The kindness of strangers

We have all read, heard or (God forbid) been on the receiving end of the unsolicited opinions of people we don’t know. Friends speak of strangers criticising their parenting, language and propensity to smile, and every woman has many a horrible story about a rude man on a bus, a building site or driving a white van, yelling out what his boner thinks of our clothes, body or willingness to engage in some kind of sexual act. Last year, for example, a man told me to ‘cheer up’ on my way to the station. I said, ‘I’m going to my father’s funeral. Good day, sir.’[1]

Good day sir
The Hound does not like to be interrupted when deciding which rock to rescue from the incoming tide

Today, the woman next to me on the train (who hadn’t reserved a seat) was challenged by another woman under the impression that it was her seat (it wasn’t; she was in the wrong carriage). Starting at polite and moving through icily civil into something more glacial and yet still perfectly within the bounds of normal verbal intercourse, they stood, one in the aisle, one semi-crouched over the seat like a water-skier, and argued all the way to Reading about whose seat it was. Given that neither had the seat number on her ticket and there were plenty of other empty seats, the whole thing was highly unnecessary, but somehow backing down in the face of a stranger was unacceptable to them both. Are strangers terrifying, rude and unpredictable, or, as per a cushion in the window of my local florist, ‘friends you haven’t met yet’? What is the etiquette (if any) of such encounters? How does one challenge questionable behaviour[2] appropriately, without becoming the man that told my friend Other Proofreader she was a bad parent because she wouldn’t let her toddlers play with a flock of crazed geese? Should we all just keep our opinions to ourselves, or are there times when interacting with people we don’t know is desirable or necessary? Here are some encounters with strangers that readers might like to chew over.

Indestructible

A few weeks ago, while waiting for a train, I noticed a man sitting on a bench finish his coffee and put the disposable cup (a cup that will live for a thousand years and therefore is anything but ‘disposable’) back on the bench. Then he got up and took out his ’phone, his business with the Captain Scarlet of cups concluded. My paternal grandmother liked to hand litter to the litterer, saying ‘I’m sure you didn’t mean to drop this’ or similar, but there are things a kind-looking old lady can get away with that I simply can’t. Once, my grandmother (accompanied by me and my brother, both under the age of ten at the time) did this to a skinhead on the Metro. He said he was very sorry, tucked his Twix wrapper into his leather jacket and they reminisced about the local swimming baths for the rest of the trip.

Choose Your Own Adventure

On a boiling hot day last summer, a woman got onto my (very crowded) train home with a small child, and sat opposite me. The small child ate a biscuit with reasonable competence, and then asked her mother whether it was time to get off the train yet. Her mother explained patiently that they had to go four stops. The child considered this and asked if she could have another biscuit to pass the time; she could, provided she didn’t make too much mess. Could she read her book too? She could, provided she didn’t get crumbs between the pages or ‘annoy the lady opposite’ (me; it was a large book that took up much of the table). The small child then wedged herself happily by the window, took up as much of the table as she liked, ate her biscuit and, muttering to herself, read her book (upside down, but perhaps Julio Cortazar[3] has written a book for children that can be read that way). As the mother caught my eye to check I wasn’t bothered by her daughter reading (very much the opposite), I said quietly, ‘she’s ever so well-behaved for such a little one. Well done.’ Her mother responded by bursting into tears. She then apologised profusely and told me that, earlier that day they had been visiting her sister in hospital and a man she didn’t know had marched across the ward to tell her that, in his expert opinion, her daughter was eating so loudly that it was upsetting whoever it was he was there to visit, and furthermore children shouldn’t be allowed in hospitals (except when they are terminally ill, presumably). The poor woman was so upset by this piece of rudeness that she had been ‘in a state’ all day. ‘Angry, or upset?’ I said. She thought for a moment and said, ‘angry. I’d like to see him eat a packet of Quavers quietly.’

Julia Roberts Saves The Day With Her Face

I had been teaching in Nanjing (see Notes from Nanjing).[4] The work was done, and I had travelled back to Shanghai on an afternoon train, in plenty of time to catch my flight home the following morning. I was supposed to be met at the station by somebody called Tabitha, who would then chaperone me and all my stuff back to the hotel. It was a typical Chinese afternoon: very hot, humidity hovering around 80% so that the air appears to have both flavour and texture (neither pleasant), and hordes of people in all directions, all busy and with somewhere to go. This was in the days before I owned a mobile ’phone, so I did as instructed and, balanced precariously on my suitcase, waited for Tabitha to arrive.

Tabitha did not arrive. After ten minutes, I did a quick inventory of my situation. Yes, I was definitely at the right station; yes, I was at the right entrance; yes, I was visible with my bright red suitcase and bright white skin; no, I did not have any Chinese money left (my metro ticket to the airport the following day was already purchased and tucked into my passport); no, I did not have any bottled water or food; and yes, I was exhausted from teaching twelve hours per day for ten days straight. Predictably, after nearly forty minutes of the heat and humidity, I fell off my suitcase in a dead faint onto the concrete.

I was revived by an elderly Chinese man carefully flicking water onto my face. He turned out to be manning the little drinks kiosk by the station entrance, and the water in question came from one of the bottles he had probably expected to sell. He spoke no English and although the Mandarin words for ‘hello’ and ‘thankyou’ are among the few words I know in that language, he turned out to speak another dialect (I assume Shanghainese). Thus, we communicated entirely in sign language, while simultaneously speaking aloud in our respective languages. He expressed concern that I had hit my head (I hadn’t, but I had cut my hand badly on the concrete); I explained this and he responded by tenderly rinsing my hand and wrapping it in a paper napkin. I expressed gratitude (gratitude! Entirely inadequate), and he patted my good hand, while indicating that I should look in the pocket of my dress. This turned out to contain my passport, with the train ticket to the airport still sticking out of it, which I had been clutching convulsively. We parted the best of friends, my hand bleeding quietly through the damp napkin onto another (unopened) bottle of water that he simply insisted I take. Having had a drink and a sit down, of course I realised that I was perfectly capable of remembering the route to the hotel, without Tabitha and with all my luggage, navigating by the enormous poster of Julia Roberts that was helpfully positioned on an important junction. The walk took maybe twenty minutes; on arrival in the hotel, my hand was disinfected and bandaged by one of the hotel staff, while yet another anonymous benefactor carried my case (he was a guest in the hotel; the bellboys were preoccupied with an enormous party of enormous Americans). This delightful man, who again spoke neither English nor Mandarin, disappeared at the door of my room where I was receiving first aid from the receptionist, reappearing a few moments later with a plastic cup of ice-cubes to reduce the swelling. Again, my thanks were conveyed through much gesturing, smiling and pressing of (sore) hands, since the bilingual receptionist also didn’t speak his dialect.

