their sides, flicking their tails at a constant bothering of flies.

Stan ignores them – which is progress. Not so long ago he’d have looked at them with alarm, barking like they were monstrous creatures with iron paws who’d been spawned from the very earth (I have to say I agree with him on that one). Now, he yawns and carries on, pulling on the lead, keen to get into the next field, which is much more secure, free of horses, and just right for a mad and uncoordinated long-legged lurcher to throw himself around in.

He does his usual thing, which is a combination of sniffing, running, jogging, jumping, leaping, nosing about, standing still with ears lifted, standing still with leg lifted, and original combinations of the above. We thought at first he’d be an awesome rabbiter. Although I have to admit much of that was based on how he looked. I mean, if I was casting a film about a poacher and his dog (set in the early nineteenth century, where the poacher gets tricked into joining the British army, and finds himself fighting in the Peninsular War, where his poaching skills come in very handy, but he gets wounded, and thrown in prison, and he’s pretty much had it, when a mysterious old woman charms the guards and bribes them with pawful of hard biscuits, and they let her in to tend to the wounded, and then she throws off her shawls, and it’s the lurcher, who gives a disgusting cough and vomits up the key he lifted off the guards, and they all escape, and after many adventures – none of which involving horses – end up back in the old Sussex pub they started out from, struggling to make a living selling rabbit skins and old blogposts) – well, then, I’m confident Stanley would get a callback. I don’t think his rabbiting skills are all that, though. When he sees one he freezes, and only runs after it when he’s confident it’s made it at least halfway down the hole.

Whether it’s the heat, or whether it’s the excellent training we’ve been putting him through, courtesy of Adina, I don’t know, but this time on the walk Stanley seems remarkably calm and well-behaved. He doesn’t bark at the horses. He comes back when I call. He notes the presence of another dog on the other side of the field but doesn’t launch himself over there. All-in-all, he’s pretty damned good.

I see one of the regular walkers the far side of the main field. It’s a guy I try to keep clear of, to be honest. An elderly guy, a farmer type, squashed down firmly into his boots by the flat of his cap. The kind of farmer who lost his license for unspecified misdemeanors. Who has a Suzuki Jimny with a pheasant feather on the dash and a bumper sticker that says: Keep your bullshit in Westminster. He’s got a pack of Jack Russells that he seems, by the sound of it, to hate. They’re a torment to him. You can hear him cursing at them as he blunders through the kissing gate. You’d think to hear him he was leading a pack of hyenas. Actually, they seem pretty good (from a distance). They trot ahead of him, happily sniffing around, enjoying the early morning air whilst he curses and growls behind them. Once I saw him throw his walking stick in their direction – which seemed pointless, because it only made them trot further on ahead, and meant he had to go and pick up his stick, which didn’t improve his mood any. The point is, Stanley didn’t even respond to them, which is a miracle out of scriptures.

The most miraculous moment comes a little later, though. We’re halfway through the twitten – a nerve-stretching alleyway at the end of the walk – because once you’re committed to it, there’s no turning back. We’re approaching the main road. Suddenly, a man walks past with the most enormous dog I’ve ever seen. I’d say Munsterlander but I’m not sure that’s even a thing. It’s big anyway, bigger than the horses, bigger than the man, and certainly bigger than Stanley. I reach for the treat bag, my heart dropping because I know only a dart from a ranger at the wildlife park could stop Stanley barking now. He doesn’t, though. All that happens is his mouth drops open, his eyes widen and he tenses up. But he doesn’t make a sound.

‘Morning!’ says the man, striding on.

‘Morning!’ I say.

‘Lovely day!’ he says.

‘Hot!’ I say.

And that’s it. They’re gone.

Stan gives himself a little shake. I’m so shocked I eat the dog treat I’d taken out of the bag.

‘Come on, Stan,’ I say, screwing up my face.

And holding his tail in neutral, happy alignment, he follows.

Chapter 12: The Hole-in-the-Hedge gang

A horse called Onion, or something – A simple hack across the moor – Butch C. & Co. – The Wild Bunch – Stanley & why foals like him – Bushwhacked (again)

paw print

 

I don’t understand horses.

