It’s All About Dogs

“He was the perfect companion for an adventure, affectionate without exuberance, brave without being belligerent, intelligent and full of good-humoured tolerance for my eccentricities.” Gerald Durrell on Roger the dog in My Family and Other Animals

“A black-and-yellow streak shot past the station agent. Dog Monday stiff? Dog Monday rheumatic? Dog Monday old? Never believe it. Dog Monday was a young pup, gone clean mad with rejuvenating joy.” Dog Monday greets Jem Blythe as he returns from the First World War battlefields in Rilla of Ingleside by L.M.Montgomery (from the Anne of Green Gables series)

 

I grew up with dogs – real-life ones and those in books. The real-life ones were my friends and even my sanctuary when the rest of the world got tough, and just the mere sniff of a dog in a book made me like it more. I haven’t touched an Enid Blyton book for years but the thought of Timmy still makes my heart skip with excitement and I’m yet to get over my yearning for a St Bernard after Rufus and Bruno in The Chalet School series. I even came to look on bull terriers with a softer eye after Heloise in I Capture the Castle.

And now, at last, we have we have a new addition to the household: an almost nine-week old Toller puppy who is as soft and fluffy as a kitten and yet looks head-turningly fox-like, right down to the foxy spring and pounce. He’s not doing much for my daily word count or for the unbroken nights that I was still counting as a blessing even though my children are now both school-age. And the house has acquired the faint odour of eau-de-canine despite daily floor-washing, a liberal application of beeswax, open windows and highly-scented flowers. However that, I tell myself, will dissipate once house-training is complete. (NB There’s no need to disillusion me here. I’m well aware of my future reality.)

My children are exactly the same ages as my younger sister and I were when our family acquired our first dog: an Irish Setter called Penny. Penny was the first of several dogs: Irish Setters, Dalmatians and a Toller.

I have a dim memory of being crowded into a small room in the breeder’s house, a litter of puppies tumbling about in the space between fireplace and sofa, while the breeder quizzed my parents. Where did they live? Had they had dogs before? Would the dog live inside or out? Did they know how much exercise Setters needed? They must have passed the test because Penny came home with us, cradled on my mother’s knee, in the back of the car. Many years later, she said, ‘I don’t know why I didn’t sit in the front seat with her.’ If she had, Penny wouldn’t have had the chance to be sick all over my shoe. I didn’t like the shoes; they were sturdy brown things from Clarks, with T-bars and no hint of a patent shine but I still wasn’t sure I wanted dog sick on them. ‘Don’t worry,’ my mother said, ‘I’ll clean them for you.’

When we got home, I assume the first thing my parents did was take the puppy into the garden. The first thing I did was run upstairs to my bedroom – I’m not sure what I’d done about the vomity shoes – and lie down on my bed, staring at the ceiling. We’ve got a dog! A dog! is what, even now, I remember ran through my mind just like the wobbly caption at the bottom of an old film. (Incidentally, I recognised the same peculiar mixture of exultation and disbelief more than twenty years later with the birth of my first child. It’s a baby…. was my first thought.)

I soon got over the urge to lie prone on the bed and joined everyone else – bar the cats, that is – in the garden. Penny, I was determined, would be my very own Roger, Timmy, Dog Monday, Jack and Pongo all rolled into one. Of course, as a child, and a young one at that, I got all the best bits of having a dog in the family and, walks in inclement weather aside (we lived in the north-west where it rains more often than it doesn’t), none of the drudgery of mopping, wiping, getting up in the night and training – although, to do them credit, my parents got me involved in all of that just as soon as I was old enough. I grew up determined that my children should have the same thing. Now they have and I am filled with a strange mixture of pleasure, excitement and trepidation. Real life dogs are much more work than literary ones but, I think, just as inspiring in their own way.

Gratuitous puppy picture:

Robbie

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The Monkey Temple

 

Eight hundred rupees in exchange for three hours on a game drive without any other tourists is a bargain I can’t miss. It’s just going to be me, Pradeep, my guide, a driver and – I am sure – at least a glimpse of one of Sariska’s twenty or so tigers. I wear my eagerness like make-up on my face as I climb into the open-topped jeep.

The afternoon is starting to think about dwindling into evening as we bounce along the road into the park. The sun hangs low enough over the trees for me to imagine I am sucking in its rays as I breathe. Everything is hot and damp. I am sitting in a pool of my own sweat, which a small cloud of tiny black flies is finding irritatingly attractive.

Strange bird sounds puncture the heavy air. Peacocks, I recognise. The rest I do not but I crane my neck as Pradeep points out birds I can scarcely see for leaves and branches.

Nilgai, with their elegant black and white socks, and stocky sambar have gathered to drink at a sandy-edged pond. Their ears flick from side-to-side, perhaps warding off flies, perhaps listening. A little further on, a herd of chital are browsing at the edge of a thicket. As I watch, some sound that I do not hear alarms them and they dive for cover, hoofed heels kicking out behind them. In an instant, their spotted bodies have melted away.

Then, the driver cuts the engine again, holds up a finger. We listen. Somewhere, quite close by, monkeys are exploding with angry fear.

“Could be tiger,” Pradeep says, “Or perhaps a leopard.”

We roll forward.

Soon, we come to rest on a sandy track, almost entirely overhung by trees.

Monkeys in the trees twitch with the hysterical hiccups that often follow a really good bout of fury. Whatever has upset them has gone because their attention is concentrated on each other.

“Look!” Pradeep gestures to the ground three feet from the jeep. There, pressed into the path, is a perfect tiger paw print.

