PICKLE AND CLIVE
When I ponder the question “Who is the best dog you have ever met?” there can only be one answer, and that is Clive. Clive was the best dog I have ever met and when I say this, I say it as a dog myself, so you have to believe that I speak with total confidence and authority. I only met Clive once, which was close to the swings up on Daisy Hill Rec Ground a year or so ago, but when he saw me approaching he dropped his stick and let me have it, then walked away, back over to the bench where his owners were sitting in gossiping ignorance of these significant events happening around them. Clive had realised instantly that I was the superior dog, and it takes a great dog to do that. In fact, it’s arguably the quality I admire most in my fellow dogs.
BELLA AND DOGGINGTON
The road was a short one, which didn’t go anywhere, except to a lamppost, and in summer the children who lived there would play cricket, using the wider, bottom part of the lamppost as a wicket. Edward was shy and new to the road so sometimes watched the cricket from his bedroom window with a vague sense that he should be somehow involved. Just two doors away was a vet’s surgery, which would have been convenient, had Edward and his mum had a pet of their own. Edwards mum told him to always walk on the opposite side of the road to the vet’s on his way to and from school, as many of the people who had been to the vet’s would let their dogs shit on the pavement directly after their visit and neglect to clean it up. Two dogs who never did this were Bella and Doggington, much classier, cleaner dogs who lived further down the street and belonged to a lady in her eighties called Joy. Edward’s mum said old people were often lonely because all of their friends had died and asked Edward to go over and ask Joy if she needed anything, such as potatoes or margarine. Edward didn’t want to go but didn’t have anything to do apart from read the Beano so, avoiding the gaze of the fielders waiting on either side of the street, wandered over and shyly rang the doorbell. It took a long time for anybody to answer and Edward worried that when somebody finally did, it would be a witch or someone who was so hideously old her skin would be frightening to look at. While he waited, two dogs – a black labrador and a dog who was just a dog – emerged from the passage to the left of the house, looking very pleased to have a visitor. By the time Joy reached the door, Edward was already on his back on the lawn, giggling, with Bella on top of him. “Oh, you’ve met Bella,” said Joy. “And that’s Doggington, waiting for his turn. You are welcome to come over and play with them whenever you like.” Through that July and August – two months that would come to seem like at least two whole years, when Edward remembered them later in life – Edward’s mum, wondering where Edward was, would often look out of the upstairs window and see him leaping, running or skipping in happiness in Joy’s garden, chased, or chasing – and often in an embrace with – either one or two equally energetic bundles of fur. As September approached, she became more and more rueful about informing him that the two of them would be moving again, to Jim’s place, ten miles away. The following summer, Edward’s mum, Edward and Jim went camping near Penzance, where Edward seemed withdrawn and quiet, until he made friends with a whippet belonging to a family in an expensive nearby caravan. Jane thought the family were probably racists, but despite this intuition could not bring herself to deny Edward his fun. But Edward noticed it was not quite the same with the whippet. That same summer, Joy’s great niece and her family came over to visit from Australia, and, prior to having his eyes opened to the pluses of lamppost cricket, her great niece’s son spent some time with Bella and Doggington in the garden, but Bella and Doggington noticed that was not the same, either.
I don’t know which is the secret
That I should be most ashamed of
In the all-judging eyes of society
That I go up to the famous churchyard in the evenings
And perch on tombs
Purely to freak out lovers and tourists
And sometimes gallop behind the broken wall
So people are not sure whether my dark, sinewy form is a shadow
Or one of the henchdogs of Lucifer
Raised from the kennels down in the mineshafts of hell
And wonder about it for a long time afterwards
Or that when I come home I sleep in an high-specification furry igloo
And my best friend is a toy frog
And I have never wanted for warmth, food and material comforts
Or that I don’t feel I was born into the right body
And don’t want to be a dog at all
And would prefer to be a horse
You either like me or you don’t, was broadly Jane’s life philosophy, and if you didn’t you could fuck right off, quicksharp. It was an attitude that often drew boisterous, transient approval in the pub and the congratulations of strangers on the Internet but had resulted in few lasting friendships by her 38th winter. Not assisting matters was the fact that this had turned out to be a particularly cold one, the sub-zero temperatures and accelerated dusks perhaps urging her more rashly into her decision that she was finally done, once and for all, with her fellow humans. Seeing the dog outside in the cold, every night, at the big house over the road made it even worse: the snow, then the hail, then the rain, then the snow again falling on his poor little black and white head, where he sat outside the back door, every night, until finally it was too much to bear, and she called the relevant authorities. “See how you like that, you evil bastards,” she said, after she’d hung up. The van arrived the following afternoon and she watched from the window as the two uniformed officers knocked on the door and were let in by one of the two fuckers who owned the house, the woman, a prissy little shit who was always dressed like some 1950s joke, shot her condescending looks in the street from time to time. Daddy’s girl, spoilt from birth, she guessed, a churchy type. About ten minutes later, the officers re-emerged, with the woman’s husband. All three of them were smiling, and the husband, who was wearing a cooking apron and carrying a wooden spatula but looked about as supremely unflustered as anyone could while doing that in a suburban public avenue, waved as their van backed out the drive, as if they were all relatives who’d spent a contented Boxing Day afternoon together. It was here that Jane, in confusion, made her error, watching from the window a little too long and a little too visibly, with the result that the husband, glancing up, caught her gaze for a fraction of a second. She leapt back and froze against the bedroom wall. Soon afterwards she heard a knock at her front door which, after seven minutes, all of which Jane had spent in the pose of a diffident statue, was followed by the gentle tap of the letterbox.
