We had dogs when I was a boy. The first one was a Collie I went stealing with. We used to go to the village shop in Snitterfield before I was even two and help ourselves to the things laid out on the lower shelves. We were firm but fair – if we had to reach for things we didn’t eat them. If we didn’t then we did, on the spot. It was a simple strategy and effective as only simple strategies with limited objectives tend to be.
Later in Gillingham (the Dorset one, thankfully) there was a labrador I have no memory of whatsoever. Where there should be a dog there isn’t even a dog-shaped hole through my memory, like the ones on the Tom and Jerry cartoons. There isn’t. It’s just blank. Lots of that time is. I don’t know if there was a dog when we moved to Southwick. There was a cat, but it ran off, we were told. I don’t think it did. The main road at the end of our road killed all kinds of things, dogs, cats, chickens and people, at least twice in the time I lived there, the road carpeted with Maltesers one morning after a lorry crashed.
Then there was a dog. It was the time of the Dulux dog. Because my father was a lying fantasist we got a Pyrenean Mountain dog, the same as the one on Belle and Sebastian, before the name was synonymous with Millenial yawn-pop. And that was a weird TV show if anything was. An orphan in a tiny snowy village who distincly looked a few steps along the autistic spectrum with a penchant for polo-neck sweaters had a huge dog as a friend. He lived in a stone house in the mountains and nobody seemed to do anything much that anyone would pay them for: a guy who looked like a former Maquisard with PTSD, an old man who had trouble shaving and an elegant, sultry, chic woman who had obviously taken a wrong turning and who seemed to be Sebastian’s reluctant foster mother. When she wasn’t making me feel funnily.
So far so silly. But not as silly as getting a Pyrenean Mountain dog that you think an advertising agency is going to hire and make your fortune. This was the total BS we were told as children. And you wonder why. Anyway. The advertising agency who my father didn’t know never called and he was never there, so I had to take this sodding dog for a walk, aged eight. It was nothing like Belle and Sebastian. At all. There were no mountains in Wiltshire, for a start. And very little snow. Nor smugglers, avalanches nor leftover stuff from The War, which used to take up quite a bit of time on TV shows for kids in those days, not just on Belle & Sebastian but on The White Horses too, where some blond girl and her mysterious protector who was nothing whatsoever to do with the Lippizaner Stud, nor the SS troops who ran it and weren’t just dab hands with a lunging rein but who also stopped the American advance on Vienna, oh dear me no, nothing whatsoever to do with all that at all, just an honest businessman who happens to be fond of long black boots, that’s all. They were strange times.
The dog was a pain. I had no idea how to control it and it was physically bigger than me anyway. It used to run away quite often and given the choice I would have done too. My father did what he always did: left problems like walking the thing twice a day for everyone else to sort out and came back to pose about playing the big man with his fancy dog.
Eventually it went to live with a friend of my mother in Ealing, which seemed fair. Then there were no more dogs for about eight years, until my step-father got an Irish terrier. He thought it was going to be about Jack Russel size, remembering how he thought they were. I think he was thinking of a different breed altogether. This thing was more like the ones you used to see on trolleys, with a handle for small children to push, pretending they had their own dog. Maybe my father should have got one of those instead. It would have been easier all round.
Nobody trained the thing. It wasn’t the dog’s fault. It used to run off too, but somehow by that time I could run faster than the dog, which came as a surprise to both of us. It wasn’t my dog anyway. Then there was the Great Dog Disaster when I was supposed to be helping a girlfriend look after her Afghan hound while her parents were away for a week.
I say helping, but that just meant taking it for a walk. I wasn’t actually supposed to be there, but obviously, her parents were away for the week. It was a big dog but a quiet one. They got burgled once and everyone thought the dog was the target because the house was empty when everyone got home. Until the dog came out from behind the sofa where it had been hiding from the burglars. The only time it ever bit anyone, which it did several times in those less litigious days, was when it was tied to a postbox while whoever was walking it went into a shop. The dog had the idea it had to guard whatever it was tied to, so posting letters became more complicated than it needed to be. The week too, as the dog managed to become not just one of the first black Afghans in the UK, which it was, but also one of the first to die of parvo virus. It took just a few days. It was all pretty horrible.
Then no dogs for years. I went to look at a house to buy in Burnham on Crouch. I stood talking to the owner while her terrier ran in to the room, jumped up on the sofa behind me and bit my hand. The woman totally denied anything had happened, which was at odds with the blood coming out of my hand. Oddly, I didn’t buy her house. I should have had her dog destroyed.
Then I met someone with huge, muscley dogs. She brought them round occasionally. I woke up one morning and reached for flesh, as you do, to find something bristly and warm that seemed to have steel underneath it. I didn’t remember her being quite like that the night before; her dog had crept into the bed between us while we slept. She told me that I’d get bitten if I behaved the way I did around her dogs. Then her dogs would be taken away and put to sleep, which she didn’t want, so she taught me how to behave so dogs wouldn’t detest me on sight.
It worked with someone else’s dogs after that, too. She had two rescue dogs. One was boisterous and disturbed while the other one was traumatised by having been nearly killed by a bigger dog. Maybe it was to protect the little dog that the bigger one almost invariably attacked other dogs without any warning at all if they so much as looked at him. Or even if they didn’t. We walked a lot last winter, into the spring, as the weather stopped being so cold and the evenings started to get longer. It was a quiet time, walking the river path with those dogs. The little one learned to play with a ball, something she’d never done before. And to bark when I arrived to take her out. Often her owner was asleep until the little dog barked, then she woke and handed me the leads. The door was usually left open, on the latch. I asked if she thought it was safe leaving the door unlocked like that. She said there wasn’t any danger at all.
“I knew it was you. She only barks for you.