The driver leaps from his seat and holds his hand a few inches above the print. He looks up and grins: a beautiful betel nut stained smile. “Big female,” he says. Then, he reaches down and picks up something that looks like a large knitting needle. It is a porcupine quill, unevenly banded in black and white. He hands it to me and one end is tapered to a very sharp point. At the other end, there is a hole, presumably gnawed by a rodent. Why, I cannot imagine.

I hold the porcupine quill almost reverently as we leave the park. It is my talisman.

The next morning, there are plenty of other people’s talismans around: small pieces of fluttering orange cloth and paper tied to the trees that edge the road up to the temple in the park’s centre. As we drive, we pass several people – pilgrims, Pradeep says, – who might have tied some of the scraps of cloth and paper. They walk through the park in twos or threes. Most of them are bare footed and none of them carries anything more than a stick.

The temple itself is coloured a faded pink. Steps lead up to its pillared entrance and Hindu script traces a path above the pillars. A cacophony stirs the treetops.

Hanuman langurs – holy monkeys – spill out all over the place. They hoover through piles of food laid out just for them; they dart over the temple’s roof; a baby seizes its mother’s pendulous black nipple; a slightly bigger baby tries to steal a handful of grain from an adult; and, everywhere, they bicker and joust.

Somewhere, a particularly noisy fracas rises above the sound of the crowd. One monkey, closely followed by another, breaks free from the mass of monkeys and hurtles forwards like a galloping race horse. It seems as if he is heading straight for me. I cannot imagine that he actually is but instinct turns me away anyway. For a moment, my back presents itself to him. And that is when he hits. Four heavy feet slam against my ribcage and a tail whips, briefly, around my waist. The monkey does not stop; he rebounds, using me to change direction and catapult him away from his pursuer.

He was bigger and heavier than he looked and perhaps I was lucky not to have fallen over but I don’t think about that. He may not be a tiger but he is a monkey.

I have felt the solid weight of a wild monkey. I am elated.

porcupine quill

The Comfort of Stories

‘Tell me about when you were little, Mummy.’

‘I can hardly remember,’ I say. ‘It was so long ago. Shouldn’t you be going to sleep anyway?’ I pat the duvet, encouragingly.

He shakes his head. ‘No. Can I tell you something?’

I nod. ‘Of course. Anything.’

‘I’m actually quite terrified when you leave me alone here.’

‘You are? But why?’ I look at him, earnest in the pool of light coming from the bedside lamp. Then I look around. The room is an attic one. Its window is closed and the blind down. The rows of books in the bookcase at the end of the bed look back at me, in a friendly way, I think. At the other side of the room, his special books sit on top of his toy storage chest: the Roald Dahl ones and the spaces where the Tom Palmer ones should be (but those are so special they currently live right next to the bed). Then there’s his play tent – a red and gold striped scaled-down Big Top – with its door held back on its Velcro fastenings. In this light, it’s black inside there. And then there are the windows; he cut them himself. I was cross – of course I was – but he said, ‘I wanted to see out.’ Behind the tent is the small door leading into the eaves storage. I’ve never said so but this is what I wouldn’t like if I was six and sleeping in this room. The door isn’t a snug fit in its frame. We’ve wedged it tight with folded paper, like you do with a wobbly table in a restaurant, but sometimes it comes loose and then there’s a soft banging sound, barely perceptible until you know what you’re listening for. And there’s always a draught, even though the roof is sound and the tiles where they should be.

I smile and move the tent further back against the eaves’ door. ‘What sort of story would you like?’

He smiles too, and I imagine I can see his body relax against the mattress. ‘About your rabbit. What was her name?’

‘Bramble.’

‘That story about her and your cat. What happened?’

He knows the tale well enough to tell himself now but I pick up his hand and hold it between my own as I begin.

            My rabbit was huge. The biggest rabbit I’d ever seen. She was half Chinchilla Giganta, you see, but, of course, she was still only a rabbit and I was always very careful when I let her out to run. I’d shut the dogs away and the cat, too. But one day I forgot to lock the cat door and as I was standing by the greenhouse, the cat streaked by me. Now, she was a small cat but fierce with it and absolutely the animal boss…..

‘Tell me about the dogs and their beds.’

            Ah yes. Well, one morning we came downstairs to find the cat asleep in the middle of the Dalmatian’s bed. The Dalmatian was curled up in the Irish Setter’s bed and the Irish Setter, a huge, gangling animal, was balanced across the top of the cat’s small wicker basket. Yes, that cat had things her own way.

            ‘But not with Bramble,’ he says, his eyes bright.

            No, not with her. So the cat sprinted down the path towards the lawn. I shrieked but she ignored me. And, in another breath, she was right behind Bramble. Perhaps my shriek had warned Bramble, perhaps Bramble sensed her coming up behind her; either way, that big white rabbit turned round to face the cat, stood up on her hind legs, raised her forepaws like an attacking grizzly and brought them down on the cat’s head. Then she turned around and kicked the cat with her back legs. The cat screamed – I’d never heard a cat scream before – and shot up the apple tree.

            ‘And it was hours before you could get her down again.’ He can’t resist finishing the end of the story.

‘That’s right. It was.’

Later, much later, when he’s finally asleep, I hold my head close to his and listen to his breathing. There’s a Tom Palmer book resting on his pillow, and another under the duvet on his chest. I leave them there. And as I go, taking care to leave the door fully ajar so the warm light from the landing fills his doorway, my heart swells a little at the comfort these stories – mine and those of others – are giving this little boy.