Don’t Be Afraid To Try Again

Contrast this thoughtful, selfless behaviour with a final incident, again in Shanghai. On my first night in the hotel, I woke from a fitful, jetlagged doze to the unmistakable sounds of enthusiastic sexual congress. It was so loud that I thought at first they must be rutting against the door of my room. I opened the door to find an empty corridor, and my colleague (who was in an adjacent room) standing in her own doorway, similarly pissed and discombobulated. Raising our voices above the shrieking, we debated which of the doors opposite we should bang on (with our fists) so that we could ask them in our best loud, slow English to shut the fuck up. There were two doors opposite, mirroring our own. Which room would the housekeeping staff be picking their way through in disbelief the following morning? It was impossible to tell.[5] Pressing our ears to the doors was a. gross and b. uninformative. While the room that did not contain our shouty friends could easily have been empty, the possibility of waking some other poor soul at 2am, particularly if s/he had up until that moment been successfully sleeping through the row, and particularly if s/he did not speak English, seemed unacceptable. What on earth were they doing to each other? There were certainly points when the gentleman seemed to be in considerable pain[6] and others when the sounds suggested they were literally eating each other.[7] Having said that, we ruled out all forms of oral sex , since both their mouths were still very much available for being yelled out of, although some more muffled noises suggested that, as Billy Joel has it, everyone goes south every now and then. Happily, while we were discussing the matter, some sort of conclusion was reached by at least one of the invisible couple, so hurray for everyone and we can all have a little sleep now.

The next night, however, this performance repeated itself. What a performance it was: the whole thing was carried out at a volume that generously included the entire floor in the glory that was their love. These deafening exclamations did not constitute clever conversation, but rather the universal language of grunts, groans and, on some occasions, bat-like squeaks that threatened to burst the eardrums. No information likely to surprise the interlocutor was being conveyed. Moreover, there was simply no need for them to yell at the top of their lungs for each other’s benefit: this was entirely for us, their public. My experience of jetlag is that the first night one just can’t sleep and it is foolish to try; the third night is hell on a stick; but on the second night, I am usually so tired that I sleep straight through. Not on this occasion, though, thanks to Mr and Mrs Shrieky McFuck across the corridor. The following morning, exhausted and grim, I complained at the reception desk. I explained that I didn’t know which room the noise was coming from, but that I had narrowed it down to two. Could the hotel staff make enquiries? They said they would, but it often happens in China that staff are much happier to say they will do a thing than to actually do a thing. The third night I was so tired that I slept through the screaming heebie-jeebies, although my poor colleague assured me over a breakfast that yes, there had definitely been some.

On our last day in the hotel, we queued to check out, bags piled around us, worn out from a long and trying week, but carefree in our waistband-less dresses for the flight home and slightly giddy at the idea of seeing our respective husbands again. Other guests stood about in a disorganised gaggle (the Chinese simply have no idea how to queue). Then, a perfectly ordinary-looking couple in their early thirties were called forward to the desk, and as they dragged their luggage forward, the woman banged her suitcase painfully against her ankle. Ah! she exclaimed, in a voice we knew. What to do? Without any of the relevant words in Mandarin at our command (sleep, deprivation, bastards and dear God sprang to mind), we could do nothing but glare at these hated strangers with a single malevolent eye until they folded themselves into a taxi and left. There wasn’t even a passing streetcar to push them under.

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[1] I was actually going to work and my father fully intends to live well into his nineties, but fuck that guy and his ‘arrange your face so that it is acceptable to me’ bullshit.

[2] For example, shortly after the Brexit referendum, I was forced to intervene in an altercation between three racist Welshmen and a teenage girl (of heritage that I guess was Indian). This was on a train in the middle of Somerset, on a Wednesday afternoon, for fuck’s sake, and in the circumstances I felt justified in being as rude as I’ve ever been to a group of strangers.

[3] I refer to Cortazar’s hyper-novel Hopscotch, which consists of numbered sections rather than paragraphs, and can be read in a number of different configurations. It’s basically a choose-your-own-adventure book that is also Proper Literature.

[4] See also any of my many China-related posts by clicking on ‘China’ in the word cloud or in the list of categories.

[5] Not because the doors had knockers that always told the truth or always lied, but because these people were simply so loud that the doors became irrelevant.

[6] Perhaps he was having a heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack?

[7] It all depends upon your appetite.

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Swear on the Heron

Recently, I bought a Sting album. In my defence, I’ve never pretended to have taste when it comes to popular music (see The uncharitable goat) and I don’t intend to apologise for this now. The album is Soul Cages, which is about the death of his father, and exactly what I wanted to listen to when my grandfather died in April (see Fatherlike He tends and spares us / All our fears and hopes He knows); moreover, Mad About You and All This Time are, whatever you might think of Sting and his works, bloody brilliant songs. Even so: Sting, for fuck’s sake. In recent times I have also developed a distressing interest in gardening, bought an extra-large handbag, and woken my husband up to rub my back, make me a hot-water bottle and then stuff it (the hot-water bottle) down my pyjamas. In short, I am entering the foothills of middle-age.