Not that I’m particularly good with dogs (as this diary proves), but horses? I can’t read them. I certainly can’t RIDE them. I got up on one, once. A narcoleptic piece of furniture called Onion or Blanche or Rasputin or something. Anyway, it was enormous and old and sprouting with hair, so lacking in enthusiasm you could have offered it a carrot the size of an oak tree and it would’ve curled its lip – something it seemed to do a lot, exposing teeth so horribly blockish and yellow the only thing I could imagine it eating was a bucket of hardcore. I did my best to be friendly, reaching out to stroke the nozzle or whatever it’s called and say encouraging things, but it just turned and stared at me as if I was just the latest damned thing to walk in the yard. All this happened a few years ago and I’m not quite sure but I think I was lowered onto it by crane. We set off for a hack across Dartmoor. Not the most comfortable ride, like throwing your leg over a chest of drawers with a piece of string to guide it. Every few steps Onion would stop to tear at some meagre clumps of grass by the side of the lane. The grass was terrible. He knew it. I knew it. He was only doing it to make a point. And anyway, he probably thought there was a good chance I might slide off into a ravine, and he’d be led back to the paddock to make room for the emergency services. I held on, though, my knees up by ears, hip bones snapping like an old pretzel. I was determined not to be beaten and somehow made it to the end of the ride. But he had the last laugh. When we got back to the farm I had to be dragged off sideways. I could only walk by wobbling from side to side like a model cowboy, with a fixed, plastic grin of pleasure.

All this is to say that, like Stanley, I was wary of the Hole-in-the-Hedge gang.

No-one seems to know who owns the horses that live in the fields to the north-east of the village. I’ve certainly never seen anybody tending them. (Is that what you do with horses? Tend?) No horse boxes or bales of hay. No vets striding across the field in white coats and green wellies, waving big syringes. (Seriously – I’ve no idea). There used to be a group of three adults. Two completely brown, one a sort of unfinished brown and white. The brown and white one was the leader. For the sake of argument, let’s call him Butch Cassidy. Butch would step out from behind a tree and come right up to you, giving a peremptory nod of his head, as if to say Hands Up before he frisked you for treats. The others always hung back a little, sniggering and nudging each other, in that psycho-subordinate way you often see in cliché gangs of this nature.

Recently there have been some younger additions to the gang. A couple of frisky teenage horses on legs they’ve improvised out of clothes props and bed springs. Let’s call them The Wild Bunch. They seem to spend their time either horsing around or lying in stupefied heaps. You have to admire their commitment, if nothing else. When The Wild Bunch are crazy, they’re completely crazy, leaping and kicking and chasing each other in circles like teenagers in stolen cars pulling doughnuts in a supermarket car park.

Their favourite thing, though, is sneaking up on Stanley.

Maybe they just want Stanley in their gang. They like his anti-establishment stance, his wild, apocalyptic, who-gives-a-damn look. A punk hybrid of sheep, goat and cartoon wolf. They probably see gunslinger potential in his lope.

Whatever the reason, whenever we walk over those fields, and however far away The Wild Bunch happen to be when we go through the gate, they always look up, and then disappear, and then suddenly reappear, lunging enthusiastically out of a thicket, or swinging in on ropes, ears and nostrils flaring, hooves flexing provocatively over their holsters.

Stanley always barks, of course. Not anything extended. More like swearing. And I really can’t blame him, because I’m swearing, too. But there’s not much to be done but walk on calmly as if being bushwhacked by a couple of psychopathic foals is perfectly routine and normal and nothing to worry about and oh, look! A treat!

And we run smack dab into Butch, who’s planted himself further along the path.
It was all a distraction. We fell for it, goddamn it.
Butch gives me the nod.
‘You, there! The guy with the Mad Max kinda sheep!’ he seems to say. ‘Stop right where you are and turn out your pockets.’