Further investigation revealed a folded piece of A4 paper on the hall floor. On it was the following handwritten message:
“Just to let you know, as you obviously seem concerned: Harry grew up on the Shetland Islands where he and his ancestors always slept outdoors and he finds sleeping inside the house far too hot. He’s perfectly ok on the veranda, and would actually be very unhappy if we tried to make him do anything different. Please do feel free to pop over for a cup of tea some time. We’d be delighted to properly make your acquaintance. Deborah and Benjamin (number 14).”
I lost Ted’s ball. It wasn’t Ted who lost it; it was me. This would have been – holy shit, what? – sixteen years ago now. But I think it’s important to clear everything up, before we finish this messy business called life. It feels good to speak about Ted and his ball, as it’s been like a lead weight around my neck, if I am honest, and I think a world with fewer misunderstandings is always ultimately a better one for everyone. The way it played out was like this: We were by the river – me, Josie, Ted and Phil. Phil had been throwing Ted’s ball for Ted, but then Phil saw Tabby, from yoga. I didn’t know Phil, but I knew he was called Phil, because Tabby called him Phil, and I knew Tabby was called Tabby because Phil called her Tabby, and I knew Ted was called Ted because Phil shouted “Ted!” at him a couple of times, and “Te-dddddy” one other time. While Phil talked To Tabby, Ted – probably not being especially precious about who threw his ball for him – came over and dropped the ball at the feet of Josie and me. “Hi Ted!” I said. “Is that for us? That’s so kind of you.” I then threw Ted’s ball, but I threw with a little more force than I intended and the ball caught the bit of river where the banks briefly narrow and the current picks up, and it was washed away, far downstream, before Ted could get to it. I can still see Ted standing there, watching it disappear forever. His confused, hurt face, the flecks of grey in his chinbeard. At this point, having said goodbye to Tabby and told her he’d maybe pop over soon (“I feel that,” replied Tabby, with a flick of her pink hair), Phil returned. Ted remained by the river bank, looking no less confused or hurt. “Have you lost your ball again, Ted?” said Phil. “You silly, silly dog.” This would have been my point to speak up. But I didn’t. I turned back to Josie, and we continued to discuss what we had been discussing, which was where to buy more wine and whether we’d take the bottle back to hers, or mine. We carried on seeing each other for three more years but I always felt like she looked at me differently after that.
Lucy and Tania had the house which was most geographically central to the friend circle and that was the reason they hosted the parties. That, and the fact they were widely liked, had a laid-back landlord, lots of soft furnishings, were bookended by neighbours who were only too keen to attend the parties themselves, and the house was extremely long and thin. The parties happened approximately every six months over the course of three years, although that statistic felt surprisingly sporadic later on, when people remembered just how much the parties had dominated everyone’s life. Something noteworthy happened at every party and every party was great, until the last one, which didn’t really function or flow through the long thin space like the others. The next morning nobody could really put their finger on quite what was wrong with the final party, as nothing awful happened at it, but nobody felt quite the same after it, and it was generally agreed at a later date that the root of the problem was that it was the first of the parties not to be attended by Booboo, who was a Jack Russell.