This is the not the disaster it may at first appear. Firstly, I’m married to a much younger man, which certainly takes the sting (<pounding of desk>) out of ageing. I was asked to present at a careers event at the university last year, alongside another freelancer, and when I was asked the obligatory ‘but what about your pension?’ question, I responded smugly that I was married to my pension.[1] Secondly, there is no rule that says middle age has to involve elasticated waists, twinsets or pearls. Nothing will induce me to dress as the fashion industry suggests middle-aged women should: a few months ago I bought a skirt in a print called something like Bugger Me, It’s The Circus, which is bright green with pink animals and acrobats all over it, and which I’m intending to wear with something unapologetically unsuitable. Owning the Hound, however, has forced me to make another sartorial choice that is unequivocally middle-aged, and which I’m still sad about: I own an anorak. It’s the same colour as a cagoule my mother used to wear to muck out the ducks, and I look depressingly like her in it. An anorak is terribly practical for dog-walking purposes: there are two capacious pockets more than large enough to take a poo-in-a-bag, and the Hound can be whisked into one’s arms away from the slavering jaws of other dogs without fear of ruining one’s arms and/or clothes. Nevertheless, the bloody thing is an anorak deep in its soul: shapeless, crackly and covered in zips. I wore it every day throughout the winter to walk the Hound, and now autumn is upon us with its mists and drizzle, the Mumnorak Returns.

Of course, the only people that see me in my Mumnorak are those that think the nature reserve is the place to be at 8am on a weekday with a one-eyed dog (see Dearer than Eyesight), and most of them are wearing horrible outerwear of their own and/or shouting ineffectually at their own dogs. I’ve noticed a distressing tendency to massively underestimate how responsive dogs are to commands. The Hound cannot be trusted off the lead, so he stays on it at all times. Other dogs that pay no mind whatever to their owners, however, are allowed to roam around freely.[2] The Hound also isn’t good with strangers and frequently attempts to perform a citizen’s arrest on various dishevelled persons passed on our morning walks. They are usually walking swiftly and stiffly, smelling powerfully of drugs, and such is the civic pride of the Hound that he cannot help but seize them by the trouser. He also can’t be trusted when we are alone: if I take my eye off him for a moment, he hurls himself, toddler-like, into either filth or mortal peril (or, most excitingly, both).[3] For example, we recently encountered a man walking through the nature reserve yelling about crystals, or so it seemed. It turned out that he wasn’t a drug addict at all (or if he is, crystal meth isn’t his thing); rather, he was looking for his wife’s chihuahua.[4] When I asked him to describe her, he replied, ‘she’s called Crystal, and she’s wearing a pink diamante collar. She’s just finished being in heat.’ While I tried to say something (anything) other than, ‘right, but what’s the dog like?’, the Hound cavorted cheerfully in a cowpat. On the way home, we met an Alsatian that looked at him in a funny way, so of course by the time we got back to the house, both our respective coats were covered in shit. His went under the tap and then in the washing machine, but the Mumnorak is so hateful that I didn’t even bother to brush it down.

I think the fact that I continue to hate the Mumnorak shows that I haven’t completely accepted my fate as a middle-aged woman, and yet the last twelve months have included another, even more portentous sign of impending senility: I have become a bird-watcher. The nature reserve in which the Hound and I take our daily constitutional is an extraordinary place. I have found the following things lurking in the hedge along the towpath: a dead rat; a dead skateboard; condoms, various; an empty box of chocolates (who eats Milk Tray by a canal?); and a selection of increasingly bizarre graffiti, my favourite of which reads simply ‘MALORY?’ (a difficult evening for the local Arthurian legend reading group, we can only assume). The nature reserve consists of a number of large, flood-prone fields with a brook running through them, various stagnant ditches bridged by narrow, slippery planks, and two tiny strips of green either side of the towpath. It is neither large nor unusual, and yet it holds an enormous amount of birdlife. I’m not doing anything clever involving hides, camouflage or bird-calls to see any of these animals; I don’t even own a pair of binoculars. I just walk with the Hound from our house to the nature reserve and around whichever bit seems to have fewer dogs and/or cows in it, and use my eyes. There are the usual suspects that one might expect to see on a tow-path (see Tales from the canal-bank) i.e. ducks, moorhens, pigeons and blackbirds. However, I’ve also seen two teeny-tiny male wrens fighting in mid-air, squeaking ferociously and trying to peck each other’s eyes out; many an encounter with kingfishers, either skimming along the water or doing little stretchy kneebends on twigs; umbrella-like herons; a Greater Spotted woodpecker banging his head against a tree; hunting kestrels; a jay and a green woodpecker taking turns to laugh at each other; and any number of sparrows, dunnocks, bluetits, wagtails and goldfinches.

So far, so middle-aged. Barring the waterfowl, I could probably achieve much the same list by hanging a couple of bird feeders in the garden and sitting still for a bit, except that there is also a hawk. Wait – did I say a hawk? There is a pair of hawks. There is a pair of hawks, with a nest, which I found, where they made a baby hawk. I say ‘hawk’ because they look superficially like buzzards, but the behaviour (hunting pigeons on the wing), territory (marshy fields)[5] and size difference are all wrong. I simply refer to the whole family as The Bird, and then disambiguate (‘I saw the Bird today. It was Her/Him/The Baby’). They are easily distinguished: He is chocolate brown, with a wingspan just under three feet. The Baby is much the same size and colour as Him, but flies like an idiot, wailing and perching forlornly in trees in the hope that the non-existent bunnies will shin up the trunk, tear themselves into shreds and press themselves into his beak.

68.Him
Him, January 2017

Female raptors are almost always larger than their mates, but the size differential here does my heart good: She must be at least half as big again as He is. She could bring down a gazelle. She could eat Him for breakfast, and I’m pretty sure she ate poor little Crystal. She is massive.

68.Her.jpg
Her (right, peeking coyly around a branch) and Him (left).