Horses, eh?horses

 

head to head

‘Shall I take my shoes off?’
‘No! Why? Why would you take your shoes off?’
‘I don’t know. It’s what I’d do at home…’
‘Are you at home?’
‘No.’
‘Is it raining outside?’
‘No.’
‘Then leave your shoes on and stop making such a fuss.’
‘Okay.’
Masha turns round in the narrow hallway and shuffles ahead of me down the hallway. I feel uneasy, like I’m being led into a cave by a ferocious old bear I’ve accidentally woken from hibernation.
‘Where shall I sit?’ I ask her, stepping into a bright and clinically tidy room.
‘Not in my chair!’ she says. ‘The sofa – perhaps.’
I put my bags down, take my jacket off.
‘There!’ I say. ‘That’s better!’
Masha sits on the edge of her armchair. She’d be an extraordinary figure in any circumstance – her hair dyed a rich, autumnal red and swept back off her head into something like a horn; her face slack and mournful – but illuminated as she is by the sunlight sparkling in through the window behind her, she seems hardly real at all, more like a brilliant, cartoon illustration from an article about a lonely clown. She reaches for a box of tissues, takes one out and starts folding it on her lap, over and over and over, into a tight little pad. I half expect her to reach for a pair of scissors, make a few adept snips, and unfold it to reveal a chain-word. грустный, perhaps. несчастье
‘How are you today?’ I say, throwing my hands wide, smiling as warmly as I can.
‘How do you think I am?’ she says. ‘Terrible. I am terrible.’
‘Oh! I’m very sorry to hear that.’
‘You’re sorry. Everyone is sorry. But no-one does a thing to help. So I am left here on my own, with nowhere to go, and nothing to do.’
And now I learn what the pad is for. She starts to cry – not an open sobbing so much as a discreet overflow of tears, oozing out through the myriad folds of her face, like her sadness was a water table of misfortune, high after a particularly long and inclement season.

Masha has a chronic condition that surgery hasn’t helped. She’s been in and out of hospital over the past few years, enduring several interventions that haven’t worked. This would be hard enough in itself, but the way Masha describes her experiences, it’s difficult to resist the feeling that her rather blunt way of talking has only made things worse.

‘…. an Asian consultant, he appeared at the bottom of the bed with a nurse, and he talked and talked without looking at me once, and at the end of all this nonsense he said Does that answer your question? So I said no it does not answer my question. I did not understand a single word you said. And I looked at the nurse, and she just clamped her mouth shut, like this… and shook her head from side to side, like this… and then they both went away. Later on I could hear them all talking about me in the office, because my bed was at the end of the ward. When the nurse passed my bed again I called her over. I told her I heard everything she said, and how she was a disgrace to her profession, and if I was in charge she could be sure I would throw her out, and good riddance. And she cried then, and everyone made a big fuss about it, but I’m not afraid of saying when something is wrong. Like yesterday, when I telephoned the hospital to find out why I had been forgotten, and the woman who answered the phone, she asked me what my problem was, and I told her I would not talk to her about it because what was she? A doctor? No – she was a silly little taker of messages who had no business asking intimate questions about someone’s health. And please would she fetch a manager, because I would not be spoken to in such a manner….’

And all the while Masha talks, she punctuates her sentences with a little dab of the tissue to the end of her nose.

She talks at great length. Her tone is curiously unsettling – self-assertive to the point of hostile, but with the occasional upward inflection that’s pitiful, almost childlike. She lists all the dreadful things that have happened to her, from rude reception staff and patronising community nurses to incompetent paramedics.

‘My sister said to me before I came to this country, she said Masha? You will find yourself in trouble over there. But I have never been afraid to speak the truth. I will not dress a thing up just so that people can feel okay.’

Masha pulls a fresh tissue from the box, and I take advantage of the pause to ask if she has any family nearby. She nods to a framed photo on the sideboard. It’s a photo of a young woman, forehead to forehead with a horse. On the left of the picture is the enormous eye of the horse; on the right, the young woman, her eyes closed, her left hand pressed affectionately to the angle of the horse’s jaw.

‘My niece, perhaps,’ says Masha, smoothing out the tissue on her lap and starting to fold it as meticulously as the first. ‘But she is busy.’

a shaggy nag story

Everyone’s got at least one story about everything.