So we’re at the recording studio and I’m thinking two things, the first of which is no, and the second is please don’t. But they have these really comfy sofas, and there’s a steel bowl filled with water on the floor, which is a cute, unexpected touch, so I keep my trap shut and bite my massive tongue. He’s in there about five hours in total, if you discount piss breaks – his, and mine – and him periodically checking I’m ok (Oh I’m FINE, just curled up here, happily, on this soft elephant cord, witnessing you leave a candle burning next to the dried flower basket of our future!). That’s just day one of, like, seventeen or something, and I’m not even going to detail the hourly rate here, because it would make you shit like a Great Dane on liquorice. Of course, the space is totally soundproof, but I know what’s going on in there. I’ve been subjected to it enough times before: in the car, in the bathroom, in the kitchen while he cooks up my nightly slop, one time even in the queue for the cash machine (cringe!). If I was trying to be generous, I might say it’s just a matter of time, and practice, and the problem here is solely that he’s being premature. Doing something for 20 hours a week for ten years: that’s what they say talent is, right? But I am not so sure that counts for everyone. And I don’t much fancy nine and a half more years of this. Yet the truth is, I can deal with it, when it’s just a hobby, can even deal with the terrible caterwauling, the drum machine, the desperately unoriginal samples and quarter-played guitar. Things are ok. The flat is kind of cramped, and there’s damp in the bathroom, and ideally I’d like a garden to sniff around in, and some female company in my life, human if not canine, but we get by ok, the two of us. He gets to take me with him to work at the gatehouse every day, where I get to sit under his desk while he keeps an eye on CCTV, which I know is not a daily amount of owner access that is to be taken for granted in the grand scheme of being a dog, and we aren’t broke, not quite. But this. This is unacceptable. I see the bank statements, and this is suicide.
He’s out now, and he’s all grins. Big, American grins, to fit the increasingly American patterns of his speech. They all speak that way now, his bunch. I’ve even caught myself doing it. “Lot of work still to do, big guy, long road ahead but I am pretty sure I nailed it,” he singsays. “Sweeeeeet. Gimme five.” What am I supposed to say? The truth, which is that he doesn’t need a recording contract; he needs an intervention? I’m not that cruel. So I offer a paw then trot behind him to the hatchback. On the way home he puts the album on – the one he always puts on when he’s in on one of his highs, which he convinces himself he’s singing in perfect harmony with, but only because he has it on so loud he can’t hear his own voice. “Yeah boiiii!” he shouts, and punches the steering wheel. It’s not the sunniest day, but it’s August in the city, where you can add another four or five degrees for the pollution, and I put my head out of the window, letting the hot wind drown my face and fan away the noise, fan away the delusion of it all, the embarrassing gap between self-perception and reality. A few pedestrians point at me and smile, and I guess it must look like some kind of celebration: the pumping bass, the open windows, the grinning dog whizzing by, enjoying the summer air. But what they don’t know is that, behind that big TV advert grin of mine, my soul is black as burnt toast.
I am sorry I killed the sheep. Actually, I didn’t kill the sheep. The cliff, and the fact that it is very steep and high with lots of sharp bits, killed the sheep, but also I know my actions were directly responsible for the cliff killing the sheep, and I am genuinely sorry for that. It haunts my dreams, and has troubled me enormously for each of the six wretched days since it happened, even though you might not know it, from the enthusiasm with which I still run around with my tongue out and indiscriminately chase paraphernalia that you throw for me. Take a good look at my face. You’ll see my smile looks out of place.
In the early days, when we walked along the coast, you used to joke to friends about that famous scene early on in Far From The Madding Crowd, with the sheep, and the dog, and the gun. I’d be bounding ahead of you, in pursuit of some wool on legs, but what I’d be actually thinking was “Put me on the lead, for the love of god, woman!” You are a naturally warm, funny person, Jean, and everyone likes you because of it, but life is cruel. Life is not a joke, Jean. I assume you know that, if you’ve read Hardy. And now here we are, with the brutal facts of the matter. I am just glad the farmer was so forgiving. A small mercy.
I’m just going to come out and say it: I’m a wolf. That’s what’s going on here, underneath all the trimmings, including that ridiculous red jacket and hat you put me in last winter. It’s still there, despite what you and others like you have been doing to change me for centuries. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not blaming you personally. You don’t even watch Crufts. You’re one of the good ones. But I live a life full of duality, full of complex emotions, weighed down with expectations, and that’s hard. It’s got harder recently. There are certain standards you have to conform to, but there is also the science, the genetic facts, and the ‘Other Poppy’ that you don’t know, perhaps because I don’t permit you to know her, but now you have seen a glimpse of her. I am currently finding that harder than ever.
So I have decided this is the end of the line, for me.
Don’t worry: I’m not going to do anything silly. There’s a lot to live for. But I am going to leave, as I think that will be better for both of us.
Ok. I’m back. I changed my mind, because I’m really hungry. But know, from the bottom of my compromised wolf heart, that I am sorry.
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My next book will be published by Unbound early next year.