The only birds larger than Her on the nature reserve are the herons, stalking about like two pairs of chopsticks (one for the legs, one for the beak), and I’m living for the day when the Bird finally gets around to reading The King’s General and decides the herons are mocking Her with their disgracefully large wingspans, and might make an exciting meal.[6] The story that Robert of Artois insulted Edward III by serving him a roasted heron, as a way of insinuating that Edward was reluctant to invade France because he was a wet (rather than because, you know, France is huge and it might start the Hundred Years’ War) relies on the idea that herons are inherently timid.[7] Beaks prevent birds from expressing emotion with their faces, and yet herons manage to convey both sheepishness (‘sorry to be standing here in the canal again. I don’t know what to tell you’) and a powerful sense of menace (‘yes, I will be eating a live frog in just a moment!’).

The Hound has a vendetta against all birds of all sizes (except the Bird, presumably because he thinks She is a light aircraft). The reader will recall my earlier assertion that the Hound cannot be trusted, and here we come to the heart of the matter. This morning, as we were traversing one of the aforementioned narrow and slippery plank bridges that span the (surprisingly deep) ditches in the nature reserve, the Hound spotted a heron, about six feet away from us, standing quietly in the water. There was a tiny moment of stillness in which the heron, nonplussed by the Hound appearing above him on the bridge, looked both baffled and embarrassed. Then he unfolded himself and lurched into the air, flying right over our heads back towards the field we had just left. The Hound, who is an idiot, borked furiously, banged his eyeless side against me, borked some more, tangled his lead around my legs and skittered off the plank, thus pulling both of us straight into the ditch. I say ‘ditch’, but that suggests something relatively modest in size: it was five feet of filthy, duckweed-y water. The Hound scrambled out on his own, unimpeded by the lead and barely wet, whereas the only part of me that escaped was my right hand (I held the lead above the water heroically, like The Lady in the Really Dirty Lake). By some miracle, both keys and glasses were still on my person when I clambered out (the same couldn’t be said for my dignity); I hadn’t taken my phone; and it wasn’t actually the middle of a thunderstorm or a powercut. Otherwise, things were pretty bad: this bridge is the turning-around point on our favourite stick-gathering route i.e. about three miles from home. We walked it just as we were, wet through, squelching and foul. On arriving home, I had to prop my wellies upside down to drain by the front door, strip off everything in the porch and wash and feed the Hound before I could even make a start on getting myself clean, warm and dry. I literally picked duckweed out of my eyes, teeth, ears and bra. I have washed my hair three times, showered, bathed and cleaned my fingernails, but my arm still smells faintly of stagnant water. My new dungarees are ruined, and the not-at-all-hateful raincoat that I bought specifically to replace the Mumnorak, and which was carrying a full cargo of poo-in-a-bag at the time, will never be the same again. Much like Edward III, I swore on the heron.

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[1] Does your pension cuddle you and tell you how much fun you are? Thought not.

[2] Exhibit A: the massive fucking Doberman the Hound scared the crap out of in the first three weeks we had him. The damned thing cantered out of the mist like a black-and-tan one-headed Cerberus, the size of a pony and its owner nowhere to be seen. I picked the Hound up, which of course merely raised him to nose-level of this monster dog. Upon being sniffed, the Hound jack-knifed in my arms, caught the Doberman savagely by the ear and worried at it furiously, growling deep in his throat. The poor Doberman, surprised and horrified, yelped, ripped his ear out of Peco’s savage jaws and cantered back from whence it came, while the Hound borked triumphantly (‘and STAY out!’) and wagged his tail.

[3] Exhibit B: last week, while I gathered winter fu-u-el, Peco thought a swim (in a ditch, in September, while wearing his clean coat) might be fun. Little did I know this was merely the overture to today’s shenanigans.

[4] Remember when we used to say ‘chichihuahua’? Whatever happened to that?

[5] Other than pigeons, which must take an enormous amount of energy to catch and pluck, what the fuck are they eating? The ground is too wet for rabbits, and the kestrels eat all the small mammals. There are plenty of ducks that could be caught and eaten, but the preponderance of dog-walkers means that they spend their entire lives on the water, so unless the Bird snatches them right out of the canal, I don’t see how. Similarly, seagulls and rooks abound, but they mob the Bird whenever they can, and their (more vulnerable) nests only have delicious Bird-food chicks in them for a few weeks of the year. There are no other large predators (foxes, badgers) that might leave carcasses for them to pick at, and no lambs or other farm animals that might make suitable meals. They built the nest slowly and laboriously, so there must be food in the area. Pheasants? Cats? Unwary cyclists? I have so many questions.

[6] ‘[…] out of the darkening sky fell the dying heron and the blood-bespattered falcon, straight into the yawning crevice that opened out before me. I heard Richard shout, and a thousand voices singing in my ears as I fell.’ Daphne du Maurier, The King’s General (London: Arrow Books, 1946), p. 54.

[7] The teenage Edward is supposed to have sworn a vow on the heron that he would, in fact, pursue his claim to the throne in France (hence Jean Plaidy’s book The Vow on the Heron), which just goes to show that nothing good comes from encounters with herons.

 

 

 

‘Dearer than eye-sight’

 

Right now, I’m supposed to be starting an MA in crime fiction.[1] I say ‘supposed to be’ because we’ve had to spend my MA Savings Pot on the Hound (see Dog Days and Nothing but a Hound Dog), who has been an unwilling participant in a very slow and unnecessarily realistic folk production of King Lear. I offer an account of his recent medical issues as a partial explanation for both my lack of MA-starting and the fact that I haven’t posted anything on the blog since the general election.