Take horses. I don’t know the first thing about horses. Okay, maybe a few things.

– Where you might want to put the bit
– Horses are measured in hands, for some reason.
– One aspect about them is called the hock (I’m guessing the feet, but I’m not going to google it, for comedy value)
– Don’t be tempted to buy a spavined horse, even if it’s really, really cheap
– A horse whisperer is someone who can make a horse lie down without putting them to sleep (which would be a vet).

Other than that, I’m clueless. Except – I have one story about horses I can trot out if I have to. It goes like this:

I was persuaded to go on a cross-country hack once. On Dartmoor. Because I was a novice they gave me a sedate old nag called Onions. We started off down a road, then a country lane, then veered off along a dried-up river bed, and on into some woods. And the thing that impressed me more than anything was how steady and sure-footed Onions was. There was nowhere she couldn’t go, one hoof in front of the other, hour after hour, her head bobbing up and down, utterly relentless. And I thought: This would be the perfect off-road vehicle – if it wasn’t so fucking uncomfortable.

(That is actually the pay-off. I know. Sorry. Now you know why I don’t get invited out much).

And the point of all this is – earlier today I interacted with a bunch of horses.

(Is that what you do? Interact with horses? Maybe if you’re an alien masquerading as a human, nervous you’re being watched, trying to act natural. Still – too late. That’s exactly what I did. I interacted).

IMG_6027What happened was, I’d taken Lola for her morning walk. Not the usual spot – a place I stopped going to a while back for no real reason I can think of. I’d met these particular horses before (nailing the I only have one story about horses lie, right there). I knew they were inquisitive – downright nosey, actually – were good with dogs, basically safe, so far as I could tell, although there was no way I’d ever be persuaded to walk at the kicking end, which is basically north and south. I was excited to see that the dew pond at the top of the field was full of water. I’d only ever seen it like that once before, and now that I was into taking pictures, I could see there might be some interesting tree-reflection shots to be had. The dew pond is where the horses hang out, though. Mostly. They have a tumbledown shelter way the other side of the field, but I can’t tell you much about that. I can’t even tell you who owns the horses. Maybe no-one. Maybe they’re a bunch of horse outlaws – or horselaws – and now that I think that I can never go there again.

IMG_5982Still – this morning I was prepared to take my chances. I slid down the bank of the pond and was busy taking pictures when I noticed the horses emerging from the gloom and heading straight for me. As usual they were led by the solidly built piebald who seemed to be the leader, the others tagging along behind in a shiftless kind of way, looking like they’d rather be anything other than a horse. I didn’t want to get nosed into the water, so I climbed back up the bank to meet them. I thought bowing my head and holding my hand out would be the sensible thing to do. They’d see I had humility, respect, and allow me to journey on peacefully through their realm. The piebald was pretty dismissive, though. She sniffed my hand – seemed aggrieved there was nothing in it – nosed my arm to the side and went straight for the pockets, maybe thinking I’d simply forgotten to take out whatever deliciousness I had to be carrying, or why else would I be there? It was like being patted-down by a weary cop, and a little unnerving. Trying to stay calm, I decided to retreat, walking as neutrally as I could to the nearest gate. The horses all followed me in a line, the piebald in front – natch – the others behind. I said some bland and vaguely placatory stuff, like good girl and thank you for escorting me to the gate…. any moment expecting to be beaten to the ground and hooved into a horrifying mash that some other dog walker would come across, and scream, and bite their knuckle, and all the crows in IMG_6002the elm would fly up, the piebald grinning maliciously from the tumbledown shelter way the other side of the field. I made the gate in one piece, though, and braver once the other side of it, offered my hand again by way of apology. The piebald let me ruffle her awful mane some, then as if that wasn’t enough, began rubbing her enormous skull on the post that stood between us, I suppose to emphasise how big and ornery her skull was, that she could knock this post down and get to me if she wanted, and to please bear all this in mind if ever I dared to think I could visit the dew pond with nothing more interesting to offer than a dog and an iPhone 5s.

So there. That’s my new horse story.

Needs some work.

But at least this time I got some pictures.

sig