I am terribly squeamish about bad things happening to my eyes, and the eyes of those I love. The scene in Quantum of Solace where the guy has his eyes poked out just before his neck is broken was (just about) short enough that the wave of nausea wasn’t enough to make me actually throw up; the subsequent neck-breaking was an act of mercy for both him and me. When I was a student, I skipped the Dept. trip to see Oedipus Rex because I thought there was a good chance I’d reintroduce everyone to my lunch, if not prompted by the sight of eyeless Oedipus itself then certainly by anticipation of the same. Any production of King Lear (other than the one going on in the Oval Office right now, of course, which doesn’t induce nausea so much as despair)[2] forces me to remind myself that it’s not real; it says something for the power of the suspension of disbelief that this is necessary. Recently, I was proofreading a thesis about ‘in yer face’ theatre, a nihilistic modern genre that includes graphic depictions of sex and violence. Most of the seminal (fnar fnar) works were, unsurprisingly, written in the 1990s, and the thesis included a long and detailed analysis of, among other things, at least one character being blinded: his eyes are literally sucked out of his head by another character. You’d think a vacuum cleaner would be a useful capitalist symbol to reach for here, but no: he uses his mouth, like those Greek fishermen that bite octopodes in the brain.[3] I’m a professional, so I read it and marked it up, including correcting the horrible word ‘enucleation’, which is the technical medical term for removing an eye.[4] Having marked it up, I then had to go and have a little lie down and think about something (anything) else.

Knowing somehow that he would be enacting my greatest fear (apart from sharks, but fuck sharks for now. No doubt they’ll get their turn, the toothy bastards), the Hound developed a bulgy eye. It wasn’t clear for several weeks what the problem was, but in the meantime he got bulgier and bulgier, until his eye was right outside the skull, held in by nothing more than two very stretched eyelids and hope. Remember Delacroix’s death in The Green Mile when he goes into the electric chair and his eyes pop out of his head on strings? It was like that, but as if the botched execution happened to Mr. Jingles (i.e. someone who didn’t in any way deserve it), in slow motion and (mercifully) without the burning smell. At one point, under the impression that our numerous trips to the vet were for some other purpose, the Hound put his paw on my knee and simply held his blind, swollen eye out to me, as if to say, I mean, look at this thing. It’s fucked. DO SOMETHING.

July 1st
‘This dog’s eye is possessed. Please send £2 a month.’

He must have been in terrible pain, and according to the vet, likely to have been suffering from nasal and auditory hallucinations from the pressure on his brain and his sinuses; certainly he spent a lot of time barking, apparently at Pain itself. After exhaustive testing and a load of dental work (his teeth were also popping out of his head. Rats leaving a sinking ship), it emerged that he had some form of growth in what is called the ‘cone’ i.e. the space immediately behind the eyeball. The eyeball has a number of blood vessels strung off the back of it, rather like one of those 1970s plant-pot-holder thingies people used to hang in their stairwells. The blood vessels form a cone; at the point of the cone they meet the optic nerve, which then joins the optic nerve from the other eye in a y-shape, and off we all go to the brain. It was, therefore, impossible to remove the Thing without also removing his right eye: the two things were simply too deeply bound up in each other.

The Hound’s Thing (I’m not saying ‘tumour’ because it turned out not to be cancer, and I think the reader might feel the word ‘tumour’ implied that it *was* cancerous) was not the potato-shaped blob one might imagine, but a gnarly, sprawling, many-limbed affair. Moreover, it was growing so fast that his good eye (the left) was starting to turn inwards as the optic nerve reached the limits of its flexibility. Having removed both Thing and eye, the vet described it as ‘crunchy’ and noted that at least three (but probably seven) of the twelve teeth the Hound had lost in the preceding weeks had become loose because the Thing had grown down into the top of his gums and literally pushed them out by the roots, from the inside. It had then inserted a tentacle into each hole to allow it to go on growing: during the enucleation operation, each tendril had to be physically manipulated back up into the skull before the whole Thing could be removed from the Hound’s skull, through his eye socket. When my (amazing, patient) parents-in-law and I went to collect him, the Hound was noticeably lighter than the previous day. ‘He’s lost weight’, I commented to the veterinary nurse. ‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘He’s lost about 500g [8% of his body weight, dear reader]. That’s partly because he’s missed several meals so we can operate, partly because he threw up his dinner, and partly because the tumour weighed nearly 300g.’ The vet confirmed this, saying that if he had scrunched the nasty Thing into a ball, it would have been nearly the size of a satsuma i.e. only slightly smaller than the Hound’s entire brain. ‘It was so astonishing when I finally got it out that I was going to take a photograph and email it to you. Then I realised it would give you nightmares,’ the vet observed. He’s not wrong.

Peco (or Pequod, as I sometimes call him now that he looks even more like a pirate) has bounced back from the whole ordeal magnificently. He only walks into things now and again, and has become comically bad at judging distances; like all dogs, having fallen down or tripped over nothing, he immediately behaves as if no such thing just happened and cheerfully goes on with whatever he was doing. He is also asks for cuddles far more readily. This includes being picked up and (very slowly, so that he doesn’t get dizzy) waltzed around the room, ideally to I Only Have Eye(s) For You, by the end of which he has usually dozed off. One of the vets we took him to advised us to have him put down ‘because he won’t have much of a life with one eye’, clearly not understanding how completely spoilt this dog is (also, the Hound had just bitten him savagely on the hand). The Hound sleeps in our bed, washes in our bath (which he adores, especially if you spray the shower-head right into his tiny face) and sits on our sofa. He goes on holiday with us; we pick up his poo; and I spend more time with him than with any other living creature. This evening, his dinner was giblets fried in butter, following by all the stringy bits of the roast chicken too good for the stock, all of which he ate at great speed and with little grunts of satisfaction. He is one-eyed, velvety and very contented. We could not love him more.


[1] It’s this one (the only such MA in the country). I know, right? The most (academic kind of) fun ever. Fun With Essays, if you will.

[2] I’m not even joking. Did you know Trump literally makes his aides go around the room and say something nice about him before they start meetings? Come, which of you shall we say doth love us most?

[3] Octopuses would be fine: octopus is a Greek word extracted into English and thus is both English and Greek in some sense. We can, therefore, form the plural according to either language, but personally I think English plurals on Greek words are ugly, and thus prefer ‘octopodes’. ‘Octopi’ is just a piece of pseudo-learned nonsense and should not be used in any circumstances: it’s a Latin plural that assumes ‘octopus’ must be a Latin word because octo is common to both languages. Here’s a nice lady from Mirriam-Webster to back me up.

[4] My customer had, rather touchingly, spelt it ‘enucleartion’, which I feel out to be the term for removing an extraneous eye that one only has from being exposed to large amounts of radiation, like the many-eyed fish in Springfield.

Nothing but a Hound Dog

I love beginnings. In particular, I love the beginnings of books. The opening lines of almost any book tell you something worth knowing about the rest of it: done well, they are fascinating, tantalizing little grace notes that set you up beautifully for the rest of the book, just as an amuse-bouche sets one up for a delicious meal. Of course there are famously compelling opening lines such as those from The Go-Between,[1] Anna Karenina,[2] Pride and Prejudice[3] and so on, but wonderful beginnings are everywhere. My own personal favourite is found in Tom Robbins’s bonkers novel (is it a novel? It’s certainly writing) Still Life With Woodpecker. This book sprang into the world in the same year as I did, and begins thus: ‘If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done.’[4]

Non-fiction has much to offer here too. The Austrian animal behaviourist Konrad Lorenz opens his book Man Meets Dog with a quotation from William Cowper’s ‘The Winter Walk at Noon’ and the following intriguing sentence: ‘Today for breakfast I ate some fried bread and sausage.’ Of course this immediately calls to mind sausages themselves, both real and literary (see W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Since’, as featured in Joining the Dots), but setting meat products aside, ‘Today for breakfast I ate some fried bread and sausage’ is a brilliant opening line, with no obvious connection to Lorenz’s chosen subject (‘the relationship between men and their domestic pets’, according to the back cover) and sets a charmingly familiar tone, even in translation. Lorenz goes on as follows:

Both the sausage and the lard came from a pig that I used to know as a dear little piglet. Once that stage was over, to save my conscience from conflict, I meticulously avoided any further acquaintance with that pig […] Morally it is much worse to wring the neck of a tame goose which approaches one confidently to take food from one’s hand than it is, at the expense of some physical effort and a great deal of patience, to shoot a wild goose which is fully conscious of its danger and, moreover, has a good chance of eluding it.[5]

Similarly, the Tiny Book Hound, Giant Bear and I are doing our best to set the right tone at the beginning of our relationship (see Dog Days). It’s a steep learning curve for all of us: the Hound has eight years of another owner’s priorities, smells and commands to unlearn (plus two confusing weeks in the shelter), and Giant Bear and I have never owned a pet together, although we both grew up with dogs (and lots of other creatures, in my case). Rescue dogs also bring their own unique challenges. The Hound is frightened of loud noises and towels, hates having his lead put on or his feet cleaned, and refuses to sleep in his basket at night. His ideal resting place is nestled against me on my pillow, where I can be conveniently and unexpectedly licked in the face at 3am, but we have compromised on pretty much anywhere else on or in the bed. Occasionally, this means finding teeny-tiny paw-prints on the sheets (‘Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic Tiny Hound!’). He doesn’t smell, sheds very little and snores less than Giant Bear, and is thus a perfectly acceptable bedtime companion, but we both wonder how he will cope with (for example) being on the boat (see Tales from the canal-bank), where he will have to wear his harness at all times, the engine is deafening and the bed is four feet off the ground.

Meanwhile, we all continue to learn about each other, including the following Important Lessons from the last three weeks of dog ownership.

  1. The Hound is the only person in the house not that bothered about food.

I think he eats his breakfast and dinner mainly to please us. He likes cheese, and he likes liver treats, and he likes warm shreds of roast chicken, but I’m using the word ‘likes’ to convey the lukewarm nature of such feelings. When we eat our own dinner, he sits on a chair or a lap, but this is so he can see what we’re doing: our food may be inches from his nose, but he’s not interested in eating it.

 2. The Hound doesn’t like me to attempt anything without his supervision.

As previously mentioned (see all my innards-related posts), I have chronic bowel disease as a legacy of work-related stress, and work from my lovely little blue office at home the majority of the time, which has what amounts to an en suite. I’m hesitant to declare myself expert at anything, but taking a shit is something I can do without assistance. The Hound has other ideas, however: if I shut him out, he barks and claws at the door; if I leave the door open, he sits as close to my feet as he can, gazing trustingly into my face with an expression of great concern and occasionally sneezing in what I assume he thinks is a supportive fashion.

3. After three weeks with us, he is already better behaved than the dogs next door.

The Hound is allowed to bark at the dogs next door, provided he stops when asked. Bearing in mind that when he feels threatened by a bigger dog, the Hound forgets entirely how frightening he finds (say) agricultural noises on the Archers and clearly thinks he is a tiger that could rip the throat out of a Doberman, we have decided that barking at other dogs is a normal behavioural whatnot, allowing him to defend both us and his territory. Once I have hauled him away from growling and scrabbling at the ground when meeting a larger dog on our morning walk, he swaggers off, tail wagging and still barking threats at nothing, to show me what a big brave dog he is: woe betide a stick if he comes upon it in such a mood. The dogs next door are only slightly bigger than him, but in his mind they are the enemy at the gate (plus, I fucking hate the dogs next door. If ever dogs deserved to be barked at, these are they). If they start barking while I’m working in the office, I’ve discovered that opening the window (which is low enough that he can get his front paws up on the sill to see and sniff outside) and allowing him to bark out of it (so to speak) works a treat. When I’ve had enough, I shut the window, congratulate him on some excellent barking and the vanquishing of his enemies, and he goes back to his basket in triumph. It’s harder in the garden when only a flimsy fence separates them, but even here we have breakthroughs, as yesterday afternoon showed:

Dogs next door: Yap yap yap!
Hound: Bork bork bork!
Dogs next door : YAP YAP YAP we’re so fucking annoying YAP YAP YAP!
Woman next door: Be quiet, Shithose! Bad dog! Fuckweasel! FUCKWEASEL! NO![6]
Dogs next door: YAP YAP YAP! Yappity-yap!
Hound (don’t talk back): BORK BORK BORK!
Woman next door: Bad dogs!
Dogs next door: YAP YAP YAP!
Hound: BORK BORK BORK why don’t you dig a hole, crawl under the fence, come over here and say that? BORK BORK BORK!
Me: That’s enough, Hound.
Hound <immediately stops barking; ignores dogs next door who continue to yap and snarl and hurl themselves against the fence; gives me his ‘I’m the best dog in the world’ grin; and calmly asks to be let back into the house, where I reward him with a liver treat the size of his face>

 4. No amount of poo bags is ever enough.

The Hound is tiny, even for a Jack Russell; in fact, he’s so tiny that we think he might actually be something called a Russell Terrier instead (essentially, a miniature Jack Russell). How is it, then, that he can produce his own bodyweight in poo on a daily basis? Last week I congratulated myself on my foresight in taking two poo bags on our morning walk, and sure enough there were two poos. This morning, I took two poo bags even though he had done a massive knee-trembler[7] before we left the house. More prepared than a Boy Scout, we wrestled briefly over the lead and set off towards the tow-path; I was even thinking that he might not poo at all on our walk (or indeed ever again), so gargantuan was his first offering. Gentle reader, there were three further poos. The Hound is currently sleeping in his basket, a withered husk. So Kam die Literacystrumpet auf den Hound.

———————————————————–

[1] I think it goes something like ‘The past is a foreign country: it takes ages to get there and the food isn’t as good as you remember.’

[2] ‘Happy families are boring, which is why everyone in this book makes terrible choices and ends up sad and alone.’

[3] ‘A man in possession of an unfeasibly large amount of money and a massive house (but no job) simply must get married, because otherwise he might spend his money on billiard tables, waistcoats and moustache wax and really what are women even for otherwise?’

[4] Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker: A Sort of a Love Story (London: Corgi, 1980), p.9.

[5] Konrad Lorenz, Man Meets Dog (London: Penguin, 1980. Translated by Marjorie Kerr Wilson), pp.9-10. The book was originally published in German as So Kam der Mensch auf den Hund and features delightful Thurber-esque illustrations by both Annie Eisenmenger and the author.

[6] Giant Bear says we agreed to refer to Fuckweasel as Piss-for-Brains, but potato potato.

[7] Frank McCourt coined this expression in Angela’s Ashes to describe his parents having sex against a wall, but I make no apologies for reusing it here. If one is stupid enough to speculate about one’s parents having sex in print, one has to take the consequences.

Dog Days

Even though it is only an hour from home, Bath is our weekend away destination of choice. We like to stay in the same hotel, visit our favourite restaurants, and cycle through the various bookshops in what we agree is the optimal order. We finish with Topping & Company, which describes itself (entirely accurately) as ‘a haven for book-lovers’. There are shelves that go all the way to the ceiling, complete with library staircases. There are little nooks and crannies where one can enjoy one’s free cup of tea entirely surrounded by books. There is a large, impressive and constantly changing natural history section, which I am gradually transferring to our house one book at a time. It is a magical, life-enhancing and (for us) life-changing place, because on one of our trips, a member of staff at Topping & Co. brought her teeny-tiny Jack Russell to work. The dog’s name was Lettice; she let me play fetch with her for a good ten minutes; and she is the original Tiny Book Hound. Here is what has happened since then in our quest to acquire a hound of our own.

An indeterminate number of days leading up to Sunday. We are agreed that we’d like to get a Tiny Book Hound of our own (I try ‘Small Questing Beast’, but even in the privacy of my head this doesn’t catch on). We have a lot to offer a dog, we reason: there is the garden, full of exciting smells and insects; there is the fact that as a freelance I am home almost all day, almost every day; there are my morning walks, which always feel a bit silly without a dog; there is Giant Bear’s ability to charm any small dog simply by picking it up and rubbing its tummy (they usually fall asleep); there the dogs next door to hate and bark at; and there are trips on the boat, surely the most fun an adventurous dog could ask for (although see Tales from the canal-bank).

It’s emotionally draining just looking at the pictures and descriptions on the internet. Because of the nature of rescue animals, there are rarely more than two decent pictures and very few actual details about the dogs, all of whom seem to have irritatingly whimsical names (Trixie, Smudge, Buster etc.); I’ve given all the dogs pseudonyms so as not to embarrass or identify the shelter, but also because the names they have right now are objectively horrible. Some shelters provide little videos of the dogs running fetchingly across a field (i.e. they look good doing it, and also are probably actually fetching something), with emotive piano music in the background. I keep waiting for one of the dogs to lift its leg as the music swells into a key-change (that’s the dog for us, I think), but none of them do.

Sunday. Resolved to get a small, garden- and boat-friendly dog (i.e. one that can be lifted into the boat and/or whisked out of the canal with ease), we also agree that we don’t want to house-train a puppy, and we can’t afford an old dog with health problems. We drive to the shelter. The kennels are large, the volunteers lovely and the dogs exactly as you expect: a mishmash of breeds, ages and circumstances. They all represent a person who has let them down in one way or another and I am embarrassed by how open and eager they are when one crouches in front of their kennel: they trot up, sniffing, ears up, ready to fall in love all over again. It is both humbling and horrible.[1]

There is a huge black Newfoundland flopped in the shade like a discarded rug. There are two collies, bright eyed and bushy-tailed, with curtains over the front of their kennels to stop them barking (I find this out the hard way). There is a black terrier I’m going to call Springs, a tiny thing able to leap up almost to my eye level, straight up in the air like a jump jet. There are two of the dogs we picked out on the website. One I’m going to call Fig because she’s small and dark, about half the size she looked in her picture, friendly and big-eyed, but Not Our Dog (and reserved by someone else). The other is a very clearly a Very Large Dog in a very small body, and jolly cross about the whole thing. He needs an over-sized name like Jupiter, and he barks his Big Dog bark (I’ve no idea how he’s making that sound; it must take enormous amounts of energy) and jumps and hurls himself against the wire and eventually we give up trying to soothe him and move on.

Then there are two dogs we like immediately, in adjacent kennels. One is a puppy. One is clearly much older (we think at least ten; he turns out to be eight and to have lived with a smoker). We decide we don’t care and ask to meet both of them. Both are lovely, but (of course) we like the older one, about whom the shelter has no information whatever because he arrived twenty minutes before we did. The puppy is handsome, floppy of ear and large of paw, but he isn’t our Tiny Book Hound. The other one is. Tiny Book Hound is a Jack Russell, black-and-white like a cow, and with a black patch over either eye like an absent-minded pirate. He has absurd ginger eyebrows, terrible smokers’ teeth, a tail far too big for his body, and the obligatory stupid name. And we love him. We take him into the garden with one of the volunteers, and he jumps up at Giant Bear, and I see the exact moment when Giant Bear decides this is our dog. Tiny Book Hound romps around the garden like a much younger dog, front legs stiff like a piglet, barking incessantly in his whisky voice and pausing only to do numerous wees and then an almighty, leg-trembling poo. The dogs nextdoor to us at home (see Curtain-twitching) bark constantly, including in the middle of the night and whenever I have a deadline, and I loathe them for it. The barking of the other dogs at the shelter sets my teeth on edge; Springs has a yap that pierces my head like a knitting needle; Jupiter is deafening. How is it, then, that the thing I like most about Tiny Book Hound is his hoarse pensioner bark? It reminds us both of a radio play we heard on the way back from the boat (see Tales from the canal-bank), featuring an elderly gentleman with dementia who was able to think perfectly clearly, but struggled to say much more than ‘Perry Como!’ and ‘Belgium!’ We say ‘Perry Como!’ and ‘Belgium!’ to each other; the dog barks more urgently (‘Yes! Exactly! BELGIUM! BELGIUM!’). We go back to reception and are asked which dogs we have met. The puppy, and the old one with the terrible teeth, we say. Oh, the puppy! they say. What a popular boy he is today! Isn’t he adorable? Isn’t he handsome? Yes, we say. We’d like the other one, please.

Monday. Drove for an hour to get to the shelter in order to walk the Tiny Book Hound and fill out the paperwork to adopt him; twice on the way there, I catch myself humming the only Perry Como song I know all the words to.[2] Tiny Book Hound can’t be walked because he’s too unsettled and needs to spend as much time as possible in his kennel, so I try not to be disappointed that I’ve given up my entire afternoon for two long drives in the rain and no walk, and talk soothingly to him through the bars. He barks his lovely bark (‘Belgium! BELGIUM!’), wags his whole rear end and shows me his appalling teeth. I think he remembers me and is pleased to see me again (possibly because he thinks this means he’s going in the garden, but who cares), but he is cranky, dashing back and forth in his kennel and barking at nothing. I try to take a photograph of him through the bars to show the rest of the family, but the results are so depressing (bars, confused hound) that I delete them all.

I am told that he is in disgrace after growling at the vet this morning. The shelter lady says she thinks an anal thermometer might have been involved. ‘Don’t blame him, myself,’ she says, pursing her lips in what I take to be an (unconscious) imitation of a dog’s bottom. I say, ‘I love this dog. Tell me what I have to do to take him home with me.’ I fill out a three-page form and answer questions about our experience of dog-ownership and try to look and sound responsible on behalf of both of us. They agree that he’s a good fit for us and are thrilled to have someone take an interest in him so quickly: ‘The old ones can be hard to shift’, I’m told, which just breaks my heart. While I’m filling out our form, a fourteen-year-old cat is brought in (a ‘lifer’ according to the reception lady), who is being handed in by a widower because his wife used to feed the cat and he can’t cope. While I’m struggling with the idea of how miserable a person has to be to feel unable to open a tin every two days, I notice that Tiny Book Hound is listed on the board in reception with an even sillier name than before. The reception lady agrees it’s a stupid name that doesn’t suit him, and agrees we can change it provided we keep the vowel sounds the same. ‘What about Chico?’ she says. This is not an improvement, and we agree later that our first act as his new owners will be to change his name to something that doesn’t make him sound like a Mexican popstar. It’s such a stupid name that the shelter people – people who deal with dogs called Buddy and Sparkle and Taco every day – are bamboozled by it, and this iteration on the board is the third variation we’ve seen. I learn more about him, including that his previous owner died of something smoking-related, and that he (Tiny Book Hound) doesn’t like dog treats. ‘We’re trying him out on a load of different ones, but so far he hates them all’, I’m told. Much like me with the other children at nursery. What a discerning hound.

The volunteer I’m with explains to me why I can’t take him out for a walk, and I’m crouching in front of his kennel, listening to what she’s saying about the vet and whether the dog needs a chest x-ray; and then, while she’s in the middle of a sentence, Tiny Book Hound stops barking, puts his ears back and gives me a look that just says mate, let’s get out of here. I totally fit in your handbag. Honestly, I almost stuffed him under my arm and ran.


[1] The shelter reminds me slightly of a row of pigsties (who knows: it might have been converted from pigsties into dogsties), and therefore of this thought from Robert Fulghum, who doesn’t care for dogs:

The best feeling I ever had about dogs came in a primitive Akah village in the mountains of northern Thailand. The Akah keep dogs like we keep pigs and chickens. They treat their cattle as useful working companions, give them names, and would never, ever think of eating one. But they eat dogs. They are not pets – dogs are simply food. There are other ways to look at dogs.

No kidding. Robert Fulghum, It was on fire when I lay down on it (New York, Villard Books, 1989), p.25.

[2] Glendora is a desperately creepy song about a man who falls in love with a shop-window mannequin, including the last verse in which he stands helplessly in an alley-way while Glendora is dismembered by the shop staff: ‘She lost her wig, she lost her arms / And when they got through she lost all of her charms / Oh, Glendora! What did they do to you?’ I’ve also heard a version in which he rescues her various parts from a bin, declaring ‘I’ve got my girl, I’ve got some glue / We’ll be together when I get through / Oh, Glendora! I’m gonna restore-a you!’ They don’t write ’em like that anymore.